Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Bill DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Lord Knight of WeymouthMain Page: Lord Knight of Weymouth (Labour - Life peer)
(2 years, 9 months ago)Lords Chamber
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Knight, for taking through this very important piece of legislation, which provides at the very least two weeks of guaranteed time away from work for those employees who have suffered the tragedy of losing a child before that child has had the opportunity to reach adulthood.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for ensuring the rapid progress of this Bill through this House. I am conscious that, in doing so, the Bill has overtaken the progress of the Government’s response to the recent consultation, which will now be published after the Bill completes its passage through Parliament. I had hoped to be able to set out in detail the response to the government consultation. However, important work is still ongoing with this. We have had a very welcome, large and detailed number of sponsors to the consultation—some 1,448 in total. I was pleased to see that high level of engagement on such an issue. We need to make sure that we get this right. If taking a little extra time is what is needed to achieve this, that is the right thing to do.
However, I assure the House that, once the Bill receives Royal Assent, we will work to bring forward the necessary regulations as soon as possible with a view to laying them before the House as early as possible in 2019. That would also keep us on course for our ambition for the new right to come into force in April 2020. I hope that that commitment today will reassure the House that the Government remain committed to delivering on this manifesto commitment.
Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Bill DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Lord Knight of WeymouthMain Page: Lord Knight of Weymouth (Labour - Life peer)
(2 years, 10 months ago)Lords Chamber
My Lords, I endorse the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, and particularly thank Lucy Herd and the many other campaigners who have spent years trying to bring this legislation to and through Parliament. I also pay tribute in particular to Kevin Hollinrake and Will Quince for their determined work in another place. I know that many other MPs spoke during the passage of the Bill in the Commons who also outlined how important it was, many of them citing their personal experience. I also thank the National Bereavement Alliance, Together for Short Lives and Bliss for their briefings, which have been extremely helpful.
As with most people who have chosen to speak on this Bill, both here and in another place, I have personal experience of some of the issues. I had a series of miscarriages when I was young; my eldest son would have been 40 this year. After one of my subsequent miscarriages, not at 24 weeks but quite late on, I can remember the doctor patting me on the leg and saying, “There, there, dear, the best thing for you is to get up and go back to work tomorrow. Get over it quickly”. I watched friends cross to the other side of the street because they knew that it was yet another miscarriage. I have talked to parents who have lost their children. They find the same thing.
Child bereavement is still something that most people find very difficult to talk about. When we look at how it affects employers, it can be even worse. There can be complete ignorance about the pain that parents go through in the last few days or even months of a child’s long-term illness, or with the shock of a sudden death. Employers do not know how to react, so I am delighted with the ACAS guidance and the fact that the National Bereavement Alliance worked with ACAS to make sure that guidance is there.
The problem is that not all the employers who need to know about the guidance will know about it. Nearly 20 years ago, when I was a senior manager, I was aware of another case where the two year-old child of the employee of a young manager died of leukaemia after a very short illness, by cancer standards, of two or three months. This manager’s boss came to see her the next day to say, “We have given this parent too much paid time off. She’s got to take unpaid time off for the funeral”. The young manager concerned said, “I’m not prepared for that”, ended up having a flaming row and stood their ground. The parent was allowed paid time off. It is interesting to note that neither of the two managers is still working for that employer, whereas the bereaved parent still is.
That is part of the problem: many parents cannot explain fully the experience that they have been through. I know that your Lordships’ House will know that I been working with Nascot Lawn, a centre for children with multiple difficulties, many of whose parents know that they will not achieve adulthood, that has just been closed by the NHS. I will quote briefly from the blog of Nikki, the mother of Lennon, who died last summer, writing in that immediate aftermath of the death. Although it was expected, it was a shock. She said:
“Lennon’s bedroom remains more or less untouched. His fishbowl bed still has pride of place in the middle of the room. The medical trolley is still brimming with dressings and medical equipment. His freshly washed clothes on the dresser waiting to be put away in the drawers. All his medical emergency plans and equipment lists still fixed to the backs of doors.
I know I need to sort through all of Lennon’s belongings and clothes.
But not yet, not just yet.
Keech Hospice have been amazing. Faye has been a godsend, my fairy godmother. I went to visit the hospice to collect all of Lennon’s belongings and the memory items that the nurses had made … She took me to the Job Centre for some advice on money. She felt my pain when we left. Not only are the 10 and half years I spent caring for Lennon and working tirelessly as an unqualified”,
high dependency nurse,
“to keep my child alive, was not recognised in the eyes of the Department of Work and Pensions, but … there is nothing anyone can do to help us financially until I feel able to return to work”.
