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Neonatal Care (Leave and Pay) Bill

Volume 828: debated on Friday 24 March 2023

Second Reading

Moved by

My Lords, it is a pleasure to sponsor the Bill in your Lordships’ House. I thank Stuart McDonald MP for steering the Bill so effectively through the other place. It has already achieved a minor miracle in uniting the Scottish National Party and the Conservative Party, as well as gaining cross-party support in the other place. I pay tribute to all those who have spoken so passionately and sensitively about their personal experiences of children born prematurely, including Luke Hall MP and David Linden MP. I give thanks to the APPG on Premature and Sick Babies.

I am enormously grateful to Bliss and other charities that provide vital support to parents of premature and sick babies in their time of need, and which have provided me with advice on the Bill. I want in particular to mention Tom and Anna, who are now both employees of Bliss, who came to see me and told me their personal stories and how they had been inspired to work to help other parents. It is not always easy to talk about these painful experiences, but I want to be clear that all who have campaigned for the Bill can take pride in seeing it come to fruition.

I am grateful to everyone who has put their name down to speak today, and to see such wide-ranging expertise from across the House. I know that this is a far-reaching, highly important and deeply personal issue for many here today, and I am sure we will have a very thoughtful debate.

The Office for National Statistics reports that an estimated 100,000 babies every year are admitted to neonatal care in the UK following their birth. Neonatal care is the type of medical or palliative care that a baby who was born prematurely or sick receives. Many of these babies spend prolonged periods of time on a neonatal care unit in a hospital as a result of being born prematurely or with other health conditions.

We know how incredibly worrying and stressful a time that is for parents. They of course want to get on and focus their attention on getting through this period, supporting their family, each other and their baby or babies. Unfortunately, though, some may end up with concerns about their ability to do so and to keep their jobs. Fathers, if eligible, get only two weeks of statutory paternity leave, and when that runs out they might be called back to work while their baby is still in hospital. For babies who have an extended stay to stay in hospital at the start of their lives, mothers report that the 39 weeks of paid maternity leave does not give them enough time. A large portion of that can be used up while their baby is in neonatal care, leaving them feeling that they do not have enough time at home with their baby before having to go back to work. It is important always to have at the front of our minds that children in neonatal care often have significant health or developmental issues that require specialist medical attention, which means that this does not end up being a usual form of maternity leave. I have heard at first hand that some parents even choose to leave work as a result.

The successful passage of the Bill will realise an important commitment from the Government to create a new statutory leave and pay entitlement for the parents of babies receiving neonatal care. That means that employed parents who find themselves in this desperate situation in future will know that, as a minimum, they are entitled to time off work to care for their babies and that they will not suffer detriment from their employer as a result.

Protected time off from work for parents who find themselves in this position is crucial. We know that there are some brilliant supportive and flexible employers out there, and I commend them and encourage others to follow their lead. Business representative organisations, including the CBI, have expressed their support for the plan to introduce neonatal care leave and pay. Employee retention has been identified as a key benefit of family-related leave policies, including neonatal care leave and pay and engagement with employer representatives. This is the right thing to do for families and for the labour market.

I will outline the key components of the Bill. It consists of three clauses and a Schedule. The main provisions of the Bill are found in the Schedule, which creates a statutory entitlement to neonatal care leave, creates a statutory entitlement to neonatal care pay and makes consequential amendments to other legislation, including adding references to neonatal care leave and pay where relevant. Neonatal care leave and pay will be available to each employed parent of babies who are admitted into neonatal care up to the age of 28 days and who have a continuous stay in hospital, or in other specified care settings, of seven full days or more. Neonatal care leave will be a day-one right, meaning that it will be available to an employee from their first day in a new job.

Statutory neonatal care pay, like other family-related pay rights, will be available to those employees who meet continuity of service and minimum earnings tests. I expect it to be paid at the statutory rate, currently £156.66, or 90% of the employee’s average wages—whichever is lower. This amount is usually uprated in line with increases to statutory payments.

As the Government have already set out in their response to the consultation on neonatal leave, the intention is that the total amount of statutory neonatal care leave available to parents will be capped at a maximum of 12 weeks; that will be one week for every week their child spends in neonatal care. This will be set out in the regulations under the Bill.

This leave will be protected. Those exercising the right to leave will have legal protection against being subjected to any detriment for doing so, consistent with other family-related leave entitlements such as paternity, maternity and adoption leave. It is worth your Lordships noting that this Bill is constructed to be in harmony with these other related entitlements.

