Employment Bill

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Mr. Hammond: The Minister is rather more old Labour than I expected and I have left myself on a limb with a rather more progressive expectation of the definition of relationship with a newborn child than the Minister is proposing. I am pleased that he is taking a sensible approach.

The Minister addressed the question of redress and said rightly that employers cannot be expected to deal with investigation or decision-making. However, a substantial part of the cost of the paternity pay scheme will be borne by taxpayers and there must be a way of dealing with fraud either by employees or employers. My suggestion later in the Bill is a simple provision that notification of paternity under the clause should be passed to the Child Support Agency. The possibility of being held liable for maintenance payments would be an effective deterrent to spurious, flippant claims of paternity.

The Minister has clarified a number of important issues during this short debate, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Hammond: I beg to move amendment No. 98, in page 2, line 15, leave out subsections (3) and (4).

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 104, in page 2, line 17, leave out 'a single period of'.

No. 105, in page 2, line 20, after 'date', insert

    'which is ten days before the expected date'.

No. 101, in page 2, line 27, leave out paragraph (c).

Mr. Hammond: These probing amendments are rather diverse in their effects, so I shall deal with them one at a time.

Amendment No. 98 would delete subsections (3) and (4) from new section 80A to the Employment Rights Act 1996. I made the point earlier to the hon. Member for North Norfolk that it is bizarre to provide in subsection (1) that the Secretary of State shall make regulations, instead of putting detailed provision in the Bill, claiming, as Ministers routinely do, that regulations are more flexible and can be changed without time having to be made available for primary legislation, but then including in the Bill a detailed provision prescribing what the regulations must say. That is a strange way to proceed and totally undermines the argument that regulations are more flexible and more easily changed; they are, in fact, constrained by subsections (3) and (4). Can the Minister say what the justification is for using an architecture in the Bill that creates obligations to make regulations—prescribing that substantive regulation is to be dealt with by secondary legislation—while having primary legislation specifying, in some detail, what the regulations will say?

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Amendment No. 104 addresses an issue that has been dealt with en passant. Line 17 of new section 80A specifies that there will be

    ''a single period of leave of at least two weeks.''

I assume that that was included in an attempt to be helpful to employers because it is a restriction on the flexibility that an employee enjoys. I understand that in many cases it will be beneficial to the employer to take leave in a single block of two weeks, but it is frankly silly that we could have a situation in which neither the employer nor employee wants the leave to be taken as a single block and yet the law requires it to be so taken. I suggest that if there is agreement, and only if there is agreement, between the two parties, leave can be taken in some other way. What would be the harm in that?

Norman Lamb: The legislation provides a right and provides for the regulations to allow the employee to take less than the maximum time. Given that that it is a right and that there is no obligation to take it, surely the employer could say to the employee, ''Okay, you can take two days off this week and two days off next.'' The employee can agree to take less than his entitlement and the employer can agree to give him a couple days off the following week.

Mr. Hammond: The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but the employer and employee cannot agree that the two-week period should be taken in any form other than a single block and count it as statutory paternity leave eligible for statutory paternity pay. I am interested to hear the Minister's response to that difficulty. I am sure that that line was included with the intention of being helpful to employers, but I am not sure that it achieves that.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) is not here because he has already spoken about the issue addressed by amendment No. 105. It contains the straightforward, pragmatic suggestion that, regardless of whether paternity leave is good or bad, imposes costs or not, if it is to exist it should be as beneficial and as useful as possible. A period of leave that starts only on the date of the child's birth is unnecessarily restrictive. In many cases, particularly those in which there are other children in the family or in which complications occur prior to birth, it would be more helpful to have part of the leave prior to the date of birth rather than entirely after it. If the Minister is dead set against any flexibility on the starting date, will he explain why? What is the Government logic behind the idea that such a period of leave is good if it starts at the date of birth and bad if it begins before that date?

Amendment No. 101 would leave out subsection (5)(c). The paragraph allows regulations to

    ''make provision enabling an employee to choose to take a period of leave under this section which is shorter than the period of leave to which he is entitled.''

That is a general, permissive power. The regulation may provide for an employee to take an unspecified period of leave shorter than the two-week period. However, the explanatory notes tell us that the Government are crystal clear about what they will do.

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They will allow people two choices—two weeks in a single block, or one week. What is the point of putting the provision in a general and rather misleading form when the Government's intention is specific? In my view, the Bill should state that regulations may or shall make provision enabling an employee to choose to take a single week of leave under this section rather than the two-week period to which he is entitled. Why have the Government chosen such woolly, imprecise language when the notes state that their intention is rigid and crystal clear?

Norman Lamb: On amendment No. 98, the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge suggested that the proposed new subsections (3) and (4) comprised very detailed, prescriptive rules, which undermined the flexibility provided for by the use of regulations. The provisions in those subsections, however, could never be described as very detailed and simply provide a bottom line of a minimum of two weeks. As I said earlier, that seems a modest proposal—a basic entitlement that I hope everyone would sign up to.

Proposed subsection (4) simply gives the time frame within which the period of leave must be taken. Again, being pragmatic, 56 days seems pretty sensible as a period within which paternity leave should be taken. I do not consider the measures to be detailed. They set the bottom line and a time frame within which the detailed rules can be set out by way of regulations. I do not see the logic behind the hon. Gentleman's argument on those two provisions.

The benefit of the provision for a single period is that from the point of view of both the employers and the employees it achieves simplicity. It is much better for everyone to know that the statutory entitlement is to a single period and for us not to meddle with that basic provision.

Mr. Hammond: Will the hon. Gentleman explain what would be the difficulty with allowing the employee and the employer to agree in writing that that two-week period might be taken as two separate weeks?

Norman Lamb: I do not think that there is necessarily any difficulty with that. I do not necessarily oppose the idea of the leave being taken as two separate weeks within the 56-day period. It makes sense from everybody's point of view to keep the maximum period of two weeks, but I do not, as a matter of principle, object to the Opposition's suggestion—I just think that it makes things more complicated.

On the 10-day period before the birth of the child and if I may make a rather pedantic point, it seems odd to have paternity leave when a child has not yet been born. The hon. Gentleman described a situation involving complications and the mother being in hospital. There is already an entitlement to time off in such family emergencies so that an employee can look after either other children at home or a partner who is in hospital. It is better to rely on that existing statutory right for the period before the birth and to preserve the two-week entitlement for the important period right at

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the start of a child's life. It makes sense for the entitlement to apply from the birth of the child onwards. The provision would, through regulations, allow the employee to take less than the maximum period. I agree that it seems sensible that the Bill should specify more precisely that the period can be one or two weeks.

6.15 pm

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside): Thank you for giving me an opportunity to made a contribution, Mr. Benton. It is a pleasure to serve under your excellent chairmanship.

On amendments Nos. 104 and 105, I ask the Minister to consider the question of flexibility while maintaining entitlement. Fathers may want to take all their leave—the whole two weeks—in one block, but may equally want to take it in smaller blocks because of the needs of the mother and child. In most circumstances, I hope that that could be sorted out between the employer and employees, as my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes) said. As other hon. Members said, that may suit employers, but we must clearly protect the overall entitlement.

 
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