Draft Employment (Northern Ireland) Order 2002

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The Chairman: Order. Although the hon. Gentleman is saying some very interesting things, I remind him that we are talking about employment law in Northern Ireland and not the start of the world.

Mr. Taylor: You must concede, Mr. Atkinson, that some of the time I was quite close to being in order. However, I shall say no more on that subject, unless you would like to meet me in the smoking room later.

The measure belongs to the spirit of the age and the Conservative party will support it. I approve of the general principle that the law should be the same throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland. This is a remarkable piece of Northern Ireland legislation. It is possibly the only Committee for a Northern Ireland instrument that I have sat upon that does not create a new commission, board or ombudsman. That makes it a welcome novelty.

4.44 pm

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): I apologise for the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson), but it is difficult for my colleagues in Northern Ireland to be here on Mondays. I hope that that will be borne in mind.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull, I do not want to detain the Committee. I am aware that the Northern Ireland Assembly has supported the measures in the order. The policy of the Ulster Unionist party has been to seek parity of provisions

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with employees in Great Britain. We support and wish to be associated with the measure.

The Minister said that the order will bring benefits to employees, working parents and adoptive parents, but that it will also generate costs to employers, some of which will be recoupable. Could she say what estimate has been made of the costs to business before some benefit flows from non-recruitment savings?

My party supports the order.

4.45 pm

Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle): Thank you, Mr. Atkinson. I, too, welcome you to the Chair.

Like the hon. Member for Solihull, I also think that this statutory instrument is remarkable. It was written in reasonably plain English and it was possible to understand it at the first reading. I have not usually found that with Northern Ireland statutory instruments. It was also of a font size that those of us over 50 find easy to read. I would be grateful if future statutory instruments were of a similar font size.

My party welcomes this statutory instrument and its importance to children, parents and business. One of my first political awakenings happened relatively late in life, after the birth of my first child. After I had endured a 36-hour labour, my husband was docked a day and a half's pay by his employer for the privilege of having supported me through that period. I was concerned by the thought processes of what was then a Conservative council, which docked a man's wages for supporting his wife during her labour. I had perhaps waited a long time-until I was 30-to experience my first political awakening, but it was formative. After my first child, I was careful to ensure that my children were born on Sundays or on holidays-and they were.

The importance of the legislation is that, where possible, both parents should play a full part in the care of the child. There is a particular need for that in the early days of life and immediately after adoption. It is common for one parent-particularly the father, or an absent or working parent-to feel excluded from the relationship developing between the child and the other parent, who is usually the mother. Anything that can be done to ensure that the relationship between all parties-both parents and the child-is as good as possible is welcome. It seems to me that two weeks is little enough time for that to happen.

My only question to the Minister is about the gender specificity of entitlement to paternity leave and pay. I quite understand that paternity means the father. However, the legislation is drafted in such a way as to be equally applicable to husband and wife relationships in which the roles are reversed, to relationships in which a partner of the same sex acts in the paternal or second parent role, or to cases of same-sex adoption, which I hope will have its status clarified soon. I hope that the working of the 2002 Act, when it comes into force, will not discriminate against family arrangements that do not involve heterosexual relationships.

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The proposal applies to adoption leave and pay and to paternity leave. I welcome the fact that most of the costs in respect of paternity leave will be reimbursed. I am pleased that the Conservative party welcomes these provisions, as it did those in the original Employment Bill. I also welcome the possibility for people in the workplace to ask for and obtain flexible working arrangements. We firmly believe that what is good for children is good for families and workers, and ultimately that must be good for employers and business, too.

4.50 pm

Mr. Kilfoyle: I do not want to delay you for too long, Mr. Atkinson, as I am sure you have a lot to do building the arbour that was recommended to you on ''Gardeners' Question Time''.

I want to make a comment that was stimulated by something that the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton) said. It is amazing that it takes so long for such a provision as this to get on the statute book. The hon. Lady talked about her husband's pay being stopped because he was with her when she was in labour. Twenty-seven years ago, one of my many children was born in Australia, where paternity leave was taken for granted. It amazes me that it has taken so long for the United Kingdom to catch up with the rest of the civilised world. I underline my support for Northern Ireland being brought into line in the rest of the United Kingdom through this provision.

