Neonatal Care (Leave and Pay) Bill

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Kevin Hollinrake Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Kevin Hollinrake)
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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—

Alex Davies-Jones Portrait Alex Davies-Jones
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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?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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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.

Roger Gale Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Roger Gale)
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Order. With respect, this is the Neonatal Care (Leave and Pay) Bill.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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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.

Richard Fuller Portrait Richard Fuller
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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.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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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.

Roger Gale Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Roger Gale)
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With the leave of the House, I call Stuart C. McDonald to wind up the debate.