HC Deb 15 May 1964 vol 695 cc798-819

12.5 p.m.

Mrs. Joyce Butler (Wood Green)

I am very glad to have the opportunity to raise jointly with the hon. Lady the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Miss Vickers) the subject of au pair girls. It is many years since I raised this subject and a good deal has happened since then.

The words "au pair" conjure up a variety of images in the minds of different people. Originally the arrangement was an exchange between two members of participating families, but that has now almost completely changed. For families in England it is regarded primarily as a sort of domestic help arrangement. There may be a sudden family crisis. There may be a family where there are a number of young children and the mother finds it too difficult to cope with her work unaided. There may be elderly people who need help, or a mother who decides to take up work outside the home and needs someone to look after the domestic chores while she is away from the home.

All these people and many others look to the au pair girl to help them in their domestic difficulties. During the nine years I have been in this House I have had a dozen or more au pair girls who have come from seven different countries into my household. Like many other people in a similar position, I recognise that I would have been very much at a loss without their assistance. This is true of many families.

The girls themselves think of an au pair arrangement as primarily enabling them to come to this country without expense to themselves to learn English. This is their prime object, coming to learn the language afresh or to perfect their knowledge of it so that when they go home they can take a post where English is part of the qualifications. Many of them wish to take examinations here.

There are on both sides people who exploit the situation and some hostesses in this country demand too much from the girls. It is difficult to be precise, and probably very few do this deliberately, but most housewives are very busy and tend sometimes to forget that what they do themselves it is not always right to expect a young girl on an au pair arrangement to undertake. Similarly, some of the girls, particularly in recent years, have come over here with the idea simply of enjoying themselves and not of wanting to fulfil domestic responsibilities.

The popular conception of an au pair girl, we must admit, is sometimes as a status symbol, part of the effort to "keep up with the Jones" who have an au pair girl. For them it is similar to the idea of having a second car in the garage or a weekend cottage in the country. To some it is a glamorous and exciting, but often a disruptive, influence in the home.

To the popular Press it is a likely source of rather succulent news. The subject of this Adjournment debate has little in common with this popular image. It has nothing to do with the scantily-clad young lady who appeared to come from an Eastern harem and was introduced as "Our au pair girl" in the Morecambe and Wise show on television last Sunday. More often the girl is nervous and rather frightened by the alien formalities and the regulations she meets at the point of entry. She is bewildered by meeting strange officials in a strange country with strange customs and unfamiliar food and a language which when she hears it spoken appears utterly incomprehensible, however complete her knowledge may have appeared at school.

These girls are coming into the country at the rate of 20,000 every year under au pair arrangements and another 20,000 under Ministry of Labour work permits. A hostess wanting au pair help sends a letter of invitation to the girl she has selected, having usually obtained the girl's address from an agency or an advertisement. The first point I make is in regard to the letter of invitation. It would be immensely valuable if there were a simple standard letter of invitation available which the hostess had to obtain from the Home Office—or some other Government Department, but preferably the Home Office. This would have a certain value because it would enable the Home Office, when sending the letter, also to send a booklet about the conditions of having an au pair girl and to remind the intending hostess that the au pair girl is to give only light domestic help and that if the hostess wants full-time domestic help she should obtain a Ministry of Labour permit and employ a girl in that way. A good deal of misunderstanding and difficulty could be avoided if all English families appreciated the difference between these two schemes.

A standard letter would ensure, too, that the hostess explained to the girl before her arrival what was required of her and explained that she would not be expected to do more than five hours work a day, that English classes would be available, what was the amount of pocket money, and so on. A girl receiving such a standard letter would be in no doubt that this was a document which she had to produce when she came into this country. The letter of invitation at present sent by hostesses to these girls is sometimes not understood by the girls to be a document which must be produced at the point of entry. About 4,000 girls are refused admission every year, not all for this reason, but undoubtedly some of them because they have not the correct document.

If it were a condition that this invitation had to be endorsed by an official in the girl's own country before she came, this would enable the official in her country at that point to tell her a little about the scheme and to give her a booklet of explanation and a briefing about the customs and conditions in England. There cannot be too much of this kind of preparation before they come if there are to be satisfactory relationships over here.

