HL Deb 13 October 1998 vol 593 cc884-910

9.51 p.m.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they are taking to promote family- friendly working practices to enable people to balance the responsibilities of family life with the demands of paid work.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, most people have jobs and most people pay too high a price for their jobs. Seventy per cent. of women work and 78 per cent. of men. Britain has the longest working week in Europe and that, together with an increasingly insecure job market, is taking its toll on every aspect of our lives, particularly our family life.

In report after report the message is the same. People, particularly women, want to work but they want to work flexibly so that they can meet their responsibilities as parents and carers. Some six out of 10 two-parent families have two parents in paid work. This is not a minority issue; it affects the majority of families in Britain today.

I should declare an interest in that my partner is a chief executive of the charity Parents At Work, which campaigns for a better balance between work and family life.

I wish to thank noble Lords who will contribute to tonight's debate. I am particularly pleased that there will be no fewer than four maiden speeches, and it says something about the importance and topicality of the issue that so many Peers have decided to make a contribution so late at night and particularly that four noble Baronesses have chosen to make their maiden speeches on this subject. I asked the Library to make a computer search for the last time that four noble Baronesses made a maiden speech in one debate. So far as the computer is concerned, it has never happened before, so I think we can say that this is an historic occasion.

I also think that we should make some collective acknowledgement of hypocrisy in that here we are, at an hour that is not family-friendly, promoting practices which are light years away from those of this House. I have the vain hope that the massive debate about the future of this House later this week will include calls for reasonable working hours for the House.

In my contribution I wish to make several points. One is about the business case for family-friendly working practices. I should like to talk briefly about the Government's approach and also about the problems faced by low-paid families and those with disabled children. The business case for introducing family-friendly working practices is being increasingly accepted by employers who are aware of the case. It can be shown that there are higher staff and client retention rates with companies that provide flexible working patterns and child care support.

There are also other less tangible benefits such as an enhanced psychological contract, if I can put it like that, between the employer and the employee. I believe that increases motivation and commitment among staff. Here, I believe, that the Government could play a greater role by sponsoring research to investigate this sort of less tangible element of the business case for flexible working. I know that the Government are sympathetic to these ends as the DfEE has endorsed Parents at Works' annual Family-Friendly Employer of the Year Award, where Margaret Hodge is to present the awards.

I mention one particular area of the business community and that is the small and medium-sized enterprises. Many SMEs see employment rights as a burden with which they have to cope. In addition, they lack the time—and many lack the inclination—to investigate flexible working patterns for their staff. A route for helping SMEs to cope is to introduce a "just-in-time advice" service, available when they need it and directly relevant to the situation that they face. Many SMEs have little knowledge of maternity legislation and the legal implications of part-time working and fear getting caught out by this lack of knowledge. It is not surprising, therefore, that many are hostile to parental leave and flexible working arrangements. Here, too, I believe that the Government could play a role by co-ordinating or supporting such an advice service.

I now move on to the Government's approach. Under the banner of promoting family-friendly policies, the DTI has responsibility for the parental leave directive. The DfEE has responsibility for promoting family-friendly policies. The women's unit has a particular interest in the topic in so far as it relates to women. There is a danger that with these different responsibilities there will be a lack of co-ordination across government on this issue and departments may shunt around responsibility for driving forward the promotion of family-friendly working policies. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure me on these points. It may be more interesting if he can tell us how easy it was to get a brief together which was well rounded and consistent.

The White Paper Fairness at Work contains a welcome section on family-friendly policies. This outlines the directive on parental leave and the working time directive, which will help parents to meet their responsibilities to their paid work and to their children. The parental leave directive provides for three months' leave for each parent after the birth of the child and is designed to enable both mothers and fathers to spend more time with their children without giving up their employment. Since parental leave has the potential to improve children's welfare and to support families, it would be extremely unfortunate if the majority of parents were unable to afford to take it up.

The proposed right to unpaid leave, while a major step forward, is likely to go beyond the financial means of many parents, particularly low-paid families. It is likely that many fathers, who remain the main breadwinners, will be unable to take unpaid leave. To maximise the effectiveness of parental leave, I urge the Government to consider introducing paid leave paid for from National Insurance. Payment by employers could increase resistance to employing women of childbearing age and therefore should be avoided. If a scheme of paid parental leave is not possible, some system to provide benefits at least at income support levels should be introduced for low-income families.

In addition, at present fathers do not have a statutory right to time off work around the time of the birth of the child. That right needs to be addressed urgently. It is essential that either the parental leave legislation enables fathers to have time off around the time of the birth of their child or that this is given as a right to statutory paternity leave.

I move on to disability childcare, which is a narrower subject, but a very important one. The Green Paper on childcare, Meeting the Childcare Challenge, represents a major step forward in the development of a national childcare strategy and should provide an excellent basis for the development of a modern childcare system. It is very encouraging to see the needs of disabled children and their families recognised in many aspects of the strategy. This group has been overlooked for too long in relation to childcare, and the Green Paper has made a good start towards putting it right.

There are, however, some areas where the strategy does not meet the needs of this vulnerable group. Without modification, the proposed child care tax credit is unlikely to help many low income families with disabled children, including those with children who have special needs. There are three problems. First, the age limit for eligibility is set too low. While other children gradually become capable of looking after themselves while their parents work, this is often not the case with disabled children. Although many children with physical disabilities may be emotionally mature and may not require supervision, they may need specific physical assistance. Many children with severe learning difficulties will continue to require supervision when they are teenagers.

The second problem is that the cost of care for many children with disabilities is much higher than the norm, since special equipment such as hoists or specialist toys may be needed. Higher staffing ratios and specifically trained staff may be required, and there may be other additional costs—for example, higher laundry bills. If this group of parents is to be able to work, they need to be able to pay the market rate for childcare.

The third difficulty arises because many children with disabilities require care in their own home and this type of care is not eligible for registration. At present it appears that it would not be covered by the childcare tax credit. The number of children falling into this group is very small, but ensuring that they are eligible for the credit would have a great impact on them and on their families.

I have talked in some detail about several aspects of the move towards greater flexibility in our working patterns. I have spoken about the particular concerns of small and medium-sized enterprises. I have talked about low paid families, about disabled children, about paternity leave and about the Government's general approach. However, the central point I want to make is that this is not a minority issue. It affects the vast majority of people today. We are in the middle of a revolution in the way we work. I believe that the Government have a role to lead this change so that we can all achieve a better balance between our working lives and our family responsibilities.

At last employers are recognising that small changes in working patterns can make a big difference to a family's happiness and that it pays to be family friendly. Several of our national newspapers are running family-friendly campaigns. The Government are pursuing several routes to promote family-friendly life, and there is a growing acceptance that everyone can benefit from flexible working patterns. My hope is that tonight's debate will reinforce the message that the future is flexible and that the future has arrived.

10.3 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, first, I should like to take this opportunity to thank very many of your Lordships for making my first week in this House so warm and welcoming. It is a much less terrifying experience this evening than I thought it would be, mainly because people have been so kind and encouraging.

