HL Deb 07 November 1996 vol 575 cc726-9

3.24 p.m.

Lord Stanley of Alderley asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they consider that the Equal Opportunities Commission pamphlet Pregnancy need only be a pause in your career puts the correct emphasis on the responsibilities of parenthood.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Lord Henley)

My Lords, the publicity devised by the Equal Opportunities Commission—which is an independent, statutory body—is to draw the attention of women who are at work and have become pregnant to their financial and maternity leave entitlements. It is in no way intended to indicate anything about parenthood or bringing up a child.

Lord Stanley of Alderley

My Lords, I thank my noble kinsman for not really answering my Question. Does he agree that to state that having a baby is merely a pause misleads and fails to recognise the necessary lifelong commitment of work, expertise and sacrifice in having a family? Does it also suggest that the vitally important role of motherhood is secondary to having a job?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I can only repeat what I originally said. These are the words of the Equal Opportunities Commission and I am advised that they are in no way intended to indicate anything about parenthood or bringing up a child. More and more women now choose to go out to work and balance the demands of family and work. I see absolutely nothing wrong with that. I believe that parents are best placed, in the light of the available evidence and benefits, to make decisions as to what is appropriate for their children. I do not believe that it is a matter on which the Government should take greater responsibility.

Baroness Lockwood

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that some time ago the education programme of the Equal Opportunities Commission played an important part in helping to familiarise working women with the very complicated changes that had taken place in maternity provisions, and that the particular reference in the Question was part of that programme? Does the noble Lord also agree that the Equal Opportunities Commission has, since its inception, consistently attempted to create circumstances in which working women are able to make a real and informed choice about future career patterns and the proper care of their children?

Lord Henley

My Lords, as to the first point, the noble Baroness is right to draw attention to the complexity of the benefit arrangements and therefore the duty on the Equal Opportunities Commission and others to provide advice upon them. That is exactly what the commission has done, particularly in light of the various changes that have been made to those particular benefits. It is also right to stress that in the end the parents of the child must decide the appropriate arrangements. Therefore, it is right that the EOC and others should ensure that the appropriate information is available to parents so that they can make the right decision in their own lights.

Baroness Platt of Writtle

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the most important point is that commercial and industrial firms and public institutions should set up family-friendly employment policies to enable skilled and well qualified women to combine happy and responsible family life with successful careers and ensure that their talents, skills and experience, which have been achieved through substantial private and public investment, are not wasted?

Lord Henley

My Lords, my noble friend is quite right to point out that there is no reason why women cannot combine a working life and a family life. To deny them that is to deny them choice and the economy the benefits of the education of a large number of women. I point out to my noble friend that women with qualifications above A levels have the highest rate of economic activity: approximately 82 per cent. compared with 47 per cent. for unqualified women. The same difference is broadly true of women with children aged under five.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, does the Minister agree that fathers also have some responsibility in relation to parenthood and therefore parental leave has importance in that context?

Lord Henley

My Lords, as a father I believe that fathers have considerable responsibilities in the upbringing of their children. That is why in all of my responses I have been careful to make clear that I believe these decisions are best made by both parents, not merely by husbands or wives, on the best available advice.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that many of us believe that young women of today do a marvellous job in bringing up their children? They are probably burdened with a far greater amount of work than people of my generation, when more help was available. Does my noble friend agree that young people, both fathers and mothers, are to be congratulated on the way they cope with their family responsibilities?

Lord Henley

My Lords, speaking as a young parent I take that praise personally. I echo what my noble friend has said. Many young people do a splendid job. It is unfortunate that much of the press, in terms of the rotten apples, focuses on the very small minority who are not doing well. As my noble friend puts it, most do an excellent job.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, given the acceptance that raising children is a serious responsibility for all parents—that is, working and non-working, male and female—will the Minister accept that the whole community has an interest in supporting successful parenting, which involves a range of practical measures across departments to support families with children and to tackle the very worrying growth in the number of children being brought up in poverty?

Lord Henley

My Lords, the Government pursue a range of practical measures, but I suspect that the noble Baroness is taking a more statist approach than I should like to take. The important point to remember, and I cannot stress it enough, is that in the end the parents are best placed to make the appropriate decisions about their children. The more the Government try to take over those decisions and activities the more the responsibility is removed from the parents.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, is it not a fact that those men and women in this country who are lucky enough to have jobs work longer hours than any of their counterparts in Europe in their anxiety to keep them? Is not that the main reason why so many children are denied proper parental care? Would the Minister care to speculate on the reaction he might have received had he put the idea that it was necessary for a woman to chose at any point between a career and motherhood to his noble friend Lady Thatcher?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I made a veiled reference to some highly successful people who had managed to combine motherhood and parenthood with very important jobs. Without mentioning my noble friend, I was referring to her.

As regards the first part of the noble Lord's question, perhaps I may remind him that we have possibly the second highest rate of employment in Europe and the second highest rate of female employment. That is largely as a result of the policies which Her Majesty's Government have been pursuing.