How a Neonatal Care Bill would support workers with babies in neonatal care

MP Stuart McDonald outlines the reasons behind his introduction of the bill, which is designed to give parents with a baby in neonatal care additional protected leave and pay

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The Neonatal Care (Leave and Pay) Bill is the Private Members’ Bill (PMB) I introduced in the UK Parliament on 15th June 2022. It is designed to give parents with a baby in neonatal care additional protected leave and pay.

Babies born prematurely, or who are ill, may require specialist care in a neonatal unit which is a traumatic and stressful time for families.

A number of organisations and individuals – including 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 is a result of significant input from expert organisations including the CIPD, advocates and families themselves, alongside the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

Having a newborn baby in neonatal care is an incredibly stressful time, with tens of thousands of parents across the UK facing these challenges each year. The charity Bliss states that 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 newborns need to spend weeks or months in hospital. In early October, I visited the neonatal unit at the University Hospital Wishaw to speak to staff and parents about the emotional, practical and financial pressures. It was clear support from the Bill would make a significant difference.

Current parental leave laws provide no flexibility if a baby is born unwell. In fact, it only aggravates the situation families are dealing with, by adding further to their ordeal. 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 neonatal leave and pay would be a right from day one and available to all qualifying employees, allowing parents to spend more time providing hands-on care to their babies, beneficial for both parents and children.

It would also provide up to 12 weeks additional neonatal care leave and pay, and will apply to parents of newborns admitted to hospital up to the age of 28 days and who have a continuous stay in hospital of seven full days or more.

The leave would work on top of other parental entitlements, and could be taken following maternity, paternity, adoption and bereavement leave, ensuring protected time off. It is expected the regulations will set out that eligible parents can take neonatal care leave and pay within at least a 68-week window following their child’s birth.

There are a number of supportive and flexible employers in the UK who already support their employees when such circumstances occur, but not all employers do or can afford to. The Bill therefore provides a statutory framework to assist employers in supporting their employees during this difficult time.

Employers will be able to reclaim spending on neonatal pay in a similar way to other statutory payments, meaning employers will not lose out financially in any way.

Should the Bill become law, at a practical level it remains to be decided when the regulations required to implement the Bill would be brought into force and how they will operate – and when parents will be able to start the process of receiving neonatal care leave and claiming statutory neonatal pay.

The Bill passed its second reading and committee stage, and the next step is scheduled for January 2023. After the Bill becomes law, the date at which the law is implemented could be 18 months after Spring 2023. This is because a range of secondary legislation and regulations will be required around the technical detail, as well as the creation and roll-out of guidance for employers and employees, not to mention the update to HMRC’s IT systems. However, we will continue to press for earlier implementation.

We want to see this crucial Bill passed and implemented as quickly as possible. The Bill’s provisions 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 is an MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East