First impressions, of course, are all-important. Many of these relationships are not satisfactory because in the early days the difficulties were too great to be overcome. I believe that it is important that all girls should have at least a smattering of English before they come. It is too much to expect any family, however kind, and any girl, however willing to help, to get on well together if neither of them can understand a word each other says for weeks on end. That is an impossible undertaking.

I therefore think it important that the age should be right. At present these girls can come here at the age of 15. That seems to me to be much too young. I recall a Swiss girl we had who was 18 and who spent every spare moment in the first few weeks up in her bedroom sobbing bitterly with homesickness. We and she weathered the storm; she stayed with us for a year and she finished with a grand trip on a walking holiday all round the country. When she went back she said that being in England was the best thing that she had ever done. But she was 18, and she had enough maturity to weather the difficulties of those early weeks. A girl of 15 is very immature, and it takes a lot at that age to come to a strange country, probably being away from home for the first time. I think hat the age should be 16 at the very lowest.

Because of some of the misconceptions about the words "au pair", I think that it would be better to find a different description of these girls. It has been suggested that they might be called student-workers or student-helpers—or, at any rate, some description which would indicate the two sides of the proposition; one, that they are here to study and the other, that they will work in exchange for the opportunity to study and for being kept and paid pocket money.

May I stress the importance of greater Ministerial responsibility for these arrangements? A great deal has been done hitherto by a number of voluntary organisations, and the debt which we owe to these voluntary organisations for the work which they have done in this field is very great. They man the kiosk in Victoria Station, they meet and help the girls at other arrival points, they help the misfits and the unhappy, they provide clubs and companionship, they advise, Government Departments and they issue a number of booklets which have been the basis of the excellent booklets which have been produced by the Home Office and the Central Office of Information. There is another booklet, I understand, in course of preparation by the Foreign Office, and there are booklets handed to the girls at the point of entry into this country.

The point which I have stressed, and which I am sure other hon. Members will mention in the debate, is the large number of girls involved, the scale of these arrangements and the limited resources of the voluntary organisations. This is an important subject. Short-term, these girls are extremely valuable to the economy of this country by helping to release many women for other work. Long-term, undoubtedly where these arrangements are successful they help to promote international harmony in a small but an important way.

I feel that it is time that more of this was placed on an official footing and that the Home Office ought to take an even greater responsibility than they do. I appreciate all that has been done by the Home Office, the increasing interest of the Foreign Office and the continuing work of the Ministry of Labour with work permits and the care with which they are issued. I do not know what the hon. Lady the Joint Under-Secretary of State will say in her reply about the attitude of Government Departments to this problem—but I should like to see fairly soon a round-table conference of all the organisations and people concerned in this to try to sort out what are the urgent problems and how the Government can tackle them so that the au pair procedure, which has changed very much over the years, can be brought up to date. In this way the various points can be adequately covered to ensure that the machinery is effective, that the preparation on both sides, in the hostesses' family and by the girls corning over, is adequate, and that there is a warm and friendly approach in the booklets which are issued, in the officials the girls meet and at every possible point where the girls come into contact with people from this country. There is a quotation in one of the book- lets which are issued to the girls when they come to this country, Those who meet you will think of your country as they think of you. That is very true also about us in this country. The girls who come here will think of this country as they think of the people they meet when they come here.

The au pair arrangement is highly individual and highly personal and no power on earth can ensure that the right girl always goes to the right family. It is almost inevitable, when there is such a variety of types of girl and such a variety of types of family, that sometimes the studious girl will find herself in a family which does a great deal of entertaining or in which there are a number of very high-spirited and lively children, or that the lively girl will find herself with very quiet, studious people or with elderly people who do not understand her very well. We cannot avoid this happening, and undoubtedly the voluntary organisation will continue to play a very big part in trying to sort out some of these difficulties and to rearrange such partnerships on a different basis.

