[Relevant Documents: First Report of the Petitions Committee of Session 2019-21, The impact of Covid-19 on maternity and parental leave, HC 526, and the Government response, HC 770; First Report of the Petitions Committee of Session 2021-22, Impact of Covid-19 on new parents: one year on, HC 479, and the Government response, HC 1132; e-petition 606011, Introduce neonatal leave and pay entitlement immediately.]
Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee, considered.
King’s consent signified.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Third time.
I am incredibly happy to be able to bring the Bill back for further debate. At the heart of the debate and at the heart of the Bill is a simple idea: babies in neonatal care need their parents and their parents need to be with their babies, and we must do all we can to give families that vital time together. Today, we have the opportunity to help give them that time without the added worries of missing work and losing pay.
If I may, Mr Speaker, I would like to take this opportunity to thank colleagues across the House who have supported the Bill’s journey so far. I am very pleased to start with Madam Deputy Speaker, the Chairman of Ways and Means, given her kind words and insight on Second Reading. She noted the unanimity of the House that day, when we heard from Members right across the Chamber, including many with very personal and powerful stories and experiences. That consensus continued in Committee, whose membership included three of the four Ministers who have, at various points, been responsible for the Bill and very supportive of it, including the Minister on the Government Front Bench today. I am very pleased to see him in his place.
I would like to give particular thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) and the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall), who have both been especially helpful and have campaigned tirelessly on this issue for several years, but I am grateful to colleagues in all different parties for their support, both during proceedings in the House and in discussions outside.
I hope that spirit of consensus will continue today and I am optimistic that it will, this being one of the very rare proposals that could be found in both the SNP and Conservative manifestos at the 2019 general election. If that spirit of consensus does continue, I will have a whole host of organisations and individuals to thank for helping to champion this cause and build that consensus. Over the next few minutes I want to briefly recall the problem the Bill seeks to address and then detail how its provisions will address that problem. Finally, I will explain the positive changes that were made in Committee to improve the Bill. First of all is the issue that needs to be addressed.
The arrival of a new baby is of course overwhelmingly a time of joy and hope, but an estimated 100,000 babies every year are admitted to neonatal care in the United Kingdom following their birth. Many of those babies will 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. For their parents, this becomes an incredibly worrying and stressful time. They will be desperate to focus on getting through that challenging time, supporting each other and being with their baby—or, indeed, babies—but very many find that difficult or feel unsupported. Fathers, if eligible, get only two weeks of statutory paternity leave. When that runs out, they may be called back to work while the baby is still in hospital. How can you productively work when your baby is on a ventilator in an intensive care unit?
When babies have an extended stay in hospital at the start of their lives, mothers report that 39 weeks of paid maternity leave sometimes feels barely like maternity leave at all. A large proportion of the time can be used up busing alone to and from a distant hospital where their baby is in neonatal care, and sometimes juggling other responsibilities, perhaps another child, all of which leads them to feel that they do not have sufficient quality time at home with their baby before having to return to work. Some will feel compelled to leave work as a result, and many do. None of that is good for parents, or for the developmental outcomes of premature babies denied important early and regular contact with their parents.
How will the Bill assist? The successful passage of the Bill will create a new statutory leave and pay entitlement for the parents of babies receiving neonatal care. Employed parents who find themselves in that stressful situation in future will know that, as a minimum, they are entitled to paid time off work to care for their babies and they will not suffer detriment from their employer as a result.
That protected time off work is crucial. There are some brilliant, supportive and flexible employers out there who deserve to be commended, and it would be great to see some more follow their lead. But sadly, they remain the exception rather than the rule. That is why we need neonatal care leave and pay entitlement to protect and support many more parents.
I turn to the main provisions of the Bill. If it is passed, neonatal care leave and pay will be available to parents 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 another agreed care setting 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. The intention is that parents will be entitled to up to 12 weeks of neonatal care leave—one for every week that their child spends in neonatal case. That leave will be protected. A person should not suffer any form of detriment due to taking up their leave.
I am delighted to be here to support my hon. Friend and to see that this Bill has cross-party support. Does he agree that the provisions in the Bill go a long way to ensure gender equality for fathers and non-birthing parents, who are often excluded from statutory maternity provisions?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her support and her intervention, which I fully agree with.
It is commonplace to congratulate Members for the passage of their Bill, but the hon. Gentleman will have sincere support from all sides, and I support his Bill. I hope he will allow me to probe a little, as I was not on the Bill Committee. He is talking about the benefits to employees and to families. Obviously, there is a burden on companies that will have to pay for those benefits. Could he advise the House of whether there was a discussion in Committee about those burdens? What is his understanding of what the additional burdens on companies may be?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support. He asks a perfectly fair question that I will come to in a little more detail later on. In essence, the provisions for businesses will be the same as for other existing rights. There will be reimbursement of 103% for small businesses, and up to 93% percent for larger businesses. For those businesses who already follow good practice, there will be a benefit because they will be reimbursed for what they are already doing. At the same time, feedback from employers shows that they benefit because they have a better relationship with employees, and the return to work is much smoother and more successful. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question.
I will continue to describe the main provisions of the Bill. For parents who meet continuity of service and minimum earnings tests, the expectation is that neonatal pay will be paid during the leave at the statutory rate, which is just shy of £160, or 90% of the employee’s average wages—whichever is lower. Hopefully, that will be uprated in line with increases to statutory payments—something that we will monitor closely. That mirrors existing family leave and pay provisions such as paternity, shared parental and adoption and maternity after the first six weeks. The process for reimbursing employers will also mirror existing schemes.
There will be flexibility about when the leave is taken. The likelihood is that many fathers who have only two weeks of paternity leave will want to take their neonatal leave immediately thereafter, while their child is still in neonatal care. The situation for mothers is a little different, because once maternity leave commences, a mother cannot stop that maternity leave to take neonatal care leave, otherwise she will lose her remaining maternity leave. Neonatal care leave is therefore to be flexible in order that mothers can add it to the end of their maternity leave and any other forms of parental leave they might be entitled to. 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. However, the window will be six to eight weeks following the child’s birth, which ensures that mothers and fathers have sufficient time to take their neonatal care leave alongside other leave rights that they might be entitled to, rather than losing out on any other such entitlements.
Finally, I want to explain the amendments that were made in Committee. First, clause 2 was amended to remove the power to amend primary legislation via secondary legislation—a so-called Henry VIII power. That was originally included to ensure that the Bill, on becoming law, worked effectively alongside other legislation that is going through Parliament. Upon further assessment and examination, it seems that this power is not required, and the clause now only empowers amendments to secondary legislation. Given that I spend an awful lot of my time as an Opposition MP shouting about excessive and inappropriate use of Henry VIII powers, it is pleasing to have been able to take at least one of them out of this Bill.
Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, part 2 of the schedule to the Bill was amended by changing the definition of “relevant week” in proposed new section 171ZZ16 of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992. The definition of “relevant week” is important because it fixes a point at which it is assessed whether a person is entitled to neonatal care pay. The Bill, on introduction, defined the relevant week as the one immediately prior to the week in which neonatal care started, which is similar to the drafting of equivalent provisions for parental bereavement pay. However, if a parent was already receiving statutory pay—for example, maternity pay—in the relevant week before their child enters neonatal care, their income could end up being lower than usual, negatively impacting their ability to qualify for neonatal care pay.
