CHARITIES are urging the UK Government to pick up the pace with introducing neonatal paid leave, with parents set to wait another two years before they can reap the benefits of a new law.

SNP MP Stuart McDonald saw his Neonatal Care (Leave and Pay) Bill receive royal assent last week with the legislation set to give parents whose baby needs neonatal care up to 12 weeks paid leave from work.

Parents will be eligible for the support if their baby receives neonatal care for more than seven continuous days, before the baby reaches 28 days of life.

Up until now, there has been no additional support for parents with a baby born premature or unwell enshrined in law, with parents often forced to take unpaid leave or watch their maternity leave disappear while their child is cared for.

Campaigning charity Bliss – which supports families with premature and sick babies - has said the new act will be “transformational” for the families it supports.

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However, the new law is not due to be implemented until April 2025 and charities like Bliss are being forced to tell struggling parents they will not be able to access support others will eventually get.

At least 10 other countries including Canada, Finland and Iceland already provide flexibility to mums and dads of premature or sick babies.

The charity, along with more than 20 other organisations, has written to the Treasury and the Department for Business and Trade to urge them to speed up the process and ensure parents can benefit from the law as quickly as possible.

Beth McCleverty, senior policy and public affairs officer for Bliss, told The National: “It’s super frustrating [the law not coming in for two years].

“This is an amazing moment for the parents we support [seeing the bill become law] and it’s such a  big change, but for every family that goes through it in the next two years, they’re not going to have that support and that is really hard.

“While the bill has been going through I’ve spoken to so many parents and employers who are struggling with it. They’ve seen it is happening and Stuart was taking it on but they’re asking us ‘when will I be able to access it?’ and we have to say you won’t be able to because your child will be two by the time it comes in.  

The National: Beth McCleverty said the law will be 'transformational' for parents but needs to be brought in quicker than 2025 Beth McCleverty said the law will be 'transformational' for parents but needs to be brought in quicker than 2025 (Image: Bliss)

“For us it’s been a case of encouraging employers to do it before the statutory entitlement comes in.  After all, it’s not that common to have a really long stay in neonatal care so it’s not something employers will come across often.

“But we’ve also written jointly to the Department for Business and the Treasury with around 24 other charities and unions and professional bodies to ask them to look at speeding it up.

“We would love to see any movement on the timeline for any part of the bill. There’s two clauses – the leave and the pay elements – so we would love to see anything sped up because it feels like such a long time.”

When the law is implemented, it is anticipated around 60,000 parents will benefit from it every year.

But that means almost 120,000 parents of babies needing neonatal care in the UK from now until April 2025 will miss out due to the current timeframe for implementation given by the government.

McDonald chose to lead on the legislation after he came first out of the annual private members’ bill ballot a year ago.

While considering what he wanted to pursue, he was introduced to Bliss and its campaign by his SNP colleague David Linden, who has two children who both needed neonatal care when they were born.

McDonald said HMRC had shown previously that it can work fast when required and has pledged to “up the ante” and put pressure on the UK Government to get systems in place for the legislation.

“Passing legislation is a massive step but we’ve got work to do to try and encourage them [the UK Government] to implement it as quickly as possible,” he told The National.

“HMRC have certain time they need to take to get systems up and running and you do have to give employers time and then you’ve got the challenge of the fact it probably has to happen at the end of a tax year so it could still be the best part of two years.

“But charities and organisations have been writing to the government and we’ll take every opportunity we can to try and see if the government can find a way to speed things up.

“HMRC have proven they can work pretty fast when they have to if you think back to Covid and all the schemes brought in then.

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“We can also try to encourage employers to get ahead of the curve because they will reap the benefits with employees feeling supported and valued.

“Of course we want to up the ante though and put pressure on HMRC to move things along as fast as we can.”

Recent Bliss research found that in around 70 per cent of families with a significant neonatal stay, at least one parent returned to work while their baby or babies were still in hospital.

McCleverty said parents had told Bliss just how much more stressful dealing with work made their situation.

She said: “If your baby is born really early or really unwell and is in hospital for a long time, your maternity leave starts straight away and you still get only two weeks of paternity leave which can be really hard if your baby is in [hospital] for a few months.

“It’s really stressful managing work and having a sick baby, going in every day sitting at your desk watching the phone and wondering if someone is going to call you from the hospital.

“Lots of people take unpaid leave which is really hard on families’ finances and it’s expensive to spend a lot of time at hospital. It’s also hard for mums to be alone in that situation if your partner has had to go back to work.”

Asked how significant the law will be for families once it does come in, she added: “It’s a paradigm shift in terms of the kind of support they will get. The default is you get nothing right now and usually people just have to go back to work.

“It will be transformative for the families we support.”

A Department for Business and Trade spokesperson said: “The Neonatal Care Act will enable thousands of parents whose babies require neonatal care after birth to take additional paid time off work, and Great Britain will be the only country in the world to have bespoke paid Neonatal Care leave.

“We are committed to introducing Neonatal Care Leave and Pay as quickly as possible, and work is already underway across Government to deliver these new entitlements.”