Our purpose in initiating this short debate is to draw attention to some of the difficulties which could be removed and to press for greater official responsibility for these girls and the arrangements under which they come. The whole standard of au pair arrangements now needs to be raised; it should be put on a higher level so that those who exploit the arrangements, on both sides, can be discouraged. I hope that this short debate and the proposals we make will contribute to the raising of the standard which is now so necessary.

12.20 p.m.

Miss Joan Vickers (Plymouth, Devonport)

I am very glad to take part in this short debate initiated by the hon. Lady the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler). I agree very much with what she has said. I have never had an au pair girl myself. My special connection with the subject is that I am chairman of the British Vigilance Association.

First, I wish to express thanks to the immigration officers at the various ports. I appreciate the difficulty which they have in sorting out addresses and technical problems, and I know that their kindness is quite remarkable. Theirs is a very big task and we should pay a tribute to them for what they do. I pay a tribute also to International Travellers' Aid, with its 200 voluntary workers who, as the hon. Lady said, man the kiosks at Victoria and Liverpool Street Stations in London. The Victoria kiosk is manned every day except Christmas. The voluntary workers there prevent untold misery, particularly when, as does happen sometimes, regrettably, a hostess comes along, does not like the look of the girl she is supposed to take, and then leaves her to the care of the voluntary workers.

A great deal is done by the Friends of the Islands, the Y.W.C.A., and, particularly, by the Liverpool Vigilance Association which deals so adequately with the Irish. Mrs. Ellis and her group of voluntary lady helpers at Dover do remarkable work particularly for girls who perhaps arrive late and cannot be admitted for one reason or another and have to be found accommodation for the night. Also, of course, the National Council of Women and the Mothers' Union do a great deal in their localities. If it were not for this splendid band of workers, the system would probably break down. The problem is not a new one. It exercised the attention of the Social Advisory Group for Girls Working Away from Home as far back as 1958.

I agree with the hon. Lady, and so do all the associations I have mentioned, about the need to raise the age at which au pair girls can come here. The age should certainly be raised to 17, and I would even prefer it to be 18. Life can be very difficult for immature girls in a strange country, particularly if they are left alone in the house all day, looking after children, as often happens when the wife is out at work. There have been cases of au pair girls being left for a whole week alone in the house with children to look after, and this obviously is too much of a strain.

I agree entirely with the hon. Lady's suggestion that there should be a stereotyped letter of invitation, but I would go further and urge that there is still need for a permit. It seems to me absurd that we should refuse a labour permit for a girl under 18 years of age yet let a girl of 15 do similar work in an au pair job for about 25s. or 30s. a week. I should have thought that this contravened the Young Persons (Employment) Act, 1938. I am fortified in my view with regard to age by such people as those who have worked for the International Travellers' Aid. One worker says that, after six years' experience, it is clear that Many young girls find themselves in difficulties on arrival. Their irresponsibility, due to their age, creates special problems. A girl may receive a letter from her host family to say that they are going off for a holiday, but she may decide to come "to see London" although she may have only £3 to last her for a fortnight.

The International Travellers' Aid points out also that a young girl is far more vulnerable if, by accident, she is not met, if she is met by an uncaring hostess, who does not want her, or if the hostess does not like her and turns her out after a few days. From the hostess's point of view, also, a very young girl is not able to give real service.

I understand that a lot of girls do not fully realise the importance of their letter of invitation. The letter sent by the hostess may be thoughtlessly worded, and the girl may be held up by the immigration officers while they are trying to find addresses and straighten out various technicalities. I agree, therefore, with the hon. Lady's suggestion that a form of letter should be properly drafted, giving all details.

A definite permit would undoubtedly give the hostess greater responsibility towards the girl. Not only would she have to report to the Ministry of Labour if the girl left her, but she would not be able to change her mind at the last minute about receiving the girl. Presumably, also, the girl herself would be required to come in fulfilment of the terms of the permit.

Again, to quote from the International Travellers' Aid, A few girls have been rejected on the stations, but a far greater number have been met by a strange employer because the agency concerned has had to find a substitute at the last moment when the employer had cried off". An example is given of a young Spanish girl who was met by a single Indian man, speaking no Spanish, in place of her original employer.

