Draft Maternity and Parental Leave (Amendment) Regulations 2001

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Brian Cotter (Weston-super-Mare): I begin by declaring an interest: my granddaughter was born three hours ago. In America one traditionally hands out cigars, but perhaps that is only for the parents. Not being a new man, I hope that I shall not have to do too much towards supporting my granddaughter, but I shall, of course, do what is required.

We have had a long peroration from the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond). It was slightly better than those we heard in the Committee that considered the National Minimum Wage Bill, where we had endless perorations, not from him, but from others. His historical contribution this afternoon was at least relevant. In the Committee that considered the National Minimum Wage Bill, we discussed Greek mythology and people having their heads and legs cut off. However, I am not in the business of wasting time.

Mr. Hammond: If the hon. Gentleman did not regard as completely lucid all the contributions that were made at that time, perhaps he would remind the Committee that some of them were made at 5 o'clock in the morning.

Brian Cotter: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. It was not only the remarks made at 5 o'clock in the morning that were not lucid.

The order represents a modest and fair expansion of the scheme. It will help parents of pre-school-age children better to balance their work and family lives. I recognise the additional needs of parents of disabled children, and we all welcome additional help for them because they need all the help they can get.

The hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward) made a relevant point about the minimum wage, which many hon. Members thought was going to be a burden on business. I do not accept the view expressed by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge that there are parts of the country for which it has been bad news. Like everybody else, I have a postbag, in which the view generally expressed—there are bound to be contrary examples here and there—is that it has been beneficial. The order will raise people's status, their feelings about themselves and their ability to conduct their lives.

Will it be easy to operate the scheme? I would be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about what will happen when an employee moves from one job to another. How heavy a burden does the Minister consider the scheme to be? The regulatory impact assessment states:

    ``There is no requirement for employers to keep records. Hence the main cost to business of this change will be in covering for additional absences.''

That is an important point. When an employee moves from one place to another, some adjustment will have to be made for leave already taken.

I am happy to be shot down if I missed this point, but can the Minister clarify the position of a family with three or four children under the age of five--a nightmare situation. If one keeps racking them up, one could have entitlement forever. That matter may have been raised before, but I would be glad to hear the Minister comments.

If agreements fail, people could get into a difficult situation. We hope that relations between employees and employers are good enough to overcome such problems. However, I note that an employer can postpone leave for six months. I will be interested to hear the Minister's thoughts on that.

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge made the fair point that small firms may find absences difficult to handle. I know that. Perhaps I should declare my interest—I shall nip it in now before it is too late. I run a small business, and it is different for a small business when people are absent. If we followed that argument to a logical conclusion, we may decide that there should be no benefits because it is impossible to run a firm when people disappear. It is not impossible, just difficult. That has been discussed under previous regulations. It has been argued that small firms could be assisted, perhaps financially, by the Government to enable them to pay for part-time staff and training. The Minister may be tempted to say something about that this afternoon. It is a relevant point. We must move forward and improve conditions.

The CBI and others have argued that there has been insufficient consultation. The Minister will recall from previous Committees that people have often complained about a lack of consultation or a lack of a lead-in period. A 12-week gap between the introduction of regulations and their implementation has been talked about. Since implementation will take place on 10 January, perhaps a 12-week period is not to be had. Perhaps the Minister considers that consultation has happened already, but a lead-in time is important.

Will the Minister comment on the clear lack of awareness among employees and employers of many of these regulations? Can he assure us that good information will be produced? That will be particularly important when disagreements arise. Both sides should be aware that there are provisions in the regulations to allow for such things as a six-month breathing space. Some 16 per cent. of respondents to a survey on maternity leave said that they had not applied for Government support for maternity pay—I think that that refers to employers. As a general principle, people should be well-informed about forthcoming regulations.

The consultation process is never as good as it should be—it is impossible to make it as good as we would like—but I hope that the Minister will ensure an adequate the information process for firms. Will he say what part the Small Business Service will play? It is trumpeted by the Government, and so far has the support of the Liberal Democrats.

5.15 pm

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): I broadly welcome the regulations. I particularly welcome the five-week extension for people with disabled children.

