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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Employment (Northern Ireland) Order 2002

Fifth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Monday 4 November 2002

[Mr. Peter Atkinson in the Chair]

Draft Employment (Northern Ireland) Order 2002

4.30 pm

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Employment (Northern Ireland) Order 2002.

May I say what a pleasure it is, Mr. Atkinson, to serve under your chairmanship? This is also my first opportunity to offer a warm welcome to the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) on his appointment to the Opposition Front Bench. He was a Minister in the Northern Ireland Office in previous Governments-he served in that capacity in a distinguished way-and it is a privilege and a pleasure to work with him.

Mr. John Taylor (Solihull): I share the Minister's pleasure that we are meeting under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson, and I thank her for her gracious words of welcome to me. In fact, I was never a Northern Ireland Minister. However, I have been a Northern Ireland spokesman for the Opposition and, once upon a time, I was Northern Ireland Whip. I feel as though I have been in this position before.

Jane Kennedy: Given my experience, I count Whips as Ministers. It is a pleasure to see the hon. Gentleman on the Front Bench.

A draft of the order was laid before the House on 28 October. The provisions in it mirror the working parents measures contained in the Employment Act 2002, which were debated at length by both Houses earlier this year. However, because of the timing constraints then imposed by the scheduled dissolution of the Northern Ireland Assembly in March 2003, it was decided that the Employment (Northern Ireland) Bill should not include the provisions of the Great Britain Act that deal with tribunal reform, dispute resolution and union learning representatives. The priority was to ensure that working parents in Northern Ireland had the opportunity to enjoy the same rights as those in Great Britain-and at the same time. Because of my background as a former trade union organiser, it was my intention to return to those issues at the earliest opportunity.

The substance of that Northern Ireland Bill is now contained in this Order in Council. The order provides for the introduction of paid paternity and adoption leave, makes changes to maternity entitlement, and introduces the right to request flexible working arrangements. Social security provisions corresponding to those in the Employment Act 2002 have been made under the Social Security (Northern Ireland) Act 2002, which received Royal Assent last month. Those cover maternity pay, maternity allowance and work-focused interviews for partners.

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The provisions of the order were the subject of extensive public consultation in Northern Ireland, the results of which indicated widespread support. I am also happy to inform hon. Members that, from an equality perspective, analysis of the provisions showed that their impact would be very positive. The Committee may be interested to note that the provisions drew support from across the political spectrum in the Assembly.

A regulatory impact assessment was published outlining the cost implications of the proposals for employers. I am conscious, of course, of the need to avoid imposing burdens on businesses when possible. However, although the order will undoubtedly generate some costs for employers, such as in setting up systems to administer the new arrangements and in facilitating flexible working requests, I believe that there will be many advantages for employers-for example, recruitment costs will be reduced if people who might otherwise have had to leave are able to remain in the workplace.

I shall take a few moments to comment on the core elements of the order. On adoption leave and pay, adoptive parents will have a right to paid time off work so that they can care for their children. An adoptive parent will be able to take 26 weeks' paid leave and 26 weeks' unpaid leave-the same as women on maternity leave. As with maternity and paternity pay, small employers will be able to recoup 100 per cent. of adoption pay plus additional compensation for administration costs.

The order provides for a new right to two weeks' paid paternity leave following the birth or adoption of a child. The payment mechanism will be standardised with that for maternity pay, so that it is easy for employers to operate. The costs associated with paternity leave will be low for most employers, because the majority of the costs will be reimbursed.

The order, and regulations made under it, will simplify the arrangements for maternity leave. That was a key priority for employers, particularly small employers, who responded to the public consultation. Ordinary maternity leave will be extended from 18 to 26 weeks with the option of additional, unpaid maternity leave of 26 weeks.

Giving parents of young children and disabled children under 18, the right to request flexible working arrangements will play a significant role in allowing such parents to remain in the work force. There will be costs for employers in considering requests for staff. However, I expect such costs to reduce as the principles of the work-life balance become embedded in our business culture.