Now, with 30,000 girls in this country, it is essential to have a definite contract. The contract could specify the period of time off, time for attending classes, and so on. It would also stop exploitation, which, although, as the hon. Lady said, it is not widespread, is there to some extent. A contract would stop exploitation by both employer and employee. I have in mind the girl who comes over here just to have a good time and who does not want to do anything in the house.

Arrangements should be made for au pair girls to be included within the National Insurance Scheme. All girls should be guaranteed a two weeks' holiday and one full free day a week. There is need also to ensure that they bring adequate pocket money. They cannot support themselves with the small amount of money they get from their hostesses if they wish to go out to attend classes or enjoy themselves. In addition, there should be arrangements at an early stage for a link with another girl speaking the same language. As the hon. Lady the Member for Wood Green pointed out, the lack of English can be, a great problem. The girl of whom the hon. Lady spoke was fortunate in being in an understanding home, but girls who have great difficulty in expressing themselves can get into much trouble and unhappiness on this account.

Whether girls are employed whole-time or part-time, there should be some form of contract. This need is becoming more important. The voluntary organisations tell us that the year 1963 produced a greater number of persons coming to this county than ever before, and a greater number than ever had to be helped. The variety of nationalities involved is growing. The booklet referred to by the hon. Lady is concerned only with girls coming from European countries, but the scope is growing wider. Only two days ago, my own association had an application from a Tunisian who wished to come to this country to work as au pair. As I said, with at least 30,000 of these girls in the country, the problem is becoming more serious.

In France, a girl wishing to work au pair without a contract signed by the two parties concerned is in an illegal position, contrary to the French regulations, and she is likely to encounter serious difficulties. Also, the receiving family in France must put themselves in order with Social Security from the day when the girl arrives. There is a civil responsibility upon the workers to do this with effect from the moment the girl comes into their house. Belgium and other countries have similar contracts. There has been a conference in Geneva on the position of women and girls working abroad, and in the report of that conference one can see the various regulations drawn up for the type of contract to which I have referred.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State will be able to tell us what action the Home Office is willing to take. I realise that it will not be possible for her to give definite answers to all our questions today, but, as the hon. Lady the Member for Wood Green said, it is a great advantage to have the opportunity from time to time to review the situation and make suggestions for action to be taken in the future.

I believe that the entire responsibility for these girls should be placed on the Ministry of Labour instead of being, as it is now, divided between the Home Office and the Ministry of Labour. My main reason for wanting au pair girls to be within the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Labour is that that Ministry operates employment exchanges in practically every city and town where these girls are employed. Most employment exchanges have women officials, so that a closer liaison could be established through them between employer and employee. Girls who find themselves in difficulty would know that they could go to their local employment exchanges. At present there is only a hit-and-miss system of help given, with the girls writing to various organisations, sometimes receiving help and at other times being unable to get assistance.

Only two days ago I met an au pair girl who was pregnant. Apparently she had become pregnant before arriving in this country. On arrival here the hostess realised what had happened. The girl was distressed when I met her and I was able to put her in touch with her embassy. I mention this to show that there should be a clearing house of some kind; and I suggest that the Ministry of Labour, with its network of employment exchanges, would be the best solution. If this is not possible, one voluntary organisation should be deputed to act as a clearing house. If this were done it would be necessary for the Government to give the organisation a grant. No one voluntary organisation could afford this extra strain on its finances without Government assistance.

One of the difficulties now is that no one, except the Home Office—and only then if that Department likes to send a woman policeman around—has any right of entry into a house to see how an au pair girl is getting on. When an application is received from a girl to come here no one has the right to go to the house at which the girl proposes to live and see if it is a satisfactory type of house. The girl at present might write to the local clergyman to see if time can be found to visit the house, but no right of entry exists. It is important that we should have more knowledge of the types of house to which these girls are going.

It is worth remembering that some au pair girls go to houses where practically no English is spoken. It is natural that the girls should be unhappy from the beginning in such circumstances, and nearly always they leave. When that happens they must find somewhere else to stay and this is not always easy, particularly when it must be done quickly. When this happens there is not an organisation to which the girls can satisfactorily go to seek other employment.

