Employment Bill

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Alan Johnson: The hon. Gentleman did well before.

Norman Lamb: Did I?

Mr. Hammond: Aspiration.

Norman Lamb: That amendment was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Brian Cotter). This one is mine, and I am enormously proud of it. I will be able to tell my grandchildren that I changed one letter in legislation, if that is all I ever do. The Liberal Democrats have been used to limited aspirations, but that will all change.

Amendment (g) makes it clear that the appeal is an appeal to the employer. Legislation frequently talks about different types of appeal: it may be an internal appeal or an appeal to the employment tribunal. The

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amendment makes it clear for both sides that we are talking about an internal appeal to the employer.

Amendment (i) deals with clarity. The reference to ''discussion'' of an appeal could be taken to mean a preliminary discussion as to whether an appeal will be heard later. The accepted phraseology is to ''hear'' an appeal; the employer hears the appeal from the employee.

Mr. Hammond: As the hon. Member is a lawyer, would he like to comment on the drafting of new section 80G? Does he find it, as I do, somewhat jarring in tone and not sitting comfortably with the general style of the legislation?

Norman Lamb: Some aspects of the proposed section do indeed jar. The hon. Gentleman referred to the use of the word ''staff''. I may be wrong, but I cannot remember seeing that before. The traditional way in which legislation is drafted tends to make its phraseology over-complex and inaccessible to people who are not lawyers. Anything that can be done to make legislation accessible and clearer to ordinary individuals who do not have the burden of being solicitors is a good initiative. I agree that proposed section 80G is not clear. Given its late introduction, I urge the Government to reconsider whether the overall framework could be improved. I am sure that it could.

Amendment (k) deals with who can accompany the employee. Our amendment has been framed in a different way from that of the Conservatives, but it is driving at the same issue. It seems sensible from everyone's point of view to have the same right of accompaniment as in other legislation. Let us not have a different right here to that elsewhere; that seems daft. We should drive at simplicity all the time. That is in the same vein as my earlier comments about the use of the terms ''employee'' and ''worker''. The faster we can move toward simpler provisions the better. If the term ''friend'' was used to allow a lawyer into a workplace, that would be a retrograde step. I always advise clients never allow a lawyer into the workplace. It is disastrous, and it is not the place for them. These matters are to be discussed between lay people who do not have legal backing. If an employer is faced with a lawyer across the table, that will increase the anxiety and potential for conflict, which would be a bad thing. I urge the Government to use the same framework that they have used elsewhere for the past three years and make provision for a work colleague or a trade union official.

I have dealt with all the Conservative amendments to which I wanted to speak, with one exception. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge wants a qualifying period of 26 weeks inserted in the Bill. I agree with that: it is better to include it rather than leaving it to regulations. I urge the Government to accept it.

11 am

The hon. Gentleman tabled an amendment on pro rata regulations that would allow the employer to reduce the package of the employee with a commensurate reduction in working hours, or to take away a benefit and compensate them partially in another way. That should be possible under the terms

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of the provisions. It is a matter of getting the employer and employee to sit down and work something out. Under indirect sex discrimination, if a woman says that she wants to work part time, 20 hours a week, the employer should respond to that, and agree to pay her for those hours with commensurate reductions in benefits. That could be agreed and the contract of employment amended accordingly. Will the Minister confirm his view of those provisions? It seems appropriate that both sides agree a commensurate reduction in terms and conditions to accompany the reduction in hours, or any other change.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford): The Minister can be assured that we are waiting with bated breath to hear his comments, so I shall be brief. I welcome the principle of flexible working and I will not go into endless detail about it except to say that it offers economic benefits and benefits to workers, employees and, apparently, staff.

I support the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge and the hon. Member for North Norfolk, which highlighted the errors in this rushed set of Government amendments. That highlights one of the key dangers. It is a complex issue, but we are in danger of making bad law.

