HL Deb 09 December 1999 vol 607 cc1447-50

7.4 p.m.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 22nd November be approved [1st Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, we are here to debate the maternity and parental leave regulations which will fulfil our manifesto commitment to help working parents balance their work and family responsibilities.

Last year, the Fairness at Work White Paper set out our industrial relations agenda of minimum standards underpinned in law, based on partnership. This agenda encourages employers and employees to work together towards a better climate of employment relations. The White Paper set out our agenda for a family friendly future—a package of decent standards and rights at work to help people balance their work and family commitments; to lay down a simple bottom line in law, but to promote a partnership approach for better standards.

The White Paper set out our proposals to introduce parental leave and to simplify and improve maternity rights. We set our sights on a coherent package of rights embodied in a single set of regulations. In the White Paper, we gave a commitment to consult further where necessary. In August this year, we published a consultation document on our draft maternity and parental leave plans, followed up by draft regulations in September. We received more than 300 responses. Not surprisingly, the consultation on our draft regulations revealed different priorities between employers and employees. Employers want the flexibility to plan parental leave around the operation of the business; employees want the flexibility necessary to fit in with the demands of their caring responsibilities.

What was clear was that we faced a challenge in implementing parental leave in a way that would satisfy the concerns of business and the needs of parents. We believe our parental leave scheme meets this challenge and achieves a fair and sensible balance between the needs of the business and of the workforce. We are also implementing the regulations with a light touch, as we said we would. We are guaranteeing minimum standards, but we are enabling employers and employees to make their own arrangements as far as possible through collective, workforce or individual agreements on how to introduce parental leave best suited to the requirements of all concerned.

The regulations guarantee minimum standards which every parental leave scheme will need to meet. Both parents, mothers and fathers, will be able to take 13 weeks' parental leave to spend with their child until the child's fifth birthday. Adoptive parents will be able to take leave to spend time with their adopted child over a five-year period from the date of placement for adoption. In addition, we are providing increased flexibility for parents of disabled children to help them cope with the extra demands they face. Parents of children who receive disability living allowance will be able to take parental leave up until their child's 18th birthday.

Individual workplaces can come to their own arrangements about practical matters such as how much notice the employer should give, the circumstances when postponement may be acceptable and whether leave can be taken in single days or longer periods, or a mixture of these. This approach has been welcomed by both sides of industry.

Where agreements are not reached, then the fallback scheme will automatically apply, setting out a simple formula so employees will know how to exercise their rights. Under the fallback scheme, most parents will be able to take leave in blocks or multiples of one week, up to four weeks a year. Parents will need to give their employer three weeks' notice when they want to take the leave, and employers can postpone leave for no more than six months if the employee's absence would unduly disrupt the business. We have recognised, however, that there are times when postponement may be unacceptable. Fathers can take leave immediately after the birth of their child, and adoptive parents on the placement of a child in their family home, with the assurance that their employer will not be able to postpone this leave.

In addition, under the fallback scheme, parents of disabled children can take leave in blocks of less than one week, which will mean that they can take the occasional day off work to accompany their child to medical appointments. The link to disability living allowance provides clear evidence of a child's disability and covers children who have learning disabilities or physical impairments.

In implementing parental leave, we are putting in place minimum standards, but we want employers to go beyond those standards where they can. Let me be clear. Minimum standards are essential, but they are only the start. We are laying down a baseline on which I hope employers will build.

These regulations are ground-breaking. They mean that parents will not have to face the dilemma of being a good parent or holding down a job. Parents can take leave, safe in the knowledge that they are protected from dismissal or less favourable treatment for taking the leave, and that they will be able to return to their same job. In some cases, where the leave lasts for more than four weeks and it is not practicable for an employer to hold open the employee's job, the employee will be able to return to a similar job, with terms and conditions at least equivalent to the previous one.

In our Fairness at Work White Paper, we gave a commitment to improve and simplify maternity rights. The Maternity and Parental Leave etc. Regulations will increase the length of ordinary maternity leave from 14 to 18 weeks, in line with statutory maternity pay. They will reduce the qualifying period for additional maternity leave from two years to one year, which will mean that more women will be able to spend up to 40 weeks at home with their new baby.

At the same time, we have tackled the complexity of existing maternity rights, bringing clarification to such issues as the employment contract, and simplifying the notice requirements. That has been almost universally welcomed and I am pleased to report that our efforts have been greeted with enthusiasm. Perhaps I may briefly quote from the Incomes Data Services journal, the IDS brief, which said that the first thing to be noted about the new rules is that, they will put in place a maternity rights scheme that is substantially clearer and easier to operate in practice than the one that currently exists". The regulations set down a landmark for working parents across the country. They will help parents balance the conflict between their work and family commitments, and give them the security they need at work. I hope that noble Lords will support the Government today in turning these regulations into a meaningful reality for millions of working parents in this country. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 22nd November be approved [1st Report from the Joint Committee]. —(Lord Sainsbury of Turville.)

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, I thank the Minister for explaining the regulations. There is one matter upon which I should like to question him. When he says that the regulations mean that parents will not have to choose between being a good parent and holding down a job, does he mean that someone who does not choose to take parental leave is not a good parent?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

No, my Lords, we are not making judgments. The nature of all this legislation is to give people the choice. If they do not want to take the leave, it is not for us to comment. We want to make certain that people have the opportunity if they so desire. I think we can all unite in that approach.

We live in a changing society. The traditional image of the breadwinner husband and the home-making wife will become an outdated concept as we move into the 21st century. More women are entering the labour market, and more men want to play a role in caring for their children. Family friendly employment practices can help people care for their family without risk to their jobs.

Taken with the new rights in regard to time off for family emergencies, these rights will foster a culture change in the workplace. We shall be working with the business community over the coming months to promote good practice in balancing work and home commitments among employers; and we shall encourage business to go beyond the legal minimum in its own interests. The maternity and parental leave regulations represent a significant step forward towards a family friendly culture. I commend the regulations to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.