To give an example of what I mean, I have with me details of someone who wrote from overseas to Scotland Yard asking if the authorities there would verify that the house to which an au pair girl proposed to go was a suitable one. Scotland Yard sent the letter to the British Vigilance Association, which has absolutely no right of entry—although on that occasion we attempted, by means of courtesy, to get ourselves invited to the house concerned.

Many other considerations enter into this; for example, a lonely girl not only needs advice but almost always requires to be a member of a club. In this connection, I will quote from the last annual report published by the Welfare Office for Swiss Girls in Great Britain. The Swiss are particularly alive to the

problem we are considering. I will not go into all the statistics listed in the report, but it is interesting to note that whereas in 1962 Swiss girls received 54 letters of welcome, in 1963 the figure was 108. After pointing out that the Welfare Office tries to visit the girls, the report states: The 'girls in danger' are mostly young and immature. Not being able to distinguish between good and bad characters, they often get involved in unhappy love affairs with men of doubtful reputation. Usually these girls are too easily influenced and are willing to meet every demand of their so-called friends. For example, even girls of good family background leave their domestic jobs or language schools in order to go and live with their boy friends. As a result, some of them failed to report their change of address and sooner or later landed at the police station because of this. There were 28 compatriots whose illness was reported to us. Nearly half of them were mental cases, whilst a few girls had to undergo operations. We made 28 visits to patients at hospitals in London and in other counties. We heard of 5 compatriots who had attempted suicide. Fortunately all of them were saved, although one girl will never regain full health. Two girls were found to have a hereditary disposition to suicide. The report later states: We paid 5 visits to compatriots of ours in Holloway Prison. One girl is still there, having been sentenced to 9 months imprisonment for conspiracy to defraud by doping racehorses. Half of the criminal cases were for larceny, mainly in department stores or self-service shops. Two of these girls unable to resist shoplifting have wealthy parents and were not at all in need of the things they stole. The reason why many of the girls steal is the extremely small amount of money they are allowed to receive. In view of the report of the Welfare Office for Swiss Girls, I hope that this matter will be looked into.

There is an organisation called the Amies de la Jeune Fille which, with the Y.W.C.A., organised a world meeting in Geneva in September 1961 on this subject. Eight countries attended, all of them European. It was made clear at that meeting that all the countries were getting worried. For this reason, I thought that the hon. Lady's point about someone at the other end having to see the permit or letter of introduction was an extremely good suggestion. I hope that something on those lines will be done so that an indication is given to au pair girls of what they may expect when they arrive in this country.

I entirely agree that the impression au pair girls take back with them from Britain will make all the difference to international relations in future. I am told that some of the girls are getting rather tougher. They now realise the difficulties, particularly German girls, and pass the knowledge they gain on to their friends when they return home. As a result, they are ready for these difficulties on arrival here, although I fear that this may be setting up a certain resistance to their hostesses.

Hon. Members will be aware that in the newspapers recently there have been reports of several cases, two of which were reported from Scotland, of girls who have had to leave their houses and find refuge elsewhere because—and I believe that the two girls in Scotland were Swedish—they had been used as a form of cheap labour.

I have been interested to learn that the Co-operative Guild had a meeting at Whitley Bay the other day, at which about 800 women considered this subject. The Co-operative Guild, which has taken a keen interest in this matter, considers that stricter control should be demanded by the Government and that au pair girls should have at least 19 hours free time a day from their work for studies. There is a general consensus of opinion throughout the country that the profession of the au pair girl should be looked into.

A booklet entitled The Foreign Worker and the au pair Student in Britain was published some time ago, although I understand that it is no longer in print. I suggest that they are not au pair students. As the hon. Lady rightly pointed out, they are now more like au pair domestic workers. They get some time, off for studying, but their hours are not sufficiently well defined.

On arrival in this country, I would like to see their names circulated by the immigration officers to their respective embassies. Conditions of employment should be laid down, and I would particularly like to see au pair girls having their own and separate bedrooms. Whatever may be said, it is not possible for a family to have an au pair girl sharing a bedroom all the time. In any case, no girl can do without a certain amount of privacy and a separate bedroom would be helpful to her studies.

