Nick de Bois is the MP Enfield North.
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An article in today’s Sunday Times (page 3) claims that there is a cabinet split over the crucial issue of maternity and paternity rights. The focus of the article is a supposed split between those who think the proposals should be rolled back as they will harm business and growth, and those that think they are necessary to attract more female voters to the Party. I would argue that this artificial division misses the point entirely.
The government’s proposals to allow parents to share maternity leave, by either taking it at the same time, sharing the allocated time or taking it on a part-time basis, may possibly be popular. However, the report on employment law by the venture capitalist Adrian Beecroft, commissioned by the Prime Minister, is expected to call for a scaling back of maternity leave, flexible working and many workers’ rights in an attempt to encourage business to employ more people.
I have no doubt that there is general agreement in Government that making it easier for businesses to hire and fire staff should be a priority as part of the Growth strategy, and yet it is a perceived threat to "family friendly" policies causing political anguish. The all-important floating female voters have been targeted by CCHQ, and it appears focus groups are threatening to replace business leaders as our source of information on employment law.
I say this because what businesses have been screaming for the past decade is that employment law has already gone too far, and this is by no means a view exclusive to men. Over half of jobs in the private sector are in small and medium-sized enterprises, and this is a market increasingly dominated by ambitious and motivated young women.
The Avon Inspiring Tomorrow’s Women Report, produced by the LSE, demonstrates that around three quarters of 16-24 year-olds find the idea of being their own boss appealing and 85% think it’s important to have a job in which you can achieve something significant. Therefore arguing for some kind of distinction between what is in the interests of small business and what will appeal to the next generation of female voters is clearly both false and damaging.
When maternity rights were first introduced they were designed to ensure women gained equal rights, not preferred rights. One employer asked me how the government can tolerate that any company forced to make redundancies must chose a woman on maternity leave in preference to any other person in the company who is at risk of redundancy. Surely an employer should be able to choose a person on merit, but the law of unintended consequence means that HR specialists advise this course of action as a result of the heavy hand of employment tribunals. And we want to extend these rights?
Rules also need to be simplified to make business more flexible for both the employee and employer. For example, a mother-to-be may have decided even before she planned to get pregnant that she would not return to work. Under present regulations she will not give her employer notice until the last possible moment to protect her maternity pay from the Government, resulting in the employer having to hire a replacement on a temporary basis or restructure the roles in the business, removing vital jobs from the economy. All this for fear of repercussions embedded in employment law, even though the pregnant employee might want to tell her boss that she won’t be returning so they can plan accordingly. A simple change to regulations could overcome this but those with a poor grasp of the business world, perhaps such as the Leader of the Opposition, will only see a threat and not an opportunity for employees.
The rogue employer does exist, and needs rightly to be challenged if and when they unfairly discriminate against woman choosing to have children but willing to return to work. I contend, as do the vast majority of business leaders, that there is more than enough legislation in place to do that.
The Sunday Times suggests George Osborne, Eric Pickles and Steve Hilton are the key players trying to scale back the ‘family-friendly’ pledges. They are right to do this and I offer them my full support, as we shouldn’t be obsessed by what is perceived to be a female friendly issue. It is incredibly patronising to assume that more regulations on paternal and maternal rights are what women want. My guess is, like most other floating voters, they want common sense in policy and a strong economy. Reformed employment law is an essential component of achieving both.