Fifth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation
Thursday 2 December 1999
[Mr. Bowen Wells in the Chair]
Draft Maternity and Parental Leave etc. Regulations 1999
The Minister for Competitiveness (Mr. Alan Johnson): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Maternity and Parental Leave etc. Regulations 1999.
We are here to debate the maternity and parental leave regulations, which will fulfil our manifesto commitment to help working parents to balance their work and family responsibilities. During the passage of the Employment Relations Act 1999, we gave a commitment to hon. Members that they would have the opportunity to debate the regulations. I am sure that this will be a lively and constructive exchange.
The regulations mark the culmination of long months of negotiation and consultation with all sides, beginning last year with the publication of the ``Fairness at Work'' White Paper. It set out our vision for a family-friendly future—an ambitious agenda giving improved rights, more time off and increased job protection for working people.
The White Paper represented more than a quick-fix action plan. Our family-friendly policies will help to develop a long-term culture change in the workplace. They will promote a better climate of employment relations, a better working relationship between employers and employees and a better deal for working parents.
In the White Paper, we gave a promise to consult further where necessary. In August this year, we published a consultation document on our draft maternity and parental leave plans, and followed that up with draft regulations in September. We received more than 300 responses. Not surprisingly, the consultation on our draft regulations revealed different priorities between employers and employees. Employers want the flexibility to plan parental leave around the operation of the business, whereas employees want the flexibility necessary to fit in with the demands of their caring responsibilities. It was clear that we faced a challenge in implementing parental leave in a way that would satisfy the concerns of business and the needs of parents.
That is a challenge to which we have tried to rise successfully, I believe. We have implemented the regulations with a light touch, enabling employers and employees to make their own arrangements on how to introduce parental leave best suited to the requirements of all concerned. Individual workplaces can make their own arrangements about practical matters, such as how much notice the employer should give, the circumstances in which postponement may be acceptable and whether leave can be taken in single days or longer periods, or in a mixture of both. Both sides of industry have welcomed our approach. We encourage the making of local arrangements. For that reason, we call our scheme, not a fallback scheme, but a default scheme.
The key to the success of implementing parental leave is flexibility. We do not want to dictate how businesses should manage parental leave. Our default scheme is simply a fallback, ensuring that employees still get their rights even if agreement cannot be reached at the workplace. That will guarantee minimum standards, but we want employers to go beyond these standards where they can. Minimum standards are essential, but they are only a foundation. We are laying down a baseline, on which we hope employers will build.
We should not underestimate the historic significance of this new right for working parents. For the first time in this country, parents—fathers as well as mothers—will be able to take 13 weeks' parental leave to spend with their child, until the child's fifth birthday. For the first time, adoptive parents will be able to take leave to spend time with their adopted child, over a five-year period from the date of placement for adoption. For the first time, parents of disabled children, in addition to the rest of the package, will be able to take time off to accompany their child to medical appointments until their child reaches 18 years of age.
The regulations mean that parents will not have to choose between being a good parent or holding down a job. Parents will be able to take leave, secure in the knowledge that they are protected from dismissal or less favourable treatment for taking the leave, and that they will be able to return to the same, in most cases, or an equivalent job if the leave lasts for more than four weeks. Starting a family will not signal the end of a promising career.
In our ``Fairness at Work'' White Paper, we gave a commitment to improve and simplify maternity rights. The regulations will increase the length of ordinary maternity leave from 14 to 18 weeks, in line with statutory maternity pay. They will reduce the qualifying period for additional maternity leave from two years to one year, which will mean that more women are able to spend up to 40 weeks at home with their new baby.
At the same time, we have tackled the complexity of existing maternity rights, by clarifying such issues as the employment contract, and simplifying notice requirements. Maternity rights will be easier to understand and to operate for employers and employees and our proposals have been widely welcomed by representatives of both.
In a single set of regulations, we have produced a coherent package of rights that will help parents to reconcile the conflict between their work and family responsibilities and give them the security that they need at work.
I hope that hon. Members will support the Government in turning the regulations into a meaningful reality for millions of working parents in this country.
