Employment Bill

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Alan Johnson: The hon. Gentleman is right: there are no other groups. Those who receive statutory paternity leave will be entitled to statutory paternity pay. I hope we are not talking to different amendments. We want to mirror the maternity leave provisions. That is the philosophy behind the clause.

Mr. Hammond: The Minister raises an important issue, and I have suffered from self-doubt because of the confusion about the reference. There will not necessarily be payments of statutory paternity pay to those entitled to statutory paternity leave. The Bill says that in order to qualify for statutory paternity pay, one must have spent a continuous period of at least 26 weeks with the employer. In relation to statutory paternity leave, that continuous period is to be defined by regulations. It might be defined as 15, 10 or five weeks, in which case a class of people would qualify for statutory paternity leave but not for statutory paternity pay. I invite the Minister to define the qualification for statutory paternity pay as being the qualification for statutory paternity leave by referring to the regulations under new section 80A.

Alan Johnson: The qualification is that they have worked for 26 weeks for employer, into the fifteenth week before the birth of the child. That is the qualification that we intend to apply to leave, which also applies to pay. I may need to consider the hon. Gentleman's point. He seems to be suggesting that the current drafting would mean—

Mr. Hammond: Could.

Alan Johnson: It could mean a disparity between the two because one is in regulations and the other is in the Bill. I will consider if the clause does meet the agreed objectives and return with an amendment if necessary.

Mr. Hammond: Unless I am missing something blindingly obvious, that is precisely the problem. I can understand why the Government might be blind to the problem because they know their intentions for the regulations. If they intend to make a regulation that stipulates 26 weeks, there will be symmetry with that in place. However, it is undesirable that two things are meant to mirror each other, but one is defined in regulations that can be changed by statutory instrument and the other is set in stone in the Bill. The same applies to new section 80B. I ask the Minister to let me know the outcome of his deliberations.

The Minister said that he would consider the reference to

    ''a person who is, or has been, an employee''.

Will he also address the question of the ''ceased to work'' issue?

Alan Johnson: Yes, I said that we would consider that. The phrase has been used because it mirrors the language in maternity legislation, and it will be discussed as part of the exercise to which I have referred.

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Mr. Hammond: I look forward to hearing the outcome of that examination. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North): I beg to move amendment No. 91, in page 6, leave out lines 1 to 6.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 92, in page 6, leave out lines 29 to 32.

No. 90, in clause 4, page 15, leave out lines 9 to 12.

Mr. Hughes: The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge will be grateful for a pause in his deliberations. He has been a one-man show for the past two sittings and for most of this one, except for the amusing intervention this morning from the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk). He has obviously frightened the Liberal Democrats away. We had one Liberal Democrat this morning, and now we have none. It is usually the case with the Liberal Democrats that the lights are on, but no one is home. The hon. Gentleman's Conservative colleagues seem to have been very quiet during these sittings. I wonder if they think that they are in government and are supposed to sit quietly. Government members have made more substantial interventions than Conservative or Liberal Democrat Back Benchers.

I welcome the new rights afforded to parents in the legislation. Paid paternity leave and adoption leave are welcome and are a significant move forward in bringing families together at a crucial time. The Minister will recall that I raised the issue covered by the amendments on Second Reading on 27 November 2001. The Secretary of State acknowledged that the issue was important and should be considered in Committee. I have therefore tabled the amendments so that we may examine the exclusion of a particular group of people. I want to flag up the problems and give the Minister the opportunity to reconsider that exclusion, to question its fairness and hopefully to make suitable modifications to the Bill at a later stage.

The Minister has been probed from the front by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge and is now being probed from behind by Government Members. I find it difficult to believe that the Government, in proposing new and welcome rights for parents, are excluding a group of people who may need more help than most. The Government, more than any other, have gone out of their way to deal with social exclusion. The Prime Minister set up a social exclusion unit within months of coming into office to try to redress the balance to give those who are not so well off better opportunities. To date, their recommendations are bearing fruit in terms of getting funding into communities and specific projects where it is needed to help people out of poverty.

The buzz phrases when we first came into government were ''off benefits'' and ''into work''. Well this group of people are off benefits and are work. They are, however, in work that attracts only a low level of

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income that falls below the lower earnings limit. There are various reasons for that and I shall come back to them in a moment.

