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5.14 pm

Ms Harriet Harman (Camberwell and Peckham) rose--

The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise for interrupting my right hon. Friend. In view of Madam Speaker's specific request this afternoon, I have cancelled my arrangements and I will wind up the debate. I thought that it was courteous to let the House know that.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Thank you. Harriet Harman.

Ms Harman: During the speech of the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), my hon. Friends began to form a lobby to beg my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to bring in the working time directive and extend it straight away to the right hon. Gentleman's speeches.

Having returned to the Back Benches after 14 years on the Front Benches, I should like to return to an issue that I raised when I was first a Back Bencher and have pursued and been committed to ever since--family-friendly employment, which, I am delighted to say, the Government have included in their legislative plans. I firmly believe that that is one of the most important and modernising parts of the Government's legislative programme.

Under "Fairness at Work", parents will, for the first time, have the legal right to take time off work when their children need them. The right to family leave is of immense practical and symbolic importance to millions of parents and their children. It is vital for the growing number of women who juggle their responsibilities at work with their responsibilities towards their children. It is also an important signal that the Government recognise that a growing number of fathers want to be there when their child is born and to play a greater part in caring for their children, as well as working to provide for them. Above all, it is important for children, because it recognises that they need their parents' time, as well as seemingly vast quantities of their money.

There are times when a child needs his or her parent, and when only a parent will do. The world of work has changed, and so have families. The legislation recognises that. Britain's competitiveness, about which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State spoke so passionately, depends on its work force, half of whom are now women.

Women work because they want to. They now have educational qualifications that are equal to men's. They have a contribution to make to the world of work, and they have the custody of half of what my right hon. Friend described as this country's knowledge capital.

Women work because they need to. Nearly half the children in this country depend on the woman's earnings as well as the man's, and nearly half the mothers with children under five are now working.

Women also work because we need them to. There is not an industry or a service in any sector of the economy that would survive without women's work. Many women

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work to set an example to their children that life is about work and not merely about depending on benefits. That is especially important for the 2 million children who are being brought up by a lone mother.

Women's work is not optional: it is an integral part of our modern economy. Women are here to stay as part of our work force. As well as being indispensable to the modern world of work, they remain indispensable to their children. It is still mothers who shoulder most of the responsibility for children and nearly all the responsibility for domestic tasks, although fathers are getting more involved in the care of their children, which is a welcome trend that is set to continue.

The Government will continue to modernise public policy to catch up with the changing world at work and the changing life of families. The Government are introducing a national child care strategy to ensure high-quality affordable child care for all who want it, helping children to flourish and ensuring that their parents can work without worry. The Government established the new deal for lone parents, recognising for the first time that jobcentres should help mothers who want to work even if they are not registered as unemployed.

The Government are introducing the minimum wage and the working families tax credit so that fathers do not have to work all hours to make ends meet and thereby discover that they are exiled from the lives of their own children and their home.

The legal right to family leave takes another step forward. It joins together many different parts of the Government's modernising agenda. It is a substantial and practical part of our determination to be a family friendly Government and to put families and parenting at the heart of our policy. It is an important part, too, of our welfare-to-work policy, especially for women. It is part of our rights and responsibilities agenda for fathers.

Mr. Willis: The right hon. Lady is making a passionate case for family-friendly legislation. Does she agree that one of the great omissions from the Queen's Speech is a Bill to reform the Child Support Agency, a great abomination which still exists and which undermines family values?

Ms Harman: I made a statement in the House earlier this year saying that we will introduce reforms of the Child Support Agency, but it is important to consult and get it right. That is why it is right to have a pre-legislative stage and to consult, especially with the Select Committee, to ensure that we get right the difficult but important area of fathers' continuing responsibilities to provide financially for their children even though they no longer live with them. We need a fair balance among fathers, their new families, lone mothers, the children and the taxpayer. I urge the hon. Gentleman not to worry on that score, because the Government will take that agenda forward.

Family leave is part of the new agenda of flexibility in the labour market, with changing working patterns demanded by both employers and employees. It is also an important and practical way to help carers. I wish to make four suggestions to the Government about family leave: they should consult business; they should monitor the implementation of family leave; they should pay for some of it; and they should include carers.

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First, when it comes to consultation, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will discover that many businesses are light years ahead of the Government and public policy on the issue of family leave. I urge him to learn, as I am sure he will, from their experience, to listen to their advice and to build on their good practice. Organisations such as Opportunity 2000 and many individual employers will offer help and advice.

I suggest, too, that my right hon. Friend listens to those who have cared about this issue and campaigned on it for many years, including organisations such as the Maternity Alliance, New Ways to Work and the Women's TUC. They know the subject inside out and will advise and support the Government. However, I urge my right hon. Friend not to take any notice of employers who fail to recognise that the world has changed. They want to employ women, and their businesses depend on women, but they refuse to recognise that their work force has changed and their work patterns must also change.

Secondly, I urge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to consider carefully the experience of the United States of America in introducing family leave. In 1993, the first piece of legislation that President Clinton signed on taking office was the Family and Medical Leave Act. Before its introduction, it was controversial, and business had grave concerns that it might affect competitiveness. Instead of legislating and leaving everyone to get on with it, the American Government set up a family and medical leave commission to monitor how the new law was working, to give out information to spread good practice, and to report back to Congress two years later. In 1996, the commission reported to Congress that the Act had had no harmful effects on competitiveness but had had a beneficial effect on families.

Thirdly, I ask the Government to consider paying for family leave, at least for low-income families. If we do not pay for family leave for lone mothers, the danger is that they will leave their jobs and go back on to income support when their families need them. The importance of the new deal for lone parents is to help mothers off benefit and into work, but we need to help them stay there and to discharge their responsibilities to their children. If we do not pay for family leave for low-income families, they might feel that they cannot afford to take it--but low-income families need fathers' and mothers' time just like other families. Alternatively, parents may take family leave but face reduced income when the children are young and need that income most.

Welfare to work, the minimum wage and the working families tax credit are all policies designed to improve the income of working families with young children. Sir Donald Acheson's report on public health, which will be published tomorrow, will identify the need to ensure the highest possible income for families with young children. I suggest that we pay for family leave, or at least some of it, as a tax credit for families on low incomes who are already eligible for the working families tax credit.

Mr. Terry Rooney (Bradford, North): My right hon. Friend knows of my deep personal interest in this subject. Does she agree that it would be consistent with the child

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care allowance in the working families tax credit to make a payment to those who want to stay in work, as well as those entering work?

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