HL Deb 08 February 1994 vol 551 cc1499-512

3.4 p.m.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Statutory Sick Pay Bill, has consented to place her prerogative and interest, so far as they are affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.

Bill read a third time.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Viscount Astor) moved Amendment No. 1: After Clause 2, insert the following new clause: Power to make further provision as to recovery .—(1) In Part XI of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992 (statutory sick pay), after section 159 insert—"Power to provide for recovery by employers of sums paid by way of statutory sick pay. 159A.—(1) The Secretary of State may by order provide for the recovery by employers, in accordance with the order, of the amount (if any) by which their payments of, or liability incurred for, statutory sick pay in any period exceeds the specified percentage of the amount of their liability for contributions payments in respect of the corresponding period. (2) An order under subsection (1) above may include provision—

  1. (a) as to the periods by reference to which the calculation referred to above is to be made,
  2. (b) for amounts which would otherwise be recoverable but which do not exceed the specified minimum for recovery not to be recoverable,
  3. (c) for the rounding up or down of any fraction of a pound which would otherwise result from a calculation made in accordance with the order, and
  4. (d) for any deduction from contributions payments made in accordance with the order to be disregarded for such purposes as may be specified,
and may repeal sections 158 and 159 above and make any amendments of other enactments which are consequential on the repeal of those sections. (3) In this section — contributions payments" means payments which a person is required by or under any enactment to make in discharge of any liability of his as an employer in respect of primary or secondary Class 1 contributions; and specified" means specified in or determined in accordance with an order under subsection (1). (4) The Secretary of State may by regulations make such transitional and consequential provision, and such savings, as he considers necessary or expedient for or in connection with the coming into force of any order under subsection (1) above.". (2) In section 176(1) (c) of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992 (parliamentary control: orders subject to affirmative procedure), at the appropriate place insert "section 159A(1)". (3) The Secretary of State —
  1. (a) shall lay before each House of Parliament the draft of an order under section 159A(1) of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992 (inserted by subsection (1) above) framed so as to come into force on or before 6th April 1995, and
  2. (b) if the draft order is approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament, shall make the order in the form of the draft,
unless before 1st December 1994 he lays before each House of Parliament a report explaining why he does not intend to make such an order.")

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, in moving the amendment, I speak also to Amendments Nos. 4, 5 and 6. These amendments give effect to the proposal persuasively argued by my noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding, first in Committee and, in an amended form, at the Report stage of the Bill.

My noble friend made the case for a new form of compensation to help employers during periods when they were faced with an exceptionally high level of sickness in their workforce. Instead of the present system whereby small employers are fully reimbursed for the cost of statutory sick pay paid beyond a prescribed period, he would prefer compensation to be paid when statutory sick pay exceeded a specified percentage of national insurance contributions.

My noble friend accepted that I had reservations about the practicability of his idea, especially in the time available before the Bill took effect. He recast his proposal to allow time for consultation with industry before the new scheme took effect in April 1995. If, following consultation, the Government did not feel able to implement the new scheme, they would have to lay a report before Parliament explaining why not. He agreed to withdraw his amendment at Report to enable me to table the amendments we are considering today, which cover all the consequences of my noble friend's proposal.

Clause 3 allows the Secretary of State to provide by order for employers to recover statutory sick pay which exceeds a specified percentage of their national insurance contributions. This power is contained in a new Section 159A to be inserted in the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992. The new section also compels the Secretary of State to lay an order before Parliament to introduce the new scheme from 6th April 1995. The order would be subject to the approval of both Houses of Parliament by affirmative resolution.

As I explained at Report, we shall be consulting both sides of industry, employers' and employees' organisations, about the merits of the new scheme, including the administration costs. If, following that consultation, the Government did not wish to proceed with the new scheme, the Secretary of State would have to lay a report before Parliament explaining why he was not making an order under the new power.

The new section also allows the Secretary of State to repeal the existing small employers' relief scheme contained in Sections 158 and 159 of the Act prior to the introduction of my noble friend's scheme.

The other amendments are all consequential on the new Clause 3. I beg to move.