Neonatal care leave will be flexible, allowing employees to take leave either when their child is receiving neonatal care or after that period. This means that fathers who have only two weeks of paternity leave may want to take their neonatal care leave while their child is still in neonatal care. However, mothers will be able to add it to the end of their maternity leave and other forms of parental leave that they may be entitled to. This is because, once maternity leave commences, a mother cannot stop it in order to take neonatal care leave, or else she will lose her remaining maternity leave.

With that in mind, the Bill provides for the window of time within which neonatal care leave can be taken to be set out in regulations. This window will be a minimum of 68 weeks following the child’s birth, as this ensures that mothers and fathers have sufficient time to take their neonatal care leave alongside other leave rights that they may be entitled to, rather than having to lose out on any such entitlements.

Eligibility for neonatal care leave and pay will be detailed in regulations but must be based on a parental or other personal relationship with the child in neonatal care. This is to ensure that the definition can be kept up to date to accommodate changing family dynamics.

Your Lordships will no doubt have noticed that there are a number of delegated powers in this Bill. We spend a lot of time, quite rightly, in this House talking about being clear about the need for delegated powers and how they will be used. The powers in this Bill mirror, in so far as is possible, the approach in existing family-related leave and pay entitlement legislation. Such powers have been on the statute book for some time and are well understood by employers and the legal community. A similar approach was taken most recently in the Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Act 2018, which was also a Private Member’s Bill. The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee’s report of 2 February had no concerns with the delegated powers process in the Bill. It said:

“There is nothing in this private member’s Bill which we would wish to draw to the attention of the House.”

I hope that gives noble Lords adequate reassurance on this matter.

We have an opportunity here to make a real difference to the lives of those who seek to rely on this entitlement in the future. I hope that, with the support of your Lordships, we can deliver legislation that parents who have been through a stressful time while having a baby in neonatal care, and the charities which work tirelessly to support them, can celebrate. I beg to move.

My Lords, I strongly support this Bill and thank the noble Baroness, Lady Wyld, for introducing it to the House so brilliantly and comprehensively. It is a compassionate Bill that will help thousands of parents at a very anxious time of their lives: when their newborn baby is fighting for his or her life in a neonatal intensive care unit, is born prematurely with genetic or congenital problems, or is recovering from surgery or fighting to overcome infections. Tiny babies spend weeks or months, sometimes more than a year, connected to ventilators, feeding tubes or, in some cases, extracorporeal membrane oxygenation machines.

As an obstetrician, I have assisted at the birth of many such babies, well aware of their fragility, particularly of premature babies at birth, some of whom are no bigger than the palm of your hand. I recall stories of many babies who spent months in neonatal units, and I will give examples of some so that noble Lords can better understand the anxiety and stress that parents have to go through while their precious, often tiny child courageously fights for his or her life. This is a compassionate Bill not only for parents, but for these tiny babies.

One such story is that of Sarah Beattie, born 14 weeks prematurely weighing 1 pound 4 ounces—595 grams. She spent months in a neonatal intensive care unit fighting for her life. It is not difficult to imagine the stress, anxiety and pain her parents went through as Sarah was cared for in an incubator for several months in the neonatal unit. Thirty years later, it was my pleasure, as chancellor of Dundee University, to award her a degree in law.

Another story is of the parents of Peggy and Bodhi, born at 23 weeks and four days—at the margins of viability —during the pandemic, weighing 550 and 600 grams. Their parents, Alison and Jim, were told of the small chance of the twins’ survival and, if they did survive, of the risk of severe disability due to their prematurity. Alison and Jim followed a daily routine of visits to hospital, helping with the care of Peggy and Bodhi, going through anxious times and worry as the twins fought through breathing difficulties, cerebral bleeds and much more. Alison was off work for 17 months. Peggy and Bodhi are now two and a half years old, and Alison says they are perfect. She said that, as parents reflecting on their own neonatal experiences, it was tough, but nothing compared to what her babies went through.

Some parents are not so lucky, with partners having to go to work, financial worries, unsympathetic employers, the separation of parents at visiting times and much more hardship. Parents whose babies are in neonatal care for a long period are understandably worried and anxious. They often feel depressed, suffer from sleep deprivation and much more. They want to be with their baby as often and for as long as they can. They wake up at night wanting to see and be with their baby. Technological developments such as vCreate, developed at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Glasgow, are now widely available in UK neonatal units. It provides a secure personal video link, enabling parents to see their baby all the time, with regular updates on their baby’s condition—a great advance and much appreciated by parents.