I gather that the International Labour Office is pressing for a charter to be established for young workers, although I understand that au pair girls would be excluded from such a document because labour permits are not issued to them. If they were, they could be included in the charter.

I hope that my remarks will be of some help to the Joint Under-Secretary in trying to impress on her right hon. Friend and the Minister of Labour the necessity for some action to be taken quickly in this matter. I have some sympathy with the idea of having another conference, but there have been so many conferences on this subject. The National Council of Women has taken a great interest in this matter, and I am wondering whether another conference would be of benefit. I have had meetings with the secretary and other officials of the British Vigilance Association and I am sure that it is time that we went forward with a definite plan so that the whole au pair system may be put on a more practical basis. That would benefit both the employer and employee and would be particularly beneficial to our relations with other countries in Europe.

12.40 p.m.

Mr. Kenneth Lewis (Rutland and Stamford)

If a mere male can crash in for a few moments on this female occasion, and it is not often that we are outnumbered in debate by hon. Ladies, I should like to say how grateful we are to the hon. Lady the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) for raising this subject. It is important. I will not follow her on the suggestion that it has become a status symbol to have an au pair girl, much as one would have a second car in the garage or a weekend cottage in the country.

There are certain questions which we must ask ourselves about this subject. First, why do these girls come to this country? They come to see the country and to learn English and to do that as cheaply as possible. This is a very reasonable aim and there is nothing wrong with it. Why are they wanted? In some cases families want to help a girl from overseas to learn the language, to meet English people and live with an English family, but in far too many cases these girls come because the families are looking for cheap domestic help. We have to recognise this fact.

It is significant that in the Home Office pamphlet on this subject it was suggested that the wage might be 30s. to £2 a week for five hours work a day. I do not know what the trade unions would think of that, but I imagine that this is not very good payment even taking into account the fact that the girls have their keep. The pamphlet suggested that the girls should not do more than the mistress of the house, but I should have thought that the mistress of the house would have got more for her work than 30s.

This whole matter has some official blessing, and I am glad that the subject has been raised in debate, because it needs looking into. The numbers of girls are becoming considerable and are likely to continue to increase, and we should now consider whether there should be some established rules. The National Council of Women has suggested a new form of labour permit. I have an open mind about that. It is suggested that there should be a labour permit for what might be termed a working student. I would go further and register both the girls and the families, and charge a fee for the registration of the families. I would draw up certain rules about payment and that kind of thing. This should be made the responsibility partly of the Government and partly of the voluntary organisations. In other words, I would not discard the work of the voluntary organisations, but would link it with a Government Department. I believe that it should be one Government Department and not two. Somebody must make up his mind whether this should be the function of the Home Office or the Ministry of Labour.

If there were this registration and these rules, a girl could make any complaint she had to the Department or to the voluntary organisation recognised by the Department. Equally, if the family had a complaint it could do exactly the same. Sometimes the families themselves are badly dealt with by these girls. We should recognise that the faults are not all on one side. The faults are probably minimal, anyway. Most of the working arrangements between families and girls are correct and amenable to both sides, but there are the exceptions which always cause the trouble.

Girls who come from overseas sometimes take up positions with the deliberate intention of gravitating to London eventually, because London is a magnet, and sometimes an unpleasant magnet for girls of 16 or 17 years of age. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Miss Vickers) that we should look at the question of age and consider whether 15 years is not too young. This system applies not only in this country, but in other countries in Europe, and because we are a close-knit continent it is easy for girls either to come to this country from Europe or for our girls to go abroad. It is a system which should be developed. It has advantages for both sides. Sooner or later we must recognise that certain countries in Europe have rules and regulations and a certain amount of order in this matter, and that we must have the same.

This au pair system can do a great deal in furthering good relations between ourselves and Europe. Equally, it can do a great deal to damage those relations. If the girls are well looked after and encouraged to conduct themselves well, they will leave the country feeling that they like the British and our way of life and will come again. Equally, the families will probably establish connections with continental countries which will be of great value to them.

