Draft Maternity and Parental Leave (Amendment) Regulations 2001

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Mr. Hammond: What is disingenuous is the Department of Trade and Industry's press release, and the fact that the Minister's opening speech did not mention the TUC or the legal opinions of Ms Booth, or the fact that there were any legal proceedings at all. The Minister says that the Department had good legal advice at the time. If the Department's position was based on a sound legal foundation, why was it not tested before the European Court of Justice?

Alan Johnson: I was coming to that. We did and still do believe that the legal position is sound. It has not been tested in court. Monitoring was raised during the December 1999 debates. How would it be introduced? How could we ascertain how many people took up parental leave? How could we tell whether—as the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton suggested—the absence of payment meant that the poorest people in society were not taking up the leave option and the more affluent were? We set up a parental leave monitoring group, as a result of which we changed our mind. Feedback suggested that it was not just a question of parental leave, but of the wider issues surrounding working parents: statutory maternity leave, statutory maternity pay, the right to parental leave and so forth. Those issues became subsumed in the ``Work and Parents'' Green Paper and the enormous consultation exercise.

Businesses may have criticised us, with some good reason, for introducing the measure in 1999, but no business ever argued that our consultation on ``Work and Parents'' was not comprehensive. It emerged that paid parental leave was not people's main priority. If money were to be paid out, it should be in respect of other areas—and that is covered by the Employment Bill that has been published today.

A consistent theme that emerged was that some people—admittedly, there were not thousands of them—felt it unfair that the measure applies only to children born after 15 December, because they thought that people with children under five should be able to take this leave.

People also raised the issue of disabled children. I was pleased to hear the hon. Members for Runnymede and Weybridge and for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) say that they welcomed the measures in that regard. However, the provisions for disabled children would not exist if we had not signed the social chapter and the parental leave directive. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge argued the case for fewer burdens on business, which is a hackneyed phrase; I hope, given his skill and imagination, that he will come up with something less boring in future. If one argues that case, one must also argue that it is a burden on business for parents of disabled children to take what was originally 13 weeks and, if the order is accepted, will be 18 weeks; one cannot cherry-pick.

Mr. Hammond: I am grateful to the Minister. The specific point that emerged from my discussion with businesses was that most employers would feel obliged and inclined to give compassionate unpaid leave to parents with disabled children. The imposition by Government regulation of a requirement to do so will have little impact in the real world because, given the position in which those parents find themselves, employers almost universally sympathise with them.

Alan Johnson: The hon. Gentleman is wrong. Another argument used in December 1999 was that the arrangements should be voluntary because employers are benign, which is just not the case. Many businesses, particularly small businesses, are extraordinarily good in these areas, and they often hide their light under a considerable bushel. The more we talked to employees and employers, the more the parents of disabled children made it clear that they could not combine their professional lives with their domestic responsibilities. Only 3 per cent. of companies made any provision for parental leave before we introduced these measures. It is time for a change of tack. Someone once said that the Conservative party's approach to these family-friendly issues was epitomised by its belief that a creche is something that happens between two Range Rovers in Tunbridge Wells. However, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton has changed that view. The argument that these arrangements should be voluntary is spurious.

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge also made a point about the logic of the arrangements. There is a legitimate argument about why we are changing tack, but I have explained that that has nothing to do with court cases. The logic of the arrangements has been tested. We published them in May, the consultation period ended in August and we are applying them retrospectively. No parent whose children were born after midnight on 15 December should be denied this right, and we must apply it retrospectively. We set out in our discussion document how we planned to do that. We received 46 responses to the document from some big organisations, including the Small Business Service. They did not argue with the logic of our method.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that if we give the group of people whose children were born after 15 December 1994 their 13 weeks, we must take cognisance of the burdens on business. That is why such leave cannot be taken in periods of less than one week, unless one's child is disabled. This is the fallback position, but we hope that companies will negotiate better arrangements. One cannot take more than four weeks a year, and employers can defer leave by six months if they think that it would have a particular effect on their business, unless such leave is taken when a child is born. Grandad Cotter should get hold of his son or daughter to let them know that.