So, what are the good things in the Bill? It gives much-needed additional paid time off work for parents when their baby is in neonatal care. It will particularly benefit fathers and those taking paternity leave, enabling them to be present at the neonatal unit for longer when their baby is unwell. They will also be able to support their partner through the experience, emotionally and practically, including with the childcare of older children. For many mothers, when their partner returns to work they are left alone without support to receive difficult news and make life-changing decisions. The Bill will make it possible for both parents to be involved in their baby’s care. This is essential for neonatal units hoping to deliver care in a family-integrated setting. As research has shown, this improves outcomes both for babies and their parents.

I welcome that this will be paid, despite it being only at the statutory rate, as having a baby in hospital can be expensive, and most families cannot afford for one parent to take unpaid time off work. Research by Bliss found that, on average, families report spending £405 per week over their usual budget while their baby is in neonatal care. To support families through this troubling financial time, I hope many employers will offer neonatal care leave at a higher rate of pay than the statutory minimum.

I hope the Government will be sympathetic to dealing with what is missing from the Bill. In general, parents will be entitled to neonatal care leave and pay if they are employees and already qualify for maternity, paternity and adoption leave and pay, as the noble Baroness, Lady Wyld, mentioned. However, this means that a group of parents—those who are self-employed, who are classed as workers or who do not meet the criteria for other reasons—will not have access to this vital support. Although employment support for this group of parents is not within the scope of the Bill, I hope the Government, and particularly the Department for Work and Pensions, will look seriously at reviewing how they can provide similar support to all working parents. I hope the Minister is personally sympathetic to that view.

The other issue is the lead time for implementation, which is extraordinarily long: parents will have to wait until 2025 before the Bill will be implemented. Surely it has to be possible to do this earlier than 2025, and help thousands of parents and their babies who will be born before 2025. I hope the Bill is the start of much-needed help for parents whose children have to be cared for in neonatal care units, particularly for long periods. I give it my strongest support.

It is a great privilege and pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Patel, who has great experience and expertise in the area of neonatal care.

We have heard from Scotland, so I thought we should hear from Northern Ireland on the Bill. I am pleased to be in the House today to support its Second Reading. I recognise that, from a territorial point of view, the Bill does not apply to Northern Ireland, as such matters are devolved. However, as with other Bills that have passed, I absolutely hope that it will be replicated by the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly, once they are functioning again. The same is true of the previous debate, in which we heard about co-operatives, mutuals and friendly societies, which I was at one stage a Minister for in the Northern Ireland Executive. I listened with great interest and hope that the officials are already working with officials in Northern Ireland to make them aware of that Bill, which I hope will be replicated in due course.

Over 1,800 babies are born prematurely or sick each year in Northern Ireland and cared for in one of our seven neonatal units. Sometimes, of course, the neonatal care is planned for, because it is known that there is a difficulty in utero and it is diagnosed before the pregnancy comes to an end. In my case, when my youngest child was born, it was not planned at all.

I was about to be discharged home with my bundle of joy, all 9 pounds and 14 ounces of him, when the doctors came in to do their checks. First, the junior doctor came in, and he left without saying anything. A more senior doctor came in, and he left without saying anything, and then the consultant came in, and I knew that something was wrong. It transpired that my son had been born with a pulmonary stenosis, a congenital heart problem, and he was taken immediately to neonatal care. After just three weeks, he had surgery to deal with the issue at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, where they opened his valve. I remember, as a mother, watching him fall asleep on a huge operating-theatre table—he was just this tiny little baby boy. I want to mention his consultant, Dr Frank Casey, a wonderful paediatric cardiac consultant at the Royal Victoria Hospital. I can report to the House that my son is now a strapping 16 year-old rugby player, and absolutely doing very well.

I tell this story because having to rely on neonatal care can happen to any couple, and the Bill will allow the mother and the partner to be there to support each other and the little bundle of joy being cared for, without the additional worry about where the next pay cheque is coming from. Although my son was in neonatal care for a relatively short period, it can go on for months and years, as the noble Lord, Lord Patel, indicated. That needs recognition, which is why I strongly support the Bill today.

