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Paternity Leave (Bereavement) Bill

Volume 838: debated on Friday 17 May 2024

Second Reading

Moved by

My Lords, I thank my honourable friend Chris Elmore, the Member for Ogmore, for guiding this Bill through the various stages in the other House. I put on record that I am godmother to his son, Henry, so I am delighted to support his exceptionally important Bill through your Lordships’ House. I extend my thanks to all Members who spoke passionately in favour of this Bill in the other place, especially Darren Henry MP, who initiated this campaign there on behalf of a constituent, Aaron, whom I will return to shortly.

We are here today to provide a safety net for people experiencing grief beyond my comprehension. Whether you are a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle or godparent, we all know the excitement that comes with news of an imminent addition to the family. For new parents, it must be a rollercoaster of emotions—excitement and joy at the thought of a new baby in the house, and worry about the responsibilities that come with parenthood. Focus will rightly be on the mother and preparing for the arrival of a new baby, whether it is a natural birth or those adopting or using a surrogate. Nothing is more exciting than a new member of the family.

However, many expectant parents will also start thinking about the financial impact of a new baby. After all, the Government’s own MoneyHelper website suggests that a newborn will cost a family £7,200 in the first year, excluding childcare costs. Therefore, it would not be unusual for one of the parents to think about moving jobs to help meet the costs of a growing family, not realising the impact on their employment rights. But the reality can be truly heartbreaking if something goes wrong. Just, for one second, imagine the horror. A mother dies in childbirth. Her partner is left alone with a newborn. I cannot imagine the grief and fear of the new parent, who is now facing the daunting prospect of sole responsibility for a tiny human. You have lost your life partner, and your baby has lost a parent. The grief, pain and fear are unimaginable. You know that your only responsibility is now to the baby you are holding, as you try to keep going just for them. But there is the funeral to arrange, the grief to try to manage—if that is even possible—the paperwork to tackle and some form of plan to make about how to raise your new child without the love and support of your partner.

Everything takes time and work is the last thing on your mind—until you realise that, because you started the new job within the last four months, you do not have the right to enhanced paternity leave you would have had, had you not taken that job. Therefore, rather than having up to a year to get yourself straight, you have a matter of days—and those are at the discretion of your boss. This is not a time when someone needs their employer’s discretion. It is not a time when you want to think about anything other than getting through the day. This is a time when you need to fall back on a legal safety net, to know that you can take the time to focus on rebuilding your shattered life.

But this is what is actually happening, albeit to a mercifully small number of people. There are 180 maternal deaths per year within 12 months of childbirth in the UK, but the small numbers we are discussing do not diminish the pain felt by those affected. Let me tell you about Aaron, whom I previously mentioned. Aaron, tragically, lost his wife, Bernadette, hours after she gave birth to their son, Tim. Aaron had moved employers in the months before Tim’s birth, and because of this did not have access to a statutory leave entitlement to care for Tim following Bernadette’s unexpected and tragic passing. The current rules left Aaron and other parents in this heartbreaking position without access to a statutory right to take time off work to care for their child and rebuild their lives.

Aaron’s story is not the only one to touch me during the passage of this Bill. Gingerbread has also shared the story of Simon Thorpe, who lost his partner not long after the birth of their child and felt at the mercy of his employer. It also raised the case of Lee, a father of two who lost his wife to cancer. Lee emphasised how difficult it is, particularly when you have more than one child. Not only are you grieving but suddenly, you have lost two incomes, and two sets of annual leave per year are now halved, so childcare costs a fortune; plus, there is the cost of living. If someone is lucky enough to be in a good job, there is dependants leave, but Lee’s company offers only five days of this per year. There is also special leave, which can be paid at the manager’s discretion but can also be unpaid.

The Bill before us will remedy this. It is the least we owe Aaron and Tim, Simon, Lee and the dozens of families like theirs, so that they know that their pain has led to us changing the law, meaning that no one else will experience what they have experienced. The Bill gained cross-party support in the other place, and I am pleased that it is now the duty of your Lordships’ House to consider this important Bill.

