HC Deb 16 February 1993 vol 219 cc222-38

  1. '.—(1) An employee whose wife or partner has given birth shall be entitled to take ten working days leave (referred to in this section as paternity leave).
  2. (2) Paternity leave can be taken at any time from the birth until the end of three months following the birth.
  3. (3) An employee on paternity leave shall be entitled to full pay.
  4. (4) The employee has the right to decide when to take paternity leave except that the employer must be given:
    1. (a) 21 days' notice of the expected week of confinement of the employee's spouse, and
    2. (b) reasonable notice of the time when paternity leave is taken where that is practicable.
  5. (5) For the purposes of this section a partner includes a man and woman who are not married to each other but are living together as man and wife.'.—[Ms. Quin.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Ms. Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

With this, I understand that it will be convenient to take the following: New clause 11—Parental leave

  1. '().—(1) Following the period of maternity leave laid down in section 19 above, each parent shall be entitled to a period of parental leave of either three months full time or six months part-time, such leave not to be taken by both parents concurrently.
  2. (2) The parental leave referred to in subsection (1) above must be completed before the second birthday of the child, save where a registered general medical practitioner certifies that the health of the child requires an extended permit.
  3. (3) The parental leave referred to in subsections (1) and (2) above shall also be available to adoptive parents.'.

New clause 10—Maternity employment rights report

  1. '(1) The Secretary of State shall publish a report to Parliament annually, to be called "The maternity employment rights report" on the effects of the Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Act 1993.
  2. (2) The Report shall assess the effects of the Act on:
    1. (a) the employment opportunities for pregnant working women
    2. (b) access to time off for ante-natal care (including relaxation classes and parentcraft classes)
    3. (c) the operation of remuneration during 14 weeks maternity leave
    4. (d) the number of women returning to work after the 14 weeks maternity leave
    5. (e) the adequacy of 14 weeks maternity leave for the health of the mother and the baby.
    6. (f) the operation and complexity of the scheme
    7. (g) the number of women successfully claiming, unfair dismissal because of pregnancy under this Act
    8. (h) the number of women medically suspended for health and safety reasons each year
  3. (3) Before publishing the Report, the Secretary of State shall consult such organisations as appear to him to be concerned.'.

Government amendments Nos. 1 to 3.

Amendment No. 63, in clause 19, page 37, line 26, leave out 'fourteen' and insert 'eighteen'.

Government amendments Nos. 37, 38 and 4.

Amendment No. 71, in page 38, line 19, at end insert— '(1A) An employer may apply to an industrial tribunal to set aside this provision on the ground that greater unfairness would be caused to another employee.'. Government amendments Nos. 5, 6, 43, 44, 39 to 41, 7, 8 and 42.

Ms. Quin

New clause 5 heads a group of new clauses and amendments that deal with maternity rights for women at work, sharing family responsibilities by recognising fathers' rights to paternity and parental leave, and the need for society to support adoptive parents and to take account of their contribution to children's welfare and to that of the community.

In Committee, the Opposition sought via amendments and new clauses to create a comprehensive system of maternity rights. We also aimed to create a system that would be easy to understand and to implement—in stark contrast to the existing confusing and complex system, which in some ways will be made more complex by the introduction of the clauses relating to maternity rights in the Bill.

Opposition Members believe that we should seek to create an effective system of rights that would at least equal, if not surpass, best practice in Europe—something that the Opposition are determined eventually to implement for working women in our country.

New clause 5 deals with paternity leave and stipulates that: An employee whose wife or partner has given birth shall be entitled to take ten working days leave … Paternity leave can be taken at any time from the birth until the end of three months following the birth … An employee on paternity leave shall be entitled to full pay. The new clause also deals with the notification requirements that we envisage would be a feasible means of introducing a system of paternity leave.

One of the reasons why we have tabled the new clause is that we deplore the present situation in which fathers have no legal right to paid leave at the time of the birth of their children. That is not good news for fathers, mothers or babies. Paternity leave requirements of the kind envisaged would allow the sharing of child care responsibilities and would help to establish strong paternal bonds at the birth of the child.

An Equal Opportunities Commission study found that 91 per cent. of fathers favoured the introduction of statutory paternity leave. By introducing such leave, the Government would be taking a step towards implementing article 6 of the European Council's recommendations on child care, which I understand that they supported when it was dealt with in the European Council of Ministers.

The cost of introducing paternity leave would be modest. In a workplace of 500 employees, consisting of 60 per cent. men and 40 per cent. women, it has been calculated that 12 or 13 employees are likely to use it in a year. We believe that the cost would be negligible, and the good will created by employers introducing paternity leave would be great.

A number of paternity leave arrangements already exist in many firms throughout the country. The Minister may respond to the new clause by referring to the good practice that already exists on a voluntary basis, where employers have decided to introduce such arrangements. Although 1 am glad that some employers are enlightened, the argument that was effectively advanced by my hon. Friends in the previous debate about the abolition of wages councils—that the good employer will be undercut by the bad—is just as valid for paternity and parental leave.

