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Baroness Wilcox: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanation of the two draft regulations. The 10th Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation in another place, spent time debating the regulations in detail. I do not think that it is right to take up your Lordships' time by repeating that discussion, especially as we on these Benches accept, with some reservations, the necessity for them. It does not make sense to have maternity, paternity and adoptive leave without covering the situation of adoption from overseas.
The Minister said that there are only about 300 overseas adoptions a year, and that it is by no means certain that all adoptive parents will want to take advantage of these provisions. While that is true, the fact is that whereas large companies can cope with the problems caused by the absence of an employee, for many small businesses, who work with an absolutely minimal work force, these regulations and indeed all the other rights to take leave can cause substantial difficulties.
Having read the draft regulations and the discussion in another place, I am uncertain about the timing of the operation of these regulations in the case of an overseas adoption, because sometimes such an adoption requires more than one visit to the country concernedsometimes over an extended period. Will the Minister confirm when the clock starts to tick, and that the time needed to go overseas as a preliminary to the adoption process does not countin other words, that preliminary process is in the employee's own holiday time.
My honourable friend the Member for North West Norfolk asked why the matter had not been dealt with when the package of proposals relating to maternity, paternity and adoption leave was debated, during the passage of the Employment Act 2002. The only answer given was that the Government made it clear that they:
This is simply another example of the Government having to cope with the consequences of rushing legislation on to the statute book without first working out all the ramifications, and without adequate time being given to the Committee in another place to debate Bills in fuller detail.
My noble friend Lady Barker would normally speak for the Liberal Democrats on the regulations; she has previously spoken for us on adoption matters. I know that if she were here, she would fully support the regulations. She told me, "The Government must have got it right, because all the agencies involved fully support what they are doing". So we are happy to support the regulations.
The Earl of Courtown: My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for explaining the regulations. If I understand them correctly, official notification is required for adoption and paternity leave to be required. If there is no official notification, is the adoption still legal in this country?
Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, the first question raised concerned the impact on small businesses. When we introduced paternity and adoption pay, we considered its impact on small businesses. We believe that those basic employment rights should help all employers and employees. Parents who work in small firms are not excluded from benefiting from the new measures. We have used the Small Business Service as a channel to reach small businesses in extensive consultation on the rights, and have specifically considered those businesses in the regulatory impact assessment.
It was also asked why we need separate regulations for foreign adoptions. I hope that it was clear from my opening statement that different considerations on timing apply to such situations. It therefore seemed sensible to deal with the first category, where the position was much clearer, and then conduct special discussion and consideration on this matter. Nothing would have been gained from rushing the provision through.
On the question of whether an adopter will be able to take paid adoption leave to go overseas to arrange an adoption, the answer is no. Statutory adoption pay and leave will not start until the child has entered the country. It is not meant to be used by employees to travel overseas to arrange the adoption or visit the child. Adopters should talk to their employers about other types of leave that they might take to cover the period. Paid adoption leave is available to help adopters to take time off work when they return to the UK with a child to give them time to establish a relationship before returning to work. It is hoped that using the time in that way will reduce the number of disrupted placements.
As we know, the Electoral Commission plays a crucial part in the referendum process proposed in the Bill. We all welcome that. It is right and proper that, as an independent body with specific expertise in elections, it should be consulted during preparations for a referendum and the actual voting process. The Electoral Commission is and must be an impartial authority. Amendment No. 62 would make that impartiality explicit.
I do not want to besmear the good name of the Electoral Commission by suggesting that it would, in any way, show bias or prejudice when encouraging voting. However, for reasons of clarity, the requirement should be in the Bill, especially given that the Electoral Commission will be financed from government funds and in the light of the illicit activities of several bodies that serve only to heighten suspicion.
It would be easy to tip the balance in either directionfor or against. That would have severe implications for the validity of the outcome of the referendum. The amendment would be a safeguard against such circumstances and would guarantee balanced encouragement for voting by the Electoral Commission. "Encouraging voting" means boosting voter turnout rather than positively advocating one outcome or another. That should be stressed as a positive duty of the Electoral Commission.
This is an unfortunate process. The Minister will know that I had misgivings about coming to the point of having regional assemblies by such a method. The Bill is skeletal and triggers off a great deal of executive action. Already, we know that there is positive campaigning at public expense going on. We have discussed that several times. It is important that the next activityencouraging people to come out and voteshould not be confused with telling people why and how they will vote or what they will vote for. I hope that the Minister will look kindly on my amendment. I beg to move.
Lord Rooker: I agree with virtually the whole thrust of the noble Baroness's case. However, I hope that I can persuade her not to add the words to the Bill. The perverse effect of doing so would be that, read literally, they would encourage the Electoral Commission to seek to persuade one way or the other, and I shall explain why. The amendment is, in any case, unnecessary and undesirable.
The Electoral Commission is an independent body, and I know of nobody who has any complaints about the way in which it operates. It takes a fair and responsible approach to a list of statutory duties, and it should never be seen to favour one outcome of a referendum over another. Under Clause 7 without the amendment, the commission will have a public law duty to act in a reasonable and balanced way. It could be subject to challenge by judicial review if it acted in a biased way. The power is simply to encourage votingnot any particular outcome. The amendment might encourage the commission to act in a biased way. If the commission has information that one particular result in a referendum is more likely than another, should it actively persuade voting the other way? The amendment might imply that the commission could favour one of the outcomes of a referendum, provided it acts proportionatelywhatever that means. I am not playing around with words, but that could be a literal interpretation of the amendment.
However, I support the thrust behind the noble Baroness' speech, because the commission's job is not to take sides, but to seek to encourage voting and to encourage people to turn out. It should not in any way influence who they vote for, or which way they should vote, in a referendum. The commission must carry out that duty in an unbiased way. Even levelling
There are people who argue that higher turnouts influence outcomes of electionsof course they do. That is the point of the exerciseto encourage people to participate in the democratic process. That is not the same as persuading them to vote one way or the other. I hope that the spirit of my reply is such that the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment, because there is no way that the commission would be able to seek to influence anything. Otherwise, it would be subject to judicial review.
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