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One issue that we want to explore in Committee is whether the measures on fixed-term workers are a genuinely misguided attempt to protect a group of workers who, on the whole, do not appear to need protection, or whether, as a Government Member may inadvertently have given away, there is a hidden agenda that seeks to stamp out unconventional forms of working relationships. The most controversial and significant clause is not yet in the Bill, but we all know that it is coming, hopefully during the Commons stages; it will deal with the right to consideration of an employee's request for part-time work. In its present form, the provision was described by Mr. Bill Morris as "a pyrrhic victory". From what we have witnessed so far this evening, it is apparent that the Government will come under enormous pressure from their own Back Benchers to turn the right to consideration of a request into a right to part-time working. On the face of it, the right to serious consideration of a request is innocuous enough, but it has the potential to become a serious threat to many smaller businesses if it develops into a right to part-time working. We shall seek a clear and unambiguous assurance from the Government that that will not be allowed to happen.
It is a political fashion for all parties to claim to put promotion of enterprise and the pursuit of competitiveness high on their agenda, which of course is a huge advance on the position just 10 years ago. However, the rhetoric changes more rapidly than the reality. The reality is that the Government are instinctively regulatory. The Chancellor this afternoon signalled that there was a raft of further burdens on the way. The Government talk the talk of deregulation, but last year alone introduced 3,865 new regulationsthe highest number ever.
Now the Governmentthe largest and probably one of the least enlightened employershave the temerity to lecture business on good practice, which they say is in business's own interest. The Bill has about it the unmistakable smack of the man from Whitehall knowing best. The Opposition remain unconvinced that regulation is the only or the best way to improve workplace morale and to secure better working relationships. Indeed, it is clear that an over-prescriptive regulatory regime could damage workplace relationships, especially in smaller businesses.
We accept that the broad objectives of the Bill are mostly well intentioned and, taken individually, may not appear to impose an unacceptable burden, but taken in context, they add to the burden of new regulatory compliance, administrative obligations and organisational inflexibility under which the camel of small business is currently buckling. We must scrutinise with the utmost care every additional straw that the Government propose to heap on its back.
We all aspire to a high-wage, high-employment economy, but we in the Opposition believe that we must generate the wealth before we distribute it. After three successive quarters of manufacturing recession, when business across all sectors is reeling under the seemingly unstoppable flow of new regulation, when the global economy is heading into a sharp downturn, and when jobs are being lost at an accelerating rate across UK industry, now is not the time to impose any new burdens which will make it less likely that Britain's economy will weather the gathering storm.
The Bill will increase burdens on business, reduce the competitiveness of British industry and cost jobs. I therefore urge my hon. Friends to support the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.
The Minister for Employment and the Regions (Alan Johnson): I begin by declaring an interest: I am a member of the Communication Workers Union. It is a one-way process: I pay the union about £12 a month, and I receive nothing but the joy and pleasure of being a member of that great union.
Comments about the camel of small business have given us on the Labour Benches the hump. I have been trying to weave in a reference to the Foreign Secretary, but I have failed in the short time available.
As the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) said, the debate has been rather predictable. It amazes me that although there is a new trade and industry Opposition Front-Bench team, nothing has changed. Listening to the contributions of the two Opposition Front-Bench spokespeoplespokesmenone would not believe that we were discussing a Bill that will increase statutory maternity leave to 26 weeks.
We have been part of a World Health Organisation drive since the 1990s to encourage mothers to breast-feed for the first six months of their baby's life. We are extending statutory maternity leave to 26 weeks, increasing statutory maternity pay, which has been around the £62 mark for years, to £100 by 2003, and introducing statutory paternity leave. Anyone whose wife or partner had a child 20 years ago will remember that the woman spent a week to two weeks in hospital. Now, a woman who goes into a maternity unit is lucky if she is there for 20 to 30 hours. [Interruption.]
This might seem amusing to Opposition Members. I see that there are two women on the Opposition Benches. Judging by the contribution of the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), which I shall deal with shortly, it is high time that the Opposition had more women to represent the views of mothers.
We are talking about a Bill that introduces paternity leave and adoptive leave for the first time. Adoptive parents get no help whatever and we are trying to encourage them to work so that we do not have to keep children in care. Those must be laudable aims, but the Opposition meet them with the same sort of basic derision that we have heard time after time in such debates. We try to establish basic civilised minimum standards in the workplace and the Opposition oppose that at every turn.
Before I turn to the points made by those on the Opposition Front Bench, I should like to deal with some of those made by Back Benchers, who made extremely interesting and well thought out contributions to an important debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley), whose constituency I had the pleasure of visiting, raised the important issue of the equal pay questionnaire, which is part of the Bill but was mentioned very rarely. The questionnaire may make a small contribution towards closing the gender gap
Furthermore, my hon. Friend was also one of several Labour Members who mentioned the three-step procedure and their fears that it may interfere with the ACAS code of practice. Our view is that the three-step procedure is a minimum standard. In terms of introducing the procedure into all businesses, including small businesses, which would have more difficulty coping than some larger businesses, we think that a basic three-step procedure is right. The employment tribunals will still use the ACAS code as their benchmark and we will work with ACAS to ensure that the basic minimum procedure is user friendly. My hon. Friend made a number of other detailed points, so I hope that she will excuse me if I cannot get around to all of them.
The hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), who explained to me that he could not be present for the winding-up speech, spoke about the all-work test. I need to refute the point that was made. He said that the Bill forced partners of disabled people to take an all-work test and to seek work. In fact, it provides encouragement for partners of disabled people, who will not be forced to take a medical test or required to seek work. The requirement is to attend a work-focused interview, whose purpose is to ensure that partners have the opportunity to discuss their work options and to be made aware of the support that is available to them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, Central (Mr. Doran), who is present in the Chamber, has long experience of these issues. Indeed, his experience as a lawyer underlined his contribution. He spoke about the way in which tribunals have changed since they were first introduced and about getting away from that. The original idea was that they would be formal but not legalistic or intimidating. We have moved a long way away from that idea and my hon. Friend made an important point in that respect. I do not know whether it is ever possible to get back to the original concept. None the less, the Bill and our response to "Routes to Resolution" encourage use of the ACAS arbitration scheme that has been in place since May. We also encourage fixed conciliation and fast track, and ask the ETS taskforce to consider how we can improve tribunals for users in particular. That will be a large part of the taskforce's work.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, Central also mentioned the fixed-term work directive. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) picked up on that point. We believe that, because of its nature, that directive should apply to employees. We believed that the part-time workers directive should apply to workers because of its nature. One of the nine unanimously agreed recommendations of the Bain taskforce is that the right to request flexible working should apply to employees, not workers. Many of my hon. Friends have made the point
My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, Central mentioned the Leggatt report. We do not want the proposals to suffer from planning blight. Leggatt makes a useful contribution, but it covers the whole tribunal system, not simply employment tribunals. We need to move on with the proposals.
The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) made the second excellent contribution that I have heard from him in the past few days. He also spoke on Friday when I was present. He made an important point about single fathers. The parents of young children, including single fathers, will have the right to have their request for flexible working seriously considered by their employers.
The hon. Gentleman asked us to exclude small family businesses from the provisions. I was not clear to which provisions he wanted that exclusion to apply. Did he mean the right to maternity leave, to increased maternity pay, or to paternity leave? Did he mean the employment tribunal proposals, which Conservative Front-Bench Members welcomed? They are specifically designed to help small businesses, which usually end up in a tribunal because they have no basic procedures in the workplace.