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Statutory Paid Bereavement Leave: Loss of Family Member

Volume 685: debated on Monday 30 November 2020

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(David T. C. Davies.)

I am delighted to have secured this Adjournment debate to highlight the need for statutory paid bereavement leave for all employees upon the sad loss of a close family member or partner. In recent years, I was privileged to be one of a number of MPs who worked cross-party to secure paid bereavement leave for parents on the loss of a child up to the age of 18 years old. That effort showed this place at its best when, finally, that right was enshrined in law as of April this year. As that work was going on, I said in this very Chamber that groundbreaking as that achievement was, it simply did not go far enough, and that I would immediately begin working to extend a similar two-week statutory right for paid bereavement leave to others. This debate is part of that effort.

It is true that the only two certainties in life are death and taxes, and while most of us are happy—comfortable, even—to talk about taxes, there remains a reticence to speak openly and honestly about death. I believe that is why the measures this House has already supported on parental bereavement leave for the loss of a child are only in their infancy, and why the measures under discussion tonight have not yet been adopted: we are too reticent to talk about death. Bereavement is a fact of life, and if only a fraction of the costs associated with it could be mitigated with better support at the right time, we could boost our economy and have a healthier society with a greater sense of wellbeing at its heart. Instead, we have the terrible situation where, in our society and, as a consequence, in our workplaces, people who are bereaved suffer in silence as they are expected to just get on with things. That is not healthy.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on having brought this issue forward. I am very aware of what she has said, and support it. I have long supported the idea of paid bereavement leave for families in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Does the hon. Lady agree that for some, getting back to work is a useful part of their grieving process; for others, they need time to work out how their world works without their loved one, and paid leave may well give someone the ability to take a breath without having to go to the doctor? It could be a way forward for their wellbeing and mental health.

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point, and it is something I will return to in just a moment, if he will permit me.

According to research commissioned by the charity Sue Ryder, a third of employees who experienced a bereavement in the past year did not receive any communication from managers or the leadership of their organisation about bereavement. Only 32% of employees are aware of whether their employer has a bereavement policy, despite the fact that we are in the middle of a global health pandemic, with covid-19 linked to over 56,000 deaths across the UK since the end of March. Of those who felt well supported by their employer after experiencing a bereavement, 60% cited being allowed enough time off and not being pressured to return to work before they were ready as key actions their employer took. This debate is timely, since the global health pandemic—which has touched us all in various ways—has sharply reminded us about the fragility of life, and the profound and cruelly random nature of loss and bereavement.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this issue before the House this evening, and on her work on parental bereavement leave. Does she agree that the real issue we have at the moment is the ambiguity in the law? Essentially, it says that employers must offer a reasonable amount of time for employees to grieve. There are some examples of very good employers—Morrisons, I understand, gives two weeks’ paid leave—and other employers give less time, but it is the ambiguity that creates the problem for employees at the moment.

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. It is that ambiguity—that discretion—over something life-changing like a bereavement that is simply unfair. People deserve a level playing field; after all, death is the great leveller.

Across the UK, during this health pandemic, we have experienced bereavement on a distressing scale, and it has touched us all. That is why there has been such public support for the measures to try to control this virus: each of us has lost, or is in fear of losing, a loved one. This has had a significant impact on our workforce, as 7.9 million people in employment—24% of all employees —have experienced a bereavement in the past 12 months. It is estimated that for every death, six people experience intense grief. Taking into account the number of deaths in the UK each year and employment rates, we can say that bereavement causes nearly 2 million working people to suffer from intense grief each year. Such a profoundly life-changing experience brings with it potential long-term consequences for a person’s mental and physical health, and in some cases can trigger mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorders, as well as being linked to an increased likelihood of heart attacks, diabetes and increased mortality. The impacts of grief on society are huge, and cannot and must not be left to the discretion of employers to manage in the workplace.

As the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) mentioned, we all know that many employers are supportive and understanding when an employee suffers a close bereavement, but we also know that many employers are not perhaps as supportive as they could be. Sometimes those who are grieving are pressured to return to work when they are still in the midst of the initial shock and trauma of loss. Without any statutory rights for employees to paid bereavement leave, the time and space to grieve for too many people is determined by the good will of their employer. That cannot be right, and it is counterproductive in a number of ways.

