HC Deb 25 February 1999 vol 326 cc628-38

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Jamieson.]

6.30 pm
Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford)

I thank the Speaker's Office for helping me to secure this debate tonight on the employment of au pairs.

The date 16 February should go down as a day when the House showed its effectiveness and the Government demonstrated their disorder. Those who write off the power and influence of this place should listen to this debate.

I have correspondence regarding a written question inquiring about the Home Office's intentions vis-a-vis au pairs. In answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), said: With effect from 1 April, overseas nationals living in the United Kingdom as au pairs will be subject to the National Minimum Wage provisions."—[Official Report, 16 February 1999; Vol. 325, c. 654.] As that announcement hit the presses, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry made a different statement. He told the world: people working and living as part of a family (for example au pairs) will be exempt from the minimum wage legislation. The Secretary of State showed in a previous existence in the Education Department that he had something of a mental block when it came to arithmetic, but even someone who cannot remember his seven times table must surely realise that an inter-departmental responsibility requires communication between Departments. The problem for au pairs—which spurred this debate in the first place—was created by the complete shambles of Government policy in this area. The Government showed how little they understood the problem when they suggested that it could be solved by application of the minimum wage and the working time directive.

We can have no confidence in the DTI announcement. Although the Government have given an assurance that the minimum wage legislation will not apply in the related case of paper girls and boys, that has been flatly contradicted by senior European Union officials. The Minister who will respond to this debate does not have responsibility for those matters, but I ask her to secure from the Government a clear statement that they are confident that their exemption of au pairs from the minimum wage and the working time directive will not be overturned in future by the European Commission. It is clearly determined to overturn the ruling in respect of paper girls and boys.

There are about 25,000 au pairs in this country who came to Britain under a scheme that has been running for 50 years. In recent years, there has been a marked change in the nature of the au pair. One is far more likely to find a male au pair than a Swedish au pair in Britain today. The original scheme brought many au pairs from Scandinavian countries. However, as employment opportunities have opened up in the European Union, au pairs have increasingly come to Britain from eastern Europe.

The previous Government recognised the change in society and allowed men as well as young women to come to this country as au pairs. Far from being the luxury of an affluent family, the au pair is often a necessity for a working family. If the minimum wage regulations had been passed—as the Government tried to achieve until the last moment—many working mums would have had to leave their jobs. That outcome would have defeated one of the objectives of the Department for Education and Employment: to enable more of those with young children to find at least part-time work and afford child care in the home.

We must not forget the large number of au pairs who attend adult literacy courses, certainly in areas such as Guildford. They pay the full cost of those courses, which enables local councils, despite recent savage Government cuts, to continue to provide adult literacy education at lower cost to those who live in the local community.

This debate is about much more than the role of paid employees. It concerns a cultural exchange in which young people come here to learn English, which gives them a passport to jobs around the world, and to learn about our country and, hopefully, go home and spread the good word. It is a personal exchange in which the ties between a family and an au pair can last for many years after the terms of engagement have expired.

That is why the previous Government were particularly anxious to support and build on the au pair scheme at a time of great change. That is why they cut red tape, enabled the countries operating under the scheme to switch from Scandinavia to eastern Europe and allowed men to become involved in the scheme. This Government have so far signally failed to come up with any answers to the problems facing the au pair scheme today, and we must be in no doubt that those problems are the wider reason for this debate.

There must be a problem with the au pair scheme when I hear of an au pair who was made to work from seven o'clock in the morning until nine o'clock at night, five days a week. It is a requirement of the scheme that au pairs should not be put in sole charge of children, and such cases completely contradict the scheme's purpose and intentions. There must be a problem with the scheme when an au pair arrives back on Christmas eve at the home where she has been staying to find her suitcases on the pavement and nowhere for her to go. There must be a problem when, in her first employment, an au pair receives a scalding mark from an iron on the back of her hand and, in her next job, she is sent up ladders to wash windows. There must be a problem when a case comes to my attention of an au pair who was sent out on cleaning contracts, earning £5 an hour for the person with whom she was living, when the typical au pair earns £50 a week.

This is, above all, an issue of child care, and that is why I welcome the Minister's interest. If those au pairs are not being properly treated by the families with whom they live and whom they assist, it is ultimately the children who will suffer in those families, with much greater and wider consequences. I emphasise that those are isolated cases. There are many thousands of examples of the au pair scheme working effectively and building links between this country and other parts of Europe.

