Employment Bill

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Mr. Hughes: We have had an excellent debate. The Minister has heard compelling arguments from both Government and Opposition Members, and I am grateful to every hon. Member who has taken part in the debate for making their specific points.

The Minister has listened, and I was pleased to hear that he accepts that the principle is right and that he shares our concerns. The issues are complex, and I can see why the arguments about the link to NICs are particularly important. I am pleased that he explained how the Government intend to deal with the important issues that the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health are examining concerning low-wage adopters. The Department for Work and Pensions is also considering income support or some kind of allowance. I have every confidence that the Government will thrash out the complex detail surrounding this issue and bring forward some positive proposals.

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The Minister seeks to resolve the situation, and I am confident that he will find a solution. Indeed, he has given me sufficient confidence to beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Hammond: On a point of order, Mr. Conway. It is ten minutes to five o'clock on Thursday. I asked at the Committee's sitting on Tuesday about the timetable for making us aware of the Government's apparently substantive proposed new clauses. One problem with strictly timetabled Committees is that the Government can, if they are so minded, table many extensive new clauses as late as next Friday afternoon, which would require the Committee to debate and deal with them on the following Tuesday. We have a serious need to discuss with bodies outside Parliament what is in effect a whole new area that is being added to the Bill.

I seek your guidance, Mr. Conway. as to the mechanism for seeking a reconvention of the programming sub-Committee in the event that the Government do not table the new clauses tomorrow. In that case, given the concurrent activities of the Committee, we would find it practically impossible to meet with the necessary outside bodies to synthesise opinions and table the necessary amendments to the new clauses in time. Would you please guide us?

The Chairman: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. The issue is not one for the Chair, but I am sure that the Minister heard what the hon. Gentleman said. As the House passed the programme motion, amending it is a matter for Mr. Speaker. The hon. Gentleman can doubtless seek the advice of the Clerk of the House on whether a motion could legitimately be tabled for the House to consider. As matters stand, however, the issue is sadly not one for the Chair.

Alan Johnson: Further to that point of order, Mr. Conway. I said on Tuesday that I want the new clause to be available as soon as possible, but that producing it by the end of the week was pushing things a bit. As I understand it—I have never dealt with such matters before—the convention governing a new clause is that it be laid a week before it is due to be debated. To comply with that convention, it would therefore have to be laid by Tuesday. As I said, I want to lay it as soon as possible, and I certainly want to keep in line with convention. It is of no advantage to the Government to introduce a new clause, only for members of the Committee to become concerned and upset because they have insufficient time to debate it.

Although I understand the convention and I want to produce the new clause as soon as possible, the Government have to go through various machinations and seek the approval of various Departments. For that reason, I doubt whether the new clause will be produced by tomorrow, but I hope that it will be produced by Tuesday. If it is not, I, too, will want to explore the opportunities for reconvening the Programming Sub-Committee, so that we can give a week's notice. Thanks to your clarifying matters, Mr.

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Conway, I now realise that in such a case a motion would have to be put before the House, so we will bust a gut for Monday or Tuesday.

Mr. Hammond: I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation. I do not doubt that he is doing is best, and he has shown no inclination towards concealing matters from the Committee. I accept that a week is normally considered adequate for new clauses, but this is a slightly unusual case. By the Minister's own admission, the new clauses will tack on to the Bill a wholly new area. I look forward to receiving a copy of them as soon as the Minister can provide one, but if it proves impossible to table them by Tuesday, perhaps we can address the matter again then.

The Chairman: We can now move on to amendment No. 126.

Mr. Hammond: I beg to move amendment No. 126, in page 6, line 7, leave out subsection (3).

The question of whether periods of pay will be available for each child in the case of a multiple birth has been dealt with in a previous debate. Rightly or wrongly, the Minister decided that there will be only one period. Given that the amendment was merely a probing amendment, I see no point in pressing the matter and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Hammond: I beg to move amendment No. 129, in page 8, line 8, leave out from 'State' to 'is' in line 10 and insert

    ''shall, by regulations, provide that all statutory paternity pay and associated employers National Insurance Contributions, together with an amount calculated by the Secretary of State to equal the average cost to employers for each employee to administer''.