I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, for putting down this Question. I do not think it is a coincidence that there are four Baronesses who wish to speak on this Question tonight for their maiden speech. The subject is of particular concern to me, so I am pleased to be able to start my life in your Lordships' House with this speech. I am sure all Members of this House are aware of the need for family friendly practices, and I do not intend to dwell on that aspect. Rather, I really wish to address one particular area of concern connected with the promotion of such practices. The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, touched on this in his speech, so I think we probably share this area of concern.

I come from the south west, where we have a higher proportion of part-time workers than any other region in the United Kingdom. We also have the lowest proportion of three and four year-olds in schools in England—some 44 per cent. as opposed to 60 per cent. nationally. We have a much higher than national average number of self-employed people. It builds into a picture of a not-very-regular working pattern.

Since last week, when I began to prepare this speech, we have heard the news that Xerox in the Forest of Dean will lay off 500 workers, the Rural Development Commission in Salisbury is going to make 80 people redundant, and 530 will go with the closure of Nortel, which is a semiconductor assembly plant in Torbay. These represent very heavy losses in a region that does not have large employers and it makes my final statistic this evening even more important. This last statistic is especially important because small business—that is, those employing fewer than 10 people, referred to as SMEs—account for over 85 per cent. of the businesses in our region in the south west. I believe that any government promotion of family-friendly working practices such as jobshare, flexitime, home working or term time-only working must take this into account. Government must look beyond selling the idea to the large companies with the personnel and expertise to absorb the implications and deliver the package. Promotion that is based simply on large companies will do little to change the picture in regions like the south west, but a real government initiative adapted where necessary and aimed at small businesses could make a big difference.

I should be interested to learn from the Minister what surveys have been conducted to determine the attitude of small and medium-sized enterprises to, say, jobshare or flexitime working. Jobshare is ultimately one of the ways to enable a person to combine the demands of family life with the job suited to his qualifications and abilities, and I believe that it is an area which merits considerable effort on the part of the Government. To do that one must bring in the thousands of enterprises that make up the job market. We need those enterprises because we require a pool of opportunity both for those who are looking for work and those who employ them. All too often, people—according to recent research, usually women—are stuck in low paid, insecure jobs throughout the years when they are bringing up children. There is the general feeling that once children are five or six parents can return to the full time job market. Like many others, I find that the demands made on parents increase once children become teenagers. The Crime and Disorder Act recognises that parents continue to have a statutory obligation throughout the teenage years.

Large sums of public money are committed to the training and enterprise councils to enable them to improve workforce skills while the current skills of many are squandered because there is no widespread commitment to a system that matches supply and demand. The medium-sized enterprises that make up a vast part of the economic base of the south west must be convinced of the need to subscribe to such a match. Particularly in rural areas, access to a jobshare register should mean an IT link from home, the local library or the post office. We should not enter the 21st century with the necessity to make a two-and-a-half hour round trip on a bus at a cost of up to £5—which is not exceptional in an area like mine—to get to the nearest Jobcentre to look at the job register.

I believe that one of the most effective ways of promoting family-friendly working practices is to lead by example. I understand that this House already has in place a number of family-friendly working practices for its staff. I am very pleased to hear it. I hope that we are exemplary and that we shall continue to build on that.

10.7 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Norwich

My Lords, it is a particular pleasure to congratulate the noble Baroness Lady Miller on her maiden speech for two reasons. First, as a former Bishop of Taunton it is wonderful to have this opportunity to congratulate someone who has included in her title one of the beautiful Somerset names: Chilthorne Domer. That is an easy name to pronounce unlike the names of some Somerset villages. If it had been Nempnett Thrubwell the Reading Clerk might have had trouble with the Introduction. It was said that there was an Archdeacon of Wells who could never pronounce Nempnett Thrubwell without his false teeth coming out. But it is a particular pleasure to congratulate the noble Baroness, because to make her maiden speech first wicket down is not easy. She has done it with great skill and confidence and her speech is one that we shall remember. We look forward to many more speeches like that in this House. It is also a great pleasure for us on these Benches. We are always delighted to face the Liberal Democrat Benches, but her presence on them will enhance that pleasure of looking across the valley.

All preachers have three points and I am no exception, but my points will be much briefer than the average sermon. (Noble Lords must not waste my time by laughing.) We are all very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, for tabling this Question. However, I should like to go behind it and make three very brief points. First, there is much talk of "the family", but seldom any clear definition of what the word means. That vagueness is often deliberate in order to embrace a variety of patterns of relationships. I believe that vagueness to be unhelpful. The Judeo-Christian tradition, on which this society and all of Europe's is built, is quite clear on the matter. Families are rooted in the relationship of men and women who are married to each other, with the intention that the relationship is for life. To say that is not to condemn those who believe that it is acceptable or necessary to live in another style. It is not to criticise those who are forced by circumstances to live another way. It is not to devalue the single life. It is a common fault of our age to think that in commending one thing we are automatically condemning another. That is not the case. But marriage is the norm for our society. It is not just a good thing; it is not just desirable; it is the norm.

Unless that reality is at the heart of our thinking and our legislation, we are bound to continue in the muddle that exists at present. Work friendliness apart, it is certainly more tax friendly for many couples to live together rather than to make the commitment of marriage. This Government have said over and over again that they wish to support the family. That pledge would have more content for many of us if they spoke and acted more about supporting marriage.

Secondly, the purpose of the biblical Sabbath was humane, not religious in a narrow sense. It was a sensible law to ensure a rhythm between work and leisure that is essential to any person's mental, physical and spiritual health. In debates in this House and elsewhere about Sunday trading we have repeated this simple truth ad nauseum. The fact that Parliament chose to ignore that message and its accompanying warnings does not in any way invalidate its truth. The whole direction of legislation in Europe and in this country, together with the imperative that economic forces should dictate what makes for the common good, continues to undermine the health of individuals, the stability of family life and hence the stability of society itself.

Thirdly and lastly—it is the most difficult—is the issue of the place of women in the home. It is a minefield of course, but one that it is necessary to pass through in order to discover what future shape society should have. Here I hesitate to provide answers. There are no easy ones. But there are questions that are not always seriously addressed. Of course everyone in their right minds welcomes the progress we have made towards enabling women to take their proper place in society. I rejoice, as do the vast majority of my brother prelates, in the way in which the Church of England has been enriched by the ordination of women to the priesthood.

At the same time, has the process of change in all spheres of our life led to a devaluation of the role of a woman as a wife and mother? Do we honour the wife and mother as we honour the woman at work? The woman at home has traditionally exercised a subtle but very real leadership role. Is that leadership role in danger of being abdicated? I do not argue that the clock should be turned back, but I sometimes wonder whether the clock's pendulum has swung too far.

It is a minefield. But it is not one that we can walk around if we wish to take seriously the important question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby.

10.13 p.m.

Baroness Goudie

My Lords, I should like to thank all noble Lords and officers for the kind welcome they have given me since my introduction.

The Government's aim is to enhance Britain's prosperity and to enable that greater prosperity to spread throughout all communities. But to achieve such prosperity, Britain must be competitive at home and in world markets. That depends on the country making the best use of the talents of all our people, and ensuring that those who wish to work should have the chance to do so wherever possible.