I shall make a number of practical suggestions as to how the scheme could be improved. I have in my hand a guidance information note published by the Home Office. It was revised by the Government shortly after they came to power. It says that, if au pairs stay in this country for more than six months, they will normally be required to register with the Police. That is the system that the Government inherited but, last August, they did away with that requirement. I am told by responsible people who work in that area that the Government's action has led to a significant increase in the scale of problems that they are encountering. I urge the Government to reconsider the relaxation of that rule.

There should be a registration system to protect au pairs and to ensure that they abide by the terms of the scheme. There should be no incentive for anyone to distort the au pair scheme into a system whereby people can illegally gain entry to this country.

In 1996, the previous Government set up a complaints helpline for those who find employment through employment agencies. That scheme was intended to cover au pair agencies as well. It is noticeable that, in the revised leaflet produced under the present Government, there is no mention of that complaints hotline. I suggest to the Minister that the Government would do well to publicise both to families and to potential au pairs the availability of that helpline, so that au pairs who find themselves in trouble will have somewhere to turn to, and families who might otherwise contemplate taking advantage of the situation know that the girl or boy in their care has a means of making a protest about the conditions.

The source of au pairs has switched from a part of the world where people are typically as affluent as in Britain to a part of the world—eastern Europe—where there is a great deal of poverty and deprivation. Many of those who come to this country do not have the standing, nor does the scheme have the history, that would tell them that advantage is being taken of them. Rules and regulations developed under the previous Government need to be adjusted to take account of the new circumstances.

Without wishing to impose regulations and bureaucracy on the au pair scheme, I suggest that some simple form of check-up on the whereabouts of au pairs might involve them giving information about the hours per week that they have been asked to work during their employment. Such a form could be handed in at the end of the period of employment, thereby removing any pressure that might jeopardise their position.

Those who come to Britain as au pairs have no formal training. They may have experience in their own families, but they have had no training that would raise them, for example, to the status of a nanny. In severe cases, where it has been found that families have persistently infringed the terms of the scheme and taken advantage of someone who has come to help the family, I suggest that some follow-up should be considered. That might be by local social services under the terms of the Children Acts or by some other means.

It is unacceptable that young people who come to Britain on a cultural exchange should be exploited and used as household skivvies. That must stop. It may be possible to draw up a register of such cases, limited as they are.

Above all, we should build on the good standard developed by responsible agencies and responsible families. There is far too much regulation of business, which is extremely burdensome, as I am sure my hon. Friends would agree. However, there is a case for self-regulation of child care, which is the subject of the debate.

I should like to draw a parallel with the year-out organisations. My last Adjournment debate last summer was on the topic of gap-year students and the development of guidelines that would ensure that they got a fair deal from the organisations with which they set up their gap-year programme. It is fortuitous that, this morning, I held a meeting with the senior gap-year organisations, in which we formally constituted a new association of gap-year organisations, among whose aims is to develop quality standards and clear guidelines to assure school leavers and others seeking a gap year that they will get the best possible deal. I pay tribute to the Minister and her officials for their help in developing that initiative. I have no doubt that, with additional help from the Department and through their own efforts, the year-out organisations will succeed in issuing guidelines and developing standards.

In the course of that meeting, we debated whether au pair agencies should be included as year-out organisations. Many of those coming to Britain as au pairs want a year out before they go on to university, or between university and the real world of work. There must be a distinction between organisations that are primarily in the voluntary sector, and send people from this country overseas, and au pair agencies. There is, however, a role model that au pair agencies could follow. With, I hope, the help of the Department, I shall be inviting the senior agencies to a meeting to establish whether a self-regulating body can be set up. In the past, agencies could be affiliated to the national organisation for all employment agencies, but I am told by experts that that system is far too expensive.

What could a self-regulating body achieve? It could certainly ensure the existence of a test of suitability. It could be said that there are not enough tests to establish that those who come to this country to look after children have the right attributes. We can all think of recent tragic examples in which people have been misplaced, with very sad consequences. A self-regulating body could provide for feedback to ensure that best practice is followed, and that those who work with families have not just a helpline to Government but another route by which they can improve their circumstances. It would enable the agencies to develop standards, and, in time, to establish a "kite mark" to distinguish the best and most responsible agencies from the one or two fly-by-night organisations.

