Work & Families Bill
Speech

House of Commons

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the civilised speech from the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) and I am glad that, like earlier speakers, she emphasised the role of carers. This is an important issue and I agree with much of what she said. Having said that, I fear that my speech will probably fall into the category that the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) described as "grudging".

It is important that work is made family friendly, that mothers can take a decent amount of maternity leave, that fathers should spend a decent amount of time with newly born or adopted children, and that carers should have the right to flexible working hours. It is important that the House protects those rights. As the son of a single mother, I benefited from the flexible arrangements that were possible in our small family stationery business, which largely meant that as a latch-key child at the age of eight or nine I could attend my mother in her place of work—the ultimate flexibility. I understand, therefore, the benefits that flow from flexibility in such circumstances, but I am not as clear as Labour Members that the House is always best placed to judge what employers should do to protect their economic interests.

We must be careful about balancing the needs of employees against those of employers. Indeed, I met two very senior ladies from a FTSE-100 company this morning who expressed the same reservations about the Bill. I am concerned more by the summary of the regulatory impact assessment than by the RIA itself. The summary often cites the benefits that will flow to those affected by the Bill to justify the costs being imposed on employers. My understanding is that the RIA should be much more neutral in its tone and consider the costs imposed on employers and the state by such regulations. I am disappointed by the way in which the RIA so regularly seeks to justify the Bill by reference to the benefits that will flow to employees.

I recognise that much of the Bill will bring benefits to business, as well as employees, such as the keeping in touch days, which will ensure reasonable contact between employer and employee; the extension of the period of notice that a woman has to give when returning from maternity leave; and the detailed changes to the payment of statutory maternity pay, on which the Secretary of State placed so much stress. However, some people are sounding notes of caution. Richard Smith, employment services director at Croner, which is an expert adviser in employment law, warns that the pendulum may have swung too far. He says:

"Employers are facing a legal maze of parental legislation over government proposals in the Work and Families Bill. The law could be shifting too far in favour of family needs, bringing into question a basic principle of employment law that supports the employer's need for the work to be done."

My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), in her opening remarks, talked of the reservations of bodies such as the CBI. A Library research paper tells us that the CBI said, in its response to the consultation on the Bill:

"CBI members accept in principle the Government's desire to extend family friendly rights further but believe there should be compensating changes to reflect the increased burden on employers."


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That is really my central point. The Bill probably does good, important and useful things that the House should support, but every time we add new legislative burdens to business, especially small and medium-sized businesses, we should operate the one in, one out principle. What real relief will be given to employers for the new burdens they will have to bear under the measure?

Some say that one consequence of the Bill and similar measures will be an increasing reluctance by businesses to employ women of child-bearing age. When that point was made earlier, the cry came from the Labour Benches, "It's illegal". It may be illegal, but that does not mean that it is not a problem. The recruitment industry says that many businesses, particularly small ones, now routinely avoid women in their late 20s and early 30s precisely because of the increased costs of maternity leave and temporary cover. It may be against the law, but it is happening.

The Recruitment and Employment Confederation recently reported that 75 per cent. of its members had been told by a business not to send them female job candidates in their late 20s or early 30s. More than one in 10 said that they discriminated against pregnant women or those likely to be planning to have children. That is actually happening and it is difficult for the law to catch.

I have a rather cynical view: perhaps the measure is the beginning of an attempt to level up fathers' rights to make it less unattractive to employ women. I was interested to hear the Secretary of State say that only a few men in small businesses would be eligible for parental rights. I have a horrid fear that in a couple of years we shall be told that as so few men are taking advantage of those rights, we shall make them even more attractive for men, thereby further increasing the burden on businesses. I hope that my cynicism is misplaced.

The hon. Member for Burnley (Kitty Ussher) reeled off a list of things—regulatory burdens imposed on business, as I would describe them, even though there might be good reasons for them—and challenged us to say whether we would support them. I was one of those who opposed the minimum wage. I now accept that the level at which it was introduced did not cause a problem for business, but it is slowly being ratcheted up. Only this morning, the newspapers reported that the British Retail Consortium is expressing concerns about the latest increase, saying that it will lead to job losses. The minimum wage was brought in at a benign level that had little if any economic impact, but it is now being increased. We must be extremely careful about such issues.

