§ [Relevant document: The Ninth Report from the Social Security Committee of Session 1998–99, on the Social Security Implications of Parental Leave (HC 543).]
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Mike Hall.]9.33 am
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Alan Johnson)
The Employment Relations Act 1999 establishes and fosters a new culture in the workplace. The world is changing, and the workplace has changed with it. More people are working part time, and the composition of the work force is also changing. More women than ever are working, and returning to work after having a baby. Some 52 per cent, of married women with a child under five work, which is more than twice the number of a generation ago.
More families depend on two earners, and attitudes are changing. British people want civilised employment rights and decent jobs, not because they want to spend their whole life at work but as an essential element of a fulfilled life outside the workplace. Fathers want to play a more important role in raising their children, and women want support in balancing their work and family life.
Different working patterns and the changing make-up of the work force have put new responsibilities on us all—in Government as well as in business. It is up to us to ensure minimum standards of fairness and decency in the workplace. Businesses that want to be successful will embrace this agenda.
The Government's employment relations settlement is forward looking, and provides fundamental decent minimum standards based on partnership and underpinned by law. We reject a hire and fire culture in favour of employers and employees working in partnership towards a better climate of employment relations. We are extending the safety net of basic employment protection rights to reflect the diversity in today's work force. It is wrong that some workers are being denied basic civil rights at work. Insecurity at work is one of the principal causes of the tension and unhappiness that can lead to a breakdown of family relationships. We are determined to address this issue, not only for workers in conventional employment but for so-called atypical workers, such as home workers and agency workers or workers on fixed-term contracts, many of whom choose those working arrangements to fit in with their family commitments.
Part timers will be guaranteed the same rights as full timers, and we will enhance the status of part-time work.
592 We are undertaking a review of the temporary work sector to benefit both workers and hirers, and we are giving security to all workers when a company changes hands.
Our policy is about treating people fairly and being, to use the Royal College of Nursing's term, employee friendly as well as family friendly for those with family commitments. It is about providing decent standards and rights at work to help people balance their work and family commitments, laying down minimum entitlements in law but promoting a partnership approach for higher standards and underpinning our policies by providing financial support to low-income families.
Business benefits from putting in place decent standards. Security at work makes for a better motivated, versatile and stable work force. Investing in people can lead to improvements in the bottom line from customer satisfaction to company profits. Employees who think that they are being treated fairly by management are prepared to go the extra mile for their employers. Policies that help people to balance their work and home lives can help improve recruitment and retention, and reduce the costs of absenteeism.
One of the main challenges facing parents is how to juggle the responsibility of bringing up a family while holding down a job—how to respond to the demands of a difficult job and the demands of young children. Balances have to be struck rather than sacrifices made. Starting to have a family should not mean the end of a promising career. Management understanding about balancing work and family responsibilities can be the key to employee satisfaction and commitment. We need to introduce family friendly policies into the workplace, and we have begun the process in just over two years in office.
We intend to go further. This week, we have laid regulations before the House that will introduce a new right to 13 weeks' parental leave. This is a significant advance: for the first time, fathers as well as mothers will be entitled to have leave to look after their children. For the very first time, leave will be granted to adoptive parents. There will be special provisions for parents of disabled children. Parents should not have to face the dilemma of choosing between being a good parent or holding down a job.
Our parental leave scheme achieves a fair and sensible balance between the needs of business and the work force. We have kept our promise and implemented the regulations with a light touch. We are guaranteeing minimum standards, but we want employers to go beyond these standards where they can. Employers and employees, or their representatives, will be able to build on the foundations that we lay.
We have also recognised that there will be times when agreement cannot be reached. In such cases, a default scheme will come into effect, guaranteeing that all employees will be able to exercise their basic rights.
In our White Paper entitled "Fairness at Work", we gave a commitment to improve and simplify maternity rights, and we are honouring that pledge. We are increasing the length of ordinary maternity leave from 14 to 18 weeks, and reducing the qualifying period for additional maternity leave from two years to one year. More women will be able to spend more time at home with their new babies. Our improvements to maternity leave rights ensure that the UK's maternity leave provisions remain generous, even compared with those of 593 other member states. We have also aimed to bring clarity to this complex area of law by simplifying notice procedures and making it clear that contracts of employment continue during additional maternity leave.
As part of our family friendly policies, we want to encourage a working environment where employees' needs are recognised, whether those employees are responsible for young children or dependent adults. More than 2.5 million people in the UK combine paid employment with providing informal care.
We want people who want to work to be able to do so, safe in the knowledge that their dependants are being cared for. However, when things go wrong—a child falls ill, the nurse or child minder fails to turn up or the dependant is involved in an accident—we want employees to be able to take time off to deal with such emergencies, and, importantly, to be able to do so without fearing victimisation by their employer. We recognise that most companies already provide time off in such circumstances. That is encouraging, but it is important that we provide such facilities where employers have a less enlightened approach. From 15 December, all employees will be entitled to a new right to take time off for family emergencies, and not to be treated unfairly or dismissed for exercising it.
Part-time work can also make a difference for employees who are balancing their work and family life. It also provides employers with a flexible work force capable of meeting the demands of an increasingly 24-hour consumer society. In the next few days, we will publish for consultation draft regulations and guidance that will tackle discrimination against part-time workers and promote opportunities for part-time work.
Part-time workers will no longer be treated as second-class citizens. We will guarantee equal pay pro rata for part timers, as well as equal terms and conditions. Unscrupulous employers will no longer be able to discriminate against workers just because they work fewer hours. Taken together, the regulations and guidance should help men and women to move between full-time and part-time work as their circumstances change. They will also increase the number of people who will be willing to vary their hours to help suit their employer's needs. People will recognise that part-time work is a valuable asset to the business, as well as to the employee. We want employees to work reasonable hours, in a way that suits them and the business.
British men have by far the longest working hours in Europe, and fathers with dependent children work the longest hours of all. Working excessive hours can take its toll on family life, with costs for society. There is no advantage to employers in having exhausted employees: 30 per cent. of sick leave is related to stress, anxiety and depression. Stress at work is costly to business and families. It is wrong to portray the British worker as a demented workaholic. He or she wants to be treated fairly and to be secure at work and successful in his or her career, but as part of a satisfying and fulfilled life away from the workplace.
In the working time regulations, the Government have taken action to support working families by tackling the long hours culture and giving workers more time to spend with their families. There are seven basic rights: no 594 worker can be forced to work more than 48 hours on average; we have given a right to paid annual leave, rising from three to four weeks later this month; we have given a right to rest breaks during the working day; there is a right to rest breaks from work, including the right to a day off a week; we have given special protection to night workers, including the right to health assessments; we have created special protections for adolescent workers; and there is also protection from unfair dismissal or detriment for asserting those rights.
British workers should not have to work excessive hours to provide basic support for their families.
§ Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)
The Minister pointed out that British men work the longest hours in Europe. Now that we have the fastest rising tax burden in Europe, is there not a danger that people might be pressed into working longer hours merely to sustain the same standard of living?
§ Mr. Johnson
No. It is not only a matter of working longer hours than the rest of Europe. In Finland, only 1.5 per cent of workers work more than 48 hours; in Luxembourg, the proportion is 3 per cent. and in France, 14 per cent. In the UK, the figure is 28.6 per cent. The problem is horrendous and too serious to be wrapped up in minor political points on other issues.
The Government are delivering on their promises to make work pay and to provide better financial support for low-income families. The minimum wage came into force on 1 April this year and has had a significant impact. Nearly 2 million workers—more than 1.2 million of whom are women—and their families have benefited from the introduction of the national minimum wage. Thanks to the minimum wage, Britain is no longer a country where Scrooge employers can freely exploit their workers through poverty pay and get away with it.
Our working families tax credit will provide a guaranteed minimum income of more than £200 a week for working families earning the national minimum wage. Our child care tax credit will make child care more affordable for working families, benefiting about 400,000 families and underpinning our national child care strategy. The new deal for lone parents will help them overcome barriers to work and so enhance not only their lives but those of their families. We have announced the largest ever uprating of child benefit and are extending access to income support for low-paid couples who are taking parental leave.
The Government are ending the scandal of poverty pay. We are removing the roadblocks on the road from welfare to work by addressing the shortage of marketable skills, the failure of the tax and benefits system to make work worth while, the poverty and employment traps that mean for many that work does not pay, the lack of employment opportunities and the scarcity of affordable child care.
With our employment relations package, we are laying down minimum standards in law. We need to encourage employers to build on our provisions and understand that family friendly employment policies are good news for families and good news for business. In the coming months, the Government will pursue a campaign to promote good practice in balancing work and home commitments among employers and to encourage businesses to go beyond the legal minimum in their own interests.
595 We will seek to change the culture of the workplace by working with the business community. We are already working with the private and public sectors to share best practice in family friendly policies through partnership across the national health service and the retail industry. With their many female employees and 24-hour, round-the-clock services, those sectors have much to gain from increased sharing of best practice in successfully implementing flexible work patterns that help people to balance their jobs and homes.
Partnership is the cornerstone of our modernising agenda. We will not change attitudes in the workplace without a partnership approach. The case for partnership at work makes good business sense, creates greater social equity and helps enhance UK competitiveness. Our partnership fund will help employers and employees to work better together. We want the fund to act as a catalyst for change and are particularly encouraging ideas based on family friendly policies and on how the partnership approach might benefit small businesses in drawing up, for example, work force agreements on parental leave.
In time, our family friendly employment policies will be seen as fundamental rights in the labour market—as fundamental as the Equal Pay Act 1970, the right to maternity leave, and health and safety protection. For now, the measures that we are introducing on the back of the Employment Relations Act 1999 will help to improve the day-to-day working lives of individuals, support family life, and encourage the beginning of a culture change in the workplace, based on partnership, for the millennium and beyond.
I hope that all parties in the House will join us in our quest. It was once said, perhaps unfairly, that the Conservatives' approach to family friendly policies was summed up by their belief that a creche was something that happened between two Range Rovers in Tunbridge Wells. I hope that that has changed and that their Front-Bench team will demonstrate that today.
§ Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)
I was about to welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box for the second day running; it is a great pleasure to see him there again, especially as he had such a wonderful write up in today's papers, following his debut at Department of Trade and Industry questions yesterday. However, I must also say—in response to his rather good joke—that we are looking forward to more jokes from him; it will provide a light touch that we shall welcome. No one could ever accuse me of confusing the words "crash" and "creche", any more than I confuse "rates" and "rats". I look forward to more engagements with him from the Dispatch Box.
It is somewhat ironic that the Government have chosen to debate family friendly policies during a week in which they faced the forces of conservatism, who protected from the Government's policy the interests of some of the most vulnerable members of the family—widows and people with disabilities. All those people are members of families.
I begin with the specific damage that will be done to elderly and frail members of families by the Government's employment policies. In talking of family policy, our focus is often on children and the responsibility of working parents; we can all understand that. However, children 596 grow up and, all too often, the balance of juggling work and care for elderly parents and other relatives becomes the main challenge in people's lives. It is often difficult for adult children because they may live at a distance from their elderly relatives.
Many people take comfort from the fact that extra care—often provided by staff from employment agencies—helps their elderly relatives to maintain a good quality of life, especially in their own homes. On 30 September this year, the Government concluded a consultation process on changes to all employment agencies in the private sector. Some of those agencies provide live-in carers and others who ensure that the frail elderly and the disabled are able to live independently and safely. The Government now propose to make changes to the way in which agencies employ those staff, especially in the way that value added tax is levied.
On 29 September, at the end of the consultation process, I wrote to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, pointing out that there is great concern about what he intends to do, and about its impact on those specialist agencies and on their staff who provide care for a vulnerable group of people. At present, the agency pays VAT on its own component of the cost to the end user—the salary of the carer is free of VAT. However, the proposals in the Government document would change that. In future, the employment status of the carer will change; a carer will register as an employee of a particular agency. That means that carers will not be able to take up work from a range of agencies. The effect on the number of carers who will then be available for such work is self-evident. Agencies will also have to pass on to the elderly person the full VAT costs of salary. Unlike a business, an elderly person would have no way of reclaiming that VAT.
§ Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)
Is it clear from the Government's consultations, or from their response, whether the same applies to the highly paid actors and pop stars who are so welcome at No. 10? Do their agents have to treat those stars as though they were employees, or is there one rule for the rich and another for the poor?
§ Mrs. Browning
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I have seen no evidence that the Government have held consultations on that group of people. However, we are now close to a decision on carers that will affect many families throughout the country. I share with the Minister the comments and concerns of people involved in the caring industry.
I quote from an article in the Recruiter, which represents those who work in the industry. The article states:As self-employed workers, our carers dictate to us which assignments they will accept and how, when and where they will be prepared to work.They come to us specifically in order to have this flexibility and do not wish to relinquish it. At present our carers are paid considerably more than the minimum wage, but their fees would have to he cut to keep costs down.The article continues:the nature of the business was such that work for carers could not be guaranteed"—597 because of the changes the Government intend to make and because, normally—carers have to register with more than one agency, sometimes several.If their status changed … many would be lost to the caring industry, which was already severely under-staffed.
§ Mr. Alan Johnson
I understand the genuine concern about that matter. Will the hon. Lady accept that the burden of employment—with everything that that entails for health and safety and responsibility for employment rights—should fall not on the person in need of care, but on the agency that recruits the carer?
§ Mrs. Browning
Of course, we are aware that the consultation document shows that the Government are trying to protect carers from any form of exploitation or outside responsibility. However, their proposals will put carers in danger, despite the fact that the document claimed that that was not the case.
§ Mrs. Browning
The hon. Gentleman shakes his head. However, I quote from a letter sent to his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry from a London agency, which is most concerned. The letter states:By insisting that bureaux such as ourselves become employment businesses as opposed to employment agencies Regulation 7(1) would mean that the cost of care would increase drastically and well beyond the reach of all but wealthy clients … Most significantly VAT would be chargeable on the whole of this increased amount (rather than, as at present, the agency fee element only). It seems nonsensical that an elderly person who receives Attendance Allowance would have to give more than the amount of that benefit back to the Government in VAT.
Members of the DTI Front-Bench team are known for their frequent use of the words "fairness" and "justice". The Minister is new to the Front Bench, but he will have followed his Secretary of State's words on various subjects and will know that fairness and justice are parroted regularly by his ministerial colleagues. However, there is nothing fair or just to the elderly in the policy that the Government propose.
The agency's letter continues:Small specialist agencies such as ourselves will be squeezed out of the market. Some of the most vulnerable in our society would be denied the choice to purchase care from such specialist agencies, who provide a high level, one to one personal service … This does not seem to accord with the stated aims of this Government.Although the hon. Gentleman makes the point that the purpose of the consultation document's proposals was to protect the frail elderly from any form of exploitation, in practice, the Government's very policies will do the opposite.
§ Mr. Johnson
This is an important point. Some employment agencies have legitimate concerns, but others have illegitimate concerns. Last week, an article in The Economist states of unnamed agencies thatThe agencies think this bureaucratic burden"—598 by which they mean paying the national minimum wage and complying with employment law and the working time directive—is all the more unnecessary because many carers come from abroad, mainly the Commonwealth.Those are not legitimate concerns. Such agencies are looking to avoid their responsibilities.
§ Mrs. Browning
Wherever the staff come from, the fact remains that there are people who live in their own homes at the moment and receive care from other people, who come in to help them get up in the morning and put them to bed at night. Sometimes, extremely frail people or those who are severely disabled have full-time, live-in carers. Those carers will now be subject to VAT on their salaries, which was not formerly the case.
When the Minister was asked about that matter at DTI questions yesterday, he replied that representations were being made to the Treasury by DTI Ministers. He may not have had as much experience as Opposition Members in dealing with former Treasury Ministers—of whom he numbers three among his colleagues in the DTI ministerial team. They do not have a good track record on facing down their Treasury colleagues on taxation policy, where the Treasury is seen to be a net gainer, while others are the losers. If this is a battle between the Treasury, which wants to raise more VAT revenue—clearly it will do so—and DTI Ministers, who are standing up for the interests of those people whom their legislation will affect, I tell the Minister, in the strongest terms, that his duty should be to go to those Treasury Ministers, with his colleagues, and fight as hard as they possibly can for a proper solution to a potentially serious and damaging policy. That policy will affect the most vulnerable members of families throughout the country.
§ Mr. Bottomley
May I help my hon. Friend to make the Minister understand? Normally, when an employment agency charges VAT, it charges a business that can recover the VAT because it sells goods to a customer. However, in this case, the only customer is a person who is frail, elderly or handicapped. I should be grateful if the Minister intervened again in my hon. Friend's speech to say that he understands that the VAT will fall on the frail, the elderly or the handicapped, who are normally on low incomes, rather than on businesses that can pass on the charge to customers.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)
Order. Because the hon. Lady took an intervention from her hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley), it is for her to give way to the Minister at a later stage. This is not Question Time.
§ Mrs. Browning
I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall make a little progress, then give the Minister an opportunity to answer specifically the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, 599 West (Mr. Bottomley) and me. It is important that Department of Trade and Industry Ministers, who are in the driving seat of the policy, fully understand their responsibilities and make proper representations to Treasury Ministers.
Let us consider what the policy is likely to cost and how individuals will be affected. It has been calculated by the Federation of Recruitment and Employment Services that the policy will increase the cost of care by about £1 an hour, so people who need four hours help a day will face an increase of £28 a week. We all know the sort of incomes received by many of those who need care; even with attendance allowance and other benefits, such an increase in living costs would force many of them to reduce the number of hours of support they receive. In addition, those requiring full-time live-in help, whose care costs a great deal more, would for the first time be forced to consider stopping being independent within their own home and going into residential care—they would be priced out of their own home. That has a consequence: it means that social services departments throughout the country should be made aware that there might be a sudden demand for residential care from people whose care requires great expertise.
When we hear, as we often do from Ministers, the language of self-congratulation, it begs the question whether they realise that the elderly, the frail and people with disabilities are all members of families; and that their relatives, whether they live close by or far away, will be desperately concerned about their plight. If the Government intend to pursue the policy, I warn the Minister that it will be seen as VAT on grannies. As the Minister knows, unless he is able to ward off the Treasury, such a policy will not be greeted with widespread acclaim.
Yesterday, the Minister said that the DTI wasworking closely with the Treasuryto resolve the issue. As I interpret that answer, it means that DTI Ministers recognise that the policy that they created has developed a complication.
§ Mrs. Browning
If the Minister does not see the problem, that concerns me greatly, given that, in the DTI, he is surrounded by former Treasury Ministers. We all know that, once part of the Treasury, something happens to hon. Members.
§ Mrs. Browning
I am glad the Minister realises it. I am not sure what happens to people in the Treasury, but they are never again the same and they never again see things the same way. The Treasury initiation ceremony appears to ensure that, whatever portfolio Ministers take on after leaving the Treasury, they never quite dump the baggage of thinking that they must bring more revenue into the Treasury at every opportunity. However, in all fairness, they should not behave that way at the expense of Britain's pensioners and people with disabilities.
§ Mrs. Browning
Is there to be an auction? In that case, I give way to the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane).
§ Mr. MacShane
Not an auction, but a choice. I am fascinated by the hon. Lady's comments on what happens to people who become Treasury Ministers—that they leave the Treasury totally deformed, transformed individuals. Does that explain what happened to the former right hon. Member now standing for election in Kensington and Chelsea? Was the right hon. Gentleman a human being before he became Chief Secretary to the Treasury and only became Michael Portillo when he left?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I hope that the hon. Lady realises the limits of the allusion she made and that she will go no further down that path. We are debating family friendly employment policies.
