Employment Bill

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Helen Jones: What would be the position of a woman who wanted to take adoption leave and whose partner was working? As I understand it, she will not qualify for payments under the income support regulations and will therefore lose out.

Alan Johnson: That is an important point, but I do not have an answer. I intend, with the involvement of hon. Members, to consider further such points at the end of this debate to find solutions.

The situation for low-paid adopters who qualify for adoption leave, but not pay, is different. The right way forward is not to remove the lower earnings limit, but to ensure that low-paid adopters receive alternative financial support to help them benefit from the new right of up to one year's adoption leave. My colleagues in the Department of Health are actively working on plans of how best to provide low-paid adoptive parents with an appropriate payment equivalent to maternity allowance. That project is underway specifically to take account of the new changes and firm proposals will be produced early this year. Payment for adoptive parents will mirror, as far as possible, the eligibility requirement for maternity allowance and will give financial support to those with fragmented work patterns and the self-employed.

Mr. Hammond: The Minister is doing extraordinarily well in explaining a complex area that is way outside his brief. It was obvious that there would be much interest in this matter, so can he explain why the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Malcolm Wicks), is not here to answer questions?

Alan Johnson: Because I am doing it and that is how we are divvying up the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North will be here to deal with issues that will have ramifications for my Department while I take the opportunity to do other things. I am dealing with the debate and it is not necessary to have another Minister beside me. It would also be unfair on my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North.

Mr. Hammond: I accept that it is the Government's business how it divides up ministerial attendance in Committee, but the Minister has had to answer his hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Warrington, North, by frankly admitting that he does not know the answer to a good question. There is no reason why he should know the answer because he cannot be expected to have a grasp of everything that happens in the Department for Work and Pensions but, had the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pension been here, the hon. Member for Warrington, North might have received an answer.

Alan Johnson: The only person who should be upset at my reply to my hon. Friend is my hon. Friend--

Helen Jones: I am never upset.

Alan Johnson: She is always, charming, courteous and gracious.

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The Department of Health is also developing a comprehensive adoption support framework, which will be published for consultation later this year. The Government recognise that under existing arrangements, provision of adoption support services is patchy and inconsistent. The Adoption and Children Bill, which is also in Standing Committee, places, for the first time, a clear duty on local social services to provide adoption support services. The new duty will ensure that all local authorities make adoption support, including financial support, available. Local authorities are best placed to decide whether to provide adoption support services to individuals--and if so, which services--based on need and resources available locally. The Government will set out the range of adoption support services that local authorities will have to provide as part of the new national framework, which will ensure that many more adoptive families receive the support they need.

In addition and as with low-paid parents taking paternity leave, we are carefully scrutinising the benefits system to ensure that it is geared up to work for low-paid adopters when they need support to take adoption leave. The Department for Work and Pensions is working on the details to ensure that parents taking adoption leave have, as a minimum, the same access to benefits, including income support, housing benefit and council tax benefit, as a mother on maternity leave. The likely level of benefit would ensure an income of at least £100 a week. If a parent's partner is in work, help will be available through tax credits and in-work benefits. That may deal in part with the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North, but I shall return with a full response.

Mrs. Humble: One difficulty that puts many people off claiming benefits is the perceived complexity of the process and filling in the forms. In discussions with his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions, will my hon. Friend ensure that they try to simplify the process so that fathers in particular are not put off claiming their entitlement through the benefits system and do not choose to keep working without accessing their entitlement to parental leave?

Alan Johnson: That is very important and there are trigger points when contact is made with the individuals seeking adoption or paternity leave that we could use to ensure that the process is simplified and that people understand their entitlement. The income support rules are a matter for the Department for Work and Pensions and it will need to look further at the details, but we do not expect difficulties.

There are initiatives with the Department of Health and a specific initiative to mirror maternity allowance for adoptive parents. They are related to the introduction of the new rights to try to tackle the problems raised by my hon. Friend the. Member for Doncaster, North and about which other hon.

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Members have expressed concern. I am sure that my hon. Friend and other hon. Members will want to consider the proposals carefully.

Mr. Lloyd: My hon. Friend may want to comment in passing on the fact that while he has embraced the principle and is trying to find practical solutions, those on the Conservative Front Bench, in contrast, have done everything other than reach a conclusion on whether it was right or wrong to establish the principle.

My hon. Friend has gone a long way to try to satisfy the concerns raised by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee. He will recall that in the days before he was a Minister he could be frustrated by the slow pace at which the process of government works. Will he ask his colleagues from the relevant Departments to make it clear in public before Report not only that their intentions correspond with what he has said today, but when they will act on that? We do not want those on low pay to be left way behind, always to be told that they will be brought into line when the time comes.

Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend can always score his own points without my intervention. On his second point, we are happy to discuss the detail of the proposal with colleagues at the Department of Trade and Industry, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health. The measure is to be introduced in 2003, so we have some time to get it right. I hope that by the time the Bill reaches its later stages we will be in a better position to judge how that work is progressing.

We as a Committee want to ensure that people on low pay get the support that they need. That must be done in a way that does not produce onerous burdens. Our proposals have received huge support. Nobody in any sphere of business opposed any part of the measures on adoption leave, and there was near unanimity in respect of paternity leave. It would upset that happy consensus if we dealt with the issue in the way suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North. I hope that he can be assured that we are considering the problem and that we intend to solve it.

In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central, we hope to be able to resolve this, if not in Committee, later in the passage of the Bill. It would be useful for me to write to him to let him know how matters are progressing.

On that basis, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North will withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Hammond: I rise partly to rebuff the rather churlish remarks by the hon. Member for Manchester, Central.

Mr. Lloyd: I am a churl.

Mr. Hammond: The hon. Gentleman has not always been churlish in the course of our proceedings.

I anticipated earlier that the Minister would have an answer to the legitimate concerns raised by Labour Members. Most members of the Committee would agree that what he proposed is a sensible way of

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addressing the problem—which is quite small, unless one is affected by it. I was surprised to hear that only 5,500 people a year are affected. We are talking about sums of money that are almost invisible in Treasury terms—less than £1 million a year.

I am sorry if the hon. Member for Manchester, Central thinks that I was seeking to avoid endorsing a particular position. I felt that the position taken by him and other Labour Members would prove to be a more complex, costly and burdensome way of achieving the same objective as the Minister's solution, and that was the reason for the guardedness of my earlier remarks. The Minister's proposals are eminently sensible and would enjoy widespread support.

Brian Cotter: I was pleased that the Minister said that he would address the issue of low earnings in relation to those adopting. We all hope that adoption levels will rise so as to deal with situations in which children are in need.

I was encouraged to hear the Minister discussing the self-employed. I must apologise to the Committee for my absence, which was for the good reason, as I am sure that hon. Members will agree, that the loss of 300 jobs in Weston-super-Mare was announced today. People may know that I am the small business spokesman for my party, but I do not want to raise the question of the self-employed in that context. Many of those 300 people who have lost their jobs may want to become self-employed.

4.45 pm

The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford introduced a Bill yesterday, which I supported, to encourage the self-employed. The self-employed are not always so-called rich people going around in big cars—many have been made redundant and want to start again. I am sure that hon. Members are aware of the excellent work of the Prince's Trust in encouraging young people and others to get into employment. I encourage the Minister to discuss the self-employed because most of them are not fat cats, and some help would be appreciated. I am grateful that he is going to examine, address and tackle these issues.

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