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Paid Miscarriage Leave

Volume 710: debated on Tuesday 8 March 2022

I will call Angela Crawley to move the motion, and then I will call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention in 30-minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered paid miscarriage leave.

It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins, and I am grateful to the Speaker for allowing this debate to take place on International Women’s Day. It seems appropriate that we have a woman in the Chair, and I hope we have many more. I am grateful to the Members in attendance, and to those who have pledged their support for a Backbench business debate in coming weeks.

I thank Ruth Bender-Atik from the Miscarriage Association, as well as the organisations Sands, Tommy’s, Mumsnet and the civil service working group, as well as the many organisations that have provided briefings and endless advice. I also thank colleagues who have supported my many applications for debates on the matter, my early-day motions and my private Member’s Bill on miscarriage leave. I thank the 39,000 members of the public who have signed the paid miscarriage leave petition on 38 Degrees, and who have been in touch with their MP and bravely shared their personal story.

One pregnancy in four ends in miscarriage. That is not to say that one woman in four will have a miscarriage; one pregnancy in four will result in baby loss. Miscarriage it is often used as an umbrella term for a number of conditions. Miscarriage is the most common type of pregnancy loss, which is when a baby dies in utero during pregnancy. In the UK, miscarriage is defined as baby loss that occurs up to 23 weeks and six days into the pregnancy. The main causes of miscarriage are thought to be genetic, hormonal, infection, blood clotting problems and anatomical reasons, but it is important to say that there is never any logical reason for a miscarriage to occur. On most occasions, it is the most heartbreaking thing that can happen to a person, and no amount of rational reasoning will compensate for the loss that the person experiences.

The Miscarriage Association has highlighted that we should also consider ectopic and molar pregnancies, and it is important that they be included in this debate and considered when any policy changes are made on this issue. An ectopic pregnancy is a pregnancy that develops outside the womb, usually in one of the Fallopian tubes; it is one pregnancy in 80. It causes a dangerous situation whereby tubes may rupture, and it often requires immediate surgery.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member and to the way in which she is championing the issue, as well as to the passion with which she speaks. She talks about the number of pregnancies lost, which is a tragedy. For black and minority ethnic women, there is a 60% higher likelihood of losing a birth. Is that the same with miscarriage? The data does not seem quite as clear for BME women as it is on broader loss through stillbirth.

I thank the right hon. Member for asking her question. To be perfectly honest, I am not sure that statistics on the matter are adequately recorded, so I hope Departments will look at that.

Ectopic and molar pregnancy should come under the umbrella of miscarriage. We must consider molar pregnancy, which is a condition in which an abnormal fertilised egg implants in the womb, and the cells that should become the placenta grow far too quickly, taking up space where the embryo would normally develop. We must also consider baby losses following in vitro fertilisation treatment, and the awful experiences of recurrent miscarriage, which is faced by too many expecting parents.

The loss of a baby is a major source of grief that many parents will carry with them for the rest of their life. Even those closest to someone who has experienced baby loss might never know what they have been through. There is a stigma around the subject of miscarriage, and more must be done to open dialogue and allow women to discuss the issue openly in a comfortable way.

Members are likely to be aware of the received wisdom of not telling people of a pregnancy before 12 weeks. However, that often results in parents suffering alone and in silence. They may be fearful of disclosing to their employer that they are trying to conceive because they fear workplace discrimination. It can be difficult, embarrassing and sometimes impossible to speak to an employer about what has happened. That means that many people going through the legitimate grief of baby loss will not receive the support they require.

I echo the earlier comments about the hon. Lady’s excellent campaigning on this issue. There has been much talk of creating a kinder society as we come out of the pandemic. When it comes to social reforms, what she is proposing today, as well as wider bereavement leave, is something that any progressive Government would consider.

Absolutely. I thank the hon. Gentleman for that comment, which brings me neatly to my next point.