§ Mrs. Browning
I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but you will be aware that there are as many elderly and frail people living in Kensington and Chelsea as there are in other parts of the country. Does the hon. Member for Rochdale now want to intervene?
§ Lorna Fitzsimons
No. I would have made the same point as my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane).
§ Mrs. Browning
Yesterday, the Minister said that DTI Ministers were now to engage with the Treasury on the matter. He is new to the DTI, so I should tell him that that is not uncommon. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has introduced a range of employment policies that are ill thought through and create unfairness. Does anyone in his Department have any common sense? Does anyone think policies through and anticipate the problems? I genuinely believe that the Minister will make a valuable contribution to the DTI and I trust that he will bring a little common sense to bear on future policy making, so that policies are thought through properly before being put into the public domain.
§ Mr. Johnson
To answer the hon. Lady's point, there is no battle going on between the DTI and the Treasury. The DTI highlighted in May's consultation document the fact that changing the relationship so that the carer was clearly linked to the employment bureau and not to the person in need of care, which is a crucial concern of all the agencies, would have VAT implications. Having flagged up the problem, we are not about to fail to resolve 601 it during the consultation period. Therefore, discussions are taking place between the DTI, the Treasury and the Department of Health to resolve the issue.
§ Mrs. Browning
I am grateful to the Minister for that clarification. In the part of country that I represent, my natural political opponents are not members of the Labour party but Liberal Democrats, so I am familiar with the political tactic of creating a problem so as to be seen to solve it. It is a characteristic of Liberal Democrats—
§ Mrs. Browning
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman agrees with me.
The Minister tells us that discussions are being held, but, in the meantime, many elderly people are extremely concerned. If the problem has now been recognised and Ministers understand the need to resolve it, I hope that they will get a move on and end the uncertainty that is making many people extremely anxious.
We have heard a great deal about policies for members of younger age groups and families with younger children. However, we are alert to the fact that such family friendly employment policies emerge from a Department whose Secretary of State has, as I said yesterday, quoting a report of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, earned a reputation for having the respectable habit—that was a Freudian slip; I meant to say, aregrettable habit of issuing potentially misleading information".—[Official Report, 4 November 1999; Vol. 337, c. 461, 468.]
§ Mrs. Browning
A former Liberal Member of Parliament.
I should like to draw the Minister's attention to some of the family friendly policies, especially those involving children, that have been promoted by Ministers. I refer to the Government's annual report, which was widely available in Tesco and elsewhere earlier this year. The report claims that the Government's policy is,The first ever national childcare strategy backed by an extra £470 million, to increase good quality, affordable childcare: 30,000 new childcare clubs and up to a million new childcare places.We hear much about what the Government are supposed to have done about various sorts of child care places. Why is there an overall reduction in types of places that are available, especially for children who are under eight? Library figures show that the total number of places—in day nurseries, with registered child minders, in playgroups, nursery schools and classes—has decreased from 1,345,658 in 1998 to 1,298,410 this year. I shall put that in context. The total number of day care places for under-eights fell by 47,248. Of those, the number of places in nursery schools and classes fell from 368,358 to 366,910; the number of playgroup places fell from 370,700 to 336,600; and the number of places with registered child minders fell from 383,600 to 347,200.
The only increase was in the number of day nursery places. Although those figures have risen consistently since 1992, Conservative Members have often drawn attention to the fact that that increase is due to the fears 602 of parents of rising fives and four-year-olds that, if they do not take up a place in a day nursery, they will be unable to get their child into a primary school of their choice. Therefore, apart from playgroup places, the figures that I have cited are for places that were on a rising scale since 1992—
§ Mrs. Browning
I shall give way when I have finished dealing with the figures, because it is difficult for people to grapple with them. Apart from playgroup places, figures rose consistently between 1992 and 1997. Despite the Government's pledge in their annual report, the number of places has dropped. Perhaps the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) or the Minister will explain why that pledge has not been honoured.
§ Mr. Pond
Can the hon. Lady tell the House what happened to the number of playgroups and other forms of pre-school child care under the previous Government's voucher system? Does she realise that the working families tax credit entitles people to help with their child care of up to £70 a week if they have one child and £100 a week if they have two or more children? If the Conservative party regained office, would it scrap that provision and take help away from working families?
§ Mrs. Browning
I shall comment on the working families tax credit shortly. However, when the Government create problems through their policy implementation, it is not for the Opposition to get a broom and clear up the mess.
§ Mrs. Browning
I am dealing with one intervention; I shall give way to the hon. Lady in a moment.
I was citing a lot of figures when the hon. Member for Gravesham intervened. Therefore, I reiterate that the figures between 1992 and 1997 show clearly that the total number of available places in all categories increased consistently. Given the Government's commitment in their annual report, why has there now been a drop in the number of child care places across the spectrum?
The Opposition believe in providing choice, and allowing parents to choose the type of facility that they want for their children. We believe in a range of provision so that parents can decide what is appropriate for them and their children. With the one exception that I mentioned, there has been a drop in all categories of provision. The Government put their policies in writing and make great play of how wonderful everything is. It is incumbent on the Minister, who is present to answer questions about Government policy, to explain the reasons for the drop in child care provision. I am anxious to know that.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Dr. Kim Howells)
We will attempt to check the figures with the Department for Education and Employment. Perhaps the drop is due to 603 falling rolls. The hon. Lady has great expertise in the matter and knows that the figures are volatile, and vary from year to year. However, we shall check them.
In the unlikely event of the Opposition ever gaining government, would they do away with the help of £70 for one child and that of £100 for two or more children? If so, what would that do for the availability of places?
§ Mrs. Browning
The Under-Secretary asks a question and then anticipates my response. As many Labour Members said when they were in opposition, we are undertaking a complete review of policies and, by the next election, we will issue a properly costed policy. The Government called for the debate; I presume that they do not want to debate the common-sense revolution.
§ Mrs. Browning
I am dealing with the Under-Secretary's intervention; I shall come to the hon. Gentleman shortly.
When the Government make pledges and are in a position of power, they have a responsibility to defend or promote them. Their annual report—an important document that was available at every branch of Tesco throughout the country—shows that they made a pledge on places, which they have not been able to honour. Perhaps it is not their fault; the Under-Secretary suggested that the drop might be due to falling rolls. I do not believe that it is. The figures that I cited are from the Library and are readily available to him. He can check them with Departments and, if they are wrong, he can come back to me. Hon. Members on both sides treat with respect information that is commissioned by the House of Commons research department.
§ Mr. Pond
If the hon. Lady checks the record, she will read that several Conservative Members have said that they oppose the working families tax credit and would withdraw the help that it provides. If she is making a policy statement and claiming that the Conservative party supports the working families tax credit and the extra help with child care costs for working families with children, we will applaud that.
§ Mrs. Browning
The hon. Gentleman tries to shore up those on his Front Bench, and I am sure they are grateful for that. When the Government present policies for debate in the House on which they intend to legislate, the Opposition raise objections. However, when a policy becomes an Act, we consider it in that light and develop our policies against that background. Those policies will be announced in the appropriate way by the Conservative Front-Bench team at the appropriate time. The hon. Gentleman is familiar with that process because his party employed it when in opposition.
§ Lorna Fitzsimons
At the beginning of her speech, the hon. Lady claimed that she was concerned about, and interested in, the provision that helped to enfranchise 604 families at work and at home. Does she applaud the Government's attempt to make child care provision a Government responsibility? If so, why did the previous Government believe that it was the individual's responsibility? In constituencies such as mine, the voucher system decimated the number of available places. We have managed to increase the number of places only through the Government's pledge, and the commitment from local government under the previous Administration—which provided no direct money or policies.
§ Mrs. Browning
The hon. Lady seems to claim that, while in opposition, the Labour party made an arrangement with local government whereby local government would increase the number of child care places when the Labour party gained office. Local education authorities around the country have tried to filter four-year-olds from playgroups and other providers so that parents will put their children in placements that LEAs and local schools provide.
§ Mrs. Browning
I shall just finish the answer, then the hon. Lady can intervene if she wishes.
We have no prescriptive formula, but pressure is being put on parents. They have a choice of places, but if they do not put their child in placements provided by LEAs or local schools, they cannot be sure that that child will be able to attend the primary school that is attached to its nursery class. That is what has happened under this Government and that is why there has been a drop in provision. I hope that the Minister will respond to that point.
§ Lorna Fitzsimons
I appreciate the game spirit in which you are allowing Labour Members to intervene, but you asked for clarification.
§ Lorna Fitzsimons
I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
The hon. Lady sought clarification and I wanted to point out that, under the previous Government, child care was provided in my borough only because the local education authority thought that that was its responsibility. She also asked about current provision, but, by using smoke and mirrors, she is trying to confuse the public, if not those present in the Chamber. The Government have pledged—I hope that she backs that pledge—to provide every four-year-old with a nursery class place. That pledge has been welcomed in my constituency and we are moving well on the way to ensuring that every three-year-old receives that privilege, too. Does she not welcome that?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. Interventions are getting far too long. If the hon. Lady hopes to catch my eye later, I hope that she will not have run out of things to say.
§ Mrs. Browning
The hon. Member for Rochdale legitimately states Labour party policy, but I hope that she 605 has thought through its implications for playgroups. The Government have introduced a whole raft of policies, but they do not see the knock-on consequences for other people. That is one of their failings, and particularly in family friendly policy where they naturally want to capture the public's imagination and gratitude. They find that, by helping one group, they put another group at a disadvantage.
The Minister mentioned the new deal. In my seven years in Parliament, I have never seen so many glossy brochures or thick briefing notes on any subject as those on the new deal. They constantly drop on to my desk. One would imagine from that plethora of glossy brochures and announcements from Ministers that the new deal is doing a great deal to help people, particularly lone parents, to get back into work.
When the new deal was first announced, the Government counted the number of people who were invited to attend for interview. Up to August this year, 414,770 lone parents were invited for interview, but, of those, only 2 per cent.—9,350—went on to find jobs. Although I welcome it when anyone finds gainful employment under the scheme, it appears that the attention that the Government give to it and their claims of its success merit examination. Of those who joined the scheme, 68 per cent. have left it and failed to move into employment. That means that the Government's new deal for lone parents has not achieved what the glossy brochures claim. Instead, the vast majority of people involved in the scheme have moved, at taxpayers' expense, from welfare to welfare.
If the new deal for lone parents is to retain any shred of credibility, the Government will have to face up to the reality that it is not working on the scale that the amount of investment in it demands. The Minister should reconsider how it is implemented and how it helps people who may wish to return to employment. It is failing them at the moment.
When the Employment Relations Act 1999 was debated earlier this year, Conservative Members made it clear that we acknowledged that people with dependants—particularly those with dependent children—need, for various reasons, to take time off from time to time. We would prefer that to occur on a voluntary basis between employer and employee rather than on a statutory basis. That is not because we are against motherhood and apple pie but because, when the Government sought to offer out the goodies—for example, on parental leave and time off for a family crisis—they yet again failed to think the policy through.
On parental leave, I am sure that all Members will receive the representations that I have received, not in my Front-Bench capacity, but as a constituency MP. Several people and organisations are lobbying Members to ask the Government to make parental leave paid leave. For example, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children now has a letter writing campaign.
Why is parental leave a policy for the few, and not the many? Those organisations, including the NSPCC, are pointing out that the only people who can afford to take advantage of the Government's policy on parental leave are well-off and professional people who are on the sort of salaries that allow them to take their parental leave 606 entitlement. The Minister will be aware that the right hon. Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) marched to the door of No. 10 recently with a proposal to resolve yet another family friendly problem that the Government have created by introducing something which they thought was ostensibly popular, but that they failed to think through. That is not a question for Conservative Members, but we must be able to tell constituents why the Government introduced parental leave in the way that they did.
We have said openly that we believe that parental leave should be a matter for negotiation rather than statute, and that is the perfectly reasonable position that we have articulated. Why do the Government continue to introduce policies that result in Members receiving a postbag full of letters from respectable people, including members of the NSPCC, wanting to know why the Government's policies will not help the people that they are most concerned about?
§ Mrs. Browning
I will give way once more. However, I hope that the hon. Lady recognises that I have been very generous in giving way. I know that other Members want to speak and I want to give them the chance to do so.
§ Ms Kelly
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. She makes an interesting point. I believe that the way in which the policy has been introduced represents a great step forward for families, but will she take the opportunity to tell us whether the Conservative party would, if it were in government, pay for parental leave?
§ Mrs. Browning
I know that the hon. Lady is a new Member, but I remind her that the Government have created the mess, so they must clear it up. The Government should not introduce a half-baked policy and then look to the Opposition to provide the answers. They must get their little dustpans and brushes out and clean up their own mess.
Parental leave is yet another example of a policy that has been rushed through on the ground of dogma and wanting to do what everyone else in Europe does. However, when we consider what happens in the rest of Europe, we find that almost every other country in the European Union that has introduced parental leave has done so by offering benefits or pay when the leave is taken. It is all very well for the Government to introduce family friendly policies because they are popular and then to take the credit for them. However, they do not dip their hands into their pockets to pay for them. They dip their hands into the pockets of business and expect it to pick up the tab of administering their policies. Conservative Members are then left to find the solutions to the unfinished business that the Government have not thought through. That is no way to govern; it is not family friendly; and it is not very businesslike behaviour by those on the Government Front Bench who are supposed to be businesslike when they go about their duties. I trust that the Minister will convey that message to the Secretary of State.
The Government, motivated as they have been to sign up to ill-thought-out legislation, are impervious to the unjust distortions that their policies bring about. They are 607 more interested in the soundbite than in the effect that they have on people's lives and on the way that families work. The Government's family friendly policies leave business to pick up the tab, hit the elderly and fail to give time off to the less well-off. They are geared purely towards the better-off. That is Blair's Britain at the turn of the century. The Government have quite a gall bringing this subject to the House. Their policy is unfinished business, it is unfair and, the last thing that it is is friendly to families.
§ Ms Ruth Kelly (Bolton, West)
Thank you for calling me so early in the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Unfortunately, I shall not be able to stay to the end of the debate because I have to go to my constituency for an important and long-standing engagement.
I welcome the Under-Secretary for Trade and Industry, my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, West and Hessle (Mr. Johnson) who opened the debate, to his well deserved Front-Bench post. I am pleased to be speaking in the first debate that the Government have held on family friendly employment. Drawing up policies to support family life will be a central challenge for the Government in the coming years. Those policies must support children financially, academically and emotionally, encourage parents to provide for their children and enable men and women to spend as much time as possible with their children, nurturing them. I recognise the importance of carers and caring responsibilities, highlighted by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), but I intend to focus on children.
Times have changed. The traditional family model, based on one breadwinner and a stay-at-home mother, is breaking down for financial and social reasons. Many families combine two earners, often two full-time workers. The Government have already recognised the changing pattern of family life. Their family policies so far have focused on making work pay and enabling families to have access to good quality and affordable child care. The Government's record is impressive. The working families tax credit tops up the income of low-wage households with children. The minimum wage sets a floor under earnings. The child care tax credit will subsidise child care places for the first two children on a sliding scale in low to middle-income families. Those policies and the record increase in child benefit will give mothers a choice on whether to go out to work or stay at home with their children.
The Government's proposals to make work pay have gone hand in hand with a strategy to encourage lone parents back to work, the primary motivation being to decrease dependency. Creating a working role model for children in such households will help to widen the horizons of the next generation.
It is time to move on. Policies to alleviate some of the pressures placed on relationships by long hours and heavy demands at the workplace for men and women must be central to our strategy, because those problems squeeze the number of hours that parents can spend at home with their children. The situation has been called a parenting deficit. The results can be severe, with insecure relationships and attachments between parents—particularly fathers—and their children. That has been increasingly associated with children's behavioural 608 problems later in life, as well as with juvenile crime. Research shows that boys who have no contact with their fathers are more likely to be violent, get hurt or get into trouble, and do less well at school. It is important for boys to have a good relationship with their parents, even if they are separated. Any strategy for the family has to address those pressures on parents' time and encourage men as well as women to spend more time with their children.
§ Ms Kelly
If the hon. Gentleman is alluding to the married couples allowance, perhaps he agrees that it was an anomaly in the tax system that had nothing to do with children, because people without children could still receive it. That policy is not the way forward, although we have to underpin families with children through policies that help them financially. I have spelled out how the Government are taking that issue forward.
The Government's fairness at work legislation is the start of an important process, helping men and women to combine work and family life. I welcome the regulations that my hon. Friend set out. For the first time, men and women are entitled to take up to 13 weeks off work over the first five years of a child's life without facing the sack. In addition, parents will be able to take time off in family emergencies, such as when their child is sick or a child minder is unexpectedly unavailable in the morning. Those are important milestones for the family. Just 3 per cent. of employers have any provision for parents to take time off. The new arrangements are a step forward, giving parents an opportunity to balance work and family life.
I found the comments of the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton astonishing. She cannot argue that either we should have voluntary arrangements—or no arrangements—for parental leave or that parental leave should be paid. Surely if she believes in balancing work and family life, she should agree that the Government's policies are a step forward. I think that the Government should be going further, but the hon. Lady's comments struck me as absurd and I was astonished to hear them.
Who is likely to benefit from the regulations that have been introduced? Unpaid leave will be useful to workers in some contexts. For example, those with a child facing a crisis point may be forced to stay at home for a short period. They are likely to be lone mothers or mothers with working partners who are low paid and receive no annual leave beyond the statutory minimum. The right to return to work at the same rate of pay will give them job security during that time. In addition, a few wealthier working mothers with working partners who are able to save or whose income is genuinely marginal to the family income will also benefit from the opportunity to take spells of unpaid parental leave. However, that is only a small group of women.
I was interested to hear my hon. Friend the Minister comment on the importance of fathers increasingly wanting to play a role in bringing up their children. However, fathers are unlikely to take any unpaid leave. A TUC survey shows that, among 130,000 employees at major financial institutions in the UK that currently offer 609 unpaid leave, over the past five years only 42 men have chosen to take it up. The Department of Trade and Industry has recognised that, pointing to the fact that 35 per cent. of women but only 2 per cent. of men are likely to take unpaid leave as the framework stands. The result will be that a whole tier of low and middle-income Britain, particularly fathers, will be unable or unwilling to benefit from unpaid leave.
I congratulate the Government on their decision to allow low-income parents to claim benefits during their periods of leave, something that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security announced in his speech to the Labour party conference. The Government estimate that about 1,000 people a year will take advantage of that new provision.
Parental leave from work has far greater potential to address many aspects of the Government's agenda for the family. By promoting responsible parenthood, it could enable mothers and fathers to share more equally in bringing up children and create greater opportunities for mothers to work if they wish, secure in the knowledge that they will be able to take time at home with the children if they are needed. It could also contribute to happier, more stable families with better-adjusted children. However, for those goals to be met, parental leave would need to be paid at a high enough rate for men in the work force not to feel under too great a financial strain if they take it. As the Social Security Committee report on parental leave, which was published this week, says:It is clear to us that if parental leave is unpaid take-up among fathers will particularly low.
Any attempt to meet those goals rules out limiting payments to the poorest families, such as those in receipt of the working families tax credit, which will be introduced in the autumn. According to the Treasury, about 1.4 million families are likely to receive the new tax credit, but almost half of them are single parents, mainly mothers. A low-income payment might help those children, but it will do much less to promote stable relationships or bonding between fathers and children, which is also important.