Lord Carter moved, as an amendment to Amendment No. 1, Amendment No. 2: Line 54, after ("report") insert ("for debate by both Houses of Parliament").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the amendment refers to the last two lines of government Amendment No. 1. The government amendment provides that the Secretary of State shall lay before each House of Parliament, a report explaining why he does not intend to make such an order". There are two aspects to the issue. We touched on the matter at Report stage. If the Government do not intend to adopt the scheme in Amendment No. 1, the report will obviously be important. We are anxious to ensure that that report does not just lie on the table. We believe that the Government will welcome debate and that the amendment stiffens that resolution. We cannot imagine that the Government do not wish to have such debate in both Houses. On 1st February, the noble Viscount stated at col. 1193 of the Official Report, We believe that a report should be laid before Parliament without requiring formal approval". We entirely understand that, because the Government will be laying an order. If the report does not require formal approval, we should still like to ensure that it will be debated, because it will be important that both Houses have the chance to examine the Government's reasons for rejecting the scheme. As the noble Viscount said on the same day at col. 1196 of the Official Report, It is important that a report is made available for Parliament, and that Parliament should be able to debate that report if it so wishes". To be fair, I have completed the quotation to save the noble Viscount from having to do so.

For the avoidance of doubt, it is important that the Government's intentions in that respect should be in the Bill. When that important report is brought before Parliament, it should be debated. I beg to move.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

My Lords, I do not wish to repeat what I said at the end of the debate at Report stage. However, those of us who throughout the passage of the Bill supported the amendment to the scheme are immensely grateful to my noble friend, not only for the trouble that he has taken to examine the case both in the Chamber and in his department, but also for his willingness to accept that the proposed scheme is better than the Government's scheme and therefore to table the amendment. I shall not continue because otherwise my noble friend may become swelled-headed, and that would be a great pity. He has done extremely well and we are grateful to him.

Perhaps I may draw your Lordships' attention to what I regard as the most important single word in the Government's amendment. In subsection (3) (a), the new clause provides that the Secretary of State, shall lay before each House of Parliament". The beginning of the amendment gives the Secretary of State a power to substitute the revised scheme for the existing scheme. Subsection (3) places upon him an obligation to table the necessary statutory instrument, unless before 1st December 1994 he lays before each House of Parliament a report", and so on.

I draw that to the attention of your Lordships because it is rather important. My noble friend has accepted an extremely important point; namely, that there is now an obligation on the Government either to make an order fixing the appropriate percentage of national insurance contributions and all the other ancillary and supplementary measures which would be necessary or to table the report. The Government will not be able to say, "We have a power to do that but we have decided not to". Therefore, we have built into the amendment, and the Bill, an extremely important parliamentary process.

I turn now to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Carter. When I tabled the amendment on Report I provided for a debate on the report if it recommended that the Government should not proceed with the alternative substituted scheme. In his reply my noble friend indicated that he did not believe that the Government should be obliged to organise a debate on the report. I accept that. It would perhaps be taking the matter too far.

I do not believe that the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Carter, adds anything to the existing procedures of both Houses of Parliament. If the report is tabled, it is open to any Member of either House to use the procedures of the House in order to have a debate.

Last week we had a very good example of how that procedure works when my noble friend Lady Faithfull tabled a Motion to amend a statutory instrument. The same procedure could have been used in respect of a report. My noble friend's Motion was tabled, debated and voted upon. I accept that it may be necessary in another place for a Member who has been successful in the ballot to table such a Motion, but any Member is entitled to raise the matter at the Adjournment of the House. That would not be subject to a vote but the matter would be debated.

I have appreciated greatly the support of the both the noble Lord, Lord Carter, and the noble Earl, Lord Russell, for the main substantive change that we are making. However" were Amendment No. 2 to be pressed to a Division, I am not sure that I could support it. I do not believe that it adds anything to existing procedures. I express my warm appreciation for the way in which my noble friend has handled this matter. I believe that we have made it a better Bill.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I can express the position of these Benches with Orwellian brevity: one amendment good, two amendments better. We are deeply grateful both to the noble Viscount and to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, for the care that they have taken in achieving the amendment. I hope that it will go a long way towards protecting businesses which have an exceptional level of sickness. But if the noble Viscount were able to go the extra mile and accept the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Carter, we should be even more pleased.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I do not believe that the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Carter, is required. Even with the Bill as it stands, we should have a right to debate the matter. It is superfluous to add that provision. Therefore, I hope that your Lordships will not accept the amendment.

