Bereaved father wins change to parental leave law in three UK nations

<span>Aaron Horsey with his son Tim. The paternity leave (bereavement) bill was one of the last bills passed before the general election.</span><span>Photograph: Millie Pilkington/The Guardian</span>
Aaron Horsey with his son Tim. The paternity leave (bereavement) bill was one of the last bills passed before the general election.Photograph: Millie Pilkington/The Guardian

A father who was left without the right to parental leave after his wife died in childbirth has won a change to the law in England, Wales and Scotland on the last day of this parliament.

Aaron Horsey found himself battling bureaucracy as well as grief after his wife, Bernadette, 31, died while giving birth to their son, Tim, at Royal Derby hospital in 2022.

Because Horsey, a clinical trial manager, had worked for his company for less than nine months, he did not have the automatic right to paternity or parental leave, despite being left in sole care of his newborn son.

But thanks to a newly discovered skill for political lobbying and the cross-party support of several MPs and peers, on Friday a private member’s bill passed that will ensure any bereaved non-birthing partner in the same situation will automatically get the right to parental leave.

“Every time I think about it, it’s still quite devastating to realise that for it to help anybody they will have to be in the same circumstances,” Horsey said. “But because of this law, support is going to be there for those people and for their employers.”

After a two-year campaign, the law was pushed through at the last minute after the surprise announcement of a 4 July general election. It made it through a very limited period of “wash-up”, when, in agreement with the opposition, the government speeds through remaining legislation before the end of a parliament’s term.

“It’s the first time I have felt anxious when a general election has been called,” Horsey said. “I wasn’t sure I had it in me to start all over again.”

The bill started as an urgent conversation between Horsey, carrying his three-week old son, and his MP, Darren Henry, the Conservative member for Broxtowe in Nottinghamshire, in February 2022 when Horsey was still unsure if he would have a job after taking time off.

The pair met the minister Kevin Hollinrake, who was supportive, before the baton was taken up by Labour’s Chris Elmore with a private member’s bill when he was drawn in the ballot system.

The paternity leave (bereavement) bill was sponsored in the Lords by Ruth Anderson and supported from the government side by Dominic Johnson. It amends the Employment Rights Act, which does not apply to Northern Ireland, but Horsey is hopeful that the country will benefit from the change in the future.

Henry said he was proud of the cross-party work that had been done to change the law, which the government expects will affect about 100 families a year. “This law is only going to impact a very small number of people, but for those that it does, the impact will be huge,” he said.

Horsey said the experience had shown “politics at its best”. “With an election coming up, it’s easy to think there’s a constant Labour versus Conservative battle going on. But this highlights that politicians can and do work together, and there are people who are working hard for us.”

Tim is now a rambunctious toddler who does not yet understand the nature of the law he helped change. But he will, said Horsey. “Lots of other children will have their collection of storybooks for bedtime, but Tim’s got a little pile of Hansard records,” he said. “He’s too young to understand now but it’s part of his story.”

Reflecting on his own journey in the past two and a half years, Horsey comes back to his inspiration: his wife and his son. “I would prefer not to have faced this situation,” he said. “But I did, and my wife’s impact on me as a person has provided that inspiration to see it through. And hopefully I have also shown Tim that you can make a change.”