I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of bereavement leave for families who lose a child.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. I am pleased that the House has the opportunity to debate the provision of formal statutory leave for those parents who suffer the unimaginable pain of losing a child, and the wider bereavement support that we can offer.
The genesis of the debate is the all-party parliamentary group for children who need palliative care, of which I am honoured to be a member alongside several hon. Members in attendance today. I pay tribute at the outset to Together for Short Lives for both the work it does in supporting the APPG and the voice it provides for babies, children, young people and their parents when a short life is expected. I also thank the other charities supporting the debate, including CLIC Sargent, Rainbow Trust, Children’s Hospices Across Scotland and Bliss. I also highlight the work of the all-party parliamentary group on baby loss—and, in particular, that of its co-chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), who has pursued this incredibly sensitive issue with dignity and determination.
The Conservative manifesto may have had more than a few faults, but the commitment on page 70 that a Conservative Government would
“ensure all families who lose a baby are given the bereavement support they need, including a new entitlement to child bereavement leave”
rightly attained wide support across the population. More than 5,000 children die every year, leaving many thousands of parents to go through that personal tragedy, and 60% of those deaths occur in the first year. While this issue is always tricky to discuss—I have two children under three, and many people in the Chamber and in our constituency and Westminster offices have personal experience of it—it is vital that we talk about it, show support to parents in that tragic situation and help to give them some reassurance that their jobs and pay—the last thing anyone in that situation should have to worry about—will be protected. It is right for Parliament to look at the rights given to parents.
The APPG for children who need palliative care was therefore concerned that bereavement leave was not referenced explicitly in the Queen’s Speech. The initial driver for hosting the debate was to obtain assurance from the Government that it had not been lost in the fray. Happily, that concern has been somewhat superseded by the announcement that the Government intend to support the private Member’s Bill tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake). That is welcome news. The Bill will address the existing discrepancy whereby parents who lose a newborn, or whose child is stillborn, are entitled to full parental leave, but someone who loses an infant, toddler or older child at any point after which parental leave may be taken is reliant entirely on the good grace of their employer. Of course, we are still a long way from that Bill becoming law, and, as we know, private Members’ Bills often do not reach the end point, so we must continue to ensure that the Government keep to their word.
The debate is also timely in the light of Baby Loss Awareness week, now in its 15th year, taking place in a few weeks’ time, between 9 and 15 October. It is a collaboration between 40 UK charities to raise awareness about the issues surrounding pregnancy and baby loss. This year’s main focus is a call to improve bereavement support for families affected by baby and pregnancy loss. I am sure the whole House will join me in supporting Baby Loss Awareness week.
It is evident that the standards, quality and consistency of bereavement care vary wildly across the UK, with bereavement care training not being mandatory and so not readily available. Far too many health boards both north and south of the border do not have dedicated bereavement rooms in their maternity units. Could this Government and the Scottish Government do more to recognise the importance of bereavement services and ensure that they are being commissioned for families? I certainly think they could.
In Scotland—Mr Brady, I appreciate that provision of health services is devolved—more than 5,800 babies are admitted into neonatal services. The care that those babies receive in the first hours, days and weeks of their life is critical to their survival and lifelong health. We know that the healthcare professionals delivering such care every day are committed to bringing about the very best outcomes for babies and their families, yet we also know that services right around the UK are under pressure.
Research by Bliss Scotland has shown that, in common with the position in England, many neonatal units across Scotland consistently do not meet national standards on safe staffing levels, and units often cannot offer parents facilities to stay with their critically ill baby so that they can be involved in their care. Similar pressures exist throughout children’s services units for older kids. Family-centred care must be embedded in relevant hospital units, with guidance outlining minimum standards on the level of free accommodation and other practical and financial support packages available to parents. In my constituency, about 89 babies who need specialist care to survive are born each year. While many will go on to thrive, sadly some do not. Many other families have the joy of a healthy and happy child being brought into the world but then suffer the pain of loss years later due to illness or tragic accident.
Given that we know parents with a child receiving vital care will incur significant financial expenditure on items such as parking, travel, food and drink, and childcare for other children as well as loss of earnings, it is surely right that, if the worst follows, the Government are there to provide some assistance in those darkest of hours. Indeed, in the west of Scotland, those additional costs are estimated to be about £200 a week, and that is in a pretty urban area. The cost for parents in rural parts of Scotland is significantly higher. Introducing statutory bereavement leave seems the very least we in this place can do, at a cost of what—a few million quid? The value of the peace of mind and reassurance that would give to parents whose world has disintegrated around them is immeasurable. Paid leave would give parents the time to make decisions based on their needs rather than their financial situation. It is a law we want, but never want to rely on.