Ahead of the Government’s proposed employment Bill, the Taylor review has highlighted the changing demographics of the workplace. Many more women are in work than ever before. Women’s participation in the workplace has been growing quicker than men’s over the past 20 years.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this issue forward. One of my office staff has had multiple miscarriages. It has been a traumatic and difficult time for that lady, and I have seen the emotional and physical impact. Having to take holiday to try to get over the experience has added to that. Does the hon. Lady agree that the situation is unacceptable? We cannot legislate for compassion, but we can legislate for compassionate leave, which is what she is saying. That is why I support what she puts forward. I look forward very much to the Minister’s response.

I am sorry to hear about the experience of the hon. Gentleman’s member of staff. To experience miscarriage once is truly awful, but to experience it on multiple occasions can be truly devastating. It is not sufficient to say that an employee should take sick or holiday leave when they have a miscarriage. It is a grief, not an illness. That person should be allowed the time to grieve, and that should be recognised.

The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech and does excellent work on this issue. I fully support her. The Lancet’s recent series on miscarriage highlighted the huge and still widely underestimated mental health impact it has; those who experience miscarriage face a quadrupling of the risk of suicide. In the light of that, does she agree that flexible working should never be seen as an adequate alternative to statutory leave?

Absolutely; I thank the hon. Member for that point. Flexible leave was not designed to be a catch-all, taking the place of provisions lacking from legislation. Flexible leave absolutely has a place in workplaces—it allows parents to take time off when required, and workers to adapt their working situation and make it more flexible—but it is not designed for the circumstances we are talking about, and it does not reflect the needs of the employees we are talking about, who need far more support and wrap-around care on their return to work. It is not sufficient to say that flexible leave would cover that.

There is already a cost associated with absences of this nature. Current legislation does not give enough support to women and their partners who experience pregnancy loss in the workplace. I hope that the Minister can update us on what is being done in the employment Bill to ensure that women are helped into work and can continue to work, and to ensure workplace protections are in place to prevent pregnancy and maternity discrimination. The Bill should also recognise life events that many women face during their employment, such as fertility treatment; and the right to miscarriage leave should be in the Bill.

We must keep in mind, however, that it is not just women who are affected by baby loss; the grief is shared by the partners of those who are pregnant. As I have mentioned, miscarriage is defined in the UK as occurring before 24 weeks of pregnancy. After 24 weeks, baby loss is considered to be a stillbirth. I thank my hon. Friends the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), and for Glasgow East (David Linden), for their work on legislation that would entitle parents to two weeks of paid bereavement leave. At present, there is no provision for those who experience baby loss before 24 weeks. While the updated ACAS guidance recommends that employers still consider giving them time off—I am grateful to the Minister for hearing that—there is no legal right to paid leave, and no statutory requirement on employers to allow paid leave. Many companies, including Monzo, Lidl and ASOS, have created a workplace policy of offering miscarriage leave for up to seven or 10 days, which is welcome, but that does not happen across the board. I commend these companies for taking that step.

A dedicated workplace policy is just one of the many ways that employers can give meaningful support, and it is also further evidence that employers recognise the significance of such a life event. As companies do not consistently have such policies, however, the Government must do more to ensure that employers can support their employees.

Leaving miscarriage provision to the discretion of employers leads to inequality and can result in discrimination against parents in low-paid and part-time work. For many workers, the only option is to take time off through annual leave or sick leave—using holidays or flexi-leave—which is not sufficient. The statutory provisions are not adequate, because grief is neither a holiday nor an illness. A specific statutory provision for paid miscarriage leave should cover not only the women experiencing the miscarriage, but their partners. It would signal to those who experience baby loss that they have permission to grieve.

This is about more than changing policy. It is about changing workplace culture in the UK to account for real-life issues that affect the workforce. We should aim to support the workforce adequately, and we should adopt the recognised international best practice. Both New Zealand and Australia have recently introduced comprehensive policies on paid miscarriage leave. Only last month, the Northern Ireland Assembly legislated to introduce paid miscarriage leave following a public consultation, with the policy due to come into force no later than April 2026. Northern Ireland will be the first place—not only in the UK, but in Europe—to introduce such a policy in the public or private sector.

The Scottish Government have committed to provide three days’ paid leave in the public sector following miscarriage, but they do not have the powers within employment law to extend that further. Therefore, it is up to the UK Government. The rest of the UK should not be left behind but should follow the lead of the devolved Governments and introduce statutory paid miscarriage leave across the UK. Will the Minister look closely at the plans, both internationally and domestically, and consider how paid miscarriage leave would positively impact on workers across the UK?