For those employees who are eligible for other parental pay entitlements such as maternity, paternity or adoption pay, the amendment made in Committee changes the definition of “relevant week” for neonatal care pay, to align it with the definition of “relevant week” in these existing entitlements. Amending the Bill in this way ensures that parents who are already low earners and perhaps only just above the earnings threshold do not miss out on the entitlement to statutory neonatal care pay simply because they are already receiving another type of family-related pay when their minimum earnings for neonatal care pay are assessed. Where an employee would not qualify for any of the other statutory parental pay, the relevant week will continue to be defined as the week immediately before the week in which neonatal care starts.
I was not in Committee, so I want to ask a particular question, and I am going to sound very smart. In subsection (2)(a) of proposed new section 171ZZ16, “Entitlement”, of part 12ZE of the 1992 Act, there is reference to
“a child who is receiving, or has received, neonatal care”.
The hon. Gentleman has been very clear on the Henry VIII powers and how the entitlement to this pay is aligned with other funding that is provided, but what is the definition of “neonatal care” in practice? It will be defined in regulations, but in practice, is it limited to parents of children who have been in neonatal intensive care units and other hospital facilities, or is there a broader definition?
The definition in the Bill encompasses neonatal care up to the 28th day of the new baby’s life. Further thought has to be given to whether we limit that to care on a neonatal ward or whether we go further than that, and I hope that we do, because there will, for example, be families who have babies at home but are regularly required to be at hospital appointments or have regular interventions and people visiting to provide care and treatment. We have to think about how we define it in a way that makes it clear but does not exclude people simply because they are not physically in a hospital 24 hours a day. That is a fair point, and further work needs to be done before we come to a final conclusion on exactly how this should look.
In concluding, I want to reiterate that what we are debating here is the traumatic and stressful experiences faced by families with wee ones in neonatal care, and at the heart of this proposed legislation are vulnerable babies who need us to do more to help their parents at a crucial time. We need to ensure as far as we can that those parents have the time and resources to focus on their babies, without the additional burden of worries about money and time off work. There are tens of thousands of families each year counting on us to get this done and get it right, and I ask Members across the House to give this Bill their support.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, not only for calling me to speak but for making accommodations to enable me to speak in this debate. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald). I congratulate him on getting his important Bill to Third Reading; it was a pleasure to support it on Second Reading and in Committee. On Second Reading, he said:
“We should all be enthusiastic about this brilliant Bill, which I know will make such a huge difference to tens of thousands of families each and every year.”—[Official Report, 15 July 2022; Vol. 718, c. 593.]
I hope that the cross-party support for the Bill today will reflect that enthusiasm.
It is estimated that approximately 50,000 babies born in the UK each year need to spend more than one week in neonatal care. This policy change will provide relief and support for the families of those 50,000 babies, meaning that parents can concern themselves with and focus on the wellbeing and care of their children, and not fret about their employment or income. At such a stressful time in parents’ lives, it is right that we should ensure that an extra financial burden is not added to the situation.
I know that the hon. Member worked closely with the charity Bliss, which has supported families across the UK, including in Cheadle and Greater Manchester. May I take the opportunity on behalf of my constituents to thank Bliss and other groups that support people in that position?
For parents whose children may spend some weeks in hospital, the Bill will mean that they do not have to miss out on valuable time with their baby at home. Importantly, the fact that paid leave can be taken within a window of 68 weeks following the child’s birth, as I understand it, will hand parents the power to make their entitlement as useful as possible to them.
The Bill, which will amend the Employment Rights Act 1996, will create a natural extension to the UK’s already generous parental leave and pay by providing an entitlement for parents of babies who need care in health settings for more than one week before they reach the age of 28 days. The 12 weeks of paid leave will be on top of other statutory leave and pay entitlements. Critically, as the hon. Member set out, it will be a day one right: an employee will be entitled to it from their first day on the job. We know that many employers already handle these situations sensitively and with compassion, but it is right that this care and understanding be extended across all employers. Quite simply, the Bill is about caring for and valuing people.
I am glad that the Government have supported amendments that the hon. Member, as the Bill’s promoter, tabled in Committee. They include an amendment that makes changes to the relevant week to calculate pay and seeks to ensure that parents who are low earners do not miss out on their entitlement to statutory neonatal care and support. It is important that such a policy change is delivered in the most effective and accessible way.
At previous stages, Members across the House shared their own deeply personal experiences, as well as stories of their friends and constituents. We all know someone who would have benefited from this leave entitlement, so it is good to know that in future there will not be the same added burden at a time of worry and distress. I know that the policy has been in the works for many years and the Government are committed to delivering it. Once again, I thank the hon. Member for bringing it forward. I hope that it will have unanimous support across the House.
It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mary Robinson). May I, too, echo the congratulations to the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) on all his hard work on this Bill? It is a genuine honour to speak in the remaining stages on this private Member’s Bill. We all know how rare it is for there to be a time when such a Bill can progress in this place, but the particular importance of this Bill makes this an even greater achievement. I, too, would like to place on record my sincere thanks to Bliss, the charity that does so much work to help parents with babies in a neonatal unit, for all of its hard work to help sick and premature babies every day of the year. I wish to declare my interest, as a proud vice-chair of the all-party group on premature and sick babies, which has been campaigning on this issue for a very long time. I, too, place on my record my sincere thanks to its chair, my friend, the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), for all his hard work.
Colleagues may recall that in response to last year’s Gracious Speech I stood in this Chamber and condemned the then Minister for claiming to “remain very much committed” to introducing neonatal leave and pay via an employment Bill only for any trace of the Bill to be surreptitiously removed when the moment came. That was just one of 20 times the Government promised us an employment Bill. I have vocally supported the need to legislate to create statutory neonatal leave and pay since I was elected to this place, so of course I am over the moon that the Bill from the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East will soon be sent to the other place and will be one step closer to finally becoming law. This Bill is personal for me: my son Sullivan was born two weeks prematurely, by emergency C-section. Sulley stopped breathing shortly after birth and spent two weeks fighting for his life in a neonatal intensive care unit. I will never forget the anxiety my husband and I experienced in those very long few weeks. In previous debates, I have shared with colleagues how, following Sulley’s birth, I was completely dependent on my husband while recovering. We were fortunate that my husband’s employer had a flexible approach to annual leave and he was able to take paid time off to support us. However, the thousands of new parents with babies who require neonatal care every single day of every year are often not so lucky.
As colleagues will know, a shocking one in seven newborn babies receive some sort of neonatal care. Paid neonatal leave, as this Bill would provide, ensures that parents can focus fully on being there with their new baby, without having the complicating pressures of worrying about work or finances. Those precious first days with a new baby are sacred, and for any baby in need of neonatal care this should be no different. The inflexibility of our current parental leave legislation serves only to worsen what is for many parents of babies in intensive neonatal care by far the most traumatic period of their lives—it does not have to be this way. So although it is welcome that we will likely finally see neonatal leave and pay enshrined in employment law, I must place on record my frustration that it has taken so long for us to have reached this point; I am afraid to say that there has been an absence of leadership on this issue from the Government. I am sure I do not need to remind the Minister that his Government made a manifesto commitment in 2019 to introduce neonatal leave and pay, and that this important modernisation of employment law for new mothers and fathers alike has had to be introduced by a colleague. It has not been introduced by those on the Government Front Bench, which suggests that this Government have been asleep at the wheel.
None the less, I am, of course, relieved that the Government have supported this Bill. I was not part of this Bill's Committee, but I am pleased that the Government appeared to work constructively with the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East to get this Bill to where it is today. But I cannot help but think of all the parents of babies in need of urgent neonatal care who will not benefit from this Bill, because for them it is already too late. This Bill will be a welcome addition to the statute book, but it is long overdue. I wish it every success in the other place, and, once again, I congratulate and commend the hon. Gentleman for his dedication to this vital work.