I pay tribute to the proposer of the Bill in the other place and the noble Baroness, Lady Wyld, for setting out the details and importance of it. I also acknowledge the wider work going on in early years, especially that of the Royal Foundation Centre for Early Childhood, led by Her Royal Highness the Princess of Wales, highlighting the need for intervention in early years. I also acknowledge the recent early years review, chaired by Dame Andrea Leadsom, who was asked to bring that forward on behalf of the Prime Minister. That work is fundamental and has been widely welcomed by the sector. I emphasise recognising the importance of early intervention in those critical first 1,001 days, which begin at conception—it is important to remember that—because intervening early is important not only to the child and the family but to our society as a whole. It is wonderful that Her Royal Highness the Princess of Wales is taking such an active role in her campaign to highlight this. It will really bear fruit in the future, when those little babies are adults.

I see the Bill as part of cherishing our young people from day 1, by allowing both parents to be present if there is a need for neonatal care and by taking away the worry about entitlement to leave by granting it as a day 1 right for parents whose children have spent at least one week in neonatal care. I thank the charities that have worked with the proposers of the Bill: I mention Bliss and, from a Northern Ireland perspective, TinyLife, which I have supported in the past—I know it does wonderful work with premature babies and babies who need to go into neonatal care. I strongly support the Bill.

My Lords, I am delighted to be taking part in the Second Reading of the Neonatal Care (Leave and Pay) Bill. We like long titles in this House, but we are actually speaking about precious lives who are so tiny. I stand today to support my noble friend Lady Wyld and the Members in the other place, but, more importantly, the Bill will support the many families up and down the country who are going through such horrific rollercoaster rides of emotions right now.

Life is so precious. I know that only too well—I had to make so many decisions before turning off my husband’s life-support machine, 48 hours after his brutal attack. I still have flashbacks of that beeping sound and guilt—did I do the right thing? I hear the switch clicking off, as his body fell silent.

The emotions of bringing a new life into this world when the pregnancy does not go to plan or if a baby is born at full term with complications mean that, more than ever, these families need the Bill to be enacted. The parents face so many unknown challenges that are certainly not in our parenting books. There are so many questions and decisions to be made, and having to do that on your own because of the 14-day paternity leave is so cruel. On many occasions in this Chamber, I have spoken about victims and survivors, because it is their stories that must be heard. Today, I speak up for families whose little ones are fighting to survive.

Let me introduce the House to Sam Bagnall, who I call “our little Sam”, and his doting parents, Zalena and Martin Bagnall, who are watching the debate on this stage of the Bill. Sam decided to come into their lives at a very early stage of her pregnancy: 24 weeks plus two weeks’ gestation. Mum had been on bed rest for a week, praying that she could get to the 24-week stage of viability. And he did, but that was where their lives—three lives—were placed on a hugely emotional journey of many tests, operations and making life decisions, with Sam’s tiny body fighting to survive. Can you imagine being constantly told, “We will do all our best, but you may have to say goodbye to Sam”?

Sam was born during Covid, which was hard on all families whose babies were due. However, Martin was able to be at the hospital because of furlough, which thankfully did not put a duty and helped alleviate the financial burden to some degree. It enabled him, as a father, to be by the side of his son and wife 18 hours a day. If he had been on the 14-day paternity leave, he would have had to live with the knowledge that, on day 15, Sam suffered a ruptured bowel. Three times, they were informed to say goodbye to Sam.

In our neonatal units, other mothers in the same situation become a community, so I will now speak about George. His mum had maternity leave and his dad had the 14-day paternity leave, but his work made him come back and he eventually had to go on sick leave. Another dad, who worked for a very well-known car manufacturing company, had sympathy from his bosses but was told to get back to work. His baby died without him being there; his wife and partner was alone.

Dads in particular need that extra time, especially when the baby is first born, because, sadly, that is when most of the complications are realised. The baby’s organs are so small and tiny, and there is so much pressure going around their body that their body collapses in some way. I too praise and thank Bliss for its excellent briefing, which was heartfelt to read and highlights the excellent work that is carried out across this country by many doctors and nurses. I call them “specialist angels”; what they do on a daily basis is just outstanding. Knowing that one in seven babies born in the UK is admitted to neonatal care really makes the Bill so important to ensure that we give the best to a newborn baby and their family.

