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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): I have listened with great interest to the contributions of hon. Members from both sides of the House. We have heard contributions from the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), my hon. Friends the Members for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) and for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan), the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff), my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson), the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk), my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck), the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir), my hon. Friend the Member for   Burnley (Kitty Ussher), the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), my hon. Friends the Members for Dundee, West (Mr. McGovern) and for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) and, latterly, the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing).

All hon. Members who have contributed to the debate understand what the Government are trying to achieve through the Bill. The Government have clearly set out their strategy in their three terms and they will develop it further in their fourth. Given the legacy of the previous Government, our first term was about getting people back into work. The second term was about fairness at work and getting the balance of fairness in the workplace right. The third term has been about the world of work.

All hon. Members who have spoken in the debate have said that the world of work has changed dramatically. This country faces demographic changes due to a reducing birth rate and the fact that people are, thankfully, living longer. We need to ensure that we get as many people back into work as possible. I was grateful and delighted that the Conservative Front-Bench spokesmen said that the business case had been made for the Bill because it is right and proper that that is the language in which we talk.

All hon. Members agree that every child deserves the best possible start in life. The Bill attempts to achieve that by providing more choice and flexibility for families when balancing work and caring responsibilities. However, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, the Bill includes measures to help employers to manage the administration of leave and pay and to plan ahead with greater confidence and certainty. It will enable better interaction between parents and employers, which was surely the point that the hon. Member for North Norfolk made when he said that it was important to get employers and employees to sit down together so that they can work through the needs of the business and their own needs, too.

That is the context of the different style of approach on employment relations in this country that the Government have tried to introduce. We have tried to move away from the adversarial times of the 1970s and 1980s and towards more consensus. We face global challenges and demographic changes. There is a need for employers to understand the needs of their employees because the labour market is tight, more people are in work than ever before and we have such a low level of unemployment. However, employees must also understand the needs of business because they can
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change due to globalisation. The business case for the Bill has been made and it is important that there is a new regime of understanding by both employers and employees.

We all know that enabling people with caring responsibilities to work means that the UK economy benefits and that employers can recruit from a wider talent pool and retain the people in whom they have invested. The Bill will not only result in more choice and flexibility for families, but help to achieve greater equality by enabling men to spend more time caring for their children and encouraging women back into the workplace.

Many people have put their credentials as new men or women on the table, so I will put my credentials on the table. I am a parent of three boys and I have three grandchildren—[Hon. Members: "Surely not."] I know that it is hard to believe. I was thus a little taken aback when the hon. Member for Wellingborough said that Ministers do not understand the needs of youngsters and children and the requirements when bringing them up. I accept that some women make the choice to stay at home and bring up their children. Indeed, some men now want to stay at home to look after their children, especially in the first year of their lives. As the whole House has agreed, there is a benefit if people are with their children during those first 12 months.

The package is good news for working parents and employers. It represents a big step forward on giving children the best start in life and enabling all families to have genuine choices about how they balance their work and family caring responsibilities. The changes will support employers in recruiting and retaining the best people, thus keeping much needed skills and experience in the workplace. In February, we published the consultation document "Work and Families: Choice and Flexibility" and consulted widely on how to take forward the commitments set out in our 10-year child care strategy.

Miss Kirkbride: I hope that the Minister will address the point made by Conservative Members about flexibility and allowing women—or men, for that matter—to double up or increase the amount of money that they get a week by reducing the amount of time that they take off work. Will the Government consider that proposal?

Mr. Sutcliffe: I hope to come on to that point later in my speech. However, we do not accept that the proposal that the Tories put forward at the last election would have been of any benefit to either employees or employers.

We consulted widely on choice and flexibility. Our aim was to establish and maintain a balanced framework of rights and responsibilities for both employers and employees. As well as providing more choice for employees, we are introducing measures to ease administration burdens for business in line with the Government's better regulation agenda.

The majority of the costs fall to the Government, as the Treasury reimburses business for statutory maternity, adoption or paternity pay at 92 per cent. for large businesses and 104.5 per cent. for smaller businesses. That is worth around £390 million a year.
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The net cost to business of the package is small once we take into account the savings and the increased productivity as a result of the measures. It will be about £40 million to £90 million in year 1 and £35 million to £70 million in year 2.

Throughout the consultation, we considered how we could help business to offset administrative burdens in line with the Government's better regulation agenda. We set up an external advisory group, made up of people with human resources expertise, to examine how to ease the compliance for employers. As a result of the Bill and subsequent regulations, the notice that mothers must give to their employers when changing the date of their return from maternity leave will be doubled from four weeks to eight weeks, and statutory maternity pay will start on the same day as maternity leave and be calculated on a daily basis, if that suits employers, to ease administration and align payments with employers' usual business practice.

