Employment Bill

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Brian Cotter (Weston-super-Mare): Would allowing shorter periods not put employees under pressure to take only a few days or a week at a time rather than taking the whole block together?

Mark Tami: I hope that that could be worked out between the parties, although I would not want people to put their name to anything. I am looking at the matter from the employee's point of view, because the two-week block may not be suitable to the needs of the mother and child.

Mr. Hammond: Because of the hon. Gentleman's privileged position on the Labour Benches, he may have access to information that I do not have. You will notice that the Minister has moved his chair, Mr. Benton, so as to keep a wary eye on the hon. Gentleman. Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that there is an interrelationship between paternity leave and paternity pay? Under the paternity pay regulations, there is a specific provision preventing any form of contracting out, making void any agreement that purports to contract out of the detailed arrangements. That is the difficulty that worries me.

Mark Tami: As I have said, I am simply asking the Minister to reconsider the area and think about some of the comments that have been made.

I disagree with amendment No. 105, but it does raise the question of the expected date of birth. We should consider the circumstance of a birth that is very early, when the mother and child spend a long time in hospital. Will the Minister consider at what stage that period would eat into the period when leave must be taken? Obviously, we should take into account such special circumstances. We would not want the timing to be so tight that the father would be forced into a difficult position.

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Mr. George Osborne: I add to the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge a welcome recognition of the new rights being given to fathers. I have a dual interest in the matter: I am the constituency Member of Parliament for both David Beckham and Alex Ferguson.

Alan Johnson: Alex Ferguson did not vote for you.

Mr. Osborne: The Minister is right. In fact, Alex Ferguson appeared all over the leaflets of my Labour opponent, Steve Conquest, a most inaccurately named gentleman. I also have a personal interest because I became a father for the first time a week after the general election. Sadly, I do not remember my Whips being as family-friendly as the Government's current proposals for many employees.

On a more serious point, I think that sometimes in the past the Conservative party has had an employment policy, but not a policy for employees. We have got into a muddle in talking about parents playing an active role in bringing up their children and, at the same time, placing burdens on business through maternity and paternity leave. However, I find myself in the happy position of supporting my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge in calling for an even more flexible, family-friendly policy for employees.

We need some common sense in the Bill. Many fathers would like to take a week off immediately after the birth of their children and another week off perhaps a month or two later. Many businesses, especially small businesses, might find it easier to allow an employee to take one week off at one time and another week sometime later. It is common sense that a mother who goes into labour may want her husband to be with her. The problem with the family leave referred to by the hon. Member for North Norfolk is that it is unpaid, and it is difficult for families on a tight budget to take unpaid time off work. However, I am happy to support all the amendments and happy that the Conservative party is proposing more flexible and more family-friendly policies than the Labour Government.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West): I welcome you again to the Chair, Mr. Benton, and following the events of 7 June, I wish you a prosperous new year.

I want to speak to amendments Nos. 104, 105 and 101. It seems to me that hon. Members have misread the Bill. The last word of line 16 on page 2 is ''entitled''. The power provided in subsection (3) would entitle an employee—give him or her an absolute right—to two weeks leave, but it does not say that the leave must be an unbroken two weeks. The power entitles an employee to assert his or her right.

I am glad to witness the birth of new Conservatism following the comments of the hon. Member for Tatton. It is a great step forward. Flexibility is provided in subsection (5)(c), which amendment No. 101 would delete.

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Norman Lamb: The argument put forward by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge is a powerful one. Although the employer and employee may agree to an arrangement whereby leave may be taken in two different periods, it does not appear that the employer would be able to claim back the cost from the state of £100 a week for paternity leave, if the leave were taken in two separate weeks. There is a good argument for greater flexibility to provide for that.

Rob Marris: I am sure that we are all in favour of greater flexibility with regard to payment. However, on the subject of leave, the two subsections to which I have referred—subsection (3) and subsection (5)(c)—provide for the two ends of the spectrum.