I have heard of organisations that are placing advertisements in eastern Europe, offering what appear, in terms of the local currency, to be lucrative opportunities in this country. Only when the young people concerned come here and discover the costs of living in this country, and the terms and conditions under which they are expected to work, do they realise that they are being taken for a ride—and by then it is far too late.

The cost of a typical au pair placement is about £150, barely £1 a day for the term of the placement. I do not think that is enough for parents to pay in order to ensure the welfare of their children. A small increase could be secured if some cheap organisations were excluded as a result of higher standards. There is still considerable competition among the agencies, which, until a few years ago, were governed by a licensing scheme. It would be in the interests of child care, as well as those of families, if the best organisations felt able to charge a little more for giving a great deal more in terms of service and safety.

The United Nations convention on the rights of the child demands that children be protected from abuse and neglect. That is why I am so pleased that a Department that is already taking responsibility in regard to nannies is also taking an interest in au pairs, with the aim of ensuring that children eventually receive what they expect. Let us not forget, however, that this is a cultural exchange. If, after the shambles of the last fortnight, the Government finally get their act together, we can be sure that, as a result of that cultural exchange, the country's reputation will also be safeguarded. We can be sure that many more thousands will go home speaking well of Britain and their experiences here, and will continue to do so throughout their working lives.

6.50 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Ms Margaret Hodge)

I am replying to the debate on behalf of three Departments, which have responsibilities for and an interest in the important issues that have been raised. The Home Office has responsibility for the immigration rules, which govern au pairs. The Department of Trade and Industry regulates the employment agencies, and therefore the au pair agencies, and has responsibility for the national minimum wage and employment rights. My own Department is responsible for the regulation of child care and for the national child care strategy.

Those Departments have an equal interest in the issues that have been raised by the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn), so he may want to know why there are not three Ministers in the Chamber to listen to the debate. The reason is efficiency and effectiveness of resources. I am a London Member and, on a Thursday at the end of parliamentary business, it is logical for me to reply to the debate.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for bringing these matters to the attention of the House. They are important for children, for the young people who are au pairs and for the families who employ them. Some issues transcend the traditional party political divides, so I am happy to deal with the serious points that he raised. However, it is one of the ironies of life that I, and many Labour Members, have spent years arguing that there is a proper role for the Government and for the state, at central and local levels, to provide a proper framework of support for parents.

The Conservative party, of which the hon. Gentleman is a member, has argued for a long time that the interests of children and families are a private concern for parents and families with the state intervening only at times of crisis, when the child is at risk of abuse. I am delighted that he has performed a U-turn, which he accuses us of doing and which I hope I can persuade him we did not do.

However, I am pleased that we have found political agreement on this important issue in respect of the role of the state in supporting families. The hon. Gentleman will agree that we have to ensure that, in providing a framework of support to families and children, we do not create a nanny state that interferes too much in the concerns of families.

Part of the shambles to which the hon. Gentleman referred stems directly from the problems that we have inherited because of actions specifically taken by the previous Government. Under the Conservative Government, we experienced the extensive deregulation of employment agencies, including au pair agencies. Until 1995, those agencies had to be licensed. Applicants had to publish a notice of their intention to establish an agency and the former Department of Employment, which had responsibility for these matters, would consider whether they were fit persons to trade. Matters considered included previous convictions for theft or dishonesty, and that was appropriate in respect of the au pair agency trade.

Three Members of Parliament took responsibility for deregulating employment agencies. Two—the previous Members for Tatton and for Enfield, Southgate—are no longer Members of the House and the other, who is not in the Chamber, is the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine). One could argue that those disappearances from the House are associated with the deregulation of au pair agencies. It is hard to envisage a more motley crew of Conservatives, and they are colourful in their diversity and division rather than because they represent a broad church within the Conservative party.

In 1995, licensing was swept away and, instead, a power of prohibition was established. That gave the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry the power to apply for an order to prevent individuals from trading as employment agencies for up to 10 years. Since we came to office, we have not hesitated to act where appropriate. Recently, the DTI secured a 10-year maximum ban against the proprietor of a schoolteacher agency. He was acting improperly, and not in the interests of children, in the employment of supply teachers.