We may want to believe that all employers, large and small, will be sympathetic to employees—indeed, many do provide discretionary compassionate leave—but the truth is that not all are. A recent survey run on behalf of Child Bereavement UK found that almost a third of those who had suffered the loss of a loved one in the past five years felt they had not been treated compassionately by their employer. A father of a baby born at 26 weeks, who died aged three days, was called during his two-week paternity leave by his employer and told that, because his son was dead, there was no child to look after, so he was being treated as absent without leave and asked when he would be returning to work. The man did not work for a small business that was perhaps a bit backward in its approach to human resources; he worked for a large multinational company with more than 20,000 employees in the UK. Some form of statutory protection is therefore needed.
The Employment Rights Act 1996 merely allows employees to take a “reasonable” amount of unpaid time off to deal with an emergency involving a dependant. As Ministers have rightly recognised, holding down a job at the same time as dealing with grief can be incredibly difficult. Therefore, more must be done. I am pleased that the Government are intent on providing parents with the support they need, but we must consider whether the availability of leave should be restricted to parent carers or extended to legal guardians and others who may have had formal caring responsibilities. At the very least, we need to look more carefully at the definition of “parent”, and who should be entitled to leave.
I also question whether we need to build flexibility into the system, and not assume that parents suffering from grief will want simply to take two single weeks in blocks a short time after the death of a child. Organisations such as Together for Short Lives and Rainbow Trust have asked for the period during which leave can be taken to be extended to 52 weeks.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I am delighted to have the privilege of taking forward a Bill on this matter, which was first introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), to try to ensure that people get bereavement leave in such circumstances. My hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) has clearly thought long and hard about some of the issues. Will he be willing to work with me and my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester to ensure that we get the provisions right from the start so that the Bill looks after those who are affected by these terrible tragedies?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I would be honoured to work alongside him and my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester in taking this issue forward and ensuring that it gets to where it needs to be. Given the findings of the Taylor report regarding the modern world of work—I know the Minister has been closely involved with that report—the increase in self-employed individuals and the wider discussions around extending benefits to them, could the Government take steps for an equivalent benefit to be offered to self-employed parents?
I want to finish by talking about the support we might need to give employers—particularly small employers —in dealing with employees in such a situation. Child Bereavement UK noted:
“Fear of returning to work and facing colleagues, loss of confidence and increased sick leave are not uncommon. Ability to concentrate, make decisions, meet deadlines and maintain performance and productivity levels can all be at least temporarily compromised, and there can be higher incidences of job-related injuries and accidents.
This not only has the potential to impact on a bereaved employee’s ability to work effectively, but can also have a knock-on effect on other employees, who are often at a loss as to how to respond when a colleague returns to work after bereavement, and over time may feel that accommodating the needs of a bereaved colleague places added pressure on them.”
A survey by the Rainbow Trust found that more than half of parents who were working at the time their child died did not feel they were given enough time to cope, and that 50% took at least one month off work. Paid bereavement leave needs to sit alongside a wider package of bereavement support, both for the parents, through psychological support, and for employers, through ensuring that they are able to put in appropriate frameworks and bereavement policies to manage the needs of not only the employee concerned but the business and wider workforce.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. I welcome the Government’s commitment to supporting the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), as I hope that Members across the House will. I have a family in my constituency who lost a young child in very difficult circumstances—they do not wish to be named—and their point to me was that when somebody is bereaved there is often a lot of support at the time, but the psychological consequences continue long after that support has gone away and people forget what happened. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that ongoing psychological counselling support should be made available to bereaved parents, and that the training for employers should convey the importance of such ongoing counselling?
I could not agree more. Grief affects everyone differently, and it can sometimes be months or even years before the true ramifications and consequences of someone’s experience really hit home. Grief can also potentially be the start of a cycle of behaviour that can lead to far more destructive circumstances, particularly in the family home. It is not uncommon for families who have suffered an extreme bereavement situation to end up breaking down completely, often, as the hon. Lady mentioned, because support in the early days and weeks might be good, but there is not sufficient follow-up to ensure that people do not go down the wrong path.
I hope that we, as a party, make good on our manifesto commitment. I have not been in this place for very long, but we seem to spend a lot of time beating each other about the head, so it is nice, every once in a while, to find something we can all work on together in a positive manner. I sincerely hope that this is one such issue. I look forward to hearing what other hon. Members have to say, and I thank them for coming to support the debate.
At least five Back-Bench Members want to contribute. For the convenience of the House, I will say that I would like to move on to winding-up speeches by 5.10 pm at the very latest. I will not impose a time limit now, but I suggest that, if hon. Members could keep their contributions to no more than six or seven minutes, we might hope to get everybody into the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton)—I deliberately say my hon. Friend, knowing that his vote in Newton Mearns will probably go down as a result of being friends with the Scottish nationalists—on securing the debate. It is a pleasure to serve with him on the APPG for children who need palliative care. I pay tribute, as he has, to Together for Short Lives for providing the secretariat and for the campaigning work it does on this very emotive issue.