A suggestion that I have made, which has the advantage of simplicity, is to pay parents taking leave a flat rate of about £100 a week. The idea of flat-rate payments has now been backed by the Social Security Committee in its report. On reasonable assumptions—15 per cent. of men and 50 per cent. of women taking their full 13-week entitlement—the Treasury has estimated that the total cost of providing such a flat-rate payment at that level would be £285 million a year. That might be a building block for a more generous entitlement in future; or, if finances were really strained, the payments could be limited to the first eight weeks.
If the payment were set at around that level, or perhaps in line with the minimum wage, lower-paid workers could spend time with their children with little financial penalty, while wealthier couples could save and top up their income so they would not be financially penalised too greatly by taking parental leave. Employers could enter into arrangements with their employees to top up the flat-rate payment.
As well as payment for parental leave, flexibility is important. I welcome the Government's suggestion that there might be work force or collective agreements on 610 how to implement the parental leave directive, provided that they meet the basic requirements. The Government's consultation paper suggests that such agreements might allow parents to take parental leave by working a shorter working week for a number of weeks.
Such flexibility seems to be the ideal, and the most likely to help employees and employers. Therefore, I was slightly disappointed to find that the Government's model contract, which will operate where there is no union and no collective agreements, and where people are probably on lower incomes—they may be agency and temporary workers—will require workers to take parental leave in blocks of at least a week, with at least four weeks notice. I do not believe that to be ideal, as parents in such employment are likely to find it extremely difficult to meet those requirements and take full advantage of the leave.
I make two further pleas to the Government. The first is to consider extending the upper age limit from five, as parents need to take time off to look after their children even after they have started school. As the scheme limits the total time to three months, I doubt whether employers will find it too much of a burden to allow that leave to be spread over a longer period.
My second plea is to forgo the requirement that parental leave cannot be taken until an employee has worked for a specific employer for at least a year. Part of the purpose of introducing parental leave is to encourage people back into the work force, especially lone parents who might otherwise not be attracted to the idea of taking a job. I believe that the latter will be put off by the fact that, in those initial weeks and months, they will be unable to take advantage of their parental leave. In those circumstances, they may not accept a job offer.
However, I acknowledge that the Government's family friendly proposals are a huge leap forward for the family and for children. I congratulate them on what they have done so far.
§ Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Ms Kelly). She gave compelling evidence to the Select Committee on Social Security, and I am grateful to her for adverting to the fact that the Committee's ninth report, on parental leave, was published earlier in the week.
I congratulate the Minister for Competitiveness on the way in which he introduced the debate. The subject is very important, and it is a very important time to discuss it. He was chancing his arm slightly by using clever wordplay on "creche" and "crash". As he is the hon. Member for Hull, West and Hessle, he had better be careful not to get lumbered with the soubriquet of "Minister for hassle". In any case, he must have got the joke from his private office, because these days only civil servants can afford to run Range Rovers. However, I enjoyed his speech.
I am an Opposition Member—although, as Chairman of a Select Committee, I am above all the party political dialogue—but I commend the Government on what they have done on family friendly employment policies. In two years, they have made a great deal of progress, at least in erecting signposts showing the direction that we would all like to take. It is not always as easy to deliver on 611 commitments as it is to publish documents, but the Government have taken a positive stance on a range of policies.
The Government must understand that the subject has interdepartmental aspects. The Education Minister who is sitting next to the Minister for Competitiveness is welcome—
§ Mr. Kirkwood
Times change! The hon. Gentleman has made such an impact that I thought he was still an Education Minister. I beg his pardon; I withdraw that allegation.
The point remains valid that, if the implementation of family friendly policies is to be consistent and coherent, it must be done on a cross-departmental basis. It is not simply a social security matter, or an education matter, or a health matter; all the other Departments are affected. If these policies are to succeed, the Minister for Competitiveness must accept his responsibility to co-ordinate that work. I hope that he does.
I am especially keen for the Government's welfare-to-work plans to succeed. If they do, they will put more people into work, which is right and proper; but, by definition, they will increase the pressures on people in reconciling the demands of family life and the workplace. I believe that the Government have moved in the right direction and I wish them well. They still have a long way to go, and there are still big gaps in what they have proposed today.
I have a great deal of time for the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), but I am sorry that she came to the debate straight from Conservative central office. If she had left her brief behind and used her experience and her passion for these subjects, in which she is genuinely interested, we would have had a better debate. However, I do not want to provoke her into attacking me, because I am too sensitive for that type of thing.
When we debate social policies, we should remember an important point. I am sure that, like me, other hon. Members were reminded of that point when reading reports in The Independent and The Guardian on 25 October. They said that the market research group CACI had found huge variations in economic circumstances between the north and the south. I need not tell the Minister or the hon. Member for Bolton, West that there are huge economic and social differences between different parts of the country; and that is true intra-regionally as well. Some postcode areas within regions have much more difficult circumstances than other parts of the country.
Ministers are right to deploy legislation based on the whole United Kingdom—it would be strange if it were otherwise. However, I would argue for positive discrimination in some of the ways that policies are implemented. We should focus on some of our most deprived peripheral estate-type areas. That is true of family friendly policies, too. It would be very positive if that were reflected in the implementation and configuration of some of the plans that the Government are making, and if pilots were targeted on some of those 612 deprived, hard-bitten, downtrodden parts of the country. Otherwise, inequality and the income divide will become worse, which is in no one's interests.
We are dealing with a long-term problem. In the single generation from my father's day to my son's day, the process of family breakdown has accelerated. Marriages have fallen by half; divorces have tripled; children born out of wedlock have quadrupled; and 70 per cent. of young couples now co-habit before marriage. In a generation, that is a fantastic revolution in the way that ordinary people live. I sometimes wonder whether policy making is keeping up with that revolution. We risk being left behind. The Government are doing a great deal to tackle that, but there is an awful lot more to do.
§ Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)
Should Government policies follow social trends or seek to influence them?
§ Mr. Kirkwood
Discuss. The hon. Gentleman, a distinguished colleague on the Social Security Committee, pursues that point with great dedication.
Government should remain neutral in social relationships behind the family front door and recognise that people have practical problems to confront. The Lord Chancellor's Department is doing some research. Nottingham school of sociology is examining the ways in which family breakdown has arisen and whether people are now committed to personal development more than to the family.
Government should be agnostic about that and offer practical proposals that help people to reconcile the differences. It is a mistake to contrive taxation and other policies to keep families together. Conservatives say that we are not doing enough to support marriage. I remember that, in Nigel Lawson's day, it paid people enormous dividends financially to be single and stay together, because of double mortgage provision and so on. Conservatives cannot claim to have been champions of the family friendly approach when they were in government. Governments should try to provide the best practical support.
I was dismayed and astonished to find in the Child Support Agency's annual report, which was published in the past few days, that there are 52,000 absent mothers, who have left their children behind and gone to develop other families. That is just the tip of the iceberg—the women whom is the CSA is pursuing for maintenance. There is a real problem out there and we must grapple with it. Someone told me the other day that one in five members of Gingerbread are now men. Such figures are difficult to comprehend and reflect a situation that requires our urgent attention.
I shall make two or three suggestions about how we should make progress. I hope that the Minister will have a chance to study the Royal College of Nursing's "Making Time" campaign. For many years, I have been a member of the RCN parliamentary panel. I was struck by a survey which reveals that one in five nurses leave their jobs because of inflexible employer practices. The Government have some influence in the public sector and the national health service. If I were the Minister—the Minister for Health, rather than a DTI Minister—I would be interested in finding out more about the survey results. [Interruption.] I am pleased to see that the Minister for Competitiveness has a copy in his inside pocket.
613 Two of the key findings are worth sharing with the House. Evidence of the lack of employee friendly policies comes from the finding that almost half the respondents—47 per cent.—believed that family life had been affected, with 30 per cent. of the nurses in the sample stating that their relationship with their children had suffered. An even more worrying finding was that almost two fifths—39 per cent.—of nurses in the sample felt that, on some occasions, they had not been able to give their best to patients because of outside pressures. That is worrying. If the DTI can work with the NHS, the trusts and the unions to discuss the findings, that would be extremely helpful.
The national child care strategy is positive, but it has three gaps, which the Government should consider carefully. First, I understand that almost two thirds of mothers return to work at the end of their statutory maternity leave. I welcome the Government's steps to rationalise maternity leave, but if two thirds of working mothers go back to work after maternity leave, and the child care strategy begins to take effect only when the child reaches the age of three, there is a huge potential gap in the child care provided for the under-threes. That is reflected in nursery provision. We need more playgroups and better provision.
Secondly, I am disappointed that students cannot take advantage of the child care tax credit. The Social Security Committee has been considering tax credits, and we warmly welcomed the massive steps forward that the Government have taken. However, many colleges do not provide nearly enough creche facilities—that is a separate point—so I hope that the Government will find some way to allow student couples with young families to take advantage of the tax credit provision.
Thirdly, the national child care strategy does not deal appropriately with shift working. Only about 10 per cent. of working families adopt a normal nine-to-five 40-hour-a-week work pattern. Part-time work and shift working are patterns that we ignore at our peril. Much more could be done.
We need more trained child care staff, better public transport so that people can take the children to school and get to work, and better opening times. I know that Government consultation documents have focused on public sector opening hours. The CSA offices, for example, are now accessible by telephone until later in the evening. That is valuable.
I commend the Social Security Committee's ninth report, on parental leave. I was initially a sceptic. The hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) persuaded the Committee that the subject was important, and I thought that we could deal with it in a day and produce a short report. However, once we began, we could have spent at least six months on the subject. The evidence, including that given by the hon. Member for Bolton, West, was compelling and of high quality. I am a convert, or even a zealot on the positive impact of parental leave.
I warmly welcome the fact that the Government have decided to make benefits available to a wider range of couples. The case for payment is compelling, but the Committee was tentative about the matter. The hon. Member for Bolton, West was right to say that we opted for a flat-rate system of payment. We understand the difficulties and the case against that; some businesses, especially small businesses, are nervous.
614 To try to reflect that, we suggested for a specified time a flat-rate payment, however it is set. The Government could discuss with the Treasury what could be afforded, and the system could be monitored. The experience in America shows that to be a positive approach. There, a commission was set up, a two-year study carried out, and the matter re-examined and taken forward.
§ Mr. Alan Johnson
I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will study carefully the points that he makes, and we applaud his constructive approach.
§ Mr. Kirkwood
That means that, even if there is no immediate payment, after the system has been monitored for long enough, the Government might reconsider the possibility of payment. Some of us might settle for that. Unless we do something, fathers and low-income groups will not be able to take advantage of the benefit.
According to evidence that we received, 2 per cent. of fathers and 35 per cent. of mothers may be able to take up unpaid parental leave. That is welcome as a step forward. We cannot crack the problem and make a serious impact until the Government grasp the nettle. The Treasury does not have blank cheques to issue, and £200 million is a substantial sum of public expenditure. If we are serious about promoting family friendly policies, I can think of no better way of spending £200 million than putting some level of payment into parental leave.
§ Mr. Tony Colman (Putney)
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me early in the debate. I begin by declaring an interest as a trustee of the Daycare Trust.
I join others in welcoming the Minister for Competitiveness to the debate. His successful career as a trade union leader will be important in informing the debate in the Department of Trade and Industry. May I add comments in respect of my not-so-distinguished career as a business man?
I commend the Government policies that are in place, which were referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Ms Kelly), such as the working families tax credit. Work has been done on child benefit and child care help, the maternity leave extension, the working hours directive and the parental leave proposals, which were laid before the House yesterday. I commend to the House all those proposals, which I believe will do a great deal to enhance the work-life balance that we all so much require. I also support my hon. Friend in respect of the need to move further towards payment for core parental leave, which is referred to in those proposals.
As other Members have said, it is extremely important to ensure that parental leave is not available simply for wealthier people who are, perhaps, in the higher echelons of companies—those who have the industry muscle to ensure that they can take advantage of unpaid parental leave. I ask the Government to look for a way of making core parental leave paid and suggest that we could take as a starting point the qualifying basis that is used for maternity leave payments.
§ Mr. Colman
As core maternity leave payments are made by the state, so core parental leave payments should also be made by the state.
I was developing the argument that the work-home balance is still a pipe dream. That was the heading for a press release published on 21 October by the Institute of Management, which brought us up to date on its five-year programme examining the quality of working life which started in 1997 and will run through to 2002. The latest figures, which were published two weeks ago, state that only 15 per cent. of executives think that the organisations for which they work make any attempt to achieve that work-life balance, and 81 per cent. of the people interviewed work for more than 40 hours a week. That figure was the same in 1997. Of those polled, 32 per cent. work more than 50 hours and 58 per cent. believe that the employer expects long hours. I would like to attract support from both sides of the House for condemning that approach in industry.
Of those polled, 28 per cent. said that the companies for which they work already have parental leave schemes in place and 15 per cent. expect their companies to introduce such schemes this year. That is an interesting change, but only 3 per cent. receive child care support from their company. That picks up the intervention made by the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) about the role of employers in encouraging the work-life balance and the provision of help.
I am concerned to ensure that companies that are interested in helping on child care and parental leave are able to do so. Barry Gibson is the group chief executive of the Littlewoods organisation, which has led the way on family friendly employment policies. In an article, he says:In its own search for successful family-friendly strategies, the Government should not simply turn to the stick of legislation. Instead it should offer the carrot of incentives to encourage businesses to respond positively. These could include tax relief for employers who fund caring provision for their employees; tax relief for employees who fund their own childcare; or making employees exempt from tax where employers fund private childcare places.I hope that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor might explore those matters in the green Budget next Tuesday. It is slightly absurd that luncheon vouchers retain tax-free eligibility when parental leave vouchers do not have the same status—an issue that my right hon. Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) has explored in recent days. The Minister may say in his winding-up speech whether there is a way forward on encouraging employers who wish to do so to offer parental leave vouchers.
It has been said that the Government's policies are okay for large employers, but a problem for small and medium-sized enterprises. There is great difficulty in this area because little research has been done. However, excellent work is being carried out by Kingston university and, if I may crave the indulgence of the House, I shall quote from recent research, as yet unpublished, by Juliet Colman on flexible employment policies for SMEs in south-west London. Her work clearly shows that family friendly policies in SMEs pay for the shareholders and for the management. Furthermore, they make the work force 616 considerably more motivated and committed to the goals of the SME, and the empowering of SME employees is significant when such policies are implemented.
That view was strongly expressed by my hon. Friend the Minister for Small Business and E-Commerce in work that she did for the Institute for Public Policy Research in 1991 and very much borne out by the research of Juliet Colman. If employees are able to choose when they work within a flexi-time arrangement, they feel much more committed and are empowered to take charge of their lives. She found the small but significant example of a father being able to leave work each day at 4 o'clock during term time to collect his children from school and take them to the child minder. He returned to work at 4.30 and simply added the half hour on to the working day.
That measure sounds extremely simple, but how many businesses would allow their staff to leave for half an hour if they wanted to do so? It is important to encourage such initiatives, and I also agree with the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), who spoke for the official Opposition, about ensuring that family friendly policies cover child care and care of the elderly. That was certainly borne out by the research. Work needs to fit into people's lives, not the other way round.
The research also showed that primary SMEs found it much easier to work on family friendly policy than secondary SMEs, which are defined as those working with the public 24 hours a day. We need to explore how we can ensure that they receive particular help. As other hon. Members have said, there has been a huge increase in part-time working, which has obviously been advantageous to employers. However, the research clearly shows that it has been advantageous to employees.
I was pleased to hear the Minister say that a best practice guide would be produced in the next few weeks. The research also reveals that very different approaches are being taken, and that companies in south-west London lack knowledge about what is going on and what different companies do. The more knowledge that there is about what can be done and the success that can come from that, the better for all of us.
So far, I have spoken as a business man: from my business experience, I have found that family friendly policies pay off on all sides of the business community. However, I am also a father of eight and I spent time as a single parent, so I very much relate to the 52,000 single fathers who bring up families on their own. One in five of the Gingerbread group to which I belonged was a single father. It is important to register the fact that fathers, as well as mothers, need to be empowered by family friendly policies.
Part of the reason for my two failed marriages must be the long hours that I worked in business—often 90 or 100 hours a week. As hon. Members move to Parliament from their previous occupations, it is important to reflect on, and use, our experience, and to do what we can to ensure that the practices that did not work are prevented in the future. It is extremely important that the working time directive is implemented, albeit flexibly, and that parental leave is available to all to ensure that fathers, mothers and employees benefit from a much more family friendly society.
§ Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)
We must recognise the needs of people who care for the young, as well as for the elderly. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) for raising the question of both family carers and paid carers of frail, elderly or handicapped people.
The debate so far has been generally useful. I commend to hon. Members who have not yet read it the Social Security Committee's report, as they will be interested in the many submissions that were made to it. I shall not rehearse all the arguments because the Select Committee Chairman did that ably. However, I shall follow on from what the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Ms Kelly) said—we understand why she had to leave. We must take the individual and the family life cycle into account.
We accumulate all our material assets during our working life, although we may have other needs when we are dependent or retired. The question is, how best to reconcile needs and resources at different stages of the life cycle. It is perfectly reasonable to say that, when we die, society should be able, through the taxpayer, to give £1,000 or £2,000 towards the various costs. When considered over a lifetime of work, that should not be too difficult.
It is also reasonable to say that, when a child is born, its citizenship should be recognised by a £500 or £1,000 grant. I shall not try to resolve the detail today, but the question arises of how much of that £500 or £1,000 should be available for parental leave. Should it be a flat-rate or earnings-related grant; how much should be available to the parents; and should the Government, the taxpayer or Parliament decide how it should be divided?
One of the problems with giving people certain benefits, such as free public transport for the elderly, is that those who do not want to use public transport, but prefer to drive, lose out. The more one goes into the detail, the more one finds that people are losing out unnecessarily.
A baby should either be given a lump sum when it is born, or a guarantee during the first six months of a substantial recognition of the fact that it has joined society and will eventually pay tax. After all, the tax that that citizen will pay will allow the same to happen to new babies after him, and pensioners ahead of him. Hopefully, he will get a reasonable deal when society needs to carry some of the burden that he would otherwise have to carry for himself. There should be a recognition that, over the next five or 10 years, the citizen is in transition.
I wish to reinforce the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton and Tiverton about charging VAT to those who have to pay for their own care. I am not sure that Treasury Ministers have in the front of their minds the fact that, ultimately, all tax is paid by individuals—businesses do not really pay tax. Shareholders, employees and customers pay tax, but businesses do not tend to have to carry that burden. People who organise or pay for their own home help, whether or not they are on income support, or receive incapacity benefit or attendance allowance, must pay VAT if it is added to the charges.
We can discuss who the employer is, who is responsible for health and safety and other such matters, but I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells), in 618 winding up the debate, will declare that, whatever solution the Department of Trade and Industry and the Treasury come up with, those frail, elderly, retired or disabled individuals will not have to pay an extra 17.5 per cent. on the personal care that they receive. That is the bottom line—it is the Bottomley line—and it should be the Government line. I urge the Minister to make that declaration.
I have connections with somebody who helps to organise care for people at home, but I have not had a briefing on this matter. I am simply expressing my constituents' concerns. My constituency has the highest proportion of retired people in the country—more than 1,000 of a doctor's 12,000 patients may be over 85—so this is an extremely important issue.
I shall not be able to stay to hear the winding-up speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), who I am glad will respond, because I must discuss with my health authority the health needs of people over the age of 85. The family of an 89-year-old widow in my constituency is concerned that she will have to wait 12 months for a hearing assessment and seven months after that—a total of 19 months—before she has the chance of getting an NHS hearing aid.
