Autumn Statement and equality debate
Steve Reed MP’s speech in a Commons debate on the Autumn Statement and equality:
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing this important debate, and I am pleased that she referred in her excellent contribution to maternity and paternity leave, because I would like to focus on the plight of parents of premature babies, a group that really is struggling to manage. The autumn statement was a missed opportunity to offer them the better help they need. Although maternity provision in the UK is generally good by international standards, it does not work for parents whose babies are born long before their due date. These tiny babies, born too soon to live without medical support, can be on life support in incubators for weeks, or even months. The parents cannot hold them because they are encased in machinery with wires, tubes and bleeping monitors as they fight for their lives.
Paid maternity leave lasts for about six months, but it is triggered the moment the child is born; there is no flexibility if the baby spends several of those first vital months inside an incubator on a special care unit. That means that the child is doubly disadvantaged, first by being born too weak and frail to live without medical support and with illnesses that can often last for years, and secondly by being denied the full period of time that healthier babies get to bond with their parents. Holding, cuddling and breastfeeding are all vital to a baby’s healthy development, but a premature baby never gets back the time they spend in an incubator.
The stress of watching their baby struggling to live leaves one in every five mums of premature babies with mental ill health, which is another issue that the autumn statement ignored. On average, the parents of premature babies spend an extra £2,000 on the costs of overnight accommodation, hospital parking and eating in expensive hospital cafeterias. For many parents, that is money they simply do not have, and it pushes many into debt that they struggle to get out of afterwards. It is difficult not just for mums but for dads, too. They still only get 10 days’ paid paternity leave, even if their baby is born months early, so at a time when their newborn child is fighting for its life and the child’s mother needs help the most, many dads are sent straight back to work.
Those parents need an extension of paid maternity and paternity leave that takes into account how premature their baby is. There would be a relatively small up-front cost to the Government, but it would save far more public money in the long term by keeping parents in work, helping vulnerable babies to develop more healthily by having that vital time to bond, reducing mothers’ mental ill health and reducing the child’s need for later medical interventions. Of course, the human benefit for families would be way beyond any financial calculation.
I took a group of campaigners and mums of premature babies to share their stories with the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James), and I look forward to hearing her views on what she heard. I hope that the Government will reflect on the damage they have done to families these past six years and, in this case at least, do the right thing and support parents who need us to do the right thing for them so that they can do the right thing for their families.
Steven Reed is Labour MP for Croydon North and Shadow Minister for Children and Families. In 2018 his private member’s bill on reducing violent mental health restraint became law. In June 2019 he launched Labour’s civil society strategy outlining radical plans to empower citizens and communities.
Steve chairs the Cooperative Councils Innovation Network, co-chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group for London, was Leader of Lambeth Council 2006-12 where he led the council’s children’s services to become best-rated in the country and pioneered the public-health approach to tackling violent youth crime. He worked in publishing for 16 years and was an elected trade union branch secretary.