Amendment No. 1 seems to reflect great credit upon your Lordships' House; that it has been possible to debate the Bill and to secure quite considerable changes in it as a result of reasoned argument. It is a very good example of the way in which this House works as a revising Chamber. It also reflects great credit both on my noble friend who moved the original amendments in Committee and on Report and on the Minister for his flexibility and good sense in proceeding as he has.

3.15 p.m.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I do not believe that the amendment is necessary for two main reasons. Of course either House or both Houses may, if they wish, debate the report, but we should not impose a requirement to do so. Parliament can decide for itself.

The noble Lord, Lord Carter, quoted what I said at an earlier stage in the hope that that would help his argument. However, he was kind enough to complete the sentence in my quotation, which I thought entirely ruined his argument. Therefore, I am grateful to him.

Perhaps I may explain in a little more detail. The report, if there is one—and we must remember that there will be one only if the Government do not go ahead with the new scheme—would be preceded by extensive consultation with industry. If industry and government were satisfied that the scheme was worth while and workable, there would be no report. The Government would introduce the new scheme from April 1995. So, the laying of the report would be evidence that the scheme had been found wanting by industry or government, or both. It may be that all parties, because of some as yet unseen flaw in the new scheme, agreed that it would not work. In that event, Parliament may have little interest in debating a scheme which is agreed by all to be impracticable.

An alternative possibility is that consultation may reveal mixed views about the new scheme. Some sectors of industry might favour it because they stood to gain; others might oppose it because they stood to lose from the repeal of the existing small employers relief scheme. The Government might then conclude that it was unwise to proceed with such a controversial proposal. In these circumstances, it is likely that Parliament will be much more interested in the fate of the new scheme. But there are ample opportunities for Members of both Houses to ensure the question is fully debated. Questions can be tabled, Motions can be put and so on. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding would be the first of your Lordships to do that.

For those reasons, I ask the noble Lord, Lord Carter, to accept my noble friend's advice and withdraw the amendment. There is no need to require a debate. If Parliament wishes to have a debate when it sees the report, it can do so in either House.

Lord Carter

My Lords, the era of open government did not last very long. It is clear that there has been a significant change since Report stage. As the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, said, his amendment required the approval of Parliament, whereas my amendment requires only the opportunity to debate the report. As the noble Lord said, a Motion may be tabled without the necessity of a vote on it. I was merely seeking to ensure that there would be debate in both Houses on this important report, although it would not necessarily require a vote. It would provide an opportunity to air the arguments on both sides.

It is true that the usual channels could provide time for such a debate. It may be that that could be done more easily in this House than in the other place because, who knows, at the time of the report the Government may be in a period of non-co-operation with the Opposition as regards the parliamentary timetable. We have explored the issue. We could not imagine that the Government would not wish to have such a debate and we felt that that should be placed on the face of the Bill for the avoidance of doubt. However, the Government are prepared to leave the decision to both Houses of Parliament and in the light of that I am prepared to beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment No. 2, as an amendment to Amendment No. 1, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Carter moved, as an amendment to Amendment No. 1, Amendment No. 3: Line 54, at end insert ("and stating what in his view will be the likely effect of such intention on the employment of people with disabilities.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, Amendment No. 3 deals with the issue of disability, but I should make it absolutely clear that it is a different approach to the discussion which we had at a previous stage of the Bill; in fact, it is a different subject. Our previous discussion concerned the effects of the Bill on the employment of disabled people. Opinions clearly differed about the likely effects of the Bill on the employment of disabled people and I do not wish to cover that ground again. Indeed, the House rejected an amendment on Report to ask the Secretary of State to publish and lay before Parliament a report on the effects of the legislation on people with disabilities. Therefore, this is not an attempt to return by the back-door to that subject.

This is a completely different approach. We know that as a result of the government amendment there will be a great deal of consultation with employers' and employees' organisations to see whether the scheme will work. It would be extremely helpful to the disability organisations if the Minister could give an assurance that in those consultations he will talk to the disability organisations which have a particular view about the employment of disabled people and the effect of the statutory sick pay scheme on them.

