Employment

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Mr. Hammond: On a point of order, Mr. Conway. I appeal to you to use your influence with the channels available to you through the Chairmen's Panel to address an unfortunate quirk of the rules of order for debate in Standing Committee. Under the heading of a minor consequential Government amendment to a schedule, we will discuss in a single debate perhaps one of the most significant clauses in the entire Bill, which is some eight pages long and to which 28 amendments have been tabled. Frankly, I am not a great fan of modernisation and all its ramifications, but this is an issue that needs to be addressed. We need to change the procedure so that the Chairman has sufficient discretion to deal with the fact that it is clearly inappropriate and unhelpful to the scrutiny process to be required to discuss a major new clause and 28 amendments in a single debate that will involve long and complicated speeches and will be very difficult to follow.

The Chairman: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. Of course, Government amendment No. 200 is necessarily related to Government new clause 2, but I hear what he says and I shall ensure that his comments are drawn to the attention of the Leader of the House, so that they can

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be taken into account when the business managers decide how much time to allow for the Bill's consideration on Report.

Alan Johnson: This is an important new clause and an important group of amendments. We tabled the new clause last week because we wanted to ensure that the Committee had as much time as possible to consider it ahead of this debate. Its purpose was also explained in the report of the work and parents taskforce, which was published in November, and the Government's response to it. We are seeking to turn that response into legislation. As I have said, it is not in the Government's interest to inconvenience members of the Committee, or to try to bounce them into accepting last-minute amendments. We tabled the new clause as early as we could, and we also circulated an accompanying lengthy explanation, which I hope has proven helpful.

It makes sense to start with new clause 2 because it is the substantive provision in this group of amendments. It provides parents of young children with the new right to apply for flexible working, and deals with the procedure that employers must follow in considering such a request. I agree with the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge that this is perhaps the most significant clause in the Bill, taking us as it does into a brave new world of uncharted territory. It forms part of a package of measures that are aimed at improving choice for working parents and enhancing business competitiveness. We have already discussed improvements in maternity leave provisions, and the introduction of paid paternity leave and adoption leave. The new proposals on flexible working will constitute an important step towards making parents' lives easier, while enabling them to retain their skills in the workplace. They are based on the existing and successful flexible working arrangements of leading businesses and organisations of all sizes, and are designed to make best practice on flexible working the norm.

The Government made it clear from the outset that we would amend the Bill to give legislative effect to the recommendations of the work and parents taskforce. As I have said, the taskforce reported its recommendations last November, after the Employment Bill was introduced in the House. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry said in her opening statement to the House that the Government would introduce such an amendment as soon as possible after the taskforce had reported, and that is precisely what we have done.

For the first time, the law will facilitate a dialogue between parents and their employers about working patterns that better meet parents' child care responsibilities and employers' needs. The new clause will help to remove the stresses that parents face in raising their children and in meeting their work responsibilities. It will ensure that about 3.8 million parents—2.1 million men, 1.5 million women with children aged under six, and 200,000 parents with disabled children up to the age of 18—are able to apply for new working arrangements. Flexible

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working was raised as a key issue during consultation surrounding the publication in December 2000 of the Government's Green Paper, ''Work and Parents: Competitiveness and Choice''. Parents repeatedly told the Government that the opportunity to arrive 15 minutes later for work, for example, thereby enabling them to drop their children off to a child carer, would significantly ease the pressures that they face, and help their participation in the labour market.

Last June, the Government therefore established the work and parents taskforce as an independent body to examine how to meet parents' desire for more flexible work patterns in a way that is compatible with business efficiency. The taskforce consisted of employers—large and small—and their representatives, and trade union and parents' representatives. One of the taskforce's key terms of reference was to build on best practice and design a light-touch legislative approach to giving parents of young children a right to make a request to work flexible hours, and to have that request considered seriously by the employer.

6.15 pm

The taskforce met to consider the issues over five months and wrote to more than 600 organisations and individuals who responded to the Green Paper consultation. Key questions also appeared on the taskforce website, and an advisory group helped the taskforce to explore and identify the merits of different options. The taskforce held discussions with the better regulation taskforce, the Small Business Council, the maternity review group, the Engineering Employers Federation, the Association of Convenience Stores and the Transport and General Workers Union to test emerging thinking on key issues.

The taskforce reported last November, and its recommendations represent a sound, workable approach that is acceptable to employers and employees alike. At the time, the CBI said:

    ''The Government has clearly been listening to the problems of business at this difficult time. The UK has one of the most flexible labour markets in the developed world. We have the second highest proportion of part-timers in Europe so employers have no objection to seriously considering requests from working parents.''

The TUC said:

    ''The TUC welcome the taskforce's recommendations. They will give parents a new opportunity to seek flexible working. The best employers already agree to flexible working patterns because they can see the advantages.''

By reaching a consensus of opinion, the taskforce presented the Government with an opportunity to facilitate a genuine culture change in the workplace to the benefit of employers, parents and their children.

Mr. Hammond: The Minister is playing up the consensus that has been achieved, but he will also acknowledge that Mr. Bill Morris has described the measure as ''meaningless'' because it gives a right only to have a request considered rather than an absolute right to have it granted in the variation of working terms. The Minister will concede that although employers are broadly happy with the drafting of the Bill—issues have yet be raised—they are extremely fearful that on the evidence of past work the Bill has

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been drafted to be the thin edge of the wedge, which will provide a quick, obvious and easy route to placing a greater burden on employers and granting a more specific right. He might want to imply that he has satisfied everybody, but must recognise that, beneath the surface, great concern about the measure exists on both sides.

Alan Johnson: I do not say that we have pleased every individual, but the CBI and the TUC have voiced their support. Everybody involved in the sector from the Maternity Alliance, to Parents at Work to charities have utterly refuted the derogatory comments that have been made. I vehemently feel that we have found the right package. We began the process in 1999 by consulting individuals and employers on whether we should take a route that introduced the compulsory right to demand part-time working, or leave it totally to the spread of best practice. After full consultation and after listening, most importantly, to the views of individuals, we ended up with working parents telling us that the issue is about working more flexibly rather than simply part time; often the same number of hours are involved but in a different form. In particular, lower-paid workers said that working part time to allow them to look after their children, meant taking a cut in income that they could not afford. They said that the problem was not about the right to return after maternity leave, which formed part of our initial consultation stage three years ago, but about the problems of parents not only at childbirth, but during various stages, such as the important break point or transition period when a child starts school. They also said that it concerns not just mothers, but fathers.

I believe that we have introduced the measure in the best possible way, so that we will not wait a generation for a culture change. We recognise that the world of work is completely different from years ago, when companies large and small adopted working practices that they have not much looked at since. That was a world where, in general, women were not in the workplace and the culture was that men did not want to spend time with their children, but were happy to be at work while women were at home. That has changed completely. We now have more than 4 million working mothers, the highest level since records began in 1953. This is an elegant way of addressing that.

The organisations involved have backed us. One or two individuals might take different views, which is the nature of all issues. There will never be a unanimous point of view, but I certainly refute some of the hon. Gentleman's more lurid comments.

 
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