That is why, while the period of 56 days mentioned in the Bill is great, there will be times when we should look at extending it or making that period of time more flexible. This is particularly true in cases such as those referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Knight, where there has been a sudden death, and there may be an inquest or meetings with lawyers leading up to that. I hope that it will be possible to meet the Minister, and perhaps the Minister in another place dealing with the consultation, to discuss why we need to be so rigid and whether some flexibility can be built in.
I have one more point from Nikki. She wrote:
“I applied for job seekers allowance, wanting to buy myself a little extra time to grieve before returning to some form of work. Only to be told that because I hadn’t ‘worked’ in 10 years I was ineligible. Despite the fact that in those 10 years, I had worked harder and for many more hours than the average person. The fact that I had saved the government and the NHS hundreds of thousands of pounds by providing my son with hourly complex medical care counts for nothing ... You are told to man up—move on. Get a job. Pay the bills. Provide for your remaining family”.
It is clear that the benefit and support structure is lacking, especially for parent carers. One thing I hope will come out of the Government’s consultation is guidance for jobcentres and the Department for Work and Pensions on the tribulations and difficulties that many parents with child bereavement face—both those who expect a death and those who face a sudden death—because it is an experience that very few people will go through.
The National Bereavement Alliance also talks about the chance to increase up to 25 the age at which parental pay and parental leave are available. I can understand why it makes that statement, but I wonder whether there is a simpler compromise. Where a child has an education and health care plan which takes them through to 25, usually because they have a long-term disability or medical condition, we know from the system that such people are more likely than others to become bereaved parents. Perhaps we might discuss whether we could extend it for those children who already have substantial care needs and support, many of whom, as we know, will not survive much beyond their 25th year.
There is also a request that the definition of a parent be looked at. I have some sympathy with this. I was a foster carer and then became a guardian to two children whose mother died. In various forms, as a guardian I had no legal status whatever. I had status with the family courts and with the school, but there were other situations where I did not. Definitions of parents are used in other legislation that could be used here. If you are a parent or a person with those caring responsibilities, as usually defined in the family court, it seems to me that you are the person who will be dealing with the death and its aftermath. Perhaps we could look at that further.
Finally, I applaud the work that has been done with employers, but we look for a national campaign to ensure that small employers, who obviously have concerns about extra leave, understand both the rarity of these cases and the concerns of bereaved parents as they face coming back to work. The ACAS guide is a good start, and I am delighted that many bereaved parents have been working with ACAS and larger employers to get the message across.
The most important thing is that this Bill succeeds through this House and becomes legislation. I look forward to the result of the consultation and hope that the Minister feels that it will be possible to have a meeting to discuss some of these matters during the passage of the Bill.
My Lords, may I respond to that last point by picking up a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson? He described the Bill as addressing just a lacuna and said that it was not the complete answer. If only the Bill could be a complete answer—if only any government Bill or Private Member’s Bill could ever be a complete answer to whatever issue it addressed, that would be a great thing. This, however, is a small step to respond to the campaign mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, which has been running for some time, led by Lucy Herd and other campaigners and taken up by colleagues of the noble Lord, Lord Knight, in the Commons. After the election it was taken up by my honourable friend Kevin Hollinrake as a Private Member’s Bill and now, having proceeded through the Commons, it has been taken up by the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, to whom I am very grateful. For once, there is government support and I hope we can proceed to the statute book in due course to meet the manifesto commitment that we made on the Bill. I do not think it is necessary for me to repeat that.
Obviously, it is right that I and possibly other Ministers—I cannot give any guarantee on that but I offer myself—should offer ourselves up between now and Committee for meetings with the noble Lord and the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, if she is happy to come along, so that we can discuss it. I think that would be useful. The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, might want to come as well. We want to make sure that we pass the Bill, which deals with what the noble Baroness described as, thankfully, a rarity. We have to go back only 150 years to remember a time when more than half of all funerals were those of small children. We are beyond that, dealing with a rarity, and we want to make sure that we get this right and get something on the statute book that will be useful.
There is always an element of fragility in the parliamentary process for any Private Member’s Bill. So far we have got through another place and I hope that, given the consensus we have, we will be able to get it right here and address the lacuna in existing pay and leave rights that the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, addressed. We are dealing with something—the death of a child—that should not be treated in the same way as we manage to treat the birth of a child; instinctively, that does not seem right to me. Obviously, the loss of anyone can be very difficult to deal with. Indeed, any bereavement can affect a number of the workforce but the loss of a child before they reach adulthood can be a far greater tragedy because it is against the natural order of things.
It is right that we should all support the Bill. I do not think the noble Lords, Lord Knight and Lord Stevenson, should worry about the relative emptiness of the Benches on all sides of the House. That is the nature of a hot Friday at the end of June. But we are dealing with an important point and we will get it right, I hope, in Committee. I hope we will not need to amend the Bill but at least that will be a moment when we can respond to the consultation referred to.
