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On this occasion, I am glad to welcome the Bill warmly on behalf of the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru. It contains important measures that will benefit families throughout Scotland and Wales and, indeed, England.
It is many years since my children were born, but these rights will make a huge difference to families. When my children were born I was self-employed and could change my work patterns so that I could spend time at home with them in the early days. But how many of those who shared the joy of the antenatal clinic with me were able to do the same? If the Bill becomes law, more and more people will be able to take advantage of it, and anything that is good for the family is a very good thing indeed.
Some points need further examination. On Second Reading and earlier this afternoon, I raised the question of the structure of paternity and maternity leave. It is a shame that there is no opportunity for both parents to take leave at the same time. That is a defect in the legislation. We talked about the possibility of a review in a few years' time and I hope that that is one of the things that will be considered. These are new rights and they will take time to bed in, so we need to see how they work as time goes on.
We have talked about the importance of children spending their formative years with their parents. They need time with both parents. The arrival of a child can be a traumatic event for a family. It changes people's lives in ways that they had not envisaged and to spend time together with their child is important.
On Second Reading, I referred to surrogate parents. The Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), wrote to me with detailed reasons as to why, in his opinion, the provisions relating to them should be introduced. I was not entirely convinced by his argument. Society is changing and the numbers involved would be low, although they may increase in futureI do not have a crystal ball so I do not know. Only a small group of people are involved and their situation is very similar to that of adoptive parents, so I hope that it can be reconsidered in a future review. I accept that we cannot do everything at once.
We have heard about the impact on business. That is a relevant consideration. Business is in many ways the lifeblood of the nationwe need business to give employment, to create wealthand we must be careful of the impact. Again, we must see how that beds in over the years.
It is unfortunate that new clause 1 was not passed, because it would have allowed some of the administration to be transferred to the Inland Revenue. Again, that issue may have to be reviewed, because of the impact on small businesses. Those of us who have run small businesses know what it is like to deal with both the business and the huge amount of associated red tape and regulation.
Family-friendly hours are important. If Ministers wish to push that issue further forward, I make the small suggestion that they should have a chat with the Leader of the House to see whether he could align recesses more with school holidays in Scotland and Northern Ireland, as that would help many hon. Members considerablyjust a quick, self-interested suggestion.
The other part of the Bill to which I give a warm welcome is the right to request flexible working. Although the right is fairly restrictedit is only a right to requestit is an important step forward. I had a meeting with carers in my constituency last Friday to discuss the report, "Care 21: Exploring the Future of Unpaid Care in Scotland", which has been commissioned by the Scottish Executive. The phrase "unpaid care" gives hon. Members an idea
My point is that that report impinges on what is happening in the House in the context of the work of the Department for Work and Pensions and employment regulations. By introducing such regulations, we are giving carers the option to seek flexible working. Many carers of disabled or elderly relatives find that they end up having to give up work, because there is no such flexibility. That often puts them into a cycle of benefit dependency and poverty. We are taking the first step to change that by giving carers much more flexibility. That is very welcome.
All in all, we strongly welcome this very good Bill, which will provide a good way forward. I hope that changes in future reviews will extend the legislation even further, because it is important and I welcome it.
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Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): A family-friendly Bill is bound to be welcomed by Conservative Members, and I certainly do so. This is the first time that, as a new Member, I have had the pleasure of seeing a Bill pass through all its stages in the House of Commons, and I do not think that people outside the House realise the amount of scrutiny and work involved and the give and take in which the Government have seen fit to take part with the Bill. That has been impressive, and I welcome it.
Just two points concern me. My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) mentioned her four-year-old. I have a five-year-old, and one great thing about the House is the Parliament Channel, so that he can see daddy now and again.
Mr. Bone: I used to run a small business, and every employee was female and either had children or could have had children. One of the things that the Government sometimes forget is that, to a small business, its employees are the most important asset. I can remember giving time off to employees, because they needed to go home because their children were sick, and providing flexible working. We did that automaticallywe did not need regulation to do sobut I understand that some companies might not do so and might need regulation.
As I said in Committee, what concerns me is the cost of such regulation to small businesses. The one thing that I would have hoped that the Government would take on board, as happens in other countries, is that the cost of that regulation should be reimbursed to the employers. I think that that needs to be examined at some time in the future because it is important for small businesses.
Although the Bill will look after mothers who want to go back to work, it will have little impact on mothers who choose to stay at home to bring their children upfull-time mothers. It is a shame that there is such an omission from the Bill. I hope that the Government will examine the matter again and give encouragement to mothers who want to stay at home full-time instead of going back to work.
Alan Johnson: With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker, I want to say a couple of things in response to the debate, albeit without eating into the hours available for the Adjournment debate on parish councils.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) for her contribution. Indeed, I feel like awarding her a prizeperhaps a Terry's Chocolate Orange straight from the checkout of WH Smithbecause she was very brave to say how much she supports the Bill, including the measures on paternity leave, and how much she disagrees with her right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition.
I also congratulate the hon. Lady on raising the important matter of the marriage bar, which affected her mother. It does the House a service to think back
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because the marriage bar lasted until the late 1960s. Indeed, trade unions that stemmed from the civil service such as my own, the Communication Workers Union, kept the marriage bar for their employees into the early 1970s. Kim McKinlay, a great woman trade unionist, had to keep her maiden name and pretend that she was not married to prevent her from being sacked from her position as an assistant secretary with the union. I say this to many young girls, including my daughters, so that they understand what women have had to do to reverse a situation that, as the hon. Lady said, meant that women had to lose their senior positions in the civil service simply because they got married.
I thank the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) for his support for the Bill, and I shall respond to a couple of the points that he made. He talked about direct payments, and although the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), dealt with this during the debate, I noticedI was watching it on the tellythat the hon. Gentleman said that the problem with regulatory impact assessments is that because they are produced by the Government, there is a suspicion that they are meant to reinforce their argument. We really wanted the figures to come out differently. Nothing would have pleased us more than to find that we could introduce direct payments in the way in which we and the hon. Gentleman wanted. The startling figures of £75 million ongoing costs and a £1 million saving for small businesses were correct. We must remember that we are considering setting up a completely separate duplicate structure. The payroll experts from the CBI who met representatives from Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs agreed that the figures made it difficult to proceed. I assure the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members that we want to help small businesses. If we cannot do that through the direct payments route because of the stark figures and statistics, we shall look for other ways.
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