Life in Politics with Rachel Reeves: Extend leave for parents of premature babies

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Having a premature baby can be an anxious and difficult time for any mother and her family.

Recently, I was contacted by a constituent whose daughter was worried about how her maternity leave could be affected after she gave birth prematurely.

She is not alone. Around 60,000 babies – one in every 13 is born prematurely before 37 weeks of pregnancy – every year in the UK.

Under present rules, maternity leave of up to 52 weeks starts when a baby is born. But, because a premature baby can spend weeks in hospital, mothers are effectively cheated out of spending some of their maternity leave with their new child.

Visiting your baby on a hospital ward and worrying if they will be all right is very different from being able to take them home to spend vital time bonding with the new arrival.

Some employers are more understanding than others when it comes to baby leave.

When it came to a key Brexit vote in the House of Commons, my fellow Labour MP Tulip Sidiqq had to make the awful choice between going ahead with her planned caesarean and voting on Brexit.

As a result of her ordeal and her decision to delay the operation and cast her vote, Parliament has now, finally changed the rules to allow proxy voting that should pave the way for MPs who are on maternity leave or seriously ill to be able to vote via another MP. However, we urgently need Government action to change the rules for everyone on baby leave so that new parents of premature babies are not put under further unnecessary pressure.

I am pressing the Business Secretary Greg Clark to bring forward new plans to make sure babies who are born prematurely are allowed an extra week of statutory maternity leave for every week that their child spends in hospital before they are allowed to go home.

The Government says it is reviewing the situation, but that is simply not good enough.

According to the charity Bliss, more than 70 per cent of parents born at 30 weeks or earlier believe current maternity leave is inadequate and almost 70 per cent of fathers had to go back to work while their baby was still on a hospital neonatal unit.

More than 250,000 people have already backed a petition supporting a plan for baby leave to be extended for the parents of premature babies.

Some employers, including local authorities, have said they will give extra leave to staff who have babies born prematurely.

Leeds City Council is among those who are currently reviewing their maternity and paternity policies. I hope they will help set a good example to other local employers by taking a sympathetic and family friendly approach.

However, as we have seen in other areas when it comes to workers’ rights, we cannot rely on every employer to do the right thing.

That’s why I will continue to call on the Government and press ministers to extend statutory leave for the parents of premature babies.

No mother or father should be forced to cope with the financial and emotional burden of trying to care for a premature baby born too sick or too early while worried about time off from work at the same time. I believe that this small but vital change to extend baby leave for parents with premature babies will dramatically improve the lives of thousands of families. The Government must act to help them.

Rachel Reeves is the Labour MP for Leeds West.