If the proposed new scheme is rejected by the Government, the amendment asks for confirmation in the report to Parliament of what would be the effect of that rejection on the employment of disabled people. For example, it may be argued that the original scheme would provide better employment opportunities for disabled people than the new revised scheme. Therefore, this is merely an attempt to ensure that the Government consult the disability organisations. If they decide to reject the new scheme, they should set out their reasons for doing so in the report. Also, they should say something about the effect of that rejection on the employment opportunities for disabled people.

We are not trying to prove a point about the employment of disabled people. Opinions differ. We merely wish to ensure that the interests of disabled people in employment are taken into account in consultations on the new scheme. If the Minister feels that it would be easier to do that by redrafting the amendment which stands in my name, there is a chance to do that in the other place if the wording is not quite right now.

I emphasise that the amendment is not about the possible effects of the Bill on the employment of disabled people. It is about ensuring that proper attention is paid to that very important matter in the consultations that will take place, and if the Government decide to reject the alternative scheme, a chance to include in the report which sets out the reason for rejection their judgment on the effect of that rejection on the employment of disabled people. It may be that the Government's judgment is that the employment of disabled people is not affected by their rejection of the scheme and that their employment chances are better under the government scheme which is set out in the Bill until April 1995. We merely wish to ensure that the interests of disabled people in employment are fully taken into account in the consultations which will take place. Moreover, if the Minister is able to give an assurance that the consultation process will include discussions with the organisations which are concerned about this matter, that would be a good step forward. I beg to move.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I shall not repeat the arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Carter. I say only that we on these Benches are very happy to support his amendment.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the proposed new compensation scheme in Amendment No. 1 would help employers when an exceptionally high proportion of the workforce was off sick in the same period. I have to tell the noble Lord, Lord Carter, that such an event has nothing to do with the number of disabled people in an employer's labour force. Your Lordships rejected, as the noble Lord said, his amendment at an earlier stage. The noble Lord has been ingenious in trying to resurrect his earlier amendment. But the report that he now tries to latch onto is on another subject entirely; namely, the small business reliefs. The connection is at best tenuous.

However, I would be happy to give the noble Lord the assurances for which in effect he asks by this amendment; namely, that when we consult employers and employees about the new scheme, we shall also be prepared to consult groups that are concerned with people with disabilities. I am happy to give the noble Lord the assurance that we will indeed consult those groups; and indeed, we will talk to anybody who wishes to make such representations known to us. With that assurance, which I suspect was perhaps the original intention behind the noble Lord's amendment, I hope that he will feel able to withdraw his amendment to my amendment.

Lord Carter

My Lords, I am not sure that the Minister understood what I said. He said that this is all about small employer relief. For example, an employer such as Remploy, with a high proportion of disabled people in its workforce, should have a look at the new scheme to see whether it would be better off. It is not merely the employment of disabled people. Certain employers employ a high proportion of disabled people. It could be that in the examination of the scheme such employers would have a point to make.

I was not trying to come back, as it were, on a sidewind on the previous debate. The amendment which the House rejected —and the Minister should get this matter right—involved a requirement to lay a report before Parliament about the employment of disabled people. Amendment No. 3 has nothing to do with that. It concerns a situation in which the Government may decide to reject the new scheme. If they rejected it, it would require them in their report to point out the effect of that on the employment of disabled people, and particularly in the case of employers who have a high proportion of disabled people.

I am disappointed that the Minister has not understood the main purpose of the amendment. But I am certainly pleased about and grateful for his assurance that the disability organisations will be consulted in the process of preparing the Government's reaction to the new scheme. In the light of that assurance, I am prepared to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment No. 3, as an amendment to Amendment No. 1, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment No I agreed to.

Clause 3 [Corresponding provision for Northern Ireland]:

Viscount Astor moved Amendment No. 4: Page 2, line 12, leave out ("and 2") and insert ("to (Power to make further provision as to recovery)").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 4 [Citation, commencement, financial provision and extent]:

Viscount Astor moved Amendment No. 5: Page 2, line 18, leave out subsection (2) and insert: ("(2) Section I comes into force on 6th April 1994; and the other provisions of this Act come into force on Royal Assent.").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

In the Title:

Viscount Astor moved Amendment No. 6: Line 3, after ("pay;") insert ("to enable the Secretary of State to make further provision by order as to the recovery of such sums;").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

3.25 p.m.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill do now pass.