§ Dr. Howells
I know that the hon. Gentleman has to leave the debate early and I just wanted to tell him that I have heard the message loud and clear. We are very much aware of the fear and concerns that can be generated by those imponderables. We shall try to clarify the matter and I hope that the Opposition will play their part in ensuring that this matter does not become a prairie fire, but that we deal with it constructively.
§ Mr. Bottomley
I am grateful to the Minister. His intervention shows a modification in the Government's response, because the last letter that I received from Ministers on this subject totally missed the point. I have made the point clearly in my representations and I am glad that the Minister has responded in that way.
The subject of parental leave gives rise to a question about the law. The law can make some actions into an offence—it says that one must take some particular form of action, otherwise one is committing an offence, civil or criminal. The law can give people rights, although it does not necessarily mean that they will take them up, and provide a system of dispute resolution. Ever since I ran a small business putting neon lights outside theatres and cinemas in the west end in the 1970s, employing 25 people, I have feared that, if burdens were placed on my business, they might cause me to go out of business.
When politicians consider what employers should do, we must be mindful that, if we say what they must do, that normally requires subscribing to a human resources publication. Someone running a small business—perhaps a shop with two or three part-time employees—may have to spend a day-and-a-half a week reading the new regulations. For the one in five who, at some stage in their life, run a small business, such a burden becomes impracticable. Indeed, they are likely to make mistakes because they do not know how the secondary legislation has been passed through Parliament or what the latest guidance is. I am not arguing for lower standards of health and safety or employment practice, but I sometimes worry that, in our enthusiasm for what large employers could do relatively easily, we forget that we are imposing that on small employers as well.
619 We must also realise that, every time we preserve employment rights, we say to temporary employees that they cannot have that temporary job on a permanent basis. I am not arguing against the preservation of re-employment or parental leave, but we must be aware that someone who replaces an employee who is temporarily away cannot have that job permanently. That is a kind of exploitation, as it reduces people's choice.
I am glad that we are having this debate on family friendly policies. I initiated the first one in 1978 under a previous Labour Government, and the second one in the 1981–82 Session under the Tory Government. I hope that we shall return to this subject and its different aspects, informed by reports such as that of the Select Committee on Social Security.
If we, in the government process, believe that something is a good idea, let us prove it in what we ourselves do. When I was a Minister at the then Department of Employment, I asked why it did not have more part-time workers, especially people with family responsibilities. I was told that Ministers would require half the Department to be available for emergency debates. That is rubbish. Many more civil service jobs should be part time, and not just as a job share.
We should ask why people employed in the civil service or by other mayor employers do not take up their rights. Even in Scandinavian countries, many people do not take up their paternal leave options—unless things have changed since I last looked at the figures. Sometimes it is because of culture and sometimes it is the law, but if we want to reconcile family responsibilities with work and work opportunities, we should take the life cycle into account. We should not be mean with people who would value help, but we should expect people to play fair by paying their tax and national insurance contributions when they are able to do so.
I was once asked to resign as a Parliamentary Private Secretary because I backed Margaret Thatcher's policy on the importance of child benefit. Sometimes, even people in the Government do not understand what they are trying to achieve—the Chief Whip in my day did not. We have child benefit and the basic child allowance. It is better to have a cash allowance than a tax allowance, and it is should be paid to the mother, weekly if necessary.
§ Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale)
I concur with many of the comments made by the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley). I love debates in which people are honest about the problems. Some people, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Colman), have lived through them, and some of us have experienced what our parents went through. The life cycle must be at the heart of the debate. We are debating this matter in Parliament, but my constituents become exasperated because they do not think that this place is relevant to their lives. We have for years disregarded our responsibility to make it work for them.
The economy and business do not work if they do not relate to people's lives. When all the cards are in one person's favour, it tips the balance. That is what has happened in the past 15 years. I welcome the Government's balanced approach, in genuine partnership with all the interested parties, including some who have not been welcome at the top table for some time. As the 620 hon. Member for Worthing, West said, we have a responsibility to take account of the life cycle in our policies, and to get the investment to back them up.
We pay the cost. It is a hard economic cost for business, and a hard economic and social cost for our communities, the Treasury and the taxpayers. The debate is about putting social, employment and hard economic policy in the same prism. We allowed zero-hour contracts and exploitation in employment, and then we wondered why mum and dad were not at home, and did not know that Johnny was playing truant and vandalising local businesses. We then had to spend a lot of money protecting business and getting rid of the vandalism. We never made that social equation. It is right that we are now putting that slap bang at the heart of Government policy.
I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Ms Kelly) questioned the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), who has had to make these choices herself. The hon. Lady's comment that our proposals were unfair was astounding. She said that our policies have been rushed through on the grounds of dogma. Our policies have not been rushed through. Communities have paid the price for policies that have been out of balance and on the wrong side of the equation. The Exchequer and retailers, as my hon. Friend the Member for Putney, with his experience of the retail industry, will know, have paid the hard economic cost of not putting family and work together in the same prism.
The hon. Lady seemed to be more interested in playgroups as a business. For the first time ever, the Government have pledged to provide places for four-year-olds in primary classes. I hope that that will be extended by the next election and apply to three-year-olds as well. That would make a remarkable difference not only to the nurture and education of those children, but to families and their need for child care while they are at work.
In my constituency, we have received a Government grant so that 83.6 per cent. of three-year-olds in my borough are already enjoying that wonderful provision. People are beating at my door asking why they cannot get that financial help. I hope that they will all receive it eventually. I therefore found the hon. Lady's comments surprising, given the respect that most people have for her.
It is no wonder that boys have difficulty reading when employers say that their employees must work the hours that they are told to or they do not work at all, with the consequence that boys never read with their fathers. What I find disturbing about the official Opposition, especially given their penchant for choice, is that they criticise the Government's policies, such as the new deal, the working families tax credit and the child care tax credit, and say that they are forcing mothers to work.
I am not an economist or a good bead counter, but I believe that, if we strengthen the family by ensuring that people on the lowest rung of the pay scale have a greater basic income through the minimum wage, working families tax credit, child care allowance and the increased child benefit, fathers will be able to choose not to work overtime, rather than being forced to work more than 48 hours a week to make ends meet. The work ethic can work through increased pay, so that people do not have to rely on benefit. Fathers can now go home and read with their children and help them with their homework before they go to bed. They can choose to do that and not suffer 621 economically. My parents had to make the stark choice of whether to stay home and nurture the children or go out to work. In my constituency, there are families who have three generations with no work experience.
The changes that the Government have introduced in the past two and a half years are just coming on stream: the working families tax credit, the child care tax credit, the benefit for the lower paid and the recognition of unpaid work. We should shout about those changes from the treetops—even some hon. Members do not know about them, let alone people outside. We are changing the working environment.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Putney said, we must make hard business and economic choices. The Equal Opportunities Commission undertook pioneering work on this subject. It has played a large part in putting this issue on the agenda. It surveyed micro-businesses, with under 10 employees, and medium-sized businesses. It found that, contrary to the national perception that small businesses cannot afford family friendly policies, they were pioneering flexible working practices. The majority of small businesses, especially highly skilled businesses in e-commerce, must work flexibly. If a dedicated specialist has a family crisis, it is not a good idea to be inflexible and say, "Here are your cards", having invested in that person and with a huge contract involved. That person will be vital to the firm's survival.
§ Mr. Brady
The hon. Lady is right: small businesses have a superb record in terms of flexible working practices. I feel, however, that she is making the case against rather than for legislation. If it is to the commercial advantage of small businesses to employ such practices, why legislate and cause additional problems?
§ Lorna Fitzsimons
The hon. Gentleman's point is based on the good practice employed by a few. In reality, however, many small businesses still believe the myth that good practice is unaffordable. We as parliamentarians have a moral obligation to act. For not just decades but generations, people have been given different rights depending on where they are in the work force—in economic terms, in terms of skills and, in some cases, geographically. Their rights may depend on the size of the business that employs them. We are saying that people should have equal rights regardless of where they are or who employs them. We believe that Government have a moral obligation to set standards, and that is what we are doing, because, as I said earlier, ultimately it is we who pay the price.
Last year, the Ministers for Women undertook a "listening to women" exercise. Over 12 regions, 300,000 women named flexibility and a suitable balance between work and home as a priority that should be addressed by Government. It is clear that this view is not a mere aberration on our part, or based solely on our constituency experience; consultation has established that women are setting their own agenda.
As I have said, there is a strong case for businesses to adopt flexible practices. My hon. Friend the Member for Putney mentioned research into the hard economic benefits conferred by such practices. He particularly mentioned Juliet Colman's research, as yet unpublished. 622 I hope that we shall have a chance to see those findings at some point. Surely it is obvious that a happy worker will be less likely to pretend to be ill when it is actually an elderly mother or a child who is ill, and will be more likely to co-operate with requests that an employer may make at certain times, such as a request for the employee to work unusual hours in order to fulfil a contract.
This week, I joined in the celebrations marking the first birthday of TBA Ballistics, a firm in my constituency 90 per cent. of whose employees—there are fewer than 20—are women. The chief executive told me that they sometimes had to work unsocial hours in order to fulfil contracts, but that, when one of the women had to pick up her son, the boss went with her in his car. I congratulate such organisations, which have experienced phenomenal growth in the past 12 months thanks to their flexible practices. Their commitment has repaid them tenfold in terms of hard economic benefit: employees will show commitment if their employers do.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West echoed the view of the Chairman of the Select Committee on Social Security in regard to pay. I think that that view is now well established, but let me add my support for the idea of a flat rate. I also feel that we caused disappointment when we set the age limit at five rather than eight. Where is the economic sense in that, especially at a time when we are encouraging parents to adopt older children?
Eligibility is another important issue. I fear that we have made a faux pas in specifying those born or adopted after 15 December; many children will benefit while their brothers and sisters will not, and people working in the same business as those whose families will benefit will also be excluded. I know that we are awaiting legal advice but, in the meantime, I urge Ministers to be as flexible as possible. Good government is about feeling able to reconsider, and to reconsider wisely. I think that we have been too inflexible.
Following consultation, we decided that women on maternity leave should be allowed to return to work in a part-time capacity. Maternity is unpredictable; the birth may have been difficult, or the child may have problems. I also think that women should be able to return to work initially in a part-time capacity. If my understanding of the regulations is correct, that has been ruled out.
The Chairman of the Social Security Committee mentioned child care problems experienced by those in higher and further education. Because further education is primarily adult education, those involved have proved to be good at working out ways in which to deal with child care, but the same funds are not provided for higher education, at a time when we are trying to increase the flow from further to higher education—often higher education in a further education setting. Hopwood Hall in my constituency has developed imaginative ways of funding good further education provision—it could be better, but it is good—but those wishing to proceed to higher education cannot do so, because the Higher Education Funding Council does not provide the same funds for child care.
The Small Business Service should concentrate on making family friendly legislation work. As the hon. Member for Worthing, West said, we should lead by example. The Select Committee on Administration carried out a survey on child care among the 6,000 employees 623 of this place, and then had the wisdom, according to its Chairman—a woman—to say that 256 people wanted to use on-site facilities, and that that was too small a percentage of 6,000 to suggest that there was any real demand. Has she ever been to a nursery or a day care centre?
If the Treasury and many other Whitehall Departments can buy into imaginative child care packages for civil servants in this area—in central London—why do we not enfranchise staff of the Palace of Westminster? I am thinking, for instance, of our catering and Library staff. We treat them as second-class citizens, but they do exactly the same job as civil servants; it is just that they are employed by the Serjeant-at-Arms rather than by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Why should they have to suffer because of that? We should stop being hypocritical, and asking others to do what we do not do ourselves. I hope that the House of Commons Commissioners are listening.
Many of the problems experienced by businesses, including small businesses, would not arise if the right approach were taken to start-up grants—if an imaginative banker looking at the balance sheets took the need for family friendly, flexible working patterns into account, thus enabling businesses to start in a healthy state. Problems are often caused not by the fact that a business person does not care, but by the fact that that person's hands are tied because of the way in which the budget was structured in the first place, which causes cash flow difficulties. We should work with the banking system to ensure that, from this day onwards, no business is hamstrung because the wrong advice was given, and the budget was not structured in a way that promoted what I consider to be the crusade of the millennium. If we get this right, everyone will be able to play a full role in society and at work, and we shall have a genuinely knowledge-based economy. People will be able to go home and nurture their children; there will be less crime and vandalism, and more people will have a chance to exercise the work ethic, all the year round.
§ Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)
I enjoyed the speech of the hon. Member for Rochdale (Lorna Fitzsimons). During the brief absence from the Chamber of my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), she referred to my hon. Friend's comments, particularly those about child care provision and the fate of playgroups in the current climate. The hon. Lady has to bear it in mind that, although the Government have for the first time guaranteed a child care place for every four-year-old, whatever the argument we may have about the best mechanism for delivering that, the previous Government for the first time guaranteed child care funding for every four-year-old.
§ Mr. Brady
By voucher. As I have said, the hon. Lady and I may have differences about the preferable way of delivering that facility to parents, but the key difference between Conservative and Labour Members is who should have choice in provision. I am sure that she would happily accept that there is a key difference; she would say that that is a good thing. She believes in a more planned approach and that provision is the responsibility 624 of Government and local government—municipal authorities should provide. I suspect that most Conservative Members would rather see more diverse provision, frequently involving the private sector, which gives the parent greater choice in the type of available child care facility.
§ Lorna Fitzsimons
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the child care tax credit would have an uncertain future if the Conservative party were ever to regain power? The credit gives individual parents the choice because it puts the money, the tax credit, in their pocket.
§ Mr. Brady
Parents will not have the choice if playgroups and private providers close due a massive shift of resources to state provision of nursery child care. That is a big problem.
I accept that good child care provision exists in state-funded nurseries in many parts of the country. The borough of Trafford, for many years under Conservative control, has a good record of providing a great number of child care nursery places. I have no difficulty with that. What I object to is a policy that results in the removal of the options for parents.
Child care is perhaps the most personal choice that parents have to make. When one choose to put one's child in the care of others at such a young age, it is important that one should have absolute confidence and faith in the provider. The danger of overwhelming state provision and a move from the voucher model is that less choice is offered. There can be instances where parents have to use local provision, perhaps because they have to put their children into reception classes or in a local authority nursery, regardless of what they would prefer.
The hon. Member for Rochdale referred to what she said was the myth that small businesses cannot afford to pay for flexible working practices. I call the House's attention to another Select Committee report, published some months ago, which is relevant to the debate—that on part-time working by the Select Committee on Education and Employment. We debated that issue at some length.
I see the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Healey), a former member of that Committee, in his place. He would bear out that there was considerable agreement in Committee about encouraging flexible working practices, flexibility for parents and flexible arrangements to cater for child care and more time with children. Again, there was disagreement on how to deliver those objectives. Today, I have sought to underline that difficulty.
I agree with the hon. Member for Rochdale that flexible working practices are generally better for businesses. That point was made by Labour Members on the Education and Employment Committee on many occasions. My argument is that such arrangements should be promoted. There is reason to encourage other businesses to follow that best practice. I applaud what the Government are doing in that direction, but there is an argument for being cautious about piling up legislation requiring certain action by businesses.
Although some businesses, whether large or small, may be able easily to accommodate the additional costs of flexible arrangements, or may find that the benefits in terms of motivated staff outweigh the costs of regulation, 625 of uncertainty in terms of the work force and of difficulties in planning, for many other businesses, such provision is a genuine problem. That is not a myth.
If a small business employing five, 10 or 20 people loses one key employee for three months, that can be a serious matter. Similarly, it would be serious if, as some Labour Members have suggested, they were to lose that employee through maternity leave, when the employee has the right to come back part-time. Not every business can accommodate such flexibility.
§ Dr. Howells
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. That is why we have concentrated so much on ensuring that it is possible for contracts that are tailored to meet the requirements of small businesses in particular to be arranged. His point is valid, but we have tried to accommodate it as best as is practicable at the moment. We have tried to go with the grain, as he suggested that we should, in promoting best practice—an awful phrase, but it describes something—to ensure that firms have the opportunity to take advantage of mentors in other firms.
§ Mr. Brady
I am grateful to the Minister. As he will have detected, I was nowhere near to attacking the Government. I was seeking to defend them from some Labour Members, who have said that the Government should go further.
I make no bones about the fact that I would not have gone as far as the Government have in legislation. The Government have damaged business and reduced competitiveness as a result, but some of the arguments that have been advanced by Labour Members would accelerate that damage and make its impact infinitely worse. That is not the most full-spirited compliment that I could offer, but I hope that the Government will resist the voices from behind them who say go further. At the very least, having introduced considerable legislation already—too much legislation—the Government should pause, reflect and look at the consequences in the employment market before contemplating any further steps.
Indeed, that was one of the conclusions of the Education and Employment Committee in its report on part-time working. In paragraph 53, it said:We would draw the Government's attention to the range of differing views that were expressed to us about the labour market effects of the implementation of the Directive on Part-time Work and we recommend that the Government publish a review of the effect of the Directive on the labour market and patterns of part-time employment two years after it is implemented.That was an eminently sensible recommendation. I do not think that I am going too far in revealing the private discussions of the Committee when I say that I would think that because I suggested it. I was pleased, however, that the Committee accepted that that was a sensible approach and agreed that the Government should publish a review of the consequences of their legislation on the labour market.
As a member of the Standing Committee that considered the Employment Relations Bill, I was greatly saddened to find that an amendment that I had tabled to the same effect was brushed aside by the Government.
§ Mr. John Healey (Wentworth)
The hon. Gentleman has referred at some length to the work that we have done 626 together on the Select Committee on Education and Employment and the detailed work that we did on the inquiry into part-time working. May I remind him and the House of one other recommendation that the Committee produced in the report, to which, I am glad to say, he also signed up? It covered women returning from maternity leave. Recommendation 10 said that the Committee believed thatThere should be a presumption that women will be allowed to return to work after maternity leave on a part-time basis, with pay and benefits no less favourable … than those which they were receiving before they took maternity leave. We recommend that the Government introduce legislation guaranteeing women the right to return to work after maternity leave on a part-time basis".
§ Mr. Brady
I would be going too far in divulging the private deliberations of the Education and Employment Committee if I responded in full to that point. I shall leave hon. Members to draw their own conclusions. As I am the only Opposition Member to serve on the Select Committee, I do not necessarily go all the way with my friend, the hon. Member for Wentworth.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton referred to the effect of the Government's new deal programme, about which we hear so much. She referred in particular to the new deal for lone parents. It is often suggested that Conservative Members are neolithic in their opposition to the new deal. However, it is demonstrably a waste of public money, huge amounts of which are being squandered on a programme that is not necessarily having the desired effect.
My party and I are not alone in taking such a view. The views of the Greater Manchester low pay unit were recently published in the Manchester Metro newspaper—
§ Mr. Brady
The hon. Gentleman may cast aspersions on the quality of that fine journal, but he may also wish to consider what the Greater Manchester low pay unit had to say. Its view was that young people were being let down by the Government's new deal. It cast doubt on the Government's promise to make young people more employable, and recommended that Ministers should take immediate action. The author of a report on the matter was quoted as saying:The government talks about young people having rights and responsibilities, but it is the government that is failing to meet its responsibilities towards young people.That is hardly a ringing endorsement from a pressure group not particularly associated with the Conservative party.
§ Lorna Fitzsimons
If the hon. Gentleman believes that the new deal is not tackling unemployment, what policy would he advocate?