As my colleague suggested, the pain of losing a child is unimaginable. I spoke about it in the summer Adjournment debate before recess, and I pay particular tribute to the hon. Members for Colchester (Will Quince) and Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach), and, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), who have all spoken publicly and very bravely about their own experiences. It takes an awful lot of courage to do that. I very much welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate. I will try not to echo too much of what the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire said; I will raise a few points around bereavement leave before broadening the debate out a little. As the hon. Gentleman said, we applied for the debate at a time before paid bereavement leave was included in the Gracious Speech. I congratulate the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) on securing his private Member’s Bill and I absolutely look forward to being there with him and voting for it when it comes before the House.
The hon. Member for East Renfrewshire outlined how self-employment might not be within the scope of the Bill, and I understand that there might be reasons for that, but we need to find a way, perhaps via the Department for Work and Pensions, to ensure that some sort of equivalent financial benefit for the self-employed makes its way into the Bill. We know that almost 5 million people in the UK are self-employed, which is the highest number on record. As the economy begins to change and evolve, that number will obviously only get higher, so we need to be mindful of that when drafting the legislation.
I echo much of what the hon. Gentleman said about bereavement support. I know that some bereavement support has been found to be patchy, particularly in England. I am intrigued to see how Scotland’s health boards compare when we get those data via the freedom of information request that I know Together for Short Lives has submitted. One area of good practice in Scotland is the funding of children’s hospices. We have taken a distinctly different route. We have increased funding for children’s hospices to parity with adult hospices, which has been very much welcomed across the sector.
Although I am not an English MP, I encourage Her Majesty’s Government to consider similar moves to address inequitable funding. In England last year, local authority contributions to the cost of providing children’s palliative care in the voluntary sector dropped by 61%, while the cost of providing complex care actually increased by 10%. Before I say any more on palliative care, I declare an interest: my mother is employed by Icare Scotland, which provides palliative care for children and babies across west central Scotland. At this juncture, I pay tribute not only to my mother, but to the staff and volunteers. It takes a really special kind of person to dedicate their lives to doing that job.
That leads me on quite nicely to my next point, about some of the challenges in investing in children’s palliative care, particularly in the workforce. Statistics show that 11% of children’s hospice posts are currently vacant, which is a real issue that the Scottish Government, the Welsh Assembly Government, the Northern Ireland Executive and the UK Government have to look at. How do we fill some of those vacancies and solve some of the challenges in workforce supply?
I also pay tribute to CHAS—Children’s Hospices Across Scotland. It is a charity that provides the only hospice services in Scotland for children and young people with life-shortening conditions for which there is no known cure. It runs two children’s hospices—Rachel House in Kinross and Robin House in Balloch—as well as a home care service. It supports 415 families across Scotland, but can currently provide support for only one in three families who require it. I am delighted to support CHAS by taking part in the great Scottish run next month.
I very much echo Together for Short Lives in its letter to the Prime Minister—I do not know whether it has been answered yet—calling a national strategy on children’s palliative care and for quite rightly pointing out that the system needs to be a bit more joined up. We cannot have parents who have experienced the loss of a child having to have that same conversation over and over again. I think any national strategy could tease some of that out.
One issue that I had not planned to touch on is burial fees—it is more pertinent to Scotland, so I hope the House will indulge me for a few moments. I appreciate that it is a very difficult topic, but there are inconsistent burial fees across Scotland. I am ashamed to say that my local authority of Glasgow is the most expensive for burying children. It costs £637 for the burial of a child aged between seven and 15 and £426 for those aged one to five. We have 32 local authorities in Scotland and some do not charge at all. As with many of the points made by the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire, the burying of a child is an incredibly difficult time for some families, and we need to move away from burial fees. I join him in calling on all 32 local authorities to scrap these outrageous charges.
The final item I will speak about is one on which I have spoken quite a few times since entering Parliament in June: the baby benefit bar. Some 49,000 families across the UK have a child with a life-limiting or life-shortening condition. There is currently a cruel anomaly within the Department for Work and Pensions, whereby the mobility component of the disability living allowance is not paid to children under three. That impacts on around 2,700 families, but it could be made right with the stroke of a pen. It is an inconsistency in Government policy. Once again, I call on the Government to take action—we are talking about approximately £8 million. Ultimately, time is not on the side of these families, so the best thing we can do is to be on their side. I very much hope that when the Minister sums up, she can give us some good news about ending the baby benefit bar.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) on securing this debate on one of the most important topics as we approach the private Member’s Bill season.
There is no question but that losing a child is one of the most traumatic experiences that any parent has to go through. Having gone through that experience myself at the end of 2014, I know that when you become a Member of Parliament, you feel, like any parent who has been bereaved, that you want to do something to try to make a difference. You want to try to do something to ensure that as few people as possible go through the same experience that you did, of losing a child, and where they do, you want to ensure that they have the best bereavement care possible. Some parents do that by raising lots of money for their local bereavement suites and for the fantastic charities that have been mentioned. As Members of Parliament, we have a unique position and a unique voice—when we speak, the nation’s media listen—but we also have an amazing platform in this House to actually change legislation and change Government policy.
