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Barbara Keeley (Worsley) (Lab): The Secretary of State said that the right to request flexible working would be extended to carers, and I applaud that vital step. As he said, we are talking about 10 per cent. of the population, or about 6 million carers. Friday was carers' rights day, and I met carers in my constituency who were juggling work and caring, which is difficult. Will the Secretary of State tell the House what definition of caring he intends to use in the regulations, because it is important that that definition remains as simple and flexible as possible?

Alan Johnson: I agree with my hon. Friend. We have not yet decided precisely how we will define it. Obviously, we cannot be simplistic and say that it applies just to elderly parents; siblings also have to be looked after. We cannot say that people have to live in the same house; they could live in another house nearby. We therefore aim to publish draft regulations as the Bill goes through the House so that people can see at all stages what our ideas are and so that we can bring the proposals to fruition for their introduction in April 2007, as we promised in our manifesto.

Kitty Ussher (Burnley) (Lab): My right hon. Friend said that he wanted to support women in their choices. When he issues the regulations during the passage of the Bill, I urge him to bear in mind those women who want
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to go back to work before the six month period. They may simply want to return to work, but they may also be the higher earner in the relationship or run a business that would go to the wall if they did not take a hands-on approach. In those circumstances, I very much hope that my right hon. Friend agrees that fathers who want to exercise their paternity rights before the end of the six month period should be allowed to do so.

Alan Johnson: We will certainly reflect on that. The result of the consultation that we published in February was a clear preference to protect that first six months, not least because of the World Health Organisation drive, to which we subscribe, to encourage women to breastfeed for the first six months of a child's life. That was the overwhelming response to the consultation. However, as the Bill proceeds through Parliament, we will listen to representations to see whether we should be more flexible.

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): The Secretary of State helpfully said that draft regulations would be published while the Bill proceeds through the House. The timetabling motion says that the Bill will complete its Committee stage by Tuesday 20 December. Does he intend to make those draft regulations available to the Committee before it finishes its work?

Alan Johnson: We can try. The timetable is a little tight, but I hope that we can publish those regulations before the Committee rises. That is probably a heroic ambition, but I hope that we can publish the regulations while the Bill completes its remaining stages and certainly by the time that it returns from the Lords.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the consultation on the regulations is important, particularly in relation to carers for adults and disabled people, many of whom do not regard themselves as carers at all? They would not immediately recognise that they are entitled to a request for flexible working, for example, because they are motivated by a sense of duty and loyalty, and they do not regard themselves as carers.

Alan Johnson: Once the Bill has completed its passage through the House, we must ensure that people, including carers, understand the provisions that are designed to help them. When the right to request was originally introduced in 2002, it quickly became a well-known factor in the workplace. Indeed, many carers asked us at an early stage whether it could be extended to them. There is therefore quite a high level of awareness, but I accept the important point that my hon. Friend made. We must work to ensure that awareness is increased.

I was talking about the important role of carers in society, which is a significant aspect of the Bill.

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): To pursue the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Kitty Ussher) about a mother wanting to return to work before the end of the six-month period, does my right hon. Friend agree that a mother who wants to extend maternity leave beyond the six-month period may feel that she is being forced to return to
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work, even though she does not necessarily want to do so, to allow some father and child bonding to occur and because, otherwise, the father will not be able to use his paternity leave?

Alan Johnson: Given the way in which we plan to introduce the legislation, that will not be a concern. Two criteria must be satisfied for the provision to be implemented. First, the father must be working and in employment and, secondly, the mother must take maternity leave, then return to work. The point made by my hon. Friend is one reason why people suggested that we should keep the six months exclusively for the mother. I do not accept that the danger he outlined will arise, but we will look at the provision more carefully as the Bill proceeds through the House.

Norman Lamb: To return to the issue of flexible working and carers, the right hon. Gentleman's response to an earlier intervention suggests that he is looking at a wide definition rather than one that applies to a narrow group of people, which would be of little value. Will he confirm that that is the case? The Parkinson's Disease Society points out that it is problematic to make a request only once a year, particularly with conditions that vary over time. Will the right hon. Gentleman reflect on that to ensure that there is sufficient flexibility for people who care for individuals with conditions that may change over time so that they can return to their employer to discuss alterations to their arrangements?

Alan Johnson: We will reflect further on that point—the hon. Gentleman has said that that means that we will not do so, but that is not the case. We think that one request is correct, because it would be difficult for employers and, indeed, employees if such requests were to become six-weekly rituals. In that case, someone who had been granted flexible working would have to ask for it again a little while later. Furthermore, if a dialogue were to take place in which everyone accepted that a company could not work like that, it is unlikely that that company would be able to grant a flexible working request two months later. Those are the reasons why we originally limited requests to one a year, but, obviously, if the society that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned wants to make a representation on that point, we can re-examine the matter.

Fourthly, the Bill includes a number of deregulatory measures to help business manage absences related to child care. Businesses said that they need more notice of when women who do not want to take their full entitlement plan to return from maternity leave. As I have said, we have increased the period of notice from one month to two, which provides the kind of certainty that will greatly assist employers. Employers also said that they would like to calculate maternity, adoption and paternity pay in daily as well as weekly amounts, because the rules on maternity leave and pay were out of sync and were creating problems. As I have said, we intend to address those employers' concerns.

Businesses also said that the rules about contact were too restrictive, meaning that employees were missing out on things that they wanted to do, such as training.
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The Bill contains a power to allow "keeping-in-touch days", so that where employers and employees agree, a limited number of days of work can be done without employees sacrificing pay or ending their leave. We will follow that up by introducing regulations that make it clear that employers can make reasonable contact with their employees on maternity leave and adoption leave.

Finally, the Bill also includes a power to deliver our manifesto commitments on annual leave. While many people already get bank holidays in addition to their statutory leave, some do not, and the powers in the Bill will enable us to rectify that. However, we do not underestimate the complexity of the matter and will consult fully before exercising those powers.

Mr. Prisk : Will the Secretary of State tell the House whether those powers are retrospective? I assume that they are not, but the legislation does not make the matter clear.

Alan Johnson: The hon. Gentleman's assumption is correct—those powers are not retrospective.

In closing, there is a myth about the family friendly agenda that it will stop employers taking on women, and we have touched on that point in interventions. Yet female employment rates are rising, and countries with more family friendly policies have more women in jobs and senior positions than elsewhere. The best businesses are competing to offer more flexible working patterns, because they know that such working patterns are good for business.

The Bill promotes, rather than hampers, competitiveness; it broadens, rather than narrows, choice; it is good for business; it is good for families; and, most importantly, it is good for children. It is a Bill that progressive politicians on both sides of the House should support, and I commend it to the House.

6.23 pm

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