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Peter Luff: My hon. Friend makes an important point. The full regulatory impact assessment seems to cost in remarkable detail the burdens on Government, but the burdens on small and medium-sized companies are set out in sketchy detail.

Mr. Prisk: I wish that I were surprised, but I suspect that on closer examination—when the Committee gets its teeth into the matter—we will find further omissions. My hon. Friend makes a sensible point.

I have repeatedly raised the question of the cost of the Bill during the debate. Hon. Members might not have noticed this, but apparently the Government expect to spend £369 million more each year, as an employer, as a direct result of the Bill. It is thus expected that during the next Parliament, there will be a £1.8 billion increase in the cost of employing the same people who are employed today, although I suspect that there will be no noticeable change in the delivery of public services.

There are costs for private employers, too. The cost will be £208 million in the first year, and that will rise to £284 million in each and every year following that. As the mathematicians among us will realise, that represents £1.3 billion over the course of the next full Parliament, which is a substantial sum. Given the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) has just made, our earlier exchanges with the Secretary of State and the omissions that we have clearly identified, I am worried that the Bill will lead to substantial costs. I have identified £3.1 billion of costs to begin with that do not seem to have been fully considered during the deliberations on the Bill. However, I know that the Minister is a reasonable man and will want to make sure that we have such information, so I look forward to receiving it.

I have had insufficient time to consider many of the Bill's positive aspects. I make no bones about that because it is important that we try to tease out the
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weaknesses of legislation during our scrutiny. I fully accept that there is a need to balance our work and family lives, but we need to make sure that that balance extends to all families, especially those involved in small business and those of entrepreneurs. The Secretary of State promised us in his opening remarks that the Bill would be good for business and good for families. Conservative Members agree with those sentiments, so we intend to ensure that he keeps his word.

8.28 pm

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): We heard my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State explain the Government's intentions in introducing the Bill, including extending the maximum period for which maternity pay, maternity allowance and adoption pay are payable from 26 weeks to 52 weeks during the course of this Parliament, as well as introducing a new scheme that provides certain employees with a new entitlement to take leave to care for a child. In listening to the Secretary of State's remarks, I found myself drawn back to the time when my daughters were born and the position in which I, along with other mothers and, indeed, fathers, were in. I hope that the House bears with me if I draw a little on my personal experience. My daughters were born in 1981 and 1985, when the Conservatives were in power, and my entitlement was just 29 weeks post-confinement, supported by a payment of 90 per cent. of income over just six weeks. I was employed in a further education college and my husband was a town planner. Neither of us earned generous salaries and there was clearly a need for both of us to work. However, because I wanted to stay at home initially with my first child, I resigned from my full-time post and had to face finding a suitable part-time job and child care when the financial imperative kicked in and I needed to go back to work. After the birth of my second child, I returned to work immediately at the end of the statutory period, but I would have welcomed the keeping-in-touch days that are proposed.

In a perfect world, I would have preferred to have had the option of remaining at home for a longer period or, indeed, of allowing my husband to take part of the leave to care for our children, a subject raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Kitty Ussher). Although the evidence suggests that the number of fathers wishing to take up the option is small, there are, none the less, those for whom it would be a very welcome option. Some 24 years on from my experience, there is clear evidence to show that both mothers and fathers believe that it should be the norm for there to be greater paternal involvement in the early months of their child's life. Indeed, in a recent Equal Opportunities Commission survey, seven out of 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.

Opportunities to improve the work and caring balance have been lost in the past. For example, in November 1985, shortly after the birth of my second child, there was a debate in the House on parental and family leave. The then Conservative Government could have accepted a European Economic Community directive extending paternity rights, but they chose simply to note the directive. As that great campaigner
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for equal rights, the late Jo Richardson, commented at the time, it showed how out of touch they were with the day-to-day reality of people's lives. Unfortunately, one or two Conservative Members are still a little out of touch, although I acknowledge the positive comments from the Front Bench.

A significant number of fathers probably want to take paternity leave but are unclear about their rights early enough in the process to plan properly. Evidence suggests that, in parallel to the powers in the Bill, an information campaign needs to take place to inform them of their rights. I am concerned that fathers whose earnings are below £20,000 per annum are less likely to find out about their rights prior to the birth of their child than those fathers whose income exceeds that figure.

Given the findings of the Equal Opportunities Commission's survey "Dads and their babies", which was funded in part by the Department of Trade and Industry, I would welcome the Minister's comments on whether he accepts that there is a real job of work to be done to ensure that fathers are properly informed of their paternity rights from formal sources, rather than simply relying on friends and family for that information. Given that many of these important proposals require change via regulations, I also seek reassurance that there will be no significant delay in introducing them, allowing, of course, for the caveat that we need to consult on some of them.

The Bill addresses not only the period immediately following the child's birth, but the need for further amendments to existing legislation to allow a wider range of individuals greater flexibility of working. Clause 12, which has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members, gives carers the right to request flexible working for the first time. We know that in the region of 3.5 million carers are struggling to work as well as care. I share the support that my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman) and the National Autistic Society have given to the clause. Without that flexibility, we lose a number of highly skilled workers who have to make a difficult decision between work and caring. Our economy can ill afford to lose the expertise of those workers, especially at a time of skills shortage. The cost to employers of recruiting and training new employees to fill their shoes is a burden, and I refer the House to the figures given by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Enabling people to remain in the workplace also has the added advantage of enabling them to continue to build a better pension for themselves. I also welcome the proposed extension of rights to carers of adult dependants, but hope that in due course that freedom will be extended to parents of older children through the use of the regulatory powers in the Bill.

It is still a little unclear where the age definition will fall, something that was mentioned by hon. Members on both sides of the House. We need greater clarity on the definition of the relationship between the employee and the child or person over 18 who requires care. A number of employers, both large and small, already encourage flexible working, but there are different definitions of what they understand a carer to be. Let me give some examples. In Centrica's view:

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According to British Telecom:

and HSBC defines carers as:

Each has a slightly different understanding of what a carer is, so it is important that we provide as simple and as flexible a definition as possible.

That said, I warmly welcome the Bill and look forward to the Minister's closing remarks.

8.35 pm

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