I know both as a mother and from my experience as a councillor for Roundwood Ward in the London Borough of Brent that work and parenthood can create conflicting pressures. Parents, both fathers and mothers, need time with their children, and time to create and sustain a supportive home in which their children can thrive. And parents need to have confidence that while they are at work their children are being well cared for. Only then can they concentrate on the job in hand.

Assisting employees to combine work and family life satisfactorily is not just good for parents and children, but it is also good for business. The relationship between the family and work is changing. The number of workers who combine employment with family care responsibilities and who must reconcile work and family life is growing throughout Europe.

All the member states of the European Union have developed policies to combine employment and family care. The EU itself has undertaken a number of initiatives in order to ensure minimum standards, including funding a project by Children in Scotland which promotes public sector action to take account of children and families in the structure, organisation and environment of the workplace. But the project found that different member states offer very different levels of public support for employees with caring responsibilities, and that influences the provision which employers make.

The project also found that there were three major ways in which employees can be helped to combine their employment and family care responsibilities. First, flexible working hours; secondly, the provision of childcare; and, thirdly, leave to care for sick children.

The Government have already taken action to make it less difficult for parents to balance work and family life. The implementation in the UK of the EU Working Time Directive will make us better able to balance better our work and home lives by providing for minimum daily and weekly rest periods; rest breaks; annual paid holidays; a limit of 48 hours a week on the average time which employees can be required to work; and restrictions on hours worked at night. I look forward to further measures to influence a change in the workplace culture and to reflect a new relationship between work and family life.

It is often said that a change of culture cannot be brought about by a change in the framework of law. But a change in law can reflect a new culture; it can enhance its understanding and support its development. For instance, in Britain, as everywhere else, much greater emphasis is being placed on the importance of parenthood and the rights of mothers and fathers to spend time with their new-born children. With the implementation of the 1996 EU parental leave directive by December 1999, the Government have taken the opportunity to try to develop a "coherent package of rights". The proposed new rights are: the extension of statutory maternity leave from 14 to 18 weeks; the statutory "right to return" to work by employees after a year's continuous service, where at present two years' service is required; the right to parental leave for employees after one year's continuous service; the continuation of contracts of employment during any period of maternity or parental leave; the right to return to one's own job, or a suitable equivalent, following a period of parental leave; the right to three months' leave for adoptive parents; the right to reasonable time off for family emergencies; and the right not to be dismissed or victimised as a result of having exercised a right to take parental leave.

The UK must be at the forefront of the practical development of family-friendly working practices at national and local level. I am confident that it will be and I welcome the chapter on family-friendly policies in the Fairness at Work White Paper.

10.18 p.m.

Earl Russell

My Lords, on behalf of the whole House, it is both my privilege and my pleasure to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, on a notable maiden speech. The only thing I regretted about it was its shortness. I look forward to hearing her at greater length on many occasions.

It is my pleasure because the noble Baroness has been my friend for a long time. I will not forget the first time I ever set eyes on her. She was working as secretary to my lawyer, who has since become her husband. He was working in Harlesden, an area where inequalities of power create many needs for lawyers. He was fighting so many injustices he was becoming the legal equivalent of the old woman who lived in a shoe. She was the only person who knew exactly what was going on and where everything was. Listening to her tonight I hear that nothing has changed. I am delighted to hear it and I look forward to her next speech, which I hope will be soon.

I can understand that when businesses and employers hear a debate like this they occasionally feel a certain annoyance. When I was in America my electricity company put out a statement saying, "Americans used to live in their houses. Now they only sleep in them". I see their problem. I see the argument arising from costs and convenience. I understand it and I sympathise with it. But employers have to consider what is the alternative. We are not going to stop the trend towards more two-earner couples unless we can destroy the aspirations of half the human race and halve house prices. The second is possibly the more difficult of the two. Both together seem unlikely.

So, if something like what this Question is asking for does not happen, some women will give up the struggle to be "Superwoman" and some others—indeed many others—will give up any decision to have children. Our birthrate is already well below the replacement rate. Therefore, if employers do not come to terms with what the Question is asking them for, they will have fewer employees in this generation and many fewer employees in the next. Employers should consider that this Question may, from their point of view, represent the lesser of two evils.

When we talk about families, I much prefer to use the plural. I am allergic to the definite article. The word "the" is a nasty little word. It is a monopolist. If the right reverend Prelate will forgive me, I would much prefer, in describing a family, to use St. Augustine's definition of a state—"an assemblage of reasonable beings bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their life". What we want here is choice. I do not think it is our business to tell society which way it ought to go. It is our business to make it easier for people to choose for themselves. That must apply to both sexes. If we are to have, as the right reverend Prelate and I would both like, a world where women may, if they wish, choose to be housewives, we must equally have a world in which men can, if they wish, choose to be househusbands. In both cases, to work or not to work are rights and should be recognised as such.

I shall take just one way in which I think we need cultural change. I refer to the application of the "actively seeking work" rules. The Citizens Advice Bureaux recently found a case of a man who was regularly required to sign on at precisely the moment he had to collect his children from school. No flexibility was allowed. He was found not to be actively seeking work and was deprived of benefit. A cultural change is needed here. In such cases, there will always be mistakes; and because there will always be mistakes, it is particularly vital, while readjustment is going on, that people caught under the actively seeking work rules should not lose benefit pending appeal.

10.23 p.m.

Baroness Uddin

My Lords, I rise with the usual ambivalence about attending school for the first few days. Many of my noble friends tell me that this is merely a ceremonial necessity and has nothing to do with my age. As such, I am pleased to say that I was not left alone to become used to the place, and the overwhelming kindness shown to me by your Lordships, and indeed everyone, has meant that not only do I feel at ease but I also feel ready to play my full part. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, for bringing the debate before the House and I hope the noble Earl, Lord Russell, will forgive me if in my maiden speech I use the word "the" on a number of occasions.

I have a degree of experience of the attempt to balance what is a difficult task—that of complementing family life with paid work. But, if you have chosen politics as part of that life, then the expectation of any kind of balance goes out of the window. However, the time commitment notwithstanding, it is of course the greatest honour to be invited to join your Lordships' House.

Thankfully, many of us have lived through the times when every Act was to prove a point. I believe that no one Act any longer conveys any feminist ideals and that has, I am delighted to say, been replaced by the demand for appropriate legislation and government initiatives to support our proper place at the table, at work, home or leisure. That is especially important for me. While I am busy legislating, it is my man—not the new man but my old man—who is left holding the baby.

While I am conscious—and in fact I have been guided in no uncertain terms—that I must refrain from being controversial, as someone involved in politics, as I profess to be, that may be an impossible task, given the circumstances and changes that we are about to embark upon.

There is so much work proposed by the Government that one feels obliged to say too much but, for now, I merely wish to acknowledge my glee that this important matter is being addressed here. After a long time, a modern Government are making a serious attempt to redress many of the imbalances of the past. Further, this provides a platform for me on which to discuss the passion of my life; namely, to ensure that there is no no-go area for children and the family. I welcome the positive attitude that we display here to children. That gives me great confidence that, in making decisions to support families and balancing lives between paid work and other commitments, we shall do the right thing.

