Employment Bill

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Mr. Hammond: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, and I am not rigid about the language that I have adopted because I am trying to elaborate a general principle. For example, if the father in question, the person claiming the paternity leave, were David Beckham, it would be reasonable to ask whether he could start his period of leave on Monday rather than Saturday.

Norman Lamb: I would not want to negotiate that with Alex Ferguson.

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Mr. Hammond: There may be examples in which common sense and consultation are sensible and appropriate, and I should like to hear the Minister's view. Having spent 11 sittings in Committee, I am beginning to get the hang of his body language and I do not think that he will find the suggestion wholly ludicrous, although I take the hon. Member for North Norfolk's point that it would raise some practical issues. Nevertheless, I should like to hear a gesture in the direction of a consultative, rather than a wholly one-sided, approach.

Alan Johnson: If my body language said anything, it was that I am not unsympathetic to the hon. Gentleman's points about consultation between employers and employees.

The hon. Gentleman made a case about David Beckham. I remember, as a fan of Queens Park Rangers, a situation in which Martin Allen, famed midfielder that he was, left the club because the then manager, Trevor Francis, would not allow him to take a Saturday off to attend his child's birth.

I am not unsympathetic to the hon. Gentleman's point about discussion, but I have difficulty with the amendment. When we consulted employers their major point was that they wanted plenty of notice and certitude. I must make it clear that we are introducing an inalienable right to take a limited period of time off around the birth of a child. We have made it clear that the employee must give 15 weeks' notice, self-certificate and specify the date of birth. One problem concerning the provision of paternity leave when a woman goes into labour is that fathers are concerned that they would use up some of their leave if it were a false call, which would leave them short of leave when the child was born. Both sides told us that they needed certitude.

Mr. Hammond: The Minister has referred to an inalienable right to some time off around the birth of the child. To ensure that I have not misinterpreted the Bill, does that mean not around the birth of the child, but following the birth of the child?

Alan Johnson: Yes, it is following the birth of the child. They could decide to specify either from the time at which the child is born or a two-week or one-week period further into the two months. If they ask for, say, a two-week period, then change their minds, they will have to give 28 days' notice of the change. During consultation, employers told us repeatedly that they had no problem with that approach. They do not want the power to prevent the employee from taking paternity leave, but do want the greatest possible advance notice of his plans so that they have time to make proper arrangements to cover for the absence. Our scheme provides for that. The notice of planned absence has to be given in the fifteenth week before the baby is due. That is 15 weeks' notice of a maximum of two weeks away from work—a lot more than is often required of people taking annual leave.

Mr. Hammond: Is the Minister saying that there will be a requirement for the father to specify a date 15 weeks out, or will it be sufficient for him to specify from

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the date of the birth? If it is the latter, the Minister has not achieved what he claims that employers were anxious to achieve—that is, absolute certainty about the date. As we all know, there is no absolute certainty about the date of a birth.

Alan Johnson: Of course there will be exceptions—for example, when a baby is born prematurely. As the hon. Gentleman will remember, because he dealt with the revised regulations, parental leave taken in blocks of four weeks can be deferred for up to a certain period if the employer believes that it will have a damaging effect on the company, excluding the time when the child is born. Fathers who want to be there when the child is born have that inalienable right. Admittedly, 15 weeks' notice will not always be perfect because the baby may be born prematurely. However, having talked the matter through exhaustively with employers and others, I do not think that there is a better way to approach it.

The hon. Member for North Norfolk said that one of the problems with amendment No. 132 is that it does not specify what the consultation should be, and that also applies to amendment No. 99. Employers would be worried about moving from the situation under the Bill, in which they are given plenty of notice and both sides understand completely what is required of them, to a situation under the amendment in which there would be a requirement to consult.

I sympathise with the idea that there should be discussion between the employer and the employee, which happens in the vast majority of existing cases. However, that should not detract from the basic right that we are introducing, which is associated with long periods of notice and a light-touch approach. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge must have consulted businesses prior to the Committee. I should be surprised if any employer group told him that this is an important issue, because that is not the feedback that we received during our long and exhaustive consultations.