9.30 pm

New clause 11 deals with the subject of parental leave. The ideas contained in the new clause are taken from the proposed European Community directive on parental leave which was blocked by the Government in the European Council of Ministers six years ago. We do not pretend that the wording of new clause 11 is perfect. We wanted to embody the principle of parental leave in the new clause. If the Government were prepared to accept the new clause, we would be delighted to negotiate with them and come to a common agreement about the details of the parental leave system.

It is highly regrettable that the Government have always chosen to block the initiative in the European Council of Ministers. That may explain why some of our partners are so keen on the social chapter, which at least allows the other 11 countries to make progress on many of the matters that have been blocked by our Government's negative stance on so much social legislation in the European Community.

Parental leave is common in other European countries. When the matter was last debated in Parliament—I think it was in 1985–10 out of 12 European Community countries already had some form of parental leave entitlement. It is interesting to recall that in the other place their Lordships also favoured the introduction of a statutory period of parental leave. I think that they were in favour of paid parental leave for one month. They certainly did not rule the European proposals out of court in the way that the Government unfortunately did, and continue to do.

Some of the comments that I made about paternity leave on new clause 5 also apply to new clause 11, which specifically refers to the rights of adoptive parents to have some form of parental leave. The European Community draft directive stipulated that adoptive parents would be able to have such leave at any time within the child's first five years of life, taking into account some of the special circumstances that can surround adoption and the fact that parents do not always adopt newly born babies.

The European Community directive also referred to longer leave for single parents, parents of a handicapped child or where difficulties existed. The Equal Opportunities Commission produced lengthy reports and recommendations supporting the parental leave directive. They are a few years old, but I believe that they are still valid. It also did a cost analysis of the possible effects of introducing parental leave. It said that it would increase the total wages and salaries bills by less than 0.01 per cent. The costs were contested in the House at the time. However, we believe that the Equal Opportunities Commission undertook a serious study on the subject which deserves the Government's attention.

Unfortunately, there has been no progress on the matter since 1986. That is very sad and shows the hypocritical attitude of the Government, who have introduced such initiatives as Opportunity 2000, and who supposedly have a commitment to equal opportunities policy. The sharing of family responsibilities is a crucial way of ensuring that women can play a full part in the workplace. Such measures are vital if having a baby is not to penalise a working woman, and cause her and her family to miss out financially.

I have mentioned leave for adoptive parents. We had an interesting debate on that in Committee: it was one of the occasions when Opposition Members were supported by certain Conservative Members—although, unfortunately, they were not supported by the Minister. The new clause on adoptive parents was tabled by the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham), and was strongly supported by the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) and one or two other Conservative Members.

Sadly, the Minister turned a deaf ear to our views. I should be delighted if he announced tonight that he had been converted, for this is yet another area in which we are out of step with many other European countries. Most of them make some provision for leave for adoptive parents. Although some companies in Britain adopt good practice in that respect, the Government's offer in Committee to publicise examples of best practice among employers generally goes nowhere near meeting our concerns. We remain strongly attached to the idea of a statutory right for adoptive parents, and I hope that some Conservative Members will support us.

New clause 10 proposes a maternity employment rights report. We are anxious that the Bill—which, unfortunately, seems likely to come into effect in the form that the Government wish—should at least be evaluated in terms of its effects on women at work, especially in regard to maternity rights. In new clause 10, we ask the Secretary of State to publish an annual report to Parliament on maternity employment rights, and specifically request that the report assess the effects of the Bill—when it is enacted —on different aspects of maternity rights.

For example, we want the report to consider the effects on employment opportunities for pregnant working women, and on access to time off for ante-natal care, including relaxation classes and parentcraft classes. We feel that the Minister's response in Committee was unsatisfactory. He said then that existing United Kingdom legislation was adequate, but he missed the point that many people are unable to exercise their right to ante-natal care, because their employers will not allow them time off. At present there is no satisfactory remedy in law.

In the new clause, we also ask for information about the operation of remuneration during 14 weeks of maternity leave. We have been concerned all along at the Government's failure to deal with the question of maternity pay. We also regret the fact that, throughout the negotiations on the European directive, our Government were alone in wanting maternity pay to be linked with sick pay rather than salaries. We consider that a disgraceful attitude, which represents a lost opportunity for the women of Britain and, indeed, others in the European Community.

We also want information about the number of women who return to work after their 14 weeks of maternity leave —and, moreover, about the adequacy of 14 weeks' leave for the health of mother and baby. On Second Reading and throughout the Committee stage, we argued strongly that 14 weeks was far too short a period. We continue to believe that. One of our amendments would replace 14 weeks with 18 weeks. Although we shall not ask the House to divide on the 18 weeks amendment, we shall divide the House on new clause 10 in order to make clear that we are in favour of 18 weeks rather than 14 weeks.