Once introduced, the Bill will put on the statute book a day 1 right to leave for employees who tragically lose their partner in the time surrounding childbirth or adoption. This will provide these individuals with the support and protection they need during one of the darkest periods of their lives. Moreover, even parents who do meet the continuity of service requirement to qualify for statutory paternity leave may not have access to a sufficient period to care for their child. Parents in this situation would still be reliant on the good will of their employer to take any additional time off work. The Bill will also close this gap in the legislation for all employed parents who have lost their partner around childbirth or adoption and moved employer in the months before the birth.

The Bill will create specific provisions for those bereaved partners using the paternity leave framework. The intention is that they will have access to up to 52 weeks’ leave during the first year of the child’s life, from the day after the mother or primary adopter of the child has tragically died. In addition, the Bill will enable regulations to be made to ensure that adoptive and surrogacy parents are also eligible for this entitlement if they face similar tragic circumstances. As a result, we will be able to offer the benefits of this entitlement to a wider range of parents.

Other sections of the Bill remove constraints on bereaved partners, which will make the leave entitlement easier to access. For example, the Bill removes the restriction whereby a parent who has taken shared parental leave cannot then take paternity leave. This means that a parent who has taken shared parental leave before the death of their partner can still take paternity leave. The Bill also allows provision to be made in regulations for the utterly heartbreaking situation where the child also dies. My heart goes out to anyone who experiences this. This could allow the employee to stay on this extended form of paternity leave, even though they would not be taking the leave for the required purpose of supporting the mother or caring for the child, but rather, trying to cope and find a way to deal with the overwhelming grief they will be experiencing.

The Bill also introduces two new powers. The first provides the ability to create, through regulations, enhanced redundancy protection for bereaved employees when they return from this extended form of paternity leave. The second enables regulations to be made to allow bereaved parents to keep in touch during their extended paternity leave. These “keep in touch” days enable employees to work with their employer for a limited number of days without their right to paternity leave being affected. I assure the House that the delegated powers in this Bill have been used in a way that mirrors the provision relating to existing family leave rights.

In conclusion, I believe that the Bill is in a good position thanks to the work of everyone in the other place. I want to see it succeed, because we have an opportunity today to make a real difference to the lives of those who will seek to rely upon this entitlement in the future. I am not naive enough to think that the Bill solves every problem, but it is a stepping stone to better employment rights for the people who need them most. I hope that, in time, money will follow this policy.

I have just one request for the Minister: in addition to his support for the Bill, can he confirm that it and all the relevant regulations will hit the statute book before the next financial year? I hope that, with the support of your Lordships, we will deliver a piece of legislation that supports people in the devastating situation of losing their partner at the same time as becoming a new parent. I beg to move.

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Anderson of Stoke-on-Trent, who so comprehensively and powerfully set out the need for the Bill. I also commend the honourable Chris Elmore, for taking it up and seeing it through the other place.

I am speaking to express Green Party support for the Bill and for fathers and partners who, in the most tragic of circumstances, find themselves a single parent as a result of the death of a partner or spouse. We all struggle to imagine how people survive such circumstances, but they have to. I must reference the amount of discussion that we have had this week about the evident need to improve maternity care dramatically. But, whatever we manage to achieve in that area, there will still be tragic occasions that we need this law to cover.

It is interesting to note that this is a real indication of how Parliament and the parliamentary process can and should work, but so rarely does. We are amending the Employment Rights Act 1996 and, in Committee in the other place, the original proposed Bill was amended to cover a broader range of circumstances, fully covering adoption and surrogacy and, as the noble Baroness said, the situation where a child dies. It was a copybook process, which we would like to see being done a lot more to produce good legislation and do things that needs to be done and that do not need to be regarded as political.

There was discussion in the other place about how this does not cover Northern Ireland. There was some suggestion that it might be extended, so can the Minister comment on whether that is technically possible, feasible or is being taken forward in any way? It was raised in the other place.

I follow the noble Baroness in acknowledging the work of Gingerbread, in making the case for this legislation and driving it through. It is a demonstration that campaigning works. Campaigning can be a long and thankless task, into which people have to put an enormous amount of effort, but it delivers. We need to acknowledge the importance of civil society voices being heard in both Chambers and being listened to and acted on.

