Stop delays over premature baby leave, MP warns

Hundreds of families with premature babies are being left in limbo because the government is “dragging its feet” over reforms to parental leave, an SNP MP has said.
David Linden's privileged position as an MP make him feel guilty. Picture: John DevlinDavid Linden's privileged position as an MP make him feel guilty. Picture: John Devlin
David Linden's privileged position as an MP make him feel guilty. Picture: John Devlin

David Linden, whose two children were born prematurely, warned that after repeatedly raising the issue with Prime Minister Theresa May and in meetings with ministers, the government will be letting parents down if it doesn’t commit to an overhaul by the summer.

Around 60,000 babies are born prematurely every year in the UK, before the 37th week of pregnancy.

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“Currently, dads have to take their two weeks’ statutory parental leave within the first 56 days after their child is born, but premature babies can be in hospital for longer than that,” said Linden.

“There needs to be more flexibility so that dads can take parental leave when it works for their family.

“Having statutory parental leave extended for every week a premature baby is in neonatal care would also make a real difference, and it’s not such a big ask.”

Linden describes the week his daughter was born as the most intense and stressful of his life. Not only was Jessica in neonatal intensive care, but his wife, Roslyn, was being treated for septicaemia in a high dependency ward, and his son Isaac was also admitted with breathing difficulties stemming from his own premature birth.

Thankfully, parliament was in recess and by the time Linden was back at Westminster he had only missed a few sitting days. “I felt more guilty as an MP because it’s a job where I could choose to put my family first. Most people don’t have that,” he said.

After raising the issue again at PMQs this week, May said civil servants in the Business Department were working on a “short, focused” study of reforms to the system.

“This review was meant to be published in January,” said Linden. “The Prime Minister has to realise this is happening to new families every day… I get that they are absolutely hamstrung by Brexit. If the government came to me and said, ‘Things are difficult now, but we will do it in the Queen’s Speech,’ then I would accept that.”

Linden highlighted the approach in Sweden, where statutory parental leave begins when a baby is discharged from hospital, and neonatal care is covered by compassionate leave for the parents of sick children.

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Some employers take a similar approach, such as Sony Music, which now offers staff leave with full pay while their baby is in neonatal care.

“It’s great if you work for Sony, not so great if you work at the local Tesco,” said Linden. “Government and the public sector should be leading the way on this.”

The MP has written to all 32 Scottish councils, but says only South Ayrshire has adapted its policy, offering full pay to mothers and up to two additional weeks of paid leave to fathers while newborns are in hospital.

Reflecting on his own family’s experience, Linden added: “It’s made us all stronger. Making a 700 mile round trip every week to see my newborn daughter, who still needs support to breathe – it has spurred me on.”

A spokeswoman for the Business Department said: “We recognise that having a premature baby can be an incredibly difficult and stressful time, which is why we are undertaking a short, focused, internal review of provisions for parents of premature and sick babies.”