I am not medical, even though I have enough ailments, but research shows that having both parents present releases oxytocin—I look to the noble Lord, Lord Patel, to see whether I said that right—in the baby, as the baby recognises mum’s and dad’s voices. Mother nature is marvellous, as it also reduces pain in our babies’ bodies. Science shows that it is not just about mum and dad being there, it is also about being by each other’s side. It is so beneficial for that young life.

The Bill, which I support in all parts, will allow parents to take, I think, an additional 476 days off work at a time when it is most important. It takes away that guillotine of choosing work or spending such precious time with their little baby and supporting their partner.

Super Sam spent four and half months in hospital, and I commend Liverpool Women’s Hospital and Alder Hey for the superb support and time that they gave to Sam’s body and parents. Super Sam is now three years old. He has some disabilities, as his parents were informed may happen, to his sight, hearing, speech and mobility. But let me tell the House why we call him Super Sam. He is now learning to walk and to speak; he went to speech therapy this morning. He has some sight issues, but thanks to an invention, special glasses enable him to get around. Nothing puts Sam off, and he is now practising with a football. And he now has a little sister, Ava, who is absolutely beautiful and has turned one—and she bosses him around.

Giving this neonatal leave and pay will no doubt alleviate more anxiety and pain when someone no longer has to leave their partner’s side but can stand by their side and support them with the hands-on care that is so vital to that precious life—their baby.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Wyld, and all those who have promoted the Bill. Reading the briefing we had from Bliss made me want to say a few words on this particular measure. When the noble Baroness, Lady Wyld, mentioned the two people, Tom and Anna, who were helping with Bliss, it made me think that we should note and appreciate that so many parents who have been through this trauma want to help others; it is a very important matter.

Many of us might think, “Well, why haven’t the Government done this already?”, because, when you read the kind of information we have in our briefings, you see that clearly there has been a vacuum of support and a very clear case that something needed to be done. It is good that we have been able to have people using the Private Members’ Bill procedure. In a way, this is what Private Members’ Bills are for—to bring attention to a real loophole that has existed—and I hope that the Bill can progress so that people who need this help will in fact get it. The case has been made and is clear, and we need to take this further as quickly as possible.

Those of us who have not had the experience of having a baby in neonatal care cannot fully comprehend this; we can listen to the experiences that have been brought to our attention by the two previous speakers, but I suspect that it is something that you actually have to experience to know the full impact. Whatever problems we have had individually, the idea of a child in an incubator with tubes is something that all of us would immediately be affected by. Childbirth is supposed to be—as well as potentially painful—very exhilarating and exciting; it is an important day and something that we remember all our lives. But we do have the assumption that things will go well, and, while we might have niggles at the back of our head that something could go wrong, if something does go wrong it must be absolutely devastating—the family’s plans go out of the window immediately.

If the figures in the briefings we have had are correct, we are talking about an awful lot of people who are finding life extremely difficult at a very critical time. Of course, as the noble Lord, Lord Patel, pointed out, and as the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, just mentioned, with modern medicine, many of these babies need a great deal of care for quite a long time, and current provision for parental support is really not adequate for what we are talking about today. In this House, sometimes we have to ask ourselves: if this were us, what would we want and need? What would we want a member of our family to have, if they were placed in the same position?

The briefing we got from Bliss was extremely interesting, particularly the point that 36% of fathers of babies in neonatal care were actually signed off sick to try to provide the kind of support that was needed. That means that it is a very important issue, because the first few days, months and years of a child’s life are some of the most formative and significant in terms of forming the relationships and bonds that are so important for families going forward. The added anxiety of financial pressure is something that really needs to be taken into account.

I wanted to ask the Minister about something which the noble Lord, Lord Patel, pointed out: that some people will not fulfil the criteria that are mentioned in the Bill for getting this financial support. I know that regulations have to dovetail into each other, and that is not always the case, but there are some quite specific limitations in terms of who can be affected, and that will need to be considered further down the line.

I cannot resist the temptation to mention delegated powers. It was good to see that in the Commons the Henry VIII clause was removed, so we do not have to bring it up and complain to Ministers at this stage, which is somewhat unusual. There is also the question of timing because, again, in the Commons, the Minister estimated that perhaps in about 18 months’ time we might get round to have this provision. I think we could probably get some movement before that, if people really took this as seriously as they should.