There were two things that I wanted to do on entering the House in this specific regard. The first was the formation of an all-party parliamentary group on baby loss, which we did on a cross-party basis with a number of colleagues, in particular with my co-chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach). We are doing a huge amount of work to try to reduce baby loss and to change Government policy in that regard, and we are having a lot of support from the Government.
This is also about bereavement care, and that is where the parental bereavement leave idea came up. If someone suffers a stillbirth, which we did, they have two weeks as a parent—as a father or, in regular maternity leave, as a mother—in order to grieve and to come to terms with what has just happened, but if you lose a child after six months, you do not have that right. You do not have any right to paid leave.
Although the vast majority of employers up and down this country are excellent employers that act with compassion, kindness and understanding when one of their employees loses a child, sadly there are employers out there that do not act with compassion and act with huge insensitivity. The examples are all out there. Sadly, it is not even just small employers; it is often large employers and, I am sorry to say, even some Government agencies and large public sector bodies. Although people are entitled under law at the moment to some immediate time off and a reasonable amount of time, that is wholly subjective, and sadly there are employers that put huge pressure on their employees to go back to work too soon. That creates huge social and emotional problems for the individual. The leave is really important, because you need that time to grieve and to come to terms with what has just happened, but you also need the time to make some really important arrangements.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) has taken the baton and run with it, with his private Member’s Bill, and that the Government have been so supportive. I would particularly like to praise the Minister and the Secretary of State, who have both been hugely supportive, and indeed the Prime Minister, for ensuring that this went in the Conservative party manifesto. As we all know, private Members’ Bills are very difficult to get through and are nearly always destined to fail without Government support.
This is a common right across Europe. Indeed, it is a relatively common right across the world, to varying degrees. We have an opportunity here, with this private Member’s Bill, to have world-leading rights in this area, by having two weeks’ paid leave for any parent who loses a child. That is an incredible ambition. It is a real statement of intent, not only for the Government but for the House, that we take so seriously the trauma of losing a child. It is not in the natural order. It is not right, and people do need time to come to terms with what has happened and to grieve.
I would like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire for securing today’s important debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton for taking the baton and running with it, and the Government for supporting the private Member’s Bill.
I congratulate the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) on securing the debate and on passionately setting the scene for us all.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince). I was present for his Adjournment debate on this subject in the last Parliament. I remember the debate well and the contributions made by other hon. Members. I remember the understandable personal pain that each of them felt and how we were much moved by their speeches.
I cannot begin to speak about this sensitive issue without first offering my most sincere and heartfelt sympathies to all families who have lost a child. It is sad to lose a parent—I was devastated when I lost my father—but it is the natural cycle of life. To lose a child goes against the natural order of things, as all four of the speakers in the debate have said. I cannot even begin to imagine the depth of pain that it would cause; it is unspeakable and unimaginable.
Even though none of us truly want to think about this, as it comes too close to home, we must do what we can to ensure that the response from employers is adequate. That is our role here. I was quite shocked, and indeed angered, when the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire mentioned a large employer of 20,000 people that dictatorially instructed its worker to get back to work. I cannot begin to believe such lack of feeling. I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that case.
Every week, 10 children and young people die from cancer in the UK. That figure simply shocks and saddens. We all know many charities that we work for and help. CLIC Sargent has care teams that provide bereavement support through more than 300 home visits, and it gave palliative care to around 250 children and young people just last year. That charity is just one example; there are many others.
I have been asked to raise a number of points, which I hope to do now. It is always a pleasure to see the Minister in her place. We know that she understands very clearly how we all feel, which will be reflected in her compassionate response to the debate.
Children’s hospices and palliative care charities provide lifeline support for children with life-limiting and life-threatening conditions, and of course for their families as well. However, children’s palliative care is woefully underfunded and under-resourced. For example, on average, adult hospices in England receive 33% of their funding from statutory sources, whereas the figure for children’s hospices is 22%. I know that there are many claims upon the Government, but here is a really crucial issue that we need to address. Unless that funding gap is addressed, we as a country are seen to be placing greater value on the life of an adult than that of a child. That can never be the case, and I know it would not be.
In England, local authorities’ contribution to the cost of providing children’s palliative care in the voluntary sector fell significantly, by 61% between 2014-15 and 2015-16, when the cost of providing complex care increased. There was a drop in the funding and a rise in the need. It is simply unsustainable for local authorities to contribute just 1% to the costs incurred by children’s palliative care charities.
I am sure my hon. Friend agrees that very often it is the parents of these children, who have suffered the most loss, who do incredible work in raising funds for the likes of children’s hospices right across the United Kingdom. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to them. The death of a child is always tragic and sometimes unexpected. I know that we all, through our constituency offices, see many parents who have children with life-limiting conditions. The parents are their strongest advocates and fight so hard for them. When that child goes, there is a huge gap in their lives, and they do sterling work for the likes of the hospices.
I thank my hon. Friend for her words. Those who fight hardest are those who have walked the road, taken the journey and personally experienced the heartache and pain.