I hope, therefore that, arising out of this short debate, the Government will look at this whole matter in due course on the basis of whether more order can be put into the present arrangements. No one wants to over-regularise it or establish a more bureaucratic system, but in the interest of both the girls and the families there is a great deal to be said for making use of voluntary organisations under a proper system of control by either the Ministry of Labour or the Home Office, but not both, because when two Ministries are involved a system frequently breaks down from a falling between two stools.

12.48 p.m.

Mr. R. E. Prentice (East Ham, North)

I intervene briefly in the debate, partly because I share the timidity expressed by the hon. Member for Rutland and Stam- ford (Mr. K. Lewis) about intervening at all in a debate dominated by hon. Ladies on both sides of the House, and partly because I came to the House without any preconceived ideas on this matter.

I feel that the case made out by those who have spoken adds up to the need for the Government to take a more positive rôle than they have taken, not only for the reasons which have been given, but because I notice that the hon. Lady the Member for Plymouth, Devon-port (Miss Vickers) said, in passing, that the number of these girls had increased in 1963. I should have thought that this was good and that we would want to encourage a n increase, but in doing this there is a Government responsibility to try to deal with the obvious difficulties.

I should have thought that we wanted this kind of arrangement to grow, because it is of mutual benefit to everybody concerned when it is done in the right way. Young people who spend a period abroad, whether they are Europeans coming here or British young people going overseas, learn not merely a language but a great deal about the country they visit. They increase their own understanding in an international sense. This is something which we should encourage as far as we can. If this is so, I should have thought that at least some of the points which have been brought up in the debate demand urgent attention from the Government.

The problem of these girls arriving at an airport or seaport, and not having the right credentials and finding themselves in enormous difficulty with immigration officers, is something which simple organisation could overcome. The same applies to conditions of employment. There is a dilemma here, however, in that none of us wants to over-organise this activity. Part of its value is its flexibility and the way in which the needs of a particular girl and of a family will obviously vary enormously. If these can be worked out sensibly to mutual satisfaction we ought not to interfere too much. Nevertheless, I suggest that certain minimum standards should be enforced.

I wonder what has been done in the Home Office to find out what is currently being done in other countries. I understood from the contribution by the hon. Member for Rutland and Stamford that some countries have more formal arrangements and more Government interference. At this stage, we should be studying what is being done with a view to adapting what is best elsewhere to our kind of problems. I strongly support the suggestion originally made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler), who introduced the debate, that there should shortly be a conference of the two Government Departments immediately involved—or three, perhaps, including the Foreign Office—and of the voluntary organisations to sort out these problems rather thoroughly.

It might well be that some kind of a committee of the voluntary organisations, with Government sponsorship, might be a good thing in the long run. There is, perhaps, a parallel in the arrangements that the Government have made for young British volunteers who go to work in developing countries. In that case, there is a committee on which the voluntary organisations are represented. It is assisted in some ways by the Government and Government finance is involved in its operations. I do not say that the Government have done enough, but they have done something which, possibly, may provide a means by which to watch the situation and decide how much need there is for a labour permit policy or something of that kind.

At least, enough has been said in the debate to indicate that new thinking is needed. The whole House should express its gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green for initiating the debate and to those who have spoken in it.

12.52 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Miss Mervyn Pike)

I agree with hon. Members who have spoken that we are grateful to the hon. Lady the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) for initiating this interesting and important debate on a subject which we all recognise as a growing problem. As both the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Miss Vickers) have said, more and more young people come to this country by the au pair arrangement and this is something which we all welcome.

I can divide my speech into two parts, following, first, my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Stamford (Mr. K. Lewis) into the reasons why these young people come here and the importance of the reasons for which they are here. They come primarily to learn English and to learn about the British way of life. This is of fundamental importance and is the key to the necessity of maintaining, as far as possible, a personal and informal type of arrangement. We want these people to come as friends of the family and to feel themselves to be part of a British life. We want as far as possible to avoid a mistress-servant relationship. It is important, therefore, in approaching the matter to recognise that that is the fundamental reason for these young people being here.

