HC Deb 13 February 1990 vol 167 cc126-8
5. Mr. Michael

To ask the Secretary of State for Employment whether he will propose new measures to encourage people who are unemployed or, through a change of circumstances, become able to seek employment to take up part-time work if full-time work is not available.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Patrick Nicholls)

The Select Committee on Employment published its report into part-time working on 31 January. Ministers have read it with interest, and welcome the Committee's support for the concept of part-time work and its recognition of its value.

Mr. Michael

Does not that sound rather odd when the Minister reflects on the punishment experienced by people such as one of my constituents, because if somebody works for two days a week and gets paid £43 for that, he or she then loses all rights to benefits, and the rate of £43 is £13 less than the married man's allowance and, as a weekly rate, is less than average daily pay in this country? In the light of those facts, does the Minister agree that something positive needs to be done by the Government to encourage those who want to work part time if full-time work is not available which, sadly, is still often the case for many people?

Mr. Nicholls

I accept that a number of people have seen the new £43-plus per week rule as a disincentive for part-time workers. However, the position cannot be simplified in that way. Indeed, the Select Committee's report made the point, often denied by Opposition Members, that part-time work is a valuable part of the working life of this country and that a great many people find that it fits exactly into the pattern of their lives.

Mr. Robert B. Jones

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the opportunities for such people is self-employment? Will he therefore have discussions with his opposite number at the Treasury to find out why obstructions are so often put in the way of people becoming self-employed, including, for example, the Inland Revenue constantly reclassifying them as employed?

Mr. Nicholls

I am sure that my hon. Friend makes a valuable point in drawing to our attention yet again the role of self-employment in bringing people back into the working life of our country. I am sure that he would not expect me to say what representations I might have wanted to put to the Treasury on the matter. However, anybody who has ever been self-employed will have considerable sympathy with what prompted my hon. Friend's question.

Mr. Wallace

Does the Minister agree that one of the blocks facing many women returning to either part-time or full-time work is the absence of proper nursery facilities? Will he take to heart the comments made at the weekend by his former boss, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), who said that if industry should take a lead, the Government should at least give some help? What steps is the Minister taking to try to overcome that barrier facing women who are seeking to return to the labour market?

Mr. Nicholls

The hon. Gentleman speaks of one barrier—as it is seen to be by some people—to returning to work. The position is not as simple as it might seem, and there is no universal answer to the problem of the provision of proper child care facilities for those who want to return to work. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) can now enjoy being more forthcoming about his thoughts than I can.

Mr. Dickens

Does the Minister agree that during the war years, the women of this country returned to the workshop floors to produce our shells and munitions? Does he further agree that part-time work is valuable to women and that there are skill shortages? Should not we encourage more women to take those highly skilled jobs, not just medium and semi-skilled ones?

Mr. Nicholls

We must be careful that in trying to ensure that women are given a fair deal and are able to go out to work if they want, they are not made to feel second-rate citizens if they want to stay at home to look after their families in a more conventional way. I accept what my hon. Friend says, that when the demographic wheel goes full cycle, we must not say that our women have, once again, to leave their jobs to go back to the kitchen.