Finally, I want to look at the broader context of the Bill. It restates an important principle that, when a child is born, they are not just an individual or a member of a family but a member of our society. They are definitely not the property of their parents. They are not the sole responsibility of their parent or parents, but the responsibility of all of us. Society has a responsibility to make sure that every child has a decent start in life. That is a moral position that, sadly, needs to be increasingly restated these days, but it is also a practical position: if we are going to have a functioning society that can tackle the many challenges and crises that we now face, we need to make sure that every human being in our society is able to develop to their full potential. We cannot afford to abandon any child, or any parent who is struggling to raise a child in impossible circumstances, without the resources to do the job.

This is a really excellent piece of work. I congratulate everyone involved and, like the noble Baroness, look forward to it being on the statute book with the regulations in place as soon as possible.

My Lords, I will say a few words in support of this legislation. I congratulate my noble friend Lady Anderson on a not just powerful but very clear outline of why this legislation and this change are necessary.

It is an example of the best use of Private Members’ Bills. I was not aware of this problem; I am sure that a lot of people were not aware of this problem. When the original legislation was going through, I am sure that nobody thought of this particular set of circumstances, which could have a devastating impact on the families affected. Our legislation sometimes has unintended consequences, even when it is drafted in the best possible way—although that has not been the case with much recent legislation. Even the best legislation can leave loopholes or gaps, or create anomalies, and this was one.

I congratulate my friend Chris Elmore in the other House on having the persistence to get us to this situation. It is not easy to steer a Private Member’s Bill through either House of Parliament and I think that this one is an important step forward.

As my noble friend mentioned, we are talking about really tragic circumstances, and they are difficult to talk about without a high degree of emotion. My noble friend mentioned individual cases that must have been devastating for the families involved—not just the partner, but the whole family of any mother who tragically died in childbirth. As my noble friend said, this should be a time of joy and to mix that with grief and overwhelming problems, including financial problems, is truly devastating.

It is an obvious thing for someone, before the birth of their child, to get a better-paid job to support their growing family. To have these kinds of difficulties because of your attempts to improve the situation must be absolutely devastating. So I think it is right to bring this forward and to give it a speedy passage, if we can.

In terms of public spending, this must be the least significant Bill that we are producing but, for the individuals affected, it must be one of the most impactful. Although the figures are small, the impact will be great. The Bill will not solve all the problems of those who have been affected by such a devastating loss, but it could ease their situation and we should certainly be doing that. I congratulate those who have brought the Bill forward and I hope the Minister makes sure that it goes through as quickly as possible.

I add my most warm commendations to those who have taken this legislation forward. I pay tribute to the politicians, but also to the Minister, Kevin Hollinrake, who is an extraordinary, pragmatic, principled and effective Minister. He is a problem-solver and he has delivered results, working with the politicians and the interest groups.

I wanted, though, to give the House a slight reality check about the problem that we are describing. Obviously, it is traumatic when someone dies in childbirth, and something like 13.41 women per 100,000 die during pregnancy. Some 200 years ago, 2,500 women per 100,000 died in childbirth. We have gone from 2,500 down to 13.41. Whenever we talk about these figures, the United Kingdom’s huge progress is in my mind, but there are still other countries that have worse figures.

I also want to refer to the extraordinary change of attitude about childbirth and stillbirth in hospitals because, in years gone by, a stillbirth was a failure to be hushed away. Now, a great number of health authorities provide excellent work to ensure that those who are affected by a stillbirth are given the proper care and attention that they need. I commend particularly the Childhood Bereavement Network.

I thank your Lordships for letting me intervene. This is excellent legislation and I appreciate the work of the politicians, Ministers and our distinguished Lords Minister.

My Lords, I start in the same way as my noble friend Lady Taylor of Bolton, by thanking my noble friend Lady Anderson of Stoke-on-Trent and Chris Elmore MP for sponsoring this vital piece of legislation. I am very glad to see that the Government have given their support to the Bill, and thank the Minister, although it should not have needed a Private Member’s Bill for action to be taken. We believe that the Government could and should have legislated this change as part of a wider package to help the most vulnerable when in a difficult situation. Nevertheless, we wholeheartedly back my colleagues’ Bill. As was said earlier, the Bill represents the very best of Parliament, and reflects Labour’s and, if the Government support it, the Government’s commitment to strengthening the rights of workers, as well as our desire to see equality pursued in every area of life.