Although the provisions constitute a right to request flexible working, my concern, and that of many small employers in my constituency, is that it will become a right to flexible working. I would welcome a guarantee from the Minister that that is not his intention, at least for the duration of this Parliament, and hopefully beyond. The belated receipt of the revised regulatory impact assessment shows that the rest of the Bill represents additional burdens to business of £272 million per annum net of benefits. Those costs are considerable, so I was concerned to read that the amendment related to flexible working represents an additional net benefits cost of £173 million per annum. That is a 60 per cent. increase in the total cost of the Bill to business. Does the Minister have any intention of alleviating some of those costs, particularly to small businesses?

In proposed section 80F(6), the Secretary of State is granted the power to substitute a different age for the first of the ages specified in subsection (3). It seems that that could be nine years old, or 12 or 18. That sheds a different light on what the clause could do, and I would welcome any clarification that the Minister could provide of his intentions. I have waxed lyrical—I hope—and certainly at length on the issue of small businesses. I am grateful for the Committee's patience. Flexible working is an important principle. Most small businesses operate it and do so by their very nature. But there are burdens here. The CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses and other organisations have raised this. I reiterate the point that I raised through my hon. Friend: can the Minister give the Committee some assurance that small businesses will be given clear guidance? Proposed section 80G(2) contains almost a page of details that every employer will have to comply with. That is a burden and I look forward to hearing the Minister's comments.

Alan Johnson: I hope that hon. Members will understand that with 20 minutes to reply to 28

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amendments, I may not be as generous with interventions as I would normally be. Hon. Members have been assiduous in tabling amendments at very short notice. I will try to cover them all as well as address the points of principle.

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge talked about how this would benefit one group only. He did not, to his credit, advance the backlash argument that other employees in the workplace would be seething because parents of small children had flexible working arrangements. We found no evidence of that. However, and the hon. Gentleman is quite right, we found that people with other responsibilities such as aged parents or those who simply want to pursue their hobbies as football referees or whatever it may be want some flexibility at the workplace too.

We are concentrating on the parents of small children because we all have a stake in raising children properly. There are some stark statistics on involvement in the workplace: 87 per cent. of fathers who are in a couple are in work as against only 64 per cent. of single fathers. The figures for mothers are much more stark: 67 per cent. of mothers who are part of a couple are in the workplace compared with only 45 per cent. of single mothers. That is only half of the average rate throughout the rest of Europe. We must address the problems that women have in juggling their domestic commitments with their working life.

There are two other points here. The hon. Gentleman said that women would be keener than men to take up these arrangements. That is not what the labour force survey found. Indeed, according to a table in the taskforce's report showing the latent demand for flexible working, 24 per cent. of males and 18 per cent. of females want to work annualised hours and 40 per cent. of males and 30 per cent. of females want to compress the working week and do the same hours over four days rather than five. There is no evidence that requests for flexible working will come mostly from women. Much of it will come from men.

That brings me to one other point, which is the culture of the workplace. Many men said that they believed that it would damage their employment and promotion prospects if they tried to do anything that would be regarded as sissy and soft like asking for more time off to spend with their children. August bodies such as the Small Business Council and the better regulation taskforce said that a key barrier is parents' fear of being discriminated against if they make a request for flexible working.

Mr. Hammond: Are those survey figures specifically related to a desire to work flexibly in order to meet the requirements of the legislation to care for a child?

Alan Johnson: They relate to the desire to work flexibly and were taken in 2000. My point is about women being keener on flexible working than men, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

We are taking the legislative route on work and parents, and using a light touch, rather than demanding flexible working, the right to work flexibly or the right to request a duty to consider. We are taking a non-legislative route on the work-life

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balance campaign. The Employers for Work-Life Balance group is set up separately. Peter Elwood of Lloyds TSB chairs that. The work-life challenge fund is giving consultancy grants to companies that want to change the way in which they work for all their employees. There is a lot going on for people who are not the parents of small children, but want to work flexibly.

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