HL Deb 20 April 1994 vol 554 cc186-8

2.41 p.m.

Lord Northbourne

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they propose to take in the International Year of the Family to make the facilities and working hours of the Palace of Westminster more friendly to those who work in the House and also want to be good parents.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Viscount Astor)

My Lords, this House tries to accommodate the needs of its staff both by its own policies and by following good practices adopted by government departments. The House already operates paid and unpaid maternity leave, flexible working patterns and a child care voucher scheme.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for that Answer. I feel that the Question goes a good deal wider. Does he accept that time enjoyed together within the family is a very important aspect of parenting and also important in consolidating the stability of parental relationships? Does he agree that Parliament should be setting a good example to other employers in facilitating parents spending time with their children between school and bedtime rather than doing exactly the opposite?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Wakeham, the Leader of the House, has set up a group under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Rippon of Hexham. Its terms of reference are to consider the practices and procedures of the House in so far as they affect the sittings of the House. I understand that the group first met on 21st March and will report by July. We shall study its report very carefully.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, has the Westminster City Council social services department approached the Officers of this House, and will it perhaps approach our committee? Under the Children Act 1989 there is a duty to provide for all children up to the age of eight years whose parents are out at work.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I cannot answer my noble friend with any detail. Perhaps it would be helpful if I point out to her that we have a child care voucher system which is currently used by 17 members of the staff. It is a flexible system; the value of each voucher can be tailored to what an employer can afford. It is not as expensive as a crèche, so lower-paid workers can make use of it. It is available for under school-age children and for school-age children during the holidays. It is worth £6 a day, and it is taxable. One voucher is allowed per family. The House of Lords Finance and Staff Sub-Committee introduced the scheme in May 1993.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, I am not sure whether the Question also includes those Members of your Lordships' House who sit in the Chamber, so I shall leave that part of it aside.

A noble Lord

Well, we work!

Baroness Nicol

Does the Minister agree that it would be greatly to the benefit of all who work in the House if noble Lords were to make their speeches a good deal shorter so that we could all go home at a reasonable hour?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes a useful suggestion. Perhaps I might suggest that noble Lords opposite cut down the number of amendments that they table to Bills—particularly to mine tomorrow—so that we can all go home earlier.

Lord Harvington

My Lords, does my noble friend realise that this Question has been asked literally times without number since the last war? If he will look into this and see how often the Question has been asked, he might discover whether there has been any variety in the Answers that can be given. I do not think that there is. Nobody ever seems able to do anything about it, and I do not suppose that they ever will.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I should point out that another place has produced the Jopling Report. I understand that my right honourable friend the Lord President of the Council continues to seek agreement on a balanced package of measures to put before another place. I know that he is concerned that whatever is proposed should be on an agreed basis and should take account of the needs of the Government, the Opposition and individual Back-Benchers.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the Minister aware that during the 10 years or so in which I have been a Member of your Lordships' House, I have been trying to get provision of a family room for the use of Members' spouses and their children? I have not yet achieved that; but are we any nearer to providing it?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, that is not for me to answer on behalf of the Government. It is a matter for the Administration and Works Sub-Committee. I shall certainly draw those remarks to the attention of the Chairman of Committees.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the circumstances of another place and of your Lordships' House are quite different, and that it would be wrong for us to have to accept what is considered to be right in another place? Is my noble friend also aware that Members of both Houses are better Members of both Houses to the extent that they are able to maintain contact with the world at large?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I do not have the experience of my noble friend, who was a Member of another place. He did the country a great favour when he became a Member of this House and relinquished his seat in another place for the Prime Minister. The group that is considering this matter in your Lordships' House will do so on a very different basis from the group in another place. We shall make our decision on how we feel that this House should operate in the future.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, my noble friend is doubtless aware that one of the most helpful arrangements for families is the job-sharing scheme which the Government instituted some years ago. Can my noble friend tell the House how many members of staff avail themselves of the job-sharing scheme and, if he is able to do that, what the increase has been over the past five years?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, what I can tell my noble friend is that there are 314 staff, of whom 176 are women. The policy of the House is to try to accommodate particular demands by adjusting hours, allowing staff to work part-time and through job sharing. There are a number of examples of job sharing and of hours of work being adjusted to take account of individual needs in relation to child minding. I do not have the figures for which my noble friend asked; but if they are available, I shall write to her with them.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, while this House should, of course, be quite different from the other, perhaps I may ask this question. Does my noble friend remember that when the late Mr. Richard Crossman, in the 1960s, introduced morning sittings in the other place, it was unsuccessful because Members of the other place insisted on continuing debates until the media closed down, which was at about midnight, and the Government rightly felt that they could not gag them by applying the closure?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point which gives one more view of the debate that we shall have to have in your Lordships' House once the group's report has been received.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, perhaps I may declare an interest—I do not really like doing this—as both my parents were Members of another place and were subsequently both Members of this House. Does my noble friend agree that I have not suffered unduly?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I am sure that my noble friend has not suffered unduly. What is more, it enabled him to become at one stage a distinguished Deputy Chief Whip in this House.