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Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): In Committee, I thought that the publication of the regulations was more of a promise that an aspiration. It is difficult to consider the Bill properly without knowing what the regulations are.

Mrs. Laing: My hon. Friend is correct. It is difficult to consider the Bill properly without knowing what the regulations are. It is hard to understand why we have reached this stage without the regulations that the Secretary of State promised. The Under-Secretary said that he was doing all that he could to produce them. There is no urgency to introduce the Bill. We could have waited for Third Reading until next week, the week after, or the week after that. It is a good Bill, and we want it to come into force, but there is no reason why it should do so in six or seven weeks' time rather than in 10 or 11 weeks' time. We could have had a far better and more informed debate if we had had the regulations before us. As a matter of principle, it is careless of the Government to expect the House of Commons to do its
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job properly if we do not have all the information that they ought to give us to allow us to scrutinise the Bill properly.

Alan Johnson: On Second Reading, I expressed the desire and hope that the regulations would be ready while the Bill was proceeding through the House. I am very sorry that that has not proved possible, but that is far from suggesting that it is an essential part of the legislative process. Countless Bills go through the House without regulations being published until they have completed their passage. That is the normal practice. In this case, particularly given concerns about the way in   which paternity leave would operate, I thought that it would assist the scrutiny of the Bill in Committee if the regulations were ready while the Bill was proceeding through the House.

I accept, however, that the important thing is to get the regulations right. We should not hurry them unnecessarily and perhaps make errors. They are, of course, subject to the affirmative procedure. Our latest information is that they will be included in a consultation document in February. I am sorry that that is after the Bill will have completed its passage through the House but, because of the affirmative resolution procedure, it leaves ample opportunity for Members on both sides of the House to comment and amend them. However, may I record my apology that we could not do something which we hoped and tried to do?

Mrs. Laing: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his frankness and for his apology. The Minister said in Committee that the right hon. Gentleman is a hard taskmaster, and I am sure that some people are quaking in their boots and will not dare to ask for any flexible working time until those regulations appear. We look forward eventually to seeing the regulations and I am pleased to accept his assurance that all the regulations will be subject to the   affirmative procedure so that we will have an opportunity in the Statutory Instrument Committee to consider them in detail. I look forward to being able to   do so as soon as possible.

I want the Bill to work. I am concerned that some parts will not work if the regulations are too tight, if the burdens on small businesses are too great or if the red tape involved in administering the Bill's good intentions cause the legislation, once it comes into force, not to work as the Government intend. The Government have good intentions, and we have good intentions in supporting the Bill, but I do not want anything to happen that would undermine the position of small businesses, because that would make the whole body of   legislation on maternity and paternity pay and family-friendly working arrangements backfire. We therefore want to examine the regulations in great detail to make sure that the Bill will work as intended.

I leave my reservations on the record and reserve the right to discuss the matter again. It is important that employers and employees alike have confidence in the way in which the regulations will work. If we all want them to work, it is important that we have further discussions about exactly how they will work and that we get the correct balance between the rights of business, particularly small business, and the rights of employees.

Having said all that, I conclude by thanking all the Ministers who have been involved in the passage of this legislation for the courteous and reasonable way in
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which they have dealt with it. In finalising the Bill, they have taken many concessions and points into consideration. I also thank Liberal Democrat and Scottish Nationalist Members who have contributed so much to the Bill. An unbelievable degree of consensus has been found between all the parties—particularly between the Opposition parties, which worries me considerably—which has meant that our deliberations have been pleasant and constructive throughout the passage of the Bill.I also thank my hon. Friends who served on the Committee and who supported the Bill today, and all the officials who have worked hard behind the scenes.

Strangely enough, we appear to be doing well in our use of time this afternoon. As the Bill is intended to be family-friendly, it is wonderful that our deliberation might finish early. I was upset at the thought that I   would not be able to attend the first parents meeting at my four-and-a-half-year-old son's school, where he started only last Thursday. I was called before the headmistress this morning to apologise, as I was not going to be able to attend. If it turns out that we finish early—

Alan Johnson: Right to request.

Mrs. Laing: As the right hon. Gentleman says rightly from a sedentary position, there is a right to request. I   request that the House finishes its deliberation of the Bill before 6 pm, and then I can present myself to the headmistress.

4.8 pm

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): I will be brief, in order to allow the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs.   Laing) to attend the parents evening at her son's school. I am pleased to speak on Third Reading, and I   congratulate the Government on yet another step forward to a family-friendly, more equal society, in tune with modern life. Along with all the other progressive legislation that we have introduced or are in the process of introducing—such as the Equality Bill and the Childcare Bill—this Bill will move us towards a more equal society. It is very important, and I was glad to serve on the Committee.

As has been said, much of the detail of the Bill has been left to regulation, and I accept my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's comments that that must be done carefully and that time is needed, but that there will be the opportunity for further discussion if necessary. I   particularly support the extension of the right to request flexible working to adults. As a carer myself, I   spoke on Second Reading about the specific needs of   carers, and I am anxious that the consultation on the   regulations should give detailed consideration to the definition of a carer. It should be as wide and as flexible as possible. We have all received very good briefings from Carers UK telling us that caring is not the same as child care. Different needs are involved, and different factors must be taken into account. When the regulations are considered, it should be borne in mind that some of those who are cared for may suffer from deteriorating conditions. I am glad that we may have an opportunity to comment on the regulations, and I hope that the consultation will be as broad as possible.
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At present, the right to request flexible working extends only to children under six unless the children are disabled. The Government do not plan to raise that age. As a Government, we have made tremendous progress towards considering the needs of parents, families and people with disabled and elderly relatives in an entirely new way. I hope that we have taken a step towards enabling all families with children of all ages to request flexible working. We all know that children's needs may be even greater when they are older than when they are babies or toddlers. Parents may be more likely to know where there children are when they are little. Different needs arise at different stages of the family cycle. I hope that the Bill will lead to circumstances in which everyone can combine work and family life to the benefit of all, and I hope that we shall be able to discuss that possibility in the future.

Businesses that already employ people who are carers have found it profitable to consider their rights and needs. I have encountered general support for the Bill among businesses, but I accept that we must consider their needs as well, and work with them to ensure that the fairer, more equal society for which we are working takes those needs into account.

I strongly support the Bill. It contains excellent provisions. I should like some of them to go further, but the Bill is nevertheless a tremendous step forward.

4.12 pm

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