Employment Bill

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Mr. Hammond: I am grateful to the Minister for his example, because it is rather better than any that I had thought of. However, it does not help his case. The logic of his example of two women living together who both give birth and are entitled to statutory maternity pay is that two people living together who adopt two children should both be entitled to adoption pay.

We are under pressure of time. Having probed the Minister on his intentions, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

5.15 pm

Mr. Hammond: I beg to move amendment No. 155, in page 16, line 33, leave out from 'at' to end of line 36 and insert

    'the rate from time to time prescribed under section 166 of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992 for statutory maternity pay.'.

The amendment seeks to make it explicit in new subsection 171ZN(1) that statutory adoption pay shall be payable at the statutory maternity pay rate. That is the Government's intention, and the Bill's general thrust is to create a regime for adoptive parents that mirrors the one that is already in place for natural mothers. If that is the case, and to emphasise that that is the case, it would be sensible to make an explicit link in the primary legislation between the rates of statutory adoption pay and statutory maternity pay. I wonder whether the Minister thinks that it is a good idea to send a clear signal about the intention to put adoptive parents on a par with natural parents.

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Alan Johnson: We made it clear in our response to consultation and elsewhere that we intend statutory adoption pay to be paid at the same flat rate as statutory maternity pay, which would be £100 a week or 90 per cent. of average weekly earnings. I am happy to tell the hon. Gentleman that that is still our intention, but it is unnecessary to include it in the Bill because there is a difference in that we are not suggesting that the first six weeks should be paid at 90 per cent. of earnings, which is the case with maternity leave but not with our proposals on adoption leave. Adoption leave is £75 a week, but it will be £100 by the time the Bill becomes law, so there is a difference.

Mr. Hammond: Why?

Alan Johnson: That was touched on this morning. It is a health and safety issue because mothers must give birth and they must take that time off. There is no choice in the matter because it is compulsory to take up to four weeks off work to give birth to a child. The figure of 90 per cent. of earnings is relevant in that respect, but it does not relate to adoption leave.

Mr. Hammond: I wish the Minister would continue because he is effectively unwinding the case that he has made in the past 10 to 20 minutes for aligning the adoption and maternity regimes. His statements on the importance of giving parents a chance to settle children in and of building relationships have been undermined by what he has just said. The Government say that the provision is not about giving adoptive parents the same entitlements as natural parents, but about giving adoptive parents a limited entitlement, and one that economics will often dictate they cannot take advantage of.

I am surprised that other members of the Committee do not seek to probe the Minister on that issue, but perhaps I am being harsh because they may do so on clause stand part—[Interruption.] I can hear the hon. Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes) preparing himself for that. After all the fine words that have been spoken about the role that adoptive parents play, how they can contribute to building a better society, how they can relieve the state of some of its obligations and how important it is to create a regime for them that reflects the one already in place for natural mothers, it is brazen of the Minister to stand up and say, ''It is £100 a week for the adoptive parent.''

I cannot see the logic to the Minister's argument. He has made a health and safety case for requiring natural mothers to take a short period off work, and I would not disagree with that. We are, however, discussing a broader arrangement, and I am not convinced that his comments fit comfortably with the signals that he has been trying to send on adoption and encouraging support for adoptive parents.

If no one else wants to speak, I will move on by withdrawing the amendment, but I hope that my hon. Friends will further consider that general point in the clause stand part debate. I also hope that Labour Members will have something to say, and that is not an incitement to revolt. If the Minister has a good case, and his position that adoptive parents should receive only £100 a week is sound and supported by good

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reasons, I hope that those hon. Members who have direct experience and expert knowledge will leap up and make that case for him. In my mind, I cannot make such a case, but if someone else makes it, I might understand it.

Alan Johnson: Perhaps the reason why Labour Members are looking relaxed is because the clause is no secret and I am not suddenly pulling a rabbit out of hat. Since November, we have made it absolutely clear that, in response to consultation and exhaustive debates, we will introduce a flat rate of statutory maternity pay—£100 from 2003—for adoptive parents during the whole 26 weeks of adoptive leave. Previous Governments—the hon. Gentleman's in particular—gave nothing to adoptive parents, and we have moved to give 26 weeks of paid statutory maternity leave, which we are increasing, a further 26 weeks of unpaid leave and paternity leave for the partner or spouse. It is no surprise that we are not allowing for the first six weeks of leave to be at 90 per cent. of earnings—although it may be a surprise to Opposition Members. It is wrong to say that that undermines a principle.

Mr. Hammond: I am inclined to ask whether the Minister will give way in his intervention.

Alan Johnson: Sorry. During my very, very brief intervention, I need to make it clear that the idea is not new and is contained in the helpful research guide published by the Library a few weeks ago.

Mr. Hammond: I think that I am right in saying that the exclusion from paternity pay of people earning below the national insurance contribution lower earnings level is also not new, but many Labour Members wanted to speak about it. Although the idea is not new, and we have read many things in guidance, explanatory notes and statements of Government intention, the problem is that the Bill contains little that one can get hold of. The Minister has acknowledged that it is perfectly legitimate for me to pose him questions so that he can read into the record statements on specific intentions that are not apparent in the Bill. We know of Government intentions because they have been written about outside the text of the Bill, but this is a significant issue that hon. Members should want to address. I will be surprised if no one says anything about it. However, I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying the situation—at some length—for the Committee. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Hammond: I beg to move amendment No. 164, in page 19, line 5, leave out first 'of'.

This is an important amendment. During my days working the health brief, I always found that I could help Ministers to find a place in a Bill for an amendment—an uncontroversial amendment—to which they could agree. I thought that I had found one in this Bill, and I have tabled a later amendment adding a comma, which is a necessary comma. Sadly, I have been advised that amendments that add punctuation are no longer selected. That was not the

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case in the good, old days because I remember substantive debates with the then Minister of State, Department of Health—now the Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs—on the insertion of punctuation. The right hon. Gentleman had to concede that the Health Act 1999 was fairly short on punctuation and deficient in a number of other respects, and we were able to do something about that.

The definition in new section 171ZS simply has one ''of'' too many. Instead of stating that ''the Board'' means the Commissioners of Inland Revenue, it states that

    '''the Board' means of the Commissioners of Inland Revenue''.

I therefore invite the Minister to score a first by accepting an Opposition amendment.

Rob Marris: If this is such an important matter, why did the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge not table a similar amendment in respect of new section 171ZJ(1), which includes the same phrase? Is he simply playing games and wasting the Committee's time?

Mr. Hammond: If I were wasting the Committee's time, Mr. Amess, you would be the first to have something to say, and the hon. Gentleman should be careful about in any way suggesting that you are not overseeing our proceedings properly. The answer is that I simply did not notice that the phrase is repeated in the new section to which the hon. Gentleman refers. I am afraid that we do not have available to us the vast army of civil servants—

Mr. Ian Pearson (Dudley, South): Neither does he.

Mr. Hammond: Perhaps the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West has nothing better to do with his time, but I certainly do.

There appears to have been a straightforward error, in that an extra word has been inserted. If not, perhaps the Minister will explain its significance.

Alan Johnson: A great moment has come. I have discussed our drafting with parliamentary counsel and it is not perfect. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on spotting an error, and I am perfectly happy to accept the amendment.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Hammond: I beg to move amendment No. 166, in page 19, line 37, leave out

    'subject to subsection (8) below'.

The Chairman: With this we may discuss the following amendments: No. 168, in page 19, line 41, leave out subsection (7).

No. 167, in page 19, line 43, leave out subsection (8).

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