The amendment seeks to ensure that the Secretary of State will make regulations dealing with the recovery of amounts paid by employers. Again, it moves from a permissive to a prescriptive situation, and goes further by requiring that the commissioners of Inland Revenue meet not only the direct costs and national insurance contribution costs, but an amount specified by regulation—in other words, an amount on which the Government can decide—that fairly reflects the administrative cost incurred by an employer in carrying out yet another task on behalf of the welfare state. In earlier discussions, we all acknowledged that there are direct and indirect costs to business in this part of the Bill. In the case of small businesses, nearly all the direct costs will be recovered by the employer. In the case of large businesses, that is not so, and only a portion of the direct costs, albeit quite a large proportion, will be recovered. But nowhere is there any attempt to allow them to recover the indirect costs.

The indirect costs for employers are twofold. First, there is the administrative cost of the scheme. Successive Government schemes have in effect used the employer as a benefits office, implementing the welfare state through the mechanism of employer payments. The second indirect cost is the

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organisational burden of having people absent from work. Clearly that cannot be compensated for by a straightforward payment. I suggest to the Minister that although the administrative cost of running the scheme and making the payments will be relatively small, it would be a gesture well received if he were able to agree that not only the direct payments and the national insurance contributions, but an appropriate allowance to cover administrative costs, could be recovered by employers.

In the United States, employer-administered benefits are dealt with in that way. Small businesses, at least, are able to recover a sum for their administrative costs. It was intriguingly suggested to me that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was interested in that scheme. It is certainly a frequent complaint of small businesses with which both the Minister and the Minister with responsibility for small business will be familiar. I wonder whether he might be able to deliver some good news to small businesses on this rather cold Thursday afternoon by saying that he is minded to consider making the total costs of administering the scheme recoverable in the way suggested in the amendment.

Mr. Prisk: The amendment is apposite. Subsection (3) appears to allow the Secretary of State initially to widen the liability of the Government or the board where he chooses to do so. One could read it another way and infer that he might also be able to reduce the liabilities. Is the purpose of the clause to extend the liabilities of the board, or would it be permissible for the Secretary of State to be able to reduce the liabilities of the board? That is not clear.

It is welcome that the amendment seeks exactly to define the powers of the Secretary of State. For example, could he alter in any way the small employers relief scheme by changing the board's liabilities? Could he adjust in any way employers' generally recoverable 92 per cent. of costs? I trust not, but it would be helpful if the Minister could clarify that on the record.

Mr. Hammond: I may be missing something, but I am afraid that I am much less sanguine than my hon. Friend. My reading of the Bill is precisely that the Secretary of State will be able to determine employers' percentage recovery and the operation of the small employers scheme through regulations, and thus pretty much in any way that he chooses.

Mr. Prisk: Having heard the Minister speak on many occasions in this Committee, I am always happy to give him the benefit of the doubt, but my suspicion is that this apparently innocuous subsection—on the back of the liabilities section of the Bill—may give the Secretary of State a range of powers that go beyond the intentions of employers groups, which have, to date, supported the Bill.

Although the Government speak eloquently and, I believe, genuinely about the importance of statutory maternity pay, the danger is that they might be limiting their financial liabilities in supporting that apparent commitment. I am sure that it is not the Minister's intention to be seen to be generous with other people's money. I support the amendment because it seeks to

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define the state's liability, and provide a definition that includes direct pay costs and reflects the important and significant administrative costs that fall on small employers.

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Debate adjourned.—[Mr. Pearson.]

        Adjourned accordingly at one minute past Five o'clock till Tuesday 15 January at half-past Ten o'clock.

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The following Members attended the Committee:
Conway, Mr. Derek (Chairman)
Cotter, Brian
Hammond, Mr.
Hendry, Mr.
Hughes, Mr. Kevin
Humble, Mrs.
Johnson, Alan
Jones, Helen
Laxton, Mr.
Lloyd, Mr.

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Mallaber, Judy
Marris, Rob
Pearson, Mr.
Prisk, Mr.
Simmonds, Mr.
Smith, Geraldine
Tami, Mark
Williams, Mrs. Betty
Williams, Hywel

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