Together for Short Lives, another wonderful charity, is calling on the Government to follow the example of the Scottish Government. I pay tribute to the Scottish Government and to my colleagues here from the Scottish National party, who are part of that, perhaps not directly in Scotland but through the party, for their contribution. That Government have allocated £30 million over five years for children’s hospices so that there is parity with funding for adult hospices. They recognised the need and did that. I see good done in many places across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. There is good done by different regions, and that is an example of good done by the Scottish Parliament. Children and young people with life-limiting and life-threatening conditions in England, Northern Ireland and Wales deserve the same recognition, opportunity and support as those in Scotland.
May I highlight quickly the importance of faith and the need for the Church? Many of us in this Chamber have personal experience of that. It is important that there is recognition of the importance of the Church and the role that it can play when tragedy hits.
I will conclude because I am conscious of the time. It is hard to know what to legislate for, because there cannot be enough paid leave to heal the wound that is left by the loss of a child, but there should be enough paid time to ensure that someone is back to being able to function like a human being. There cannot be enough of a grant to provide a decent send-off, but a grant should be available to those who have cared for their child and are financially strained because of the requirements of that care. Often the burden of the care is not just financial, but emotional and physical. There cannot be enough free hours in hospital car parks to ease the burden, but help in that respect can ease the load. Unfortunately, there is nothing that we can do to help these families emotionally, I believe, unless we have expertise in this regard, which is why I am looking to Churches and to those of the cloth to provide support.
What we can do is support families practically through end-of-life care and then bereavement support. That is why I am standing with the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire, who made the proposal today, and with all the other hon. Members who have made and will make contributions, including the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood), and the Minister, and asking that every person here and every group represented here does the right thing and supports that proposal.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. I thank the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) for securing the debate and congratulate him on doing so. He is a constituent of mine, and the last time I spoke across the room from him was in Ralston community centre during a Ralston community council meeting, and I visited as his MP. These are somewhat different surroundings from the community centre, but there we are.
I echo my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) by paying the utmost respect to those hon. Members who have direct experience of losing a child but have found the courage to speak about their personal experience. By sharing their profoundly moving experiences, they have added so much not just to debates in this place, but to the wider debate. This House, if I may speak for it, is very grateful to them and very sorry for their loss.
I have friends and colleagues who have had to endure the unimaginable pain of losing a child. Although our first daughter was born more than six weeks premature, my wife and I have been very fortunate in her continuing health—touch wood—but we saw at first hand the raw pain of parents clinging to hope over the life chances of their newborn. Sadly, for some, what should be the happiest moment of their lives turns into the most traumatic.
This is an emotional debate, and in my view anyone who goes through the tragedy of losing a child should receive all the support and help that they require. I was shocked to learn as an employer when dealing with a bereaved parent for the first time that under the Employment Rights Act 1996, the statutory bereavement leave provision contains no minimum requirement. The amount of time off that a parent is allowed is whatever is considered reasonable by the employer. I would have hoped that most employers would give parents as much time as possible to help them to deal with the loss of a child, but as we have heard, that does not appear to be the case. In a national survey conducted last year, less than one third of British adults who were working at the time of their bereavement said that they felt supported by their employer. That highlights the need for a layer of protection, and I welcome the Government’s attempts to introduce a statutory requirement for paid leave in the event of the death of a child. There will be competing views on how much time should be provided to bereaved parents. The charity Bliss says that two weeks should be the minimum statutory entitlement. That would be a welcome start, but I believe that two weeks is not enough.
Any forthcoming legislation should be accompanied by revised guidance from ACAS on bereavement in the workplace. That would help to ensure consistency across the working environment, with both employers and employees being aware of their rights and responsibilities.
When discussing this issue, we should also take account of the level of bereavement support payment for low-income families with children who have suffered bereavement. The cynical “simplification” that has taken place with the introduction of that payment has resulted in 75% of claimants being worse off under BSP than they were under the previous system. In addition, the new payment is not planned to rise in line with inflation, meaning that it will lose value over time, even though funeral costs, as we have heard, continue to rise. I urge the Minister and the Government to examine the wider support in place for bereaved families, in particular the level of support provided via bereavement support payment.
Our goal in improving the system should be to provide the best level of support to parents who have lost a child, and to do so in a way that does not require parents to navigate a complicated administrative process. I am heartened by the cross-party consensus that seems to exist in this place and I look forward to working with colleagues to help to improve the system.
We have just under 25 minutes to take the SNP spokesman, if she would like to contribute, the Opposition spokesman, the Minister and the Member who moved the motion, if he would like to make a brief response at the end. Again, I will not recommend specific times, but I am sure that all the speakers will be conscious of the time limits.
Thank you, Mr Brady.
The loss of a child is of such magnitude, is such a life-shattering experience, that leave for bereaved parents cannot simply be left to the good will of employers but must be put on a statutory footing. I extend my thanks to the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) for initiating this important debate and for his sensitive and consensual approach. I also state for the record, even though the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) is no longer in his place, that like everyone else who has participated in the debate, I am extremely supportive of his private Member’s Bill. From what I have heard today, I think that everyone in this Chamber will support it.