I wish to highlight the Miscarriage Association’s pregnancy loss pledge, which encourages employers across the UK to commit to support their staff through the stress of miscarriage by meeting a set of basic standards. It encourages employers to create a supportive work environment where people feel able to discuss or disclose pregnancy without fear of disadvantage or discrimination; to be open about pregnancy-related leave rules, ensuring that staff feel able to take the time off that they need; to encourage empathy and understanding towards people and their partners experiencing pregnancy loss; to ensure that line managers have access to guidance on supporting those who have experienced pregnancy loss; to be flexible to those who are returning to work following pregnancy loss; and to implement a pregnancy loss policy or guidance for the workplace, ensuring that it includes affected partners.

Last week, I wrote to every local authority in Scotland, inviting them to sign up to the pledge. Many have already given a positive response, including Glasgow City, Moray, West Dunbartonshire and North Ayrshire Councils, all of which are giving serious consideration to the pledge. Fife Council has already committed to the pledge—the first local authority across the UK to do so—and commitments by large public sector employers represent a huge step forward in the right direction. I am certain that more will follow this example, and I encourage Members present to encourage their own councils to make that pledge. If he has not already done so, I ask the Minister to consider signing the pledge on behalf of his Department and to encourage other Government Departments to follow. There is no doubt in my mind that the legislative change is necessary and essential to ensure that employers have meaningful leave policies in place for pregnancy loss.

Finally, I want to thank all the parents who have shared their stories of loss and grief. I thank Morgan’s Wings and Emma from the Hopes & Dreams podcast for bravely turning their stories of grief into ones of comfort for so many other people. Pregnancy should be a time of celebration, expectation and joy, but when pregnancy loss occurs, it is not only about the loss of the pregnancy but about the hopes and dreams that expectant parents had for their little life. It can be incredibly difficult on expectant parents. The Government must do more to help those who experience miscarriage, with employers acknowledging the value of their workforce and introducing dedicated policies. However, without statutory provision or the legal right, many parents will not receive the support they require. The Government must lead and support those in work with the right to take paid leave and permission to take time off to grieve. I urge the Minister to give serious consideration to introducing paid miscarriage leave across the UK and to supporting my private Member’s Bill on 18 March, which calls for this policy to be introduced in statute.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) for securing today’s debate, and congratulate her on the power of work that she has done on this issue. Like many others, I support the private Member’s Bill that she is trying to pilot through the House.

I had a difficult situation only last week when I met a constituent, Gillian McLellan. She and her husband, Christopher, unfortunately experienced the loss of their baby Daisy. Thursday past would have been Daisy’s due date.

I have three brief points to make while I have the floor and we can discuss the wider issue of miscarriage and bereavement leave. First, there are many great charities out there. Baby Loss Retreat is one that has been doing stellar work to support Gillian and Christopher. I sometimes question why it falls to charities so often to provide support to people. That follows neatly to the issue of counselling.

I have looked at the issue across the UK. Not just in Scotland, but right across these islands there is clearly a postcode lottery when it comes to counselling for parents. I accept that during the pandemic some things were done by Zoom, but the lack of support for Gillian and many other families, particularly over the last couple of years, is something we will have to look at.

There is a wider and perhaps more sensitive issue around certification. I understand that we can get into a very difficult debate when it comes to issuing birth certificates. In Daisy’s case that would have been at 17 weeks. That then leads, for example, to details not being recorded in NHS notes, which is particularly problematic if there is a follow-up pregnancy, so Ministers across these islands have to reflect on that.

The final point I want to make relates to the Employment Bill. I have always found the Minister to be incredibly thoughtful. He and I have had a lot of dialogue, particularly on neonatal leave and pay, but I really want to see the Employment Bill enacted as quickly as possible. This will be one of the biggest issues that our generation of MPs will legislate on. It strikes me that elements of the Employment Bill, no doubt as a result of Brexit, will be controversial, but I again issue a plea to the Minister that bereavement leave and neonatal leave and pay be decoupled from the Employment Bill. Some of the issues have such a high level of cross-party support in the House that we could pilot them through in a day, as we did last night with certain legislation.