I pay tribute to the Government for their attempts at robust protection of British business from the impact of the working time directive, but I have in my hand a list provided by the Engineering Employers Federation that I will rattle through. For the benefit of the Hansard writers, I shall give them a full copy. These are the reasons for which employees can currently have days off work: sick leave, annual leave, reasonable time for public duties; if they are a member of a local authority, a statutory tribunal, a police authority, the service authority for the national criminal intelligence service or the National Crime Squad, a board of prison visitors, a health authority, a "relevant education body", the

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Environment Agency or a water customer consultation panel. They can have time off for antenatal care and reasonable time off for trade union duties or training. There is time off for pension scheme trustees, for employee representatives, for members of European work councils and for domestic information and consultation representatives. There is not enough time to read out the whole list. It is a jolly list and depending on how we count up the categories, there are 21, 30, 34 or 36 different existing rights for employees to have time off from their place of employment. In fact, I am told that the No. 10 policy adviser in this field was recently reported to have said jokingly that one day the Government would have to legislate for employers to have the right to request employees to come to work.

Alison Seabeck: Can the hon. Gentleman pick out from the list that he half read out which of those rights would be an unreasonable request?

Peter Luff: That is the problem. Each and every one on its own is perfectly reasonable, yet their sum total is unreasonable. To govern is to choose, and some of them will probably have to go, or some other regulations that are burdens on employers will have to go in their place. My contention is that the burden is getting dangerously heavy.

Kitty Ussher: I am delighted that I made such a huge impression on the hon. Gentleman. He said that regulations would have to go. Which ones? Can he be more specific?

Peter Luff: I shall not do that in the short time available, although I would happily discuss it with the hon. Lady over a drink later. When the Government are imposing new burdens in a heavily regulated area they should adopt the principle of one in, one out. We have reached the point when that principle should be respected. The CBI was asking for that. The hon. Lady looks disbelieving, or disapproving, but that is what I believe.

Britain faces huge competitive challenges in the world economy, yet in this Chamber we often behave as though they do not exist. Under the Government, we have already slipped from fourth to 13th place in the world competitive table compiled by the World Economic Forum, and it is no laughing matter. We face huge competitive challenges and we cannot afford to be complacent in the face of them. We cannot afford to behave as though the world owes us a living: it does not. We owe ourselves a living and it is only by our own hard work that we shall actually get things right.

My concern is that there will come a moment when some legislation will be introduced to give new rights to employees that is the straw that breaks the camel's back. I do not know when that point will come. I have cried wolf before about this—I plead guilty—but the moment will come. I am fond of cricket, Mr. Deputy Speaker, like one of your colleagues. It is odd that when one watches a game of cricket one thinks that one side is winning, but in retrospect one realises that the other side has started to win. One cannot quite pin down the moment, but it happens. There will come a moment when Britain's competitive advantage has eroded so much that we shall start to lose in the world economy.

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These questions are important and I do not deride the Bill. I respect what it seeks to do. I am a passionate believer in the family, and as has been said I do not believe that we can do everything through the fiscal system. There is a need for rights in this field, but the issues are complex and I am perturbed about the short timetable for the Committee, especially if the draft regulations are not available. Often, I respect the reason for drawing up Bills that leave so much to secondary legislation, but in such an important field it would be much better for the Committee to have access to the regulations. The Bill will be out of Committee before Christmas and that is too short a time.

The Bill is literally motherhood and apple pie—perhaps fatherhood and apple pie. Apple pie is a good thing, especially if made with fine Worcestershire apples, but if the meal that comes before it is too large, there may not be room for it. We need to eat a little less of the other courses to make room for something else that is desirable. That is the fundamental point. Bad legislation and bad regulations are always unwelcome, but sometimes good regulations are unwelcome, too. This may be one of those occasions.

There is too little time for the Committee to consider such important questions, and the Bill would have been much better if it had been accompanied by a clear statement from the Government of which other regulations they were removing from the shoulders of British business.


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