Paid leave for parents with babies in neonatal care one step closer to law

A Bill that would give additional paid leave to parents of newborns in neonatal care is one step closer to becoming law.

Parliament heard how around 60,000 babies are admitted to neonatal care each year and the stress for parents over their babies’ health is often coupled with concerns over their jobs and money.

The law would apply to parents of children who spend at least one week in a neonatal unit, which looks after babies born prematurely or with medical conditions.

It provides up to 12 weeks of both leave and pay, at a statutory rate of £156.66 a week or 90% of your average earnings, whichever is lower, one week for every week the child is in neonatal care, in order to help alleviate financial pressures felt by families at such a difficult time.

This would be on top of any other parental entitlements, such as the two weeks paid paternity leave and 39 weeks paid maternity leave, which supporters of the Bill say is not enough for parents whose babies experience medical complications.

The Private Member’s Bill, which has already cleared the House of Commons, was introduced to the Lords by Baroness Wyld, who welcomed the Government’s “important commitment” to back it.

Obstetrician Lord Patel said: “It is a compassionate bill that will help thousands of parents at a very anxious time of their lives, when their newborn baby is fighting for his or her life in a neonatal intensive care unit…

“It will particularly benefit fathers and those taking paternity leave to be present in the neonatal unit for longer when their baby is unwell.

“They will also be able to support their partner emotionally and practically, including child care of older children.

“For many mothers, when their partner returns to work, they are left to receive difficult news and make life changing decisions alone, without support.

“The Bill will make it possible for both parents to be involved in their babies care, something that is essential for neonatal units hoping to deliver care in a family integrated setting, which improves, as research shows, both outcomes for babies and their parents…

“Having a baby in hospital can be expensive and most families cannot afford for one parent to take unpaid time off work.”

A group of mothers push their babies in prams (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
A group of mothers push their babies in prams (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

The independent crossbench peer described assisting with the births of premature babies “some no bigger than the palm of your hand” and recalled “partners having to go to work, financial worries, unsympathetic employers, separation of parents at visiting times, and much more hardship”.

He warned that, while the Bill gives “much needed” additional paid time off work for eligible families, some would slip through the gaps, such as self-employed people.

Former DUP leader Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee gave her support to the Bill, adding that she hopes it will be replicated in Northern Ireland once the executive and assembly is operating again.

She told peers about her own experience of neonatal care when her first child was born.

She said: “It transpired that my son had been born with a pulmonary stenosis, a congenital heart problem, and he was taken immediately to neonatal care and, after just three weeks, had surgery to deal with the issue at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast.

“They opened his valve and I remember, as a mother, watching him fall asleep on a huge operating theatre table – he was just this tiny little baby boy.

“He’s now a strapping 16-year-old rugby player, doing absolutely very well.

“Having to rely on neonatal care can happen to any couple and this Bill will allow the mother and the partner to be there to support each other and the other little bundle of joy being cared for, without the additional worry about where the next pay check is coming from.”

Tory frontbencher Lord Johnson of Lainston said it was a “great personal honour” to reaffirm the Government’s support for the Bill.

He said the provisions would enable parents to be with their babies, providing a direct benefit to the health of the baby, as well as being good for worker retention.

The Neonatal Care (Leave and Pay) Bill has now passed its second reading in the House of Lords and will next undergo line-by-line scrutiny in the Committee Stage.