The Bill has provoked interesting debates. I thank the many noble Lords who have contributed to our debates, in particular my noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding. He has applied his wisdom and experience to great effect. I am particularly grateful to him for showing that he can temper his ingenuity with an understanding of concerns as to the timing and practicability of his suggestion. But what else would one expect from a former Secretary of State of my department?

Noble Lords


Viscount Astor

My Lords, I would also like to thank my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter for several pertinent and very helpful contributions during the Bill's consideration. My noble friend Lord Dean of Harptree deserves our thanks for expressing the views of small employers, as does my noble friend Lord Reay for making us aware of the views of the CBI and of industry generally. I am also grateful for the support from my noble friends Lord Lucas, Lord King of Wartnaby, Lady Elles and Lady Seccombe.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, has entertained us with his often witty and interesting interjections. I may not always agree with his viewpoint but he seldom fails to amuse. On the Benches opposite, I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Hollis and Lady Turner, and the noble Lord, Lord Carter, for their contributions and I appreciate the very genuine anxieties that they expressed. I hope that I was able to alleviate some of them.

We should also be grateful to the organisations that provided briefing on the Bill, and particularly to Stan Mendham and Nick Goulding of the Forum for Private Business, who prompted my noble friend Lord Jenkin to make the successful effort to help us to focus on the scope for a different method of helping small employers. I also thank the Federation of Small Business, the CBI and the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux; and, of course, my officials, who have worked extremely hard to provide a satisfactory amendment, to which noble Lords have agreed. I also thank my noble friend on the Front Bench, Lord Goschen, for his help and his nimble footwork at times when it was necessary.

Although I accept that some concerns remain among noble Lords opposite about employment of those with bad sickness records or those people with disabilities, I believe that this Bill and its associated measures have gained a wide measure of acceptance.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Viscount Astor.)

Lord Reay

My Lords, the CBI has not sought to oppose the Bill. There is a fairly wide appreciation of the merits of the Government's central argument that absence from work through sickness is exceptionally, and indeed excessively, high in this country; that the Government have a duty to try to do something about that; and that employers have an important part to play in reducing absence rates, in particular through their ability to influence the motivation of those whom they employ. At the same time the CBI acknowledges that the Government have sought to increase the responsibility on industry in a way that imposes no extra costs in aggregate on industry by introducing compensating reductions in national insurance contributions.

The CBI had three principal concerns. The first was that the protecting mechanism for small firms should be fairer than that originally proposed in the Bill. That matter is now being taken care of thanks to the skilful and vigorous campaign waged by my noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding and the admirable judgment, flexibility and initiative displayed by my noble friend the Minister in acceding to the request contained in the amendment to write an alternative system into the Bill.

Secondly, the CBI was concerned, and still is concerned, that the reductions in national insurance contributions should prove lasting and not ephemeral. While reminding itself of the low level of employers' national insurance contributions today compared with what they were in 1979 and of the Government's often proclaimed stance of not adding unnecessarily to industry's costs, industry has no choice but to rely on the Government being true to their original purposes and seeing the importance of keeping the implicit bargain that they have made with industry.

But the principal concern of the CBI is the precedent that this Bill may be taken to set for other social costs, in particular statutory maternity pay (but not only that) which the Government may similarly seek to transfer to industry without the justification that exists in this case. Indeed, the Government have steadfastly refused to give the assurance requested by the CBI that the Government will continue to meet in full the present and future costs of statutory maternity pay when they rise, as they are expected to do later this year, to satisfy the requirements of the EC pregnant workers directive.

Such costs are purely social costs. They should be borne in their entirety by the Government. There is no useful deterrent role for management to play. Indeed, the only practice that is likely to be deterred by transferring to employers part of the cost of statutory maternity pay is the hiring of female staff, a result which many noble Lords I am sure would regard as undesirable.

Therefore, I hope that the Government will resolve not to use the Bill as a precedent for legislation or for regulations which they could argue are similar but which in reality would be entirely different and, I submit, objectionable. In passing the Bill, I trust that this House is not assenting to any proposition that concedes the right or desirability of government transferring social costs generally on to industry.

