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Mr. Prisk : The hon. Gentleman, the Secretary of State and I are all former members of the Standing Committee that considered the Employment Act 2002. That camaraderie aside, does he share my concern that the Secretary of State suddenly leapt up to the Dispatch Box with a set of figures of which, I suspect, most Members of the House and of the Committee are not aware? Does he agree that it is necessary for the House to have complete transparency in relation to the figures, rather than having the legislation apparently rushed through Committee by 25 December?

Norman Lamb: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I was not aware of those figures, and I hope that in the wind up the Secretary of State or the Minister will confirm that that analysis will be shared with the Committee from the start, so that we can debate those issues properly.

Another concern for employers has always been the complicated procedures and time limits for a woman seeking to return to work. It is welcome that the Government propose to extend the period required for notification of a return.

As I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks, the law remains complex in this area and there could be a much more comprehensive assessment of the legal provisions. For a long time, for example, there has been a provision with regard to indirect sex discrimination, where women are disproportionately affected by a particular rule. That has resulted in a lot of claims being brought by women seeking the right to return to work from maternity leave on reduced hours. In effect, it has created a right for many women to have reduced hours—not a right to request, but a right to have. That overlays the right to request, which is much more light-touch. Many employers simply are not aware of the extra burden of the law on indirect sex discrimination, and the juxtaposition of those two competing rights is a matter that the Government need to consider further as it causes complication for both employers and employees. It seems to me that entitlements only really exist if people understand what they are.

In raising concerns on the part of employers, it is worth acknowledging that the proposed changes are not necessarily all bad news. The Secretary of State
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suggested that, overall, the concept of embracing flexible working is good for the economy. In my constituency there is a company called Listawood, which, from the start, has embraced the idea of flexible working. It has enabled women to work different hours during term time and during the summer holidays. They have been able to change their shift patterns to facilitate caring for their children while they are on holiday. They have been enabled to take time out of work to watch their children playing sport at school, including sports' days. The concept from the start has been flexible working. Rather than that being a burden that has driven the company into liquidation, the process has   been a fantastic economic success. The company has won award after award, not only for family-friendly policies but because of its financial acumen and financial success.

It can be a win-win for employers fully to embrace these measures, and there is the potential that they could lead to more motivated staff and greater productivity if people are working hours that suit them. There is also the potential for greater retention of staff and assistance with recruitment. If a company has a reputation for embracing the entire concept of flexible working, it is much more likely to recruit motivated staff. The idea of keeping-in-touch days and the clarification that the Bill provides of the ability to maintain contact during maternity leave are good things.

To an extent, the Bill depends for implementation upon regulations. The issue has been raised already by the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) in interventions. Although that provides the opportunity for some flexibility in that provisions will be able to be changed as time goes by, the process will make scrutiny more difficult. The devil will be in the detail of the regulations. The Secretary of State indicated that he would try to ensure that the draft regulations would be available before the end of the Bill's consideration in Committee. However, if there is to be a proper debate in Committee, surely we should have the draft regulations available at the start of that consideration.

Mr. Sutcliffe: We need to nail the point about regulation. The principles that we are trying to implement are set out in the Bill. The Government are criticised for not consulting widely on the detail of the impact on business. That is what the secondary process of legislation is all about. There is the opportunity during that process for the Government to be questioned on the validity of regulations. Surely that is a way forward for better scrutiny.

Norman Lamb: Indeed; it is to be hoped that that will be the case. Consultation can take place on the detail before a Bill is presented as well as before regulations. At this stage, while considering the Bill, we are not aware of much of the detail in the proposed legislation other than by way of indications and hints. I suggest that that is not entirely satisfactory.

Mr. Prisk : I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman detects in the decent manner of the Minister that perhaps there is the scintilla of an opportunity in this instance. The need for the 20 December date is set only by a programme motion. If we are to have proper scrutiny, to which the Minister referred, does the
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hon. Gentleman agree that there could be merit in a small slippage in the timing of consideration in Committee to allow the statutory order to be before Members so that they might give it due consideration?

Norman Lamb: I entirely agree with that suggestion, which was well made. I hope that the Minister will respond positively to it. I am sure that he will.

Peter Luff: While the hon. Gentleman is making the point, perhaps he will explore the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow). The Secretary of State gave partial clarification in response to a helpful intervention. The regulations that will come under clauses 3, 4 and 6 are apparently not affirmative while the regulations under clauses 13 and 14 are affirmative. The reason for that difference escapes me.

Norman Lamb: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He reminded me of something with which I wanted to deal. Clearly, the Minister must respond as the two responses by the Secretary of State were inconsistent. The right hon. Gentleman said that everything was subject to the affirmative process. Later, he confined the process to the paternity leave provisions. There is no logic to the affirmative procedure applying only to the paternity leave provisions and not to other provisions. If the Minister will confirm that the Secretary of State's first answer is the right one and that the affirmative procedure applies to everything, that would be of great assistance. I know that the Minister is always co-operative and helpful. I am sure that Conservative Members share my optimism that he will respond positively.

Peter Luff: I sense that the Secretary of State may be reading a note from the Box. I could be wrong on that. If I am wrong, so be it. I was trying to be helpful in giving him more time. As I understand it, affirmative regulations refer to annual leave in clause 13, and an increase in the maximum amount of weeks pay for certain purposes in clause 14, and not paternity pay. I could be wrong about that.