Chris Ruane: When my child, Mairead, was born three years ago, the Whips Office allowed me two weeks' parental leave. Will the changed regulations apply in the Whips Office, and if so, will my hon. Friend mention that fact to the Whips?

Alan Johnson: I will raise that matter with the Whips Office. I had the delightful experience of missing the first ministerial meeting on work and parents because my son was born that day. I came back with good apologies for the Whip about why I had not been there.

Mr. Hammond: As we are swapping anecdotes, I must tell the Committee that my youngest child was born during a Committee stage and I missed the morning sitting—but I am glad to say that I was back for the afternoon sitting.

Does the Minister accept that it would have been equally, if not more, logical to have phased in the entitlement so that parents whose children were four years old on 15 December 1999 would have had one fifth of the entitlement and so on, pro rata?

Alan Johnson: No. We considered that, but it had horrendous implications in terms of tracking who had taken what leave when, and who had so much leave left. It seemed better simply to take the period of January 2002 to March 2005, which is just over three years. The entitlement is four weeks per year, so such a parent will have to have taken their full entitlement, under the same conditions as every one else, by March 2005. Everyone saw that as sensible, having looked at some other options, such as the one that the hon. Gentleman suggested, which was horrendously complicated.

I was interested in Hammond's theory of surplus value, which I was ready for, as I know that he tried it out on my colleague yesterday. The simple point is this: let us add up the cost of all the legislation that guarantees minimum standards that did not exist under the previous Government: the introduction of the national minimum wage, paid holidays, parental leave, time off for family emergencies—another widely welcomed part of the regulations—the part-time workers directive and improved maternity pay. The cost for every employee in the country is 50p a year.

Mr. Wiggin: Employee?

Alan Johnson: Yes, employee. If the argument is that the work force is losing out and this is using up some of what could have been the disposable income of people without children, it is not a very good argument. People who do not have children may also want flexible working; that, too, is being addressed in the Employment Bill.

Mr. Hammond: The generally accepted figure for the cost of the burdens imposed on business in the previous Parliament is £15.9 billion. That comes from the sum of the Government's regulatory impact assessment figures and is quoted by the CBI and the British Chambers of Commerce. I do not believe that £15.9 billion equates to 50p per employee.

Alan Johnson: There we are. I have my figures and the hon. Gentleman has his. The cost for employees is still very modest, and I think that his theory falls down.

The hon. Gentleman and by the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Brian Cotter) raised the issue of previous employment. What we are doing does not breach any huge principle, and, as has been mentioned, it already exists for statutory sick pay. Once again, the point is that we are doing this retrospectively. Someone who had a child under five on 15 December 1999 must have had a year's employment at that stage, in whichever company they were working for, to take the parental leave now. We are not saying that if they had six months with one employer, that could be added to six months in the future. That would be very bureaucratic. We are simply saying that someone who at that time had one year of employment would qualify; anything else would be unfair to the individual.

On the regulatory impact assessment, calculating the cost of much parental leave was horrendously difficult in 1999, and it remains so now. Estimating take-up of unpaid parental leave is very difficult. We need to monitor the situation, and such monitoring will form part of the labour force survey from this year on. However, according to feedback that is coming in thick and fast, those who want to take time off when their child is born, particularly fathers, regard the provision as very important. It is also important for those women who, because of a change in child care arrangements, must stay at home for three weeks to look after their children until they can find a replacement service. In part, it is probably because leave is unpaid that only 3 per cent. of employees have made use of the provision; nevertheless, as most people recognise, it is a small step along the road to a more civilised society.

I should tell the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare that the provision contains no grandfather rights—and I have already dealt with what will happen when a person moves from one job to another. He also asked whether the provision would apply where there are two, three or four children. The answer is yes; parental leave will apply in respect of each child. In our view, the six-month deferral is working sufficiently well. Again, it was introduced so that not too much of a burden would be placed on businesses, particularly small businesses, of whose concerns we are extremely cognisant. The right to deferral will not cause problems, particularly given that it will not apply at the time of a child's birth.

 
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Prepared 7 November 2001