With one in seven babies born prematurely and requiring special care, it’s time we give additional protected neonatal leave and pay for impacted parents – By Stuart McDonald

Having been fortunate to come first in the Private Members’ Bill ballot, I was inundated with emails from incredible organisations putting forward worthwhile issues to pursue through legislation.  However, when my colleague David Linden introduced me to the charity Bliss – who work on behalf of families with sick and premature babies – my mind was quickly made up.  Here was a powerful idea that could make a difference for generations to come, and one that could attract cross-party support: paid neonatal leave.

Welcoming a new baby into the world is a life-changing moment for parents, full of joy and new challenges. However, tens of thousands of parents across the UK each year face additional worries if their baby is born prematurely or unwelland in need of neonatal care. Around one in seven babies born in the UK receive some form of neonatal care just after birth.Although some babies may only require a few days of care, other new-borns need to spend weeks or months in hospital.

In October last year, I visited the neonatal unit at the University Hospital Wishaw in my constituency to speak to staff and parents about the emotional, practical and financial pressures. It was clear the Bill would make a significant difference. I think we can all agree that we should do what we can to make life a bit easier for parents in this situation, at a traumatic and stressful time. The Neonatal Care (Leave and Pay) Bill will give parents with a baby in neonatal care additional protected leave and pay, and at least help to ensure they are able to spend more time with their babies and relieve some of the financial strain.

The campaign for this law is not new. A number oforganisations – including charities like Bliss and The Smallest Things – have campaigned tirelessly for a number of years for a law that would give employees in this situation protected statutory neonatal leave and pay. The Bill itself is therefore the result of significant input from expert organisations, civil servants and of course the families with lived experience of babies in neonatal care.

It’s vital that the Bill becomes law, so that the families yet to go through the ordeal of having a baby in neonatal care are better supported than families who have experienced this in the past.

Current parental leave laws provide no flexibility if a baby is born unwell. At the moment, thousands of parents have to work while their baby is still in hospital in order to make ends meet or leave the workforce completely. Many have to take their remaining leave entitlements in order to be with their baby. Parents want to focus on supporting and being with their newborn. The Neonatal Care Bill would provide for just that: additional protected neonatal leave and pay for employees.

The Bill would ensure up to 12 weeks neonatal leave – one per week of neonatal care – would be a right from day one, allowing parents to spend more time providing hands-on care to their babies, beneficial for both parents and children. Neonatal pay would be available to all qualifying employees on a similar basis to other entitlements.

The leave would work on top of other parental entitlements, and could be taken following maternity, paternity, adoptionand bereavement leave, ensuring protected time off.

There are a number of employers who already support their employees when such circumstances occur, but not all employers do or can afford to. The Bill therefore supports employers to assist their employees, and allows them to reclaim spending on neonatal pay, so they don’t lose out financially.

It’s been a privilege to have the opportunity to take this forward, and I’m grateful to everyone who has supported the Bill through the various stages in Parliament. I was delighted when it passed its Third Reading and final hurdle in the House of Commons.

I look forward to the Bill becoming law and implemented as quickly as possible. It cannot take away the trauma of having a child in neonatal care, but it can help to relieve some of the practical and financial challenges that so many families are having to face.

 

Stuart McDonald has served as MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East since 2015. He is currently SNP spokesperson on Justice and Immigration.