Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point more eloquently than I could. We must consider that during our debate.

Mr. Prisk: Some time ago, when answering my original question, the Secretary of State said that small business organisations had made clear representations that they favoured elements of the Bill.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe) indicated assent.

Mr. Prisk: I see the Under-Secretary of State nod. Unfortunately, he has just given me a reply to a written question that states that he is not aware of what the representations from small businesses were. Will the Secretary of State now answer a simple question? A moment ago, he told the House that he understood that the small business community was very much in favour
5 Dec 2005 : Column 647
of the changes, especially the maternity leave provisions. Will he therefore explain why 80 per cent. of the respondents to a survey conducted by the British Chambers of Commerce said that they had grave reservations and opposed those changes? I, like the right hon. Gentleman, want to do the right thing for parents, but we must do the right thing for businesses as well.

Alan Johnson: I think that that survey, if it is accurate, was about interchangeable leave, which has now turned into additional paternity leave, and the idea that small businesses would have to police a system in which they had to know that the mother had returned to work before they could give authority for the father to take the additional paternity leave. That is why we have taken a power in the Bill to ensure that we are able to consult widely. We have ideas, which will probably emerge during this debate, about how to achieve that using a very light touch.

The issues that small businesses mentioned to us included the rule that maternity leave and maternity pay start on different days and the complication that that produces. Small businesses asked why it could not all start on the same day and whether the rate could be a daily rate, rather than a weekly one. The latter would help with another issue that they raised, which was that if a woman was going to be away from the workplace for up to 12 months, there should be an opportunity to bring her back in—for a day's training, for example—with the agreement of both sides and without penalty. If that happens now, the woman loses a week's maternity pay, just for coming back for a refresher day to get used to new technology. Those are practical considerations, as is small businesses' request that a woman who returns from maternity leave before the end of that leave should have to give more than four weeks' notice, which is all she has to give now. We have therefore doubled that requirement to eight weeks, because that is a legitimate and practical thing to do. In that and many other ways, we have shown that we are keen to help small businesses to deal with these matters.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): Before moving on will the Secretary of State answer what I feel is an illogical point in the arguments made by some Labour Members? If he is right and the measures will be of great benefit to small businesses, because it would cost them £80 to process an application for maternity leave whereas it would cost some £4,000 to train high-value staff, why cannot businesses work that out for themselves, without his law making them do it?

Alan Johnson: I was talking about right to request costing £80. When we introduced the right to request—I see several faces familiar from the time spent scrutinising that legislation—we were told that it would be the end of civilisation itself, that it would be horrendously bureaucratic and would affect people's jobs, but that simply has not happened.

The cost to business of the maternity leave provisions has hardly figured in the representations. Concerns have been voiced about paternity leave and the extension of right to request, but little concern has been expressed about providing that a mother should have nine
5 Dec 2005 : Column 648
months' paid maternity leave instead of six months and that that should eventually increase to 12 months. That has widespread support.

John Bercow: The Secretary of State is being extremely generous in giving way. In clause 13, which deals with annual leave, he is proposing to be able in certain situations to introduce regulations to prescribe certain periods—presumably minimum periods—of annual leave to be allowed. I ask in all seriousness, is the intention to apply the power relatively narrowly in order to cater to the interests of groups of workers who have either no annual leave entitlement to speak of, or a very modest entitlement? I refer, for example, to the cleaners contracted to work for the House of Commons, who have a pathetically inadequate annual leave period of 12 days. If the intention were to deal with that situation, there could be a lot to be said for the clause. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will explain.

Alan Johnson: The intention is to fulfil a manifesto commitment that employers will no longer be allowed to take bank holidays into account as part of employees' four-weeks statutory entitlement to annual leave. Bank and public holidays must be additional to the four weeks' paid leave. That is the reason for the clause.

So, Madam Deputy Speaker, I return—

Norman Lamb: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Alan Johnson: Well, I almost returned to my script—[Laughter.] I give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Norman Lamb: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his generosity. On the point that he just made, the Confederation of British Industry has suggested that any increase in annual leave entitlement to deal with bank holidays should be phased in to allow businesses to adjust. Does he have in mind such a phasing-in?

Alan Johnson: Again, we have taken a power in the Bill because we want to consult widely and listen to such arguments. That will be an important part of the debate on that part of the Bill.

Since 1997 we have trebled the financial support that a working family gets in the first year of a child's life from £2,610 in 1997 to more than £8,000 by April 2007. We have created 1.2 million additional child care places and guaranteed all three and four-year-olds a free part-time nursery place. It is worth remembering that the Conservative party opposed every single one of those measures.

The Bill has four principal parts. The first part will allow us to extend paid maternity leave and adoption leave from six months to nine months from April 2007. By the end of this Parliament, we intend to extend that to a full 12 months' paid maternity leave. The second part will extend paternity leave and paternity pay. Paternity leave will increase by up to six months in the second half of the baby's first year if the mother returns to work. The third part of the Bill will extend the right to request flexible working from April 2007 so that it covers carers of adults, as well as parents of small children and disabled children up to 18 years of age. The right to request has been an enormous success and has
5 Dec 2005 : Column 649
been taken up by almost one in four parents—almost 1 million parents in total. Eighty per cent. of all requests for more flexible working have been agreed immediately, with a further 10 per cent. agreed with modification as a result of discussions between employer and employee. Only one in 10 requests have been refused.

Most respondents to our consultation said that carers of adults should be the priority in extending the right to request. Some 6.6 million people have caring responsibilities and 3.5 million of them have jobs. Their role in society has become more important, given the ageing population and a growing need for family care rather than institutional care. That is why this aspect of the Bill will make an important contribution to the economic as well as the social environment.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I hope that the Secretary of State will not finish his introductory remarks without placing on record his appreciation of mothers who decide to stay at home to bring up their children. Where in the Bill are there proposals to improve their pension entitlements when they eventually retire, perhaps after going back to work once their children have grown up?

Alan Johnson: They are not in this Bill, but they are in the Turner report, and we will have to wait for the response to Turner. As I said earlier, the Bill is about genuine choice. If a mother's genuine choice is to stay at home with her child, that is fine—that is exactly as it should be. However, we do not want women being forced to stay at home because they have no alternative and having to give up their career. Nor do employers want that; it is bad for society and for the employment market in general, but it happened quite regularly before these measures were introduced.

Next Section IndexHome Page