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7.35 pm

Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham): Like other hon. Members, I want to speak about the fairness at work agenda and family-friendly employment policies, to which the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) referred. I want particularly to deal with parental or family leave, which I believe will have a significant impact on a large section of the population. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who made a powerful speech based on her long commitment to these issues--I am pleased to support much of what she said.

Family-friendly policies were the subject of light-hearted criticism from the hon. Members for Arundel and South Downs and for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman). The hon. Lady said that business did not exist to create happy families, but does she believe that people exist to create a healthy balance sheet in business? I suggest to her--I am sorry that she is no longer in the Chamber--that there should be a partnership between families and business; the most effective and prosperous businesses are those that invest heavily in, and regard as their most important asset, the people who work for them.

Mr. Brady: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Pond: I want to make a little progress, but I shall give way later.

An extension of parental--as opposed to maternity or paternity--leave would have a significant impact. One in five people are parents of a child under five; indeed, I understand that one in eight hon. Members are parents of a child under five. None of us can pretend that the Palace of Westminster leads the way in promoting family-friendly policies. Any institution that begins its main business an hour before schools close and continues until an hour at which even the most recalcitrant child should be fast asleep in bed cannot describe itself as family-friendly.

I do not complain about that. I have a five-year-old child but, like so many other hon. Members with young children, I find that the Whips are flexible and accommodating when it is necessary to put home before work. Attitudes in the House have changed to some extent. In 1979, the then Member of Parliament for Leicester, West promoted a private Member's Bill to introduce seven days' paternity leave. It was described by Conservative Members as grotesque, absurd and an incitement to a population explosion.

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I had thought that those attitudes had changed, until I heard the shadow Secretary of State describe such proposals as economic illiteracy. Indeed, I must correct the hon. Member for Billericay. She said that the working families tax credit could be paid to people with salaries of up to £38,000 a year and so would cover up to half the population. That example applies only to those families with five children under the age of 11, and I do not think that even the hon. Lady believes that such families constitute half the population.

I was fortunate that, when my child was born, I worked for an organisation--the Low Pay Unit--which took family-friendly policies seriously. The weeks that I was able to spend with my daughter at the beginning of her life formed a bond between us which will be long-term, enduring and sustainable. In thinking about reforming the Child Support Agency, perhaps we need to think also about ways in which we could encourage that commitment by fathers to their children at an early stage--which may make institutions such as the CSA less necessary.

It is sad that many relationships between adults break down and end in separation or divorce, but the relationship between a parent and a child should never end, under any circumstances. The policies proposed by the Government to promote family or parental leave will assist in the process, and I fully support the Government.

The measure will not just assist fathers. In Europe and America, 55 to 60 per cent. of working women supply half or more of the family's household income--those figures are from the International Labour Organisation. In just over 10 years' time, the ILO tells us, 80 per cent. of all women in industrialised countries will be working outside the home throughout their child-bearing years. The Government's welfare-to-work strategy is intended to promote further opportunities for people to work if they wish to do so--even when they are parents.

If the employment responsibilities within the household are to be more equally shared, so too should the parenting responsibilities. That is why the policies are so important. At present, many fathers find it difficult to be actively involved in their children's lives. The average working week for fathers is 20 hours longer than for working mothers, and four hours longer than for other employed men. More seriously, men's working hours tend to increase when a new child comes into the family. At the very time when it might be argued that a father's role is so important, many feel that they have no choice but to work longer hours to meet the additional costs of that new mouth to feed. That is bad for children and for their families.

The Family Policies Study Centre tells us that the culture of long working hours may pose a threat to the stability of family life, and a major survey has shown that one in four fathers work more than 50 hours a week and that their absence had a detrimental effect on joint family activities.

The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs may be sceptical about the working time directive, but I wonder what he would say to the person who, not so long ago, wrote to the Low Pay Unit to say that shewas expected to work 112 hours a week, night work,

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for £150 before tax. That is not a matter of choice. Very often, it is a matter of someone saying, "Either you work these hours or you have no job."

The current situation is bad for children and families, but it is also bad for the economy and society. A MORI survey, commissioned by the Daycare Trust, found that three quarters of employers believed that there was a business case for family friendly employment policies.

Mr. Brady: The hon. Gentleman has helpfully come back to the point on which I first wished to intervene--the argument that there is a business case for the measures. I am sympathetic to that argument, and many business men would agree that one can run a more effective and productive work force by being generous and accommodating to employees. Surely that is an argument against legislating in those areas. If productivity can be improved and businesses can improve their performance, one does not need to legislate to force such proposals on them.

Mr. Pond: The hon. Gentleman's point underlines something that I was about to say. The chairman and chief executive officer of Xerox agrees with both of us that family-friendly working practices are a "powerful business tool." That was what he told a conference in September, and he added that, as a result,

The difficulty is that, if such matters are left solely to voluntary arrangements--as the Federation of Small Businesses has pointed out--firms will be at a disadvantage in terms of the recruitment and retention of staff. The large firms which can afford to get the competitive advantage of looking after their staff well will do so, and there will be a further squeezing out of the small firms sector.

Mr. Brady: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Pond: No, I wish to make a little more progress. I am sure that I will return to the point in a few moments, and I may allow the hon. Gentleman to intervene again.

The current situation is bad for society as a whole, and inadequate fathering has an impact on a child's social development--as reflected in juvenile crime, marital break-up and stress. The House should take seriously the wish of 80 per cent. of eight to 15-year-old children who want to spend more time with their fathers. I am pleased that, as a result of the proposals, they will be able to do that.

To be effective and equitable, parental leave should be paid--as is the case in most other EU countries. I am pleased that the Government are considering the introduction of paid paternity leave, as confirmed by a written answer in Hansard on 11 June.

I believe that the principle should be extended to family or parental leave generally. Many employees have a contractual entitlement to such leave. Even when no payment exists, higher-paid employees may well decide--and often do--that they need to take time off around the birth of their child. For low-paid employees, that is not an option--unless parental or family leave is paid. Half of families with children under five say that they are only just making ends meet. They cannot afford to take time off, even though that may be the right thing for their

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children at the time. For that reason, the arrival of a child may result in those fathers working longer hours, rather than fewer.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham asked, what is a responsible parent to do in those circumstances? When a new child comes into a household, most would say that it is the role of both parents to be involved. However, a responsible parent on a low wage without paid parental leave may decide that the most responsible thing to do is to work even longer hours--even if that means that they are not available--to supplement the family income at a time when that is necessary.

The small firms sector has made it clear that it does not find difficulties with the proposals, despite what Opposition Members have suggested. At the launch of the parental leave campaign organised by New Ways to Work, the Federation of Small Businesses said that payment for parental leave would not be a difficulty for small firms, assuming that it was reimbursed easily to overcome possible cash-flow problems.

Parental leave is a feasible policy that will certainly benefit families and children, and society as a whole. I believe also that it makes good business sense. I warmly welcome the proposals in the Queen's Speech, and I look forward to seeing them brought into legislation.

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