MPs are trying to force debates on some of the reforms expected to form part of the deferred Employment Bill, from additional leave for the parents of premature babies to carers’ leave.
Last week saw reports about two Private Member’s Bills related to family support. One is about additional paid leave for the parents of premature babies. The other concerns five days a year of unpaid carers’ leave. Both were due to be included in the Employment Bill which was shelved yet again in the recent Queen’s Speech.
A Private Member’s Bill – such as the one being debated today on leave for people undergoing fertility treatment – has very little chance of becoming legislation. However, it can raise publicity about a subject and put pressure on the Government to act. In this case, it is also a way to stop the different elements of the Employment Bill, which was to include an extension of flexible working rights and additional protections for mums returning to the workplace, falling into the abyss because they are not viewed as a priority by the Government.
As we begin a week of industrial action by rail workers – which is likely to preceed action by workers including teachers and nurses – the focus now is more on protecting existing rights and pay in the light of fast-rising inflation. While the rail dispute is on wider issues about post-Covid finances and health and safety for passengers – described as ‘modernisation’, pay and conditions form a central plank of workers’ demands. A negotiated solution that takes into account all sides’ concerns must be the way forward.
Employment rights have for some years now been in danger of going backwards rather than forwards, yet surely employment rights and economic progress are linked. For example, many parents and carers struggle to stay in work without support. At a time of labour shortages, that must be a concern for business. And not being able to fill vacancies has a knock-on impact on those who are left and on productivity.
Take rights for parents of premature babies. Talks with parents shows that many are forced out of work because they are forced to use up all their paid parental leave on the early days in hospital and then face problems finding childcare for a sick baby who might need additional follow-up appointments when they get home.
A recent survey by the charity Bliss and Radio 5 Live shows two thirds of fathers of premature and sick babies says they have felt under pressure to return to work while their child was still receiving neonatal care, putting additional pressure on mums.
The survey of 737 parents found 77% said they were not given enough time off. One in 10 had to leave their job as a result of their baby’s stay in hospital.
When it comes to mums, Nina Gilbert told workingmums.co.uk that her experience of having a premature baby had opened her eyes to the financial and logistical struggles many face. She said: “The majority of other mums on my ward were not able to go back to work either because their children were too poorly or because their employers were too inflexible, meaning their choice of whether to work was taken away from them.”
Some employers have been rising to the challenge, but legislation would ensure that support was available to all.
Rochelle Francis, who received 14 weeks of additional paid leave from her employer Waltham Forest Council after her triplets were born prematurely, says having support was vital to her. She states: “Giving birth to a premature baby is a rollercoaster – imagine having three! Within the neonatal unit, you hear lots of stories from people who couldn’t spend enough time with their babies and ended up returning to work early or leaving their job. Waltham Forest’s scheme has made a huge difference to me. It’s great to know your employer is backing you and your finances are stable – it takes away so much stress and worry. I feel proud to work for an organisation that is leading the way on this.”