HL Deb 12 October 1994 vol 557 cc890-3

3.4 p.m.

Earl Russell asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will reconsider their position on the proposed European Union directive on parental leave.

Lord Ingle wood

My Lords, we remain opposed to legislation on parental leave, believing it better to leave the matter to voluntary agreements. Our opposition to regulation has been clear since 1983 when the European Commission first proposed the directive.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box. How does he reconcile his Answer with the proposed Article X of the directive in which the British Government gave the impression at least that they would have accepted the directive if it could have been fulfilled by the absence, whether paid or unpaid, of the mother to take care of the new-born child? What have the Government got against men?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for his kind introductory remark. He referred to a proposal put to the Council of Ministers which would have turned out unacceptable to the other member states. It might have been acceptable in substance to Her Majesty's Government because it did not entail any change to the domestic substantive law. However, in no way could it be reconciled with our objection in principle, which I have mentioned, to this kind of legislation. As regards the noble Earl's final point, I do not believe that Her Majesty's Government have any objection to men.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, I too welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box. Is he aware that as long ago as 1984 a Select Committee of your Lordships' House reported on parental leave and leave for family reasons? It strongly recommended that the European directive should be accepted. After a great deal of investigation it reached and supported the view that voluntary arrangements produced patchy results with low levels of provision. During the 10 years that have elapsed since the report have there been any improvements in voluntary arrangements? Is it not about time that the Government revised their original position?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her kind remarks. Clearly, Her Majesty's Government are in favour of proper flexibility in these matters. Just as the issue of parental leave can pose problems for parents so there can also be problems for businesses. It is important that those families which have no breadwinner in work should have such. Therefore, we can say that progress is being made on this front under the existing arrangements.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on his appointment and on the admirable way in which he has answered his first Question. Is he aware that many of us regard this proposal as very harmful and unnecessary and are glad to see that the Government have rejected it?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his kind remarks. I was grateful to hear the views he expressed.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that his first appearance at the Dispatch Box has enabled him to strike a blow for our party's electoral fortunes? There is nothing that the men of this country would like less than having to spend three months at home doing domestic chores while the mothers are free to go and find places on all-women shortlists for whatever the latest fashion among women may be.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I am delighted to have struck a blow for our party's prospects in the polls. Of course, it may be the case that the women of this country would like to see their husbands out of the house.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, the Minister has advised the House that the Government believe that these arrangements should be made on a voluntary basis. Does that imply that the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill, which is currently going through this House, will be used to do away with the current legal requirement for maternity leave?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, the noble Lord's question is outside the scope of the original Question.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford

My Lords, does the Minister agree that if we go further with the social chapter half the country will be on leave and the other half will be unemployed?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, that may well be the logical consequence of going completely in that direction.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, if the employee is to get parental leave, is the corollary that the factory manager will also get leave and be able to close down the factory for three months?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, to be fair, that would only be the case if there was one employee in the factory. Fortunately, that is not normally so. It is difficult to run businesses just as it is difficult to deal with these family matters. One has to strike a balance. We believe that the right way for that balance to be struck is by voluntary agreement.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that there are an increasing number of circumstances in which the mother is a higher wage earner than the father and that therefore both the economy and the family would benefit by the father staying at home and the mother continuing to earn and to contribute to the economy?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, that is right, but the noble Baroness should bear in mind that the mother has a maternal duty and instincts towards the baby and has a different role from that of the father.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, cannot the principle of subsidiarity be applied in the case of the United Kingdom, with the mother's full agreement, so that the father can take extended fishing holidays in order to get him out of the home when not required?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, the noble Lord is right. We believe that this is a matter where the principle of subsidiarity should apply. As far as I understand it, it is for the family to decide how any leave that might be taken would be taken.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the report to which I originally referred stated that after examination there was no convincing evidence one way or the other that parental leave would raise industry's costs? Is he further aware that regrettably some of the answers given from the Dispatch Box will appal numbers of women who go to work and also their spouses?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, the noble Baroness refers to costs. I understand that a cost compliance assessment was carried out on one version of the proposed directive. It indicated that for this country the annual cost might range, depending exactly on how it was implemented, between £700 million and £2.3 billion a year.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, bearing in mind the very low non-wage labour costs in countries of the Pacific Rim and other areas with which Europe must compete, does my noble friend agree that we are right to avoid anything which might increase our competitive disadvantage still further even if other countries of the sinking socialist siege economy of Europe wish to do so?

Lord Inglewood

Yes, my Lords.

Earl Russell

My Lords, the Minister said a great deal about the voluntary principle. Can he tell us how he reconciles that with his evident determination to slant the law to ensure that the care of children falls on the mother? Does the principle of subsidiarity apply within the family?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, how matters evolve within the family is invariably in my experience the subject of negotiation.