For the parents of premature and sick babies, our leave laws don't work
Too many new parents are being forced back to work too soon. We must change the law to give them the flexibility and support they deserve, writes David Linden
Seeing your premature baby in an incubator hooked up to oxygen and being assisted to breathe is an incredibly difficult experience. I can say that because I have been through it with both of my children.
My experience is one shared by many new parents. Around one in seven babies born in the UK require some sort of neonatal care. For the vast majority this is a short stay, the average being just one week. For a small percentage though, particularly for babies born premature, the stay can be much longer.
Parents who find themselves dealing with a situation like this unfortunately aren’t getting the support they need. The reality for them is that statutory paternity leave does not work for parents of premature babies and sick babies. Partners spend weeks on neonatal intensive care units, yet we are only entitled to two weeks leave, which must be taken in one go and end within 56 days of the birth. Quite often, the partner of the mother has to return to work while their child is still receiving essential care, posing some huge practical challenges.
My children were both born by caesarian section, meaning that my wife was unable to drive for many weeks afterwards, putting extra responsibility on my own shoulders. These kinds of challenges are a harsh reality for too many families across the UK.
Forcing partners to return to work simply doesn’t make sense from the point of view of an employer either. Expecting any parent to be focused and productive in work while their new baby fights for life just isn’t realistic. We know from evidence already supplied to the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy that the inflexibility of parental leave policies leaves some parents no option but to withdraw from the labour market completely.
Some employers – BBC and Diageo are two admirable recent examples – recognise this by voluntarily providing extra leave to new parents. This isn’t good enough though; I want to see a change in statute so that parents of premature and sick babies are supported regardless of who their employer is.
Along with organisations such as Bliss, the Smallest Things and Tamba, I’ve been campaigning for this change in the law. On three occasions now I’ve raised this issue at Prime Minister’s Questions, being given a near-identical answer each time – that the Government is conducting a short, focused internal review of provisions. Last November I was told that the findings of this review would be shared in the new year, yet here we are with half of 2019 gone and no further forward.
With tens of thousands of babies requiring neonatal care since then, I’m not prepared to wait for the Government any longer. That’s why I’m launching a Bill to change parental leave for parents of premature and sick babies. All I’m asking for is a very small change in the law, but one that will make an enormous difference to families who need and deserve some extra support.
There is still time for the Government to redeem itself, but every day spent prevaricating on this hugely important issue is one which will cause stress and suffering for scores of hardworking families. They deserve better from their elected representatives. They deserve the flexibility and support to focus on their family. They deserve that now.
David Linden is SNP MP for Glasgow East and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Premature and Sick Babies. He will present his Ten Minute Rule Bill on Wednesday 12 June.