If the Minister were suddenly to say in reply that he accepts our argument and those of all the other organisations that have lobbied hard for the period of 18 weeks rather than 14 weeks, I should be only too happy not to divide the House on new clause 10. I have the feeling, however, that the Minister is unlikely to give us what we want. Nevertheless, the Government are very much in the minority on this issue. Most people feel that 18 weeks is the minimum period needed if the health of the mother and the baby are to be protected properly. Many women who have worked the statutory period for their current employer have the right to return up to 29 weeks after the birth of their baby. Therefore, it is absurd for the Government to believe that a maternity leave period of only 14 weeks is right for other women. We feel very strongly that that is unsatisfactory. I am sure that my hon. Friends will reinforce that point during the debate.

In asking for a report, we also want information about the operation and complexity of the scheme. We feel that the existing scheme is muddled because of the different periods of maternity leave and also because of the different requirements about the giving of notice. It will not be easy for employers to understand exactly what they will have to comply with. If it will not be easy for employers, it will be even more difficult for pregnant employees—who probably have got other things on their mind than checking notification periods and their entitlement to maternity leave—to understand these complexities. I hope that the Government will take due note of that point.

We should also like information about the number of women who have successfully claimed that they were unfairly dismissed because of pregnancy. There was considerable discussion in Committee about the rules governing pregnant women at work and unfair dismissal. Some progress was made. We were glad, for example, that the Government accepted that the unfair dismissal period should be extended after maternity leave for a further period, particularly if the mother is suffering from health problems as a result of having given birth. Nevertheless, we still believe that the position over unfair dismissal is unsatisfactory.

I was not entirely reassured by the letter that the Minister sent to me on this matter on 28 January. It dealt with the amendment that we tabled in Committee whose purpose was to ensure that the burden of proof would be on the employer rather than the employee in dismissal cases. The position is still very unsatisfactory for those women who do not meet the qualifying period of two years full time and five years part time. The employer could simply say that dismissal was for reasons other than pregnancy. The employee would have no protection against unfair dismissal for those other reasons because she would not have worked for the qualifying period.

Although the Minister has taken a decision about the issue, I hope that he will be open to further representations as the Bill goes through the other place. I know that many organisations are concerned about the matter, including the Maternity Alliance and the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux. They are keen to take up this matter again with the Minister. They feel that the assurances that we were given in Committee do not go far enough to meet the real needs of some women who have found themselves in a difficult position at work, we suspect because of their pregnancy, because employers have been able to say, "Oh, well, it's for other reasons"—for lateness or anything else that they could think of in order conveniently to dispense with the services of those women rather than have to guarantee their employment after they return from maternity leave.

I deal now with the Government amendments to this part of the Bill. Some were clearly tabled in response to concerns that we expressed in Committee and in response to representations that have been made to them. We are pleased about some of the amendments but feel that others could go further.

9.45 pm

We are pleased that the Government have altered the rules about the triggering of the maternity leave period. In that respect, the original draft of the Bill seemed very strange and would have meant that women were forced to leave work when neither they nor their employer wanted them to. It seemed absurd, so we are glad that the Government have taken the opportunity to harmonise part of the existing maternity pay scheme with the new maternity leave scheme by allowing a woman to receive sick pay if she is ill between 11 and six weeks before the baby is due. However, it would have been far more sensible for the Government to have harmonised the two schemes further by extending maternity leave to 18 weeks. This is another reason why we believe that it is important to have an 18-week leave period.

I refer the Government to a National Audit Office report on statutory sick and maternity pay which was published in January after the Committee had covered this part of the Bill. The report makes it clear that the stated objective of the statutory maternity pay scheme is to encourage women not to endanger their or their babies' health by working too late into their pregnancies, or returning to work too soon after their babies are born". Again, we believe that 14 weeks' leave is insufficient. Even if a woman starts her maternity leave six weeks before the birth, she will have only seven or eight weeks' maternity leave after the week of the baby's birth, which could well be too short in some circumstances.

The Government have introduced changes to the notice requirement for the 14 weeks' maternity leave, but we still believe that the changes, contained in amendments Nos. 1, 3, 4, and 8, are too complex because different notification requirements will apply to women taking 14 weeks' leave and those taking up to 40 weeks' leave. The Government have again missed an opportunity to simplify the scheme for the benefit of all involved.

Women will have to rely on employers to provide information on maternity leave. The same report from the National Audit Office revealed that half of the employers contacted did not provide adequate information on the SMP scheme. Clearly the Government have a great deal of work to do to ensure that the provisions will be implemented correctly but, up to now, there seems little evidence that the Government are prepared to do it.

