Employment Bill

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Alan Johnson: Happy new year to you, Mr. Benton, and to all on the Committee.

Following the remarks of the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge about the general spirit and thrust of this section, I was pleased to hear his comments, which repeated those that he made on Second Reading, about appreciating its good for the wider community and its effect on business. I shall not talk about events in Germany because it is impossible to discuss that country without taking into account reunification, which was a specific, valuable and necessary part of recent German history.

Basic minimum standards such as the minimum wage have existed in many countries, some of which are outside Europe, for many years. Our historic situation was due not only to employers but trade unions. As I keep reminding some of my hon. Friends, in the 1970s the trade unions opposed the minimum wage and any interference with free collective bargaining; there was a different approach on both sides of industry.

We began to introduce basic, civilised minimum standards into the workplace in the late 20th century, and that means that we can learn from the experiences of other countries. We were meticulous about seeking other views before we legislated. People may criticise the Government on some aspects of the minimum standards that we have introduced—notably, the working time directive was not the best way to introduce new legislation—but on parental and adoptive leave and changes to maternity leave, no one has suggested that we have not taken the time and trouble exhaustively to consult on the changes that we intend.

Mr. Hammond: I agree entirely and intended to make the point that the changes being introduced here already exist in many neighbouring European countries and trade partners. Historically, however, Britain's economic performance, even without the additional employment costs that such measures, whether right or wrong, impose on business—it would be disingenuous to pretend that they do not—has not been so much better than its competitors that we can be relaxed or comfortable about what will happen as further such costs are imposed. Does the Minister share that concern?

Alan Johnson: It is a concern. Since 1997 we have introduced a whole raft of new rights. We have done so in a way that has ensured no interference with a position whereby we have the lowest inflation since the early 1960s, the lowest interest rates since England won the World cup and the cheapest mortgages for the past 25 years. We have overtaken Italy and France to become the world's fourth largest economy. Introducing basic minimum standards without damaging the competitiveness of British industry is very important to us. That is why we consulted meticulously. It also explains the difference between our approach to the ''may'' and ''shall'' question in the debates that we had before Christmas and our approach on clause 1.

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Mr. Hammond: I am pleased to hear the Minister say that it is important to the Government that the changes should be introduced without damaging the competitiveness of British business. What will he do if it becomes apparent over time that they have caused such damage?

Alan Johnson: That is why we have introduced the changes so carefully. The same question was raised—not by the hon. Gentleman, but by his predecessor in his shadow post—when we increased the minimum wage to £4.10. Although it was unpopular with Labour supporters before the previous election, we decided that rather than set some mechanistic figure, such as two-thirds of male median earnings, we would set up the Low Pay Commission to consider the matter carefully in the light of particularly vulnerable sectors. We argued that, to paraphrase President Nixon, once the toothpaste is out of the tube, we cannot get it back in again.

We have no intention—neither, I assume, do the Opposition—of introducing basic minimum standards in such a way that they may be jeopardised in future. We intend to introduce them so as not to interfere with this country's economic success. As one employer's organisation suggested, it was ludicrous to suggest, in the seven-day panic post-11 September, that we should not go ahead with the increase in the minimum wage to £4.10 on 1 October. That is a ridiculous way to approach such issues. The best approach is the one that we have taken.

Amendments Nos. 96 and 97 would take the forthcoming regulations out of the realm of certainty and into the realm of near possibility. However, I accept that they were designed to probe our intentions and I am happy to rise to that bait and go through the issues in detail.

I stress that the proposals on paternity and adoption leave are the result of a substantial exercise in public consultation since the publication, well over a year ago, of the Green Paper, ''Work and Parents: Competitiveness and Choice'', and the more detailed framework documents that followed last summer. We consulted as widely as we could and deliberately made no secret of our emerging thinking. I do not say that every detail meets with universal approval—that can never be the case—but every detail was subjected to intense scrutiny. The introduction of adoption rights was the one area that was universally approved. There was not a single dissenting voice against the argument that, in a society in which we need more people to adopt instead of children being in care, it is ludicrous to give absolutely no assistance to adopting parents. Indeed, a Bill to that effect is passing through the House.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood): I endorse my hon. Friend's comments. Is he aware that many adopted children are older children with special problems who are supported in residential care? Such support costs society a lot of money, but it does not offer the same love and attention that an ordinary family can provide. That is

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one reason why his proposals are welcomed by employer organisations and those who try to persuade people to adopt.

Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend is right, and we shall touch on that issue when we discuss further amendments.

A majority of people have said that adoption leave is long overdue, and the introduction of paternity rights has received similarly wide support. We should remember that that was not simply a manifesto commitment but was announced in last year's Budget, and we fought the general election on that basis. It is true that concerns have been expressed about the detail, and we must ensure that the way in which the provision is implemented does not impose undue burdens on business. We will discuss the relevant details in due course, but I reiterate that there was little, if any, straightforward hostility to the general concept. That does not surprise me. I believe that most people, including most employers, now recognise the key role that fathers have to play in caring for newborn children.

As I have said, such concerns as have been expressed relate to detail, and that is why my Department has engaged in close discussion with employers and employees. Detailed proposals were included in last November's framework document—our response to the Green Paper ''Work and Parents: Competitiveness and Choice''—which has been reproduced in the Library's excellent research paper on the Bill. The way in which we intend to frame the regulations is no secret, and we have consulted fully. The detail is included in the Government's published response and elsewhere, and I should be happy to clarify specific issues as we consider the clauses and amendments. It is important, however, for all interested parties to have the chance to comment on draft regulations before they are finalised, and I am happy to confirm that we will consult publicly on drafting before the regulations are laid. I expect the consultation exercise to begin before the Bill completes its legislative passage.

The issues with which amendments Nos. 96 and 97 seek to deal are addressed in various ways. We have used the word ''shall'' because, for example, we will introduce the requirement that the duration of employment must be 26 weeks by the fifteenth week prior to expected date of birth. We have explained the situation in respect of parenting, but the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge none the less raises an interesting point. We are not talking simply about biological fathers; in many cases the woman giving birth has a new partner, who has a role to play in terms of parental responsibility. The principle of parental responsibility has been used before in the introduction of parental leave, and we intend to include it in these provisions. The issues have been highlighted in various documents.

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Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): Can the Minister foresee a situation in which two men—the biological father and the new partner—could claim parental leave for the same child on the ground that both were helping the mother with the newborn baby?

Alan Johnson: I cannot at the moment, but I would not say that such a possibility does not exist. The more we look at the different permutations in 21st century society, the more we have to be absolutely sure that those with a genuine commitment to helping raise a child are able to make the most of the new rights that we are introducing.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central): My hon. Friend makes an important point. The provision must be driven by the practical needs of families and society as a whole—what is good for all of us. I am unsure whether the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) was trying to raise a spectre, but this is not a moral issue. It is a practical issue about how we help families to give their children the best start in life.

5 pm

Mr. Osborne: May I intervene?

The Chairman: Order. That was already an intervention.

Alan Johnson: If I stand up, Mr. Benton, perhaps I shall attract another intervention.

Mr. Osborne: I thank the Minister.

My point, which I made perhaps flippantly, is that the problem with paternity leave, as opposed to maternity leave, is that it is obvious who is a child's mother but it is not always obvious who is a child's father. Furthermore, the relationship between a mother and a man is not always obvious. Later amendments will deal with the many complications relating to paternity leave, and I was merely illustrating one of them.

 
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