So let us decouple some of the less controversial aspects of the Employment Bill and make sure that commendable as my hon. Friend’s Bill is, she does not have to take it forward. We need the Government to come forward with a decoupled Bill that would tackle this and so many other issues on which there is vast cross-party agreement in this House.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I congratulate the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) on securing today’s important debate. This is a really important and sensitive issue, and I want to express my deep sympathy for anybody who has experienced the loss of a baby. Sometimes the most poignant debates in this place are when we talk about baby loss at any stage of pregnancy, or indeed after birth.

The hon. Member has spoken with candour and passion, and I am grateful to her not just for today’s debate, but for our exchanges and the rest of the work that she has done, and for raising awareness of the significant impact of baby loss at any stage on parents. I also want to thank others who have contributed to this debate for their thoughtful and insightful comments, especially, as the hon. Lady rightly notes, on International Women’s Day when we come together to showcase the issues that are so important not just for women, but for families and couples across this country and the world.

As a Government we understand that there is plenty more that needs to be done to support women’s health. I will begin by first setting out the wider work that the Government are taking forward in relation to women’s health, including in the workplace. In March 2021, we announced the establishment of England’s first women’s health strategy, which is being led by the Department of Health and Social Care. Health in the workplace and fertility, pregnancy, pregnancy loss and postnatal support will be priority areas within the women’s health strategy.

We know that damaging taboos and stigmas remain around many areas of women’s health. They can prevent women from starting conversations about their health or seeking support for a health issue. When women do speak about their health, all too often they are not listened to, but the Government are determined to tackle those issues. We want to ensure that women feel supported in the workplace, that taboos are broken down through open conversation, and that employers feel well equipped to support women in managing their health within the workplace. “Our Vision for the Women’s Health Strategy for England”, published on 23 December 2021, sets out an ambitious and positive new agenda to improve the health and wellbeing of women across England. We will publish the full strategy later this year, but in the meantime I reiterate that the levelling up of women’s health is an imperative for us all.

The Government have an active agenda on work and health more widely. One example is the Government’s response to the “Health is everyone’s business” consultation. The response sets out measures that will protect and maintain progress made in reducing ill health-related job loss, and will see 1 million more disabled people in work from 2017 to 2027. The measures include a national digital information and advice service to provide greater clarity around employer and employee rights and responsibilities, working with the Health and Safety Executive to develop a set of clear and simple principles for employers, and increasing access to occupational health. Those measures are key steps in our effort to change the workplace culture around health and sickness absence, which will benefit those who have lost a pregnancy.

The hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East is specifically interested in a leave entitlement for miscarriage. In April 2020, we introduced parental bereavement leave and pay for employed parents who lose a child under the age of 18, or who suffer a stillbirth from 24 weeks of pregnancy. That new entitlement recognises that the death of a child or the stillbirth of a baby is particularly tragic. Although parental bereavement leave does not apply when a baby is lost before 24 completed weeks of pregnancy, there is support available. Women who are not able to return to work because of ill health following a miscarriage may be entitled, for example, to statutory sick pay or annual leave, and their entitlements need to be looked at in the round with the wider benefits system.

Parental bereavement leave and pay is a statutory minimum, and in introducing that entitlement the Government sent an important message to employers that staff members who have suffered a bereavement should be supported. Indeed, I am pleased to say that there are many good examples of businesses that offer compassionate leave for their employees following a miscarriage. The hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East talked about ASOS as one of those examples. I have spoken to ASOS. What it offers is not miscarriage leave per se; as she rightly described, it covers “life events”. ASOS is particularly forward looking in understanding that miscarriage is one of a series of really important life events that affect people in different ways. ASOS has that wrap-around care because it understands that investing in the workforce is the right thing to do—to keep people in the workforce, keep them happy and keep them content.