I believe that our children are the future of our society. We should betray the next generation if we were oblivious, as a Government, of our duty as decision-makers to ensure that all are committed to a balanced place to live.

As a Moslem, Asian woman, mother, wife, community worker, political leader and one who is involved in social work as a profession, I have been all too aware of the juggling which must be done each day, although I believe, as an Asian woman, that there is too little recognition of that challenging act of having to manage the complexities of both public and private roles. I have never felt daunted by that. Throughout the ages, most of my heroines, from both East and West, have balanced their duties with family life.

A recent newspaper article labelled me "Mother Courage". Contrast that with another city woman with a similar disposition who was labelled "Superwoman". The various descriptions of the same activities illustrate some of the varied opinions on that subject. However, all experiences are relevant in drawing up legislation. I acknowledge that we are luckier than the previous generation, who were denied any opportunity to balance their lives with paid work.

I am confident that new government initiatives will prioritise the needs of those women who are struggling on low incomes and who are receiving benefits, as well as keeping on board those women who are able to afford their own care costs.

It is critical also that family-friendly policies must address policies which keep children free from the fear of racial violence. One needs only to see the devastation of the lives of the Lawrences, and the families of Kuddus Ali and Muktar Miah to understand the destruction caused to families by racial violence.

I was born and raised in Bangladesh. I grew up in Newham and Tower Hamlets. I believe that that combination of life experience has given me the basis on which to develop my family life. I am confident that my noble friend Lord Hunt will outline the Government's plans, which will no doubt build on some of the work in which I was involved as a deputy leader of the council in Tower Hamlets and work which has been done throughout the country. However, I realise that it will be difficult to turn around decades of established opinion which says that making life comfortable for the family is not the business of government.

I propose and believe that the Government do have a role to play. I am hopeful also that when we come to examine the proposal for a renewed and representative House, we shall consider seriously the impact of your Lordships' own standard and its implications for our own families.

10.30 p.m.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, at the beginning of the debate the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, promised us a series of memorable maiden speeches. We have not been disappointed. He also used the word "historic". The noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, who has just taken her seat is no stranger to history. As she said, she was the first Bangladeshi woman to be elected to a local authority in this country. Through her experience as a deputy leader of Tower Hamlets Council she understands the nature of deprived communities. From the insights that she has shown us this evening it is clear that she will make significant contributions to our debates, drawing on that experience, on the rich experience of the Asian community and on the strengths of family life which she personifies. She mentioned her "old man" looking after the baby. I believe that there are five children in her family. The strengths of that sort of family life and her considered use of the definite article, despite the strictures of the noble Earl who spoke before her, show that she can deftly cut through the procedures, practices and customs of this place without the need for any advice from any noble Lord present.

I felt a great deal of sympathy with much that the noble Baroness said. I was born in the area that she represented. My mother was an immigrant from the west of Ireland 45 years ago. Some of the experiences of Irish families in the East End and those of families from Asian communities are not dissimilar. Having represented an inner-city area of Liverpool following my student days, I understand particularly the points that the noble Baroness made about racial hatred and its effect on family life. The insights that she brings to your Lordships' House will enrich and enliven our debates. On behalf of the whole House, I am sure that I am right in saying that we look forward to many more contributions from her in the years to come.

The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, promised a debate which would concentrate our minds on the family and on the working practices that affect the family. I am sure that all of us thank him for giving us that opportunity. There are many points to make, but given the time constraints I shall mention just one; namely, the impact of the new European working time directive.

Some of the provisions of the directive are fine, but the way in which it has been stampeded through Parliament is nothing less than a national disgrace. Workers' rights and the safeguarding of employees from exploitation should be central considerations of any government.

Although there is plenty in the directive with which any reasonable person could happily agree, the section on weekly rest hours should raise our hackles. Far from being family friendly, the directive is a hostile attack on the family. The words masquerade as "protection" and "good practice" for workers, but in reality some employers will be able to force their employees to fix a 14-day working reference period. When the euphemism is sliced away, that could mean that some people will be asked to work for 12 days in a row without a break. As we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, Britain already has longer working hours than any other country in the European Community.

One recent poll suggested that people in this country believe themselves to be surviving rather than living because of the working pressures placed upon them. In contrast to other EC countries which implemented the directive, as we did, but incorporated safeguards for days of rest on Sundays, we have introduced the directive in a way which runs counter to the needs of families and ordinary working people. Employers are invited to apply the good practice of negotiating workers' reference periods with the people who work for them. We all know what that means! It means, "Comply, do as I tell you or find another job".

That has certainly been the experience with the Sunday Trading Act. A clause in that legislation allows workers to opt out of Sunday working. However, we know—again through bitter experience—what has happened when workers have negotiated with their employers. Many people, especially in retail and catering, have come under heavy pressure to toe the line. Inevitably, that means that they end up accepting, and working, hours which are family unfriendly and which destroy a family's shared time together or the opportunity to worship together, should they so wish. It is little wonder that leaders of all the main Christian denominations and of the Jewish and Moslem communities have expressed considerable concern about the additional impact of the European working time directive.

For the vulnerable, low-paid workers with few other employment options it is gratuitously offensive to tell them that they have a choice of looking for another job elsewhere or of complying. That is "gun-at-the-head" employment practice.

The directive, which was due to become law at the beginning of this month, claims that two days off in 14 is just the same as one day off in seven, but anyone having to work 12 days in a row will suffer stress at work and will bring that stress home. It is highly destructive of family life. It will increase sickness among employees and will inevitably compromise industrial safety.

The directive was rushed through our increasingly compliant Parliament with undue haste. It was laid before the other place the day before Members of Parliament went on their holidays and it was put into force on 1st October. Apart from a nominal and cursory consultation exercise this summer there has been no full-scale debate, there or here, about these changes.

This is one of the greatest changes in employment law in a decade. It will be one more nail in the coffin of family and community life. It is just another step along the road to a frenetic, 24-hour, seven-days-a-week Britain. To echo a remark of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich, could it not be that the ancient injunction to keep one day a week for rest was based more on a civilised and humane approach to life than the approach of those who drafted and railroaded through these changes?

I am grateful to the noble Lord for the opportunity of raising these comments with Ministers tonight.

10.35 p.m.

Baroness Thornton

My Lords, before coming here tonight to make my maiden speech I did a little research into the conventions and customs prevailing in your Lordships' House on such occasions. I am glad I did. It was wonderfully reassuring to read in black and white that while I was expected to be both short and unprovocative—which is not difficult, I can assure you—I could expect in return to be listened to politely and without interruption. My time in the London Labour Party and similar experiences elsewhere have taught me that to be listened to with such attentiveness is not always granted to active politicians.

It is not an accident that four noble Baronesses have chosen this debate in which to make our first speeches in your Lordships' House. We are all working mothers. We all know how important it is for those we love best that the balance between work and home is the right balance.

My noble friends Lady Goudie and Lady Uddin and the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, have illustrated with eloquence some of the issues in this debate. We are discussing the steps which could and should be taken to promote family-friendly working practices to enable people to balance the responsibilities of family life with the demands of paid work.