I am delighted to inform the hon. Gentleman that the Employment Relations Bill will ensure a better framework of support through the re-regulation of some aspects of employment agencies, and hence au pair agencies. We want to improve the standard of protection for the clients of agencies, whether they are the workers or the parents who employ them.

The legislation that we inherited is inappropriate. In the Employment Relations Bill, we have made the first steps towards modernising the framework that governs the industry. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has made clear our intention to consult in the near future on a comprehensive overhaul of standards. Existing standards provide only for au pairs to be told who is responsible for meeting their return fares. The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry, my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), is giving careful consideration to ensuring that agencies do not arrange placements for au pairs if they are required to pay their fare to or from home out of money payable by the family with whom they live.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that the Government had made a massive U-turn a couple of weeks back on the national minimum wage in relation to au pairs. I contend that our approach was sensible and practical. During the consultation process on the implementation of the national minimum wage, we considered the likely impact of our proposals on people such as au pairs, and what the best answer would be for that group. Our decision on whether au pairs fell under the definition of workers as defined in the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 was a logical and proper interpretation of the Act in relation to that group of young people. It was not a U-turn—just good, practical common sense.

Mr. St. Aubyn

That is the point. It was such common sense not to include those young people in the minimum wage legislation that the Government should never have proposed to do so in the first place.

Ms Hodge

We could argue about that all night, but I suggest that it was during the implementation of the national minimum wage legislation that we considered this group of people and took the appropriate steps. It was not a U-turn, because we did not implement the legislation and then withdraw that provision.

This group of young people are not workers as defined by the 1998 Act because they work as if they were members of the employer's family. Foreign nationals in the United Kingdom under the au pair scheme who undertake light household duties or child care and are treated as members of the host family clearly fall within this category.

We have provided in regulation 2(2) of the national minimum wage regulations a limited exemption from the provisions of the 1998 Act for such work, provided that the worker is treated as a member of the employer's family, particularly for the provision of accommodation and meals, and the sharing of tasks and leisure activities.

Our approach will enable au pairs living as a member of the family to continue to undertake work for their host family, and it will also prevent exploitation through low pay for those workers who do not enjoy the benefits of family life. The hon. Member for Guildford asked whether the measure could be challenged in the European courts. That is not my direct departmental responsibility, but I undertake to ensure that he receives a full answer.

It being Seven o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Jamieson.]

Ms Hodge

I will deal now with how we see the role of au pairs developing. It is amusing that the word "au" could be an abbreviation of the Latin word "aurum", and is the chemical symbol for gold. Gold is one of the four oldest words in English, so it may that au pairs have been with us for some time.

Certain rules regulate the way in which au pairs can be treated. They must be unmarried, young—between 1727—and without dependants. As the hon. Gentleman suggested, they come to the UK to learn English, for cultural exchanges, to live as a member of an English-speaking family and to have opportunities to study. The scheme is open to young people from a limited and named range of countries. A maximum of five hours work can be done a day, in return for a reasonable allowance and with two days free per week. There is also a maximum period in which they are allowed to stay in country.

The fact that we now have male as well as female au pairs was not as a result of a great liberal move by the previous Government, but in response to a court case in relation to a Swedish au pair. As well as the rules, guidance is produced by the Home Office, suggesting the sort of work that au pairs should do, that they should have a room of their own and that they should have an allowance of up to £35 per week.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether there should be new regulation for au pairs, as they involve child care issues. My Department has recently undertaken wide-ranging consultation on the regulation of early education and day care. On 12 January, I announced a four-point plan for taking forward some of the issues that the consultation raised. We were aware of the strong lobby for a register of individual nannies and child care workers, but we felt that that was not appropriate, as it would not bring the security and benefits that families want. The benefits would not be commensurate with the bureaucratic burdens that such a move would impose.

The Department has begun work with the nanny agencies to draw up a voluntary code of practice to complement the revised regulations for the employment agency industry that are being drawn up by the Department of Trade and Industry. When the work is complete, agencies will be recognised as working to new, higher standards and parents using the agencies will be reassured that certain checks will have been carried out on nannies before they are submitted for jobs.

