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Will this SNP Westminster bill change UK law for new parents?

Mother Kirsty Anderson rests with her premature baby Theo. Pic: PA/Alamy

Will this SNP Westminster bill change UK law for new parents?

What is it?

Tabled in June 2021 and voted through by MPs in its third reading this month, the Neonatal Care (Leave and Pay) Bill could soon become the second piece of SNP legislation to enter UK statute books. 

It’s the work of Stuart McDonald MP, who topped the private members’ bill ballot. Backed by the charity Bliss, which supports premature and sick babies, it seeks to change the law for the benefit of tens of thousands of families every year. It is also backed by the UK Government.

What's behind the bill?

The proposals aim to lift the strain of work and finances from parents whose children are admitted to neonatal care shortly after birth. According to Bliss, this is required for one in every seven babies born in the UK, with tens of thousands remaining in hospital for more than one week. 

But because there are only two weeks of paternity leave available under current laws, many fathers and non-birthing parents return to work long before their babies are well enough to leave hospital. 

This, Bliss says, leaves them excluded from their children’s care and puts significant stress on families. Research by the charity found that for more than half of affected families, finance was a barrier to involvement with their baby’s care.

There have been steps taken prior to the tabling of McDonald’s bill, but these did not result in legislation.

What happened before?

The Scottish Government opened a £1.5m fund in 2018 to help the parents of babies in neonatal care meet additional costs like traveling to hospital, following a campaign by Labour MSP Mark Griffin

The Conservatives included a commitment on neonatal leave and pay in their 2019 election manifesto. The UK Government later committed to introducing leave for the parents of infants in neonatal care, introducing statutory pay for parents in these circumstances and including the measures in a forthcoming Employment Bill.

However, that bill has never been introduced and McDonald’s proposals seek to deliver on the commitments made to families.

If passed, it will grant families between one and 12 weeks of paid leave where their babies are born either premature or at full term with health problems, and are cared for in a health setting for more than one week before they are 28 days old. 

The rule will extend to parents of children who are receiving or have received neonatal care, with the time off taken within 68 weeks of the child’s birth. 

Those taking neonatal care leave will have the same employment protections as those applied to maternity, paternity, adoption and other forms of family-related time-off, including protection from dismissal or detriment as a result of that absence from work.

When could this be brought in?

The bill received unanimous backing at its third reading and now moves to the House of Lords.

If it successfully completes all parliamentary stages this year, it could be in place in 2024 or 2025, allowing for the 18 months notice period normally required for HMRC and commercial payroll providers to implement the changes needed for the administration of new statutory payments. And if it does, it will be the second piece of SNP legislation to be passed in Westminster.

What was the first?

The first was in 2017, when Eilidh Whiteford’s private member’s bill on violence against women was passed. It called for the UK Government to ratify the Istanbul Convention on violence against women and girls. At the time, the Banff and Buchan MP said she was “delighted to be the first ever SNP MP to have a private members’ bill reach the statute book”. 

McDonald has urged MPs to back his bill, saying: “Babies in neonatal care need their parents, and their parents need to be with their babies. And we must do all we can to give families this vital time together.”

How have MPs reacted?

The House of Commons can be a harsh place, but MPs from across the chamber shared their personal experiences in relation to the bill.

Alex Davies-Jones, Labour MP for Pontypridd, recounted how her son spent weeks “fighting for his life” in neonatal intensive care, while Tory MP Virginia Crosbie, who represents Ynys Mon, said her children had also experienced intensive care, something “so traumatic” that she struggles to talk about it.

Business minister Kevin Hollinrake told MPs: “We often get asked when we bring forward new measures such as this, ‘does that not exist already?’ When we get that reaction, it’s time we moved quickly to bring the legislation forward.”

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