Typically, UK employers offer three to five days’ compassionate leave for the death of a close relative, but the discretionary nature of this leave means potentially that thousands of employees are unable to take leave without fearing that it could undermine their job security. In addition, we know that those in less well-paid jobs are far less likely to receive any discretionary time off with pay when they suffer a bereavement or have any compassionate leave at all, and that is grossly unfair. Death is the great leveller in society, so the time and space to grieve without worrying about loss of pay or pressure to return to work too soon should be available to all. Those on low pay are much less able to absorb the losses associated with unpaid leave and the immediate financial burden of bereavement. They are also at greater risk of being dismissed from work for taking time off or not being able to focus on their work due to the fog of grief. All of this increases the pressure and financial stress on employees who are trying their best to cope with the loss of a close family member. There is also some evidence to suggest that those in more challenged socioeconomic circumstances are more likely to experience complicated or persistent grief, because they are likely to face more difficulties accessing appropriate services and information to help them cope with their feelings of loss and grief.

As well as humane and compassionate reasons for statutory bereavement leave, there are also economic reasons for this change. Research commissioned by Sue Ryder shows that grief experienced by employees who have lost a loved one costs the UK economy £23 billion per year and costs the Treasury nearly £8 billion per year. However, these costs could potentially reach as high as £49 billion to the economy and £18 billion to the Treasury. Most of the considerable economic impact arises from grieving employees being unable to work at their normal levels of productivity while they deal with the emotional, practical and financial aspects of coping with the loss of a close relative. That, in turn, leads to a cost to the Treasury in lost tax revenues and the fallout of reliance on NHS support, such as mental health and social care needs that can often follow. So although statutory bereavement leave for all those who lose a close family member will involve costs, this is actually preventive expenditure, as it will lead to a significant saving for the UK economy and the Treasury, a more productive and resilient workforce, and reduced staff absence. Such support will mean less cause to rely on NHS support, or perhaps even social security support, in the case of those employees who drop out of the workforce altogether following a close bereavement. So of course there are costs attached to statutory paid bereavement leave, but there are also significant costs to not doing this. It is in our interests as a society, and it is in the Treasury’s interests, to take full cognisance of the profound, debilitating effect grief can have on those who lose a loved one, and statutory paid bereavement leave is a progressive and enlightened thing for any society to have in place.

When an individual is suffering from grief, it not only has implications and consequences for the individual, although it undoubtedly does, it also has wider societal and economic consequences for all of us. Clearly, there are individuals who are pressured into returning to work before they are ready to do so. It is not in the employer’s interest, and it is not in our economy’s interest, to simply insist on presenteeism in the workplace. Presenteeism has significant impacts on employer revenue, employee income, tax revenues and total gross value added.

Statutory bereavement leave for the loss of a close relative is something that people across the UK support. In fact, 62% of people across the UK believe it is the right thing to do. The current arrangements allowing leave for family emergencies carry no statutory obligation that such leave should be paid—and it very often is not. The Minister will know that, in its consideration of the Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Bill, a Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy impact assessment conceded that there appear

“to be large differences in what is currently offered to employees when they suffer a bereavement with the situation tending to be managed at the discretion of the employer and line managers.”

We can all agree that that is not satisfactory, which is why it is important that we put an end to what the report called the “large differences” between what employees are offered at the discretion of employers and what they should be entitled to.

We need to put bereavement leave for all who lose a close relative or partner on a statutory footing. That can be done if the political will is there to do it, and that political will certainly exists in our society. I suggest to the Minister that the vehicle for doing this could be the employment Bill, since the proposals put forward this evening indirectly relate to some of the Bill’s expected provisions.

I urge the Minister to study these proposals carefully for the sake of the wellbeing of our workforce and our economy. I urge him to support these progressive and compassionate measures, which would give the profound effects of bereavement the statutory recognition they need and deserve. If he were to do so, or to commit that the Government intend to seriously investigate doing so, while we are in the midst of this global health pandemic, that would send a signal that he and the Government are aware that we are all in this together and that we should come through this together. We need to look after each other, and this Parliament and this Government should take the opportunity to lead the way.

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) on securing a debate on this important issue. I am grateful to her for bringing it to the attention of Parliament.