I congratulate all those people who have been involved in this legislation. I would just say to the Minister that I hope that we can have joined-up provision. Mention has been made of maternity rights, but there may be other children in the family to think about and there are fathers as well as mothers. This is an opportunity to bring all the provisions together and make sure that we consider the impact on the family as a whole—parents and the baby in neonatal care as well as the other children in the family—because a lot of people need support in this kind of situation. But I congratulate all those involved and very strongly support the Bill.

My Lords, I rise to give my support to this Private Member’s Bill. I add my sincere thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Wyld, for all the work that has gone into preparing for this moment and for her very detailed, informative and passionate speech. I thank everyone who is taking part in what is actually quite an emotional discussion for many of us in the Chamber.

As my noble friend Lady Taylor said, I would like to thank Bliss for its dedication and for the information that it has provided us all with to inform this debate. It is true to say, as we can see when we look in Hansard, that there was a very good debate in the other place, and there are some real champions of the cause before us today. I would also like to extend my thanks to the families who have taken the time to give information and background on their own particular circumstances.

It is appropriate here today to extend our enormous thanks to the incredible staff in the NHS, as the noble Lord, Lord Patel, highlighted in his moving speech. I had, fortunately, a very minor episode, whereby my latest grandchild, at the age of five weeks, had to go into hospital to be put on oxygen as a result of infection. To see at first hand the dedication of those staff, and all the other commitments that they have while caring for children, is remarkable, and we need to continue to remind ourselves of just how significant their contribution is.

To pick out some of the highlights, the issue around regulations is key, but we are hoping that the Bill will introduce two new rights: neonatal care leave and statutory neonatal care pay. Of course, both rights will require the Secretary of State to pass the necessary regulations, and we look forward to seeing, as we move forward, the details of how they might operate.

The other important element to highlight is the right to neonatal leave being a day one right available to employees. We have heard a great deal today about who would be covered and the time period. The issue of extending eligibility is one that we will need to revisit.

I am pleased that the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, is here today, because Northern Ireland obviously has a slightly different situation, in that employment law is a devolved matter.

When debating these matters, we get a significant list of statistics. One in seven babies born in the UK receive some level of neonatal care just before birth and an estimated 50,000 babies in the UK spend more than one week in neonatal care after birth. But what we have heard today and need to emphasise is that each one of those cases involves a child and an extended family, and each one of those situations will have very different circumstances. What we know from the feedback from families is that the current inflexibility of the parental leave laws actually contributes to the trauma that they experience and adds to the family’s stress.

The figures speak for themselves, in that more than half of families say that their finances were affected. One in four families have had to borrow money or increase their debt because of the baby’s neonatal stay, and 80% of parents have reported that their mental health became worse after the experience. We have heard a lot about the fact that this is not just a situation that relates to mothers; it is about fathers and non-birthing parents as well.

I emphasise the points that have been made about the importance of early bonding with babies. Those first few days and weeks are so important for children’s development, going into their early years, and we must do everything we can to enable those significant relationships to thrive and develop.

I also pick up on the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Wyld, that this is also about employers, and how actually this will bring benefit to employers. I think that, if you go out and talk to employers, you find that the vast majority would like to be able to be more supportive, but there is no framework to enable them to do so. We know that the Government have consulted with business and have had a broad range of respondents, and overwhelming support, and we need to take account of that in our discussions today. We have conversations on a repeated basis, as the Minister will be well aware, on many of the issues that prevent people from going back into the workplace. All those discussions are relevant to the subject before us today.

I emphasise the issue raised by my noble friend Lady Taylor. I do not know whether I am particularly susceptible to this—one of my older sisters had a significant stretch in hospital when I was about three from a very severe case of measles. I can remember vividly the fact that my parents were not around and that my grandparents suddenly appeared from nowhere; other carers came into my life. We were very fortunate in that respect. But what has not been highlighted, which I learned from my experience working to keep the children’s heart unit open in Leeds General Infirmary, and the other fact that we have to consider, is that many of the specialist units that these children will go into are not on the family’s doorstep. They often involve significant periods of time away from home for one or both parents, and this obviously has a knock-on effect for the entire family. We have to make sure that those elements are factored in.

We know that the Government have been active over the past three or four years. They launched a series of consultations under the Good Work Plan in July 2019, responded to that consultation in March 2020 and made a number of commitments, as we have heard. That commitment was also included in the text of the 2020 Budget, published the same month, which stated:

“The government will create an entitlement to Neonatal Leave and Pay for employees whose babies spend an extended period of time in neonatal care, providing up to 12 weeks paid leave so that parents do not have to choose between returning to work and taking care of their vulnerable newborn.”