I mentioned the Government's changes to the protection for women against unfair dismissal if women cannot return after maternity leave because they are unwell. Although we welcome the provision, we agree with organisations such as the Maternity Alliance, which feel that it is very limited because the protection will last for only four weeks. Perhaps the Minister will explain why he decided to offer protection for four weeks and no more.

We should also like the Minister to explain what would happen to a woman who, through no fault of her own, was unable to provide a medical certificate before the end of her maternity leave. For example, what would happen if her leave ended at the weekend and she fell ill during the weekend and therefore technically missed the date for notifying her employer that she was applying for extended leave on medical grounds?

The Government also tabled a wholly unsatisfactory amendment in response to concerns that we expressed in Committee. We were concerned that it was technically possible, due to the strange drafting of the Bill, for a woman to be forced back to work before her child was born.

The Government have sought to deal with that by providing that an employee's maternity leave will continue for 14 weeks or until the birth of the child if later. On superficial reading at least, that suggests that the minute a woman had given birth she would have to go back to work. Would she be expected to go back to work straight from the hospital? There is the additional four-week protection against unfair dismissal, but it is not right that a woman should have to rely on what is effectively sick leave to obtain adequate maternity leave in those circumstances.

I refer the Government to the EC pregnancy directive. It does not specifically require a period of leave after the birth because the relevant article refers to before and/or after the birth, but the whole purpose of the directive is to safeguard the safety and health of workers who have recently given birth.

It could be argued that the Government are failing properly to abide by the terms of the EC equal treatment directive which talks about the period during which problems due to pregnancy and confinement may arise, and which obviously therefore refers to the period before and after the birth.

Certainly the National Audit Office report, to which I have referred, states that the purpose of the statutory maternity pay scheme is to encourage women not to return to work too soon after their babies are born. The Government's amendment does not seem to comply with that commitment. If the Government are not prepared to change it tonight, they should at least undertake to consider the matter further so that it can be dealt with satisfactorily at a subsequent stage in the Bill's proceedings.

Amendment No. 63 reiterates our strong feeling that the maternity leave period should be 18 weeks rather than 14 weeks. I pay tribute to the Maternity Alliance campaign on the matter and, in particular, its publication "One last push for 18 weeks" in which it gives some strong reasons why the leave period should be 18 rather than 14 weeks.

The Maternity Alliance says that the primary purpose of maternity leave is to protect the well-being of mother and baby and it questions whether 14 weeks is long enough to do that. It says, rightly, that it is Government policy to encourage breast feeding for the first four to six months of a baby's life and a 14-week maternity leave period is not consistent with that.

The Maternity Alliance says that finding child care for young babies is particularly difficult, making it unlikely that many women with a baby a few weeks old would be able to return to work. It also says that many women stop work about 11 weeks before the birth of the baby because of tiredness or illness and such women would have to resume work when their babies are only about three weeks old.

Therefore, 18 weeks makes great sense. It also makes sense because, as I have said before, many women in Britain are entitled to a longer maternity leave and, on average, British women take 20 weeks' maternity leave. Therefore, it would be much more sensible to harmonise upwards rather than downwards. As employers already administer for 18 weeks statutory maternity pay, it makes sense for 18 weeks to be the general leave period.

We believe, with the Maternity Alliance, that the cost to employers and the Government of extending maternity leave by four weeks to 18 weeks would be minimal and it would be offset by savings. More women would return to work saving employers recruitment and training costs and saving the Government tax income and benefit cost.

In conclusion, women's working lives are greatly affected by having children and we do not want the fact of giving birth to mean that women lose out. We do not want them to lose an interesting and worthwhile job. We do not want them to lose the chance of promotion, and we do not want them to handicap themselves, sometimes severely from a financial point of view, simply because they have chosen to have children.

Working mothers need a better deal than is being given to them in the Bill. If they are given a better deal, not only they but society will greatly benefit.

Mr. Alex Carlile

I should like to say a few words, particularly in support of new clause 5, but first I thank the Minister for introducing changes in the rules triggering maternity leave. Some improvement is better than no improvement at all.

Times have changed a good deal since those pictures which we see exemplified in old episodes of "Doctor Finlay's Casebook" and "Doctor in the House", when the midwife turned up, the kettle was put on and the expectant father was sent out to the pub while mother and the midwife arranged for the baby to be born, and then the father returned to look at his son and heir, or so he hoped.

Fortunately, things have changed a good deal since then and when a child is born into a family—we should all be aiming to uphold the integrity of the family in these ever-more difficult times for family life—it is now recognised as very desirable that, not just the mother, but the father of the child should form a relationship with the baby quickly and take an active part in looking after the baby. Fathers do much more than merely change nappies these days. That in itself is an advance on the situation 20 or 30 years ago. Fathers play an active and significant role in the upbringing of babies, and it is right that they should.

