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Ms Diana R. Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, North) (Lab): I listened with particular care to the contributions of Opposition Members. I was pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Kitty Ussher) listed the approaches that they had taken in recent years on the range of employment legislation that has been introduced. It was enlightening and very different from several of the contributions that have been made.

I want to talk about the context for the measure. I was a lawyer before I entered the House of Commons. I worked in law centres, mainly advising low-paid and non-unionised employees about their employment rights. Statutory employment rights were important to that group, as they did not have the benefit of strong contractual terms and conditions. One of my clients was a security guard in his 30s, with a young family. He came to see me after he had worked for nine months without a day off and asked whether he had a right to annual leave and time off. I had to advise him that he had no rights because the then Government did not want to introduce the social chapter. His only rights were those he had negotiated with his employer and at that time the security industry was, to a large extent, non-unionised. I had to tell him that his rights were minimal.

Good employers have always recognised the right to annual leave and time off, but bad employers have not. That gentleman, whose name was Andy, had to wait until 1998 when we introduced the working time regulations, which gave the right to annual leave and a limit to the working week. It is outrageous that less than 10 years ago a person could have been in his position. Since 1997, the Government have been committed to fairness at work, which includes recognition of the need for not only economic efficiency but social justice in the
 
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workplace. As I said earlier, I am very pleased that we had read into the record a list of the legislation that the Conservative party has opposed since 1997, including rights in respect of annual leave, flexibility in the workplace, part-time workers and extended maternity leave.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Johnson: No, I will continue because I have only a short amount of time.

Peter Luff: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It may help the hon. Lady to know that, if she gives way, extra time is added to her speech.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I am sure that the hon. Lady is aware that, if she gives way, time is added to her speech, so she does not miss out by giving way twice, after which, things are rather different.

Ms Johnson: I am grateful to you for that information, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The Bill is important in setting out a floor of statutory rights.

Mrs. Laing: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Johnson: On the basis of the information that I have just been given, I will gladly give way.

Mrs. Laing: I thank the hon. Lady for giving way so graciously. I wonder whether she will explain why she is so intent on talking about past times and past legislation. The Conservative party does not oppose the Bill. Should we not get on with making the Bill better, rather than harking back to the past?

Ms Johnson: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention. When debating such Bills, it is important to consider the context and to ask why we want to implement such provisions. We need to set the record straight about how we have reached this point. It is great credit to the Government that, since 1997, employment rights have been extended while economic efficiency has grown and more people are in work than ever before.

Clause 13 is an enabling provision to introduce the right for the additional public and bank holidays to be included in addition to the 20 days' annual leave to which employees now have the right. As I said when I gave the example of a client that I had years ago, unscrupulous employers have included the eight public holidays in those 20 days. Those who legislated on the issue were clear that that was not what they intended. I am very pleased indeed that clause 13 includes the right to have the additional eight days' public holiday.

Clauses 1 to 6 extend maternity and paternity leave and the right to adoption leave with pay, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said clearly in his opening remarks. It is shocking that employers still discriminate against women who are pregnant. I have been appalled by some of the comments made in the
 
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debate about the actions of certain employers who have either not interviewed or not considered pregnant women or women of child-bearing age for employment. That is very wrong and clearly a very poor business decision. Such employers miss the talent of a whole group of women. I am very concerned that certain Members think that that is acceptable.

Peter Luff: I wish to put on record that I have never suggested that that was acceptable. It is never acceptable to break the law. I agree with the hon. Lady that many businesses face an economic cost if they take such a foolish decision, but my point was that the evidence shows that things are happening in substantial numbers.

Ms Johnson: With the greatest respect, the hon. Gentleman was not the only hon. Member to raise that point. I am glad that he was able to clarify his position, but other Members seemed to imply earlier in the debate that they understood why decisions were taken that clearly amount to discrimination that should be challenged in tribunals.

I am very pleased indeed that we recognise that maternity leave should be extended to nine months from April 2007 and, I hope, to one year by the end of this Parliament. Of course, that will benefit about 400,000 women in this country.

Clause 2, as other hon. Members have said, brings into line the rules about adopting parents. All hon. Members would agree that parents who adopt should be given the same consideration and rights as other parents.

Clause 6 deals with the entitlement to additional paternity pay, about which the Equal Opportunities Commission has carried out extensive research. About 70 to 80 per cent. of new mums and dads support the opportunity for paternity pay to be used over a six-month period if any of the woman's maternity pay entitlement is unexpired. That is obviously very useful.

A number of hon. Members have spoken about clause 12, and it is absolutely right that carers are included in the provision to request flexible working. There are more than 6 million carers in this country. As time goes on, the right to flexible working will be extended to other groups, but the Government are taking the right approach by extending such rights piece by piece.

Hon. Members have put forward various arguments about business efficiency and the problems of small businesses in dealing with maternity and paternity matters. The provisions on the keeping-in-touch days for women on maternity leave are welcome, but some consideration must be given to the reasonableness of those days. Obviously, we do not want to overburden women during their maternity leave, and I hope that those days will be determined by agreement and used positively and constructively.

The view that a written statement of the rights and responsibilities of employees and employers should be given is very positive. It is certainly my experience that people find great difficulty in understanding the complexities of maternity and paternity law, so clear written statements would be useful. I agree that the request that a woman should give two months' notice of her return date is the right way to do things. That will provide clarity on both sides.
 