The December 2019 Queen’s Speech included mention of an employment Bill that would introduce both the neonatal leave and pay rights, alongside a range of other commitments. The employment Bill was ultimately not introduced in the 2019-21 Session and did not appear in the Queen’s Speech of 2021 or 2022.

There has been a commitment from the Government, repeated on several occasions, including in the Good Work Plan, but sadly no action flowing from that. We must acknowledge our disappointment with the delay and the subsequent need to bring these matters forward in a Private Member’s Bill. I repeat that I pay sincere tribute to all those who have initiated and supported this Bill.

We are where we are, as we say, and I am very pleased to restate that those on our Benches are supportive of this Bill and hope that we can get assurance from the Minister about the speed with which he can act on behalf of the Government—indeed, to help the Government —to move forward and bring some relief to all those families who clearly deserve our support and help.

My Lords, I begin by thanking my noble friend Lady Wyld for bringing this important Bill forward for debate today. It is a great personal honour to be here to confirm the Government’s ongoing support for the Bill. The cross-party support for this initiative is significant; almost all parties represented in Parliament have supported this legislation specifically. I also thank Stuart McDonald for initiating the process that led to us being able to be here at this moment debating such an important topic. I am sure that we can agree that enabling parents to be with their babies when they are at their most vulnerable is clearly the right thing to do. I will address some of the comments made by noble Lords today in a moment.

Importantly, the Conservative Party manifesto in 2019 committed to introducing neonatal care leave and pay, stating that:

“We will legislate to allow parents to take extended leave for neonatal care, to support those new mothers and fathers who need it during the most vulnerable and stressful days of their lives.”

I am aware of discussions around larger pieces of legislation but, in my view, having had the privilege of taking through other similar Private Members’ Bills over the last few weeks, it is important that we do these right things and do not lose sight of the importance of these specific Bills in making people’s lives better and giving people protections. That is my priority today and I am grateful for noble Lords’ support, and the support of the body politic in general, for this Bill.

If it is helpful, I will go through some of the comments made by Members of this House in this debate. The noble Lord, Lord Patel, made a number of very relevant points, particularly outlining his expertise. I join him, the noble Baronesses, Lady Taylor and Lady Blake, and other Members who did not necessarily articulate it, in expressing my admiration for our doctors and nurses who care for our young babies when they come into this world, exemplified by the noble Lord, Lord Patel, and his expertise and contribution to this area over his lifetime.

The noble Lord and others mentioned the time for implementation. If I may say, I too share a slight degree of frustration at the expectation of an 18-month wait between Royal Assent and implementation. I have investigated this myself, as noble Lords would expect, and I am afraid that there are legitimate reasons relating to the systems and processes—two words that really should not go hand in hand with such an important and emotive topic. They relate to the practicalities of implementing these measures and ensuring that HMRC has the right systems in place. A number of pieces of secondary legislation must also be enacted, which simply takes time. All I can commit to from this Dispatch Box is my personal commitment—I am sure that I also speak on behalf of my Secretary of State and other Ministers—to ensuring that this will be enacted as speedily as possible. We will not let the processes of government delay us except to the absolute minimum. We are targeting April 2025 and we will certainly make sure that, if we can enact any parts of this legislation sooner than that, we will do so.

It was quite right that the eligibility of other types of worker in our workforce was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Patel, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Blake and Lady Taylor. It is felt that we want this to focus on employed workers. It is right to make sure that this mirrors our current maternity and other leave entitlements so that it can be effectively integrated into HMRC systems, pay systems and how businesses function.

I am perfectly aware of, and will take back to the department, the need to continually find ways to ensure that parents in this situation are able, with security, to spend time with their children. There are two very important reasons. First, it is a direct benefit to the health of the child. I would like to raise further in this debate the profile of the charity Bliss and to follow on from the comments about the parents who contributed to this work. This is a deeply personal, emotional and powerful subject. To share those experiences and to broadcast and propagate the importance of this mission is very meaningful. I congratulate them for this and hope to have the opportunity at a later date to do so in person. I hope that they are watching this debate and feel a sense of satisfaction that we continue to progress towards a suitable conclusion. My first point, then, is that it is absolutely right for the health of the child that parents are able to care for them in this difficult and essential period. It is also absolutely right, by the way, for the health of the parents.