Of course, any decent employer would respond to such a tragedy by being understanding, but as I have said, we cannot leave it simply to the good will of employers. The examples given by the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire show why that is the case. The law should—indeed, it must—recognise the effect of such an event on any working parent in any industry or sector and provide them with statutory support and protection.
Today, I stand to speak on behalf of the parents who suffer the devastating loss of a child from the perspective of someone who had to bury her own son. Like the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince), I feel a duty and a drive as a Member of Parliament to make things better for those who have the terrible misfortune to go through such an event. Under the law when it happened to me, my leave was protected, as the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire pointed out, because my son was stillborn at full term. My maternity leave of six months was still available to me. Leave was not available to my husband and he coped as best he could, taking very little time off work but still stumbling through his grief.
It is time the law recognised, with rights to paid leave, the loss of a child and its effect on bereaved parents at whatever stage in the life of the child the loss takes place. According to Child Bereavement UK, 28 young people under the age of 25 die every day. That is 28 families torn apart. No one can adequately describe what it is like to bury their own child. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) pointed out, it goes completely against the natural order of things. There is the numbness, the sense that the world has ended, and the inability in the midst of that shock to comprehend how the world can possibly continue to turn and go about its business. The loss of a child cannot be quantified by a set period of time, but the law must do what it can to create some kind of statutory space to grieve.
When you lose a child, the challenge is not whether you can go back to work on Monday; the challenge is how to keep going when breathing requires a conscious effort and getting out of bed in the morning becomes a goal in itself. Even months and years later, you can be doing ordinary, mundane tasks, and quite unexpectedly a wave of grief will wash over you like a tidal wave, taking you completely by surprise. As the right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) pointed out, ongoing support in such circumstances would be welcomed by many parents.
I spent months unable to leave the house and lost interest in the world. Eating became a thing that had to be done, not something that I wanted to do. Every morsel that you put in your mouth is a struggle. Many parents who have been through that will identify with it. Yes, the loss of a child can often give way to thoughts of suicide for parents. After all, the entire future that you envisaged for yourself has changed irrevocably and only a gaping shadow of grief that will stay with you forever seems to be left.
About 60% of childhood deaths in the UK occur within the first year of a child’s life. Emotionally such a loss cannot be prepared for, and it can never be truly and fully recovered from, but with support, parents find a way forward. Gradually they find a way to build a semblance—often it is only a semblance—of some kind of life around the shadow that is forever cast over their life. The loss of a child becomes an integral part of your life and lives with you every single day. Of course, all loss is hard to bear, but the loss of a child is the loss of a parent’s investment in the future. Our children are the physical embodiment of our investment, hopes and confidence in the future. When that is gone, what is left? The magnitude of the loss must and should be recognised by society, and protections and support enshrined in employment law—for the self-employed as well, as has been pointed out.
In these terrible circumstances parents go on because there is no alternative. They find a way to cope for the sake of other people in their lives who love them and need them—perhaps their other children or their spouse—but such parents need rights enshrined in the Employment Rights Act, recognising the devastating loss of a child and the awful, horrific effects it can have, and giving them time to grieve, with full pay. This must be a fundamental workplace right for parents in any civilised society. What decent employer could possibly object to that? I urge the Minister to pursue this measure with all due haste, and for all parents who go through this nightmare, to put paid bereavement leave for the loss of a child on a statutory footing.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. We have had a very moving debate, full of passion, consideration, reflection and a lot of agreement on the issues involved. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) on securing such an important debate.
The death of a child, as has been said, seems to go against the natural order of things, because all parents expect their children to outlive them, yet in the UK in 2015, more than 10,000 babies, children and young people up to the age of 25 died. That is 28 people a day. There are some things, such as registering a death, arranging a funeral and notifying family and friends, that have to be done immediately following a death, and they take time, as anyone who has lost a close family member will know. Whether that death has followed a long period in hospital or has come as a sudden shock, parents also need time to grieve. It is true that some people may find it helpful to return quickly to work, but others may need much longer before they are ready to start work again, and there is currently no statutory right to paid bereavement leave for parents following the death of a child.
Bills were introduced to remedy that position in 2013 by the then Labour Member for Glasgow South, and in 2016 by the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince). The latter Bill would have created an entitlement to at least two weeks’ paid bereavement leave for parents after the death of a child, at a rate that mirrors statutory maternity, paternity and shared parental leave. The private Member’s Bill on the issue promoted by the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) is due to be debated on 20 October. As we have understood throughout this debate, there is a real opportunity for cross-party agreement on this issue.
I understand that the Bill has Government support and that the Minister’s Department has been consulting with employers, employee representatives and campaigners to better understand the needs of bereaved parents and employers. Will the Minister please update Members on those discussions and on the Government’s view on the form the legislation should take? Will she give a commitment that the Government will allow sufficient time for the Bill to reach the statute book?