May I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) for the emotional and personal tales she just told? It is so important to share those, and telling them in this Chamber must take a lot of courage, so I welcome her doing that, because I am sure that many people at home who are watching this will have gone through similar experiences. May I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald)—I hope I said that correctly this time—for introducing this Bill? Private Members’ Bills do not always get through to this stage and it is easy for them to fall much earlier.
I know from hearing testimonies in the previous debates and in the Committee, and from speaking to members of the public, including constituents of mine, people’s personal take on this Bill, which brings to life how having children is one of the most—if not the most—precious thing that those of us who are fortunate to have had children can do. My family were fortunate in not needing to go through neonatal care, but I do remember that, when my daughter was born at Watford General Hospital, emotions ran high; there was a fear for this precious, fragile, wonderful person that we had brought into our lives. There is this fear that something could go wrong, so to have to go through the distress of something actually going wrong must be so challenging and difficult to deal with. That is why the Bill is so important.
According to the Office for National Statistics, as I understand it, there are 624,828 births in England and Wales every year, and 13,500 in Hertfordshire, but every year more than 90,000 babies are cared for in neonatal units in the UK due to premature birth, or sickness among full-term births. That is a huge number. It affects not just those children, but their parents, their families and all those who need wrap-around care. It is difficult to think that a parent could not spend time with their child in those precious few days, in that first couple of weeks, but it is not just for their child; it is for their loved ones—their spouse—as well. People want to make sure that they can put first not work but the thing that they probably go to work for.
I appreciate that colleagues will quite rightly challenge and scrutinise the impact on business and organisations. There are burdens—if we can call them that—that are placed on business, but, actually, the burden of having a member of staff or member of a team who is desperately worried about their newborn child while being at work cannot be very productive and it cannot be helpful for them doing their job. I would say that it is not a burden to enable the Bill to pass and to follow these rules; it is something that will help businesses. It will help to build morale, build a team, and make sure that people are being productive. That is why the Bill is so important. We hope that businesses and society will do the right thing, and often that is the case—the tips Bill that we will discuss later this morning is a good example of that—but they do not always do the right thing. This law will make sure that support is there for the families as well as for the babies. It will also ensure that businesses know that, as family life is at the heart of this country, workers have a right to take time off to look after their family member and their child.
When researching the subject of this debate, I looked up some statistics and found that the number of families and parents impacted is quite high. Two in five parents of hospitalised babies—40%—have anxiety or post-traumatic stress. Levels decline over time, but, a year after birth, one in four is still suffering. That is higher than generally seen in new parents. The truth is that this goes to the heart of mental health as well. Next week—to give a small plug—I shall be introducing a ten-minute rule Bill on mental health first aid in the workplace, and all Members are welcome to join in on that.
People are far more aware today than they have ever been of the importance of mental health and mental wellbeing in the workplace. Two in five parents of hospitalised babies suffer anxiety or post-traumatic stress, which is a huge number. The fact is that that can trigger depression and long-term impacts, so those first couple of weeks—or even first few days—of being able to be there for our loved ones and for our child will reduce the risk of long-term impacts, such as anxiety and depression. That can also have an impact on people’s relationships. Those to whom I have spoken, who have been supportive of the Bill, all say that we are not talking about an isolated two or three weeks and then it is over and suddenly life gets back to normal. It does not. When people have a young child, the worries and anxieties about what that will bring in future are incredibly strong and can linger for years. They can damage relationships and they can harm other children in the family.
One other point to make is that, as I understand it, the average length of stay in neonatal care in England and Wales is seven days, so this Bill will do a huge amount to ensure that in that first week or two, parents can be supported and do not have to worry that they will damage their career opportunities. They will not have to worry about having to go cap in hand to their bosses to ask for what is really a family right in this country.
I will not speak for too long, but I want to say a huge thank you to hon. Members across the House for supporting this Bill. It is an important way to show that this country is one that cares about family and about children, and that builds a better society and a better community. Thank you for indulging me by allowing me to speak today, Mr Speaker; I wholeheartedly support the Bill.
I congratulate my hon. Friend—indeed, my very good friend and constituency neighbour—the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) on bringing this Bill forward, having won the parliamentary lottery. That is something about this place that ought to be reformed, but I pick my battles, for now.
To be honest, this has been a really difficult week to be an elected Member of this place, but the Bill my hon. Friend has presented has been a light at the end of the tunnel and sets a refreshing change of tone, especially as it has support across the House. It provides a glaring example, however, of the priorities on different sides of the House: the Government set the topic far more often than we do but have opted to spend their time on eroding workers’ rights, whereas the SNP have brought forward a Bill that gives workers more rights.
The Bill seeks to address the inadequacy of existing parental leave and pay when a baby is born premature and sick. It will support and assist families across the UK to make ends meet during an incredibly challenging time and present parents with an opportunity to have more time at home to care for their baby when they eventually make it home to their family. The Bill is of particular importance during this cost of living crisis, where working families are crying out for additional support, particularly where a home may need to be heated all day long to provide an adequate temperature for a premature and sick baby.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does she agree that this Bill is vital because, at its heart, it goes a long way to relieving the additional financial cost for parents at what is already an expensive time, and removes the worry for parents about the need to pay for the costs incurred when a baby is born prematurely?
My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. The Bill will introduce two new rights: neonatal care leave and statutory neonatal care pay. Neonatal leave will be a day 1 right, available to all employees.
In preparation for this debate, I spoke with a friend and former colleague, Kirsty Pringle, who is now an NHS registered nurse and also the mum of a premature baby, her daughter Eilish. Kirsty emphasised in her remarks to me just how important both the rights under this Bill will be to families. She explained that too much time was spent worrying that, if her baby daughter survived and she eventually got to take her home, she would not have much maternity leave left to spend with her. Fortunately, Eilish is thriving—but those worries, which were only too real at the time, still play on Kirsty’s mind.
Taking sick leave from work to care for a premature baby should never have become the norm. I am sure many families and organisations will be delighted at the change being implemented with this Bill today. I place on record my thanks to the brilliant organisation Bliss. It would also be remiss of me not to mention my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), who has campaigned on this issue for longer than I have been elected to this place, and is watching this debate from his constituency home today between constituency engagements.
We should all be proud and enthusiastic about this Bill, which will make a huge difference to families with premature and sick babies where there previously has been a significant gap in support. I close by again thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East for bringing the Bill forward.
It is an absolute pleasure to speak to this important Bill, which will make a difference to thousands of babies and families each and every year. I thank the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) and congratulate him on his determination in bringing the Bill forward.
As the former chair of the Save the Baby charity, and the mother of three amazing children, this Bill is important to me. I am delighted that the Government are supporting it. When I was chair of Save the Baby, I helped to raise vital funds for research into miscarriage and early pregnancy complications. I know just how frightening and consuming difficulties relating to pregnancy and childbirth can be. My own children have been in intensive care, and, to be honest, I struggle to talk about that even now—it was so traumatic.
One in seven babies born in the UK requires some kind of neonatal support. For parents whose newborn is put into neonatal care, the pressures and challenges are huge. This important Bill will give them up to 12 weeks’ additional leave and pay so that they can spend that vital time with their baby. According to European Standards of Care for Newborn Health, the active involvement of parents in their baby’s care on neonatal wards can reduce the period of neonatal care, improve new-born weight gain and breastfeeding rates, reduce antibiotic exposure and readmission rates, improve child behaviour, and reduce post-natal depression and parental stress and anxiety. For so many reasons, the Bill will have a dramatic benefit for families and long-term baby outcomes.
