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Parental Leave for Parents of Premature Babies

Volume 649: debated on Tuesday 13 November 2018

[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered parental leave for parents of premature babies.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. Having a premature baby is one of the most traumatic experiences that any parent can go through. Instead of the healthy baby that they longed for, traumatised parents watch their tiny baby struggling for its life inside an incubator surrounded by tubes, wires and bleeping monitors. That is terrifying and it can go on for weeks or months, until the baby is well enough to go home.

By the time that they take their baby home, many parents find they have already used up an awful lot of their maternity and paternity leave, so their child suffers twice: first, from the serious health conditions and trauma of premature birth and, secondly, because mum and dad have to go back to work much earlier in the baby’s development than the parents of a baby born at full term. Losing this vital time for bonding and nurturing can hold the child back throughout its life. I met a young mum whose baby spent three months in intensive care, and all that time was taken out of her statutory maternity leave.

This is a topical subject. In the last week in Northern Ireland, six small babies have been born prematurely to parents who were not expecting to see them this soon. Those parents then have to change their plans for coming home. Common sense dictates the normal things that happen when a baby comes home, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that those parents should have the additional time to deal with their child’s acute needs, which arise from being premature, and that they should be given additional leave for that purpose? At that critical moment, they need that extra time.

The hon. Gentleman makes the point extremely powerfully and I hope he has persuaded the Minister that action is needed to support these families. It is not just the baby who suffers; so do the parents. Two mums in five of premature babies suffer mental ill health because of the stress of watching their tiny baby fight just to survive. The expense of daily journeys to hospital, overnight stays in nearby accommodation and eating in cafés pushes many parents into debt.

I first raised this issue in Parliament in October 2016 on behalf of a group of fantastic campaign organisations, including Bliss and The Smallest Things, which is based in my constituency. We were delighted when the then Minister agreed to pilot a voluntary scheme for employers, drafted by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, encouraging them to offer parents of premature babies the flexibility and time they need to look after their little baby. The pilot started in November 2017 and was intended to run for a year, ending in October this year. We are now well into November, but there is still no word from the Minister on her view of how well the pilot went, or whether she agrees that legislation is needed.

Instead of action, the letter that the Minister kindly wrote to me proposes—regrettably—a further delay until next summer. The charities recently met with officials from the Department, but the officials said they had not yet worked out how to assess what impact the voluntary guidance has had. I would be grateful if the Minister explained the point of running a pilot if we do not know from the start how to assess it.

The truth is that we do not need any more pilots. The best employers are providing the flexibility that parents need, but too many others are not. Voluntary guidance will never coax employers who do not understand—or who do not want to understand—into doing what is right. These parents need the full force of the law behind them to ensure that their babies get the love and care they need.

I fully add my voice to those calling for extra parental leave for those with children born prematurely. As the hon. Gentleman says, many parents use large amounts of, or even all, their leave entitlement watching their babies develop in incubators. As the mother to a young baby, I can only begin to imagine the stress those parents must go through. Extra maternity and paternity leave is needed. Does he agree that parental leave should begin when a new-born baby is well enough to go home?

I absolutely agree and I echo the hon. Lady’s sentiment. I hope the Minister will reflect those views in her comments. It seems extremely unfair that if a child is born prematurely it does not get the same time with its parents after it has reached full development phase as a child born healthy after a full-term pregnancy.

These parents need the full force of the law behind them to ensure that they have the time to give the love and care that their baby needs. The baby needs time with mum and dad at its side, fully focused on helping their little baby to survive and without the worry of losing their job or falling into debt, which has happened to far too many parents whose babies were born too soon.

The Government have delayed by two years so far, partly because they were carrying out a pilot, but that pilot has finished. Another year’s delay is not acceptable. It is hard to imagine something more precious, vulnerable or deserving of our support than a tiny premature baby fighting for its life and so small that it can fit into the palm of your hand. Does the Minister agree that these families need not more delays, but action, and that they need that action now?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate the hon. Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) on securing this important debate and thank him for his passionate speech.

I sympathise greatly with the experiences of parents of premature babies, especially those whose children spend extended periods in neonatal intensive care. I am sure we all have personal experience of friends or constituents who have been in this situation. I absolutely understand the hon. Gentleman’s point and sympathise. I assure the Chamber that this Government are committed to supporting working parents, including those of premature babies.

