Employment Bill

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Mr. Lloyd: I used to think that the cost was about £300,000. In fact, £3 million would be a more accurate figure. In the case of maternity pay, those below the earnings levels are in receipt of benefits. There are examples of people who are not making contributions directly to the national insurance system receiving benefit.

Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the spirit of the amendments is essentially just? I am not asking whether he supports them, but whether he believes that those below the earnings threshold should have access to paternity pay?

Mr. Hammond: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is not asking me whether I support the amendments. I might ask the same question of him and he might not wish to answer at the moment.

The point that I was making before the hon. Gentleman's intervention was that what will matter most to the people in question is whether they will receive some money while taking paternity leave. Whether it is called statutory paternity pay or whether it is available to them through another mechanism may be less important to them. When we began our deliberations on this part of the Bill, I said that if we are addressing a problem and not merely giving leave rights and money to people for their benefit, but because we see a benefit to society in ensuring proper parenting, the group of people we are discussing now—probably more than any other group—could be a highly relevant target group for that kind of intervention.

Mr. Lloyd: Was that a maybe?

Mr. Hammond: No. Until I have heard from the Minister what other support will be available, I would like to reserve my judgment. I do not believe it as a grand principle that a person in certain circumstances should receive public funds under this rather than that heading. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about that.

The hon. Member for Doncaster, North said that he would be surprised if these provisions stood up to scrutiny under the European convention on human rights. That raises a wider issue about whether contributory benefits would generally stand up to such scrutiny. Of course the Bill includes a certificate from the Secretary of State stating that its provisions are compatible with the convention.

Apologies to members of the Committee who have heard me tell this story on another Committee, but one of my constituents is a stalwart long-term member of the Labour party and an academic lawyer. He opined in a book that a Minister who makes such a statement on the front of a Bill and is subsequently proved wrong by the courts should resign as having materially misled Parliament. Will the Minister convey that point to the Secretary of State? Interestingly, it is the same gentleman who mounted a challenge to women-only shortlists from inside the Labour party. [Interruption.] No, he is not a Tory mole, but very much a Labour party member.

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Some Labour Members argued that a disproportionate number of those caught by the lower earnings limit exclusion will be women. Has the Minister been advised on indirect sex discrimination? Other hon. Members may have detailed statistics, but I imagine that far more women than men would be caught by the provision. It will not be an issue for statutory maternity pay where we are dealing with a birth, but where are we dealing with adoptions the person in receipt of statutory maternity pay could be a woman. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response to interesting and important issues.

Mr. Charles Hendry (Wealden): I had not intended to speak, but have been moved to do so in response to the eloquent contributions of Labour Members. They obviously focused on issues in their own constituencies, but it is a wider national issue. The Library recently published the gross domestic product statistics for local authority areas. East Sussex was revealed as the third poorest in the whole country. That is because it depends on tourism, retail, farming and small engineering companies for the main source of employment within the county area. Areas seen to be prosperous—often wrongly—can be affected as much as inner city areas.

I shall not detain the Committee long because I want to hear the Minister's response, but I want to argue that certain groups of people will be inadvertently hit by this measure. A father who stays at home part-time to look after a disabled child or a son who looks after an invalid parent is classed as a carer and works fewer hours on account of it. If such people are working part-time on low wages, they could fall below the threshold. Similarly, a disabled person may fall below it because his ability to work a full week is impaired.

When I was in this place before, I was joint-chair of the all-party group on homelessness and enjoyed many hours of discussion with the hon. Member for Manchester, Central. I am still vice president of the Big Issue foundation. When one is trying to get people back into work who have been homeless one cannot expect them to go into full-time work straight away. There is a gradual progression as they work their way back, building up a few hours, starting on low paid work and getting better employment as they progress. Those who have been the most vulnerable people in society would fall foul of this measure.

The Bill specifically refers to the eight-week period. Someone's hours might have been cut for reasons such as economic downturn. They may have been earning well above the lower earnings limit but for that particular period of misfortune may fall foul of the measure simply because of an economic downturn. Finally, I should be grateful if the Minister would clarify what normal weekly earnings are. Does that exclude overtime? My assessment is that normal weekly earnings are the base income and so would not take account of overtime earnings. If someone has been off sick over that period it would bring down his earnings levels. There are many categories; it is not just people living in deprived areas. People who have

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suffered all sorts of misfortune and difficult circumstances could suffer as a result of these measures.

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy): I welcome the points made by the hon. Member for Wealden (Mr. Hendry), particularly about people with disabilities and their carers? I am a member of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs. Early last year we published our social exclusion inquiry report, which highlighted many of the points that have been made by my hon. Friends this afternoon. We met many groups in Wales who represented those people we have heard about this afternoon. Some of our recommendations have been quoted. I support my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North and his amendment wholeheartedly.

Like many hon. Members I welcomed the new deal programme that was set up immediately after we were elected in 1997. In my constituency we changed the whole culture of people who have been unemployed for a long time. We changed their thinking. They searched for work. Tourism is the major industry in my area and some of my constituents work for three different employers. In the beginning they had difficulty holding down one job, let alone three, to make ends meet. I urge the Minister to listen carefully to what we say this afternoon. I feel confident that he will give us the answers that we seek.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford): I do not intend to delay the Committee long. I should first like to reinforce the excellent comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden. May I also go back to the comments made by the hon. Member for Manchester, Central? While he is entirely right to demonstrate that his own constituency as an entity is poorer and worse off than Hertford and Stortford or Runnymede and Weybridge, it is important not to assume that that is uniform. The Sele Farm estate in Hertford has significant problems. Equally there are villages in my constituency that also have significant problems. In a funny way because there are fewer people in those circumstances in those communities they are even more isolated. That point is worth bearing in mind.

4.15 pm

Alan Johnson: This has been a good debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North. He has raised the matter consistently and he and other colleagues have been vociferous in their arguments—not because they are members of trade unions, but because they are worried about the same problems as us. I shall try to make our position clear.

We have introduced these rights to try to help everyone who adopts a child or gives birth to a child. My hon. Friend is right to say that in terms of social provision it is particularly important to help lower-paid people who are raising children in difficult circumstances. We must ensure that we do not discriminate against the low-paid—there is no argument about that. I hope that those of my hon.

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Friends who want me to remain consistent with policies that I have supported or introduced before recognise that the lower earnings limit does not exist only in relation to this Bill. I shall explain some of the issues about the lower earnings limit, then move on to how we think that we can resolve the problem. In due course I will ask my hon. Friend to withdraw the amendment, hopefully content in the knowledge that we are aware of the problem and are determined to resolve it, but think that this is the wrong way to do it.

Under the earning conditions attached to each of the three categories—payment of paternity leave, payment of paternity leave to adopting parents and payment of adoption leave—the employee's average earnings must be at least equal to the lower earnings limit, which will be £75 a week in 2002-03. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West that if people work part time for three separate employers, the national insurance contributions system, unlike the tax system, does not aggregate that, so they would not qualify. If they worked in two part-time jobs for the same employer, they would qualify. They could qualify if they worked in different part-time jobs in parts of the same company or in a subsidiary of the same company, although there are a few blurred edges there. But if they worked part time for Tesco, Sainsbury and Asda—I am trying to pick a supermarket chain that does not have a politician involved—

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