The Bill and the campaigning around it have illustrated the fact that bereaved fathers have been allowed to fall through the legislative gap. It is unjust that consequently they do not receive the same protection as their counterparts; I am glad that we now have an opportunity to change that. The current qualification period of 26 weeks is too high, as we have heard, and a day one right to paternity leave in the case of bereavement is very much needed. This is important not only for grieving fathers and partners but for newborn babies, who require the kind of close care they would otherwise receive from a mother on maternity leave.

We have heard a number of heartbreaking stories of bereaved fathers with newborns, but there are many more out there. Like others, I thank the charity Gingerbread, which supports single parents, for its work in helping raise awareness around this issue. It is cruel that fathers who have the absolute horror of losing a partner are then at the discretion of their employers. Now, we know that most employers show compassion and support, but this is legislating to protect against the worst of employers, who either do not or cannot show that compassion or give that support. The horrors of losing a partner are often compounded by the administrative burden that then surrounds death and, in many cases, the financial impact of losing a second household income.

We need to ensure equality, and that is what the Bill does, equalising the rights of partners and fathers with those of a mother. Those who are going through the most unimaginable grief, and who are placed in the most difficult of circumstances, deserve our help. It is right that the state and employers are there for people going through the worst moments of their lives, and who experience that trauma while also needing to care for a newborn baby. If we cannot, as a Government or Parliament, care for those people, then what can we do?

The debate surrounding this issue has also highlighted the fact that employers must do more to advertise to their employees existing rights around maternity, paternity and shared leave. Both the number of people aware of their rights and the take-up rates for them are shamefully low. Much more needs to be done, and the Government need to be the driving force behind it.

I am glad today to stand here and speak in support of the Bill, particularly as this is all too sadly a relevant issue. A report in April this year found that the number of women dying during or soon after pregnancy is at 13.4 per 100,000 women. This is the highest level it has been at for 20 years, despite the Government’s stated ambition of halving maternal deaths between 2010 and 2025. We stand ready to work with the Government in that ambition. However, this is an issue that does not affect all parts of society equally: women from ethnic minority backgrounds are four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. More needs to be done on this; I suppose that is for a different debate, and we will deal with it later.

The Bill before us today represents the start of a process of strengthening employment rights for everyone, including parents. The Bill is very much the beginning of that debate. In her comprehensive introduction to the Bill, my noble friend Lady Anderson of Stoke-on-Trent talked about the grief, pain and fear being unimaginable. They are. We will not be able to do anything about those issues, but today we can legislate to remove one of the worries, to ease the pressure on individuals and make their lives that little bit easier when they are dealing with such difficult circumstances.

As always, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, for his comments. The matters raised in the other areas related to maternity—survival rates and so on—are certainly things the Government take seriously, but they are not specifically relevant to this debate. I thank him for raising them.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Anderson of Stoke-on-Trent, for bringing this important Bill forward for debate. I have much appreciated the collaboration we have had over the last few weeks in the run-up to today. It is without question a personal pleasure to be here today to confirm the Government’s ongoing support for the Bill, following the excellent work, highlighted by the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, by the Minister in the other place, Kevin Hollinrake. I also express my gratitude to Chris Elmore, MP for Ogmore, for his role in leading us here today to debate such an important topic. I also thank all of those who have spoken on this important matter, including the charity Gingerbread, which has been mentioned, and Mr Aaron Horsey, who I believe is here today. I want to acknowledge the campaigning he has done personally to bring this to debate today, during what is also an extremely difficult time. I was extremely privileged to meet Mr Horsey earlier, and I hope he feels that we are doing credit to his mission.

I am sure we can all agree that extending a right to statutory leave for employed parents in these dreadful and sudden circumstances is clearly the right thing to do. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, I was struck by the fact that we have had to bring this legislation forward in the first place. I think everyone who was confronted with this issue would have probably said exactly what I said—that this seems to be an extraordinary anomaly, and I am not sure how this has managed to pass. I am very glad that we now have an opportunity to rectify this.

