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11.19 am

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove): I add my congratulations to the new Leader of the House on her appointment, and wish her well in the work that she will be doing to serve the House. Our congratulations are tinged with a little regret, because the precise timing of her appointment may lead to some delay in the much-needed work of the Modernisation Committee. It was something of an irony that 18 years of Conservative rule led to a thorough overhaul of every public body and institution in the land, except Parliament. I am sure that the new Leader of the House, when she reflects on her former role at the Department of Trade and Industry, will remember that she has not merely accepted, but often welcomed, the moves that the previous Government made, to improve the responsiveness, effectiveness and accountability of public bodies. I hope that, as the new Chairman of the Modernisation Committee, she will want to press ahead with reform of the House.

I counsel the right hon. Lady not to listen to the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) when he asks her to slow down the pace of reform. Were he present, I would remind him that he was an active supporter of a Government who believed that reform of public institutions should be undertaken vigorously, regardless of the special pleading of those who held office in such bodies.

My regret about the delay is not because the new Leader of the House has shown any unwillingness to continue with reform, but because on Monday of this week the Committee was due to meet Madam Speaker and we were unable to do so because of the timing of the right hon. Lady's appointment. I well understand the reasons for that, but the projected report of the Committee will not now be available before the recess. In all probability, it will not be feasible to debate the report in the spillover session in October. I fear, therefore, that none of the proposals will be implemented in time for the new Session starting in November. We hope that the right hon. Lady will pick up the baton and run with it as vigorously as possible, and that she will help us to make up for the unavoidable lost time.

The Modernisation Committee has been privileged to receive a great deal of material, including many letters from Members, encouraging us to go further and faster. We have also received the timetable for the Parliament in Canada. I can tell hon. Members, if they are interested, when the Canadian Parliament will rise for the Christmas recess in 2003, but I cannot tell them whether we shall be sitting in the first week of November 1998. That contrast between the capacity and ability of legislatures in other parts of the world to come to terms with the modern age; our reluctance and inability to do so are at the heart of my argument.

If the Leader of the House wants to encourage us to adjourn for the summer recess, I hope that she will assure us that her commitment to pressing ahead with her predecessor's urge to reform and modernise the House and bring it into the 20th if not the 21st century is undiminished.

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I remind the right hon. Lady that a distinguished former Member, Mr. Belisha, gave the country his beacons, and that another distinguished former Member, Kenneth Baker, now in the other place--[Interruption.] Perhaps there is some dispute about the qualifying adjective that I used. He has given every school staff room of the country Baker days. The new Leader of the House has the opportunity to give us Mrs. Beckett's calendar, and I hope that she will do so.

11.23 am

Caroline Flint (Don Valley): May I join my colleagues in congratulating my right hon. Friend on her appointment as Leader of the House? I am sure that, as the former President of the Board of Trade, she will bring experience in dealing with employers, who often do not want to consider change. When she addresses the issue of modernisation, and compares it with her task at the Board of Trade, she will realise that people in the House are a much harder bunch to crack than some of our major employers.

I want to continue on the same theme as the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell), and specifically to deal with the issue of child care and family-friendly policies in the House, not just for the 659 MPs but for the many thousands of employees who work here every day for MPs and for the House. In the past 15 months, as a new Member of Parliament, I have tried not to rush in and suggest ways in which the House could improve and modernise. I have got involved in my work in the Chamber and in the Select Committee on which I am proud to serve, and I have thought about how my work has been affected and have listened to other hon. Members who are more experienced than I am. I have come to the conclusion that there is room for change.

More than 300 of my constituents have visited the House in the past year, and, whenever possible, I have guided them round. In preparation for that, I have learnt about the building and its history. I have been struck by how much this place has changed. It has accommodated parliamentary reform: the people who are elected to the House have changed, and the enfranchisement of the population has brought about changes. The building has been adapted and modernised to accommodate the changes. Change has unfortunately sometimes been necessary as a result of fires or bombs. I hope that we do not have to resort to such drastic measures before the Modernisation Committee recognises that we can develop and change the building while maintaining the traditions that my constituents enjoy and like to see when they visit the House.