As far as I am aware, at present this excludes consideration of the working practices of your Lordships' House. As I am discovering—without complaint—friendly though your Lordships are on all occasions, the term "family-friendly" does not instantly spring to mind when thinking of this House.

I am exceedingly fortunate that I have a husband who can be at home most of the evenings when I am here. It falls to him to listen to the delights of my daughter's violin practice and to the exertions of my son on the saxophone, and all the time ensuring that homework is completed.

Members of this House are not the only ones who work unsocial, anti-family hours. Many in the emergency services, in hospitals, in those professions which are concerned with looking after the old or the infirm, or running our transport systems similarly must sometimes find it hard to give their children all the attention they feel they need all of the time.

In the modern 24-hour-a-day working world, where the Internet and similar technologies are shrinking and dissolving the normal constraints of time on a wider and wider basis, it is pointless to pretend that we can opt out, put back the clock or hanker after a return to a time when Dad worked from nine until five and Mum was at home, everyone could work regular, predictable hours and all took their holidays together at a fixed and certain time each year.

Although we should always be looking for new ways of ensuring that people have the time to look after their children and others who need them, I suggest that we also need to look for ways of compensating people, of giving them extra time and space to spend, if I may use an awful and hackneyed phrase, "quality time" with their families. I am sure your Lordships will agree—many from personal experience—that an exhausted parent may not be much more use than an absent parent.

We must surely also consider the dilemma sometimes faced by the employer who wishes to be family-friendly. For example, an organisation with which I have a close association, NCH Action for Children, runs family centres in areas of deprivation and poverty throughout the country. They work with families and children in many ways, but to reach all the people they seek to serve, particularly working fathers, being open from nine until five is not adequate. Therefore NCH Action for Children may need to put demands of working unsocial hours on its own family centre staff. The question that organisation and many other organisations and businesses face is how to balance their duty as an employer with their duty to the people they serve. I believe the high value which this Government place on the importance of being a parent or a carer is the right starting point, and that flexibility and working practices must flow from that acknowledged value.

I am honoured and delighted to join your Lordships' House. I look forward to getting to know many noble Lords better than I do at present. I confess myself stunned at the galaxy of talents and experience which resides here. I shall endeavour to do my best to contribute to the work which is carried out by the House.

10.40 p.m.

Lord Haskel

My Lords, on behalf of the whole House it is my privilege to congratulate my noble friend Lady Thornton on her maiden speech. She is a well known figure in the Labour Party and, if I may say so, well liked, through her work as a past director of the Fabian Society and as Chair of the Greater London Labour Party. I am sure that it was her experience as Chair of the Greater London Labour Party which enabled her to deliver such a diplomatic and balanced speech. As my noble friend told us, she has been actively involved in many charities and organisations promoting the welfare of parents and of children and I am sure that that is why she was able to speak with so much authority this evening. We look forward to her further contributions.

Many noble Lords have mentioned pressures at work. Where do these pressures on family life come from? In a word, competition—competition leading to cost cutting, reduced staff, ever tighter deadlines, and to services and information having to be available for the 24 hours a day, seven days a week which my noble friend Lady Thornton mentioned. Combined with instant worldwide communication, it all means that people are working under much greater pressure today and it will not get better. As competition increases, so the pressure will intensify. Pressure itself is not harmful, indeed it often leads to better performance, but it is when pressure becomes stress and stress becomes burn-out that it is harmful and the family is affected.

In addition to pressure, the other aspect of work which affects the family is time spent at work. One reason for long hours is low pay requiring people to work long hours or to have two jobs in order to make ends meet. Another reason for working long hours is to meet ever shortening deadlines. I come from 30 years in the textiles industry. The way my company had to compete with low cost countries was by quick response and just in time. Operations which took a week when I started work eventually had to be done in a day, and they had to be 100 per cent. reliable. Developing the new technology was relatively easy compared with the difficulty of persuading people that it did not mean long hours at work; it meant better working practices. That is not to say that people should not work hard; what I am saying is that people should not work unnecessarily long hours.

My noble friend asks what the Government can do. A family friendly labour market policy should provide for reasonable hours, reasonable pay and reasonable job security. I think the Government have made a good start. My noble friend Lady Goudie reminded us that the Working Time Directive will help to limit excessive working hours. It will put some restrictions on night work and it will entitle people to three weeks' paid holiday, rising to four. The Government's childcare strategy to provide nursery places is certainly family friendly and so is the working families tax credit. The New Deal will help lone parents to escape the poverty trap. But what else can the Government do? They can certainly enforce minimum standards but, in addition, they can incorporate family-friendly policies in the best practice which the DTI encourages firms to adopt.

Perhaps the work to be done, however, lies more with companies and less with Government. It is companies that must show people how to organise their work properly in order to cope with the pressures of competition. Companies must have the support systems in place. Companies must ensure that people have the skills to cope with the work and the pressure. It is up to companies to manage in a more family-friendly way and to be flexible about starting and finishing times and family emergencies. It is up to employers not to flout the regulations as well as the Government to enforce them.

There is one other thing that the Government can do. Like my noble friend Lord Ponsonby, I think that they can put their own house in order. The house that it could start with is your Lordship's House. We know that excessive hours worked by Ministers and whips can be reduced by reforming the way the House works. Perhaps deputy chairmen can interrupt pointless and excessive speeches, so that we could all go home earlier. The Companion needs to be enforced more stringently. Family visits are not encouraged because, apart from a smoky Peers' Guest Room, there are few places for families to meet. If people with young families become working Peers, the Front Bench is hardly an attraction for them, and perhaps not even a possibility unless the way we work becomes more family-friendly. Perhaps the Minister can comment on that.

I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Ponsonby for moving this Motion. I agree that it is not a minority issue; neither are family working practices just some politically correct fad of the 1990s. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich reminded us, this is a long-term, basic, generational quality-of-life issue. If we want our children and grandchildren to be brought up in secure and supportive circumstances, we must provide their parents with family-friendly working practices.

10.47 p.m.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, "The hospital shift system", one family-friendly nurse told me recently, "must be the most reliable form of contraception known to medical science". When she qualified she had been recently married. She was placed on permanent night shift. Her husband did not get home until 7 p.m.; she had to leave the house at 7.15 p.m. "All my children", she said, "were conceived in a series of 15-minute overlaps".

The average age of nursing students at present is 26, and many of them have children of their own. For them, a crèche is crucial. It is family-friendly. Yet in all too many cases where hospitals do provide crèches they are open only from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Forty-two per cent. of nurses are caring for children and 43 per cent. of those have pre-school-age children. Only one-third of nurses has access to crèche or nursery facilities at the work place and only 5 per cent. of nurses with pre-school-age children make use of them. Hardly surprising, when you consider the ludicrous mismatch between the crèche opening hours and a nurse's shift time and patterns. Unless our desperately needed nurses are to be recruited only from those who have taken a vow of life-long celibacy—and there are not many of those about at this time—something must be done about child care facilities.

Some trusts and hospitals operate a carer's leave policy, which permits nurses to take short periods of paid leave if children or dependants are ill; but this privilege is granted totally at the discretion of those ubiquitous figures—the managers. All too often a request is met with, "You will have to take it out of your annual leave". All too often the nurse is tempted to say, not "My child is ill" but "I am ill", and it is recorded as sick leave.