In the 2019 Queen’s Speech, the Government included a commitment to neonatal leave. As a country, we have certainly faced unprecedented challenges since that speech, but it is important that we honour that commitment. In February last year, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall) spoke in his Adjournment debate on neonatal leave and pay of his own experiences of having a son in neonatal care for 72 days. At that time, the Government confirmed their commitment to introducing legislation on the matter. Last May, the then Labour Markets Minister reaffirmed that commitment. He said:
“The Government is committed to introducing Neonatal Leave and Pay to meet this need and will bring forward legislation when Parliamentary time allows.”
I understand that there are many pressing matters that we, as a Government, need to focus on, but it is equally important that we do not lose sight of the things that matter day to day for our constituents. Neonatal care is such a key issue. Imagine having to choose between going to work or being with your sick or premature new-born child, and you will see just how important this matter is.
On behalf of future parents, I heartily welcome and fully support the private Member’s Bill of my friend, the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, and I also support the amendments.
It is a pleasure to follow the eloquent and moving speeches of my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) and other Members across the House. This is an important Bill.
I pay tribute to the special care baby unit at Wrexham Maelor Hospital, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) but is frequented by many of my Clwyd South constituents. The maternity unit there was under some degree of threat about seven years ago, and I campaigned alongside many others for its retention. Using information provided by the special care baby unit, I will mention a little about what it does, because one aspect that we should include in this debate—I will come to parents and families in a minute—is the fantastic dedication, skill and care of all those in the health service who look after babies, and their families, in neonatal care.
The unit at Wrexham Maelor Hospital has 12 cots: one stabilisation or short-term intensive care cot, two high-dependency cots, and nine lower-dependency cots. The babies are cared for by a team of medical staff, led by a paediatric consultant, and a team of specially trained nursing staff, supported by healthcare support workers, neonatal outreach, speech and language therapists, physiotherapists, and many other professionals who work in the team. A Bliss volunteer also attends the unit every Wednesday from 10 am to 12 pm to provide emotional support. I say that not only to pay tribute to the hospital that serves my constituency so well, but to highlight the sheer skill of the people there and the wide range of complex processes that are required to ensure that babies are properly cared for in neonatal units.
As has been mentioned, one in seven babies born in the UK receives some level of neonatal care shortly after birth. Many people who have not had the experience of a baby in neonatal care—such as my wife and I, because our children did not go to neonatal care—would be surprised by that high number of babies, which further commends the Bill that the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) has brought forward. I commend him for persevering with it, because it is to everyone’s benefit. As has also been mentioned, about 50,000 babies in the UK spend more than one week in neonatal care after birth every year. For many families, the inflexibility of current parental leave laws exacerbates those issues and adds to the stress for the whole family.
When the Government launched a consultation in October 2019, it found overwhelming—almost unanimous —support for what the Bill proposes. Some 99% of respondents agreed that parents of babies who are admitted into neonatal care should have access to additional weeks of leave and pay; 93% supported the proposal for a right to neonatal leave from the first day of employment in a role; and 81% felt that the maximum number of weeks for neonatal leave should be the same as the maximum number of weeks for statutory neonatal pay. As I said, I commend the hon. Member for bringing forward the Bill and I am delighted that it has unanimous, cross-party support. Under the terms of the Bill, families will be entitled to paid leave if they meet the minimum service and earning requirements, and leave and pay will last for a maximum of 12 weeks on top of their other parental entitlements.
It is estimated—this important point has not been drawn out in the debate so far—that the annual cost to the Exchequer of neonatal care leave, if paid at the statutory flat rate, would be £14.2 million a year on average, alongside the one-off cost of £5 million required to update His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs’ systems. To be honest, that is not a large amount of money compared with the figures of billions of pounds that we hear mentioned in the House, and given that one in seven babies receives some level of neonatal care, it addresses a vital issue.
As mentioned earlier, it is also important to look at the long-term anxiety and depression among parents from what could happen—ultimately, there is trauma in those first few weeks. When we look at the statistics, we see that many more people are taking sick leave for mental health and wellbeing reasons, which ultimately means a loss of income and damage to the individual, as well as a loss to the Treasury. I wholeheartedly agree that there is an economic argument and a very personal, long-term one.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and fully subscribe to his points. If it is not indelicate to say so, I felt that the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn about how traumatic it is for her to recall the experience, even now, make the point about the mental health issues that lie at the heart of this matter better than anybody could.
With regards to the Wrexham Maelor baby care unit, I mentioned Bliss, which we have already discussed this morning. It is a key charity that supports parents with sick and premature babies, and I commend that charity on having campaigned since 2014 to extend leave and pay for parents of babies in neonatal care. In 2019, Bliss conducted a survey that found that two thirds of fathers of premature babies had to return to work while their baby was still receiving neonatal care, and in 2018 that charity ran a campaign encouraging people to call their MPs
“to put pressure on the Government to extend leave for parents of babies in specialist care.”
Bliss noted that over 90% of MPs were reached through that campaign.
There have been many other very articulate and eloquent submissions, including from Catriona Ogilvy, founder of The Smallest Things charity; Sophie, a midwife from Tommy’s, the largest pregnancy charity in the UK; Jane van Zyl, chief executive of Working Families; and Caroline Lee-Davey, chief executive of Bliss. They have all pointed out that this is a vital issue, as has been said already this morning, and I am so pleased that we can come together in the House today to send the Bill further on its way.
While the hon. Member is mentioning all the fantastic work that charities do to support parents every day, will he join me in commending the work of Ronald McDonald House Charities, which supports parents who—like his constituents—have to travel to access specialist services, and need support and accommodation so that they can be with their babies when they are separated and far from home?
It gives me great pleasure to support the hon. Member’s comments—she also made a very moving and eloquent speech this morning, which will stay with me for a long time. The point she makes about outreach on neonatal care is one of the points that was made in Wrexham Maelor’s description of what it does. From the farthest west of my constituency—in Corwen, Llandrillo or Cynwyd—it is a long way to Wrexham Maelor Hospital. Indeed, in Wales generally people have to travel a long way to get there. This goes back to the point about the complexity of what is supported, but I certainly support the hon. Member’s comments.
In conclusion, I congratulate the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East on bringing this Bill through the House, and I am pleased and proud to support it.
It is always a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Simon Baynes), and like everybody else, I thank the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) for promoting this important Bill. I am probably going to waffle a little bit, because I have had printer problems and technical problems this morning, so my speech will be as it comes, so to speak.
In this place, we get to see and be involved in so many things. I had had no engagement with neonatal care until I started to do a little bit of research for this Bill. I have been fortunate in my life in that sense—there have been other things that have affected us—but when we start to look at those things, we find organisations that are not necessarily in our constituency, but might be close to our constituency. I want to talk a little about the support that is out there, which demonstrates the importance of this Bill, and specifically about a charity that is based in a constituency neighbouring mine, which is called Leo’s. Leo was a child who was lost by a parent, but he was the first of twins; the second twin, Oska, survived. The charity was founded on the basis that Leo had given his life for his second twin.
How a parent goes through that, I cannot comprehend. I have one child, who is very healthy, and I am very thankful for that, but once we start to think about these sorts of things, it is so easy—[Interruption.] I am sorry, I am getting emotional already, and it is not something I am even close to in that sense. I want to emphasise how much these parents suffer from the pressures on them and from mental health problems. One of the stats on the website is that 79% of parents have mental health challenges as the result of going into neonatal care. I do not understand why it is not 100%. It must be so traumatic to go through that space.
