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Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): I am pleased to say that we agree with many of the aims of this Bill and some of the proposals within it. However, I am bound to tell the Secretary of State that I am disappointed by the complete lack of joined-up government. I shall repeat a point that I made only a week ago in this House, when we debated the Childcare Bill and discussed how it could help parents to achieve a work-life balance: this Bill is also about helping parents to achieve a better work-life balance, so surely the two should have been put together in one Bill, which would have enabled us to examine and debate both sides of the issue. Instead, the Government have chosen to introduce this separate Bill, which has only 20 clauses.
Given the Government's insistence that the two Bills should be handled separately, it is surprising that they appear to have had such difficulty in deciding who should lead for them tonightduring the course of today, we have been told about three different ministerial line-ups, but I am pleased that the Secretary of State has led for the Government in tonight's debate.
In my role as shadow Secretary of State for the family, I have opened both debates for the official Opposition, which shows that we are more interested than the Government in joined-up thinking. The fact that I have been joined by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), who is a member of our Department of Trade and Industry Front-Bench team, shows that we want to achieve a balance between family and business needs. I urge the Government to ensure that while they are going through interesting and difficult timesthe leadership, pensions reform and education reformthey do not lose sight of delivering the important aims of both this Bill and the Childcare Bill, which will have a significant impact on both families and businesses across the country.
The Secretary of State has referred to the movement among many businesses up and down the country to understand and deliver on the need for more flexible working practices. Small businesses often find it difficult to enact such provisions, but they often provide flexible working, although they would not perceive it as suchthey perceive it as ensuring that long-standing or expert members of their work force can be kept within the workplace.
Conservative Members recognise that for many families, balancing the demands of family and career is incredibly difficult. Recent polling by the Equal Opportunities Commission found that nearly seven in 10 women and men agreed or agreed strongly that women's and men's lives are becoming more alike in terms of their need to balance work and family life. The poll also found that 70 per cent. of people were concerned about what family life would be like for their children and grandchildren, and more than six in 10 were concerned about spending enough time with their family. Indeed, the EOC polling showed that people were more concerned about those issues than they were about the state of the health service or crime in their local area. Many families simply have no choice about whether one or both parents goes out to work, and the kind of support that we were discussing last week on the Childcare Bill and now on this Bill can make the difference for families between coping and not.
Many new mothers want to get back to work as quickly as possible. They want to enjoy a good career and a good relationship with their children, but they sometimes find it hard to do so, because of the prohibitive costs of child care. Other mothers would like to take longer off work to care for their newborn child, but simply do not feel that they can afford the absence from work. Both are equally valid choices, and both put mothers under enormous strain.
We all recognise that the early months in a child's life are incredibly important and that the positive effects on a child's development from time spent at home with their mother can be hugely beneficial in many cases, which is why we support the Government's intention to extend the period of maternity pay to 39 weeks. Measures which give parents more choice will continue to gain our backing, but many parents will still feel unable to take so long off work. Sometimes they do not want to be away from their jobs for such a long time, but in many cases they are forced back to work earlier than they might wish because they cannot afford to stay at home on the current provision.
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We have always said that new parents should have a real choice about whether and for how long they stay at home with their newborn child. All families are different, and their needs and priorities are different, and the system of maternity pay should be as flexible as possible to meet those needs. Many families will find that the pay offered over the nine-month period is still not enough, which is why we announced plans at the last election to give mothers the option of receiving the total sum that the Government propose to pay over nine months over six months instead. They would thereby have had a significantly increased sum of maternity pay over those six months. We wanted to offer parents a real choice between that significantly increased maternity pay for six months and the current level of maternity pay over nine months and to put them back in control of whether and when they go back to work.
Earlier this year, in an article in The House Magazine, my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) set out several proposals that he believed the Government should be pursuing in order to ensure that businesses were protected as regards maternity and paternity pay. He cited:
"An increase to the current 28 days notice period for all women returning to work . . . Central administration of maternity benefits with the opportunity for larger businesses to opt out of a central scheme"
I am pleased that the Secretary of State said that the Government will move on at least two of those points, notably on the increased period of notice, which will be welcomed by all employers, and on communication between employers and employers during the maternity leave period. For many mothers, it is extremely important to continue to have contact with the workplace, not only to keep abreast of developments but to feel that they are still in touch with the workplace and have not been forgotten and left to one side.