Flexible working may not be an alternative, in the view of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake), but different people have different responses to a life event such as miscarriage. It is a really personal experience. Some of those affected may want to stay at home; others may prefer to continue to work, or alternatively may need time off later. That is where flexible working can make a difference for many people, but not all people—as I say, it is a very personalised experience. Individuals are best placed to understand their own specific needs, and good employers will respond to requests made by their employees in a sensitive way. It is right that we showcase those employers doing well, and that we also explain that it is the right thing to do not only morally—from a humanity point of view—but from a business point of view. It makes no sense to take a different view from that of those far-sighted companies that are making a wider, longer-term investment in their workforces. However, we are in a difficult economic climate, and that cannot be ignored. We are mindful of placing additional burdens on business, but, as I have mentioned, we strongly encourage employers to go beyond the statutory minimum wherever they can.

The hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East noted that miscarriage and the associated grief are not illness. However, when an event negatively affects someone’s mental or physical health, they may have the option of taking sick leave, and may also be eligible for statutory sick pay. Employees who are able to claim sick pay can 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. In addition, there are protections in place for those who need to take sick leave following a miscarriage, which mean that any sick leave taken during the two-week period after pregnancy ends should not count towards a total sickness record or be used as a reason for redundancy or disciplinary action. 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.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. It would be remiss to allow the debate to pass without putting on record that statutory sick pay on these islands is among the lowest rates in Europe. It is fine to talk about statutory sick pay, but not at the pitiful levels that the UK pays at the moment.

I understand the hon. Member’s point of view. I ask him to look at it in the round, alongside universal credit and other means of welfare. We have said we would always look at statutory sick pay, but we do not believe that now is the time to do it, as we are coming out of a pandemic. That is certainly something that we are keeping under review, as part of that wider holistic approach to welfare, benefits and workplace support.

All employees are also entitled to take 5.6 weeks a year of annual leave, in some cases more if their contract of employment allows. Normally, employees need to give notice of leave dates, but employers may agree to waive the notice period.

Can the Minister understand how deeply insulting it is to be told to take annual leave, having gone through a traumatic experience, and to take a holiday when grieving? Does the Minister understand how deeply offensive that is?

That is exactly what I was going to say. That provision is there, and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—a good friend of mine—talked about people taking holiday leave to go through a miscarriage. When I have employed people, either here or in my previous life running businesses, I would never have dreamed of counting absences for such life events as holiday. They may want to apply for it, but I would treat them far more sensitively, for the reasons given by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam. It is so important that businesses and employers have that approach, to invest in their time and future.

The Minister has worked extensively with me to find ways—through ACAS, for example—to ensure that employers can do more to support employees. If he accepts that sick leave, holiday pay and flexible working are not the correct methods to support an employee who has experienced pregnancy loss, and if he will not commit to a distinct miscarriage leave policy, will he consider extending bereavement leave to include parents who experience that loss before 24 weeks?

We will outline employment measures when parliamentary time allows. The hon. Lady earlier talked about the Miscarriage Association pregnancy loss pledge. I am not in a position to commit to a pledge here and now but, looking at the sentiments in there, there are very sensible approaches that employers should take: encouraging a supportive work environment; understanding and implementing rules around pregnancy-related leave; ensuring that staff feel able to take time off if they need; showing empathy and understanding, which is seemingly fundamental and basic, though not all employers do so; encouraging line managers to access in-house or external guidance; supporting people back to work, by being responsive to those needs; and showing flexibility wherever they can. Those are all common sense, and it is great that they have been brought together in that pledge.

Having access to flexible working arrangements can be important for those who experience a traumatic life event of any sort. Changing a work pattern can provide individuals with the flexibility they need to balance their work commitments with their personal lives during such challenging times. Having a statutory right to request a temporary or permanent working arrangement can be important.

I have outlined some of the support and options that are also available to employees when they have suffered a loss. Businesses do have that important role to play. We have commissioned guidance from ACAS on managing a bereavement in the workplace, which has been well received and was updated in 2020, to take into account the introduction of parental bereavement leave.

The hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East made it clear that miscarriage is not an illness. We want to ensure that grieving families and friends who have lost loved ones receive the support they need, when they need it. We have given more than £10 million to mental health charities, including bereavement charities, to support people though this. Our excellent NHS is also there to support individuals with mental health and wellbeing issues. I am pleased to have had this debate and appreciate the discussion and contributions.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.