Employment Bill

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Mr. Hammond: Will my hon. Friend also take on board the Minister's point that even on purely economic grounds, a case can be made for support for adoptive parents? They relieve the state of a significant financial burden. The point raised by the hon. Member for Doncaster, North has no obvious substance and it seems likely that creating a better regime of support for adoptive parents might be a saving to the public purse in the medium to long term.

Mr. Osborne: My hon. Friend makes a valid point and it is sad that the Government have not apparently assessed the overall saving to the state that would arise if people were encouraged to adopt and to remove children from the state's charge. I am surprised that in their regulatory impact assessment the Government estimate a 100 per cent. take-up. That may be a device that the Exchequer is forcing on the relevant Department so that it knows the absolute total cost, but if families are offered only £100 a week, many will not be able to afford to lose the pay of one member for 26 weeks. It would be interesting to know what the cost to the Exchequer would be if paid adoption leave were brought into line with paid maternity leave. More people would be encouraged to take that valuable time off work; that would be better for the families involved and certainly better for the children. The measure is being introduced and we should take the opportunity to do it well.

Mr. Hendry: I noticed you watching quizzically, Mr. Amess, during our debate on adoption and it is clearly something that has never crossed your mind, so you are evidently planning to populate the whole of Southend with people called Amess.

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The Chairman: Order!

Mr. Hendry: I shall now discuss the substance of the clause. I am sorry that the Minister has chosen to say that he has already replied. Clearly, doubts remain and my concern is that adoptive parents will feel that they are being treated as second-class citizens. Some aspects of adoption require more adjustment than natural parentage. When people go through a period of pregnancy, they plan every day for the birth of the child. They think about it and about the changes that it will mean to their lifestyle. Although they cannot adequately understand what difference it will make until it actually happens, they are clearly aware, day after day and month after month, that the change is going to happen.

When one is adopting a child, the change is much more unplanned and unexpected. Perhaps ''unplanned'' is the wrong word, but one does not have the ability to make the same adjustments and preparations. To tell people in those circumstances that they are worth £100 per week but that natural parents are worth significantly more is to give a misleading and unfortunate signal. I hope that the Minister will still, at this point, return to the matter and address it.

5.45 pm

I want to pick up on the point covered by amendment No. 149. One of the conditions for receiving statutory adoption pay is that a person has

    ''ceased to work for the employer''.

The Minister told us that that was to stop a person moonlighting, but clearly that person, having stopped working for one employer, could continue to go out and get work elsewhere, part-time or even full-time. I think that the Minister nodded when I raised that point earlier. He is stopping people moonlighting for their original employer and we endorse that, but people may still moonlight in another capacity, working elsewhere. On that, I do not think that the Minister's position is as yet satisfactory. Perhaps the Minister will re-examine the issue and come back with a revised proposal when the Bill comes before the House again.

Mr. Hammond: My hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) mentioned the estimated figure of 100 per cent. take-up. I was going to ask the Minister to clarify what take-up of statutory adoption pay he expects. If it is 100 per cent., I would be pleased to hear him say so in Committee, because it is a ludicrous proposition. If it is somewhat lower than 100 per cent., I should be interested to hear how the Department has reached its conclusions about likely uptake, and what conclusions it and the Department of Health have drawn about the fact that uptake will probably be significantly lower than 100 per cent., given the financial support that will be available.

Alan Johnson: This is a fascinating and unexpected debate on clause stand part. Before I get on to the issues, I express my surprise, as I said in my intervention, that five people in the Room—and perhaps in the House—apparently did not realise that

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proposals that had been perfectly clear from the start relate to paying the flat-rate statutory maternity pay for adoption leave. That has been no secret. It has not been buried and only just revealed.

The hon. Member for Tatton has passionately argued—or with as much passion as can be generated in a Committee Room at a quarter to 6—that we should change the provisions, but there is no amendment. I commend the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge for amendment No. 164. He has done a very diligent job, but what exasperates me is the idea that I have suddenly produced a rabbit from a hat.

Mr. Hammond: Given the architecture of the Bill, one cannot make amendments about the rate of pay—a matter that will be determined by the Minister in regulations. I tabled an amendment, with which he has already dealt, proposing to insert words, the effect of which would be to say that statutory adoption pay would be at the same rate as statutory maternity pay. We have indeed tabled an amendment to achieve precisely what my hon. Friends are arguing for. I do not know why the Minister is suggesting that we have not addressed the issue.

Alan Johnson: That is a good stab, but I get the distinct impression here that had I not said what I did on that amendment a few minutes ago, we would have had a totally supportive clause stand part debate on the issue. I think that there is an element of genuine surprise among Conservative Members, which worries me. All that I can do is to re-emphasise my point.

Mr. Osborne: With great respect, this is the first parliamentary occasion that we have had to examine the Bill's clauses in detail. When were we supposed to make these representations if not here, in the Standing Committee of which we are all members?

Alan Johnson: There are things called probing amendments, and Conservative Members are capable—more than capable, in the case of the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge—of using them to make a point. Incidentally, some of the points that have been made support the argument that we should keep these matters in regulations.

Conservative Members are trying to steal our clothes. It is disgraceful that they should try to assume the position of a successful party that won two elections. We got the Opposition's support for the independence of the Bank of England and the Portillo process gave us their support for the national minimum wage. [Interruption.] I remember that when the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) was shadow Chancellor he suddenly blurted out that the Conservative party supported the national minimum wage.

Brian Cotter (Weston-super-Mare): Does the Minister find it refreshing that Conservative Members are talking about increasing social benefits? Given that they changed their views on the national minimum wage, does he think that in due course they will revert to opposing social provision?

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Alan Johnson: Who knows? Who knows whether the Liberal Democrats, who said that the minimum wage should be on a regional, not a national, basis and then ditched the idea, might return to it at some stage?

Labour Members are consistent. We believe in gradually pursuing a system in which people have minimum basic rights at work, and adoption leave is one of those rights.

Mr. Kevin Hughes: Yes, we are consistent. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Opposition are consistent as well, because when they were in government for 18 years they did absolutely nothing about the issue?

Alan Johnson: I do indeed, although they did one thing—in 1994, they reduced the 100 per cent. provision to 90 per cent.

Conservative Members argue that we have let down adoptive parents and that they are their friends, conveniently forgetting that they tried to prevent people who adopt from overseas from benefiting from the provisions. The hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) suggested that 26 weeks at £100 a week would not encourage people to take the leave. We are talking about the first six weeks. Our view, which we have made clear to everyone concerned, is that there is a difference between adoptive parents and mothers who go through natural childbirth.

We have introduced statutory paternity pay at the flat, standard rate of £100 a week. That does not marry up with earnings-related rates for health and safety reasons. Earnings-related provision is steered more towards the better-paid and would be more costly. It is difficult to estimate how much it would cost, because we do not know the average earnings of adopters, whereas we can calculate fairly accurately on the basis of the £100 a week flat rate of pay.

However, that is not the point. We are introducing this measure for the first time. There is a difference between the position of mothers, who have to take time off, and adoptive parents, who are moving from a position in which they get nothing at all to getting 26 weeks' paid leave. The six weeks are irrelevant; the other 20 weeks will be paid at exactly the same rate as maternity leave. People will get 26 weeks' unpaid leave and their spouse or partner will be able to take paternity leave.

Mr. Hendry: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Hammond: Will the Minister give way?

Alan Johnson: Just a second. We are talking about a huge advance, and I do not want it to be diminished by contributions to this debate.

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