I understand that Leo’s was instrumental in founding Neonatal Mental Health Awareness Week. That shows that when something touches somebody really deeply, they go out and reach people in other areas that they probably never imagined they would get into. Some of the speeches that we have heard show the connections that people have made. As I say, I have no particular connection to this issue, other than that it has touched me as I have looked into it a little bit for this Bill. So really, I just want to emphasise the need to do things for parents in this situation. They have enough of a challenge without having to worry about where the next penny is coming from, so I support what the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East has brought forward in this Bill and commend him for it.
This issue is not just about the now or the immediacy of the issue; it is about going forward. One thing I noticed, I think from earlier this year, was the number of referrals to the charity. It has had some funding from County Durham Foundation Trust and elsewhere, but it is now oversubscribed and has had to stop referrals, I think for the first time, because there was just so much demand. That shows the scale of the issue—I think there are about 3,000 cases a year in the north-east alone, apparently.
I could waffle for a little longer, but I feel like I am going round in circles a bit. I commend the hon. Member and thank him for bringing the Bill forward. As he said, we do not always speak with such unity across the House, particularly those of us in the north-east, who are quite close to the Members in Scotland. I will conclude there, Mr Deputy Speaker, and will try to find my notes for the next debate before I get there.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell), and I congratulate the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) on bringing this Bill through the House. It is an important piece of legislation that will support so many families around the UK. Neonatal care for premature and sick babies can have long-lasting impacts on a family, as we have heard, even once the baby is well and able to return home. Those impacts range across logistical challenges, family dynamics and even the future attainment of the baby.
Bringing in additional care leave will, in the short term, alleviate the stress caused when one parent has to return to work. Paternity leave provides for only two weeks of leave from work for the 50,000 families who spend more than one week in neonatal care after birth every year. The father’s chance to bond with the baby and support their recovering partner is severely limited. Seventy per cent. of families with a significant neonatal stay report that one parent had to return to work while the baby was still receiving care in hospital. The pressure that puts on the remaining parent, as they make crucial decisions alone for their child, have to remain in hospital while recovering themselves or face issues around childcare for older children, is immense.
In rural areas such as my North Devon constituency, families also have to face the challenges of getting to hospital, especially if one parent returns to work and the other cannot drive and has to rely on very sparse public transport. With longer maternity leave and pay entitlements, the parent left with the child is often the mother.
In families who do not require neonatal care, the childcare burden still falls disproportionately on women. In 2018, Government research found that fewer than one in five of all new mothers, and 29% of first-time mothers, return to work full time in the first three years after maternity leave. In the childcare and early years survey of 2021, around 71% of mothers with children aged nought to 14 were in work. For new mothers, however, staying with the same employer is associated with a lower risk of downward occupational mobility, but also a lower chance of progression. A previous study found that a third of women returners reported a reduction in job status. Overall, it found that women were less likely to return to work if they had not received any maternity pay at all.
Although there has been notable progress in maternity leave and, of course, paternity leave, the life of mothers when they return to work and how it affects their career progression and productivity has been less talked about. The burden on a mother facing exceptional care and health needs for their child is even higher. At present, parents of premature babies have to leave their children at an earlier stage of development than other parents. This leads to many mothers reconsidering their plans and either significantly delaying their return or leaving the workforce altogether.
Boosting productivity is crucial to boosting economic growth. Enabling more women to confidently return to work after maternity leave will not only reduce the gender pay gap, and the gender gap in senior leadership positions, but boost our economy. This Bill not only supports families but helps British businesses to manage parental leave. Parents often resort to statutory sick pay while their child is in hospital. This is not a suitable replacement for appropriate leave and pay, both for parents and for employers. Unlike neonatal pay, employers are unable to reclaim the cost of statutory sick pay, so the current system comes at a significant cost to businesses.
Ultimately, a more stable family life benefits babies as they grow. Seventy-one per cent. of families report that they are worried about the long-term outcomes for their pre-term babies. Neonatal care prevents a lot of typical bonding, such as skin-to-skin contact, feeding and other regular care. This bonding has been shown to improve weight gain and motor reflexes, and even reduce pain, as the child grows. By giving parents the right to neonatal care leave, on top of maternity and paternity leave, families will have more time to bond, increase their confidence in parenting and reduce separation and financial stresses.
We all want the best for our children, and supporting families as they face the challenges of neonatal care helps to give them the best start in life. As is so often the case on a Friday, we do our best work in this House when we are together. I am delighted to support the Bill today.
This is a good measure proposed by a good and thoughtful Member of Parliament, with whom I have worked in the past on other topics. I know him to be a man of considerable integrity and compassion. It is a delight to support him today. I will not, as other colleagues have struggled to, name the three parts of his constituency. [Laughter.] Okay, I will have a go: Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] Thank you.
We have heard a number of powerful speeches in which Members have talked of their own and their constituents’ experience of neonatal care. I hope it does not upset the House if I take a slightly different angle because, in all such measures, we have to recognise that there is always a surplus of wants and needs of varying degrees of validity—this being one that has high validity—but all of which come with a cost to society. It might be a cost to the taxpayer that makes it harder for us to fund other public services, or it might be a cost to businesses that makes it harder for them to increase employment, increase growth or achieve profitability. This Bill is a good example of balance. As my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Dean Russell) pointed out, there are aspects of the Bill that will enhance value for businesses by strengthening the ability of families to go back to work after a period that may have been very traumatic and testing for them, but I decided to go to that trusty steed for parliamentarians, the impact assessment.
I do not know whether other Members read impact assessments, but I am seeing many nods around the Chamber, so I hope I am not repeating what they already know. Impact assessments are a valuable tool for us as legislators: they are an essential element of our ability to understand some of the costs and benefits of legislation, and not just financial costs and benefits. Let me gently suggest to my hon. Friend the Minister—I can say it to this Minister, because I know he already agrees with me—that in recent years Governments have got into the habit of not carrying out impact assessments as regularly as they should, which is a concern for us as Members of Parliament. The Minister will be aware of the House of Lords report “Losing Impact”, which demonstrated that decline. A gentle nudge, as part of the Bill, would reinforce the value of these assessments.
Let me now draw the House back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Simon Baynes) about the costs. The reason the Bill is a demonstration of the good balance between a public policy and the burdens on society—and, in this case, on business—is the widespread impact that it will have. I think my hon. Friend said that one in seven births in the UK would be covered in some way by this definition of neonatal care. That applies both to premature babies, where I think the proportion is approximately two thirds—40,000 out of 60,000—and to at-term babies, where the proportion is about 10%, or about 60,000. The Bill will therefore have an effect on quite a large section of our population.
Interestingly, owing to the subtlety of the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, the Bill recognises that money is not the answer here. There are so many emotions going on, so many feelings and sentiments, but the Bill’s value lies in its recognition that a bit of help at the margins from society can help families at a particular time of need. We are coming together as a society and saying, “We are a better society if we demonstrate our recognition that people are going through a crucial period that can create an enormous amount of stress and pain for certain families, and certainly a tremendous amount of anxiety.” As others have mentioned, people may then feel that they can return to work more rapidly.
It does concern me, however, that it will cost HMRC £5 million to make a one-off change to its IT systems, and I should be grateful if the Minister could provide a detailed assessment of where that £5 million will go. I know he is not responsible for HMRC—that responsibility rests with the Treasury—but, as he is the Minister responsible for what we are discussing, he may wish to understand why that cost is of such great significance. The other costs are ongoing costs to businesses, but there is a separate issue for businesses which relates not just to their financial costs but to their legal liability.
