Work and Families Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:15 pm on 25th April 2006.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord McKenzie of Luton Lord McKenzie of Luton Government Whip, Government Whip 6:15 pm, 25th April 2006

My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, for tabling each of these amendments. We have a bit of a rerun of the discussion that we had in Committee. I start, therefore, by saying that it is not our current intention to propose any changes to the existing two-week entitlement. Although we always reflect on debates—the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton, pressed this—we believe that the law as it stands is working well and serves the interests of employer and employee.

These amendments, taken together, seek to make substantial changes to the fabric of the existing right to paternity leave. The first seeks to extend the period of existing paternity leave available to the father immediately after the birth from two weeks to four— there is, obviously, a cost associated with that—and to increase the period during which it may be taken from eight weeks to between six months and a year. The second would significantly reduce the amount of notice an employer would receive of a new father's plans to take paternity leave. Similar amendments were discussed in Grand Committee.

First, I take the issue of two weeks of paternity leave. Such leave is, of course, still a relatively new right. We have been extremely pleased by the fact that many thousands of employees have made use of it. The recently published Maternity and Paternity Rights Survey of 2005 provides much encouraging data on the uptake of the entitlement. For example, according to that survey, around 93 per cent of fathers surveyed said they had taken some leave around the time of the birth—and, of those, four-fifths said they had taken at least some of that time at full pay—while around 80 per cent of fathers surveyed had used at least some of their statutory leave entitlement.

The existing entitlement was structured following careful consultation with stakeholders, including business. The outcome of that was the creation of a two-week entitlement, which the Government judged struck an appropriate balance between allowing a father, on the one hand, to spend time with his new baby and the baby's mother and, on the other, the needs of his employer. We have seen no persuasive evidence since then to suggest that we should change that.

Two weeks off work soon after the birth gives a father the opportunity to give mother and child the support and care they need at that critical time, and to begin to play his important role in the child's upbringing from the earliest opportunity. Research tells us that fathers often take more time off work than their statutory two weeks, making use of other entitlements—as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, acknowledged—such as annual leave. The 13 weeks' unpaid parental leave also provides them with some flexibility to take extra weeks once the child is over eight weeks old. That can be taken until the child is five years old.

Amendment No. 11 would not provide for flexibility in how the leave is taken in separate days but the employee has flexibility to choose when, within the relevant period, he will take his leave and whether to take one week or two. Noble Lords will agree on the importance of getting the right balance between the interests and needs of employers and employees. The maximum statutory entitlement reflects that sensible balance and the needs and views of those who contributed to the consultation prior to the introduction of the new law.

I turn to the question of the time during which paternity leave may be taken. To argue that the two weeks' ordinary paternity leave should be taken at a time of the father's choosing, up to a year following the birth, is to ignore the purpose of ordinary paternity leave. That point was touched upon in Committee; I will not reiterate it but, as the noble Baroness acknowledged, we are introducing additional paternity leave for those fathers who wish to take leave later on in the first year of the child's life.

Allowing up to eight weeks in which to take the two weeks' leave in our view allows a sensible degree of flexibility for the employee to choose when best to take it. The majority of employers recognise their responsibilities at that time and play their full part in supporting the father during this process. But to require them to allow fathers to take their paternity leave over what, under this amendment, could be anywhere from birth to between six months and a year after the date of birth of the child would be to place far too great a burden on the employer. The eight weeks currently allowed for in the legislation are a proportionate and fair entitlement. Extending the time over which paternity leave can be taken would reduce certainty for employers at a time when we are bringing in other measures to increase certainty for employers, such as extending the period of notice women must give if changing their return from maternity leave.

The second amendment touches on the notice that must be given. As was noted, currently an employee must give notice of his plans for paternity leave by the 15th week before the week in which the baby is due. This amendment would reduce that to two weeks' notice for each week of paternity leave. So an employer would receive only two weeks' notice if the father were planning to take one week's paternity leave.

I stress that we consulted widely on our plans for paternity leave ahead of its introduction. The point at which a father must give notice of his paternity leave reflects the point at which a mother must give notice of her maternity leave. We recognise that there is a difference in the length of time off which the mother and the father will be taking. However, what is common to both is that the leave must be planned for and managed by their respective employers. In developing the paternity leave system, and indeed the adoption leave system, we heard it would be simplest to ensure the new schemes were as close as possible to the maternity leave scheme. Keeping the notice periods in step means that employers and parents need remember only one set of notice requirements and that employers are clear about when they can expect notice from an employee.

As with other types of leave, the notice period for paternity leave is a measure which protects employers, ensuring they have time to plan. Employers are, of course, free to accept a shorter period of notice if they wish and indeed must accept shorter notice if it was not reasonably practicable for the employee to give the notice set out in the regulations. There is some flexibility for the employee, who can change his plans provided he gives 28 days' notice. As regards the alignment of the 15th week for maternity and paternity leave, I accept that it may not be a case of the parents of the same child, but employers will have both mothers and fathers who wish to avail of these provisions and therefore will have systems to deal with both.

We are consulting on the notice which a father will have to give of his plans to take additional paternity leave. The consultation document suggests that he should give eight weeks' notice. This was suggested as it reflects the notice the mother will give of her intention to return to work. So the notice points for additional paternity leave would be aligned with the relevant maternity leave rules, just as the notice points for ordinary paternity leave are aligned with the notice point for maternity leave. Of course, it is likely that an employee who takes additional paternity leave will probably have already taken ordinary paternity leave, so the employee's notice of additional paternity leave will not be the first the employer will know of the employee's new baby. For example, there could have been discussions between the employer and employee about the possibility of the father taking additional paternity leave when the employee first gave notice of OPL. Indeed, such a dialogue would be desirable and to be encouraged.

The noble Baroness drew a comparison between the notice for paternity leave and the notice for annual leave. There are two points I would like to make about that. First, an employer can prescribe when an employee may take annual leave. So if the employee's plans are not convenient, the employer can refuse to allow leave at the requested time. There is quite rightly no scope for an employer to refuse to allow paternity leave at the time of the employee's choosing. Secondly, a request for annual leave will generally be specific about the timing of the leave. It is harder to be so specific about the timing of a baby's arrival, so where the father is planning to take his leave immediately following the birth, the employer is presented with what is really a guesstimate of the timing of the leave.

The noble Baroness also mentioned concerns that some fathers are losing out on paternity leave because they were not aware of the notice requirements. Evidence suggests that most fathers are aware of their right to paternity leave. The maternity and paternity rights and benefits survey found that 85 per cent of fathers were aware of their entitlement to paternity leave before their baby was born. The Equal Opportunities Commission survey Dads and their babies: leave arrangements in the first year, which was published in 2005 and part-funded by the DTI, also found that most fathers were aware of their rights before their child was born.

As part of the work and families package, the Government are reviewing the guidance available to parents and their employers. The new employee pages on the Directgov website contain straightforward information for employees about their employment rights. Those are linked with pages on having a baby, so expectant parents will find all the information they need about paternity leave and pay alongside other articles that they will be looking at when making plans about the arrival of their baby.

We would always hope that employers would be flexible and would support employees in managing their family responsibilities alongside their work. However, as I have set out, the notice period, the length of leave available and the period over which it can be taken reflect a balance between the interests of the employer and the employee. The amendments would shift that balance and place an unreasonable burden on employers. In conclusion, we will reflect on the comments made in the debate, review Hansard, and doubtless we will return to the issue at Third Reading.