Norman Lamb: Perhaps I could give the Secretary of   State an opportunity to intervene to clarify the matter. There seems to be complete confusion on the    Government Benches. Labour Members seem remarkably reluctant to get to their feet. I am giving them the opportunity, here and now, to intervene. Let us hope that we will have a response when the Minister winds up. I am sure that he will have got his act together by then.

I shall deal with some of the key measures in the Bill. First, there is maternity pay. The provisions will extend the maximum period to a year. By regulation, that will be phased in with the introduction of 39 weeks from 1 April 2007. Representations have been made by a number of groups, and one of the issues is the level of income that maternity pay provides. For many women, the provision is at an inadequate level for them to take the full opportunity that the extension to a year provides. I share the view that has been expressed by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) that a degree of flexibility would be a good thing. There should
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be the entitlement to take the full amount of pay over the entire period. Over a shorter period, there should be the entitlement to take that pay at a higher rate. That seems potentially to benefit employers because they will have the employee back in employment earlier. At the same time, it gives the employee a real opportunity to take advantage of their leave if they are unable to afford to take it at the rate of £106. For many people, that is an inadequate level to enable them to take advantage of the scheme.

At the last election, the Liberal Democrats proposed the introduction of a maternity income guarantee for the first child, which would have guaranteed at least £4,420 for the first 26 weeks. That would have helped lower-paid women in particular, and it is something that the Government should consider. There are also the proposed changes to adoption leave and pay, which mirror what is happening to maternity leave. That is entirely welcome. As the Secretary of State said, it is remarkable that it has taken so long for us to reach the point where people who adopt children have such rights. It is particularly important for them to have time to get to know their new child.

I move on to paternity leave and pay. I shall deal first with the existing entitlement of two weeks. There is a case for making that right more flexible in its take-up. Indeed, there is a fairly low take-up. The Secretary of State said that it is encouraging, but I understand that it is still less than 50 per cent. That is partly because the figure is only £106 a week. That is inadequate for many fathers, given the burden of paying a mortgage and so forth. I am told that many people lose out because they are unaware of the notice requirements. By the time that they decide that they want to take paternity leave, they have missed the requirements. If an employer chooses to be difficult, they can be denied the right to leave. There is something of a straitjacket, and if someone chooses to take one week rather than two weeks they will lose their entitlement to the second week. It is not a week that can be taken later. As the Secretary of State will know, there have been many calls for an extension to the entitlement rather than for the substitution entitlement. As part of the assessment to determine whether the substitution entitlement is workable, the regulations will have to be analysed closely. Many people fear that it will be administratively burdensome. At least two employers—more than two if people have two types of part-time employment—will have to liaise and exchange paperwork to ensure that the father is entitled to take paternity leave because the mother has returned to work for another employer.

The Secretary of State said that the Bill is unlikely to have an enormous impact, but that is because the pay is only £106 a week. The regulatory impact assessment suggests that as few as 9,000 people a year may take up the entitlement to paid paternity leave. Inevitably, they will tend to be those who are better off. People on lower incomes will not be able to afford it. Again, I think that the Government should consider allowing people to claim the total amount over a shorter period at a higher weekly rate. It might well suit someone to take a month of paternity leave at a higher rate of pay. Some fathers will not benefit because the mothers were not working when pregnant and were therefore not entitled to maternity leave. Four out of 10 mothers are not in paid    employment during pregnancy. The Equal
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Opportunities Commission has suggested extending entitlement to fathers whose partners return to work after the birth but who are not eligible for maternity leave. Would the Government consider doing that?

Although the provision for circumstances in which a mother dies after childbirth will affect only about 300 couples, it is a valuable and long-overdue measure, allowing fathers to take the full equivalent of maternity leave. As for the flexible working provision, it is, as I have said, a light touch, and is appropriate for that reason. I fully support the extension of the right to carers but, as many have pointed out—including the hon. Member for Erewash—it all comes down to the definition of "carer". The Secretary of State did not respond to my question about whether he intended the definition to be broad. If it is narrow, it will be of little value. It must be broad to meet the expectations of many people who have welcomed the new right in general.

On the concerns of the Parkinson's Disease Society, I understand why employers do not want a multiplicity of applications—but following the extension of the provisions to carers there may be circumstances in which the needs of a cared-for person change a great deal. Will the Government consider an increase in the frequency of applications, perhaps to once every six months?

Earlier, I mentioned the possibility of extending the entitlement to cover children aged up to 17. As has been argued by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and many others, we may in time reach a point at which every employee will have the right to request entitlement. We heard earlier of the risk that employees without family or caring responsibilities might begin to resent all the new rights in the workplace. The right to request flexible working is light-touch, however, and the employer can refuse the request without fear of a legal claim. Employees will have a greater chance to discuss the matter with their employers in order to get the balance right and to secure a level of employment that will enable them to be fully committed and productive. Surveys show that most employers are already willing to consider applications for flexible working from a wider group than those who are entitled to request it, and I think that that is worth building on.

Overall, the Bill presents a good package that addresses the need for us to balance the needs of families with those of the economy. We will support it.

7.26 pm

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