This is a right that will extend to businesses of all sizes, from the very large multinationals all the way down to businesses that may have only one or two employers. Could the Minister clarify whether the right in this instance is only a right on application by the individual concerned to their employer, which I think it is? If so, what has been the assessment of legal risk and liability for an employer should an employee first not claim that right, and then claim it subsequently? There is quite a long period during which an employee can claim the right, and, with the best will in the world, some small businesses do not keep records or information and may miss something. Is there something here on the legal risk? It is really just about dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, but I draw it to the Minister’s attention because the impact assessment says that
“this leave entitlement will create a minimum standard for an issue which is difficult to navigate for employers and employees.”
A bit of clarification on that point would therefore be helpful.
The impact assessment asks:
“Does implementation go beyond minimum EU requirements?”
Hon. Members—certainly those on the Government side—will not be surprised that the answer given is “yes”. Given that people chose to take back control, and given the strong support for understanding what is in the vital and particular interests of the United Kingdom, the Government are taking the implementation of this measure beyond minimum EU requirements. I am sure that we are all pleased about that.
Earlier, I raised with the Bill’s promoter proposed new part 12ZE and proposed new section 171ZZ16(2)(a), which relates to the definition of neonatal care. I think that he and I agree that regulations may define that, and he made a good point about how neonatal care should not necessarily relate only to time in a neonatal care unit. I think that regulations permit the broader aspect, but it would be helpful for the Minister to clarify that.
My contribution has come from a different angle from other colleagues. Perhaps it has been a passionless, emotionless contribution—[Hon. Members: “Never!”]—uncharacteristically. Nevertheless, when we in this House pass measures, it is important that we bear this in mind, as we are doing today. I think we are all agreed that this measure passes the test of balance, particularly in relation to the Exchequer. I will come back with a different view on a later Bill, but, in closing, I congratulate the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East on this Bill.
May I be the final Back-Bench Member to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) for getting his Bill to this stage? I also pay tribute to Bliss for all the brilliant work it has done not just in this area but on a whole range of campaigns relating to it. I am biased because I used to run charities, but they play such an important role in pushing us to understand and, in turn, legislate on issues that perhaps we would not think about in the daily rush of this place. It takes a lot of work, and it does not happen just like that. Those charities have to push for months and years—sometimes even longer. Bliss has done a brilliant job in this case.
I do not have children, but, as it happens, my little sister was seven weeks premature, so I have some sense of what a worrying, stressful time that is. I was old enough to feel that as a child, and it was much worse for my mum and dad. As my sister came out that early—it had to be done in an emergency—she was in an incubator. She weighed 4 lb 4 oz. Everybody kept saying, “She weighs two bags of sugar.” I checked yesterday and that is correct—it is exactly two bags of sugar. During that time in the incubator, she ripped her breathing tube out at least twice. She did not have any sense of what she was doing, but she ripped out this vital thing that was trying to keep her alive and get her to a healthier position. She will not thank me for saying that that may have been an indication of the personality she was going to have as an adult—[Laughter.] No, we are very close. Although I do not have children, one does not need them to understand how completely obvious it is that this Bill is so important and why the hon. Gentleman has done such a good job.
In preparing for this debate, I read the statistic that in the Government’s consultation 99% of people supported the statutory leave and pay we are bringing in here. That is the sort of figure we hear from a dictator when they are giving themselves more power or installing themselves for life. They say, “Look, 99% of my people voted for me to be the leader forever.” I am happy to give way to anyone who has heard of anything like this before, but I have never heard of a Government consultation where 99% of people were in favour of something. That is why this move is such a no-brainer.
I was sad to read the study by Bliss about the parents who had got into financial difficulty as a result of this period in their lives. They had had money worries; often, they had taken on debt. It goes without saying that this situation has had an impact on mental health; I suspect the real figure is 100%, but 80% at least admitted that it had had an impact on their mental health. Although this measure is the morally right thing to do, we also have to see this from the point of view of employers. They are not going to get the best from someone who has a baby in neonatal care, because that is, of course, going to be their No.1 priority.
A bigger point is involved here: without this important Bill, debt and mental health issues would carry on for people as a result of these situations, and those two things have a big impact on people’s relationships and, in turn, the raising of their child. We know that when certain big things are going on in someone’s home they can create big conflicts and can lead to relationship breakdown. Just having debt and mental health issues in their house can affect a child’s development, as of course do things such as low birth weight. This Bill is therefore part of a broader approach that we have to take to the raising of children and the importance of parenting and of early years. Too often, this is one of these things we just leave people to get on with; the view is, “It will come naturally to you. We will just leave you.” We should be doing a range of things better to help parents in the early years with their children, right from birth.
So I am very pleased to support the Bill, which complements some of the other things the Government done on shared parental leave and so on. We know that we have further to go and that there are some big disparities in the care that certain families—ethnic minority families and those on low incomes—are receiving compared with others. Unfortunately, a couple of my constituents have been affected by the issues at the Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust, which Donna Ockenden is currently looking at; sadly, they lost their daughter, Wynter. So we know we have huge disparities here, but in the Government’s women’s health strategy we have exactly the right ambition—we are not there yet—to try to make this country the best place to give birth in. This Bill is an important component in helping us try to get there.
I join the great queue of people congratulating the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) on bringing this hugely important private Member’s Bill forward today and on all the work he has done on it. I also congratulate all the hon. Members who are here to support it. I thank and congratulate Bliss, the charity Working Families and the all-party parliamentary group on premature and sick babies for all the work they have done to campaign for this legislation, which will help so many families across the country. With all the Members lining up to support the Bill, it begs the question as to why it has taken so long to get here, when it has been promised for many years. Labour is absolutely committed to supporting it and to extending statutory maternity and paternity leave. The need for it could not be more real or more acute.
As colleagues have noted, the Bill will bring in an entitlement to neonatal leave for both parents while a baby is receiving hospital care for parents who qualify for maternity, paternity or adoption leave. It will introduce an entitlement to neonatal pay for parents who meet minimum service and earning requirements. That means in practice that qualifying parents will be entitled to additional leave and pay if their baby spends at least seven days being cared for in a health setting—or other place, as has been outlined—before they reach 28 days of life. It will also mean that qualifying parents will be entitled to up to 12 weeks’ paid leave, and that leave will be taken after maternity, paternity, adoption and bereavement leave, and may be taken within 68 weeks of first admission to neonatal care.
I also welcome the employment protections in the Bill, including protection from dismissal or detriment as a result of having to take leave at this stressful time of a parent’s life. I remember my shock, after my third child was born, on being told that he would have to be taken into the special care baby unit. You just do not plan for that. Birth cannot really be planned—I do not know why women are asked to fill in a birth plan, but that is another issue—because what actually happens can change very rapidly. There is a moment when, instead of what you thought was going to happen—having family come around to visit your child and take them home—you are suddenly consumed with worry about what will happen. I am grateful to Members who have spoken about their own personal circumstances, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones), who has supported neonatal care leave ever since she was elected. Her story and that of her son Sulley shows the need for this legislation to enable parents to focus on care for their children and not to worry about whether they can take leave, if they will be paid or if even they will be dismissed.
The Bill will come as a huge relief for parents across the country. According to Bliss, the charity for babies born prematurely or ill, around 70% of families with a significant neonatal stay had at least one parent return to work while their baby was still in hospital. Bliss also found that 60% of fathers and non-birthing partners had to return to work while their baby was still receiving specialist neonatal care, and that 36% of dads resorted to being signed off sick in order to spend time with their baby on the neonatal unit. I think that is why the Bill is welcomed by businesses that are trying to get around that in other ways. This will be much more straightforward and clear for all concerned.