Mr. Hammond: The hon. Gentleman suggests that hon. Members, myself in particular, may have misread the Bill. It is extraordinarily easy to misread the Bill because it says little and is almost entirely dependent on regulations. However, the hon. Gentleman may find the explanatory notes helpful. The explanatory notes on clause 1 explicitly state:

    ''Regulations will provide for this''—

the two weeks' paternity leave—

    ''to be taken in a single block of either one week or two weeks at the choice of the father.''

The Government's intention is that the leave be taken in a single block. Although the hon. Gentleman's legal skills may lead him to interpret the Bill alternatively—after all, lawyers are paid for finding new interpretations of words on paper—there is no doubt of that intention.

Rob Marris: Lawyers are certainly not paid for seeking to amend explanatory notes. Members of Parliament might be paid for seeking to amend Bills under their consideration. It is the Bill that we are discussing, and the Bill makes it clear that there are two ends of the spectrum and so some flexibility. No doubt the Minister will respond to that in due course.

Similarly, proposed new clause 80A(4) of the Employment Rights Act 1996 is worded—I appreciate that the Minister has not said that he will take the point on board when making regulations—so that paternity leave could be taken before the birth. It gives a long-stop date by which paternity leave must be taken. The Bill does not say that paternity leave can start only after the child is born.

Mr. Lloyd: Alas, I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris). The explanatory notes are pretty specific, and I must assume that the Minister intends the Bill and any regulations to be interpreted in line with them. As the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge said, the notes state that:

    ''Regulations will provide for this to be taken in a single block of either one week or two weeks at the choice of the father.''

That seems straightforward. They also state:

    ''The intention is to make paternity leave available to fathers following the birth of a child or the placement of a child for adoption''.

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It seems extremely clear that the intention is either one or two weeks in a block, and that the leave must take place after the birth of the child.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will reflect on the arguments that have been made about employers and employees needing certainty, which I understand. I see that it is necessary to have a basic entitlement that no one can gainsay, for cases in which the employer and employee are in bitter disagreement. Notwithstanding the need for a minimum standard, an argument has been made across the Committee that, when all parties want to break the leave up in some acceptable way, it makes sense to allow that. We all know of such circumstances, sometimes in our own families. Some of us have been through the situation more than once, with mothers of one parent or the other available at different times. Employers themselves may be happy with a broken form of entitlement that might suit employees better.

All that I will say to help my hon. Friend the Minister is that I understand that, in the protection of the public purse and public interest, greater difficulties are found in monitoring as flexibility is increased. I am not being pedantic about the way in which the system ought to operate. I urge him to consider carefully the sentiments expressed from both sides of the Committee. There is no hectoring; we are attempting to act in the spirit of the legislation, and to make it more effective and suitable for all parties. There is no partisan divide, but an attempt to reach a common-sense solution.

I concede that there may be technical difficulties in framing regulations that give that flexibility, but I do not want my hon. Friend to tie himself in knots—or, to mix metaphors, to paint himself into a corner.

6.30 pm

Mr. Hammond: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if the Minister finds difficulties over the single-period argument, there is nothing to stop him removing from subsection (3) of proposed section 80A the prescriptive requirement for a single period? Even if those words were removed from the Bill, nothing would stop him making a subsequent regulation that included those words. Part of our objection, in relation to amendment No. 98, is that writing ''single period'' into the Bill would give the Minister no chance to change the regulations, even if it became apparent that that was the way to go.

Mr. Lloyd: The hon. Gentleman makes a strong point.

We have some time left to debate the Bill, and we shall have the Report stage before it goes to the other place, so my hon. Friend the Minister will have the opportunity to reflect on the matter. It is not helpful to insist that he move in a particular direction today. However, it would help if he took on board the overall argument that we should have a minimum standard but that it should allow for flexibility by agreement. If agreement cannot be reached, both parties can fall back on the basic minimum standard. That seems to be common sense. I may have missed an important trick; if so, I hope that my hon. Friend can explain it.

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