The NHS should learn from commerce and industry. In my area the Midland Bank offers cràche facilities in its main office for employees in all the branches, and it also provides guaranteed career breaks. Is a bank clerk more important than a nurse? I am told that that trail-blazing firm, Kwikfit, requires its top mangers to work one week every year on the shop floor, so that they are perpetually reminded of what the company exists to do. And it works. Your Lordships will be well aware that, "You can't get better than a Kwikfit fitter". Can we not say to NHS managers: "Go and do thou likewise"?

And there is nothing "family friendly" about the stress under which nurses frequently work. One nurse estimated for me the amount of time necessary to complete the paperwork properly and legally to admit any one patient as approximately two hours. So, faced with a clash between the perfection of the paperwork and patients in pain, nurses take short cuts with the paperwork. That has risks.

The best answer I can see to this creaking crisis is to give the nurses far more flexibility and far more trust; and there may be evidence that this is forthcoming under the present Government. On 23rd February last The Times reported that a scheme to provide more flexible shift patterns, based on the Swedish system known as Timecare, is being piloted by 19 health trusts. It is an innovative computer system designed by Hakan Zetterberg, a consultant orthopaedic surgeon, which allocates shifts based on the periods when nurses are most in demand and on requests from staff for time off.

Timecare is a brilliant idea. It introduces new technology to nursing care. It can cut costs because hospitals do not have to rely on expensive agency nurses to fill the gaps. The Secretary of State, no less, has hailed the system as a breakthrough, but his department said it would be six months or so before the full results were known. That was in February. It is now October. They are late. I hope that my noble friend, when he replies, will bring us good news about Timecare in the NHS, and that he will never forget Hilaire Belloc's wise advice: … always keep a-hold of Nurse For fear of finding something worse.".

10.52 p.m.

Baroness Pitkeathley

My Lords, I wish to add my congratulations to the four noble Baronesses who have made memorable maiden speeches in this debate, and say how useful all the contributions have been—although I note with regret the lack of contributions from the Benches immediately opposite, with what I know will be the notable exception of the noble Baroness on the Front Bench.

Noble Lords will not be surprised to hear that I wish to draw attention to the position not of parents in the workplace, of whom we have heard so much, but of carers in the workplace, those who provide care for elderly and disabled relatives. With the greatest respect to the right reverend Prelate, I remind him that much of that caring takes place in relationships other than marriage but where concepts of love, duty and moral imperative are extremely important.

Much progress has been made in recognising carers in recent years, but we still have stereotyped images, such as that the carer is at home all the time. If one speaks to employers, as I frequently do, and asks whether they have a childcare policy most of those in the room will put their hand up. If one asks how many have a carers policy, there will be a tentative sprinkling of hands. Yet I remind the House that one in seven of the workforce, and in some industries as many as one in five, go home from work to heavy caring responsibilities. Carers are silent in the workforce. They do not share their experience, either out of concern for the feelings of their relative or, sadly, fearing that the caring situation, if they reveal it, will somehow count against them in the workplace. Because of those attitudes, too many carers have the same experience as Laura, who was offered help to care for her mother by the local authority—on the condition that she gave up her job first. That is such a short-sighted policy. Not only does that make Laura and her mother poorer now; it builds up poverty for them for the future, not forgetting the psychological effects of keeping the social connections that are provided by working outside the home.

One of the reasons it has been so difficult to raise the awareness of employers in relation to the issue of care and responsibilities and develop practices that would help is the reluctance of families to share their situations. But there is also a factor on the employers' side; namely, fear of opening the floodgates of demand. It is one thing to give maternity leave, that is time-limited. It is one thing to have childcare policies. But caring can and does go on for ever. We must be reassuring where it is our responsibility to be reassuring to employers about it and help them understand that small changes in policy and practice can make huge changes in the lives of carers and their families.

Similarly, employers must be aware that what is achievable by way of support in local areas can make a huge difference. There is an onus on them to understand what is happening in the local area so that, for example, the hours of the local day centre can fit in with the hours of the local employment people.

It seems to me that what we have heard tonight can be summed up in this way: first, there is a business case for supporting families and carers in the workplace. Supporting your staff can have a positive effect on productivity. Families also have marketable skills. Anyone who manages a family knows how to co-ordinate arrangements and they are very good at managing time and resources. Losing a worker costs money. Not only do you lose their experience and talent, but the added cost of replacing a staff member is huge, sometimes amounting to the cost of a year's salary. One of our big supporters, Centrica, formerly British Gas, reckons that it costs the company up to £8,000 to train a new worker if it loses one. Most good employers want to support their workforce, yet they are fearful of opening the floodgates. Research shows that most employees are much more modest in their demands than anyone expects and small changes to working practice can make a big difference.

Secondly, summing up what has been said tonight, what families want are simple requirements: they want recognition, understanding, peace of mind, flexibility and support. They want employers to link with local communities. It is good to know that the Government understand and care about the problems of working families and, moreover, understand the absolute necessity of joined up thinking in the area. It is not just a matter of education and employment, it is also about social security, about welfare-to-work programmes and pensions and, above all, it is about training in changing attitudes. However much we do in legislation, what will really make employers have family-friendly policies is a change in attitude.

I end by saying what I think we get. People never make difficult changes in attitude unless they see what they will get for them. First, as an employer you will get brownie points, which is very fashionable. Secondly, you will get pleasant surprises: most of your workforce will want less than you think or fear. You will get the best possible use of the most precious of all resources available to you, the contribution of your workforce. Lastly, you will be helping yourself, because caring responsibilities and family commitments are not things that happen to a separate group of people; they happen to all of us, as we heard clearly in the debate tonight.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, for bringing the debate to your Lordships' attention and look forward to hearing my noble friend's response.

10.57 p.m.

Lord Tope

My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, for bringing the debate to us tonight. We are all grateful to him and I am pleased that he began by recognising the irony that we are here tonight talking about family-friendly working practices in a debate taking place between 10 and 11.30 at night.

We have had an even greater irony, in that, as he told us, it is an historic occasion. It is the first time since computer records began—and I suspect since any records began—that we have had four noble Baronesses making their maiden speeches within an hour. In a way it emphasises the irony that we are told that all four are working mothers and the procedures of this House require them to be here between 10 and 11 at night to talk about family-friendly working practices.

I have to say that it has also been useful to me because I have learnt one valuable lesson that I did not expect tonight: that in future I shall have to refer to my noble friend as "an Earl Russell". I wait to hear more on that.

All of us who have spoken tonight are in our different ways concerned about the effect on family life of what I would call the cult of longer hours, of more competition at work, less job security and so on. I too obtained figures for tonight's debate. I learnt, not to my surprise, that 57 per cent. of people in Britain are likely to work on a Saturday and 37 per cent. on a Sunday. I do not want to be diverted on to the issue of Sunday trading. However, the comparable figures in Germany, which is often thought of as being a competitive nation, are 31 per cent. compared with 57 per cent. in Britain for Saturday working. For Sundays, the figure is 37 per cent. in Britain, but only 16 per cent. in Germany. We now have 1.2 million people in the United Kingdom with two jobs and many of them are women. That is double the number in 1984. Talking about that year reminded me of the novel by George Orwell of that title. I believe that we are now getting like Boxer, the horse in that novel, who seemed to think that the solution to every problem was, "I must work harder". If I recall correctly, Boxer ended up in the knacker's yard.