We are very pleased to support this Private Member’s Bill, which will provide support and security for bereaved parents during one of the most difficult periods in their lives. The Bill’s progress to this House means that we are not only one move closer to the day this entitlement can take effect but able to demonstrate what can be achieved through cross-party co-operation. I have watched the Bill’s progress through the other place with great interest, and I am extremely pleased it has arrived here for our consideration so swiftly.

As has been mentioned by other speakers, having a child should be one of the happiest moments of a new parent’s life. However, for a small number of people each year, this monumental event is followed by unimaginable grief. Losing a partner is a truly devastating experience for anyone and combining that grief with the challenge of caring for a new baby must, as I am sure we all know, be incredibly hard. My sincere condolences, on behalf of myself and all my colleagues, go to anyone who finds themselves in this devastating situation. By setting out this new entitlement to an extended form of paternity leave in the statute book, we will ensure that those parents are supported and are not burdened with additional stress over whether they can take time off work during the crucial first year with their child.

The United Kingdom already has a range of generous entitlements and protections designed to help parents balance their family and work commitments while also maintaining their place in the labour market. This change will come in the wake of six Private Members’ Bills that the Government have supported to Royal Assent alongside supporting secondary legislation that will better the experience of all our citizens in the workforce.

I turn to the Bill briefly. As set out by the noble Baroness, the Bill will give employed bereaved fathers and partners a day-one right to paternity leave if they are in the tragic circumstance of losing the mother or primary adopter of the child in the time surrounding the birth or adoption. By making this change to the legislative framework, we ensure that employees who lose their partner in the time surrounding childbirth or adoption have access to a much-needed period of leave to care for their new child. This change will make sure that bereaved partners can take time off work without needing to rely on the good will of their employer and, importantly, are able to stay connected to the labour market until they are able to return.

I add, because there have been comments about how employers have functioned until now and Mr Horsey raised this point with me, that many employers wish to do the right thing. But because there is no legislative framework around which they can do it, they are not able to do so, particularly in larger companies where there are legal issues around it. I pay tribute to many employers who probably have done the right thing, but this gives them certainty.

It is right that the noble Baroness, Lady Anderson, challenges me and the Government about when these measures can take effect. It is quite complex. There are a number of statutory instruments, but let me be clear that my personal point of view is full commitment to ensuring that this is brought in as speedily as possible, and we should be prompted on a target for the next financial year. If I am in a position to do so, I will take as much responsibility around that as I can. I am sure that colleagues and noble Lords agree about the importance of simplicity in the sense of the mission that we all desire to see completed.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, raised Northern Ireland. We are working with officials in Northern Ireland. Clearly, there are separate structures and systems there, but my officials have been engaged with officials there. It is something that we encourage, and we will be there to support officials in the Northern Ireland Administration if that is something they wish to enact.

These measures will provide valuable support and protection to parents during one of the most awful and life-changing periods of their lives. Supporting this Bill is in line with our ongoing commitment to support workers and build a high-skilled, high-wage, high-productivity economy. It is very good to see from today’s debate that there is support from across the political spectrum in this House for this important measure. I look forward to continuing to work with the noble Baroness, Lady Anderson, as the Bill progresses through this House.

I thank all noble Lords for their contributions today. I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Taylor of Bolton for raising the impact of this heartbreak on the whole family, not just on the parents; to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, for her support and for celebrating the work of Gingerbread, which has been instrumental in getting us to this point; and to the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, for reminding us that, thankfully, the numbers are so much smaller than they once were. However, one is too many, which is why we need to fix it.

I thank the Minister for signalling the Government’s ongoing commitment to this Bill, for the personal commitments that he has made and for taking the time to meet Aaron this morning. I also thank my Opposition Front Bench for their support and for stating that, whatever happens at the next election, we will ensure that this legislation is duly passed and that families are supported. I hope noble Lords on all sides of the House agree that this is essential legislation that will help support some parents and their families at one of the darkest periods of their lives.

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