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Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to comment briefly on what I consider to be a good Bill. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that it is good for families, employers and society as a whole. I am sometimes bemused by the rather grudging tone of the Opposition, who present themselves as the party of the family but who, when we try to give families more rights, sound as if we are doing something dreadful.

Let me begin by making the business case for what we are doing. It builds on what the Government have already done, but, as my right hon. Friend said, it is also good for businesses. Employees perform better when
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they know that their child care needs, or the needs of those caring for their dependants, are being taken care of so that they can focus on their work. It is also much more valuable to businesses to keep staff whom they have trained and skilled than to lose them and have to re-employ and retrain others. Skills will be kept in the business.

The needs of society as a whole must also be considered. If we want to create a good society, we must first create good citizens. That means investing time in our young people. We do that through education and, I hope, through the youth service, but it is most important to do it through the family. As a parent, I know that the most important thing we can give our children is time. That is particularly true during the important first year of life, but it is also true when children are ill, have special needs, or are particularly dependent on us in any way.

The Bill represents an important step. It will help people to balance the demands of work and family life. One of the Government's great achievements has been to get so many people back to work. My constituency, parts of which were experiencing second or third-generation unemployment, now has almost full employment. Rightly, however, people are demanding more of us. They demand the ability to manage work and family responsibilities sensibly. The Bill will help us to provide that, and I welcome the extensions of maternity, paternity and adoption leave.

I also welcome the clause that allows the Secretary of State to make provisions relating to annual leave, but I want to ask a question about it. I understand that it arises from the need to ensure that everyone is entitled to bank holidays, and that such holidays are not deemed to be part of annual leave. Currently, about 2.75 million people are not granted the bank holidays that most of us take for granted. I would be grateful if the Minister told us whether it is his intention that there should be a right to paid bank holidays, so that people who take a bank holiday as a day's leave receive holiday pay for it, and those who have to work on a bank holiday are entitled to a paid day's holiday in lieu.

I want to raise a couple of questions on what is happening with maternity leave. Currently, six months is classed as ordinary maternity leave, and six months is classed as additional maternity leave. The right to additional leave is not much used at the moment, but I believe that it will be when three months of it becomes paid from 2007. However, I cannot see why we maintain the distinction between ordinary and additional maternity leave. I understand the need to protect the first six months to ensure that the mother is not pressurised to go back to work too early, but maintaining the distinction brings a number of unintended consequences that are a problem, particularly for poorer families.

For example, a mother has the right to get her job back if she returns to work after ordinary maternity leave. If she returns after additional maternity leave, she has that right so far as is reasonably practical and, if she cannot have her old job back, she is entitled to one that is not substantially less favourable—I think that that is the phrase. Apart from creating a lot of work for employment tribunals that try to define those terms, evidence is accumulating that, particularly in the retail trade, women are being offered jobs on very different
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hours from those that they had previously worked and, often, it is difficult for them to manage on those hours. Therefore, they are being forced to reject those jobs and are falling into the poverty trap. I do not think that that is what the Government intended and we should examine that.

The other problem is that, although those on ordinary maternity leave are classed as being in full-time work and therefore entitled to tax credits, those on additional maternity leave are not. Again, that impacts on poorer families, single parents, a parent whose partner works for fewer than 16 hours a week, or even parents who wish to go back to work part-time for fewer than 16 hours—many mothers may wish to do so, particularly if they are still breast-feeding—and whose partner then cannot claim the tax credits when the leave is transferred. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will undertake to examine those issues as the Bill goes through the House.

On the tragic cases of mothers who die during child birth or shortly after, I am not sure that the comments of the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) were accurate. As I understand it, currently, a father in those tragic circumstances is still entitled to only two weeks' paid paternity leave and four weeks' unpaid. The problem is that, when a family has been tragically bereaved, there are real problems not only in finding child care but perhaps in caring for other children. It is difficult to find child care for babies under three months old, and even with children over three months one usually has to make plans very early on, so we are forcing more stress on families that are already under great stress.

Those cases are rare. I think that there were only 261 child birth-related deaths between 1999 and 2002—229 babies were born and more than 500 other children needed care. For that reason, I am sure that it is possible to ensure that families in those tragic circumstances are catered for. Since the Bill enshrines the right to transfer some form of maternity leave, I wonder whether the Minister would undertake to consider in Committee fathers who find themselves in that tragic situation and to see whether it is possible to transfer the mother's rights to leave to those fathers. That would help those families at a very stressful time and prevent more families from falling into the poverty trap. If that is not done, fathers will often end up coming out of the work force to care for their children and find it difficult to get back into it.

As I said, this is a very good Bill. It builds on what the Government have done, but there are one or two issues that I hope the Minister will undertake to consider as the Bill goes through Committee. If those issues were looked at, it would make it an even better Bill, provide better services for families and help to protect some of our most vulnerable children.

7.35 pm

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): I am particularly grateful to be called at this point. I think someone on the Conservative Benches had a little word in your ear, Madam Deputy Speaker, as I am hoping to get home to say goodnight to my little boy, which I try to do every evening, although the demands of the House make it difficult on occasions. I wish no discourtesy to
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you and to the next hon. Member to make a speech, but I will be chasing off after my remarks. Obviously, I hope to be back to listen to the Minister's response to our concerns and to my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing).

On the whole, I welcome what the Government are doing. I echo the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) as to what the Government are seeking to do. The Government were right on taking office to extend the time for maternity leave and to extend payments for women seeking to take maternity leave. Labour Members always pretend that the gain would have stopped in 1997 and that the Conservative party might not have made equal progress on many of these matters, but time moves on and, given the wonderfully performing economy that was left at the time, clearly these things could have been more easily afforded.

Kitty Ussher: In that case why did the Conservatives oppose our policies on the working tax credit, the child tax credit, extending maternity leave to 26 weeks, two weeks' paid paternity leave, three months' adoption leave, the right to flexible working, increased maternity pay, giving part-time workers the same rights as full-time workers, four weeks' paid leave and the national minimum wage?

Miss Kirkbride: I am not sure whether new Members should always follow the Whips' brief, because I am told by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest, who is sitting on the Front Bench, that we certainly did not oppose all those measures. If the hon. Lady had been listening, she would have heard that I included some of those measures in my remarks. We opposed some, but not all. However, as Back Benchers have a limited time to make their contributions and as I wish to get home tonight, I will proceed.

Kitty Ussher: Will the hon. Lady give way?

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