I note that those matters are to be taken up in regulations instead of being covered in the Bill. I return to the point that was ably made by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham, who cited several clauses that refer to regulations. A significant amount of the Bill's detail is subject to regulations. I welcome the Secretary of State's commitment to publishing draft regulations as soon as possible. It would be preferable if that could be dealt with in Committee, but at least we should be able to look at the detail when the Bill returns on Report. This is a short Bill, and an awful lot of it will be subject to what those regulations say.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her remarks. The Secretary of State responded to my intervention dextrously and without a moment's hesitation, as is his wont, but I am not entirely certain that his answer was correct. I specifically asked him about the order-making powers in clauses 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9, where no reference to the affirmative procedure is made, in marked contrast to provisions in later clauses. If I am wrong, I am happy to concede that, but I do not think that I am.
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Mrs. May: I understood the Secretary of State to indicate that all the regulations in those clauses would be subject to the affirmative procedure, notwithstanding that that is not mentioned in the Bill. Perhaps he could clarify that.
Alan Johnson: I shall try to be as dextrous as possible. I am pretty sure that that applies to all the clauses. The point to which I gave a quick answer concerned paternity leave, which will be subject to affirmative resolution.
We recognise that the right to request has been successful since it was introduced. Everyone, including employers' organisations such as the CBI, agrees that it has worked in balancing the needs of employers and employees. It is encouraging that 90 per cent. of requests are being accommodated by employers. That has had a positive impact on the families who have benefited and on business. In looking to extend it, it is right that the Government should do so only one group at a time.
As the Secretary of State acknowledged, Britain's carers make a significant contribution to our society. Indeed, it is estimated that they save the Treasury about £57 billion a year. They deserve the same life chances that we all take for grantedto enjoy a fulfilling career and to have a healthy life and financial stability in old age. Many carers want to continue working and enjoy the independence and the break from their caring responsibilities that work provides. More than 2.5 million of the 6 million or more carers juggle care with paid work, but as many as 50 per cent. have been forced to give up work because of their caring responsibilities.
Flexible working and the promotion of family-friendly policies are good for employers and benefit business, with improved employee relations, greater staff retention, lower recruitment costs and a happier, more motivated work force. That is why we will support the Government's aim of extending the right to request to carers. We are, however, concerned that the definition of "carer" needs careful consideration. As the hon. Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley) said, we must ensure that we get it correct. What plans do the Government have to work with carers' groups and businesses to ensure that it not only benefits the groups that it is intended to benefit but is workable for the businesses that will put this into practice?
It is clear that some employees feel increasingly put upon or hard done by as a result of parents or carers being allowed rights such as the right to request. Many of these new rights work only because of the goodwill of work colleagues who do the extra shifts or accommodate the changes in work patterns for employees. It is important to ensure that the system does not build up resentment in the workplace. Many businesses are now seeing the case for allowing all employees the right to request flexible working. I would be interested to hear what discussions the Government are having with the CBI and others on extending these rights further in due course.
As I said, we support moves to help families and to give them greater control over their working and family lives. However, we all recognise that any family-friendly
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policies in the workplace will be successful only if they help business to innovate and to stay competitive. The measures that we have talked about, along with better child care and increased support for parents, allow business to make better use of its work force. They allow employers to retain skilled and effective staff and to keep up morale. The business case has been proven. That is why, in so many cases, business has been leading the way. We should pay tribute to that. Many businesses have found yet more innovative ways to help their staff and to get the best out of them. But the Government's measures will not work if they affect competitiveness. There is no point in being family-friendly if we are not job-friendly.
When the Secretary of State went on the "Today" programme to herald the Bill, he prayed in aid the CBI and claimed that the Bill was supported by business, but that is not quite the case. Yes, the CBI supports the extension of paid maternity leave and the extension of flexible working, as well as the increase from 28 days to two months of the notice period for employers when the mother intends to return to work, and the clarification about reasonable contact. However, business has grave concerns about other parts of the Bill. As the CBI said in the briefing that it sent out today:
Employers were originally told that this would be a "balanced" Bill giving increased rights to employees, with greater powers for and decreased burdens on business. However, several of the measures set to help business that the Government flagged up at an earlier stage have been dropped, seriously affecting the balance between family-friendly and employer-friendly policies.
Why did the Government decide not to proceed with the proposed transferable maternity leave and pay scheme that they outlined in their election manifesto earlier this year? The hon. Member for Burnley (Kitty Ussher) mentioned that in her intervention on the Secretary of State. Do officials believe that there is a significant risk that the manifesto pledge on transferability would contravene equality legislation? It would be interesting for Members who will serve on the Committee to see the legal advice that the Government received. The Government have a habit of ditching manifesto commitments, but it is unusual to see it so early after a general election. There is genuine concern in business that the Government are not, as they first proposed, implementing transferable maternity leave, which the CBI accepted as long as it was administratively simple, but are instead introducing a new right to paternity leave. There is a real difference between those two things.
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