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Ms Hewitt: My hon. Friend makes an important point which I know is of concern to many Labour Members. As I have already made clear, we shall shortly embark on a review of the provisions of general employment law that relate to the distinction between an employee and a worker. As my hon. Friend well knows, these are enormously complicated legal matters on which we want to consult carefully. I anticipate that the review of the employee/worker distinction will begin early in the new year.

It is not the job of Government to tell parents how to lead their lives, but it is our job—and a responsibility that the Labour Government take seriously—to help parents choose how best to combine earning a living with bringing up children. In the past four years, we have done a great deal to help families fulfil their double responsibilities: 1 million women and 500,000 men benefit from the national minimum wage; more than 3 million workers have enjoyed four weeks' paid annual holidays for the first time; we have introduced the working families tax credit and higher child benefit, with a new children's tax credit to come; there are 800,000 new child care places, another 800,000 on the way, new rights for part-time workers, and, of course, the right to trade union recognition.

Not one of those measures was supported by Opposition Members. If they are shown fair standards for working people, all they can do is complain about burdens on business. The Bill builds on the achievements that we delivered in our first term. It will improve conditions for working parents, simplify and improve procedures for resolving disputes between management and workers, and strengthen support for training and learning at work.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): While no one could disagree with the principles of what the right hon. Lady is trying to achieve, does she not realise the practical impact on small business of tilting the balance of regulation heavily in favour of the employee and against

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the employer? In small organisations with a handful of workers that will make it very difficult indeed to run the business effectively.

Ms Hewitt: I have spent most of my working life running, and working in, small organisations. As the hon. Gentleman will find when I come to some of the Bill's detailed provisions, all the way through, we started with the needs of small businesses and the people working in them uppermost in our minds.

Part 1 will enable mothers to take up to six months' paid maternity leave and will extend paid time off to fathers and adoptive parents, as my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes) said, for the first time. Separate regulations will increase maternity pay from £62 a week to £100, and extend maternity leave so that mothers can take up to a year off work to look after a new baby.

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk): Does the Secretary of State regard the two weeks' paternity leave provision as an end point or, alternatively, a staging post on the way to the ultimate goal of better provision? I am aware of the Government's intention to try to balance better the mix of work and parental responsibilities, but the provisions for unpaid parental leave introduced in the last Parliament have resulted in an extremely low take-up of that right. By contrast, in many other European countries, the right is taken up to a considerable extent, because it is paid. It seems to be a case of tinkering at the edges. Is the Secretary of State prepared to set a goal of improving rights to paid leave, or is this the end point?

Ms Hewitt: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. We are determined to improve conditions for fathers, as well as mothers. Two weeks' paid paternity leave is an enormously important reflection of the responsibilities that a new father is taking on, but we have also already introduced, for fathers as well as mothers, new rights to parental leave. The new rights to family-friendly working, with which I shall deal in a moment, will apply to fathers of young children, as well as to mothers.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend; she has been most generous with her time. What she is doing through the Bill is wonderful, and she knows that it has my full support. During the consultation period, the possibility was considered that when the relevant period for maternity pay was calculated, it could be changed from eight weeks to 26 weeks. That would help people on very low and fluctuating wages, such as shopworkers. That is not in the Bill at this stage. Will my right hon. Friend give the matter further thought?

Ms Hewitt: My hon. Friend is right—that provision is not in the Bill. We consulted on it, but it is not in the Bill because we are trying to simplify an extraordinarily complicated system of administering maternity pay and leave. It became clear from the consultation that although the provision to which my hon. Friend refers would have offered some benefits, it was too complicated and too onerous, especially for small organisations.

The Bill, and related regulations, will simplify the system for maternity pay and leave, making it easier for businesses to understand and administer. We are also,

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separately, increasing the support that small businesses receive for administering maternity pay, with the result that about six out of 10 of all firms paying maternity pay will be able to reclaim their costs in full. We are also introducing changes that will allow firms to claim back the money that they pay out in maternity pay in advance—a particular bonus for small firms.

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): Can the Secretary of State confirm that, for the 60 per cent. of firms that can reclaim their costs in full, those costs will include the employer's national insurance contribution, as well as the pay, in full, recoverable by the firm?

Ms Hewitt: Yes, I believe that that is the case.

As I announced last week, we will include in the Bill new provisions to promote family-friendly working. In Committee, we will table amendments to implement the recommendations of the work and parents taskforce, which I published on 20 November. Those provisions will set new legal standards for family-friendly working, ensuring that where parents—fathers as well as mothers—of young children ask for changed working hours, employers will have a duty to find a solution, wherever possible, that suits both the worker and the business.

In drawing up these measures, our priority, and that of the taskforce, has been to adopt a light-touch approach, working with the grain of existing best practice and taking particular account of the needs of small firms. I thank all the members of the taskforce, particularly its chair, Professor Sir George Bain, for their hard work in preparing the report.

Mr. Hammond: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sorry to interrupt the Secretary of State, but for guidance, would you advise us whether it is in order for Members to discuss matters which are not in the Bill before us, but which might be introduced at a later stage, or whether all Members are limited to discussing only what is in the Bill?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: This is a Second Reading debate, so provided the matters being debated are relevant to that, they are, by and large, allowable.

Ms Hewitt: I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I note that the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) calls for a wider debate on these issues. I should have thought that it was helpful to him, as well as to the House, to know our intentions in respect of amendments to the Bill.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood): Among the excellent measures in the Bill are the provisions to simplify the regulations for maternity pay and maternity leave. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the Government will publicise those changes? When I speak to many of my constituents, they are bewildered by the existing rules and regulations, and look forward to changes. I am concerned that they may not be aware of some of the changes that are to be introduced.

Ms Hewitt: My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. Everybody is bewildered by the existing

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system of maternity pay and leave, which is quite incomprehensibly complicated. The new arrangements will take effect in April 2003. In the months leading up to that time, and also subsequently, we will ensure that employees and employers alike are aware of the new arrangements and the benefits that they will bring.

The new arrangements on flexible working that we will introduce by amendment to the Bill have been described by Digby Jones, Director General of the Confederation of British Industry, as

The Trades Union Congress said:

The Equal Opportunities Commission has welcomed the fact that

Of course, many employers in both the public and private sectors are already leading the way in raising productivity through effective partnerships with employees. However, there are still far too many cases of bad practice that harm both the employer and the worker. Some hon. Members may have seen in the news recently the case of Neil Walkingshaw, a car mechanic who went to the employment tribunal after being refused shorter working hours to enable him to care for his young son. He wanted shorter hours because he and his wife had decided that she should return to work full time. The employer's refusal to change Mr. Walkingshaw's working hours cost the latter his job, cost the business a skilled and experienced employee and led to considerable expenditure of time and money in a tribunal case—time and money that would have been much better expended on a small reorganisation of working hours to enable Mr. Walkingshaw to keep his job and continue contributing to the firm.

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