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Mrs. Laing: May I begin by correcting what the Secretary of State has just said about the attitude of my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) ? My right hon. Friend supports the Bill, as do I. If he did not support its provisions, I would now be urging the House to vote against the Bill on Third Reading. I am not doing so. I am supporting the Bill, as I have done throughout its passage which, incidentally, began before my right hon. Friend became leader of the Conservative partya whole day before.
Mrs. Laing: It depends how one interprets those words. [Laughter.] My interpretation is that my right hon. Friend agrees with all that I have said during the passage of this Bill and, I hope, with all that I am about to say on Third Reading.
As I said on Report, it is idealistic to suggest that a work force will be happy, and able to do their jobs to the very best of their ability, if they do not have to worry about what is going on in the rest of their lives while they are at work. If, however, a person goes to work knowing that they can leave work if someone for whom they are caring at homea small child, someone who is ill or an elderly relativeneeds them, then they will work better and form part of a better work force.
Employers will be happier with how their employees are functioning, if their employees can get on with their work without anxiety about trying to balance work and family lifethat said, mothers and fathers who go to work will always have some anxiety about their children or elderly relatives, so perhaps I am being idealistic. However, I am trying to convince the Secretary of State that I entirely agree with his remarks about the importance of flexibility and the work-life balance, which make for a better, more efficient work force.
Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab):
In Committee, some hon. Members were surprised that the hon. Lady and I seemed to agree about annual leave
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entitlements. Will she confirm that she agrees that all workers should be entitled to 28 days paid annual leave guaranteed by law?
Mrs. Laing: That is the point. Does it mean 28 days including public holidays or 28 days excluding public holidays? I personally think it correct to exclude public holidays from the 28 days. Public holidays should not be included as part of annual leavethey are additional holidays. The transition should be introduced gradually, because it will have a large and immediate impact on some businesses, which may be detrimental.
Mr. Walker: I understand that the current provision is 20 days, of which eight days are bank holidays and 12 days are holidays provided by employers. The Warwick agreement states that employers will provide 20 statutory days with eight additional bank holidays on top of that, and the Minister provided an assurance on that point in Committee.
Mrs. Laing: I thank my hon. Friend for assisting me, because I have got it wrong. When I said 28 days excluding bank holidays, I meant to say 20 days excluding bank holidays. I inadvertently misled the House in my answer to the hon. Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell), who said from a sedentary position that it depends on what 28 days means. I am in favour of 20 days plus bank holidays, not 20 days including bank holidays. I hope that I have now made myself clear. I apologise for my lack of clarity, Madam Deputy Speaker, and thank my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) for noticing it and helping me so propitiously.
The Secretary of State is right that, if the Bill works as it is intended to work, business will become more efficient as well as more family-friendly. There is no need for what we describe as family-friendly measures to be in any way opposed to business-friendly measures. As he said, if things work properly, there should not be a choice between a business working efficiently and profitably and a work force being happy. On the contrary, for a business to work to the best of its ability, it is necessary to have a work force who are working to the best of their ability. That means that it is necessary to have a proper work-life balance. We come back, as we always do, to that word, "balance". That is what it is all about.
My concern throughout has been that, if measures go too far in one direction, the Bill will backfire. I do not want employers to be reluctant to employ women of childbearing age because they are likely to take maternity leave.
The right hon. Gentleman rightly says that it is illegal. We recently spent a great deal of time on
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the Equality Bill making sure that it is illegal. I supported that Bill as well. Nevertheless, it was once the case that women were required to give up work, notably in the civil service. It happened to my mother when she got married. I do not think that she minded. It was the fashion at the time that if a woman who was a qualified civil servant got married, she was required to give up work there and then because it was assumed that she would have a baby more or less immediately. Of course, my mother was very fortunate because she gave up the civil service and had me, although I would not necessarily expect the whole House to agree with that. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) would like to disagree, I will certainly give way to him. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman did not say anythingI turned the tables for a change by putting words into his mouth instead of him putting them into mine.
I do not wish to digress or to take up the House's time unnecessarily, but to convince the Secretary of State that I agree with most of what he said. We are thoroughly behind the Bill and its intentions, but I remain concerned about the burdens on small businesses and about the cost to the taxpayer and the business community, large and small, of implementing some of the regulations. I also remain concerned that, if employers do not have confidence in the Bill and feel that they are being forced into a situation that they do not want, the measure might backfire. However, I hope that it does not because in our debates in many forums in the past few months, we have all been trying to achieve equality in society and in the work force. That is not only desirable but necessary.
Women have to do two jobs and it is not only desirable but economically necessary that they should do that because we need them in the work force. We need women who are currently in the work force to remain there and it is wrong that a woman who has a child and wants to return to work should sometimes be required to go back at a lower level than that that she had reached before she gave birth. That is wrong socially and because it is unfair, but it is also wrong because of its effect on the economy.
I shall repeat the statistic that the Minister for women and equality first mentioned. If all the women in our work force worked at the height of their capability instead of doing jobs for which they are over-qualified in order to do part-time work to look after their families, annual GDP would increase by 3 per cent., which is
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equal to our annual trade with Germany. I have often used that statistic and people have argued against me on many occasions. I cite the Minister as the person who first mentioned it and I therefore hope for my sake as well as hers that it is accurate. However, I should like us to prove its accuracy by enabling the women to whom we refer to work to the limit of their abilities instead of being undervalued because they happen to be mothers as well as important people in the work force.
If a family is to work the way that it should, flexibility is required to enable people to look after their elderly parents, their sick relatives and their small children when necessary. Flexibility does not mean not working properly. If the employer and the employee exercise it responsibly, it works in everybody's best interests. That is why the Bill is so important. I am pleased to be able to support the Bill. It is a big step forward towards a family friendly workplace. If it works properlyI sincerely hope that it willit will be a huge boost not only to our society but to our economy.
As the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) said, it is a pity that we have not seen the regulations. On Second Reading, the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), promised us that we would see them. There was an understanding that we would have them in Committee. The Minister expressed a further hope in Committee that we would have them before Third Reading. We are nearing the conclusion of proceedings on the Bill and we have still not seen the regulations, so I fear that it may be the duty of our colleagues in another place to pursue the argument about their introduction. In Committee, the Under-Secretary said that the Secretary of State was a "hard taskmaster" in promising that the regulations would be published soon. That was several weeks ago, and we still have not seen the regulations, which is disappointing. Our consideration of the Bill would have been better informed if the regulations had been published. I cannot make that point strongly enough.
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