The Employment Rights Act 1996 gives the right of an employee to have reasonable time off to deal with an emergency, such as a bereavement involving a dependant. The employer does not need to pay the employee for this time off, and what “reasonable” means is unclear. That can lead to problems when an employer chooses to ignore its moral responsibility to its staff. Of course, many employers treat requests for compassionate leave in situations like this sympathetically and do not try to force their employees to return to work before they are ready. They may offer paid leave and even have a compassionate leave or bereavement leave policy in place—for example, Facebook announced in February that it would allow its staff to take up to 20 days’ paid compassionate leave for the death of an immediate family member. However, a 2014 survey of HR professionals found that the average time that an employee in the UK takes off from work after the death of a close family member was five days. A TUC report published last week documented the increasing difficulty that employees have in obtaining leave for family reasons, especially when people are in insecure work, such as on a zero-hours contract. The study dealt with caring responsibilities rather than the death of a child, but—difficult as it may be to believe—there are employers that will pressure people to return to work immediately after their child has died.
The fact that we are debating this issue today owes much to Lucy Herd’s campaign for entitlement to parental leave following the death of a child. After her son Jack drowned in 2010, her then partner was only entitled to three days’ leave, one of which had to be for the funeral. Lucy’s online petition gained more than 230,000 signatures, and research published by the National Council for Palliative Care in 2014 found that 81% of people questioned believed that there should be a legal right to paid leave after bereavement on the death of a child or another immediate family member.
If someone is forced to return to work when they are not ready, they can find it impossible to function properly. In some cases the stress can cause them to become ill, and may actually lead to them taking more time off because of illness than if they had not initially returned so quickly. Respondents to the survey of HR professionals in 2014 overwhelmingly said that employees taking time out for compassionate reasons had no adverse effect on staff resourcing. In fact, the survey found that companies that did not offer paid compassionate leave were more likely to experience problems with staff resourcing.
That chimes with the findings of the National Council for Palliative Care’s research, in which a majority—56%—of people questioned said that they would consider leaving their job if their employer did not offer proper support in the event of a bereavement. However, the reality is that many people cannot afford to do that or, indeed, to take unpaid leave. Bereaved parents may face financial pressures in addition to having to cope with their grief. Most families suffer an immediate loss of income after the death of their child, owing to the cessation of benefits such as carer’s allowance, disability living allowance and child benefit. Families may also have got into debt if their child was in hospital or a hospice for a prolonged period.
I turn now to the details of how paid bereavement leave could be provided, because it is important that legislation takes account of the realities that bereaved parents face. Does the Minister agree that the legislation should allow bereaved parents as much flexibility as possible in when to take their paid bereavement leave and how it is taken? In some cases, for instance, it may take time to arrange a funeral because a post-mortem has to take place or family members have to travel long distances. Parents may also find that it is only after a certain time that the full impact of their child’s death hits them and they need to take time off. Will the Minister ask her colleagues at the Treasury to consider whether the entitlement to paid bereavement leave could be taken more flexibly than in one or two week blocks?
Around 60% of childhood deaths occur within the first year of life, and most babies who die very early in infancy will have spent most, if not all, of their lives in hospital. At the moment, if a baby dies while their mother or father is still receiving parental leave, that leave will continue until it would have concluded if their child had lived. However, a father may well have already used the entitlement to two weeks’ paternity leave, as well as their annual leave, even if their child dies within the first four weeks of life. If the baby has spent a long time in hospital before he or she dies, their mother may soon be due to return to work, or at least reaching the point where statutory maternity pay stops. Either parent in that situation may find it very difficult to obtain more time off work if their baby sadly dies after a prolonged hospital stay. Will the Minister tell us whether the Government support the right for bereaved parents to take statutory paid bereavement leave in addition to statutory paternity and maternity leave?
Finally, in this debate we have considered a statutory right to paid leave when someone is employed; however, parents who are self-employed or unemployed also need to make the necessary practical arrangements if a child dies, and to grieve. The Chancellor said in his March Budget that the most significant remaining difference in the entitlement to social security of the employed and self-employed was in relation to parental benefits, and that the Government would consult over the summer on options to address the disparities in that area. Can the Minister therefore tell us whether the Government believe—
Order. I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Lady, but we really need to move on to the Minister’s winding-up speech now.
May I finish my sentence?
If you finish it very quickly.
Can the Minister therefore tell us whether the Government believe that an equivalent to paid bereavement leave should be introduced for self-employed parents who are bereaved?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. I welcome the opportunity to discuss this tragic issue, and I thank the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) for securing this important debate and for his thoughtful remarks. I also thank the all-party parliamentary groups mentioned in this debate for their positive work.
I reassure all hon. Members that the Government remain committed to supporting the private Member’s Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) on parental bereavement leave and pay, which comes on the heels of a similar Bill brought last year by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), to whom I shall return in my remarks. I met the two of them today to flesh out some of the details of the issue.
