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I understand why the provision to allow people to request flexible working is being phased in. The Government's step-by-step approach is sensible, but I hope that they will be prepared to consider extending the right to everyone. This is a light-touch regime: people will have the right only to request flexibility, not to get it, but they will be able to discuss the matter with their employer. Indeed, anyone who falls outside the Bill still has the right to ask their employer, but there is no statutory framework to facilitate that. I hope that the Government will say that as time goes by and the arrangements are assessed and evaluated, they will be able to go on to ensure that everyone has the same right of request.
Mr. Khan: It is a real pleasure to speak on Third Reading to a united Chamber. There was, in fact, a broadly united Standing Committee, too. Some on the Opposition Benches would, given the new leadership of the Conservative party, like to forget the recent past, and particularly their voting record. The Bill needs to be considered in the context of a journey that began in 1997. Although the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) was right to say that most good employment practices are not rocket science, the reality is that for those employers who do not get there by themselves, we need prescription in the law. Secondly, the law and regulations help to change attitudes so that employers, parents and carers change over time.
It gives me great pleasure to welcome the main thrust of the Work and Families Bill, which will extend paid maternity and adoption leave. It will also extend the
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right to request flexible working to carers of adults. It will help fathers to play a role in their child's upbringing if the mother returns to work. It will also make things easier for employersa point often forgotten in Report stage debates. It will make it easier for employers to manage the administration of rights. The Bill will also include powers to deliver and ensure that all workers are entitled to four weeks of statutory leave in addition to the eight days for bank holidays.
It is a great pleasure to welcome the Bill, but it is worth emphasising that it is part of a jigsaw. Other parts of that are the work we have done on tax credits and child tax creditshelping hard-working families and those who are least well off. Other parts of the jigsaw are the work we have done to extend maternity leave to 26 weeks, not just benefiting mothers and families, but benefiting employers by facilitating more continuity and less staff turnover, with mothers given longer maternity leave.
We introduced two weeks' paternity leave. Other pieces of the family-friendly jigsaw are the introduction of three months' adoption leave. We must not forget the right to request flexible working, which has benefited 1 million parents across the country and many hundreds in Tooting. We also, of course, in another piece of the jigsaw, increased maternity pay, which was as low as £55 in 1997. Part-time workers now have the same rights as full-time workers, particularly benefiting women and ethnic minority employees, who were disproportionately part-time workers. Other pieces of the jigsaw are the introduction of four weeks of paid leave, which will include the eight pubic holidays. Finally, another piece of the jigsaw is the introduction of the national minimum wage
I was coming to the point that the Bill, as part of that jigsaw, is different from other pieces of legislation in at least one respect: it has the support of Her Majesty's official Opposition. I do not mean to be churlish in acknowledging that U-turn, which is welcome.
I must emphasise what the Bill does to improve the quality of life for families in Tooting and around the country. Increased notice periods benefit both employers and employees, clarifying in law the fact that reasonable contact during maternity leave is permitted, allowing optional "keep in touch" days and enabling women to go to work for a few days during the paternity pay period. That will help employers to run maternity leave more effectively and will improve communication and contact during leave periods. The Bill will also enable statutory maternity pay to be paid daily and start on any day, which will ease the administration of SMP and allow employers to align the payment of SMP with their normal payroll arrangements.
Some of my hon. Friends and Liberal Democrat Members have mentioned the extension of the right to request flexible working to carers. It is important to reassure business that the costs of that will not be disproportionate. The majority of the cost of the measures in the Bill will fall to Government, because
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the Treasury will reimburse business for any maternity and paternity pay, at the rate of 92 per cent. for large businesses and 104 per cent. for smaller businesses. It is often forgotten that the net cost to business is estimated to be much smaller£40 million to £90 million in any one yearand much of it is offset by the benefits that accrue, such as lower recruitment costs because more mothers return to work. As has been mentioned, more flexible working practices also lead to more productivity and profit, estimated at 3 per cent. of GDP.
The fact that groups as disparate as the Federation of Small Businesses, the TUC, the British Chambers of Commerce, the Maternity Alliance, Carers UK and even, dare I say, the Conservative party welcome the Bill is to be commended. The fact that the Bill will pass unopposed shows how far society has moved in recent years. As a Labour Member, I am especially proud that the movement towards a more family-friendly society and a healthier balance between work and family life began in earnest in May 1997.
Mr. Walker: It is a privilege and honour to follow the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) because I had the great pleasure of being a councillor with him in Wandsworth. I congratulate him on his excellent speech. Parental leave is a good thing, and that is accepted on both sides of the Chamber. Most important, it is good for children. Children need their mum and dad. They do not need to be farmed out to day care centres at two or three months old. That is not good for them and it is not good for families. I am delighted that the Bill will allow children in their formative years to spend more time with their parents. After all, once they hit eight, nine or 10, the last thing that they want to do is spend any time with us.
The Bill is also very good for parents. It allows mothers and fathers to share child-rearing responsibilities between them. It is also excellent that women who go on maternity leave can return to the job that they left. Let us imagine the outrage if the Secretary of State for Health, for example, left to have a baby and was offered a junior transport job when she returned. She would be appalled, we would be appalled and the nation would be appalled. The important element is choice. It might be that the Secretary of State decided that she wanted to spend more time with her family and have a better work-life balance, so she wanted to become a junior Transport Minister. It would be in a strange, parallel universe, but it might happen. In any event, it must be her choice whether to return to her health portfolio or take a slightly less senior role. Choice is very important.
The Bill is also good for business, because it will be able to hold on to talent. Business is in a skills battle at present. There is a skills shortage and good people are leaving the labour market and not returning. Most good employers will welcome the Bill. Indeed, many good employers have already adopted many of the provisions, but other employerswith a little encouragementmay find that it is a good thing for them and allows them to become more profitable in the longer term.
I want to inject a couple of caveats about the benefits for business. I am broadly in favour of increasing paid holiday entitlement from 20 to 28 days. It was always a
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little disingenuous of us to include eight days of bank holidays in the 20-day period. That was an unsustainable position, but the Minister assured us that he would look at the impact of the increased entitlement on small businesses, for whom the extra eight days would mean a 3 per cent. increase in their payroll costs. Given that there are other added costs, it is important that we consider the impact on overall employment rates, profitability and performance.
The Bill is exceptionally good for the economy. There is a skills shortage; we do not have enough people with the right skills in the right jobs doing the right things. If the Bill provides people with the reassurance that they can start a family and then return to work we may even see an increase in fertility rates. I realise that that is not the purpose of the Bill, but let us talk about it anyway, in an open and honest fashion.
I have very much enjoyed taking part in the debate. The Bill is excellent. I seem to be spending an unnatural amount of time voting with my Labour colleagues, although we shall probably not vote on this measure. I commend the Bill to the House and am grateful to have been allowed to make a short contribution.
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