Some 24% of fathers said they were concerned for their job if they asked for more time off, 77% of parents felt their parental leave was not long enough, and half of all parents would have liked to take more parental leave but could not afford to take any more time off. Shockingly, 11% of parents left their jobs due to having insufficient leave after their baby was admitted to neonatal care. That is not good for them and not good for businesses either. Thankfully, many return home with their families after just a few days of care, but as we have heard, around 50,000 babies spend more than a week in neonatal care every year.
There is clinical evidence to suggest that babies in neonatal care have better outcomes when their parents are involved in providing hands-on or skin-to-skin care while they are in hospital. The neonatal environment is stressful, and parents need time to bond and adjust. Some babies will also have significant ongoing needs once they return home and may not be ready to be left in childcare by the time parents have to start work again. Yet every year thousands of parents have to return to work when their baby is still critically ill, relying on other family members, friends and support from elsewhere to enable them to continue their care and their work. Also, some babies will spend many weeks or months receiving care on the neonatal unit before they are well enough to go home. This means many parents use large amounts, or even all, of their leave entitlement before their baby goes home, and once they go home they have to face all that need for leave as well.
Many employers are understanding. As has been said, many do the right thing and follow best practice in this area, and the majority of businesses have shown support for making expectations for this leave clear and the ability for them to reclaim a percentage of statutory pay. The Bill will mean that parents will not have to rely on good will or the views of different managers, and they will not fear repercussions, because they can be assured of leave and protection from dismissal.
I want to end by asking the Minister a number of questions, while I have his attention here on a Friday morning. First, while it is welcome to see a number of private Members’ Bills progressing workers’ rights, does the Minister not believe that measures such as those we are discussing today would be best brought forward as a comprehensive employment Bill in this Parliament? It was announced in the Queen’s Speech in December 2019 but has been missing in action ever since. Today we will discuss the Employment (Allocation of Tips) Bill. The Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Bill has already been supported, and the Carer’s Leave Bill has been passed, but the Fertility Treatment (Employment Rights) Bill remains a private Member’s Bill. All these pieces of legislation and more could be addressed in one place, much more comprehensively and clearly: an employment Bill.
Secondly, legislation to improve workers’ rights is vital, but without strong enforcement, unscrupulous employers will continue to break the law. Can the Minister update the House on what progress is being made on a single enforcement body for workers’ rights, to protect against discrimination?
Thirdly, the absence of neonatal leave is just one barrier that expectant and new mothers face in the workplace. What steps are the Government taking to tackle discrimination in the workplace against women and ensure that no one is discriminated against for having a child?
Fourthly, maternal and paternal leave is critical to new parents, but the UK’s statutory allowances and shared parental leave system leave much to be desired. Will the Government extend statutory maternity and paternity leave and urgently review the shared parental leave system, to give parents the time they need with their new baby? This is all part of the reason why the Bill has been brought forward.
It is often the trade unions that are on the frontline against unscrupulous employers, supporting parents and making sure they receive their rights—rights that are being extended today—but the thanks they get from this Government for protecting workers is a constant barrage of attack and some of the strictest trade union laws in Europe. I am proud to work alongside our unions. Will the Minister stop the Government’s attempts to undermine trade unions, such as those we saw earlier this week?
Let me end by thanking the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East again for spearheading this fantastic piece of legislation. He and parents across the country can rest assured that it has the full support of the Labour party.
I thank the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) for all his work in bringing forward this very important legislation. It is a great honour to bring forward a private Member’s Bill. I have been lucky enough to bring forward two: one on guardianship, and one that sadly has a connection with this Bill, on parental bereavement, of which the hon. Member was very supportive. It is not just a great honour; it is a great deal of work, and I pay tribute to him for all his work on this Bill over the last month. We often get asked when we bring forward new measures such as this, “Does not that exist already?” When we get that reaction, it is time we moved quickly to bring the legislation forward. I thank him and all Members who have spoken on this important matter today.
I also thank my predecessors. I have only been in this role a short time, which has been a common feature of small business Ministers over the last three months. Many of my predecessors have done hugely important work on this issue, not least my hon. Friends the Members for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), for Loughborough (Jane Hunt) and for Watford (Dean Russell). I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Watford for his contribution today and his wholehearted support for this Bill and the next Bill that we will consider, the Employment (Allocation of Tips) Bill. I know he is keenly awaiting that debate, as is the Bill’s promoter, my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie). It is another important piece of legislation.
The Government are deeply committed, as I am, to ensuring that the UK is the best place in the world to work and grow a business. We need a strong and flexible labour market that supports participation and economic growth. The Neonatal Care (Leave and Pay) Bill will enable thousands of parents to care for and be with their children in neonatal care without worrying about whether their job is at risk. The Bill is supported across the House, and I was pleased to see that support reflected in today’s debate.
I wish to put on record the Government’s reasons for continuing to support the Bill, but let me first pick up a couple of points that hon. Members have raised. The shadow Minister—the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson)—and the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) spoke about other measures that we might take forward in the employment Bill or by other means. The hon. Member for Pontypridd spoke very movingly, for which I commend her, but I think she said that the Government were eroding workers’ rights. I cannot think of anything further from the truth.
Let me set out some measures that the Government are taking, other than in this legislation. They are all measures for which I am responsible as a Business Minister: making flexible working a day one right, as we intend; allowing all workers a week of carer’s leave; providing more protections for people who are pregnant or returning to work from pregnancy or paternity leave; the tips Bill—
I am sorry, but I cannot sit here and listen to the Minister saying that his Government are not eroding workers’ rights. They are literally bringing forward legislation to prevent workers from using their fundamental right to withhold their labour and go on strike. As any worker knows, that is the last armour that workers have to protect themselves. If the Government are not eroding workers’ rights, what are they doing?
We can have a good debate about this a week on Monday, but the Opposition parties seem to be arguing simultaneously that minimum service levels exist across Europe, that strikes are happening across Europe, and that the two things are incompatible. Clearly we are not taking away the right to strike: we know that nurses have voted to strike on 7 and 8 February. We are simply saying, “Yes, you can strike, but put a voluntary agreement in place to have minimum service levels,” as the nurses do—a derogation, as they call it. The two things are not incompatible.
Order. With respect, this is the Neonatal Care (Leave and Pay) Bill.
I do apologise, Mr Deputy Speaker. Several Members referred to the matter in this debate, so I felt I needed to address it, but under your instructions I will move on. Other Government measures, of course, include increasing the national living wage to £10.42, which we shall do very shortly—so we have a number of measures to strengthen workers’ rights rather than reducing them.
As the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East explained, an estimated 100,000 babies in the UK are admitted to neonatal care every year following birth, for a range of medical reasons. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mary Robinson) said, tens of thousands of children are in neonatal care for a week or longer, so the issue clearly affects many, many parents. In 2018, our study identified that 37,400 children were in neonatal care for more than a week after birth, so it is clearly a hugely important issue.
The United Kingdom has generous entitlements and protections designed to support employed parents to balance their family and work commitments and maintain their place in the labour market while raising their children. However, for parents who are in the worrying position of having their newborn admitted to neonatal care, it is clear that the current leave and pay entitlements do not provide adequate support. The Government consulted on the issue, and in March 2020 we committed to introducing a new entitlement to neonatal leave and pay. We are therefore pleased to support the Bill, which will bring that policy into effect.
As the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East set out, the Bill will provide a statutory leave entitlement that protects employees against any detriment. Many considerate employers provide that anyway, but the Bill will ensure that the minority who perhaps do not must do so in future. The Bill gives a day one right to leave to anyone with a child in neonatal care for seven full days of continuous care. It is a right to pay based upon continuity of service.