Unquestionably, the death of a child is traumatic and deeply upsetting for any parent. I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that the loss of a child or baby is the worst form of bereavement that a human can suffer, a point reinforced by other Members in their contributions. It consigns most sufferers to a lifetime of grief, which, at best, if they are fortunate, they learn to live with over time. That was powerfully put by the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) in a speech of great impact. I extend my heartfelt condolences to her and to all Members, and all observers of this debate, who have been personally affected by this terrible, life-changing event.
The Government expect employers to be sympathetic and flexible when employees request leave in such circumstances, but acknowledge that that is not always the case. I have been upset to hear from several hon. Members about the survey, and about individual instances of inhumane behaviour that I do not think that any amount of human resources training could begin to address. We recognise that without a statutory entitlement to time off following the death of a child, the situation will not rectify itself.
Our manifesto committed to ensuring that bereaved parents can take time away from work to grieve for a lost child. As I have mentioned, the Government remain fully committed to that. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester for the huge amount of work that he did during the last Parliament, which led directly to the making of that commitment in the Conservative party manifesto. I know that a similar commitment was made in the Labour party manifesto.
The particulars of the Bill are being carefully considered, so it would be premature to go into too much detail about the proposals, but I will of course bear in mind the detailed questions and suggestions from the shadow Minister and discuss them with my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton and with Treasury officials. Officials in my Department met interested stakeholders over the summer and had some fruitful discussions, which have helped to shape our thinking. I was heartened to hear that there is wide support for the Bill among employer and employee groups, charitable organisations and parents alike.
Many hon. Members have mentioned the importance of bereavement services. The quality of care that bereaved families receive can have long-lasting effects. The Government have invested £35 million to improve birthing environments from that perspective. The improvements include better bereavement rooms and quiet area spaces at 40 hospitals. There is, of course, more to do, as the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) amply demonstrated in his contribution.
Will the Minister give way?
I am mindful of time. If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I only have five minutes left and a number of questions to answer.
The Government are supporting Sands, the stillbirth and neonatal death charity, to work with other baby loss charities and royal colleges to produce a national bereavement care pathway to reduce variation in the quality of bereavement care provided by the NHS. I noted the intervention by the right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) about the evolving needs of bereaved parents, some of whom will need to access bereavement services long-term. That point was reinforced by the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran. Sands is also working on a project for NHS England on the role of bereavement midwives.
The Department of Health has published “Health Building Note 09-02: Maternity care facilities”, a guideline on the design and planning of maternity care facilities in new healthcare buildings and the adaptation and extension of existing facilities. In line with the guidance, we expect new build or redesigned maternity units to include facilities for parents and families who suffer bereavement at any stage of pregnancy or in the immediate aftermath. The standard of neonatal care across Scotland, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire has rightly pointed out, is a matter for the Scottish Government, but I share his concerns and encourage him to take it up with Scottish Ministers.
I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) on the work of children’s hospices and palliative care services in Scotland, which should be brought to the attention of Health Ministers in the UK and, if possible, of those working on the national bereavement guidelines.
The self-employed were mentioned. Those who are self-employed and bereaved face different challenges from people who are employed, but no less demanding ones. As Matthew Taylor argued in his review of employment and protections, the tax that people pay and the entitlements that they receive are linked, so it is right that we consider the wider arrangements for the self-employed in a holistic way that includes tax benefits and rights. The Government will come back to the Taylor review, including those matters, with a full response before the end of the year.
Since 2010, we have taken steps to equalise the state benefits provided to the employed and self-employed, including giving the self-employed access to the full rate of the new state pension for the first time, so there is a precedent. We agree with the principle of equalising benefits for the self-employed, but that should happen alongside reforms to taxation, which will need to be considered carefully over the longer term. The self-employed will need to be consulted as part of those deliberations.
I draw hon. Members’ attention to the ACAS guidance document for employers, “Managing bereavement in the workplace—a good practice guide”, which was developed with the charity Cruse Bereavement Care for people who have lost a loved one. I hope that the valuable work done by so many hon. Members to raise awareness of this terrible issue will have an impact on employers, as well as on the health services and wider society.
Hon. Members raised the important point that some employers struggle to know the best way to support staff in these circumstances. We support the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton, which will put matters on a statutory footing, but there is a lot more that employers can do. It was disturbing to hear of the survey showing that only a third of people who suffered this terrible experience felt adequately supported by their employers.
The ACAS guidance highlights the important role that employers can play and their duty of care to employees, and includes specific advice about parents who lose a child. Most importantly, it helps employers understand how grief might affect their employees. It provides practical steps that employers can take when they are notified by their member of staff, in the immediate aftermath, and when the employee returns to work. The guidance has been well received by employers, and we will consider how we can continue to work with ACAS to promote it further and embed a cultural change in companies up and down the country, given the importance of the issue.
I thank all hon. Members for their contributions to the debate. It has come at a valuable time in our thinking.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).