Today I will be asking Parliament to amend the law so parents who have suffered the loss of a child are entitled to two weeks off work, paid at the rate of maternity leave.
Around 5,000 children die every year leaving many thousands of parents to go through this personal tragedy.
My wife and I lost our son who was stillborn full term in October 2014, and I was entitled to two weeks off work protected by statute under the paternity rules. As it happened, I had a very understanding employer, so my legal rights did not come into it. However, it was comforting to know that I was entitled to two weeks off work by law and that I could take that time as needed to come to terms with the incredible loss. I know how valuable it was, to spend precious time with my wife coming to terms with what had just happened and registering the death, making arrangements for the funeral and preparing to say goodbye.
Thinking about the parents of children over six months old, why should they not have the same protection in law as those that lose a baby under six months old? Upon losing a baby, the bereaved mother and father are entitled to full maternity and paternity leave. But if you were to lose an older child? Nothing. Surely this cannot be right.
At present, there is no statutory right to take time off on compassionate or bereavement grounds. However, all employees have the right to take immediate 'time off for dependents' under the Employment Rights Act 1996. In effect, it is a legal right to time off unpaid to deal with family emergencies. Yet there is no set limit of how many days can be taken as leave and a rather vague definition of a 'reasonable amount of time'. Further there is no statutory right to be paid during this 'reasonable amount of time'.
Most employers are excellent and act with compassion and kindness, offering their bereaved staff the time they need to come to terms with their loss. However, some do not. They behave in a manner which falls well short of what we would expect of them.
I am certainly alive to the pressures on business at the moment, especially small businesses and am loathed to introduce any additional regulatory burden. However, given the relatively and thankfully small number of bereaved parents annually and the fact that most employers are already very understanding and give their employees the time that they need, the cost to businesses would be small.
So how much would this cost the taxpayer? It is difficult to say as it would come down to the eligibility criteria. However, research conducted by the House of Commons Library suggests that the cost could be as little as £2million per year.
The reality is that every bereaved parent is different and some will want to take time off and others will want to get straight back to work. In the same way, not everyone takes their full maternity or paternity entitlement. The issue however is that they have the choice and protection by law. Some will come at this from a religious perspective, when a death occurs in Hinduism for example, relatives are required to observe a 13-day mourning period after cremation and in Judaism, family members are required to stay at home for seven days of mourning after a death.
Statutory bereavement leave is a reasonably common right across Europe and many countries across the world. Whilst the exact conditions vary in terms of total time off and whether said leave is paid, it is remarkable that you can argue that Albania or Bosnia and Herzagovnia have better worker rights in this area than us.
My proposal would give UK workers some of the best bereavement rights in the world in terms of the length of leave possible. Whilst other countries, such as Israel, offer leave with full salary, I believe that longer leave at a lower statutory rate is a good starting point.
The Government e-petition calling for bereavement leave for parents organised by Lucy Herd has over 25,000 signatures and a Change.org petition has over 165,000 signatures.
The campaign also has the support of many organisations including Child Bereavement UK, the Lullaby Trust, Working Families, Cruse Bereavement, Dying Matters, the list goes on.
Suffering the loss of a child is quite simply one of the most tragic events a person can experience. I hope today the Government will recognise that by approving this change to the law, it will make it a little easier for parents to take time and support one another as the grieving begins.
Will Quince is the Conservative MP for Colchester