So new clause 5 recognises the changing times. Secondly, it recognises the realities of modern life, with particular reference to work and the workplace. For many families now it cannot possibly be taken for granted that the father is the breadwinner. In many families the father and the mother of the child have more or less equal incomes and in many families the mother of the newborn child is the breadwinner. If the father is to become the house husband and if, as in an increasing number of families, he is to stay at home and look after the child, or to spend a considerable time at home looking after the child, it is desirable and sensible that the father should form a bond with the baby as quickly as the mother. Paternity leave seems to be a sensible way of achieving that.

I apprehend that there are some Conservative Members, male hon. Members, who find this a faintly hilarious subject but it is not. It is extremely important that babies should be brought up, from the beginning, in stable homes and if that means that we should recognise what has already been recognised in other countries, that paternity leave is a contributory factor towards that, we should not lag behind other countries in Europe in introducing paternity leave.

The third point that I wish to raise on new clause 5 is one that was not raised by the hon. Lady the Member for Gateshead, East (Ms. Quin) in her full and excellent presentation of the case on a number of issues, including this clause. My point relates to the all too frequent and sometimes extremely sad onset of puerperal depression. In my professional life as a lawyer, I have had the misfortune to come across the sometimes tragic effects in a family of post-natal depression, particularly in cases where there has not been the support and involvement of the father that one would have hoped for.

I believe that paternity leave would mean that both parents would be together, at least for a time, after the birth of a child and that the support that the father would give the mother would lessen the prospects of serious post-natal depression. That is an important point because, as the Minister knows and I suspect all hon. Members know, puerperal depression is a very common incident of childbirth.

I would also like to say a word about new clause 10. Whether the precise wording is right, in my view, matters not. What new clause 10 would achieve is a way of measuring the success of maternity leave. It would provide a method of producing statistics which would enable not only us, but, more important, the medical profession, employers and trade unions to measure the success or otherwise of the maternity leave regime. It would enable us to know whether justice was being done to mothers and, of course, to their children. Without statistics of the sort that would be provided by the report suggested, we are not really in a position to judge.

Hon. Members who put down parliamentary questions—

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 14 (Exempted business), That, at this day's sitting, the Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Bill may be proceeded with, though opposed, until any hour.—["Mr. Kirkhope.]

Question agreed to.

As amended, again considered.

Question again proposed, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Carlile

Hon. Members who table questions to Ministers know that it is sometimes difficult to obtain the types of statistics which are referred to in the categories set out in new clause 10. This would enable us and others to have those statistics. I really cannot understand why the Government appear to want to resist the preparation of a report of a type which has now become very common as an adjunct of new statutory provisions, and I hope that the Minister will reflect afresh upon this matter.

Mr. Miller

I shall be brief, bearing in mind that other hon. Members wish to speak.

Referring first to new clause 5, many progressive employers provide some form of paternity leave. My progressive previous employer—the Minister made a number of jokes about it in Committee—provided me with paternity leave some 14 years ago when my daughter was born. I and my family found that, and my daughter found it eventually, a very beneficial provision. The arguments are clearly set out in the clause. But, aside from odd employers, as the Minister would probably consider trade unions, many good employers provide some form of provision for paternity leave.

It seems to me that it would disadvantage those good employers if the cowboys were allowed to maintain standards lower than those applied by the best. So I think that there is an economic argument that supports the development of a clause creating a consistent provision and a right throughout our society.

With regard to new clause 10, the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) made a good point about the need to collate statistical evidence. It is only when that evidence is collated properly that we will know whether the Government's attempts at reform in this area, some of which are opposed and some of which are accepted by Opposition Members, are appropriate and will be able to analyse the facts and make some progress.

I draw the attention of the House in particular to paragraphs (g) and (h) of subsection (2) concerning the number of women successfully claiming unfair dismissal because of pregnancy. This is particularly important. A number of cases have gone through the tribunal and higher courts relating to dismissals that have been alleged redundancies during periods of maternity leave, and so on. This information is loosely collated. I believe that it needs to be collated in the context of this clause rather than in the generality of overall case law statistics.

If we look at it in the context of other aspects of the clause, we will begin to understand the meaning of the statistics. Equally, and in some respects more importantly, the same argument applies to paragraph (h). Inevitably, there will be cases in which women are suspended for health and safety reasons. However, it is important. to separate genuine health-related reasons from concocted reasons because, in the later stages of pregnancy, a woman may not be able to fulfil a task at the same pace as, for example, young, fit Ministers; but perhaps that is not the case.

Against that background, and for the powerful reasons set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East (Ms. Quin) and by the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery, I shall support new clause 10.

Ms. Eagle

I shall spend a short time on some of the history of the new rights established in the Bill. Clearly, the Opposition welcome any conversion of the Government to improving employment rights, albeit in a grudging and technical way. They have reacted to being dragged kicking and screaming by the European Commission into making at least some concession to the needs of women in the work force.