Women will be able to come into work for a few days during their maternity leave without losing a week's statutory pay and can end their leave early if that is what they and their employer want. That will help them to keep in touch and to ease their return to work. Again, many hon. Members accepted that. It will be explicit in the maternity leave regulations that employers may make reasonable contact during maternity leave. We will improve the guidance provided to employers and employees.

Norman Lamb: The Minister mentions regulations. I am sure that he is about to get to it, but will he confirm precisely which of the regulations will be subject to the affirmative process rather than the alternative?

Mr. Sutcliffe: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will let me make my own speech and get to those points when I can.

We have had a great deal of dialogue on the Bill. It is not a case of pulling something out of thin air. We consulted a range of stakeholders, including employers, both large and small. Only my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West mentioned the role of trade unions. It is important that we have full buy-in from both sides of industry in ensuring that the Bill's contents are supported.

The right hon. Member for Maidenhead broadly welcomed the Bill, as did the hon. Member for Epping Forest. However, actions speak louder than words. The hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) said that had there been a Conservative Government in 1997, they would have eventually got around to measures on work and families.

The Secretary of State for Health (Ms Patricia Hewitt): Eighteen years was too soon for that.

Mr. Sutcliffe: It took the Conservatives a long time to get anywhere, and they did not get to the stage of benefiting working people.

We have ensured that there is the opportunity for broad consensus on the measures because of the change in economic circumstances and the need to get people back into work, if that is what they want to do. The right hon. Member for Maidenhead said that we should have put the provisions alongside the measures in the
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Childcare Bill that has come from the Department for Education and Skills. She will know that the scope of the Bills is different. The Opposition would have attacked us for not taking into account the interests of business had we put them together. She will understand why there is a separate Bill and why we need to look at it in detail.

The Bill sets out minimum standards. The reality is that most good employers already see the business case for ensuring that their employees are well treated and that they retain employment. Surely the Government's role is to set out a series of minimum standards so that people do not fall below what is expected.

My hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman) was grateful for the Government's work on the role and value of carers. She raised a particular issue on the definition of carers. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, we will consider that in great detail and ensure that we listen to hon. Members on both sides of the House and to the various bodies that need to give us their view on what the definition should be. We need to balance the responsibilities and rights of employers and employees.

The point was made that some employers will not employ women of childbearing age. That is a disgrace. We need to highlight the bad business sense of doing that and ensure that people know that it is illegal to discriminate in that way.

My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North welcomed the Bill and asked whether the bank holiday entitlement would be paid. Our manifesto commitment was that bank holidays should be an additional, paid entitlement. She also asked us to consider what should happen in the tragic cases in which the mother dies after childbirth. I shall do that and I shall be interested to hear what my hon. Friend and others have to say about what we can do in such circumstances.

Unusually, the hon. Member for Bromsgrove welcomed the Government's progressive policies on work and families, but she asked for more flexibility in maternity leave. She explained the role of management and middle managers, who have to understand the need for maternity leave and for good employment practices to ensure that people are looked after. She asked about the changes to employment law relating to a replacement employee who might be in place for up to 12 months. She said that that person would get employment rights and asked what their situation would be. Clearly, a contract would be entered into at the outset of the replacement explaining the reasons for that period of employment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North also asked about the definition of carers. She gave a moving account of how she cares for her 94-year-old mother, with the help of an army of carers, mainly women. She made an important point about the way in which caring responsibilities affect carers' ability to advance their careers, or to obtain employment in the first place. She acknowledged the success of the Employment Act 2002, but also raised important issues relating to sleep deprivation and other factors that affect the work-life balance.

The Chairman of the Trade and Industry Committee, the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire, spoke of his experience as the son of a single mother, commonly known as a latch-key kid. He emphasised the balance
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that we have to strike between the role of the employer and the role of the employee. He read out a list of things that he said are contributing to a lack of competitiveness in the job market by cumulatively putting a burden on business. The most notable item on that list was the national minimum wage, although he repented of having voted against the National Minimum Wage Act 1998. Good businesses want to ensure that they are not at a disadvantage compared with bad or rogue employers, and our debate has focused on what good employers should do and on ensuring that they are not disadvantaged because poor employers do not do those things. That is why the legislation is important.

The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford was scathing about the fact that the Government have not taken into account the costs of the Bill. He wants us to delay its implementation, but that is not appropriate. We have tried to ensure that the costs are reflected in the regulatory impact assessment and I am sure that the details will be examined in Committee.

A range of detailed issues have been raised this evening, and in the time allowed I cannot answer all of them. However, as is my wont, I shall write to hon. Members on those detailed issues. I know from previous experience that we will have the opportunity to discuss them in Committee. The good thing about tonight is that we have had the opportunity to discuss the Bill in the round. I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time.

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