HL Deb 23 March 2004 vol 659 cc675-8

8.28 p.m.

Lord Davies of Oldham rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 9 February be approved [10th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: The Government introduced an important set of measures in April 2003 that gave parents more choice and more support than ever before to balance work and family life.

All mothers can now take 26 weeks ordinary maternity leave with most able to take an additional 26 weeks additional maternity leave, giving up to one year off in total. Statutory maternity pay and maternity allowance are now paid for 26 weeks and the standard rate was increased to £100 per week. These provisions give mothers far more choice in the vital first year of a child's life.

The Government also introduced a brand new right to two weeks' paid paternity leave. This acknowledged the crucial role played by fathers at birth both in supporting the mother and in caring for the child. For the first time the important role of adopters was recognised as they were given similar entitlements to birth parents. They can now take one year's adoption leave with 26 weeks' statutory adoption pay. As this was important new legislation we have been carefully monitoring its implementation. In doing so we have discovered a few minor oversights. The amendments we are debating today will smooth out the glitches and ensure that the new rights work as we said they would.

There are three amendments within the two statutory instruments before your Lordships today. The first removes the condition that an employee has to supply the name and date of birth of the child to be adopted if the employer requests it. There can be no doubt that the privacy of the child should be protected. Employers can still ask to see evidence of the expected placement if they suspect that the claim is false.

The second amendment deals with employees returning to work after taking adoption leave. It makes sure that they have the right to return to work on terms and conditions no less favourable than would have applied if they had not been absent. The Government clearly stated their intention to treat adoptive parents the same as mothers on maternity leave as far as possible—a principle that was widely accepted during the extensive consultation on the new laws for working parents. This amendment brings adopters in line with women returning from maternity leave.

The third amendment aligns the payment process for statutory paternity pay with that for statutory maternity pay and statutory adoption pay. It will make certain that employees whose second week of statutory paternity pay begins on or after the date of any increase to the statutory rate will receive the higher amount in the second week rather than the existing rate. The existing legislation was drafted to deal with paternity periods that were taken before 6 April 2003 by fathers whose babies arrived early. This change will simplify the process for both employers and employees.

These are minor technical amendments intended to fine-tune the existing regulations. There will be little impact on employers but it will make a difference to employees and their children as the right to privacy will be upheld and neither adopters nor fathers will be disadvantaged by taking their statutory entitlements to leave. I commend the regulations to the House.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 9 February be approved [10th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Davies of Oldham.)

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanation of these two very straightforward regulations. Both of them were described by the Minister and his colleagues in the Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation in the other place as "fine-tuning" of the original regulations which came into effect just under a year ago.

Perhaps I can remind your Lordships of what my honourable friend, the Member for Malden and Chelmsford East, then the Shadow Secretary of State for the DTI, said about the Employment Act 2002 during its passage through Parliament. He said: We welcome measures to help parents maintain their place in employment while at the same time spending time with their family, particularly during their children's early years". For that same reason, we support the regulations which clarify those regulatory measures.

The removal of the right of an employer to demand details of the name and date of birth of the adopted child must be right. That was a piece of over-regulation which impinged on the child's right to privacy, which is carefully guarded in the case of adopted children. The number of possible cases where some dishonest employee might try to pretend to adopt a child to get some benefit must be so negligible as to make that particular requirement a gigantic hammer to smash a tiny nut.

The other two amendments, one to refine the terms and conditions on which an employee will return to work, and the other, in the weekly pay rates regulation to adjust the method of calculating pay, both seem to be innocuous.

I have only one question for the Minister. His colleague told the Standing Committee in the other place that: The cost … to employers is negligible".—[Official Report, Commons, 8th Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation, 10/3/04; col. 6.] But he could not give any figures of the actual cost because the Government are waiting for the Inland Revenue to report via the annual PAYE returns, which are due in May.

I ask the Minister to ensure that, when the whole PAYE report is available, the figures for the cost of these regulations are extracted from it and made available in the form of a Written Statement on the record for the benefit of noble Lords and other interested parties, including employers' associations and particularly the Federation of Small Businesses and the Small Business Bureau.

As I said earlier, we see no objection to either of these two sets of regulations.

Baroness Barker

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for introducing the regulations. I agree with him and the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, that they constitute very welcome tidying up amendments. I am very glad that the Government have taken on board the points made by adoption agencies and others that the regulations as they were previously would not work.

I have a couple of questions for the Minister that I accept he may not be able to answer this evening. First, will the regulations, along with other changes that were made to improve the employment terms and conditions of adoptive parents, be evaluated in the long term? This is a worthwhile policy which had the support of these Benches when it was going through. However, it would be good to know whether there is to be a longitudinal study of the economic effects and benefits of keeping families, and particularly fathers, in touch with children but also in touch with the world of work.

Secondly, are the provisions of the Adoption and Children Act that relate to special guardianship similarly covered in terms of a right to employment leave? I too noted the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, that, unhappily, the Federation of Small Businesses has raised some objections to these regulations. I believe that the noble Earl's suggestion concerning a report would be welcome, not least to small businesses, to enable them to see the overall effect of the benefits of the measure. Those of us who are normally more concerned with adoption regulations than employment regulations know how important in psychological terms the presence of parents can be at an early point of a child's placement. I am sure that the presence of fathers at an early stage in a placement must have a beneficial effect on the long-term stability of that placement. It would be good to know whether there is research to that effect.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl and to the noble Baroness for their broad welcome for the regulations which, as we have indicated, are minor in their effect hut, none the less, important.

The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, asked me about the effect on employers. I can assure him that there will be minimal costs on employers because of the technical nature of the changes. They merely implement the policy that should have obtained over the past year but which, due to slight defects which we have now put right, did not. There are only 3,500 adoptions a year so adoption leave will be a rare occurrence even for the very largest of employers.

I emphasise to the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, that the costs involved are marginal. The noble Baroness struck a welcome note when she talked of the necessity of studying the impact of legislation, and particularly the necessity of studying what we all recognise is a very important social feature that we need to get a grip on; namely, the whole question of the costs of parenting and the advantage to the child of policies being pursued that encourage both parents to play a full role right from the birth of the child.

I do not think that anyone is in any doubt that one of the great social challenges that we face is enhancing family life and support for children and making sure that they are well looked after. The relatively minor costs in early years can reap great dividends if children behave in a social manner in their teens and later. Consequently, this is investment well spent, and why the Government address themselves to these issues with considerable enthusiasm. I can therefore say to the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, that we do have a longitudinal study in progress on the question of the extent to which fathers are in touch with their children. We certainly intend to make sure that we have the evidence which both identifies whether we are pursuing the right policies, and which will give us a guide to any changes that need to be effected. That is most welcome.

I cannot reply to her on the issue of guardianship. We have no information on that, and the orders do not directly apply to that. But I will be happy to write to her if I have additional information.

On the basis of those responses, I commend the regulations to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.