We have heard today about the impact of bereavement on individuals and their wider families, and about the experience of losing someone whom we love or who has played a special role in our lives. That is deeply upsetting, and I sympathise with anybody who has been in that position. We will all experience bereavement at some point in our lives, but the fact that death is an inevitable part of our experience of life does not detract from the sense of loss that most of us will feel or from the fact that, for some of us, that sense of loss will at times feel overwhelming.

I found the hon. Member’s account particularly poignant because I know she speaks from personal experience. She has spoken with passion and compassion. I am grateful to her for her candour and for raising awareness of this issue and of the impact of stillbirths and baby loss generally on individuals and their wider families, both today and on many other occasions in this Chamber.

All of us have been touched in some way by covid-19, whether as a result losing someone who has played a part in our lives or simply as a result of reading the virus’s mortality rates in the press. I have lost two uncles myself during lockdown, one of whose funeral I could not take part in.

In April this year, as the hon. Member said, we introduced parental bereavement leave and pay for employed parents who lose a child under the age of 18 or who suffer stillbirth from 24 weeks of pregnancy. That new entitlement recognises that the death of a child is particularly tragic. Prior to April, employed parents had a statutory right to take time off work following the birth or adoption of their child, but they did not have a specific right to time off work in the event of their child’s death. Parents who are in that dreadful position are now able to take up to two weeks’ leave in the 56-week period following their child’s death. Where they qualify for pay, parents will receive the lower of 90% of their average weekly earnings or the statutory flat rate, which is currently £151.20 a week. Like all entitlements to paid time off work, the statutory scheme provides a floor, not a ceiling.

The Government are mindful of placing additional burdens on business in the current economic climate, but we strongly encourage employers, as we have heard, to go beyond the statutory minimum if they can afford to. This could involve giving parents additional weeks of leave and pay, or paying them at an earnings-related rate when they are off work on parental bereavement leave.

This debate has raised the question of whether the right to paid leave for parents should be extended to all those who lose a close family member. As we have heard, grief is a very personal experience, which affects different people in different ways. While some people understandably want to take time off work following a bereavement, others may prefer to work through their grief. We believe that individuals are best placed to understand their own specific needs. Employers should, and usually do, respond to these needs in an appropriate and sensitive way, even in the absence of a legal requirement to time off work.

While I of course recognise the pain that can accompany bereavement—as I have mentioned, I am speaking from recent personal experience of this—extending entitlements to bereavement leave and pay would come at a significant cost to the public purse. It would also place additional burdens on business at a time when many employers are struggling to keep their businesses afloat. We cannot ignore this fact, and while we are sympathetic to everyone who has lost a close family member, whether through covid-19 or otherwise, the Government have no plans to extend entitlement to bereavement leave and pay at this time.

I remind hon. Members, however, that employees who want to take time off work are already entitled to take up to 5.6 weeks of annual leave a year. All employees also have a day one right to take time off work to deal with an emergency involving a dependant, and in the case of a bereavement the right to time off for dependants can be used to make necessary practical arrangements, including registering the death and arranging and attending the funeral of the person who has died.

The hon. Lady talked about the cost of bereavement. I am unable to comment on the figures today, but my officials have had an initial meeting with representatives from the Sue Ryder charity, who have agreed to share their analysis with us when the report is finalised.

Grieving is a natural process that we should not attempt to stifle, and most of us are able to cope with our loss with support from our family, friends, colleagues and employer, but I recognise that bereavement is a risk factor for physical and mental health issues. Where a bereavement is particularly debilitating or likely to have a longer-term impact on an individual’s mental or physical health, they have access to our excellent national health service. In May this year the Government announced additional funding of £4.2 million to support mental health charities and charities providing bereavement support. That was part of a £750 million package of support for the voluntary sector announced by the Chancellor in April.

Where a bereavement does affect someone’s mental or physical health, they also have the option of taking sick leave. They may be eligible for statutory sick pay. Clearly, statutory sick leave is a means to an end, but bereavement in itself is not a sickness. Employees can, however, self-certify as sick for the first seven days that they are off work. After that time, a fit note is required and their employer can request medical evidence if they wish. Individuals who are not eligible for statutory sick pay and those who require additional support may be eligible for universal credit and the new-style employment and support allowance.