At this stage, there are no plans to include au pairs, who are not normally trained in child care, in the scheme. However, I am happy to assure the hon. Gentleman that we will look at the issue as we learn from our experience in running the scheme. However, some of his suggestions were incredibly bureaucratic, cumbersome and over-regulatory, would intervene enormously and would diminish the cultural exchanges and the flexibility of the current scheme. I am sceptical about some of his suggestions.

The hon. Gentleman referred to information and support for au pairs. There is a leaflet on immigration requirements for entry to the UK under the au pairs scheme. I know that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary would be happy to include in that leaflet information on where advice on au pair rights might be sought. That might include the Department of Trade and Industry helpline, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. I undertake to ask the Home Secretary to look further both at what is incorporated in that leaflet and how it is distributed—whether there should be greater access to it at points of entry into the country and through au pair agencies.

Au pair agencies will give advice to both the au pair and the employer about their respective rights and responsibilities. We probably have to make more clear and publicise better the fact that, if people have complaints about the agencies through which they secure employment or, indeed, the services of an au pair, they should complain to the employment agency standards inspectorate at the DTI, which will not flinch from taking action.

The agency may be committing an offence in the situations that the hon. Gentleman described of au pairs working excessively long hours or being exploited. The agency must not knowingly place an au pair in a situation that is contrary to the terms of entry that govern the au pair scheme.

Mr. St. Aubyn

I am sure that the Minister is aware of the difficulties of proving that point. That is why one has to consider that it is ultimately the parents in those families, who have created the situation and who clearly know what is going on, who must in some way be made responsible for their actions.

Ms Hodge

A system that would require form filling by au pairs and some policing of parents would be an absolute nightmare and incredibly difficult to execute properly. It would not serve its purpose. The best thing that we can do is have a greater spread of information. Au pairs always have the right to change the family for whom they work, but they choose to come over to this country and, as with all such life choices, that involves some risk.

Like anyone else living in this country, au pairs have full access to the criminal justice system, so au pairs who believe that they have been wrongly treated, or mistreated, should report that to the police. Such a report would be fully investigated in the same way as any other offence.

The hon. Gentleman talked about reporting to police stations. The current system is that only visa nationals who come in as au pairs—those from four countries—are required to report to the police. There is no enormous benefit in the police knowing where the au pairs are. I am not clear how that would improve the opportunities for au pairs, protect them or ensure that they were not exploited.

Mr. St. Aubyn

Clearly, the scheme was more rigorous until August last year. There is no evidence that it was a huge burden on the police. It is a point of contact for au pairs. It is a point where their welfare can be checked, but it also means, as I have said, that the police know who the au pairs are and which au pairs are extending their stay within two years. That will ensure that the terms of the scheme are not abused by people who are seeking unlawful entry to this country.

Ms Hodge

I still think that the bureaucratic burden of such a scheme outweighs the benefits. What is probably better is to ensure that, in the leaflet, we publicise a range of agencies to which au pairs can go, from citizens advice bureaux to FRES—the Federation of Recruitment and Employment Services—and that there is a better distribution of the leaflet, so that au pairs have access to that information. I genuinely believe that that would be a more appropriate, less bureaucratic way forward.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the good work that he has been doing on the gap year and a voluntary code of practice. I have said that we will return to that issue when we see how our voluntary code of practice in relation to nanny agencies develops.

As part of the national child care strategy, we are setting up a national child care information line to provide printed information for parents on a range of issues. That will give a signposted service, referring callers to local contact points, other national organisations and helplines.

As part of the four-point strategy that I announced in early January, we are drawing up guidance for parents—first, on the employment of nannies in their homes—which we shall issue in April. Furthermore, by the end of next year, we should be issuing more general guidance for parents on a range of child care issues. We shall ensure that we incorporate in that guidance—which is being prepared for us by the Daycare Trust and the National Early Years Network—some ideas on guidance on au pairs.

The rights of children were at the heart of the hon. Gentleman's speech. I agree with him about those rights, which are behind every decision that the Government take on children being cared for by both formal and informal carers. He raised many important issues in the debate, and I congratulate him on having secured it. I hope that he will be satisfied that we are taking seriously some of the proposals that he made, and I look forward to working with him in the future, to ensure that we provide the best start for our children.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes past Seven o'clock.