Mr. Lloyd: Will my hon. Friend clarify one point? He said earlier that the right comes into effect only after the child is born, yet he just referred to an inalienable right to be there at the moment of birth. Can he clarify exactly where in the Bill the right kicks in?

Alan Johnson: I said that the father has an inalienable right to take a limited period of time off around the birth of his child because we have allowed him take time off within two months. Many fathers and groups said that parental leave is not always wanted at the time of birth, but during the week after that when the mother comes out of hospital. The period of this proposal starts from the time of birth and does not precede it.

Mr. Lloyd: I have a lot of sympathy for the problems that parents face; most of us have been through them. It is obviously desirable for the mother to have her partner around. My hon. Friend the Minister said ''around'' the time of birth, but I am not clear whether we are talking specifically about after the time of birth

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or around it. Many of us would like to see the right to consultation on the idea of the norm that a mother could expect a partner to be able to be at the birth. I have much sympathy with the arguments about flexibility and I hope that the Minister can convince the Committee that the norm will be that the mother's partner is able to be at birth. Flexibility would allow parents and employers to enter into consultation. If parents and employer agreed that a more flexible arrangement would be better, that should be allowed for in the wording of the Bill.

Alan Johnson: Obviously, employers are perfectly free. This package will be set in law and it is a right to which everyone is entitled. Various agreements, which employers reach with employees, will be different from the package. The right that we are introducing begins from the time of birth. I take the point that ''around'' the time of birth could mean before or after birth, but this statutory right applies from the time of birth and not before.

Norman Lamb: On a point of information, can the Minister confirm whether he agrees with my understanding that there is an existing statutory right to time off for family emergencies and that that would entitle an employee to have time off to be with a partner upon the birth of a child, albeit unpaid? That may not be a correct interpretation, but the Minister may want to comment on it.

Alan Johnson: I am sorry—I was distracted. I will allow the hon. Gentleman to intervene again after I make one point. I have been reminded that our original 1999 proposal suggested that the period would apply from the time that the woman went into labour, and flexibility would exist before and after that time. The response to that consultation convinced us that that would not be the right approach. If I have missed the hon. Gentleman's point, I will allow him to intervene.

Norman Lamb: My understanding is that the right to time off for family emergencies, which is a right to unpaid leave, gives an employee the right to take time off to be present at the birth of a child. That period would be unpaid before the paid right clocks in under the proposed legislation.

Alan Johnson: The hon. Gentleman is right that the provisions introduced on 15 December 1999 allowed for time off to be given for domestic emergencies and would cover the situation in which a woman goes into labour but the child is not born until later. Other safeguards, such as unpaid leave, therefore exist.

If the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge says that there should be consultation he is suggesting that things are not as clear cut and definite as we have made them in the Bill. His suggestion would not be welcomed by small businesses. It is problematic to suggest consultation but not suggest how it would work. The pay aspect is another problem, as the hon. Member for North Norfolk said. I believe that this is the best system for employees and employers.

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5.45 pm

Mr. Hammond: I am certainly not suggesting that it would be a good idea to establish a requirement for consultation without specifying how a dispute or lack of agreement might be resolved. I said at the outset that the amendment is a probing amendment. This is a complex area, and I was hoping to elicit from the Minister a commitment to the principle of consultation, and to the use of language that makes such commitment clear.

In resisting consultation on, or any form of dialogue about, when such time off is to be taken, the Minister used the rather emotive example of a father's natural desire to be present at the birth. He says that one cannot negotiate on that—one must simply do it when it happens. I am not disputing that, but let us consider the father who says, ''I've got the mother-in-law staying for three weeks, so I will not be taking my paternity leave at the time of the birth. I want to take it a little further down the line, within the 56-day limit.''

One could come up with 100 extreme examples that illustrate the need for some form of dialogue. The person who is employed as Father Christmas at Harrods might be thought less than co-operative were he to insist on taking his two weeks terminating on 24 December. It would be rather more convenient if he could take them in the two weeks following Christmas.

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