Iain, Tanis and their son Eugene

Iain, Tanis and their son Eugene   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Iain Dalton and Tanis Belsham-Wray, Leeds Socialist Party

The birth of any child is an intense and stressful time for most parents, and that applies even more if babies are born prematurely. With a baby’s body not fully developed, there’s a greater likelihood of the mother having to go through a C-section, along with increased risk of many possible complications for the baby.

When our son was born at 29 weeks, we were exhausted and scared for him, and did not really know what to expect. Our son remained in the hospital for six weeks, a relatively short period of time for a baby born as early as he was. Parents are told to expect their child to be in the hospital until they reach term.

This can swallow up a chunk of parents’ maternity and paternity leave, which usually starts from birth, despite premature babies hitting development milestones based on when they would have reached term rather than their birth date.

Campaign win

Nurses on the unit, knowing the stress that parents go through, were excited about the government’s recent announcement of reform to parental leave arrangements for parents of premature babies, following a consultation launched in July 2019. This wasn’t a sudden gesture of goodwill from the Tories, but followed a 350,000-strong petition, and the latest of a series of private members’ bills on the matter launched in parliament the previous month.

The arrangements will mean that parents of all babies who are in a neonatal unit for over a week can get additional paid leave, on top of the usual allowance, for up to 12 additional weeks while their baby is in a neonatal unit, with paid leave of up to £160 a week available. The parents of around 40,000 children a year are expected to be eligible to benefit from this.

However, 100,000 babies spend time in neonatal units annually: 40,000 premature babies and a further 60,000 babies with complications. Parents of these babies won’t benefit directly due to the one-week qualifying period. The benefit can only be claimed for the second week onwards. Some of the most premature babies can also spend as long as 18 weeks in neonatal units. How are these parents supposed to cope for the remaining six weeks?

Neonatal leave set at £160 a week, paid for directly by the government, will be around the same level as the maximum statutory parental leave pay. It is over £150 a week less than a worker will earn by working a 35-hour week on the Tories’ current minimum wage. Several parents we spoke to on the ward were struggling to afford the drop in income from taking paternity leave already.

Bliss, a premature and sick babies charity, which had campaigned for neonatal leave and championed the changes once they were announced, found in a 2013 survey of 1,800 parents that each week-long stay on a neonatal unit costs parents an average of £282 a week.

Even worse, as the nurses on the ward were disappointed to find out, these measures will only be introduced in 2023, with some of the details not yet fully announced.

While many will welcome this as a first step in the direction of providing official neonatal leave, the government proposals fall short of what would really give parents the ability to take leave from work and ensure their baby gets the best start in life, without financial worries.

Rather than allowing Tory ministers to hypocritically try to claim they are the champions of workers’ rights, the trade unions should take a lead on campaigning for fully paid leave. They should call for:

  • No delay until 2023, introduce neonatal leave immediately
  • Scrap the one-week qualifying period and 12-week cap, allow additional paid leave for as long as babies are in the neonatal ward
  • Full pay for parents taking neonatal leave
  • Extend maternity and paternity leave to a minimum of one year on full pay