§ Mr. Brady
The hon. Lady kindly gives me the opportunity to blow the myth of the new deal for the young unemployed. The figures for youth unemployment in the years leading up to 1 May 1997 prove that youth unemployment has fallen more slowly since the new deal was introduced than it did previously. Youth unemployment fell more rapidly under the Conservatives than it has since the Labour Government decided to 627 confiscate huge sums from the former public utilities for a programme that was intended purely to be a propaganda coup.
Labour used a statistic that was clearly going the right way. Youth unemployment was falling rapidly, and Labour pledged to reduce it by 250,000, only to be embarrassed to find when they came to office that there were not 250,000 long-term youth unemployed. The hon. Lady would be wise to consider that unemployment levels today have far more to do with the flexible employment market created—painfully, and in the face of determined opposition from Labour—by Conservative Administrations. That is why our unemployment is lower than that in Germany and other countries.
The hon. Member for Bolton, West (Ms Kelly) has good reasons for no longer being with us, but I was concerned by her approach to my intervention about whether we ought to support marriage as an encouraging environment for child care. Marriage is not the only acceptable environment for child care. Nor should people be penalised for not being married. However, it is legitimate for the state to encourage what is undoubtedly the ideal environment in which to bring up children. Marriage makes it most likely that children will grow up in all the ways that the hon. Member for Rochdale described as ideal. It is generally best if both parents are always there, although I accept, of course, that that is not always so.
§ Ms Harriet Harman (Camberwell and Peckham)
I am intrigued. What public policy step would the hon. Gentleman take to support marriage? How would he make men and women happier in marriage, thus preventing them from becoming unhappy in their relationships and divorcing? Everyone wants to support marriage, and everyone wants everyone else to be happy, but are there any practical policies to be taken, or is the hon. Gentleman offering mood music? [Interruption.]
§ Mr. Brady
My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton is muttering that people would be happier under a Conservative Government, and I am sure that that is true. The right hon. Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) might have read in this morning's press that people are certainly found to be happier when married. In fact, the benefit has been calculated financially—at about £60,000. It may not always seem so to everyone who is married—sometimes it seems more, rather than less, expensive—but people are undoubtedly happier in marriage, and it is undoubtedly a better environment within which to bring up children. The Conservative policy is to recognise that fact in the tax system, which is a positive plan. It is a shame that Labour seems determined to give no encouragement to marriage.
§ Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow)
May I offer the hon. Gentleman a personal example? A friend of mine was brought up by unmarried parents, and I was brought up by parents who were married. Mine were divorced when I was three, and her non-married parents remain together to this day. Why should Governments have given my parents more money and hers less?
§ Mr. Brady
That is a terrible shame. However, I am simply arguing that we should seek to combat that situation as far as we can. I accept that what we can do is limited. Social forces cannot always be controlled by Governments. We may be able to achieve only modest benefits, but it is right for Governments to do what they can, even at the margins, to support and encourage marriage. That will lead to people staying together more often, which is good for children. I am by no means extreme on this matter. However, most people would accept that the married state is a good condition within which to bring up children. Governments should therefore support it, not denigrate it.
I have talked about the Select Committee's recommendations on the part-time work directive, as has the hon. Member for Wentworth. I was strongly struck in Committee by the different approaches taken by hon. Members from different sides of the House on how to achieve objectives that we broadly share. Our debate on this points up a difference of approach that centres around whether it is better to plan, legislate and force or to encourage greater freedom and flexibility and freer environment for businesses and individuals to make their decisions.
Labour Members argue that there is a business case for greater flexibility in working practices and that businesses will be more profitable if they offer flexible working practices. In many instances, that is true. Where it is, businesses will need relatively little encouragement to follow that course of action. It is natural for businesses to wish to maximise their profits, so they should be encouraged to do it when it is in their interest. It makes no sense for businesses to be forced into a course of action that may be appropriate to some businesses or to large businesses or to some industries, when such legislative compulsion may lead to the worst of all outcomes: not a flexible environment for parents and families but one in which there is less employment available, where there are fewer businesses and where businesses are less competitive and less able to operate successfully, expand and employ people. The core of the debate between us and the Government about the best outcome for businesses and families is whether high employment protection, even if that means fewer jobs, or an environment with maximum employment opportunities and maximum flexibility is the best route to generating employment.
§ 12.1 pm
§ Mr. John Healey (Wentworth)
I served on the Standing Committees that considered the Employment Relations Bill and the National Minimum Wage Bill. They were both highly politically charged and partisan, so I hoped that this debate would be more neutral territory that would allow a more considered discussion of the 629 Government's family friendly policies and the issues at stake. I was therefore disappointed with, but not surprised by, the sharp contribution of the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning). I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Ms Kelly) and the hon. Members for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) and for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) for bringing us back to a more measured consideration of the issues.
Family friendly employment policies are shorthand for measures that help employees to combine the requirements of their jobs with their responsibilities to their families. It is an area of policy in which the Government have been very active. I strongly support that. It is right in principle, and the measures that have been taken are right in practice, but they are also necessary to respond to fundamental changes in family patterns, the structure of the labour market, the competitive pressures on business and the public policy ambition of Government following the election on 1 May 1997.
Family friendly policies across Government are a proper response to deep-seated changes around us. They are not the triumph of feminism, a victory in the fight for workers' rights or the heel of Government coming down hard on bad bosses, although I am glad that a little of each is also involved. First and foremost, the Government's family friendly policy measures are as much to do with present-day social and economic imperatives as with political ideology.
If we want children brought up in secure families without poverty, parents to have an opportunity to work, the United Kingdom to be competitive and make the best use of all the talents available in our population, and the UK economy to be run with low unemployment and stable, low inflation, we need family friendly employment policies. The national minimum wage, the working families tax credit, the new rights under the Employment Relations Act 1999, the record increase in child benefit, the new deal—especially the new deal for lone parents—the national child care strategy, sure start and the child care tax credit should be considered together. They mean that, for the first time, many parents have an opportunity to work, or are working in jobs that make work pay, while getting practical help to combine their desire to work with heir concern to be good parents and be with their kids as they grow up.
That list of measures is extremely revealing; it involves the Department of Trade and Industry, the Treasury, the Department of Social Security, the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Employment, as well as the new opportunities fund. An enormous effort is being made throughout government to support families—especially women and children. That support for families will emerge as one of the hallmarks of the Labour Government's first term.
I referred to fundamental changes, both in the world of work and in the world more generally. First, there are social changes—the increasing diversity of family life. The divorce rate is rising and the number of single-parent families is increasing. More children are growing up with step-parents. That increasing diversity makes complex demands on employed parents. Secondly, there are changing demographic trends. The average age of the 630 general population and of the work force is rising; that means that the proportion of people who have jobs and responsibility for the care of the elderly is increasing, and will continue to increase.
Thirdly, employment trends are changing. The increasing participation of women in the work force, because of the growth in part-time working, and the demand from firms for more flexible rostering, mean that more women are now in work and also caring for people at home. Over the past 10 years, part-time jobs have risen from 24 to 29 per cent. as a proportion of the total number of jobs in the economy.
In areas such as the one in South Yorkshire that I represent, that change has been even more rapid and more brutal. In Rotherham, between 1981 and 1991, we lost 12,000 coal and steel jobs. We gained 9,000 jobs in the service sector during that time, but they were mainly low paid and part-time, and were mostly taken by women.
For employees—both male and female—those changes mean that, in future, the lives of a larger proportion of the work force will be affected in some way by their caring responsibilities. For employers, the changes mean that more of their staff will want access to more flexible working arrangements—with paid and unpaid leave. Fewer of their staff will be willing, or able, regularly to work long hours. The capacity of their employees to cope with the demands of their job and their home responsibilities may be affected, leading to increased sickness, ill health and lower productivity.
There are two main aspects to the challenge to frame the right public policy response to those changes. The first is the regulation of the labour market and the second is the operation of the labour market. The challenge in regulating the labour market must be for legislation and policy to foster a new balance between flexibility for employers and security for employees in the workplace. There must be a balance between prescription of legal minimum standards and scope for implementation that suits the employer and the employees. The modern pressures on business mean that firms need adaptable employees and flexible working, while the modern pressures on family life and on income mean that parents need security in their employment.
The Standing Committee on the Employment Relations Bill received a briefing from the CBI that was broadly supportive of the parts of the Bill—now an Act—that dealt with family friendly policies. Recently, as a follow-up comment on that section of the Act, which is due to take effect on 15 December, the CBI concluded thatwe support the approach which the Government has adopted. We believe the proposals strike a reasonable balance between individual rights and business realities.
The British Chambers of Commerce have urged the Government to issue clearer guidance on how far voluntary arrangements for parental leave can differ from the statutory model. The BCC noted thatemployers and employees entitled to parental leave may find it more practical to make arrangements for working part time over a period of time for their parental leave, rather than taking full time leave.The TUC advanced the same argument and proposed that there should be no cut-off for eligibility for parental leave, that there should be some form of paid parental leave, and that the age limit for parents looking after disabled 631 children should be raised. Those are the sort of judgments the Government must make when preparing the regulations, not only on paternity leave, but on the extension of maternity leave and on time off for domestic emergencies. The challenge lies in striking the balance between flexibility and security, legal prescription and the promotion of good practice.
A powerful publicity campaign is needed to support the introduction of the new rights. Ten days ago in my constituency, I led a seminar attended by trade union officials and a couple of dozen local employers. One employer, on the assumption that the range of family friendly employment policies mattered only to women, said that if the new rights came into force, firms would stop employing women. We heard that same argument when the equal pay legislation was introduced, when maternity rights were strengthened and when the minimum wage was introduced. The fact is that employers did not stop employing women then and they will not stop now. However, that employer's incorrect assumption underlines the importance of disseminating accurate information and running a proper promotion and publicity campaign.
We are pushing at an opening, if not fully open, door. Companies increasingly regard family friendly provision as a business solution rather than a legal obligation. I am privileged to have served on the Select Committee on Education and Employment, which carried out an exhaustive study of part-time working, already mentioned by the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West.
The Committee took evidence from Mr. Nigel Broome of Sainsbury, who told the Committee:almost overnight we made many, many thousands of temporary colleagues"—his description—permanent, and we believe we have reaped the benefit of that action.He was keen to tell us that Sainsbury takes a positive attitude to part-time workers, saying that theyneed to be valued and treated in the same way … have access to the same terms and conditions, and have the benefits and training and other services we provide, because at the end of the day they will provide the competitive edge and in many cases it is the part-timers who are serving our public at the most crucial times and busiest times of the week.
The Committee heard the same arguments from Tesco and from Norwich Union and other financial services providers that submitted evidence. The Midland bank mentioned that it described its part-time employees not as part-timers, but as key timers. Being part time and flexible need not mean being temporary, insecure and poorly paid.
That was underlined by a report published last month by the Department for Education and Employment, which analysed the business case for family friendly employment policies and their practice and implementation among a number of companies. It drew five key business benefits from family friendly practices, the first of which was reduced casual sickness absence. The study reported that most employers felt that sickness absence due to employees caring responsibilities had been reduced. That was reinforced by employees interviewed as part of the study, who felt more able to be honest about absence caused by dependants illnesses.
The second benefit was improved retention: each of the firms in the study was able to identify individuals who had stayed with them longer because of access to family 632 friendly provision. The third benefit was improved productivity: many of the firms were convinced that those of their employees who worked flexible hours were more productive than those who worked longer, traditional hours.
Fourthly, the firms reported improved recruitment. They believed that offering family friendly practices attracted potential recruits that they would not otherwise have had when filling vacancies. The fifth business benefit was the improved morale and commitment of the work force. When family friendly policies benefit business, the work force and their families, there is a powerful case for Government action.
My second point is the operation of the labour market. The challenge for legislation and public policy is to create the opportunity for people to work, to make work pay better than benefits and to help people take that step into work. For two reasons, I strongly endorse the Government's approach of introducing measures that encourage not only the unemployed but the economically inactive into work.
The first reason is the legacy of the Tory years. The jobs legacy that we inherited from the previous Government was a huge underemployment problem, flattered by the unemployment figures. At the time of the 1997 election, economic inactivity was at a record high—7.5 million people of working age were not working or looking for work. When the economy expands, economic inactivity usually falls. However, in 1997, male economic inactivity was 10 per cent. higher than in the trough of the previous recession in 1993. Four in every five of nearly 1 million lone parents wanted to work, or wanted to work more.
The second reason is that, by getting more unemployed people into work and by bringing more economically inactive people into contact with the labour market, we contribute to reducing the non-inflationary rate of unemployment in the economy. That is part of the current picture of improving growth, stable low inflation, rising employment and falling unemployment. Family friendly employment policies are central to persuading economically inactive people that work is worth seeking and in their interests. Such policies are crucial to making the labour market more effective.
As a member of the Select Committee on Education and Employment, I was involved in a study of the new deal for lone parents. The impact of the new deal on Rotherham in my area is impressive. In the past six months, 221 lone parents attended an interview: 86 per cent. have kept in contact with their new deal adviser, and 70 are now in work. One in three of those lone parents are now working in a labour market in which unemployment rates are twice the national average and problems of deep-seated, long-term unemployment are as bad as anywhere in the country.
While performance is encouraging, the testimony of some lone parents is truly inspiring. Laura lives near me in Rotherham. She applied for a job at a local hospital but had not thought about the financial impact and had made no provision or inquiries about child care. She was becoming despondent after trying to contact various agencies to solve the problem. She sat down with a new deal adviser for lone parents, who explained her job of collating all the information and helping Laura to make an in-work benefit calculation. Laura was unimpressed with the results based on family credit.
633 However, as the beginning of October was approaching, the new deal adviser suggested that they make an in-work benefit calculation based on the working families tax credit. The adviser confirmed that 70 per cent. of Laura's child care costs would be paid and her maintenance would be disregarded. The calculation revealed that, if Laura claimed the working families tax credit, she would benefit by an additional £65.52 a week compared with her existing circumstances on income support. By working for 16 hours a week, Laura could make herself and her family better off by £137 a week. That demonstrates the impact of the working families tax credit.
§ Ms Harman
I was interested in, and encouraged by, that example. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is not only a financial benefit to that family because of the extra income that they will receive, but a solution to the problem, which many hon. Members are concerned about, of children being brought up in workless households where they see only a pattern of benefit dependency? Children learn about the world of work by seeing their parents going out to work. Is not that one of the important benefits of the new deal for lone parents and the working families tax credit?
§ Mr. Healey
My right hon. Friend reminds me that another aspect of the jobs legacy that we inherited from the Tories in May 1997 was that one in five households containing someone of working age had no one in work. In areas such as my constituency that was a deep-seated problem, and the new deal, which the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West criticised, has played an important part in breaking the cycle of generational unemployment. In Rotherham, 45 per cent. of those eligible for the new deal had never worked but, since the new deal was introduced, more than 1,000 have found work. I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that many would not have found those jobs without the new deal.
§ Lorna Fitzsimons
At a recent jobs fair in my town hall, the Employment Service staff who are responsible for implementing the new deal for single parents said that it was the most ecstatic job experience that they had ever had because they were delivering a product that they believed in and that people wanted. They could not cope with the demand, such was the interest from women and single parents who had heard, by word of mouth, that the new deal could give them what they wanted—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The hon. Lady cannot make a second speech. That was a very long intervention. I remind her also that she should face the Chair when she makes her remarks.
§ Mr. Healey
My hon. Friend made a point that all Labour Members will recognise. In my discussions with new deal advisers, they often tell me that they are now doing the job that they wanted to do when they first entered the Employment Service, the Benefits Agency or, in the case of advisers to lone parents, the Child Support Agency. That has been a liberation for them. The advice and detailed personal support that they are able to give to their clients, backed by the range of family friendly 634 support and employment rights that are now in place, mean that they are now able to help people in a way that they felt they could not before.
The working families tax credit has pride of place in the panoply of family friendly employment measures taken by the Government in the past two years. By 2001, 1.4 million working families will be receiving the working families tax credit—500,000 more than would have been receiving family credit. After just over a month of operation, 600,000 calls have been taken by the working families tax credit advice line and more than 160,000 people have been identified as eligible and sent claim forms. The working families tax credit will transform work opportunities for parents and increase the levels of family income and quality of life for almost 3 million children.
The national minimum wage, the working families tax credit, the new deal and the new employment rights in the Employment Relations Act 1999 are the fulfilment of manifesto commitments. If one also accepts that our family friendly policies are the right response to help people achieve a better balance between work and home life, to certain competitive pressures on business, to structural changes in patterns of employment and to our pursuit of full employment, logic insists that, as broad social and economic changes continue, our family friendly employment policies must also develop.
Like so many in the House and outside, I warmly welcome the steps that have already been taken. I shall watch their impact with interest and join in arguments over how to build on the base that we have established.
§ Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)
I shall make a short speech, because I have only one point to make.
This week, an obituary of Lord Jakobovits, the former Chief Rabbi, was published. He was a towering figure. Towards the end of his life, his greatest pleasure was the fact that one wall of his house was covered with pictures of his 38 grandchildren. He gave some marvellous speeches during his time in the other place. If he were here, I am sure that he would say that much of what we have been discussing this morning can be no more than a palliative. Families and the nation are best supported by following the Judaeo-Christian tradition that he regularly defended robustly, diligently and skilfully.
I am not going to climb on my soapbox and rant about that today, because everybody knows my views. Regardless of whether I like it, we have to accept that society has changed. Not all people get married and stay married with a sense of lifelong commitment. Not all young mothers want to stay at home and bring up their children. Divorces, the break-up of marriages and the desire of mothers to work are all increasing. Hon. Members may be surprised to hear me say that we have to accept that state of affairs when we frame our policies. I do not want to take those trends lying down. As I said when I intervened on the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), we can influence social trends. For example, we do not strengthen families by making divorce easier. However, we have to accept society as it is.
Last week, the Social Security Select Committee visited Finland and Norway. This time last week, I was with my colleagues at a day centre in Finland. In Finland, every 635 mother can place her child, from the age of one, in a full-time nursery. If she does not wish to do that, she is entitled to a generous grant from the state for looking after her child at home.
I was impressed by what I found out in Norway and Finland. In Norway last year, there were just 19 teenage pregnancies. In Finland—I cannot believe this figure, but we were told it—there were no teenage pregnancies. We have to recognise that, in this country, we are not managing matters very well. There may be other reasons why there are no teenage pregnancies in Finland, but I suspect that the fact that families there are fully supported by the state is an important factor.
I know that there are serious implications for public spending in such policies and I am not recommending that we immediately copy the Nordic model. However, we have to recognise one point—and this is the only point that I want to make. In the society that we are moving towards, whether we like it or not, in which there is an increasing trend for young mothers to work, we have to encourage fathers to take equal responsibility for their children below the age of five. That is why—surprisingly in the view of some—I was happy to put my name to the report published by the Social Security Select Committee. It suggested not only that parental leave should become a fact of life—it will be a fact of life—but that it should be paid; and that, given that small employers simply cannot take up the burden, the state must take it up.
That comment may sound surprising, coming from someone who has a bit of a reputation as a Thatcherite, but I am simply trying to address society as I find it. In this country—as the Minister said, in a speech that was at times excellent—fathers work longer, and spend less time with their children, than those in any other country in Europe. We have more teenage pregnancies, more family breakdown and more stress on families than any other country in Europe has. We must address that. If we do not, we are building up enormous problems, and huge social costs, for our society. Therefore I was happy to put my name to the Select Committee report.
When I was in Finland, I was very impressed when I heard that the country's Prime Minister had taken several weeks' parental leave. It is an extraordinary situation. Could hon. Members envisage it happening here, with our manic work culture? Parental leave should be taken by all sections of society. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), who has just had a baby, has been made a Minister. I hope that her husband, Ed Balls, will take parental leave from the Treasury. He may be the chief economic adviser and a very important man, but if the Prime Minister of Finland can take parental leave, Ed Balls can take time off to look after his children. The economy might run slightly better if he did.
