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‘What are people meant to do?’: widower fights for change to UK parental leave law

When Aaron Horsey found out his wife, Bernadette, was pregnant he decided to change jobs to make sure he could work flexibly and be present for his new child. But when Bernadette died unexpectedly in childbirth, he suddenly realised the move had left him with no right to time off work to look after their newborn son, Tim.

Horsey already knew that fathers and partners only have the right to paternity or parental leave if they have worked for a company for nine months before their child is born – even if it is unpaid. Instead, he was planning to take unpaid leave and holiday.

But he was blindsided when he realised that even though his partner had died, leaving him as the sole carer for their baby, he still had no automatic right to leave.

“There was the emotional trauma of looking after a newborn baby, having to arrange a funeral, having to discuss things with the coroner, dealing with medical investigations,” says the 31-year-old. “And, at the same time, I’m thinking, well, if I don’t sort out my job, I’ll be unemployed in a week’s time, and then I’m going to be really stuck.”

Eleven months on from the death of his wife, who was also 31, at Royal Derby hospital, Horsey, a clinical trial manager, is calling for a change in the law so that, if a birthing partner dies or is incapacitated, whoever takes on responsibility for the child receives the automatic right to time off work to care for their child.

He said: “There are hopefully not many people in my situation, but there will be some, and if you have an unscrupulous employer or insecure work like a delivery driver, they can end up just losing their job overnight, which could be the only means that they have to support that new baby. In what are already tragic times, what are those people meant to do?”

He says that while his employer was very supportive and consistently assured him they would find a solution, he still found himself at the six-week postnatal checkup telling his doctor that, after a period of unpaid leave and holiday taken immediately after the birth, he was due to go back to work in a matter of days. The doctor signed him off sick and within a few months the company had put leave in place – but the process was complicated and difficult.

“A change in the legislation would help employees in terms of protecting their jobs, but also should help employers who want to do the right thing by putting policies in place in advance of anything like this happening,” he says.

Horsey has the support of his MP, Darren Henry, who raised his case during prime minister’s questions earlier this month. The pair had a “productive” meeting with the business minister Kevin Hollinrake, and now hope a legislative vehicle – perhaps in the next parliamentary session – can be found so that an amendment to current employment law can be tabled.

“To me it just immediately seemed wrong that in this tragic situation it is an employer’s choice if they provide leave, and, working with the government, we really want to explore how we can change that so that it’s a statutory obligation on employers,” says Henry.

A government spokesperson said it was committed to making sure parental leave was fair and worked for parents – and making it easier for fathers to take paternity leave, adding: “We acknowledge what a challenging situation this must be. We encourage employers to respond sensitively and compassionately to requests for time off in such circumstances.”

Horsey acknowledges that pushing for a change in the law at the same time as dealing with his grief and caring for a baby has been difficult – but he takes inspiration from his wife, who in her work as a biomedical scientist in Nottingham was someone who liked to find solutions to problems, and from his son.

“It is tough to be going through this and doing all of those things at the same time, but I want Tim to grow up knowing that he is lucky enough to live in a country where these changes can be made,” he says. “It’s absolutely right, I think, that he grows up with me being able to show him that if something is wrong, you can stand up and talk about it. And some people will listen.”