The question is what message this specific exclusion from new rights is sending to those who have jobs but whose income is below the lower earnings limit. Is the message different for those not so well off? Is it that what is good for those who have well paid employment is not necessary for those who are poorly paid? Do those on lower incomes not count? Does the Minister think that they are less concerned about their children than those who are better off? I do not believe that that is the case.

The Minister needs to explain why he specifically excluded them from these new rights and on what grounds he thinks this exclusion would stand scrutiny under the terms of the European convention on human rights. The concept seems to be that just because someone is in a low paid job they do not need to spend time with their new baby or caring for their partner. The very idea is bizarre, but that is the only conclusion that people will draw from the unfortunate wording of this Bill.

There could be many reasons why incomes fall below the lower earnings limit. People may be unable to find one full-time job and so have more than one part-time one. That is often the case, and many people fall into that category. Many employers, particularly in the service sector, are only looking for part-time employees. The problem is that unless they earn over £72 a week from one job, they will fall below the lower earnings limit and, unlike the tax system, national insurance is levied on income from each job separately.

It could be that because of a disability a person is able to hold down only a part-time job, perhaps getting disabled person's tax credit. If they are on a minimum wage, they could work 17 and a half hours and still fall below the lower earnings limit. People between 18 and 21 who do not get the minimum wage—they might be on £3.50 an hour—would have to work over 20 and a half hours a week before they exceeded the lower earnings limit.

There are many people who work low basic hours, for example in the service sector or the retail sector. There are many people whose work is seasonal, particularly in tourist and agricultural areas. They may find it easy to get work at peak times but very difficult to find full-time work at other times. During such times, they will fall below the lower earnings limit.

None of these people is any less hard working or deserving than many of us who are lucky enough to have full-time, well paid employment. Clearly, to exclude such people is grossly unfair and discriminatory and I cannot believe that the Minister is happy in promoting such discrimination, particularly given his extensive experience of fighting against such unfairness and obvious discrimination before he was elected to the House.

I urge him to review this situation. These amendments are not radical. People on any level of earnings are already entitled to paternity and adoption leave. These amendments simply extend the right to payment for the period of the leave to the lowest paid

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people in this country, to ensure that they can all spend some time with their children at the important time at the start of their lives. Children who are born and brought up in poverty suffer too many disadvantages already. The strains on their family lives are perhaps the greatest. I urge my hon. Friend to take this opportunity to make one more step towards redressing the balance.

3.30 pm

Helen Jones (Warrington, North): I support my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes). I do so on two grounds: first, on the grounds of basic fairness and, secondly, because the thrust of the Bill goes against the whole thrust of Government policy elsewhere. When I look at the clauses I think of the many people in my constituency and those of my hon. Friends who struggle to hold down two or three jobs just to keep their heads above water. That applies to some men, but particularly to many low-paid women workers who juggle several different jobs to keep their families afloat.

As my hon. Friend said, such people are extremely hard working. In some ways it would be much easier for them to accept a life on benefit, but they choose not to do so. For us to deny them paid adoption or paid paternity leave is profoundly discriminatory. These people will not have savings to fall back on to tide them over a period of unpaid leave. They struggle to get by from week to week. To say, as the Bill appears to say, that they are less entitled to the right to be with their children than those on higher incomes is not only profoundly unfair but goes against the whole thrust of the Government's policy of ending social exclusion and trying to support families who are in poverty or disadvantaged in other ways.

Why do we as a Government promote programmes like Sure Start in deprived areas to encourage families to give their children the best possible start in life and yet at the same time deny them paid adoption or paternity leave? That is not right. If we are encouraging people to take jobs that are often low paid as a step to further work we should not build profound disincentives into the system. By working in low-paid jobs these people save the Government, the community and indeed all of us, money that would be paid out in benefit. They are often the people whose children deserve the best start in life and we should encourage that by ensuring that they get the same paid leave entitlements as anyone else.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will think again about what is in the Bill and accept the amendment, otherwise I do not see how we can defend the clauses. I do not see how we can say that we support family-friendly policies and encourage those who are socially excluded to give the best possible start in life to their children and to break that cycle of deprivation and poverty if we do not give them the wherewithal to do so.

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