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Several hon. Members rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. May I remind right hon. and hon. Members that Mr. Speaker has imposed a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches in this debate?

6.52 pm

Liz Blackman (Erewash) (Lab): Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker for calling me. I do not think that I shall use up all my allotted time this evening.

I e-mailed an officer from the National Autistic Society—which supports the aims of the all-party group on autism—for a briefing on the Bill. He e-mailed me back to say:

I should like to tell the Secretary of State that I am pleased, too. Clause 12 builds on the flexible working provisions in the Employment Act 2002, which confers on parents of children under six, or of youngsters up to 18 with a disability, a statutory right to request a change in their terms and conditions, so that they can move into either part-time or home working, or some other mode of flexible working that fits in with their needs. The Act places on employers a duty seriously to consider such requests, while also providing them with certain grounds for refusing them. It is worth reading those provisions. They aim to protect the employment base and have increased the confidence of employers to move into flexible working, which has led to greater productivity in the business world.

It was inevitable that the provisions in clause 12 would be introduced after they had been signalled in 2004, and they are the result of extensive consultation. They extend the right to request flexible working to those people who care for sick and disabled adults, and they will come into force in 2007. That represents a ground-breaking change, and it has been introduced in response to the relevant evidence. According to the Equal Opportunities Commission, there are 4.4 million carers of working age in this country, one in five of whom have either left a job or been unable to take one because they could not balance all the different responsibilities involved. Some 2 million people take on a caring responsibility each year, and the demographic trend forecasts that more and more of us will become carers. This provision in the Bill will give such people the right to balance their lives.

There is also a sound economic case for businesses to take such people into their work force under these conditions, given the wasted potential of carers with
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skills and talents who could be contributing to the economy in a tight labour market. It is grossly wasteful not to use them. The provisions will also offer carers, many of whom are on low incomes, the opportunity to boost their income and to put aside a little more for their pension provision.

Several hon. Members have mentioned the fact that we must get right the definition of carers, and I am extremely pleased that this knotty problem is to go out to significant consultation before any definition is decided on. Such a definition needs to capture the full army of carers whom we are seeking to encompass in the Bill. The preferred definition of Employers for Carers, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the National Autistic Society is:

I understand that there is no point in having a consultation if we alight on a particular definition right at the outset, but I hope that the Secretary of State will consider that definition as the basis of a working consultation process.

How are the provisions working at the moment? It is one thing to introduce a good piece of legislation; it is another for it to translate into effective action. Many employers already offer flexible working to groups outside the scope of the existing law. According to the Office for National Statistics, however, only a quarter of employees who are eligible to request flexible working have done so; four fifths of them have been successful. The Work Foundation report found that parents on low incomes were less successful in having their requests accepted. All those statistics illustrate that we still have a long way to go and that we need to be more proactive, particularly in helping carers who are not already in work or who do not belong to carers' groups. They fall below the radar, so we need to think more proactively about how we can inform them and engage with them.

Another aspect of the debate on clause 12 relates to including the carers of children aged six to 18 who do not fall within the disabled category in the right to request flexible working. The phasing in of different groups is sensible, but I hope that we can look at this issue sooner rather than later. Many children do not fall into the categories for which we are legislating, but need their parents to be around more than other children do. There are issues such as family breakdown, young children and older children with mental health problems, 16 and 17-year-olds who are beginning to develop schizophrenia, young girls who develop anorexia and teenagers with drug dependency.

That said, the Bill will make an enormous difference to carers because it will enable them to spend the time that they need with the people who are important to them, and either to stay in or to take up work. For them, that is not just an economic advantage; it provides a sense of self.

7 pm

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD): To pick up on the point made by the hon. Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman) about flexible working for parents of
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teenage children, as the father of two teenagers I am acutely aware of the pressures of being a parent of children of that age. There is a strong case to extend the right to that group of parents, as well as to carers, at some stage. I hope that the Government will consider the timing of introducing that.

It is a pleasure to return to some of the issues that we debated back in 2002, on the Employment Bill, when the Secretary of State was not in his current elevated position. It is fair to say that the introduction in that Bill, now the Employment Act 2002, of the right to flexible working has been a real success. That is because it has a light-touch approach, it does not impose too heavy a burden on employers and it has helped to change the culture of the workplace. That is a good thing.

The Liberal Democrats broadly support the Bill. We have questions about a number of aspects of it, and we believe that further measures can be taken to lighten the administrative burden, simplify procedures and simplify the law, which remains complex in this area. However, we broadly support the package of measures and will vote for it at this stage should there be a Division. Although there are reservations among the wide group of interested organisations, to which the Conservative spokesman referred earlier, it is none the less interesting that, with reservations, the CBI, the Equal Opportunities Commission, Citizens Advice and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development have all broadly welcomed large aspects of the Bill. That is a good thing.

Why is the Bill important? It is important because getting the balance right between work and family is critical. We would all recognise that the pressures on families have grown considerably. There has been a revolution in the workplace since the days when there was a sole male breadwinner and the mother was at home looking after the children. Now, more than ever, both parents work, which can mean insufficient time to look after and care for children. It is therefore in all our interests to do more to get the balance right. If the Bill helps in that direction, that is a good thing.

For children who need time with parents and for the increasing number of people who are now cared for at home rather than in institutions—disabled adults, elderly people and so on—the Bill is of great importance. It is also of importance in terms of maintaining the sanity of those parents and carers and trying to balance the pressures of work and caring, whether for a small child or an adult loved one. It seems to me entirely legitimate for the state to be concerned about setting the right legal framework to balance all those competing interests.

It is also important, as the Conservative spokesman rightly pointed out, to ensure that we balance the interests of employers in this area. Broadly, the step-by-step, light-touch approach is the right one. The right to request is the obvious example of how that applies, and it seems to me that trying to get employer and employee to discuss and reach agreement about flexible working is much better than the approach taken from the working time directive of seeking to impose an absolute limit on working hours, which the Government rejected, and on which I supported them. There are some questions around trying to lighten the burden on employers. Is enough being done to limit the bureaucratic burden,
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particularly for small employers? In terms of the cost and the time taken to recruit replacements for those who go on maternity leave, the burden is considerable.

As the Conservative spokesman suggested, more consideration should be given to the right to opt for a transfer of administration of the payment of maternity and paternity pay to the state, particularly for small employers. I was interested in the exchange about the costs of the private sector doing that as opposed to the state. More analysis needs to be done, and I am not entirely convinced that, as one other speaker suggested, the time cost to smaller employers is analysed sufficiently. I know what it is like for someone employing two or three people to have to cope, in terms of time, with the administration of those payments. Is the analysis to which the Secretary of State referred sufficiently robust in identifying what those costs really are to small businesses?

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