Employment Bill

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Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central): I welcome the amendment and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North on tabling it. This is an important debate. Throughout the debate on clause 1 and our brief debate so far on clause 2, the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge and the Minister have paid strong tribute to the need to introduce paternity pay so that we respect the proper role of parenting in modern society. Both Front-Bench spokesmen have waxed eloquent about that need: I have no quibble there. However, at no point do I remember the words ''except where poor families are concerned'' being used. We must recognise that the warm words that were expressed about the benefits and advantages of parental leave, which is an opportunity for people— especially fathers—to spend time with their newly-born children, should apply to families at the bottom end of the income scale.

I represent a disproportionately poor constituency, and hon. Members on both sides of the Committee could say the same. A significantly high number of families in my constituency would benefit were the amendment passed. The figures show that at the time when the woman in the family is pregnant, an average of 3,500 families per constituency will gain through the amendment. In my constituency, the figure would be significantly higher. A young child born in the poorest part of my constituency suffers massive disadvantage compared with a child born in Runnymede and Weybridge or other prosperous parts of the country.

I am not condemning the constituencies of Conservative Members, but children born in my constituency will do worse at every stage of their life. Their health will be worse from birth. They are more likely to die at the time of birth, they will suffer worse health throughout their life, they will suffer worse educational and social opportunities and they will die younger. If active parenting, particularly by the father, can make a contribution to push those disadvantages back a little, we should recognise the need for parental leave. We should certainly recognise the advantage of that form of economic support: the moral and the practical cases run entirely in the same direction. There is no argument on a moral or practical basis in drawing a distinction between families who are better off and those on lower incomes.

When the Department of Trade and Industry gave reasons for the cut off during the consultation, it argued that because the period of paternity leave is limited to two weeks, it would be difficult to justify setting up an equivalent system to administer the payment of paternity leave to fathers whose weekly earnings are below the limit for the payment of national insurance contributions. In fact, it is difficult not to justify that, for the reasons that my hon. Friends have put forward. It is difficult to justify failing to provide economic support to those at the bottom of the ladder who need it more than the better off. That is a matter of practical fact.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley): I agree with the arguments of my hon. Friends the Members for Manchester, Central, for Doncaster, North and for Warrington, North (Helen Jones). There will have to

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be a system in place to carry out calculations for those who earn more than the lower earnings limit—90 per cent. of average earnings. It is hard to understand why it is reasonable to grant money and administrative effort to implement the system for those above that limit but not those below.

Mr. Lloyd: My hon. Friend makes a fair point, which moves me in the direction that I was going anyway. Will the Minister tell us what is the administrative difficulty and insurmountable bureaucratic hurdle that would cost so much? Around 600,000 males fall below the income limit. If we worked on the basis that one twenty-fifth of those were in a relationship in which the wife gave birth, that would mean about 24,000 or 25,000 cases a year. If we were to use the 90 per cent. limit of £72, that would mean £80 a week or £160 for the maximum fortnight's leave. I am not sharp enough to work out the conclusion with my own mathematics, but I believe that it leaves about £350,000 or thereabouts that the Treasury would have to pay out in direct costs, which is a relatively trivial sum of money.

There might be bureaucratic costs but, as was noted, they will be borne for groups slightly above the level so what is the major problem? If there is an issue around the individual cases, I am sure that imaginative systems could be brought to bear. We could pay them a flat rate and not worry about the 90 per cent. I cannot speak for my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North, but I would agree if the Minister proposed paying a flat rate of £70 a week instead of using the 90 per cent. figure. My hon. Friend nods; he would agree too. It would be a straightforward, easy-to-administer lump sum, so there are ways round the administration that would make it simple. It might be a bit of rough justice, but nothing like the rough justice that would come by excluding the group altogether.

I appeal to my hon. Friend the Minister to give us some comfort today and assure us that the Government are heading in the right direction. We need to know that the Minister and Government are as consistent in protecting those most vulnerable in our society in this legislation as they are in so many other aspects of Government policy.

I hope that the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge will offer his support to the principle that lies behind the amendments. If he does not, all the fine words that we have heard during the many hours for which he has spoken in his rather extensive attempt to clarify the Bill will mean nothing. This new caring, sharing Conservative party, of which we have seen a little, would be exposed as bogus, so I hope that he will make it clear that the Conservative party will support the change.

I should like to make the same comments to the Liberal Democrats but this particularly important debate for protecting those on the lowest incomes in our society interestingly sees them elsewhere. They might have much more important or interesting topics to debate. It is not for me to decide their priorities, but I know that the priorities of urban Liberal Democrat

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councillors in areas such as Manchester and Sheffield are not matched by the disinterest of the parliamentary party in today's debate.

Mr. Hammond: Has it occurred to the hon. Gentleman that the Government Whip might have had a word with the Liberal Democrats and that might explain their absence in view of the gathering clouds behind him?

Mr. Lloyd: My hon. Friend the Government Whip is a man of much greater sophistication than that, which is why he still counts me as a friend despite the fact that I sit some places behind him. The Liberal Democrats' absence at this stage of proceedings is not easily excusable, and they must account for it themselves.

Having placed that on the record, I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to examine the genuine concern about and lack of comprehension of an approach that abandons those families who are in greatest need of such Government assistance. He could improve the good work in providing paternity pay and paternity leave, for which he is entitled to claim credit, if he said that he would go a step further and look for an imaginative administrative solution that would allow the lowest paid to benefit from that pay.

3.45 pm

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood): I did not intend to speak, but the compelling words of my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North reminded me that women are not the only low-paid earners. Many men earn less than the lower earnings limit. In my constituency in Blackpool, many people who are employed in the tourism industry and do seasonal work regularly have two or three jobs to make a living for their families, but they do not earn enough in one job to go over the lower earnings limit. I am concerned about those people.

Listening to my hon. Friend, I was also reminded of an excellent report that was produced in the last Parliament by the Select Committee on Social Security, of which I was a member. That Committee considered the implications of paid parental leave in the context of the Government's accepting the need for unpaid parental leave. Much of the evidence that we took from a variety of groups concentrated on the low paid. We were told that many people with higher earnings received paid parental leave in any case. Men received paid paternity leave because they had good agreements with their employers. The low paid were the worst off.

We took compelling evidence from a wide variety of sources, including some from the United States Government, that men who earned below certain amounts did not take unpaid parental leave because they could not afford to do so. The Committee recommended that the Government introduce a flat rate for paid parental leave, so I am pleased that they are doing so.

I was also pleased that when the Committee produced the report, the Government acknowledged the particular needs of low-paid workers by enabling

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low-paid families to claim income support during periods of unpaid parental leave. A question therefore arises. The Government recognise that those families need additional support and that fathers need to be paid to stay at home to look after their young children and share the caring responsibilities with their partners. There is clearly an administrative cost to processing claims for income support, so I wonder how that would compare with the administrative cost of giving those men paid paternity leave rather than requiring them to claim income support. Why should those poor families have to claim income support when everyone else receives paid paternity leave? The issue is clearly complex, and I fully welcome the moves that the Government have already made. Certainly through the social security system, they have recognised low-paid workers' needs.

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider the issue again to see whether there is a way to enable those fathers to qualify for paid paternity leave under this system. I hope that he will consider the barriers in the proposals and perhaps overcome them for the benefit of my constituents and many others throughout the country.

 
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