The UK’s system of maternity leave is one of the most generous in the world. Pregnant women and new mothers are entitled to take up to 52 weeks of leave as a day-one right and up to 39 weeks of statutory maternity pay, if they are eligible for pay. In the case of premature births, eligible fathers and partners have the flexibility to take up to two weeks of paternity leave and pay within eight weeks of the expected date of birth, rather than within eight weeks of the actual date of birth, if they wish.

Employed parents also enjoy other employment rights that enable them to take time off work following the birth of their child or agree a working pattern with their employer, which gives them the flexibility to combine work with caring for their child. Subject to meeting eligibility requirements, employed parents now have the right to request flexible working and the right to take shared parental leave and pay. Shared parental leave and pay enable eligible couples to share up to 50 weeks of leave and up to 37 weeks of pay. They can use the scheme to take up to six months off work together or, alternatively, stagger their leave and pay so that one of them is always at home with their newborn child. They can also have periods of leave within periods of work. Parents can use this flexibility to take time off work according to their and their baby’s needs—for example, fathers and partners might wish to take time off work when their child is born and later in the first year.

We are also undertaking a short, focused internal review of provisions for parents of premature babies. We expect to conclude that in the new year.

One of the issues that I hope the Government will look at in the review is the voluntary conduct of employers and whether they want to support additional leave for parents of premature babies. We must remember that a baby could be born at 24 weeks, which is many months before its due date. The problem with voluntary codes is that, although some employers might be exemplars, many might not be. What more can the Department do to ensure that all employers recognise the special needs of parents in this difficult situation?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Voluntary codes are there to try to change culture and to give businesses and employers the opportunity to do the right thing in the best way they can.

As I was saying, we are undertaking a short, focused review of provisions for parents of premature babies. We will work with ACAS to see whether we can improve the guidance. When the outcomes of that review have concluded in the new year, the Government will hopefully be able to come back with further activity and make further provisions.

I am grateful for the Minister’s comments so far. Early in the new year, when she has the full details of the assessment of the pilot that ran until October, will she keep an open mind as to whether legislation is required?

I always have an open mind about everything, but we are conducting a review, which is being led by officials. We are looking at the impact and at what we can do. My officials are engaging with the charity—

Exactly—it is in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. I hope to review what comes forward and to be able to come back. I look forward to discussing the outcomes with him at that time. My officials have already had productive and informative meetings with The Smallest Things and Bliss, and will be meeting the parents of premature babies this month.

It is important to strike the right balance between giving parents the flexibility that they need and giving their employers and co-workers the certainty that they need to plan. It will be important to canvass the views of organisations representing employers, particularly small businesses.

One of the problems with premature birth is that it is difficult to plan for—the fact that it is premature means that people do not necessarily know that it will happen. I met one father who was required by his employer to go back to work the day after his baby was born prematurely. I am sure that the Minister agrees that his baby needed him more that day than his employer.

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, and that is one reason we are conducting the review. We are aware, and we want to be able to assess what we can do more of and what needs to happen to support that group of individuals.

I am aware that the parents of premature babies have several issues to contend with, particularly in cases where their child is very premature. I am keen to explore what more can be done to support parents in that position. The review will inform our policy, and I hope the fact that we are undertaking it reassures the hon. Gentleman that we are far from complacent and that we are already taking steps better to understand the needs of parents and employers in this situation. As I have outlined, I look forward to discussing the review’s findings with him in due course and I will ensure that that happens.

I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns) for their interventions on the hon. Member for Croydon North. It is good to see other hon. Members supporting the hon. Gentleman on the issue. I hope they will be able to engage further as we look at and come forward with the findings of the review that we are undertaking.

We are committed to creating more flexible and supportive work environments for parents. In the last few years, we have taken important steps towards that, from introducing shared parental leave and pay to mandatory gender pay gap reporting for large employers. Although our maternity leave policies are some of the most generous in the world and can cater for a wide range of circumstances, we want to gain a better understanding of the difficulties faced by the parents of premature babies and we are already conducting that work. I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue. I would be delighted to meet with him at any time to discuss it further.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.