I agree that the changes recommended in the report will involve dramatic changes in the way that we structure society. I know that the focus has been largely on people who live in poverty or near poverty—we have heard about the working families tax credit—but many of the problems extend right up the income scale. The hon. Member for Bolton, West (Ms Kelly) quoted a study that had been done on 1,500 men working in the financial sector; only 42 had taken any parental leave. Throughout society—right up the income scale—men are not seeing enough of their children.
636 When I knew that I wanted to speak in the debate, I took the trouble to consult a person who was working in the retail sector, doing a very ordinary job on the shop floor. Enormous pressures are placed on people in the retail sector. Contrary to all the undertakings that we were given during the debates on Sunday trading—I voted against the liberalisation of Sunday trading because I saw that it would happen—the person to whom I spoke said, "You can only get a job if you agree to work on Sundays". He has now been told that he must work on Sundays and on every bank holiday throughout the Christmas period. He must work on new year's eve, right up to 5 pm. As it happens, he is a young man and has no children, but if he had, when would he see his children? He has to work from 9 pm to 7 pm every day. That is what is happening in the retail sector.
I do not have the solution, but I do know that, unless we have the courage to understand society as it is, and to create a firm principle of society that fathers have as much of a duty as mothers to look after their children, we shall never make a better society.
§ Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow)
I am honoured to follow such a commendable speech by the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh). I welcome the honesty of the speeches that have been made from both sides of the House. The hon. Gentleman said that we must view the matter in terms of what is happening in the real world. Regardless of whether we like change, it has happened.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Lorna Fitzsimons) and I were both 29 when we were elected to the House, and we can tell hon. Members, in case they had not noticed, that life for our generation has changed beyond recognition. The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) is not so much beyond our age group—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)
Order. The hon. Lady must remember to use the correct parliamentary language.
§ Ms King
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
This debate is about time and money. It is about people having enough time to bring up their children and care for their relatives, and enough money to prevent their development or care being stunted by poverty.
I congratulate the Government on the steps that have been taken so far. The difference in the attitude between this Government and the previous Administration—although not necessarily current Front-Bench spokespersons—is the difference between night and day. However, as other speakers have pointed out, we must continue to move on and move further.
The Nordic model has been mentioned. In five or 10 years, and I hope sooner, that will be the norm in Britain. Eventually, in any civilised society, a woman will 637 have the right and the ability to put her child into care or some kind of provision from the time the child is one year old.
§ Ms King
It is an extremely important point, and I wholeheartedly commend the concept of choice. I shall return to the subject of choice and flexibility.
Although my hon. Friend the Minister for Competitiveness is no longer in his place, I congratulate him on his appointment and look forward to the contribution that he will make, given his experience in the trade union movement.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) for her campaigning efforts to raise awareness of the problems faced by many parents in maintaining the balance between work and parenting commitments. I am particularly indebted to her for the research that she commissioned from the Centre for Longitudinal Studies and the policy proposals that have arisen from it.
In their employment policies, the Government have recognised that families are changing. In the vocabulary of the modern business lexicon, we would say that families are more flexible. Too often, as we have heard, marriage or any type of stable partnership is no longer for life. Following on from the comments of the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West, I want to put it on record that I, like most of our generation, believe in a stable partnership and do not care whether that is in the institutionalised framework of marriage.
Our generation should not be penalised for not choosing the establishment route of marriage. The most important aim is to ensure that the children are not penalised. That can be achieved only by encouraging couples—not necessarily married couples—to stay together in stable relationships.
The good news is that children can be, and often are, nurtured in all types of families. It is the role of the state not to dictate the shape of those families, but to stop employers discriminating against families and parents. All too often, that has been translated into straightforward discrimination against women. However, men now recognise that they are losing out as much as women have done. They are being deprived of their rights as fathers.
I would like employers to recognise the benefits of embracing social change rather than retreating from it. That will be difficult because of the current "hire 'em and fire 'em" mentality that pervades many businesses, but, with the political leadership that the Government have shown, it should not be impossible. Half the battle has been won. Employers recognise that the most important investment is investment in human capital. Family friendly policies are part of that investment. Only the most churlish employer—or, perhaps, Opposition spokesperson—could fail to welcome the measures that the Government have already introduced to make the workplace more family friendly. From the look of 638 consternation on the faces of Opposition Front Benchers, perhaps they welcome those measures. Among them are the introduction of a 13-week period of parental leave, which is a vital step in enabling parents to take time off in the first five years of their child's life without worrying about losing their jobs.
§ Mrs. Browning
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way, particularly as she drew attention to the expression on my face. If the Government believe that parental leave is the right policy, why have they not made it paid leave? As we have discussed, unpaid leave makes it a policy for the few, not the many. I hope that she will use her influence, because it is obviously much greater than mine, to persuade Ministers to do what they think is right and to be prepared to pay for that themselves, rather than expect other people to pick up the tab on their behalf.
§ Mrs. Browning
We made our views on that very clear when the legislation went through Parliament, but the Government have created an unfair policy. She will know that, because she will be receiving the same post as I am from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and others. It is not for the Opposition to clear up the mess of an ill-thought-through Government policy; it is up to them, as the legislators and the Executive in the House, to put fair and just policies on the statute book. That is their responsibility, but they have clearly failed to satisfy the hon. Lady and her friends that their policy is fair or just.
§ Ms King
The policy that the Government have put on the statute book represents the first step taken by this country, or by any Government, to make family friendly policies pay at work and I welcome that, although I hope that they go further. I echo the comments of other Members who made that point, but it is impossible to deny the astonishing achievements that have been made so far.
§ Mr. Pond
Taking account of the comments made by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), is my hon. Friend aware that the Confederation of British Industry has described the introduction of parental leave as a seismic shift in favour of family friendly employment policies? Is there not some difference between what it believes to be important and what the hon. Lady appears to believe?
§ Ms King
I was not aware of that, but it has been drawn to my attention that the CBI is eminently sensible and reasonable in its approach to many policies. I hope that Opposition Front Benchers might adopt such an approach at some point.
Let me return to the steps that the Government have taken. People can have time off for family emergencies, the working time directive has been implemented, the statutory right to four weeks' annual paid leave has been extended and the national child care strategy, which was introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham, provides 1 million places. All those measures not only shore up the position of parents, 639 but encourage those parents outside the labour market to seek work safe in the knowledge that their children will not suffer as a result.
The working families tax credit and the forthcoming child care tax credit will play a vital role in encouraging parents back to the workplace. Those are all ways of ensuring that the workplace is not hostile to people with young families. However, we must go past the point of neutralising hostility and actually achieve a welcoming environment. That will require a renewed commitment from the Government and a sea change in attitudes among many employers.
The research that I mentioned earlier, commissioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham, revealed two interesting points. Clearly, every child is different and has different needs, but the research showed that the prospects for a child's development may be improved if the mother has the choice of staying at home during the first year. I wish that I had that choice. Of course, if I were to have a child, I would not be able to stay at home for my child's first year. If we worry about future generations, we should give British mothers that choice.
The research also showed that a child's development may be improved further, or at least not harmed, if the mother then goes out to work when her child is a year old. I urge the Government to consider the conclusions of the research so that it informs future Government policy.
I have no hesitation in echoing the appeal made by my right hon. Friend first, to extend the right to return to work from six to 12 months and, secondly, to extend maternity pay so that low-paid mothers benefit. It simply is not fair if only middle-class parents benefit from changes.
Looking to the future, I hope that mothers will be given the right to work part time after maternity leave. That suggestion was made by the Select Committee on Education and Employment and was highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Healey). Mothers should be able to return to work part time, unless their employer can show that that would cause the business considerable harm.
I also support paid parental leave. I believe that, in five or 10 years' time, it will be the norm in any civilised society. The case for paid parental leave was made by my hon. Friends the Members for Bolton, West (Ms Kelly), for Rochdale and for Wentworth, and the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), among others. I congratulate the Social Security Committee on its report on that subject and urge the Government to consider their response to it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West pointed out that paid parental leave at a flat rate of £100 a week would cost the Treasury an estimated £285 million a year. I concur with the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire, who said that he cannot imagine how that money could be better spent. We cannot afford not to spend the money in that way. Above all, it is what parents want. As the Government survey of 30,000 women showed, women do not want the Government to make choices for them; they want the Government to support them in the choices that they make.
Mothers face enormous difficulties in trying to reconcile the work-life dichotomy. For example, one of the technical difficulties that they face is the administrative nightmare of statutory maternity pay and maternity allowance.
640 A young mother, who recently visited my constituency surgery, is still waiting for her claim for statutory maternity pay to be paid more than two years after making it. That is not only because her former employer is being obstructive, but because of the lack of competence at the local Benefits Agency office. Opposition from employers and an inadequate administrative response from Benefits Agency offices combine to put new mothers in an intolerable position.
I welcome with open arms the idea of replacing statutory maternity pay, maternity allowance and child care tax credits for babies in the first 12 months by something along the lines of a baby tax credit. That is a sensible idea, and I look forward to hearing the Minister's views on that.
We must break down not only the physical barriers to making work and parenting more compatible, but the mental attitudes in the workplace. Young women with babies often do not get the promotions that they deserve. I am delighted that the Government have shown that that is not case here by promoting my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper). That was an exceptionally well-deserved promotion. She has a five-month-old baby, and is the youngest Minister in this Government. I hope that we shall put our own house in order, so that women in the home, in the House and in society at large have the rights and opportunities that they deserve.
For that to happen, a key change is required. Time for children must become an important workplace issue. I had a conversation with—
§ Ms King
I appreciate your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have never received guidance from anyone other than the Chair on what one should do, so I am grateful to you for that.
I recall a conversation with my right hon. Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham. She told me that, 10 years ago, it was not acceptable for her to tell the Whips that she had a problem and had to see her child who needed her. I am sure that our Whips are no longer like that.
§ Ms King
I am delighted to have that on the record. The Whip affirms that that is no longer a problem for women MPs. However, it is a problem in most workplaces. Most forward-thinking employers tell us—studies in this area confirm this—that employees who enjoy a good balance between work and family life are more productive, motivated and committed, and therefore more valuable than those who do not.
I concur with my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Colman), who said that the work-life balance remains a pipe dream. I worked in the European Parliament with a young French women. She returned to France and I returned to Britain. She became a French civil servant and I became a British Member of Parliament. We regularly worked 80-hour weeks, and we used to say how amazing it would be if we lived in a world in which we were expected to work only 35 hours 641 a week. She now lives in a country whose Government have introduced a 35-hour week. I am certain that there will be many obstacles to that working effectively, but I have not yet noticed the French economy or the French Government falling apart as a result of introducing a 35-hour week. That woman is now a senior civil servant with 20 civil servants working under her, and she works a 35-hour week, but, as I have said, for those of us here, that remains a pipe dream. I hope we soon recognise that we must make more efforts in this regard if we are to have socially functioning families.
At the beginning of the century, Labour campaigned, along with the trade unions, for the day to be divided into eight hours for work, eight hours for rest and eight hours for family and recreation. Today, a hundred years on, the eight-hour day is still as far away as an alien from outer space—for most Members of Parliament, certainly. I hope that we shall eventually evolve into a more civilised society.
Let me return to the central point about time and money. This may seem a sweeping generalisation, but while, high-income parents have the money and low-income parents have the time, neither group enjoys the quality of life that we expect today. Indeed, many working women—many stressed-out working parents—consider that their position is worse than it would have been 50 years ago. Let us give parents choice, and work towards the creation of that more civilised society.
§ Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham)
It is a delight to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King), whose speech proved that diverse families can give their children the opportunities and encouragement that will enable them to attain the highest office. She is known in the House for her enthusiasm and energy, as well as her optimism—although, in this respect, her optimism may be a little over-enthusiastic. I remind her that Henry Ford introduced a maximum working week of 48 hours in 1916, on the basis that that would increase productivity in his car plants. It has taken 85 years or more for such arrangements to be introduced in this country, under a Labour Government. I expect the pace of change to be somewhat faster from now on.
My hon. Friend mentioned the research commissioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman). Along with many other Members, I pay tribute to her for the work that she has done over many years on family friendly policies. I can confirm that, nowadays, the Whips have a very understanding attitude to those who have family responsibilities and need to strike a balance between child care and work. I am not sure that an institution that normally begins its working day one hour before the schools close can yet describe itself as family friendly, but at least we are moving in the right direction.
When preparing my speech, I recalled seeing, some time ago, a crowd of people jostling around a busker who was playing a violin. I thought it surprising that so many people were interested, because he was not a particularly good violinist. He was competent, but not that great. As I drew closer, I realised that the interest was prompted by the fact that he was standing on a rope stretched between 642 two trees. He was not a particularly good tightrope artist either. I wondered whether the crowd was there to admire his musical talents, to admire his abilities as a tightrope artist, or to see whether he fell off.
Many working parents find themselves in a similar position to that busker. They desperately want to be the best parents that they can be, just as he probably wanted to be the best violinist that he could be. They desperately want to do the best that they can for their children, but, at the same time, to achieve whatever they can at work—to build a career, to use their energies and abilities and to ensure that they can use their contributions at work to build the best possible standard of living for their families and children. Most of all, they desperately do not want to fall off the tightrope.
The job of Government and of society generally is to ensure that we support families with children, who are trying to balance work responsibilities with family responsibilities and who find it difficult to achieve that balance. As a society or Government, we should not metaphorically applaud when they fall off the tightrope, but try to ensure that the safety net is there.
As I have said, I am not sure that the House is presenting itself yet as a family-friendly working institution, but it is important that we send the message to the country as a whole that we understand the pressures under which families find themselves—financial and emotional—in trying to square the circle between family life and work. As the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) said, the issue becomes all the more important given the Government's determination to do everything that they can to encourage people to enter the world of work and to give them the opportunity to do so and the support that they need to achieve that.
Several Conservative Members have commented on the welfare to work strategy. It is worth putting it on the record that 500,000 more people are in employment now—that is the increase in the number of jobs created since the Government took office. Long-term unemployment has reduced by 50 per cent. over a relatively short time. Youth unemployment has fallen by 60 per cent. over the same period.
We heard some remarks that might be considered to be rather sneering—I am not sure whether that term is unparliamentary—about the new deal and its effects on young people. There was even a quote from the Greater Manchester low pay unit to suggest that it was sceptical about the effect of the new deal.
As the chair and a trustee of the national Low Pay Unit—the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) is also a trustee—I can confirm that that organisation certainly does not sneer at the new deal. It applauds the fact that the new deal is giving real opportunities to young people, people with disabilities and older unemployed people, and that it is intended to ensure that people make the best use of their abilities and can fulfil their aspirations. The Greater Manchester low pay unit is not part of that national organisation. It is a local organisation that has its own policies and I cannot speak for it.
In trying to balance work and family, the difficulty for many parents was that the only jobs that they could feasibly take were part time. Often, those jobs were insecure or poorly paid, but were the only ones that could be taken by someone who had family responsibilities.
643 Inevitably, they faced the difficult, almost heart-breaking, trade-off between wanting to do whatever they could to ensure that they built a decent income and standard of living for their children, and giving their children enough of the care and attention that they needed to fulfil their aspirations.
According to the CBI, we still have a situation, before the new legislation is in force, where some form of parental leave provision is available only to 28 per cent. of employees. The fact that regulations have been laid in Parliament this week giving parents, for the first time, the statutory right to parental leave of up to 13 weeks for the first five years of a child's life is especially welcome. I also welcome the fact that the Government have taken on board the representations that have been made on behalf of parents of children with disabilities. It will be possible for those parents to claim their right to parental leave for a longer period of the child's life.
Although such measures are welcome to most people in the country and in this House, we have heard a rather puzzling presentation from the Conservative party. I hope that the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) will tell us exactly what the Conservative position is. I am puzzled, because only a few days ago on the BBC Radio 4 programme "Westminster Hour", I heard the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), the Opposition spokesman on agriculture, telling listeners:There are other areas which the European Union is getting into, social legislation such as the length of time perhaps you might give for paternity leave, and we believe it's right that individual countries should be free to opt out of those measures if they want".Yet the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) has said that her main concern is that such parental leave will not be paid. I am pleased to see that she is about to intervene; it would be terribly helpful if she can tell us whether her party's policy has changed since Sunday and is now in support of paid parental leave.
§ Mrs. Browning
I have made this point on three occasions this morning, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman missed all three. We have raised the question of paid parental leave because all Members of Parliament, including Conservative Members, are being lobbied by the NSPCC and other bodies to encourage us to tell the relevant Ministers that the Government's policy on parental leave is seriously flawed. The Government's policy is unjust; it is for the few and not the many, and the only people who can take advantage of it are the well-off, not those on lower incomes.
Labour Members must not believe that they can duck their responsibility, as members of the party in office. They cannot seek remedies to a badly thought-through, unfair, unjust policy by throwing the responsibility back on to the Conservative party. Conservative policies for the next election will decided by our Front-Bench team and made public when we are ready. That is exactly what the Labour party did when it was in opposition. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will commend that—
§ Mr. Pond
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You may rule me out of order for referring to an issue such as 644 horticulture in this context, but there is a phrase about what to do when in a hole—stop digging. Those listening to this debate who also listened to the hon. Member for South Suffolk on Sunday will now be very puzzled, but there are those who understand, as I do, that the Conservative party is opposed to the principle of parental leave. A million parents will be putting a note behind the clock to remind themselves that, should there ever be another Conservative Government, they would lose the right to parental leave, paid or unpaid.
§ Mrs. Browning
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not deliberately mean to mislead the House about the Conservative party's views. I have made our policies quite clear—we will come forward at the right time. It is misleading for him to say that we have made a policy statement on the matter. We have not. What people will be putting behind the clock is a little note to remind themselves that they cannot take advantage of his Government's policies—they are not well off enough to do so.
§ Ms Harman
May I help my hon. Friend in seeking to clarify the situation? I take it that he is asking whether the Opposition favour what we are doing now and whether they think that leave should be paid now. They may be justified in not saying what will be in their next manifesto, but are we not entitled to know now whether they agree that parental leave should be introduced as a legal right and whether it should be paid? He has not yet managed to elicit that information.
§ Mr. Pond
I thank my right hon. Friend for clarifying the position. Until we get some clarification from the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton, I think that the position is that some of the Opposition agree with the policy and some do not. As with so many areas of Opposition policy, they are not quite sure whether they agree but it is worth scoring a few political points if they can.
§ Lorna Fitzsimons
Can my hon. Friend help clarify a puzzling conundrum? One of the problems of poverty pay is being able to access unpaid leave, but the Opposition do not support the national minimum wage, the working families tax credit or any of our policies to stop poverty pay.
§ Mr. Pond
My hon. Friend makes an important point, which I shall develop a little. This is not the only family friendly policy on which the Opposition are confused. Some 1,800 of my constituents would like to know whether their policy is to withdraw from them the working families tax credit and the additional child care provision that goes with it. That would mean an average tax rise of £24 a week for every one of those working families. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Healey) said, some people would lose even more as a result of the Opposition's opposition to the credit, if they ever got the chance to scrap it. Some families would lose more than £100 a week. I see that the hon. Member 645 for Tiverton and Honiton is anxious to set the record straight. We may hear this time exactly what the Opposition's current policy is. Will they keep the working families tax credit or scrap it?
