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Official Report of the Grand Committee on the

Employment Bill

Wednesday, 13th March 2002.

The Committee met at half-past three of the clock.

[The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Ampthill) in the Chair.]

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Ampthill): Before I put the Question that the Title be postponed, it may be helpful to remind your Lordships of the procedure for today's Committee stage. Except in one important respect, our proceedings will be exactly as in a normal Committee of the Whole House. We shall go through the Bill clause by clause; noble Lords will speak standing; all noble Lords are free to attend and participate; and the proceedings will be recorded in Hansard. The one difference is that the House has agreed that there shall be no Divisions in the Grand Committee. Any issue on which agreement cannot be reached should be considered again at the Report stage when, if necessary, a Division may be called. Unless, therefore, an amendment is likely to be agreed to, it should be withdrawn.

I should explain what will happen if there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting. The Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bells are rung and will resume after 10 minutes.

Title postponed.

Clause 1 [Paternity leave]:

Lord Henley moved Amendment No. 1:

    Page 2, leave out lines 12 and 13.

The noble Lord said: Before moving Amendment No. 1 in my name and Amendment No. 2 also in my name and that of my noble friends Lady Miller and Lord Rotherwick, perhaps I may say a word about the Bill being in Grand Committee. When I was part of the usual channels, I was part of the process whereby agreements were done under which Bills of one sort or another were sent to the Moses Room or, rather, into Grand Committee. The original idea behind that process was that certain Bills might be dealt with more appropriately in Grand Committee rather than on the Floor of the House. I understand that this was the case particularly where the Bill was very complicated, or highly technical, but the process was also designed for those Bills that were not controversial. It was always understood that it was not designed simply to make life easier for the Government, or for the Government to get their own legislation through and to get more of it through.

I am no longer part of the usual channels but the procedure does not seem to apply to this Bill. First, it is a big Bill with five clauses, eight schedules and a total of 82 pages. I do not believe it is an uncontroversial

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Bill, particularly, dare I say it, on the Minister's own Benches, where there is a degree of controversy about it.

I understand that deals have been done and it is right and proper that that is the case in certain circumstances. I also understand that all of us have benefited from that in that it has allowed us to have that extra bit of paternity leave to spend more time with our families over half term. That was part of the deal that was done through the usual channels to ensure that the Bill went into Grand Committee. I put on the record—I imagine that there will be others who will agree with me—that the Bill is not particularly appropriate for a Grand Committee. I appreciate that it is difficult to get it right and that we all make mistakes. I remember an education Bill with which my noble friend Lady Blatch was involved that went into Grand Committee; again, I suspect that that was not appropriate for that Bill.

Moreover, if a Bill is to be in Grand Committee it is an improvement for us to sit in this Committee Room rather than in the Moses Room. Others might have different views on that.

I shall speak to Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 together. The amendments relate to the new provisions in the Bill for statutory paternity leave and statutory paternity pay, about which I expressed some concerns at Second Reading. Before I turn to the amendments themselves, perhaps I can go back a little and say what I said at Second Reading. I ask the Government to say a little more about why those measures are being introduced. What is the need and where is the demand? Are there potential fathers up and down the country demanding that they must have two weeks or whatever of paternity leave so that they can bond with their new children? Are these not matters that are far better and more sensibly left to informal arrangements between employer and employee? For example, an employee might ask if he can take the afternoon off to take his wife home from hospital after the birth of the child, or whatever. Is not that preferable to having the heavy hand of the law saying that the employer must give the employee at least two weeks off, whether it is convenient to the employer or not, simply because the father wants to? The convenience of the employer is something that can be taken into account, as we shall see in relation to later provisions of the Bill.

Can the Minister tell us on what basis the Government are introducing this proposal and what research and consultation preceded it? Exactly what was the reaction of employers to the measure? Will he also say something about the extra burden that is being imposed on business, particularly small businesses? As I said at Second Reading, big employers can often cope very easily with such matters. It is no hardship to them at all. They have no objection to taking on such measures, but for a smaller employer losing one key worker at a crucial stage can be very difficult.

Secondly, can the Minister say what research the Government will do in the future into the effectiveness of this measure? How many fathers will take it up and at what cost? I believe that the figures for average

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earnings are around £18,000 or £19,000 per year, or £400 per week. If they are at about that level, how many fathers will want to take two weeks off on greatly reduced pay at a time when household expenses have dramatically increased? They are more likely to be asking the employer for overtime, rather than time off.

Amendment No. 2, to which my noble friends have also signed up, is designed to achieve one thing. We are told that fathers are being given two weeks. Mothers now have a year's maternity leave—six months paid and then six months unpaid. With the Bill drafted as it is, the two-week period could be extended bit by bit. No doubt there are bodies and organisations that represent fathers. I am sure that they do not represent fathers, but that will not stop them claiming to do so and demanding on grounds of equality or parity with mothers an extension of that two-week period. Gradually demands will be made for two, three and four weeks and, finally, dare I say it, for 26 weeks' paid leave and 26 weeks' unpaid. What was originally intended as a minor and, in my view, totally unnecessary, irritant becomes a major burden on the employer. I believe that if the period is to be extended beyond two weeks, it should be done by primary rather than secondary legislation. Therefore, perhaps I may have an assurance from the Government that there is no present intention to extend the two-week period and that they will not extend that period unless they can show that there are seriously good reasons for doing so and a serious demand from outside, both from potential parents and employers.

As I understand it, new Section 80A(4) mentions the period of 56 days—that is, eight weeks. Does that mean that a power exists only to extend the period from two weeks to a maximum of 56 days and that there would not be a power to extend it beyond that limit? I am not sure whether that is a correct interpretation of the subsection, but no doubt the Minister will reassure me on that point.

While on the subject of this new section, perhaps I may ask whether the Minister will take the opportunity to explain two subsections to me. Subsection (5) states:

    "Regulations under subsection (1) may . . . (a) specify things which are, or are not, to be taken as done for the purpose of caring for a child or supporting the child's mother".

I wonder whether the noble Lord can tell me what that means and what exactly he intends the regulations to cover in relation to that section. It is not clear to me.

The same is true of subsection (5)(c), which makes,

    "provision about how leave under this section may be taken".

Again, when we are talking about two weeks' leave, I am not sure why it is necessary for provision to be made about how that leave should be taken. I understand that the two weeks' leave, which we shall come to later when we deal with the subject of paternity pay, is to be taken either in a two-week block or in two sections of one week. With those questions, I beg to move.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My noble friend knows that we do not support his amendment, although we

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agree with the concept of paternity leave. The amendment is grouped with Amendment No. 2, to which I was happy to put my name. In particular because this is an enabling Bill, I believe that it is important that there should be some element of precision. When the Bill states "at least two weeks", it means that the Secretary of State could fulfil the requirements if she stipulated in the order a period of three weeks, four weeks or even two months. It is important that that is clear and that people know exactly what we are talking about. The idea of issuing a blank cheque like this is taking the blank cheque system a little too far. That is why I should like to restrict it by removing the words "at least".

The Bill was first presented to Parliament over four months ago, having been preceded by fairly extensive consultation, including with the unions. I believed that by now the Government would have formed a view as to what they expected the period to be. If they have not done so, that seems rather vague. In particular, the Bill cannot be left with one of its major provisions—indeed, this is the number one provision—remaining very vague. Unless and until the Government can make up their mind and enlighten us what their intentions are in primary legislation, it may be better if we try to help to concentrate their mind by limiting the leave to two weeks.

3.45 p.m.

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