I will touch on some points made by Members, but I first thank my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall) for his work on this Bill. The issue was first introduced to the House in an Adjournment debate, which was responded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam. I know the hon. Member for Pontypridd has campaigned long and hard on this issue, as has the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on premature and sick babies. We should pay tribute to all those people.
Many Members in this debate and previous debates have spoken about their personal experiences very movingly. I am the father of four children; our first child was in neonatal care, as he was very jaundiced when he was born. That is a massive worry for any parent. It is not just about the jaundice, as there can be other health implications including deafness. For the first child it is even more worrying. All those contributions resonated with me and, I am sure, others in the House.
The hon. Member for Cheadle rightly thanked the charity Bliss and other charities that support families through their difficult time. The hon. Member for Pontypridd also thanked the charity Bliss. She is vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on premature and sick babies. I thank her for her work on that. She directed the House’s attention to her personal experience of this issue, as her son was born prematurely. I am grateful that her husband’s employer was flexible.
My hon. Friend the Member for Watford showed huge empathy, as always, for parents who go through that experience. He has much experience with the issue, having been the Minister in the Bill Committee at one point. He emphasised the impact that having a premature or poorly baby has on parents’ mental health. This Bill will massively help ease anxiety. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Putney, and the hon. Member for Pontypridd asked how long it has taken to introduce the Bill to the House. Legislation is never that speedy—only in emergency times, perhaps. This legislation was a 2019 manifesto commitment, and in 2020 we conducted a consultation. Clearly, there have been other issues that we have had to deal with over recent years, but we are keen to expedite this legislation and we are pleased to see it passing through its final stages in the House.
The shadow Minister also asked about a single enforcement body. We have this matter under review, but she can see that a tremendous amount of work is happening on other legislation that we are keen to bring forward. I am happy to have a conversation with the hon. Lady at any time about other measures that she would like us to implement. My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) emphasised how the Bill will benefit fathers and non-birthing partners, as they will have leave to spend time with their child in hospital. She spoke of the benefits to businesses, as they will be able to reclaim the money via HMRC and have less financial burden.
My hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) raised interesting points, as always. I was pleased to hear him talking about the potential impact on business. It is right that we consider that. We ask businesses to do more and more for employees, quite rightly. Nevertheless, we should always consider the impact. He talked about the impact assessment, which states that the financial impact on business is estimated at around £22 million per annum. That is an insignificant amount, and it is right to consider that, but on balance is the right thing to do.
My hon. Friend questioned why it costs £5 million for HMRC to set up the entitlement. That is a good question. As he said, I do not look after HMRC directly, but I am told that they need to update their IT systems and support employers and payroll providers to do the same. This is a sizeable project that is primarily a matter for HMRC and the Treasury, so he may want to ask a Treasury Minister. He also asked about the assessment of legal risk if employers do not claim at the time but claim later. The regulations will specify how long an employee has to claim entitlements to leave and pay, but the Bill specifies that it cannot be less than 68 weeks after the birth of the child. When it comes to pay, there is a power in the Bill that could require someone to still be employed by the same employer when the claim for pay starts. We acknowledge the point that my hon. Friend makes and it will be considered carefully when the regulations are drafted.
The Minister has just alerted me to a question, although I do not expect him to have the answer to it right now: there may be a change of employment situation for the individual between the moment they had their child and when they make their claim. Can he ensure that the regulations are flexible enough for the right claim to be made at the right time in the right way? More broadly, where there are statutory rights that individuals should claim, it should be easy for them to do it automatically. I do not know whether other hon. Members have the HMRC app—[Interruption.] No? They should get it; it is a really good idea. We should be moving to the principle that these are automatic things that individuals can control without having to go through a paper process. That is better for the individual, results in a higher proportion of claims and reduces the burdens on business, as well as ensuring they are more likely to be legally compliant.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments and I agree we should make the process as easy as possible to ease the burden on businesses. That is certainly something we will look at within the regulations.
We will also look at the definition of neonatal in the regulations, but hospital and outreach care and, tragically—as hon. Members have said—perhaps palliative care would be the key areas. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan) told the moving story of her friend Kirsty, whose daughter needed neonatal care. My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn shared her own experiences of a child who spent time in neonatal care.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (David Johnston) mentioned bags of sugar—I think bags of sugar are 2.2 lb each—and spoke about the other measures the Government are taking to improve workers’ rights. My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Simon Baynes) also paid tribute to the Bliss charity’s campaigning on this issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell), even without notes, spoke about the charity Leo’s, named after a baby who tragically died.
Without further ado, the Government are supporting this Bill in line with our ongoing commitment to support workers and build a high-skilled, high-productivity, high-wage economy. It is good to see support in the House from across the political spectrum for this important measure, as is clear from this debate.
In conclusion, I thank civil servants who worked on the Bill: Rosie Edmonds, Tolu Odeleye, Roxana Bakharia, Abi Bridger, Bryan Halka, Jayne McCann and Cora Sweet, who is in the officials’ box today. I look forward to continuing to work with the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East to support the passage of these measures.
With the leave of the House, I call Stuart C. McDonald to wind up the debate.
With the leave of the House, may I first thank the Minister and the shadow Minister for confirming their ongoing support for the Bill? It really is appreciated. I too say a massive thank you to BEIS officials for their fantastic help throughout the process; while the broad principles of the Bill are quite clear and powerful, there is a lot of technical stuff involved as well and I am very grateful to them for their help.
More than anything, I am grateful to so many hon. Members from right across the House who have contributed in such a positive and powerful fashion. The personal is often the most powerful, and there were good examples of that today from the hon. Members for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones), for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie), and for Wantage (David Johnston). My hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan) talked about Kirsty’s experiences. The hon. Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) said he was waffling, but I thought he spoke powerfully about Leo’s charity, so I thank him for that. I am struck by the number of hon. Members who have repeatedly been here to speak about this Bill, including the hon. Members for Cheadle (Mary Robinson) and for Watford (Dean Russell), so I thank them for doing so.
Some hon. Members raised additional points that I had neglected: the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Simon Baynes) spoke about neonatal staff, whom I also want to thank, having had the pleasure of visiting the neonatal unit in Wishaw, where the staff and the parents there at the time all spoke supportively about what this Bill would mean for them. He also made the point about the relatively limited expenditure this would entail for the Exchequer, something that the hon. Member—my hon. Friend—for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller), also spoke about. He was very kind to me and scrutinised exactly what the Bill means, including the role of HMRC. If and when the Bill finally reaches the statute book, it will be all about pressing HMRC to get it up and running as fast as possible. The hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) rightly drew our attention to some of the specific challenges for those living in rural areas, as well as to the problems encountered by fathers in particular, who often have to resort to using sick pay, which is in nobody’s interest—theirs or the employer’s.
Importantly, the hon. Member for Wantage (David Johnston) takes me on to thanking all the charities that have made the case over many years that has got us to this place, including Bliss, which has been mentioned several times and was a key driver in introducing me to the issue, and the Smallest Things, whose representatives are here today, which has also done fantastic work. I also thank Pregnant Then Screwed, Tommy’s, Working Families, GRACE, the British Association of Perinatal Medicine, Sands, the Rainbow Trust Children’s Charity, the all-party parliamentary group, which has been mentioned, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the TUC, Unison, NHS Lanarkshire, University Hospital Wishaw, Dr Michelle Weldon-Johns at Abertay University, and constituents and others from across the country who have been in touch with their own stories. They have made the powerful case that, hopefully, will get the Bill through the House of Commons today. I am also grateful to Baroness Wyld for agreeing to take it forward in the other place as it continues its journey, which I hope will get it on to the statute book in early course.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.