My concern, which was expressed from the Front Bench by my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, is whether we shall have to return in a few weeks for yet another amendment. The DTI has a reputation for producing unworkable legislation. I well remember the Utilities Bill. After several months of discussion, half the Bill had to be ripped apart and discarded, at great expense to the taxpayer, because although many people, perhaps even Cherie Booth, had advised that it was unworkable, the DTI carried on regardless. Can the Minister guarantee that we shall not have to return to the matter yet again because the terms of these regulations are at fault?

My hon. Friend has told an extraordinary tale about liaison between Cherie Booth, the TUC and the Government. At times, paper walls are welcome, but at other times they are not so welcome. I hope that, in response to my hon. Friend's point, the Minister will tell us the precise cost to the DTI—nay, the taxpayer—of paying off the TUC and Cherie Booth with a quite considerable sum of money. That might not have been necessary if the DTI had listened to them in the first place.

Will the Minister assure the Committee that it was just a coincidence that everything happened so hurriedly before a general election and that the amount paid to the TUC was not higher than it should have been? The TUC might have perceived that it could command a higher rate to be bought off by the Government just before a general election.

Let me also say how disappointed I am that, having been chauffeured into his seat, the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward) made his point with great panache and has been chauffeured out again. I think that he represents St. Helens—his house has not been occupied since he won the seat. I do not want to be ruled out of order, but I must point out that at the time to which he referred we were debating a £5.50 per hour minimum wage, which would have been damaging. Of course, it was much less than that in the end, which is why it is so ineffectual. The rate here is much lower than the corresponding rate in the United States.

5.18 pm

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy): I apologise if I have missed this point, but paragraph 4 states:

    ``An employee is entitled to eighteen weeks' leave in respect of a child who is entitled to a disability living allowance''.

How do the Government define a child with disabilities? In general, we are talking about children up to the age of five, but have the Government considered that children with special needs who are profoundly handicapped may remain in a special school until the age of 19? There are huge pressures on parents and carers with severely disabled children.

5.18 pm

Alan Johnson: The debate has been longer than some of us may have expected, but it has been entertaining. The hon. Member for Runnymede and

Weybridge talked about being economical with history. On the issue of parental leave, we can all cherry-pick—or even Cherie-pick—which bit of history we want to mention.

Let me explain where all this started. It commenced when the then Secretary of State for Employment, who at that time represented Enfield, Southgate, but is now the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo), said—in an extraordinary move that surprised every right-of-centre party in Europe—that the Conservative Government would, as a matter of principle, have nothing to do with negotiating or introducing the parental leave directive. I have great respect for the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, but I was hoping for a change of attitude after the election. That has not happened and the Conservatives are still the only right-of-centre party in Europe that would quibble at the introduction of such basic minimum standards.

As I said, the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea, who was then the Secretary of State, refused as a point of principle to have anything to do with the directive. The British Government consequently had no say in negotiating the directive, yet we were happy to sign the social chapter when we came into government in 1997, and to implement it in this country. There is some excuse for not being totally au fait with all the negotiations, because no one from the British Government participated, and no UK businesses were consulted on the directive. We needed to implement it by 15 December 1999—otherwise we would suffer cruel and unusual punishments from Europe. That is where we start.

We believed that we were applying the directive consistently. Three countries—Luxembourg, the Republic of Ireland and the UK—introduced it for the first time; others had done so many years previously. Our reading of the directive was that it applied to children born after a certain date.

We debated the issues in December 1999 when the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) was on the Opposition Front Bench, and a curious argument was advanced. If the leave is not paid, we were told, the poorest people in society would not take it. That was a reasonable argument and I presumed that the Tory philosophy had changed. We rejected it, because it would have placed more burdens on business, but that was the tone and tenor of the Conservative party's argument at that time.

We felt that our legal case was sound. We settled out of court, so to speak, but the scenario painted by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge—that this was the crucial issue at the last general election, taken up by the Trades Union Congress, and that everyone was running around like headless chickens—is disingenuous. What in fact emerged in between was the Green Paper, ``Work and Parents: Competitiveness and Choice'', and the huge consultation exercise to which I referred in my introductory remarks.

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