3.30 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, the Bill offloads the costs of sick pay on to medium and larger companies. In return, those companies pay a lower national insurance percentage. But their employees, as we saw yesterday, pay a higher one. It is clear that medium and large companies find that trade-off acceptable. But from the beginning the Opposition Benches have had worries on three scores. The first concerns the effect on smaller businesses and is led by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding. Secondly there is the effect on chronically sick and disabled people. Thirdly, there is the effect on women. In other words, we are confident that employers have had their concerns met. We remain unconvinced that many employees have been equally favourably treated.

We are truly pleased that with regard to small companies the Government were able to accept the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin. Not only will small companies now have 80 per cent. of their sick pay reimbursed after four weeks, they will also know that where sickness comes and goes within the four week period they will be entitled to claim reimbursement if their costs are abnormally high. We on this side of the House should like to give credit to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, for the agility of his drafting and to the Government for their good sense in accepting such an amendment. It gives us additional pleasure because it also ensures that the other place will have the opportunity to debate the Bill on the back of the amendment, something which it was constrained from doing adequately when the Bill was unfortunately guillotined in that House. So the Bill has done well by employers. We wish that it had done as well by employees, in particular the sick, the disabled and women.

It is clear to us on the Opposition Benches that the Bill may become a charter to sack the sick. At every stage—Committee and Report stages and again today to some extent —we have sought to move amendments to mitigate that effect. Employers are not charities. Over and above the disruption that a chronically sick employee in and out of work may bring to that company, there is now a financial penalty. The employer will have to pay 100 per cent. of the sick pay if it is not a small company. As for those who have already left work because they are chronically sick or disabled, why would any employer, even their own, re-employ them if they bring with them a negative dowry requiring 100 per cent. sick pay to be paid by their employer.

The Minister may say that there is no evidence that that has or will happen. He does not know. Disability groups and the CAB already believe that it is beginning to happen and will certainly occur more in the future. I suspect that they may be right. But they, too, do not know. To our dismay the Government do not intend to find out, preferring instead to rely on assertion, which we on this side can only counter with allegation and anecdote because the Government have refused to permit the disabled the dignity of monitoring their position in the labour market.

On behalf of these Benches I should like to make a mild protest. I understand perfectly well that it is unreasonable to expect the Government to concede any amendments that engage or depart from any significant point of policy. I accept that it is unreasonable to expect the Government to support any amendment that has significant financial implications or any amendments that are clearly party political. The Minister cannot concede such amendments and I rather doubt that we could either, were we in his position. We understand that. We must move the amendments and he must resist them. For the most part I would expect the House to support the Minister.

This House does not have the same constraints of whipping as the other place and there is real expertise, compassion and information (in my view much more so than in the other place) on the position of the sick and disabled. Therefore I regret it when amendments which ask for monitoring or reports to Parliament by the Secretary of State on behalf of the sick and disabled or of women cannot be taken on board —the more so when they are of minimum or negligible cost and have no party significance but are of real gain to groups such as the sick and disabled.

Are the Government, who reversed the poll tax in one Parliament, who are having substantially to amend their Railways Bill, who are having to scrap much of their police Bill and who may have to scrap much of their education Bill, so confident that the legislation that they pass will in future not only not need to be amended but not even monitored? That was the thrust of the amendments on the position of the disabled moved by my noble friend Lord Carter and myself and the amendments on behalf of women moved so eloquently by my noble friend Lady Turner.

The Minister, who is always most helpful and pleasant in voice, was not able to accept those amendments at any stage. Therefore, there is no way of knowing the effect that this legislation will have on some of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people in our society. How then can we legislate more adequately in the future if we receive no feedback from legislation of the past?

The plight of the disabled was left to your Lordships' goodwill and, on this amendment at least, I feel that it went walkabout. We are all reminded of the story of the Whig, Lord Melbourne, who, in 1833, regretted the passing of the rotten boroughs (with the 1832 Reform Act) on which Tory Governments in the past had relied to get through their legislation. One MP said to Lord Melbourne, "You can always count on my support when you are right." "Be damned to that," said Lord Melbourne, "when I am in the right, the question looks after itself. I want your support when I am in the wrong." I believe that your Lordships gave that support to the Government.