Let us examine the history of the provisions and why the Government, who spend most of their time wanting to reduce what they euphemistically call burdens on business, have suddenly introduced a measure which, albeit grudgingly, slightly increases those burdens on business. That has come about simply because of the EC directive on maternity leave in which the British Government played a pretty villainous role, first in holding up its progress through the EC institutions and secondly, when they realised that they could not hold it up much longer, in watering it down. They insisted that they would not agree to the original draft of the directive which granted maternity pay at 90 per cent. of earnings and would support the directive only if maternity pay was reduced to the level of sick pay. Far from being 90 per cent. of what a pregnant woman was earning before her pregnancy, levels of statutory sick pay in Britain are about 15 per cent. of average earnings, which in real and proportional terms is a much lower level than that which could have been achieved had the Government been less destructive in its dealings with the EC.

Having held up the directive and then watered it down, the Government then abstained on it, so they did not even vote for it. The Government have accepted pretty grudgingly that increased maternity rights should be granted to millions of women in the work force today and the millions of women who may want to join the work force if they are given equal treatment and rights by British laws.

Although we must congratulate the Government on the rights they are bringing in, our congratulations must be fairly narrow. The Government have brought in those rights in a typical technical and grudging way.

The law contains a right to maternity leave somewhere. However, one must search high and low, and one must be virtually a lawyer of international repute to understand those rights, much less attempt to exercise them.

What we have is a technical granting of a right with absolutely no attempt being made by the Government to tackle the real problem of the piecemeal approach to equal opportunities legislation in the United Kingdom. Indeed, the Government have introduced the right to maternity leave—which is welcome—in the most complex way possible in the hope that it will be so perplexing that many people will not, first, realise that they have the right and, secondly, be able to work out how they should exercise it. That applies to both employers and employees.

I would prefer to see—the Equal Opportunities Commission is on record as saying this about the Bill—the Government make a genuine attempt to deal with their piecemeal approach to current equal opportunities legislation and simplify it rather than introduce a third tier to an already complex system. The Government should simplify the system to one tier so that people may know that they have a simple right which is easily applied for. People would know what they were entitled to and they could go on to deal with the normal everyday problems with pregnancy and the arrangements which they must make as they approach confinement in a more optimistic way without the uncertainty and insecurity which currently surround maternity leave at work.

The rights introduced by the Government should be more generous. I certainly support the view that we should have an 18-week leave period rather than 14 weeks. My hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East (Ms. Quin) has dealt effectively with some of the more bizarre aspects of the way in which the legislation is drafted. There are many issues which we will want to assess. We will want to see how the right is being used and whether it makes much practical difference.

The reason for new clause 10 is to produce a statistical digest to deal with some of the issues—how complex the scheme is, whether people are able to use it and the number of women who successfully claim unfair dismissal because of pregnancy, as they are given a right to do so under the legislation. That right is grudgingly given in the same way as maternity rights are given. Women must prove, rather than the employer having to disprove, that they were sacked for being pregnant, which is a difficult thing to do. If the Government intended to give proper and appropriate protection to women in the work force, they would have switched the burden of proof in the way in which the new right was introduced. New clause 10 deals with those issues.

It gives me a sense of pride and a special feeling that, as one of only 10 per cent. of women Members in the House, I can represent the interests of women on this important issue. Women can take their rightful place in society only with a guarantee of proper equal treatment. The Government's attempts to introduce some sort of limited new employment rights are woefully inadequate. I look forward to their doing much better in the near future.

Mr. Burden

I rise to support the new clauses and the amendment proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East (Ms. Quin). I want to speak to new clause 10 because it seems to be especially important that we compile the sort of statistics which are being advocated on the impact of the maternity leave changes which the Government wish to introduce.

To hear Ministers talk, one would think that they were introducing proposals which would transform the rights of working women. In Britain, not only will the impact of what is being suggested—welcome though it is—be somewhat more limited: it will produce a rather selective view of how the legislation came to be before the House in the first place.

10.15 pm

My hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms. Eagle) catalogued what took place when the European Commission and the Council of Ministers considered the pregnant women at work directive. The delays caused principally by the British Government held up that directive for no less than two years. Indeed, the timing was so tight by the end of that period that in order to ratify the directive before it lapsed, Ministers had to do so at a meeting about fisheries. As we have heard, even at that stage the Government, having watered down the directive, could not bring themselves to vote for it and abstained. One would think that it was hardly worth the air fare for them to go over there to do it.

If the Government had not watered it down, the directive could have provided women with the right to 16 weeks paid time off for maternity. The Government not only reduced that to 14 weeks but watered down the pay provisions. They do not even mention maternity pay in the Bill. Indeed, they have ruled out any consideration of maternity pay as if the issue were irrelevant to maternity leave.