The provisions are in line with those already in force in Great Britain, following the passing of the Employment Act 2002. It is appropriate for working parents in Northern Ireland to have those rights at the same time as employees in the rest of Great Britain for a number of reasons.

Before the suspension of the devolved institutions, the Employment (Northern Ireland) Bill was about to enter the penultimate stage of its passage through the Northern Ireland Assembly. Following a clause-by-

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clause debate, the Members of the Assembly approved all its provisions on 7 October. The Bill was certain soon to have been enacted with all-party support had the Assembly not been suspended.

The measure is important because my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in his March 2001 Budget, announced the introduction of paid paternity and adoption leave and enhanced maternity rights. It was widely understood that those new rights would apply throughout the United Kingdom.

Northern Ireland employees are subject to the income tax and national insurance regimes that apply throughout Great Britain. Therefore, they might reasonably expect to have parity with their fellow citizens in the employment rights and benefits that they enjoy. It is also desirable for them to have the same rights from a practical perspective. The administration of statutory paternity pay and statutory adoption pay will be by means of a UK-wide Inland Revenue system. There would be serious operational problems if, in the absence of this legislation, Northern Ireland applications for payments had to be identified and excluded.

The Department for Employment and Learning in Northern Ireland is preparing 11 sets of regulations to provide the detail of how the new rights will operate. It is highly desirable for the regulations governing paternity and maternity leave to come into operation in early December, and it is important for that to happen at the same time in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I ask the Committee to approve the order, so that working parents in Northern Ireland can enjoy the rights that will be enjoyed by parents elsewhere.

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton): Before my hon. Friend concludes her remarks, will she tell me at what age a child ceases to be a child under the order for the purposes of, for example, flexible hours working? Is it at the age of 16 or 18?

Jane Kennedy: It is a pleasure to see my hon. Friend back from his trip, bringing a little ray of sunshine into the Room. As I recall the Employment Act 2002, I think that the age at which such children will be deemed to be adults is 18. If I am wrong, I shall make every effort to put the matter straight. There are different elements to the order, as he will recall from the debates that took place as that Act went through the House. There are arguments about at what ages the different benefits should apply, but I believe that the answer to his question is 18.

I ask the Committee to approve the order so that working parents in Northern Ireland can enjoy the rights that I have described and that will be enjoyed by parents in England, Wales and Scotland as a result of the Employment Act 2002.

4.39 pm

Mr. John Taylor: I shall not detain the Committee. The measure, so ably introduced by the Minister, reflects the spirit of the age, so naturally the Conservative party supports it.

On a more substantive note, I once practised law and-although I no longer practise it-I have known

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since my student days that we live in a country with a harsh discipline, whereby the citizen is presumed to know the law. I was going to express that point in Latin but, on second thoughts, I shall not do so because I do not know whether Latin appears in Hansard. However, the Latin tag is not difficult to translate. It says, ''Ignorance of the law is no excuse.'' If the citizen is presumed to know the law, the less the law changes between regions, provinces or countries, the better. Ideally, as far as circumstances permit, the law should be the same throughout the island, so that the presumption that the citizen knows the law is easier to fulfil.

Mr. Kilfoyle: Would the hon. Gentleman like to extend the argument and say that there should not be Scottish as well as English law?

Mr. Taylor: The hon. Gentleman presents me with a problem. As an Englishman, I would not presume to tell the Scots what to do, especially now that they have a Parliament of their own. Scottish law comes from a completely different ancestry. It is much closer to Roman law than to the English common law. If I were able to play God, I might say that Scottish law should be the same as English law. However, I cannot play God so I shall not say that.

I have had experience of Scottish law, because I once handled a case in Scotland with the aid of a Scottish law agent. English law could learn something from Scottish law, which is admirable in some respects and especially in criminal law. The specification within the charge is virtually the prosecution case, so the defendant knows the case that he has to answer before he goes into court. That is wholly admirable.

If I could start the world again-


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