The hon. Lady talked about covid and its effect on families. I was fortunate enough, at the funeral of one of my uncles, to join close family members to pay my final respects, and indeed to do so for my mother, who died just before lockdown, but not everybody has been fortunate. We talk about the death rates in this country, so this is clearly not just personal to me; tens of thousands of people across the country have been through similar experiences. So I am acutely aware of the fact that covid-19 has robbed so many of us of the opportunity to see our loved ones before they died and to say goodbye in the way we would all want.

No two people’s experiences of a bereavement are the same; we all have our coping strategies. Our experience will, however, to a large extent be influenced by how the people around us respond to us and our loss. As the hon. Lady said, far too many people suffer their loss in silence and this can lead to them feeling isolated and alone. While no one should feel obliged to talk about their personal experiences, they should also not be afraid to do so.

We have given employers the tools they need to approach what might otherwise be a difficult conversation with a bereaved employee. In 2014, the Government commissioned ACAS to provide guidance on managing a bereavement in the workplace. The guidance was developed in conjunction with key stakeholders, including Cruse Bereavement Care, Jack’s Rainbow and other bereavement charities. The guidance has been well received and was updated in 2020 to provide more accessible webpage content for users and to take account of the new right of parental bereavement leave. The guidance can be found on ACAS’s website. Use of the guidance continues to grow and has increased since the start of the pandemic. There was a total of 82,000 visits to the guidance between 1 April and 23 November. ACAS is working on further revisions, including revised case studies to offer more detailed support to employers and employees at this difficult time.

Where an individual loses their spouse or civil partner, they may be eligible for a bereavement support payment. This consists of an initial lump sum payment of £2,500 and up to 18 monthly instalments of £100, with higher amounts being paid to those individuals who have children. The initial payment for individuals who have children is £3,500. Bereavement support payments are intended to meet the additional costs of bereavement rather than providing an ongoing income replacement to bereaved spouses and partners.

As the hon. Member mentioned, the Government will bring forward an employment Bill to implement a range of manifesto and other commitments, and we will publish our detailed proposals for that Bill in due course. While the Government are not minded at this time to introduce a new right to time off work for people who have lost a close relative, we do understand how difficult this can be for people in bereavement.

I thank the Minister for giving way and for the way he has approached the debate. I am slightly disappointed that the Government will not even look at the proposals, because this seems to be a very simple reform. All the Government need to do is define what they mean by “reasonable”. The eligibility criteria are already there. All these different employers have a different idea of what “reasonable” means, so my question would be: what does “reasonable” mean to him as the Minister?

I have been an employer in the past, and the biggest asset of any business is the employees. Any business owner invests time in training and developing people, and they make up the business. In terms of reasonable time, I have talked about the fact that bereavement is different for different people, and I think that they just need to work together with employees. As I said, I am not minded to put it on a statutory footing, but we will continue to work with Members across the House in the employment Bill and with Sue Ryder in understanding their background. I am looking forward to introducing that Bill to this House, when we can talk about a whole range of issues to support employees through the aftermath of this pandemic and put workers’ rights on a long footing beyond now.

I want to press the Minister on one point and ask for his view on it. If those who are earning a comfortable salary feel that they need to take additional time off, unpaid, they are free to do that, and they are obviously able to absorb that cost. There is a concern about the people in low-paid jobs who cannot take unpaid leave and therefore do not have the choice to take additional time, unless, of course, it is in statute.

It is essentially about getting the balance right. I talked about eligibility for statutory sick pay, which I know is not suitable for long periods of time, and access to universal credit. There is annual leave of 5.6 weeks per year. It is about getting the balance right between what may suit employees suffering different types of bereavement or having different reactions to bereavement, and employers, especially as we have seen the pressure on them at this moment in time. They may be at risk in relation to the future viability of the business. It is getting that balance right, which is why we continue to try to understand the modern-day employer and the things that we might include in the employment Bill as we reflect on the effect of covid.

There is a range of Government support for people who suffer from a bereavement. Employers can, and do, provide significant support to employees without being legally required to do so. We encourage employers to respond with flexibility and compassion. One of the cornerstones of the employment Bill will be to ensure flexible working by default. That will hopefully provide some succour or support to people who, although not necessarily taking full time off, will be able to arrange their working time around their particular current circumstances.

I thank the hon. Lady and the other hon. Members who contributed to the debate. I also thank everybody who has worked hard to raise awareness of the impact of death on the people left behind.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.