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The Department of Trade and Industry has indicated that it will work to try to reduce that bureaucratic burden of SMP, SPP and SAP. Again, that is absolutely right. There is a need to make the calculations easier—in particular, I remember trying years ago to work out when statutory maternity pay should start. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has indicated, SMP does not necessarily start on the same day that maternity leave commences. Those matters must be simplified and sorted out. Overall, the Bill is very welcome. It adds to the range of employment rights that we need. It is good for business; it is good for employees; and it is very good for families.

8.17 pm

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson), who clearly showed the House her expertise as a former employment rights lawyer, and I am sure that all hon. Members welcome her contribution.

This is indeed a Bill of good intentions. For that reason, I support many of the intentions that were expressed so ably by the Secretary of State at the beginning of the debate. He was right to suggest that the concept of fairness should be at the heart of such legislation. That is why I say, with some disappointment, that there is a large group of families for whom fairness does not appear to be at the heart of the Bill. I refer to the 3 million or so families who run and own small businesses. All too often in such legislation, we tend to talk about families generally and we forget the peculiar circumstances of an owner-managed enterprise. I say that as both a grandson and a son of the owner of such an enterprise. It is therefore my intention in the short time that I have available to try to express the views of that group of families, rather than the others to which hon. Members have already referred.

It is true to say that the Bill comes in a long line of similar legislation. We have had many employment and similar regulatory measures in the past few years. Indeed, since 1997, there has been a 53 per cent. increase in the regulatory burden on businesses, small and otherwise, and the net result is an additional 15 new regulations every working day. The cost to business, which the Government have accepted and is recognised among the leading experts in business, is now equated to £14 billion. That figure comes from the British Chambers of Commerce. Given that 97 per cent. of all enterprises are small businesses, it is clear that the brunt of those costs fall on those firms.

When we consider regulations, it is important to remember that these kinds of measures have a disproportionately large impact on the smallest firms. I highlight that in the context of the Bill by referring to an excellent survey by the Federation of Small Businesses on the amount of time that firms spend trying to comply with Government requests for information and regulations. Prior to the past six months or so, that figure had reached 28 hours for each firm every month. Each firm thus loses 336 hours a year.

We normally discuss the productivity and competitiveness question, but we should also consider the time lost to the families of those who own and
 
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manage such enterprises. Families lose evenings, and fathers and mothers are sometimes unable to be part of a family Sunday. I used to run my own business, so I well recall the number of Sunday afternoons that I lost filling in the dreaded quarterly VAT return and a raft of other forms. I am worried that although we often—quite rightly—talk about the need to engage parents in bringing up their children, we forget that such legislation not only has a monetary cost for small businesses, but leads to people losing time in which they can participate in their children's upbringing.

The irony is that the small firms to which I am referring often have the flexibility for which the Bill tries to legislate. They are the ones that lead because their owners know their employees. I can think of at least three businesses in my constituency that are owned and managed by people going back through several generations and have employees going back through several generations. The owners know about their employees' family situations, so they are able to work around them and to be flexible and engaging. I suspect that the response of the small businesses who read the Bill will be to say, "Hang on a moment. We are already doing this. Please don't restrain us by the dead hand of legislation." Of course there are enterprises that do not do such things, and they need to be examined and encouraged to change their habits. However, legislation is all too often a pair of handcuffs that does not enable change in the way in which I suspect that hon. Members would wish it to.

Let me refer to several specific aspects of the Bill. We have debated the question of maternity leave, but I do not think that the scale of the change has been truly considered. We are talking about increasing maternity leave through two steps from six months to 12 months, which is a doubling of the amount and thus a significant change. The previous Bill, for which the Secretary of State was the Minister, increased the time period from 18 weeks to six months. That was manageable, but an increase from six months to 12 months is a different ball game altogether. The crossover to other legislation and the change in rights that that might well create have been referred to.

I suspect that the Government did not take account of several matters when they considered the change. If a firm with two or three people loses a key worker for a year, it is tremendously disruptive. One must also take account of the cost of training a new individual, let alone the agency fees that are often incurred when employing that person. Of course, there will also be training costs involved when people return to work. I am not sure whether the Government have seriously considered the full costs involved. When the Minister winds up the debate, will he confirm whether the costs to which I have referred are specifically included in the regulatory impact assessment? I could not see that they were, but perhaps he has a sharper eye than me. I ask that question simply because if we are genuinely to understand the benefits and costs of the Bill, we must have the full information before us.

Let me turn to what is loosely described as the transfer of parental leave. I appreciate that the provisions in the Bill do not reflect the Labour party's original intention. The concept of mothers and fathers sharing parental leave is good in principle, but what about the practicalities? It is likely that a mum and dad will work
 
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for different employers, so we must ask how the measure will be implemented. The Federation of Small Businesses said:

I have a question in my mind as the consultation proceeds. At the moment, it appears that the onus is on small businesses to manage the process, but why should that be the case? Small businesses are already asked to be unpaid tax collectors and unpaid benefit offices. Why should they now administer the Government's social policies? There could be a dangerous precedent. I do not want to make wild forecasts—the Minister knows that I will not try to do so—but I would like to know whether the Government have really thought the measure through.

Given the inherent complexity of the measure, would it not be fairer if the Government took some responsibility for their own policies and introduced direct payment of both statutory maternity and paternity pay from state to employee? I know that the Minister touched on the matter earlier in the debate, but I would welcome any clarity that he can bring to our deliberations.


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