My second point is that we must realise that there is a cost to businesses for these important social goods. We should not just ignore that fact. We as a society come together to decide how we want to structure ourselves, and how businesses respond to our needs and to important matters such as this is to be recognised—and I do recognise that. On the effectiveness of business, raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, and the need to make sure that people remain in the workforce, having a structure and framework for how neonatal care leave is taken is far more helpful than the current system, which relies, in effect, on the charity of businesses. Many are extremely forward-footed, very generous and very compassionate but, clearly, they do not have a framework in which to operate effectively.

It is therefore extremely useful to have clear rules, such as we are bringing to bear in other areas such as carers’ leave and so on, so that employees and businesses know how to interact with each other, what their rights are and what the expectations are. As a result of that, I think that we will have far more effective functioning of businesses. We can see from the studies and some of the statistics raised today by my noble friend Lady Newlove and the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, the number of fathers who are simply taking sick leave or just not going to work. It is not as if , therefore, by not having these frameworks in place, we will somehow have more people in work and that the business situation will be solved. What is happening now is the worst of all worlds: a great degree of insecurity, a huge degree of uncertainty for business and poor outcomes for parents and children. The Bill will solve a number of very important issues. It is absolutely right in every respect and will be an important element of the framework for how we want to make our economy function.

I believe I have covered most of the points raised. I am glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, mentioned that the delegated powers have been taken out of the Bill, so I do not need to cover that in my speech, if noble Lords do not mind. I was very touched and moved by the personal stories of my noble friend Lady Newlove about the Bagnall family—I am very pleased that super Sam is thriving—and by the stories and important personal experiences related to us by the noble Baronesses, Lady Foster, Lady Taylor and Lady Blake, the noble Lord, Lord Patel, and my noble friend Lady Wyld. I am very grateful to them for contributing to this debate in such a powerful way.

To conclude, these measures will provide valuable support and protection for parents during some of the most stressful days of their lives, when their children are in neonatal care. The Government are pleased to support this Private Member’s Bill and to deliver our manifesto commitment. Supporting the Bill is in line with our ongoing commitment to support workers and build a fairer, high-skilled, high-productivity, high-wage economy. It is good to see that there is such fabulous support from across the political spectrum in the House for this important measure, as is clear from today’s debate. I very much look forward to continuing to work with my noble friend Lady Wyld as the Bill progresses through the House.

My Lords, I am enormously grateful to everybody who spoke today, and I shall take a few moments to reflect on some of the points that were made.

When I saw the speakers’ list and the name of the noble Lord, Lord Patel, I knew we would have a very moving debate. I said to him in the tearoom, “Try not to make it too moving because I will have to get up and respond to you without becoming wobbly”. He told stories and shared the memories that he has of all the people he has looked after, including Sarah and the other mothers and babies; they will remember him for the rest of their lives, and I pay tribute to him. I share his points about implementation; others have echoed those, so I will come back to that.

All I can say to the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, and her 9 pounds and 14 ounces son, is that she is a stronger woman than I am, and I am so grateful that she spoke. I very much hope that this will be mirrored in Northern Ireland. She made very powerful points, as others did, about the importance of early years and the other work that is going on in this area, and for this legislation to be part of a wider picture.

My noble friend Lady Newlove always speaks with such passion in every debate she comes to. I thank her for bringing the real-life experience and bringing to life what people go through. As my noble friend the Minister said, thank goodness for super Sam, and I pay tribute to him. More widely, she said Sam is having language and speech therapy today. That underlines the point made by others that this is holistic; it is about children as they go through their early years. We spend a lot of time in this House—the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, said this—talking about when things go wrong later, such as family breakdown, mental health problems and young people offending. But the building blocks are there. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, that the Princess of Wales has shown great leadership on this—long may it continue.

The noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, talked about our attitude towards fathers. When we hear about skin-to-skin contact, the support for mothers, and the loneliness mothers face when they are in this situation and the impact on their mental health, I think we have a way to go in changing our attitudes towards fathers and what we expect to provide for them in these most crucial days.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, said, this was an emotional discussion, and I thank her very much for her support. I agree with her that there is more work to be done behind the scenes and I commit myself to doing that. I should have thanked those in the Bill team in my opening speech, who have been absolutely brilliant. Again, I thank my noble friend the Minister. I will push him on implementation and other issues, but I am sure he can cope. With that, I commend the Bill to the House.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.