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Norman Lamb: I join the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) in thanking the Secretary of State and the two Ministersdespite their failure to provide the regulations on timefor the way in which they have conducted our debates here and in Committee. I also thank the hon. Member for Epping Forest and other members of the Committee, including the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan). I have not been on the receiving end of too many of his lashings. The Committee stage was conducted in good heart.
I am pleased to confirm to the Secretary of State that the Liberal Democrats are fully signed up to the progressive consensus that he mentioned earlier. I am delighted that on this occasion the Government are part of that progressive consensus: that is not always the case nowadays.
The Bill contains important measures relating to increases in maternity leave and pay, paternity leave and adoption leave. It is remarkable how long it has taken us to acknowledge the importance of giving parents time with children whom they adopt. The Bill also extends flexible working, and facilitates the provision of extra paid leave. It is a good package that recognises the changing nature of the workplace. There has been a transformationa revolutionin the workplace over the past two decades, since the days when it was dominated by malesindeed, fathers. Women were denied many rights, and did not have the opportunity to become economically active.
The Bill also accepts the economic case for enabling people to stay at work, and to balance that with family commitments. For both those reasons, the Bill is very good. It makes the point that there is no conflict between profitability and family-friendly policies. From the very
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start of its existence, a company in my constituency adopted a culture of facilitating the employment of people with family responsibilities.
Norman Lamb: No; I could not possibly comment on that company's commitment. For example, from the very start, this companyListawoodenabled women to have time off during school holidays and to change their shifts during holiday times to tie in with their partners, and parents to take time out of work to see their children participate in sports days. Such initiatives are not rocket science, but they encourage employees to believe that they are valued and make them feel warm about their employer. I suspect that, as a result, they are more committed to the business.
Norman Lamb: Absolutely. I led the campaign for compensation for women who were discharged from the armed forces when they got pregnant. Some 5,000 women were discharged simply because they became pregnant, and we should note the craziness of the resulting lost investment in their training. One of the biggest critics of the campaign to get compensation was a Conservative MP, so if the Conservative party has now moved on that is a good thing from everybody's point of view.
I have a number of specific points to make about the Bill, but I shall be as brief as I can because I want to make sure that the historic opportunity for parish councils to have their moment in the spotlight in the forthcoming Adjournment debate is not lost. Never has so much time been able to be devoted to the interests of parish councils. First, we must all accept that the Bill does impose new burdens on employers. By and large, employers' organisations recognise that the rights being introduced or extended are good things in themselves and they are prepared to go along with them, but they continue to express concern about the impact on small businesses in particular.
On Reportthe Secretary of State was not present for that debatethe Government rejected a new clause to introduce a right for small employers to transfer responsibility for the payment of statutory maternity and paternity pay to the Government. We put it to the Minister present for that debate that the Government ought to consider adjusting the percentage payback to employers when recompensing them for the maternity or paternity pay paid out. Currently, 92 per cent. is paid back to all employers who make national insurance contributions in excess of £45,000 a year; for those below that level, the figure is 104.5 per cent. However, even for smaller employers, such repayments do not reflect the administrative burden. In an intervention on my speech on the new clause, the Minister seemed to accept the case for compensating for the cost of the administrative burden. Given that the Government
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rejected the new clause, they ought to consider making an adjustment to assist employers. If they are unable to help them through the direct payment method, that is another way in which they could help, and they ought to take it seriously.
My second point concerns the regulations facilitating the increase in paid leave. The Bill provides potentially sweeping powers for the Secretary of State to increase paid leave. The understanding is that it will be increased by another eight days, to reflect the fact that there are still many employees who do not get paid for bank holidays and other public holidays. We very much support such an extension. The CBI made the case for phasing in that additional right.
Norman Lamb: I see that the Minister is nodding at that. My purpose is merely to ensure that the Government consult fully with business interests on this matter. I am sure that they will, as the effect will be felt most particularly in low-paid employment such as the hospitality and cleaning industries. The additional costs will be considerable, and there is at least a case for phasing the changes in. The Government need to consult carefully about that.
Secondly, I turn to the regulations covering the circumstances in which maternity leave can be replaced by paternity leavewhen the father can take time off after the mother returns to work. I support that provision, but framing the regulations to ensure that it works effectively could be a complex matter. In most cases, for instance, the father and mother will work for different employers, with the result that their employers will have to exchange information with each other. It will be difficult to make sure that that works effectivelyboth for fathers and mothers and for employers, especially small onesand again I urge the Government to consult very carefully on that. They should also look at the mechanism again after a year or some other interval to ensure that it is working effectively.
My third point has to do with the extension of the right to request flexible working. I support that, but on Second Reading I mentioned the contention of the Parkinson's Disease Society that a right to make such a request only once a year did not take into account the fact that the seriousness of some conditions, including Parkinson's disease, can vary considerably over the course of 12 months.
The Government did not accept the idea that requests might be made more often, and I understand why. However, I urge Ministers to reflect on concerns raised by organisations such as the Parkinson's Disease Society and to see whether the system could be made more flexible. Alternatively, I hope that the guidance that they supply will at least encourage employers to go beyond the statutory minimum in respect of helping the carers of adults with a horrible illness such as Parkinson's disease.
The hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) made a very important point about how carers are defined. That definition will determine whether the extension of the right to request flexible working is limited in value. If the definition is narrow, few people
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will benefit, whereas a broad definition will be of real value to a large number of carers. Like the hon. Lady, I hope that a broad definition is adopted, so that many people who care for loved ones at home can benefit.
My final point has to do with the extension of the right to request flexible working to include people with teenage children. The Equal Opportunities Commission has said that the right should, in due course, be extended to cover everyone. People at work who do not have children or who do not care for loved ones at home could feel that there are two separate groups in society. Single people who crave a better work-life balance could believe that they have no right to request anything.
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