In that respect, it would probably be a great disservice to many young people if we raised the age from 15 to 17 or 18. There is no doubt that many young girls, after leaving school at the age of 15 or 16, are keen to come to this country for a year or two before taking up a more formal training in some other sphere. Many of them want to be hotel receptionists, or to work in the tourist industry in their own country.

The families of these girls usually go to great trouble to ensure that they get into the right kind of family in this country. I cannot accept that the major problem is with the young girls between, say, the ages of 15 and 17. Some young ones come, perhaps, from homes which are not as responsible as they should be and whose families have not taken sufficient care concerning the kind of homes to which their children go. Some young girls who come here get into trouble, of course, through sheer lack of experience and through immaturity.

From our evidence, however, there is not much to show that in the 15–17 age group there is any very significant difficulty concerning girls becoming pregnant or being convicted of offences. It is probably the experienced, mature girl of 18 or 19 who can cause the greater trouble, perhaps because of her own experience and her lack of responsibility.

I should not, therefore, like to accept that we should raise the age limit, because it is important that as many young people as possible at the outset of their lives should have the opportunity to come here and get experience of British life and British people and friendliness. Equally, an important effect can be derived by these young people when they go back to their own countries after staying in British homes. One of the great things that we need is more positive links with our European neighbours.

The other question is how we can ensure, as everybody wants to do, that these young people are not exploited. We recognise that it is only in the minority of cases that some of these young people are purposely exploited, and this is the most difficult part of the problem. No matter what regulations are made, no matter what type of letter of introduction or form is provided, people who are deliberately out to exploit the young will, in some way, get round the regulations.

Where it is most valuable for us to apply our attention is to those people who do not willingly wish to exploit the young girls but who, through lack of understanding or lack of consideration for others, impose far too great a burden upon these inexperienced girls who come to a foreign country and who do not understand our ways or our language.

The hon. Member for East Ham, North (Mr. Prentice) was right in suggesting that there is great danger in over-organising. If we were to try to regularise the position too much, we would need the whole paraphernalia of labour permits and inspection with the right of entry into the homes of families which that would entail. It would not be in the best interests of the scheme as we know it at present. I am not, however, closing my mind to any development that may arise and I accept that we must watch the situation the whole time in close consultation. I do not think that work permits would solve the problem.

The suggestion that this is a matter which should come under one Department is, in many ways, attractive, because it would place the responsibility fairly and squarely on somebody's shoulders. As I have said, however, in approaching the problem it is upon the families who, through lack of consideration or understanding, do the exploiting that we should concentrate. It is here that the voluntary organisations have such a vital part to play.

My own feeling is that this is very much a job for the voluntary organisations. They are able to approach the problem far more informally; they do not have the same officialdom and sense of bureaucracy. This would enable people to form friendships with those in the voluntary organisations. It would allow our own people who are engaged in voluntary work to gain something from their contacts with these foreign girls. It could, to a great extent, strengthen the whole purpose and value of the scheme and the au pair relationship. I suggest, therefore, that the most valuable avenue of approach is to see how we can strengthen and help the voluntary organisations in their work.

I am aware that I have done nothing much to answer the many interesting points that hon. Members have raised in the debate, but all those who have spoken have done so with the thought in mind that the main object was to talk about this problem and to air it as thoroughly as possible to ensure that the Home Office is well aware of every aspect of the problem.

The best thing that I can say in reply is that we have welcomed the debate. I have taken careful note of all that has been said. My hon. Friend the Member for Devonport frequently comes to the Home Office and discusses this problem and has quite recently discussed it with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Mr. Prentice

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady but my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) made the important suggestion that a conference should be sponsored by the Home Office. Will serious consideration be given to this suggestion by the hon. Lady and her Department?

Miss Pike

I was about to say that that is one of the suggestions that I will take back from the debate and see that we give it serious consideration. As my hon. Friend the Member for Devon-port has said, we have had many consultations, although I know that people are anxious that we should not fall into the danger of merely consulting and that hon. Members who have spoken want action to be taken. I give the pledge that, in saying we have noted everything which has been said, I mean that we intend to watch the problem carefully, because we recognise that it is an important social problem and one which will go on developing in the years ahead.

Back to