§ Mrs. Browning
I am delighted to respond to the hon. Gentleman. Unflattering as it is, his constituents, like mine, do want to know not what the Conservative policy is but what the Government's policy is. I refer him to the right hon. Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who has said:It's not a case of if the Government will pay for parental leave but when.That is what our constituents and the NSPCC want to know. When will the Government decide whether they will support the policy with some money?
§ Mr. Pond
We still do not know exactly what the hon. Lady's position is. People know exactly what the Government's position is on all those issues. We have stated it clearly on parental leave. My hon. Friend the Minister stated clearly the Government's commitment to family friendly policies and explained the ways in which they are being implemented. Several Labour Members listed them for the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton. Our constituents know that the Government are committed to the working families tax credit because we have just introduced it. It will make a significant difference to the income of low-paid working families doing their best to balance their income needs with the time available.
The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) got himself into a bit of a muddle when he mentioned some recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development figures on tax burdens. I am glad that he has re-entered the Chamber. Pagers are a wonderful means of getting hon. Members back to respond.
§ Mr. Pond
The hon. Gentleman has only just walked back in. If he pauses for a few more moments, he will hear my point and then I will be happy to take an intervention.
The hon. Gentleman was in a bit of a muddle because he used figures that are somewhat outdated and that refer to calendar rather than to financial years. Much of the increase in the so-called tax burden that he thinks that he has identified applied to the period when the previous Government were in office. Perhaps he would like to tell people why, under his Government, who promised that they would cut taxes, there was a significant increase in the tax burden. As a result of their mismanagement of the economy, the Conservative Government left us to deal with a major public debt problem. If the hon. Gentleman would like to give the House a justification for that, I shall willingly give way to him.
§ Mr. Brady
First, I point out to the hon. Gentleman that I was not paged to return the Chamber; I finished my cup of tea and came back to rejoin the debate.
It is odd that the hon. Gentleman tries to discount all the findings of the OECD, on the basis that it uses calendar rather than financial years. Nearly three years 646 into the Labour Government, our tax burden is higher than Germany's for the first time in a generation, and it is the fastest rising in Europe. He cannot get away from that fact.
§ Mr. Pond
That must be game, set and match.
The OECD is an extremely efficient organisation. The Government give it great support. However, it is not so efficient that it can provide figures on tax burdens up to the latest 20 minutes. The hon. Gentleman refers to the figures for 1997, when the Conservative Government, whom he supported, were responsible for those matters, and those for part of 1998.
§ Mr. Pond
If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting ways in which we might cut back on some of the expenditure to which we have committed ourselves—on the health service, on education, on child care, on pensioners and on people with disabilities—perhaps he would tell the House which of those categories he would choose.
§ Mr. Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Canning Town)
Does my hon. Friend agree with this morning's reports that the OECD figures include the year in which the Labour Government levied the windfall tax to pay for the new deal? Does he agree that the figures run from January to January, and that we were dealing with the debts left by the previous Government? There was a blip, but there was no increasing trend in taxation—taxation is still on a downward spiral.
§ Mr. Pond
That is precisely the point; I thank my hon. Friend for making it so clearly. The Labour Government have an enviable record—as the public understand—on their management of the public finances. That cannot be said for the previous Government—who are represented by Members on the Opposition Benches.
As the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West has finished his cup of tea and returned to the Chamber, will he tell us whether, while he makes accusations about increases in the tax burden—we know that they are mythical and that the increase is largely attributable to the Governments whom he supported—he also supports the increases in taxation on low-income working families that would result from the abolition of the working families tax credit? Alternatively, as a member of the Employment Sub-Committee, does he support the working families tax credit?
§ Mr. Brady
The taxes that the Government impose are being levied on low-paid as well as high-paid workers. The costs of running a car or of buying a house hit people with low incomes as well as those with middle and higher incomes. He cannot get away from the fact the Government are increasing taxes—they are hurting everybody.
§ Mr. Pond
That does not answer my question. My constituents and, no doubt, those of the hon. Gentleman 647 will take the message that he would support the abolition of the working families tax credit, if he had the opportunity to do so.
The hon. Gentleman repeated the question of whether the Government should support family structures through taxation. It is clear from the measures implemented by the Government, especially the working families tax credit, that we are doing precisely that. However, like previous Conservative Governments, we do not support a tax allowance for married couples that does not focus on the needs of families with children, because that is not the way to assist such families. The resources saved by phasing out the married couples tax allowance—a process which began under the Conservatives—have been concentrated by the Labour Government on the biggest-ever increase in child benefit and the working families tax credit, two measures that will help families to strike the balance between work and family needs.
§ Lorna Fitzsimons
Am I correct in believing that unmarried couples could be eligible for the married couples tax allowance, and that, depending on when they were divorced, some people received the allowance twice? Therefore, was not the allowance totally anomalous?
§ Mr. Pond
That is indeed the reason the allowance was such an ineffective mechanism for helping families, especially those with children. It was especially ineffective in helping low income families. The notion entertained by the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West that the patter of tiny tax allowances is the way to ensure happiness in families is somewhat awry.
The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire has said that the Social Security Committee has this week published its report on the social security implications of parental leave. During that investigation, the Committee received some powerful evidence. The evidence submitted by the business sector does not support the arguments deployed by Conservative Members that the introduction of parental leave and family friendly employment policies generally will inhibit business activity and efficiency.
We have already heard my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth speak of the CBI's support for the policy. The CBI representative told the Select Committee that:We welcome the introduction of the Parental Leave Directive. We welcome the intention behind it which is to ensure that there is a better balance created between the legitimate needs of employees to spend time with their young children and the needs of businesses to be able to run themselves in an efficient way.He told the Committee that the CBI would betaking initiatives throughout the autumn and winter this year to try and persuade our members to make sure they have got proper policies in place to ensure that the family-friendly leave rights get off to a good start.That is a resounding welcome for the Labour Government's policies, which the Conservatives suggest are unfriendly to business.
The evidence submitted to the Committee by, I believe, the representative of Federation of Small Businesses was that:there are some obvious benefits to employers as well as some obvious costs. The benefits, as have already been discussed, relate to reductions in turnover of staff and to reductions in staff absenteeism. I would particularly point to the time off for domestic emergencies or family emergencies right … I think that is the one that will lead to the key reductions in absenteeism.648 He added that there would inevitably be costs to businesses in dealing with employees being away for a period of time, but said:I think businesses accept that cost and they recognise that it can be balanced by the potential benefits.
The evidence from another business organisation, the Institute of Directors was, therefore, rather puzzling. It told us that 76 per cent. of its members were opposed to the introduction of parental leave and that half of its members would adjust their employment policies to take account of the introduction of parental leave. Every time that there has been some improvement in social conditions through legislation—the introduction of maternity pay or of equal pay—organisations such as the Institute of Directors have said that it would be the end of civilisation as we know it and that it would cause considerable unemployment.
We are not unused to the fact that the Institute of Directors—which was so loved by the previous Government—is often out of line with other business organisations, such as the CBI. Nevertheless, the Select Committee was concerned to discover the basis of the rather powerful statement that three quarters of IOD members opposed the introduction of parental leave and family friendly employment policies. We asked an institute representative about the evidence on which that statement was based. It turned out that the institute had sent questionnaires to every one of its 50,000 members, of whom 2,500 had responded. That amounts to a non-response rate of 95 per cent. When Committee members suggested that that was a little disappointing, even for a postal survey, the Institute of Directors representative said that she considered it to be an "excellent" response rate.
Hon. Members should recognise that, while 3.5 per cent. of IOD members oppose the introduction of parental leave and family friendly policies, the remainder either support those policies or did not think that the matter was sufficiently important to respond. Only 2.5 per cent. of members said that they would make a negative change to their practices if such policies were introduced.
§ Mr. Brady
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting use of statistics. I presume that he derives no comfort from opinion poll evidence that is produced in the newspapers every week and which relies on pitifully small samples of the British public. The hon. Gentleman would undoubtedly deride the findings that 99.99 per cent. of the British people think that the Government are doing a lousy job.
§ Mr. Pond
The hon. Gentleman obviously reads a very limited range of public opinion surveys. The majority of polls that I have seen suggest that the people are happy with the Government and their policies. They are certainly happier than they were under the previous Government—or would be if the Conservatives were to form a new Government.
If opinion survey firms wished to maintain any integrity at all, they would not publish survey results based on a 95 per cent. non-response rate. One does not have to be a statistician to understand that basic point. Unfortunately, much of previous Government policy was driven by supposed "evidence" derived from those sorts of surveys.
We face a considerable challenge. The Prime Minister has set the Government the challenge of eliminating child poverty over two decades. No other Government ever 649 made a commitment of that sort—in fact, no Government were prepared to acknowledge that child poverty existed. However, this Government not only acknowledge that the problem exists but will take the measures necessary to deal with it. The policies that we are discussing today are as important in tackling the problem of child poverty as increasing child benefit and introducing the working families tax credit and the national minimum wage.
We must ensure that social policy is employment friendly. That is why the welfare to work approach is so important. We must make sure that people are active citizens who use their energies and abilities to build a better life for them and their families. We must ensure also that employment policy is family friendly. If we achieve both parts of the equation, we will advance society and do a great favour to those families who find it difficult to strike a balance at present.
As the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire said, the Social Security Committee studied the implications of introducing parental leave in its current form and considered whether there was a case for introducing it on a paid basis. Hon. Members will be aware that the Government have gone some way towards introducing payment for parental leave. We have given those on low incomes real access to that right. Support will be available to low-income families to use parental leave when they already qualify for working families tax credit, housing benefit or certain other benefits and to receive income support in the process. That is very welcome and it flies in the face of the accusation of the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton that the Government do not take seriously the need to ensure that the right is accessible to those on low incomes. As we have heard, it is expected that about 1,000 people a year will take advantage of the right at a modest cost of £1.5 million.
The Government have said that they will monitor the take-up of parental leave across gender and income groups to see what more needs to be done. I hope that they will consider carefully, as I know that they will, the report of the Social Security Committee to see whether there is a case for introducing a flat-rate payment—that is the preferred option of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Ms Kelly) and is included in the report—or whether we could use the system of tax credits. That proposal has been advocated effectively by my right hon. Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham and is also favoured by the Low Pay Unit. We should consider whether the latter option could extend payment, at a modest cost, to low-income families.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West also mentioned the parenting deficit and the fact that we must find a way of ensuring that families on low incomes are able to make an investment in their children. Labour and Opposition Members have made it clear that society as a whole would reap considerable benefit from a relatively modest short-term investment in ensuring that working families with children are able to take up the new rights that the Government have introduced. I welcome the introduction of those rights, and I know that the Government will consider ways in which they can be developed further to make them even more effective.
§ Mr. Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Canning Town)
I am grateful for the opportunity to make a brief contribution to this important debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) pointed out that the Government have set a framework to allow their positive policies to be introduced. When I was a lay official in the fire service, I tried to negotiate appropriate child care arrangements for firefighters. Much like the people in this place, they do not work in the most family friendly environment, either when they are at the sharp end on operational duty or when they are in the workplace. The nature of their job requires shift work.
It was a particularly difficult task to try to ensure that child care resources and financial support were made available to firefighters. We were very lucky in that we worked with predominantly Labour-controlled local authorities that were very progressive and friendly, so we pioneered some of the best child care arrangements at that time for workers in the emergency services. However, we received very little support from the then Government. I shall come back to the measures that have been introduced since then.
This Government's most important family friendly employment policy—the one that marks us out as entirely different from the previous Administration—is that which tackles unemployment. The previous Government were happy to preside over more than 3 million people on the dole, with all the implications that that had for families—grinding poverty, tension, stress, higher suicide rates, family break-ups and repossessions. We name the problems; unemployment causes them. That policy was not incidental. Many people believe that it was a positive, deliberate act by the Conservative party to ensure that we had mass unemployment and a low-skill, low-wage economy. That was their economic strategy. We are reversing that—we have introduced the new deal.
The OECD report on the tax burden has already been mentioned. One reason for the blip in the tax take for 1997–98 was the move to self-assessment, which was always going to create an anomalous surge in the amount of tax paid. The Conservatives opposed the new deal, which has brought hundreds of thousands of jobs, predominantly to young people. That is supporting families and ensuring that people can live in dignity and relative prosperity.
Families are supported if Britain plc is prosperous, if we have a sound economy and if people have a fair system in which to work. Society maintains its cohesiveness best if people are settled and prosperous, living with dignity in decent homes and being paid decent wages. The alternative, as we saw when we had 3 million-plus unemployed, is social division, rioting and the rise of extremists, which was shown when the British National party won elections in the east end. It is not family friendly if people do not have work and there is no employment. We are creating a prosperous Britain with decent skills and wage levels. We are clearly the one-nation party.
The Conservatives are in a mess. They opposed our extra expenditure for the public services, including £40 billion for health and education. They called that reckless, yet they recently said that they were prepared to spend an extra £11 billion, which works out at 6p on the basic rate of income tax. We are trying to make Britain 651 prosperous by supporting companies and providing employment opportunities. Corporation tax is down to 30 per cent. For smaller companies it will be cut to just 10 per cent. in due course.
There is also the Small Business Service. Most people know that small and medium-sized enterprises are the engine room for employment in the UK. We have introduced new rights in the workplace through the Employment Relations Act 1999, which will create a better, more stable, friendlier workplace, helping to reduce absenteeism and stress. If people are not stressed at work, they do not take stress home with them. That can only help to maintain a better family environment.
Some of the Government's recent policies to support the family have already been mentioned. Halving the income tax bill for 1.8 million people by introducing a new 10p rate will clearly assist families, as will the reduction of the basic rate of income tax to 22p. The pay rise that 2 million people received through the introduction of the statutory minimum wage can only be good for families. Parents having money in their pocket that they can spend on their family will help to keep families together. It is when pressures become intolerable that stress overtakes personal relationships.
§ Mr. Healey
Does my hon. Friend agree that of all the family friendly measures that have been discussed this morning, the national minimum wage affects the largest number of families and family incomes, with 2 million people benefiting from its introduction on 1 April?
§ Mr. Fitzpatrick
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The statutory minimum wage is our blunt instrument to help families, just as unemployment was the blunt instrument the Conservatives used to drive the economy. Allied to that, the working families tax credit will ensure that families at the lower end of the earnings league table will be given a better break in due course. We are also helping families with disabled children with £37 extra a week.
The record rise in child benefit is also a major factor in helping parents and keeping families together. The introduction of the first-ever national child care strategy is another important part of addressing the pressures on working parents. The £540 million sure start programme to co-ordinate child care, nursery education, family learning and primary health initiatives is obviously an important commitment from the Government, showing that family friendly policies are at the centre of their programme.
§ Mr. Healey
Will my hon. Friend use sure start as a way of confirming that the innovation that characterises all the Government's family friendly policies is co-operation between Departments? The Department of Health and the Department for Education and Employment are working closely together on sure start in ways that have never been seen before. That is a signal of the concerted effort that the Government are making to support families, especially low-income families.
§ Mr. Fitzpatrick
My hon. Friend makes a telling point. "Joined-up government" may be a cliché, but sure start is a practical example of joined-up government working, supporting the Government in their determination to encourage and introduce more family friendly policies, especially in respect of employment.
652 Several colleagues have spoken at length on the last two subjects that I shall mention. The first is parental leave. It has been argued that the fact that such leave is unpaid might disadvantage those at the lower end of the income scale; but its introduction is, in itself, to the Government's credit, and shows that we are moving in the right direction.
§ Mr. Healey
On the introduction of parental leave, will my hon. Friend pay tribute not only to the Government, but to both sides of industry in the United Kingdom and in Europe? As a result of the social partner dialogue that helped to develop the principles and details of this measure, they deserve as much credit for the introduction of parental leave as do the Government for their readiness to bring it into UK law.
§ Mr. Fitzpatrick
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point, because obviously it is very much to industry's credit, and it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the role played by both sides of industry.
The Confederation of British Industry has congratulated the Government on many of their policies. That is no surprise, because the people of this country think of the Labour party as the one-nation party. The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) cast doubt on whether we should believe opinion polls. I am happy to believe the opinion poll results that were reported in this morning's Daily Telegraph, which puts the Government 27 points ahead of the Opposition. We are the one-nation party, while the Conservatives are sliding inexorably further into extremist policies. The CBI supports the Government, and I am sure that the British people support us, too.
§ Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden)
I have just struck out my first sentence. I was going to say how honest and good-natured the debate had been, with really good speeches on what is always, for every working parent and every person who has dependants—who may be elderly—a very difficult area: balancing their work life with their family responsibilities. Until the last speech, all the speeches had added to our understanding, as parliamentarians, of that issue.
I warmly welcome the Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs, who will reply to the debate. He will be given the opportunity to reinforce his credentials—I am under no illusion about his new responsibilities. I very much look forward to his speech, not least because he has given us hope and encouragement that he will seek clarification, especially from the Treasury, on many of the points that we have raised.
I have a strong sense of the pot calling the kettle black in this place this morning. Parliament is not an institution that sets a good example of family friendly employment policies. The fact that it is my five-year-old's birthday party this afternoon, and that he will have to make do with a bought-in "Bug's Life" cake from the local supermarket, is an illustration of the endless compromise that is the practical reality of every working parent.
§ Mrs. Spelman
I thank the hon. Lady. That may compensate slightly for the fact that my son cannot have 653 his first wish, which was to have a bonfire cake, the recipe for which I shall be glad to share with her on a separate occasion.
I wonder whether we can legislate for the good will in the workplace that would enable employees always to meet the family responsibilities that sometimes lies heavily on their hearts. In this place, the ability to be there when it matters for one's family depends on the understanding of the Whips Office. I place on record my appreciation to our Whips Office for the times that it has assisted me when I needed to be away for family reasons. That encourages a good attitude in the relations between the Whips Office and its charges.
§ Mrs. Spelman
I have great pleasure in telling my hon. Friend that, under the ethos that one good turn deserves another, when I was given the opportunity to go and hear a child performing in a school play, and I made that known, I made it possible on another day for one of my male colleagues to do the same. That is an example of the way in which attitudes are changing without the need for cast-iron legislation.
For most people, a family friendly attitude at work depends on their employers knowing their circumstances, valuing them as human beings and being prepared to be flexible because they are good and valued employees. Sometimes we do not help ourselves when we hide our real motives for wanting a concession, out of pride, machismo or embarrassment. Learning to be more honest and to ask for what is needed to sustain family life would help to change the culture.
Will forcing such a change through legislation bring about the same result, or will it reinforce a rights-based culture in which employee and employer insist rigidly on their rights, ignoring any difficulties that that might cause the other? Insisting on our rights as working parents may upset those without children or elderly dependants, who have to fill in during our absence.
The loss of good will may be a retrograde step. I am reminded of how unsuccessful the Child Support Agency is at forcing through a sense of family responsibility where that has failed. Most hon. Members would acknowledge that an alarmingly large percentage of their surgery cases involve the bad experiences that parents have had in dealing with the CSA when the sense of family responsibility has broken down. Insistence on new rights may lead to an increasing number of tribunal cases where what is supposed to be statutory will be in dispute.
Opposition should be constructive, and in the debate we heard various suggestions for making the new employment policies more family friendly. Several of the ideas could be helpful, but others need refining. The focus may be too easily directed towards the tensions between child rearing and working.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) was at pains to point out, we forget older members of families—who can be adversely affected by modern working practice—at our peril. Greater job mobility and the increasing number of dual-career marriages often put elderly family members 654 in a disadvantaged position, whereas, in the past, grandparents often lived under the same roof as their children and grandchildren. Today, more of them live alone or in residential care. We face the prospect of VAT being charged on care services, which would add another burden. I urge the Minister to do as he has promised and seek clarification because the threat of a granny tax, or whatever we might like to call it, will cause families real concern.