My constituents enjoy learning about the history of the struggles for democracy in the United Kingdom and about the traditions of the House, as do I, being a history graduate. However, they are bewildered by our legislative procedures and by the working lives of MPs and those who work with them. The Modernisation Committee could take the lead on this issue, and could make ground-breaking progress towards making the House fit for the 21st century while respecting its traditions. It must be a modern place of work.

We need fully to consider how this place can become a family-friendly environment. We must remind ourselves what the Government are asking employers outside the House. In their Green Paper, "Meeting the Childcare Challenge", they said:

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    "Employers have a vital role to play in delivering the strategy. We want to encourage and enable more employers to support childcare and adopt family friendly employment practices to help their employees to balance work and family life."

If we face that challenge in the House and improve the opportunities for staff to combine family life and work, we will send out a good message to employers throughout the country. If we can find solutions in this place, they can certainly be found in other places of employment.

I welcomed the Administration Committee's decision to conduct a survey of the child care needs of staff and MPs. However, I was disappointed with the outcome of that survey, as were the hon. Members who signed my early-day motion 1556. Rather than being a springboard for further debate on this important issue, it drew a line in the sand and said that we now needed closure.

The Administration Committee pointed out that only just under 300 people said that they would be keen to use a child-care facility on site. The Committee considered that a poor response, but I think that it was pretty good when one considers that people were responding to a survey in a situation where there are no child care facilities on site. Having established two workplace nurseries, my experience is that demand increases once a facility is established. The number using such facilities would be greater once they were provided and staff could plan their child care better. Many probably already have to look elsewhere for such provision.

It is interesting to note that of those who replied to the survey, 79 per cent. were in favour of child care and, of those, only 23 per cent. had children aged 12 and under. That is important because it demonstrates that staff, whether or not they have children, recognise that family life is important and that they could support better child care provision to help their colleagues with young families.

If we started with a blank sheet it would be easy to improve facilities in the House, and outlooks and attitudes. I have high hopes that the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly will address such issues from the outset. For us, the challenge is greater. We must stretch our imagination to envisage a different way of organising things.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) has tabled an amendment to my early-day motion. As someone who is concerned about issues relating to children who are looked after, I respect his opinion, but I challenge his statement that

In addressing the child care needs of people in this place, rather than presenting them with something which they have to accept, we must offer diversity and variety.

It is important to remember that child care initiatives have developed in the most unusual places. During the second world war, child care was much in demand when women had to service industries while men were away at war. That challenge was taken up by creating child care in the factories and workplaces, enabling women to work so that we could win the war.

If we look outside the House, which it is important to do, we find imaginative schemes have been established by employers, sometimes on their own and sometimes in partnership with others, in order to develop imaginative

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solutions to their employees' child care needs. The European Parliament has already established a nursery. Therefore, we should not be too constricted by the need to provide a child-centred facility. What is important is that what we provide should be of good quality and accessible. As I have said, the building has adapted many times during the centuries and can adapt again.

The Administration Committee made several points in objecting to considering child care in more detail. One point that it made was that it is unreasonable to expect the taxpayer to subsidise child care in this place. That is a bit rich because the taxpayer subsides many facilities in the House, whether catering, staff or offices. Facilities are subsidised in all sorts of ways to create a good working environment so that staff and Members of Parliament can do their job, and child care should be no exception. Child care provided for employees has been proven to go some way towards retaining skilled staff while helping people to cope with family life and work. That argument by the Administration Committee was a bit below the belt and did not fit in with all the other facilities subsidised by the taxpayer in the House.

Just down the road in Whitehall, Departments are addressing child care issues and family friendly policies: the Administration Committee and others concerned with the issue have plenty of examples in their search for advice and other options.

Most disappointing was the fact that the Administration Committee, having conducted a survey, which I welcome and applaud, and having received the report from the organisation which conducted that research, refused to hear from anyone else. My early-day motion asks the Committee to invite others with an interest in the area, perhaps employers who may be able to show by example what can be achieved, to contribute in order further to open up the debate.

I am chair of the all-party group on child care, which, after the recess, is looking forward to hearing a representative from the Department of the Serjeant at Arms speak on child care in the House. I welcome all hon. Members to that meeting.

It is vital that child care is one part of a modernising agenda and that we recognise that if we cannot find solutions it is difficult to ask others to do so elsewhere. I invite the Administration Committee to think again about the matter and allow the debate to be opened up once more.

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