May I briefly set out the Government’s position on the Bill? The noble Lord, Lord Knight, set out what the Bill does: it gives employees who have lost a child below the age of 18 the right to at least two weeks away from work as a day-one right. It is the Government’s intention that parental bereavement pay will be paid at the statutory rate referred to, which is currently £145.18 per week, or at 90% of the employee’s average weekly earnings where that is lower, subject to the 26-week qualifying period.
I make it clear again that that is the bare minimum which an employee should expect from their employer once this provision is put in place. Appropriate advice should be offered to employers so that they can act with compassion and consideration for their staff to offer a provision over and above the statutory minimum. We want this to be a catalyst for a change in the mindset and approach to bereavement. We want people to be able to speak in the workplace about their bereavement, including in the event that they suffer the bereavement of a child, and certainly not to be fearful of suffering a detriment in respect of that bereavement.
On the detail of the provisions, we noted that the lack of detail on some key aspects of the entitlement has been pressed in another place, and rightly so. I do not think this should be a cause of concern and I hope that the following reassurances will suffice on the issue. As the noble Lord mentioned and as the House will be aware, we launched a consultation in March to consider how best to deliver the detail of the provisions through regulations. That consultation has now closed and I am pleased to be able to tell the House that it received over 1,400 responses, mainly from individuals. We also received responses from key business groups and relevant charities. Those responses have been helpful in shaping the detail of the policy and making sure that the final product works for both employers and employees. That has obviously been our ambition from the start.
The Long Title of the Bill focuses on parents only. However, since the question of who counts as a parent is a complex one to answer, the consultation welcomed views on the different groups of people who have a parental relationship with the child and thus may be included. There was a strong sense among the responses to the consultation that entitlement to parental bereavement leave and pay should not rely solely upon biological parentage but should depend on the presence of a parental relationship, whether that is biological, legal or informal. I am grateful for the nods that I see from the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, who asked for a degree of flexibility on that. The consultation also asked about flexibility on when the leave can be taken.
As drafted, the Bill provides for parents to take a minimum of two weeks’ parental bereavement leave within a period of at least 56 days. The Government sought views on the optimum length of this window in which to take the leave, as well as how the leave and pay can be taken: for example, in a single block of two weeks or in separate one-week blocks, or even more flexibly still. Responses overwhelmingly supported the extension of the window beyond 56 days to provide flexibility to bereaved parents. A majority of respondents also wanted to see flexibility in the way that leave and pay can be taken. Many favoured being able to split the leave into separate weeks. In respect of both these issues, the consultation responses have shown us that this provision must cater for the unpredictable and very personal nature of grief.
Lastly, the Government asked for views on notice and evidence requirements. We asked whether it is reasonable for there to be a requirement to give notice; if so, what form that notice might take; and whether evidence requirements for parental bereavement leave and pay should mirror those in existing provisions. The majority of responses said that the Government should seek to make these requirements as reasonable as possible and not place undue burdens on either the employee or the employer. The department is currently working on the Government’s response to the consultation and we will publish that in due course. I reassure the House that it is my hope and intention to have the response to this consultation published before Committee stage on the Bill. I think that the date we have for Committee—I am sure the noble Lord will be aware of this—is sometime before we rise for the summer. In that document, we will set out our policy in respect of the key issues raised and considered in the consultation. Expediting publication in this way will, I hope, convey our continued commitment to this Bill and our desire to see it pass into law and will assist with noble Lords’ consideration of the Bill’s delegated powers.
This House frequently adds much value and challenge through asking the right questions about the need for delegated powers and their intended use—I have certainly been asked about that on a number of occasions on a great many Bills—so I am pleased to echo the noble Lord, Lord Knight, in quoting the 29th report from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. I really like this:
“There is nothing in this Bill which we would wish to draw to the attention of the House”.
That is not something I always hear on Bills with which I am involved. I hope it is ample reassurance for the House.
In support of the Bill, once the regulations are in place we will once again work with ACAS—I think that addresses some of the points the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, made—to update its guidance to reflect this new provision because it is important to get to as many employers as possible to get the message over. It is almost as if the Bill would be unnecessary if employers acted in an appropriate manner. The guidance will be key for employers and employees in understanding the new provision and setting the tone for the approach to bereavement going forward, which I think we can all agree needs to change on certain issues. The approach now needs to reflect a more modern and understanding approach to bereavement and all the various issues which surround it. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, and say that the Government fully support the Bill. I look forward to discussions and I hope that we can have them between now and Committee to make sure that we can have a productive and useful Committee stage that allows the Bill to go through in the manner that the noble Lord wishes.
House adjourned at 1.04 pm.