We have debated many times in this Chamber, particularly this year, the drive to improve standards of education for children. That is something to which all of us subscribe. I believe that all noble Lords will subscribe as well to the view that the parents are the children's most important educators. If they are to do that job properly and effectively, they need what is sometimes called "quality time" with their children. They do not need time with their children when they are exhausted, fractious and desperate. That is equally true of teachers. We need another occasion to debate the stress and strain on teachers, which affects children, both their own and those in their classes.

We have been talking about family-friendly practices. I, too, welcome the parental leave directive. However, I share the view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, that, though it is important and welcome, it is likely not to have much effect on those in most need of it unless we can find some way to ensure that, at least to some extent, the leave is paid leave. There are relatively few families which can afford to take unpaid leave. I believe that my noble friend, whose name I cannot now mention, was right that what we need even more than legislation—although that will help to lead it—is a change in climate and culture. That is enormously important. We live in such a competitive age. In particular there is pressure on men at work to have careers, to be successful and to work harder and longer. We need a very important cultural change which suggests that for men and women their career prospects will not be adversely affected and that jobshare, flexi-time and term-time working is as important for men as it certainly is for women.

Although times are changing, which is welcome, we still have a long way to go with that cultural change. We are constantly and rightly told that Britain must become more competitive, but that cannot be achieved by a workforce which is underpaid and overworked. We need a more intelligent and appropriately skilled workforce which is well paid, working efficiently and drawing on the confidence that comes from a happy and stable family life at home. More and more employers are recognising that. I hope that the Government will encourage it.

Finally, I believe that Parliament needs to take a lead by reforming its own practices so that we are no longer brought here at 11 o'clock at night to discuss family-friendly working practices.

11.3 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I join all other noble Lords who have thanked the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, for this debate. It is an important one. I agree with him that it is not a minority subject at all. All the speeches that we have heard this evening have borne that out. I am very tempted to address the bevy of Maidens who have spoken tonight. We have had a real feast of warmth, wisdom and very thoughtful speeches given with such confidence and style that I almost envy given the fear and dread that I felt when I first spoke in this House. It is a daunting task, but it has been done with great style. It is an historic occasion. The noble Baronesses have done the House proud and we look forward to the immensely important contributions that will be made in future. We are all deeply grateful that they have come through the ordeal so well.

The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, made a number of important points. The great enemy tonight, of course, is not just that it is late at night but that we are restricted in the time we have to debate this subject. There is indeed a business case—the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, made that point—particularly for the medium and larger-sized businesses. It does mean more to them. Family-friendly policies, as the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby said, can be the wisest move for a company to take on board.

I know that it is not the most fashionable thing to say, but I do want to identify with much of what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich said. Strengthening the institution of marriage is a laudable thing, and I am glad to see that the Government have made that a policy aim. I certainly believe it is right that we should do so.

I am also delighted that the subject of carers has been brought in: there are so many aspects to that subject. I am one of the vice-presidents of the Alzheimer's Disease Society and I know the world of carers. The plight of carers is a very real one and there are so many relatively modest ways in which the life of the carer can be made more bearable. It was a very important point to make, and I am particularly pleased that it was made.

The point was made that in recent years there has been a considerable increase in employment opportunities for women. This has increased independence; it has increased self-respect and it has made a substantial contribution to the British economy, which I think was the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Goudie. However, it must be said that a woman's responsibilities as a parent and as an employee are sometimes in conflict, and that has also been mentioned by almost all who have spoken in this debate.

One way in which many employers address this conflict for women is to offer more flexible work patterns and a more conducive working environment. The Institute of Directors conducted a national survey which gives some of the views of employers throughout the country. Perhaps I could say to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, that she might find it worthwhile to look it up and if I can get hold of a copy I will pass it on to her. The National Opinion Survey of employers, which was published in May, revealed that a fifth of their employers in fact offered more generous terms than were offered by the statutory level for maternity pay and leave arrangements. I realise that that still leaves four-fifths who need to make more progress, but it is a fact that there is an increasing incidence of employers who are becoming much more aware of the importance of keeping a healthy workforce. Many more recognise the value of women's work and have responded by increasing flexibility, by providing health care and ensuring that the welfare concerns of women at work are met.

I was particularly moved by the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, because she introduced some of the practical issues that particularly affect the very large swathes of rural communities in this country, particularly in the south west. So one must be aware of the plethora of new burdens on business. The Department of Trade and Industry's own figure is that already £200 million per year has been added to the costs of business, and there is concern that those costs will inexorably rise further as more and more legislation comes on stream. This inevitably means that the impact on women will be greater than on men. For example, the parental leave directive relates to both parents, but it is most probable that women will tend to take advantage of this provision. For example, in Germany, in 99 per cent. of cases parental leave is taken by the mother. That could have an impact on employers regarding taking on women—granting three months' unpaid leave following the birth of the baby and arrangements up to the age of eight will add additional costs and will make business planning more difficult.

In small firms in particular, which constitute 90 per cent. of all firms, such additional costs may be unaffordable and that could mean fewer jobs, lack of competitiveness or worse, the collapse of businesses. Therefore, flexibility in the application of the directive and possible exemption for small businesses should be a consideration to limit the impact of the consequences. For many women the welfare-to-work proposals are a real concern. There is some evidence that there are coercive practices to force women against their will to go back into the workplace. One of the keys to addressing the point raised this evening is technology.

But the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, raises an important matter: it is a question of finding a balance and creating an understanding that if one greatly increases the burden on employers, particularly the small businessmen and women, the alternative may be no job and no business; and that is not good for women in the workplace.

11.10 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Ponsonby for raising a subject that I know is close to his heart. It is a subject that is close to the hearts of many noble Lords who have spoken in this evening's debate. I particularly welcome the contributions and expertise brought to your Lordships' House by my noble friends Lady Goudie, Lady Uddin and Lady Thornton and the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. They have made excellent and significant maiden speeches this evening.

This has been a very wide-ranging debate. I apologise if I do not respond to every point that has been raised. I believe that noble Lords have illustrated some of the real pressures on people to balance the responsibilities of family life with the demands of paid work. I welcome the opportunity to place on record the steps that we have already taken, and will be taking during the coming months, to fulfil our commitment to help people balance the responsibilities of family life with the demands of paid work, particularly in the context of current work pressures described so ably by my noble friend Lord Ponsonby.

As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has made clear, the family is central to our vision of a modern Britain. Let there be no doubt that families matter to the Government. Supporting and strengthening the family is fundamental to building a decent, stable society.

It is tempting to engage with the right reverend Prelate on the definition of a family. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, has already referred to this matter. But there is no point in for ever harking back to an idealistic view of the traditional nuclear family, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, pointed out. For good or ill society has changed and government policy must recognise that fact. Our main concern in family policy is for the wellbeing of children. We support marriage because for millions of people it provides a stable basis for the upbringing of children, but we must recognise that many people choose not to marry and it is not the job of the Government to force them.