It is instructive to examine why it was so important to the Government to rule out consideration of maternity pay. A quick look through the level of maternity pay in other countries in Europe shows why the Government are so bashful. The total equivalent maternity pay in other European countries is as follows: Denmark 22 weeks, Italy 17 weeks, Luxembourg 16 weeks, Greece 16 weeks, the Netherlands 16 weeks, Germany 14 weeks, France 13½1 weeks, Spain 12 weeks, Belgium 11 weeks and Ireland 10 weeks.

Ministers will probably say that the directive advocated at least 14 weeks and many women will receive more than that. True enough, but in Britain the equivalent total weeks of maternity pay for women who have worked full time for more than two years is the princely period of eight weeks. Women who do not meet that requirement receive the equivalent of four weeks in total. That is the reality of maternity leave in Britain. That is why new clause 5 and the other new clauses in the group are important.

One cannot separate out the issue of maternity pay, all the more so because the Government have insisted on scrapping the wages councils. The effect of that will be to drive the earnings of many thousands of women below the national insurance threshold. That will remove their entitlement to the higher rate of statutory maternity pay. So it will increase the problems of poverty among women employees.

We have already heard that the maternity leave period advocated by the Government is too short. All expert opinion agrees that 14 weeks simply is not long enough for the health of the mother, the family or the baby. In Britain the need to extend the period from 14 weeks to 18 weeks is even more important than in other parts of Europe because the Government have refused and refused again to introduce any scheme of parental or paternity leave. That makes the need for a decent scheme for maternity leave that much more important.

In eight out of 12 European countries there is some provision for paternity or parental leave. Why in Britain do we come up against a brick wall when we seek such provisions? In the United States of America there is movement on leave for family reasons. The measure is supported by large parts of the Republican party. So why in Britain does a brick wall still go up on paternity and parental leave?

My hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey also described the complexity of the rules introduced in the Bill. That is yet another reason why we must consider the impact of the Bill. If a woman is to find her way through the myriad rules, regulations and laws on maternity leave she needs to be an expert in employment law and pretty good at lateral thinking. If she works for one length of time she qualifies for something called maternity leave. If she works for another period she has no entitlement to maternity leave beyond 14 weeks but she qualifies for something called the right of return.

The notification requirements are different, as are the rules and regulations about what one is able to accrue in terms of contractual rights. That is the effect of provisions of this type. Under the Bill in its original form we had the crazy situation of a woman having to go back to work before having her baby. Fortunately, the Government saw sense to some extent and removed that provision. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East pointed out, a woman might now have to return to work the day after having her baby. I suppose that that is an improvement, but it will not be much consolation to the women involved.

A woman has to jump through very difficult hoops in order to find reality in terms of the rights that she will receive under this Bill. In Committee we heard about a woman whose employer had denied her access to ante-natal classes on the ground that such an arrangement was not company policy. That is not unique. We have heard about women whose employers dissuaded them from claiming even the limited rights to which they are currently entitled under statute. That is the reality of irresponsible employers in Britain.

Despite all this, the Government continue to resist the case that we put forward in Committee and are urging tonight. We say that the burden of proof in cases like this should he on the employers. If an employer dismisses someone because that person is claiming her rights under maternity leave provisions, or because he, the employer, does not want to have the hassle of having such a woman on his work force, can anyone seriously suggest that he, with hand on heart, would state that that was the reason for dismissal? Of course not. The evidence that Conservative Members, as well as Opposition Members, have been receiving from citizens advice bureaux, the Equal Opportunities Commission and many other organisations indicates that, in respect of matters of this sort, employers do not always tell the truth.

Why is it regarded as unreasonable to put on the employer the onus to prove that he acted unreasonably in dismissing a woman employee? The Government are resisting such action, and, like my hon. Friends, I have been forced to the conclusion that the reason is that they did not want to have these rights in the first place. They resisted them in Europe. The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth), when he was at the Department of Employment, gave evidence suggesting that the Government did not want them, and in the final vote, the provisions having been watered down, they abstained.

On the front page of the last issue of The Independent on Sunday is a report to the effect that—surprise, surprise —employers are now discovering that their commitment to equal opportunity lasts only so long as they think that, from the labour market point of view, it is necessary to employ more women. As soon as they feel that unemployment is at such a level that the issue of equal opportunity and rights for women can be disposed of, the tendency will be for that commitment to disappear. That is why we need effective maternity rights and effective legislation against sex discrimination. It is also why we need effective rights for working parents in general. This Bill's provisions on maternity rights represent an improvement, but that is testimony to the inadequacy of the current provisions rather than to a commitment to improvement.