I am saddened but nonetheless, like others, I should like to pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, for his amendment and to the Government for accepting it. I also appreciate the good humour and courtesy of the Minister, from whom, quite unreasonably, we expect nothing less by now. We thank him again for the reassurance that he has just given to my noble friend Lord Carter that there will be full consultation with disability groups on the new scheme.

We thank the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and other noble Lords who took part in the debate. Above all, we thank my noble friends Lady Turner and Lord Carter who eloquently moved the amendments which we believe won the argument but, alas, not the vote.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I am afraid I am too late to congratulate the noble Viscount on piloting through his first Bill for the department where he now serves. The noble Viscount broke his duck yesterday when unfortunately, because of professional duties, I was not able to be here. However, I congratulate him warmly on the way he has handled this Bill, not only in the Chamber but also at meetings in his office where the door was always open. What is more, the noble Viscount's ear was always open: for that I am extremely grateful.

This House has operated on the Bill in exactly the text book manner one would expect. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, for his contribution. The noble Lord is singular; and on this matter the Government side is singular. But our side is plural, and for once we have the majority. I thank also the noble Baronesses, Lady Hollis of Heigham and Lady Turner, the noble Lord, Lord Carter, and many other noble Lords, notably the noble Lord, Lord Reay, who spoke with great weight on behalf of the CBI.

The House has done itself credit. Last night I was reading, in preparation for tomorrow, the debate on the Motion that the Bill do now pass in respect of the Child Support Bill 1991. At that time I said, Never can so bad a Bill have been managed so weir.— [Official Report, 16/5/91; col. 1848.] I repeat that remark now, for this Bill is fundamentally misconceived. The notion behind the Bill of reducing sickness absence is not thought through. Perhaps I may be forgiven for giving an example. I have not given it previously because it had not happened. It happened last Saturday. A supermarket cashier rang in that morning to report sick. She was violently sick when she woke up. Her employer told her not merely to come in, but to stay an extra hour. At least one of those who was talking to her is now ill herself.

Minimising sickness absence is not always sensible. I share the fears expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham, in regard to the effect of the Bill on the employment prospects of those with bad sickness records. I share the fears about sacking the sick. As the Minister is well aware, I fear how regularly employers will pay statutory sick pay. But that is one of the subjects on which I said the Minister's ears are open. I am extremely grateful for that.I shall continue to monitor the subject, as I am sure he will.

I agree profoundly with what the noble Lord, Lord Reay, said, not only about statutory maternity pay, but also about the danger of using the Bill for similar transfers of social responsibilities from employers to industry. I was reading yesterday in the CBI News the reply of the CBI to Mr. Gordon Brown's taxation proposals, with parts of which I agree. I agree profoundly that if we are to compete in the world we should not be thinking in terms of increasing business costs. If we are to achieve that objective, we should learn to distinguish accurately between social costs and industrial costs. The costs we have here are social.

I agree profoundly too with the argument that the noble Lord, Lord Reay, put forward at an earlier stage of the Bill. While it is possible—even if, in my opinion, undesirable—for employers to police sickness absence in the way the Bill envisages, when one thinks of employers policing the incidence of maternity among their workforce, the mind boggles at the measures of enforcement which would be necessary. I hope that the noble Viscount will assure us that that is no part of the policy of back to basics.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I believe I heard the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, say that small employers will have their 80 per cent. reimbursement of SSP after four weeks, as well as compensation for exceptionally high levels of sickness. I should clarify that the new compensation scheme is an alternative to the existing scheme for small employers' relief. I am not sure whether I heard the noble Baroness correctly but I feel it right to make that point.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, said that your Lordships rejected her amendment. The noble Baroness pushed her amendments to a vote. My noble friend was perhaps ingenious and cunning—if I can put it that way—in the way that he altered his amendments to deal with the anxieties of the Government. That is probably how amendments can find their way onto the statute book.

At the beginning of the Bill's progress through the House I said that this country needs to do better in reducing unnecessary absenteeism at work. We are consistently the worst offenders in the European Community. Sickness absence costs industry between £9 billion and £13 billion a year. By abolishing the 80 per cent. statutory sick pay reimbursement the Government give industry a clear incentive to tackle the problem. At the same time industry will not lose out because of the planned reduction in employers' national insurance contributions in April. I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill passed, and returned to the Commons with amendments.