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that it will not be in order to debate the basic principle of maternity and parental leave rights. The practical details of the regulations can, of course, be debated.
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): The Minister and I are in the same position: neither of us was responsible for the passage through the House of the Employment Relations Act. We are now debating, however, the way in which the Government have implemented not only the regulations that enact the Act's provisions but the Government's election promise to implement the social chapter, on which the previous Government negotiated an opt-out.
I shall dwell on the regulations' parental leave provisions rather than on their maternity leave provisions, so I hope that the Minister will understand that my general references will be to the former rather than the latter.
We are concerned about implementation of the regulations, not least because they will take effect from 15 December. Businesses of all sizes have expressed anxiety about the lack of time to obtain full details of implementation. We have frequently emphasised across the Dispatch Box the fact that the Government must understand the practical needs of businesses, especially of smaller businesses, which do not have large personnel departments and other support resources. The recent implementation of the working time directive and the minimum wage required 100-page manuals. Business expressed huge concern about the time that it was given to implement the working time directive, which led the chairman of the Government's better regulation task force, Lord Haskins, to describe it as a dog's dinner.
Ministers state that they have learned that lesson, yet over the past week or so companies of all sizes have expressed concern about the Government's late publishing of the details of these regulations, which employers will have to put into practice in a fortnight's time. The Federation of Small Businesses is alarmed by
``the speed in which businesses are being expected to implement the changes, coming on top of concerns that small firms are suffering from over-regulation in other areas''.
At the other end of the business spectrum, the CBI sought a meeting with the Secretary of State to discuss its worries. It represents many companies that would have large personnel departments and the resources that might enable them, at a moment's notice, to read through a large document and discover how to implement its provisions. I gather that the CBI has not criticised the Secretary of State personally, but has
``criticised officials for not ensuring the guidance was published promptly by the Government's Stationery Office in time''—
a matter for which the Government must take responsibility.
I hope that the Minister will assure us that lessons have been learned about laying burdens on business. I am referring not to the principles behind the regulations, but to failings in the Government's implementation of regulations generally, the lack of notice given of impending regulations, and the Government's failure to understand how businesses cope with new regulatory burdens,—for example, the lead times needed, especially by smaller businesses.
During the passage of the 1999 Act, Conservatives made clear our belief that parental leave was best left to employers and employees. That is not because we are against motherhood and apple pie, but because we believe it to be the most common-sense way in which to deal with the matter. All sorts of problems will arise in the workplace from the operation of the legislation. Hon. Members on both sides of the House are receiving many letters asking why the Government have now put parental leave into statute, rather than leave it to voluntary negotiations between employer and employee. The result of that is that some people have been able to avail themselves of benefits derived from the legislation, whereas others have not, primarily because the leave introduced is unpaid.
Organisations such as the National Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children have written to hon. Members asking why the legislation, which might have been helpful to all parents, will now be made use of only by those who can afford to take unpaid parental leave. The Secretary of State for Social Security has said that there might be some sort of underpinning for the least well-off, but they are only a small minority. Many single parents or people living in one-income households will not be able to take unpaid leave. Following on from the regulations, do the Government intend to introduce any formula whereby parental leave is paid leave? If not, it would have been better to leave the matter to voluntary negotiations.
In his opening remarks, the Minister said that the Government had tried to make the provisions as flexible as possible and to leave as much decision making as possible to employers and employees. We welcome that intention, but the fact is that the Government have introduced an unfair piece of legislation. The problems are of the Government's making, and hon. Members on both sides of the House are being lobbied by constituents asking what they should do. Let me quote a letter produced by the parliamentary Labour party for Back Benchers to send in response to such correspondence. It states:
``As employers come to value these benefits they will want to go beyond the statutory visions, possibly including some paid parental leave.''
Even if some employers, who could afford to do so and who regarded it as a component in an employee's package of remuneration and benefits, were minded to do that, one has to question the ability of other employers to follow suit. Many employers cannot afford to do it, even if they want to. The combination of the lateness of the regulations' publication and the fact that the legislation will be on the statute book before the Government have thought the matter through is a cause of great concern.