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House of Commons Hansard
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Parental Leave (Premature and Sick Babies)
12 June 2019
Volume 661

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to extend entitlements to parental leave for parents of babies born prematurely or requiring neonatal care; and for connected purposes.

As well as being the MP for Glasgow East, and above all else, I am Isaac and Jessica’s dad. Both Isaac and Jessica were born prematurely and spent the early weeks of their lives in neonatal care so, from the outset, I declare a deeply personal interest in the issue that I am seeking to legislate on today.

My wife and I understood that having children at all might be difficult but, in February 2015, we learned, to our immense joy, that we were expecting our first child. Owing to a pre-existing medical condition, Roslyn was told that hers would be a complex, high-risk pregnancy with a higher chance of ending in stillbirth.

In the early hours of 26 June 2015, our son Isaac was born prematurely at the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow. During an aborted labour that evolved into an emergency caesarean section, Isaac’s heart rate plummeted. His blood sugars were incredibly low and he could not breathe without assistance. Within a few moments of being born, he was whisked away from Roslyn and me and transferred to the neonatal intensive care unit, where he spent the earliest part of his life in an incubator, hooked up to countless machines and wires. In that unit, over a period, Isaac received amazing love, care and support from our national health service, which stabilised his breathing, allowed his heart rate to recover and built up his blood sugars. It would be days before we could even hold him. Our only contact with him was holding his tiny hands through holes in the incubator.

Three years later, just last September, we went through all that again for the birth of Jessica. Jessica’s hospital stay was even longer, due to protracted breathing difficulties that culminated in her spending the first eight months of her life on oxygen. I still vividly remember watching her turning blue and having to be resuscitated by nurses in the neonatal intensive care unit.

I say all this because sadly this is the norm—the reality—for many parents across the United Kingdom. Each year, around 100,000 babies are born premature or sick, and will have an extended stay in neonatal care. I speak for every family on the neonatal unit when I say a heartfelt thank you to NHS staff for supporting our children, and us as families, through an incredibly distressing, uncertain and vulnerable time.

That stress, uncertainty and vulnerability show that current legislation is simply not fit for purpose. UK employment legislation takes no account of the fact that some babies will spend much longer in hospital after being born, especially if they are born premature or sick. As a result, parents, particularly dads, require extra paid parental leave beyond that covered under current arrangements. My statutory paternity leave had run out by the time Isaac and Jessica were discharged from the neonatal unit. Sadly, that is the case for so many parents who face the brutal decision to return to work while their child is still in hospital. Research by the charity Bliss found that two thirds of dads had to return to work while their baby was still receiving specialist neonatal care.

The Government know that there are major challenges for us; that is why they commissioned a review on barriers to the labour market for parents of premature and sick babies. Unfortunately, despite that review concluding, the Government still refuse to publish the details or to take action, hence why I feel the need to bring a Bill here via the private Members’ route.

One of the biggest problems is that so many families face an employee/employer lottery out there, a lottery that so many of us simply cannot afford to play. A number of employers in the public and private sectors have gone above and beyond to ensure that employees can be with their family on the neonatal unit and still receive pay. One such example is Waltham Forest Council. Employees there are entitled to an extra week of leave for every week their premature baby spends in hospital before their due date. In the private sector, another good example is Sony Music, which also ensures that employees are entitled to full pay during the period in which a baby is born before full term.

That is great if someone works for Waltham Forest Council or Sony Music, but the vast majority of us do not work for them. My Bill would, therefore, ensure that families no longer face an employment rights lottery when heading into the neonatal unit.

Across the world, other countries have already taken action to provide better rights and support for the parents of premature and sick babies. In Sweden, maternity leave commences at the point of discharge. In Ireland, maternity leave and pay are extended by the amount of time between birth and the original expected birth date. Here in the UK, however, we are seriously lagging behind and failing parents when they need us most.

Lawrence Quayle, a former retail worker, is just one of those parents. He was left with no choice but to be signed off as sick after his son Leo arrived 15 weeks early. Lawrence said:

“When I told my employer that my wife had gone into early labour, there was a dispute between my line manager—who was supporting me—and her manager about whether I could start my paternity leave early. I was dealing with HR when my son was just a few days old and needed me at his cot-side.

Eventually, I was given my paternity leave but because Leo was in intensive care at a hospital 60 miles from home, I knew I’d need more time with him and to support my wife.

Things with Leo were very touch and go and there were a number of occasions where it looked like we could lose him. I was told I couldn’t take any annual leave and could only take unpaid leave—which I simply could not afford.

I ended up being signed off from work with stress for two months. The strain this put on my relationship with the managers at work meant that I chose to leave the company shortly afterwards.”

Lawrence’s story is a perfect illustration of how current employment legislation simply fails families when they need our protection and support most. By allowing the Bill to proceed today, we can right that wrong and truly tackle a burning injustice that could be so easily extinguished for the parents of all those future Isaacs and Jessicas who, too, will start their life in neonatal intensive care. I therefore commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That David Linden, Paul Masterton, Rachel Reeves, Ben Lake, Layla Moran, Jim Shannon, Alison Thewliss, Chris Elmore, Luciana Berger, Gavin Newlands, Maria Caulfield and Caroline Lucas present the Bill.

David Linden accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 403).