I hope that the Government, even at this late stage, will take account of what was said during many hours in Committee. They have not argued effectively against the cases that have been put to them. I hope that they will at least agree to collect statistics so that it may be seen whether we are right and what effect this legislation will have. If the Government claim to have any regard at all for the rights of working parents, they should take on board the comments of hon. Members in favour of paternity leave and effective parental rights.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Patrick McLoughlin)

Some Opposition Members have simply reiterated tonight the comments that they made in Committee. I was glad to hear the welcome that the hon. Member for Gateshead, East (Ms. Quin) gave to the many concessions that the Government have made following representations made to us. As she dealt with most of those concessions and basically welcomed them, I shall, at the appropriate time, simply move formally the provisions which apply them. That will probably be for the convenience of the House because, as the hon. Lady recognised, those concessions go a considerable way to meeting many of the concerns that were expressed.

Opposition Members should get their position clear on the EC directive. It is nonsense to suggest that the United Kingdom watered down that directive. The common position text agreed last December was produced by the Dutch presidency because it was clear that the Commission's original proposals were unacceptable to the great majority of member states. The treaty base for the directive provides for qualified majority voting, riot unanimity, and the United Kingdom was never in a position of being able to threaten to use a veto. No member state voted against the text of the directive agreed last year and the subsequent negotiations which led to the adoption of the directive on 19 October had not changed in any essential respect. Indeed, it was to the great credit of the Secretary of State that the matter was brought to a conclusion during the United Kingdom's presidency. So I cannot accept that in some way the United Kingdom was responsible for watering down the directive.

Ms. Quin

Is not it a fact that the British Government were the only Administration who wanted maternity pay to be allied with sick pay, and in that respect did water down the directive?

Mr. McLoughlin

I said in Committee that the Secretary of State for Social Security would be making a statement on maternity pay and, in so doing, would make the position of the Government clear.

The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) will persist in the fantasy that, somehow, the treatment of pregnant employees in the United Kingdom is inferior to such treatment in other EC member states. At 14 weeks, Britain has the longest period of maternity absence in Europe and, at 18 weeks, one of the longest periods of paid maternity absence. In addition, all pregnant employees in the United Kingdom have had the right to paid time off for antenatal care since 1980, a right which Spanish and French women will enjoy as a result of the directive. I might have added that that will apply in socialist France and Spain—[Interruption.] It is for the French and Spanish people to reach their own decision on the matter.

I cannot accept new clauses 5 and 11. The purpose of the statutory maternity provisions is to safeguard the mother's career, while also giving her a period of time to prepare for, and recover from, childbirth and to nurse and care for her baby in its early life. The same considerations do not apply to paternity and parental leave. I do not consider that the measures proposed in either new clause are suitable for legislation.

Having listened to Opposition Members at Question Time continually asking us to ensure that we have the right conditions for employment growth, it is a bit rich of them to try to impose yet more burdens on employers, burdens that would lead to exactly the opposite of what they desire in terms of employment prospects in Britain.

Mr. Burden


Mr. McLoughlin

I will not give way because we must make progress and the hon. Gentleman spoke for a considerable time.

I recognise the concerns that new clause 10 and amendment No. 63 seek to address. It is important that we keep track of how new legislation is working in practice. I assure hon. Members that we shall keep the Bill under review, as we are anxious to do with any new legislation. But I see no justification for a statutory requirement to produce a report. It is clear that the real concerns of Opposition Members are less that we should publish an annual review of the working of the valuable new rights and more that we should greatly add to the costs of employers by increasing those rights in a wholly unacceptable way.

Opposition Members do not know a good deal when they see one. The Bill will ensure that every employee, no matter what her hours of work or how long she has been with her employer, will be entitled to take 14 weeks off work to have a baby. Currently anyone with under two years' service must look purely to the contract of employment for any rights at all to take time off work.

The changes are an important step forward and will go a long way to ensuring that rights for mothers and women expecting children are greatly enhanced. I commend the Government amendments to the House and hope that it will vote against the new clauses put forward by the Opposition.

10.30 pm
Ms. Quin

We have had an interesting debate, although it has been staggering that no hon. Member on the Government Benches, apart from the Minister, has intervened on the important subject of maternity rights. I do not know whether that means that Government Back Benchers are not interested, or that they do not support the Government's view. Some of my hon. Friends correctly pointed out that the Government had been dragged kicking and screaming by the European Community to accept some of the limited and modest gains. Perhaps that is why none of the Minister's hon. Friends have supported him by speaking in the debate. The Government have been isolated on many issues in the European Community. I agree with the points made by my hon. Friends about that.

I welcome the support of the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile), the spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, on the issue and the additional arguments which he put forward.

The Minister stuck rigidly to his brief, as we came to expect in Committee. None the less, we hope that he will consider some of our arguments, particularly about some Government amendments which do not go far enough. At the very least, we hope that the Government will listen to representations from outside organisations.

Having said that, we do not wish to press new clause 5 to a vote, but when the time comes, we would like to vote on new clause 10. It is a modest amendment, calling for a report on the implementation and the working of the Bill. We are disappointed that the Government will not accept the new clause and it is important to vote on it.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, and clause, by leave withdrawn.

Forward to