4.51 pm

Jane Kennedy: I am grateful for the warm support for the measure throughout the Committee.

In response to the hon. Member for Solihull, the new arrangements will take effect in April 2003. I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the statement by then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry on Second Reading of the Employment Bill. She said:

    ''In the months leading up to that time''-

April 2003-

    ''and also subsequently, we will ensure that employees and employers alike are aware of the new arrangements and the benefits that they will bring.''-[Official Report, 27 November 2001; Vol. 375, c. 868.]

Any concerns that the hon. Gentleman may have about the complexity of the proposal not being understood by the organisations and people who will be affected are fair to raise, and should be addressed by the Department of Employment and Learning in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Taylor: I do not know whether the Minister's last remarks were directed at me. I did not realise that I had raised that subject. I made three points on the proposal: I referred to the spirit of the age and the consistency of the application of the law, and I said jokingly that the order did not create an ombudsman. I do not remember saying anything else.

Jane Kennedy: I have therefore given clarification when none was requested, but I hope that it was of value to hon. Members.

The hon. Member for East Antrim asked about estimates of the cost of the total package. They are contained in the explanatory memorandum that

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accompanies the order, and I shall draw attention to some of the detail. The cost of the paternity, adoption and maternity proposals to the private sector in Northern Ireland will be approximately £1 million to £2 million a year.

In respect of the flexible working proposals, the costs are slightly more difficult to estimate. Costs in the first year are likely to be higher, perhaps between £10.4 million and £29.6 million, as parents take advantage of the new right to request flexible working arrangements. In subsequent years, it is estimated that recurring costs will be between £2.61 million and £7.39 million annually. Those estimated costs are based on a low and a high tide take-up respectively.

As I explained, the costs will be offset by an estimated annual reduction of £2.45 million in recruitment costs due to a predicted increase in the number of mothers returning to work after pregnancy. It is interesting how vividly one remembers the experiences described by the hon. Member for Cheadle. She asked whether paternity pay is gender specific. I am grateful to her for giving notice of that question. No, it is not gender specific. In certain instances it may be available to women. The eligibility criteria will be set out in regulations specifying the relationship with the child and with the child's mother or adoptive parent. For example, a woman may take paternity leave if a married couple have adopted a child and the adoptive father has opted to take adoption leave. I hope that answers the hon. Lady's question.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) asked when is a child not a child. For the purposes of the order, parents could apply for

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flexible working until a child was six, but an agreement to allow flexible working would not end when the child reached that age. The flexible working arrangement would be changed only by agreement. It would become part of the working conditions of that employee.

Children older than six can obviously benefit. The age limit for disabled children is 18. Again, an agreement would not automatically cease when the child passed the age of 18. The agreement could be changed only by agreement. In a relationship of mutual respect between an employee and an employer and an acceptance of the working arrangements, one would expect that those arrangements would continue.

This is an important order. I am grateful for the warm words with which it has been received. Like the work and parenting provisions for Great Britain in the Employment Act 2002, the order aims to encourage the retention of skills in the labour market, extend help to working mothers and recognise the role of fathers. Prior to its suspension, the Northern Ireland Assembly welcomed the provisions, which address particular difficulties faced in the workplace by parents of young children. It is wholly appropriate that, through this order, employers and employees in Northern Ireland will be accorded the same family-friendly working arrangements as will apply in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Employment (Northern Ireland) Order 2002.

Committee rose at three minutes to Five o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Atkinson, Mr. Peter (Chairman)
Calton, Mrs.
Dobbin, Jim
Fitzpatrick, Jim
Hall, Mr. Patrick
Kennedy, Jane
Kilfoyle, Mr.
McIsaac, Shona
Naysmith, Dr.
Swire, Mr.
Taylor, Mr. John
Turner, Mr. Andrew
Wilshire, Mr.

The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(2):
Beggs, Mr. Roy (East Antrim)

 
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Prepared 4 November 2002