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4.15 pm

If one adopts the conspiracy theorist approach—that the Government may have in mind moving the horizon, or removing the boundaries, in their forthcoming review of employment legislation—one can readily see why, at this stage, they might want to exclude the armed forces. There might not be a significant burden on the armed forces in considering a request from a person currently serving with the Royal Marines in Afghanistan and denying the request on the ground that it is not compatible with the working arrangements of that service man or woman. However, unless the armed forces were exempted, they could obviously be in some difficulty if the Government have it

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in mind to extend the provisions further. Will the Minister consider that point? Can he reassure me and my hon. Friend?

Mr. George Osborne: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way just before he concludes his remarks. May I put a point to the Minister, who has, as my hon. Friend said, exhibited some muddled thinking? The Minister tells us that the armed forces are special and that there are operational considerations. We all understand that, but surely those reasons would be taken into account in the provisions, which—as we understand the Minister's comments—will also apply to businesses. They, too, will be able to claim that there are special circumstances and that they cannot give an employee time off.

Mr. Hammond: My hon. Friend made his point succinctly. I am only sorry to disappoint him by telling him that I was not about to conclude my remarks.

It is easy for the Government always to decide that all these good ideas will not—apparently—impose serious burdens on private businesses or employers and are even good for them in some cases if they only were smart enough to realise it. Yet sectors under the Government's control, mysteriously, need to be exempted. We can see that from history: when sex discrimination legislation, for example, was introduced, the Government said, "Oh, but it can't apply to public services such as the police and the armed forces".

We are talking about a service for which the Government have direct responsibility. The senior commanders are, in effect, employers, and have privileged access to the Government and the ability to put their point across. Lo and behold, after arguing in Committee that there was no need to exempt the armed forces, the Minister has seen the light and decided that there is a need for such exemption. If Ministers were as close to, and received such direct communication from, the many hundreds of thousands of businesses that fear that they may be adversely affected by the measures, they might realise that there are equally pressing needs—not reasons of national security, but certainly reasons of business survival—that other employers would pray in aid.

Mr. Prisk: My hon. Friend mentioned the Minister's rather late-in-the-day approach. Is my hon. Friend also concerned about the extraordinary costs? As he will recall, in Committee, it was slipped out that the net extra cost would be £173 million? Does he agree that those costs should have been made explicit from the beginning?

Mr. Hammond: My hon. Friend is right: that is another £173 million on the additional burden of billions of pounds that the Government have imposed on business. It is a small sum compared with the total burden, but a significant one for individual businesses.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hammond: I am happy to do so. I wondered how long it would be before we provoked an intervention from the Labour Benches.

Rob Marris: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can explain something, because there seems to be a contradiction in

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what he says. When he intervened on the Minister, he said that the proposal represents best practice and that it will give business a competitive advantage, but he now seems to suggest that it represents a burden on business. I think that it is a good thing for business and that it should be made statutory. Can he make up his mind and tell the House which way he is going on this issue?

Mr. Hammond: The Minister's case is that this is a good thing for business and that the Government will therefore statutorily impose it on business.

Rob Marris rose

Mr. Hammond: Let me finish. The Minister's case seems wholly illogical. It is logical to say that this is a good thing for workers and therefore that we will statutorily impose it on business. In relation to another matter, it might be a good argument to say that it is a good thing for business and we will therefore statutorily impose it on workers. However, it cannot be logical and sensible to impose by statute something that is a good thing for the person who will be subject to it. What has happened to the concept of encouraging best practice to generate competitive advantage?

In Committee, we spoke at length about Investors in People. The Minister would readily acknowledge that employers who adopt best practice and achieve Investors in People awards gain a competitive advantage in the recruitment and retention of employees. That is a very important competitive aspect of business these days.

Rob Marris: Of course the Minister can reply for himself, but I do not remember his specifying that the proposal was a good thing for business; he referred to the work-life balance.

Given what the hon. Gentleman has just said, would he take the same line with health and safety at work? It is a good thing for employers that their workers do not get killed at work, but he seems to be saying, "We'll just leave that to best practice." I do not want to put words into his mouth—he will tell the House what he thinks—but there seems to be a clear analogy with health and safety.

Mr. Hammond indicated dissent.

Rob Marris: The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, indicating that he broadly supports health and safety legislation. I am pleased to see that, as I am sure the House is, but there seems to be an analogy between the two issues. Which way is he going on this issue?

Mr. Hammond: The hon. Gentleman's analogy stretches the point. Legislation for health and safety in the workplace is primarily intended to protect employees, and it is obviously right that it should be imposed by statute. All I suggest to the Minister is that he should not seek to shelter behind the somewhat spurious argument that these measures are being imposed on business because they are good for business. The same argument was adduced in relation to union learning representatives.

It is suggested that business should not be worried because the proposal is good for business and therefore that those in business should be delighted that the

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Government are imposing it on them. Business will consider those issues. There is a very competitive marketplace for skilled labour and all sorts of labour that is in short supply.

Rob Marris: Because of a Labour Government.

Mr. Hammond: No, because of the legacy left to the Government by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke).

A primary issue on the agenda of any business, certainly in large parts of the country where the supply of labour, good quality employees—

Mr. Speaker: Order. These are minor amendments, and the hon. Gentleman is straying into making a more general point. The best course of action would be to get back to the minor amendments and move on.

Mr. Hammond: I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker. I could not resist being provoked by the Minister's remarks into widening the debate, but the points that needed to be made have been made. I shall be interested to hear whether the Minister can answer the specific questions that I have asked.

Alan Johnson: I hope to deal with all the specific questions. First, on Lords amendment No. 61, clauses 45 and 46 will, indeed, come into force as soon as the Bill receives Royal Assent, which may happen as early as tonight. We could then table the regulations, which would allow us to give businesses plenty of time to deal with fixed-term regulations.

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) asked a rather mischievous question about whether some of the other Lords Amendments were intended to deal with errors.

Mr. Hammond: Can the Minister tell the House whether there is any particular reason why clauses 45 and 46 will now come into effect on Royal Assent, rather than on a date to be specified by the Secretary of State? Is there a European Union deadline to comply with, or something of that nature?

Alan Johnson: There is, but we are going beyond that anyway, as we have announced that, instead of introducing these measures on 10 July, we will introduce them on 1 October to give businesses more time. The Commission understands that a proper period to consider the matter will ensure better compliance.

On the technical amendments, all that I can tell the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge is that they put right inaccuracies that have crept into a few of the paragraphs that amend the Employment Rights Act 1996. For "inaccuracies", one should read "errors", but the Lords stage was the opportunity to tidy them up. We believe that the Lords were absolutely right in agreeing to those amendments.

The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) raised in an intervention the issue of the cost assessment being sneaked in in Committee. I want to make it clear that the work and parents part of the Bill—the flexible working part—was subject to the taskforce report. That report came out after the Bill was published,

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so it was not part of the original Bill. The cost assessment therefore came later. We published it as soon as we published the amendment, and, when we dealt with it in Committee, it was four or five days after the taskforce report had been published—

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