Trying to regulate the informal arrangements under which a grandparent may be on hand to look after grandchildren will heap even more pressure on an inter-generational relationship that is becoming increasingly scarce. In advocating the child care role for members of the family, the then Financial Secretary to the Treasury, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), said thatrelatives, including grandparents, can register as child minders … Clearly, there must be a business relationship".—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 9 February 1999; c. 83.]I find that difficult to understand and my mother-in-law, when asked to turn our informal arrangements for helping out with my children into a business relationship, would find it an extraordinary suggestion—one, I fear, unlikely to encourage her to carry out that role for me more often.
Naturally, much of our focus has been on the working parent. The Government have to support the institution of the family, which is clearly under strain. The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) mentioned a number of indices on which our country is sadly lagging far behind many comparable developed nations—it has the highest number of family breakdowns, divorces and teenage pregnancies in western Europe. That is nothing to be proud of, but something we urgently need to address. My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) put a strong case for the great need to buttress the institution of marriage to help to sustain family life.
The key factors are simplicity in legislation, flexibility and fairness, but how fair will the introduction of unpaid parental leave be? The highest paid will grab the opportunity for free time because they can afford to do so, but that luxury will not be available to the less well paid. The hon. Member for Bolton, West (Ms Kelly)—who, for reasons we perfectly understand, has had to leave the debate early—is on record, in the Social Security Committee report, as arguing thatif unpaid, leave is unlikely to be taken up in sufficient quantities to make a real difference to people's lives and is highly unlikely to be taken up by single parents, the low-paid or fathers.My concern is that the Government's proposals will create a two-tier system, which is highly undesirable, and that that will produce resentment in the workplace.
§ Lorna Fitzsimons
Can the hon. Lady help me? We have been exploring several points across the Chamber. From her remarks and those of the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), we get the impression that they recognise the need for parental leave, although they seem to think that the system will become two tier. Therefore, they appear to be arguing for paid parental leave. That is the only logic that my hon. Friends and I are able to detect. Will she clarify whether she supports paid parental leave?
§ Mrs. Spelman
The hon. Lady has already had a chance to make a speech and has intervened a number of 655 times in the speeches of hon. Members on both sides of the House. The point at issue is that her party is in government and introduced the legislation. Labour Members are always keen to point out to the Opposition that they have every intention of being in government for a long time. It should therefore not surprise the hon. Lady that the electorate are far more interested in what the Government intend to do with their legislation and how it will directly affect them than in speculation about what a future Government of a different persuasion might do.
§ Mrs. Spelman
We have had lengthy exchanges on this point and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton said, we are actively engaged in looking at how the directive is applied in other European countries. If the Government are reconsidering the unfair aspects of unpaid leave, I invite them to look closely at those other European models, as the interpretation of the directive varies considerably among member states.
§ Mrs. Spelman
I am not in a position to explain in detail how the policies in other European countries work because we have only just started to examine them. The variation in the way in which other member states handle the issue is huge and it would be wholly inappropriate for an Opposition spokesman, who has not yet completed examination of the application of those policies in other countries, to judge the relative merits of what is done elsewhere.
§ Mr. Pond
I thank the hon. Lady for her generosity in giving way again. We understand the difficulty of Opposition spokesmen. As she said, it is likely to be some time before they are in a position to make policy changes. However, the House wants to know their current view about paid parental leave. Do they support the principle of introducing it and the argument that it should be paid? That is all that we are asking. We accept that Conservative policy may change by the next election—from what I have heard today, it seems to have changed since Sunday. We simply want to know the position here and now.
§ Mrs. Spelman
If the hon. Gentleman really thinks that that is what ordinary people are most concerned about, I invite him to my surgery in Chelmsley Wood tomorrow morning, when I shall see at least two constituents who are interested in what the Government will do because they are insufficiently well paid to take leave. Much as I should like them to be more interested in what my party is doing, the fact remains that they want to know what the Government are doing on that issue.
We have made our position perfectly clear, and I shall reiterate it: we would prefer the directive to be applied voluntarily. We are examining how other countries deal with it, and all Conservative Members will share the information about how it works in other countries.
I wish to deal with another two-tier aspect of the Government's decision. It is highly topical and arises from a decision yesterday by the Secretary of State to limit to four weeks the amount of parental leave that can be taken in one year by those who work for a small 656 business. Is not that simply recognition by the Government that voluntary agreements would have been much better? In practice, it means that a mother who works for a small, local firm will be penalised because she will be able to take only four weeks in one year, whereas her equivalent who commutes to the City and works for a large corporation will be able to take the full three months leave en bloc.
§ Dr. Howells
The hon. Lady makes a good point, but does she realise that, if all employers were good employers, a voluntary system would work, and those four weeks would be topped up by every firm in the country. We must have a statutory requirement because far too many employers will not enter into any arrangement, let alone a voluntary one.
§ Mrs. Spelman
We have heard plenty of evidence of good practice—Labour Members have given examples of voluntary agreements that have worked. If we analysed the logic of the Minister's argument, we might both agree that, if the law makes a distinction between a small and a large business, we may be making a rod for our own backs. When the threshold is established, there will be a cluster of cases just on the wrong side of that line. People will dispute a decision that they are not eligible for a benefit that a slightly larger firm can give them.
We welcome the simplification of maternity leave. As the Institute of Directors has been quoted in this debate, it is only fair to put on record the fact that it has supported sensible measures to help women to cope with maternity. As it says, the extension of maternity leave from 14 to 18 weekshas the virtue of simplifying the existing maternity regulations.Many businesses have found the regulations difficult to operate. We have not heard much about the cost attached to these measures. It is important to note that, according to the IOD, the additional four weeks will cost business a further £16 million. None the less, it supports the measure, and it is important to get that across.
My concern is a purely practical one. The reduction in the qualifying period for maternity leave may not enhance the attractiveness of taking on female employees. These days, many people change their jobs every few years. In the first year of their employment, they are inevitably a burden on the organisation while they learn the ropes and serve their apprenticeship. By the second year, they contribute fully to the organisation, and are able to pull their weight. It is only in the third year that they are able to innovate and add new dimensions to the job. If a women takes maternity leave in her first year, it may make her subsequent career progression difficult. Pregnancies may happen by accident, but it is important to encourage women to plan for their maternity as a sensible part of their career progression. Insisting on full maternity rights after one year will make employers a little more wary of engaging women of child-bearing age.
Encouraging more women to work, and to come off welfare is not necessarily a family friendly policy unless there is adequate child care provision. Many women object to that policy because of the difficulty of finding an adequate substitute for their welcoming smile at the school gate. What happens in school holidays? Taking a job at the supermarket check-out, working from nine to five 48 weeks of the year, does not sit well with school 657 hours. I strongly urge the Government to undertake an audit of child care provision after school and in school holidays. The logical consequence of encouraging women to work when school is not in session is that they suffer considerable stress. As mothers and employees, they try to balance those tensions.
During the most recent school holidays, a small survey of my constituents revealed that after-school provision was entirely inadequate. Although kids clubs operated during the school term, paradoxically there was no after-school care during the holidays. It is a chicken-and-egg situation: we are encouraging parents to return to work without making sufficient provision for their children at that difficult time.
§ Mr. Healey
Earlier, I mentioned a report from the Department for Education and Employment, which was published last month. It refers to term-time working, and the business practices that have made that increasingly common. The hon. Lady may wish to acquire a copy: the reference number is RR136.
§ Mrs. Spelman
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful information. Strictly speaking, education policy is outside my brief, but I will look at the document with great interest.
The provision of after-school child care and child care during school holidays has cost implications, but they must be weighed against what happens to children who are not catered for during the holidays, and who may be out on the streets. I know from observation, and from practical experience, that working women have real difficulty in finding cover at such times.
The working families tax credit has an aspect that is certainly not family friendly. It penalises two-parent, single-earner families, and has a built-in incentive for parents not to care for their children at home. Combined with the abolition of the married couples tax allowance, it makes full-time motherhood a distinctly less attractive option. I do not think that any mother in the House would deny that full-time motherhood is more than a full-time job.
§ Mrs. Spelman
I have already given way a fair amount, and we have already had an extensive debate on the working families tax credit; but, if the hon. Gentleman wishes to refute my claim that two-parent, single-earner families are disadvantaged by his Government's proposals, I should like to hear what he has to say.
§ Mrs. Spelman
Perhaps there is some misunderstanding. Two-parent families are disadvantaged when they contain a single earner.
§ Mrs. Spelman
We have had a fair number of exchanges about the working families tax credit, and I do want to hear from the Minister.
658 Times have changed. Many more women now work and are rising to higher levels in the workplace. That has been brought about by equal educational opportunities and more enlightened attitudes on the part of employers. It is important to see this development as part of an historical continuum. Working women well recall the time when they had to leave work when they married. In this context, attitudes should not be defined in party political terms; these are simple historical facts about the changing culture of British society.
The business culture is also changing. In today's increasingly competitive world, it is the quality of the human resource that makes the competitive difference. The globalisation of the marketplace will produce large international companies, often with common products. The difference will be down to the quality of the team. As the skills are more highly valued, employees will make more efforts to recruit—and, most important, to retain—their employees. That will necessarily entail accommodating their need, as well-rounded human beings, to meet their family responsibilities. I doubt whether we can force the change of culture by legislation, but the fact that success will depend on a balanced life style for the work force is beginning to be expressed in the marketplace. That, like educational opportunity in the past, is much more likely to be the engine of change. For all the talk about technology, which will undoubtedly be an enabler, the key differentiator will be how well a company treats its employees.
The changes in employment policy are classic examples of legislation driven by ideology. The Government have not thought through the practical behaviour of people and how they respond to a strict, dare I say ungenerous, interpretation of the law. In business terms, the employment policy would be defined as an input policy. It fails to define the outcomes that it is intended to achieve. My prediction is that those employment policies will end up failing families because legislation, in itself, is insufficient to change behaviour.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Dr. Kim Howells)
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman). It is the first time that I have sat opposite her in a debate and heard her speak. She made a couple of important points. She made a good point about inadequate child care facilities during school holidays, which is a problem that many of us have been concerned with for quite a while. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment is particularly concerned about it. I am sure that the hon. Lady has read of some of the initiatives that he has started, including reading clubs at football grounds, which are aimed at young boys. Holiday provision has been a difficult problem.
I do not think that anyone in the Chamber would disagree with the hon. Member for Meriden: of course we need a cultural change. I am reminded of the old arguments about the Race Relations Act 1976 and equal opportunities. Opponents of the measures always said that we did not really need them; there were cultural changes that people would somehow evolve into at some stage. That is true, but I take the hon. Lady back to one of the 659 greatest politicians who ever graced the Chamber, Winston Churchill, who said in 1909 that, if we did not have a statutory floor,the good employer is undercut by the bad and the bad employer is undercut by the worst.That is the point that we are making.
As the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) knows, I have a lot of time for her, but she showed a disappointingly crabby approach to the measures, which my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Healey) described brilliantly. He said that they try to facilitate the means by which individuals can play a constructive part in employment and in the most vital task that any of us can take on: raising children and helping them to develop into balanced, fulfilled adults. The importance of that truism was made clear by hon. Members on both sides of the House, particularly the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), who gave us much to think about in his short but valuable contribution.
The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton has a proper role to play. She is there to oppose the Government and long may she do so. She raised a number of issues. We could probably debate them all day, but I am particularly concerned about her point about the new deal for lone parents. I have managed to get hold of the latest statistics.
A total of 18,260 lone parents had found employment to the end of July 1999—an increase of 2,150, or 13 per cent. in July alone. In addition to the job outcomes, 5,200 lone parents have taken up education and training opportunities while on the new deal. As a former Minister with responsibility for lifelong learning, that is music to my ears, and I know that the people who have taken up those opportunities will feel the same. We have not had a chance to talk much about lifelong learning and education. Many people are being offered a chance that they might not otherwise have had, and the results are very good.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Ms Kelly) advised us to monitor take-up rates for parental leave. As I said, the Government will heed that advice and take careful note of what happens as these opportunities are made available.
The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood)—the distinguished chairman of the Select Committee on Social Security—made a thoughtful and constructive contribution. At one point, he described himself as being above the rough and tumble of politics. Hearing a Liberal Democrat Member say that is a bit like hearing Jonah Lomu declare that he does not enjoy trampling over English wingers, but he keeps finding he has no choice but to do it.
§ Dr. Howells
I forgot that the hon. Gentleman is Scottish. In any event, he raised a number of important issues. I should like to congratulate him, on behalf of us all, on the Select Committee's report—it is terrific. It will be a great quarry for us as we construct policies in the future. I hope that everybody will take the opportunity to read it, as it is one of the best Select Committee reports to be published in a long time, on this or any subject.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the problems faced by those on difficult council estates and difficult projects in Scotland, a subject that is close to my heart. I want the 660 hon. Gentleman to know that the Government are co-ordinating a family friendly employment campaign to promote good working practices. A number of Departments are involved, led by the Department for Education and Employment. We are considering how to promote policies according to the different needs of employers and employees. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that those needs are very different.
The family friendly employment policies will help reduce pressure on families, especially at critical times—when a child is born, for example. I hope that the policies will strengthen family life, along with the other support that we are giving to all families.
As for supporting marriage, the Home Office is working on what it refers to as—I hate this expression—a marriage pack. I wish that someone had given me one in December 1967. Registrars will be able to give it to all couples getting married. It will include information about marriage support services, legal rights and marriage responsibilities. Perhaps we have taken too much for granted and assumed that people somehow know all that information. It is an interesting initiative.
The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire also drew attention to the work-home balance in the national health service. Few sectoral focuses can be more important; we need the NHS badly. There is a great deal of potential out there, and we need more nurses in the health service. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health launched "Working Together". It contains three strategic aims for the NHS—to have enough staff with the right skills in the right places, to improve staff's working lives and to develop the capacity and capability to deal more successfully with issues arising at home. Last month, Health Ministers announced a major campaign called "Improving Working Lives in the NHS". I think that due consideration has been given to this issue, and I hope that we can make some progress—there is a great deal of determination to do so.
I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Colman) has also had to leave. As the hon. Member for Meriden said, Fridays are difficult. My hon. Friend gave us the benefit of his knowledge on the important and interesting research being done on small and medium-sized enterprises, and the balance between home and work. He gave us a valuable personal insight into the difficulties faced by single parents—in his case, male. As someone with three children, I find the thought of caring for eight, as he has, mind-boggling.
§ Dr. Howells
However many wives, it is mind-boggling. I appreciated the helpful contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Putney.
The hon. Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley) has also had to leave. He said that he initiated the first debates on family friendly policies back in 1978, 1981 and 1982. Churlishly, I was about to say that we had not made much progress until now, but I know that he cares passionately about these issues. He made some interesting points. He often has a different way of looking at these things from most of us, to say the least. However, his views are always interesting.
The hon. Gentleman advocated the award of a lump sum to parents as a recognition that we have a new citizen among us when a child is born. He talked about £500 to 661 £1,000 being the right sum for the new citizen, but I was not sure whether he was saying that that should pay for time off to look after the new baby. Perhaps he could let us know later. He talked of the need for Parliament to view these matters with a life cycle perspective. He argued that we should not break up people's lives into segments that are convenient for us, but try to see them overall. He warned the Government not to be mean when money is needed most. I can remember us telling the previous Government that on I do not know how many occasions, but it is a good point. When we look back on our lives, there are times when we could have done with some extra money. Not all of us are fortunate enough to have had the salary of MPs. Any Government should examine that perspective carefully.
The hon. Member for Worthing, West said that we must be careful to view such policies and initiatives in as long a perspective as we can manage. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Lorna Fitzsimons) also stressed that perspective and reminded us that the great decisions taken in this Chamber must make sense to ordinary people in terms of how they affect their lives. She noted that that goes for our commercial enterprises as well, and that there is a hard economic cost to employers in not being family friendly. That was perhaps the most contentious issue, but I know how profligate employers in my area have been in taking on employees, male or female, making them into skilled productive workers and then sacking them for ludicrous reasons. The most shameful of them is sacking a female employee for having a child. Such employers are more profligate than the Government: someone learns a job and is moved on. It takes a long time to pick up such skills.
§ Dr. Howells
I do not think that I can have made much of an impact if the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire can describe me as a Department for Education and Employment Minister. I must have visited his constituency in a former life.
I fully endorse the importance of the long-term perspective. We are trying to work with the grain on this one. We have consulted, and taken advice from, the best firms, large and small, on how they have gone about best business practice. We must listen carefully as we take the initiatives forward.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale also said that we must be careful with deadlines, particularly the rules that will apply to children born or adopted on or after 15 December, in line with the directive. We are considering that point carefully. It will ensure that the demand for parental leave builds up slowly, and that employers' good will is maximised. We must be extremely careful about the matter. We want the good will of employers; we want to bring them along with us. We do not want to impose the type of regulatory burden that some hon. Members have highlighted.
On that point, I turn to the contribution of the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady). Incidentally, I was not sure whether there was a Sale, West—when I went to play rugby in Sale, it did not seem that big, but I suppose there must be a west and an east. The hon. Gentleman quite properly drew attention to the 662 possibility of additional regulatory burdens. That matter must be taken seriously, and the Government do take it seriously. I do not know what occurred under the previous Government, but a type of inquisition descends on every Department—the regulatory impact assessment. There is no legislation and no regulations that are not tested against that rigorous assessment—believe me.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Healey) expressed the aims at the heart of family friendly employment policies. Interestingly, he reminded us that we should consider mounting a powerful publicity campaign to ensure that everybody knew about those policies. I could not agree more. I shall give that message, loud and clear, to the DTI and the DFEE. We already publish a range of booklets on employment legislation, updating and so on, but that is not enough; we must go much further.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) made it crystal clear that there are no certainties in human relationships. Nothing could be truer than that—I know that from personal experience. My hon. Friend added something else. The hon. Member for Gainsborough made the same point—I said that it was a thoughtful observation—that we should be careful not to have a rose-tinted image of what life might have been like at some time in history. Hon. Members seem to be getting younger, but I dare say that some them—like me—are old enough to remember well generations of women whose talent was stunted by lack of opportunity. There was no escape; there was no key—either voluntary or statutory—and we must remember that. I certainly cannot remember a golden age. I remember a time when there were fewer divorces—perhaps that was good—but there were also more battered wives, and potential never had a chance to express itself. Let us remember that along with any rose-tinted memories that we might have.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) gave us the benefit of his great experience in these matters. He reinforced a point made by many other hon. Members in the debate: as social mores and patterns of employment change, so we, in government, have a duty to ensure that legislation is appropriate and relevant, and that it will benefit society.
I do not want to add a sour note, but my hon. Friend highlighted the bankruptcy of the views of those sitting on the Opposition Front Bench. We asked for answers—we received none. I hope that, for all our sakes, the Opposition will come up with some answers. We need an Opposition, and they are likely to get wiped out at the next election with that type of policy.
My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Mr. Fitzpatrick) properly highlighted the fact that families at the bottom of the earnings league will be helped by the national minimum wage, by the working families tax credit, by sure start and by all our other initiatives. He stressed the need—as did other hon. Members—to extend and encourage such examples of joined-up government. I make it clear to him and to all right hon. and hon. Members in the Chamber that all Departments are working hard to ensure that we have a joined-up approach to this matter. We realise its importance and hope that all Members of the House—whether Tories, Liberal Democrats or anyone else—will do so too, so that we can go forward constructively together.
§ It being half-past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.