Our primary focus therefore in supporting families is how best to meet the needs of children and give them the best possible start in life by helping and supporting those who look after them. That must be done in the context of a multi-racial society. That point was put forcefully by my noble friend Lady Uddin. The right reverend Prelate asked about the encouragement of women to look after children at home. Parents will always have primary responsibility for the care and wellbeing of their children and many stay at home to look after them. But the issue here is about choice. By developing a national childcare strategy we are not discouraging parents from looking after children themselves but ensuring that the option of affordable, accessible childcare is open to them.

My noble friend Lord Ponsonby asked whether the briefing that I had received was well rounded. I suspect that your Lordships will be the better judge of that when I have finished speaking, but I make no apology for reminding this House that the Government are committed to joined-up policy-making. The promotion of family-friendly working practices is a true cross-government initiative. The Department for Education and Employment is in the lead, but it is working with a number of other government departments: the Department of Trade and Industry, the Home Office, the Department of Health and the Cabinet Office, including the Women's Unit. Their aim is to ensure that the concept of "family-friendly" permeates the development of policies across government. This is essential to the realisation of our wider objectives of a fair and effective modern labour market and welfare reform. Later this month, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary hopes to publish the first ever government paper on the family. Your Lordships will appreciate that it would be inappropriate for me to go into any great detail on the paper at this stage. However, I can reveal that it will include practical ways in which the Government will be looking to support parents and families. This will include family-friendly employment policies and the establishment of a National Family and Parenting Institute.

The Government are also taking action in relation to childcare. The national childcare strategy brings together a wide range of programmes across government. Childcare matters to us all: to our children who deserve the best start in life; to the many parents, especially mothers, who are unable to take up job or training opportunities because childcare is not available; and to businesses which suffer when skilled and talented people are unable to take up work.

The Green Paper Meeting the Childcare Challenge launched on 19th May set out our proposals. Examples of areas in which we shall be taking action include on quality, seeking to improve the way early education and day-care providers are regulated and inspected; on affordability, the introduction of the working families tax credit, which will include a childcare tax credit to help families pay for childcare; and on accessibility. Over the next five years, out of school childcare will become available for every community in Britain which needs it, helping up to 1 million children.

Our Fairness at Work White Paper, on which the DTI is leading, draws together an agenda of current and future legislative proposals which will all have an important impact on workplace culture. Taken together those measures will set a new baseline of rights and opportunities for many employees on which we hope employers will build. It incorporates proposals for a cohesive package of family-friendly rights. These include an entitlement to three months' parental leave for both parents when they have a baby or adopt a child; reasonable time off for a family emergency; and simplified and improved maternity rights.

The noble Lord, Lord Tope, and the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, questioned whether unpaid leave to employees in that situation is as great an advantage as might be. I believe that the introduction of a right to unpaid parental leave will set a decent minimum standard guaranteeing employees security at work when they need to take leave to look after a child. It also allows a little more flexibility for parents. They will not have to choose between taking the time off and keeping their job. They will be able to do both.

The issue as regards men was mentioned. The noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, referred to the "old man" holding the baby. I believe that the introduction of parental leave for both men and women is an important signal which may start to help to change the workplace culture by recognising that men as well as women can take time off to look after their children. I was particularly pleased that when I was Director of the National Association of Health Authorities and Trusts I introduced paid paternity leave for all our employees. Little did I know then that as a result of the delightful surprise of a fourth child I should be the first member of staff to take advantage of the provision!

The noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, referred to the working time directive. Clearly this will provide a basic entitlement to paid annual leave. Prior to its introduction on 1st October, 8 per cent. of employees had no holiday entitlement, while among working women with dependent children the proportion was 15 per cent. I believe that the directive will help to tackle the long hours culture, described by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, by limiting the average working week to 48 hours.

In response to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, I think that for the first time workers in this country are protected by law from having to work unlimited hours. This directive puts a limit on hours workers can be expected to work and will bring benefits to a number of workers. We shall of course keep it under review as the directive unfolds.

The noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, made some pertinent points about the National Health Service, in particular the conditions under which nurses are employed. As a former manager in the NHS, he made me feel guilty. I am glad to tell the noble Lord that the Government are well aware of the issue he raises. The Minister of State for Health has made clear his commitment to ensuring that every part of the health service reaps maximum benefits from becoming a best practice family friendly employer. A new human resources framework has been set out which, among other things, seeks to improve recruitment and retention in the NHS. It includes a centrally supported drive to put in place universal family-friendly working practices by April 1999.

I listened carefully to the excellent contribution of my noble friend Lady Pitkeathley, which was very much underpinned by the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, on the role of carers. I want to make it absolutely clear that family-friendly is not just about parents and parenting. The Government value the vital role that carers play. They are an important part of our society. Caring is something that touches us all. Most of us will have had some experience, either in our own family or through friends or colleagues, of illness and disability. That is why we are undertaking a government-wide review of measures to help carers. On 10th June my right honourable friend the Prime Minister announced a National Strategy for Carers which he has asked the Department of Health to lead.

The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, had some important points to make on the issue of low paid workers. It is vital that the development of family friendly working practices reflects the reality of the modern labour market. That means recognising that the rise in women's employment has led to the need for parental responsibilities to be shared between men and women and, importantly, it also means that women are making a significant and, for many low paid working families, vital contribution to household income. It is for those families especially that we need to ensure that family-friendly becomes a reality.

Of course, it is all about winning hearts and minds. The macho culture, which almost rejoices in the relentless pressure to stay late at the office, is all too readily apparent in many places of work. We are clear that all the government initiatives I have described need to be underpinned by a sustained and coherent awareness-raising strategy. Over the coming months we will be seeking to raise the profile of family friendly employment policies and to convince employers that adopting policies which enable their employees to balance home and family life can actually make their business more competitive. That must be the best response to those businesses concerned about additional costs. There is evidence that employing such policies can reduce staff turnover and recruitment costs, it can reduce absenteeism and it can provide keener competition for jobs and high calibre recruits, particularly in areas where there are skills shortages. The noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, spoke forcefully about the UK's competitiveness in relation to that. The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, referred to the ever-shortening deadlines, the just-in-time working and the stress on staff. I very much agreed with all the points he made about the key responsibilities on government.

The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, and the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, asked about advice and support to small and medium-sized employers. As part of our strategy, the Department for Education and Employment is looking with employer representatives at the barriers to introducing family-friendly policies. We are concerned to find ways of persuading small and medium-sized employers that family-friendly policies can be beneficial to them, too. I recognise that there is some way to go before family-friendly becomes a reality in your Lordships' House, but I certainly warm to the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, in his concern about the long hours worked by Whips.

Society is changing and the nature of the workforce is changing too. The pressure on people to balance work and family responsibilities has never been greater. This is well understood by the Government. But the initiatives I have described amount to a formidable agenda of government action to promote family-friendly working practices. I believe that this important debate has helped to focus attention on the challenges ahead and the issues to be tackled. One thing is certain. On getting the balance right depends the well-being of our nation for the future.

House adjourned at twenty-four minutes past eleven o'clock.