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Dr. Julian Lewis: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Hain: No--time is marching on and I want to conclude my remarks. In 70 days, we shall have the general election for Wales, and we in the Labour party will be working for victory. We have a radical manifesto; we have already delivered on a long list of promises and we shall make further pledges to the people of Wales. We shall guarantee free bus travel for pensioners--a promise that we shall keep. That will liberate some of our poorest pensioners, who do not have access to a car, from the misery of being trapped at home, unable to travel freely. They will be able to travel right across Wales, this year on half fares and, in the next two to three years, free.

We pledge that no one in Wales will wait more than six months for out-patient treatment, or for more than 18 months for in-patient treatment. We are creating thousands of extra education and training opportunities for young people in Wales, and we have pledged to create 36,000 additional places in further and higher education for students in Wales. We are providing more than £1 billion extra for the national health service in Wales, and an extra £850 million for education and training over the next three years under a Labour-controlled Assembly.

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On 6 May, voting Labour will give Wales a real voice for the first time--a voice for jobs, a voice for education, a voice for health, a strong voice in Europe and an effective voice in London. For far too long under the Tories, Wales was forgotten, ignored and neglected. Now, under Labour, we can shape our own future and make our own history by standing up for Wales, for our families and for ourselves and voting for Labour to run our National Assembly, because Labour is the real party of Wales.

6.29 pm

Mr. David Jamieson (Lord Commissioner to the Treasury): I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.




    That Mr. Colin Burgon, Rosemary McKenna and Mrs. Diana Organ be discharged from the Select Committee appointed to join with a Committee of the Lords as the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments and Mr. Brian White, Mr. Ivan Henderson and Mr. Harold Best be added to the Committee.--[Mr. Jamieson.]

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Au Pairs

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Jamieson.]

6.30 pm

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford): I thank the Speaker's Office for helping me to secure this debate tonight on the employment of au pairs.

The date 16 February should go down as a day when the House showed its effectiveness and the Government demonstrated their disorder. Those who write off the power and influence of this place should listen to this debate.

I have correspondence regarding a written question inquiring about the Home Office's intentions vis-a-vis au pairs. In answer to a question from my hon. Friendthe Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), said:

As that announcement hit the presses, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry made a different statement. He told the world:

    "people working and living as part of a family (for example au pairs) will be exempt"

from the minimum wage legislation. The Secretary of State showed in a previous existence in the Education Department that he had something of a mental block when it came to arithmetic, but even someone who cannot remember his seven times table must surely realise that an inter-departmental responsibility requires communication between Departments. The problem for au pairs--which spurred this debate in the first place--was created by the complete shambles of Government policy in this area. The Government showed how little they understood the problem when they suggested that it could be solved by application of the minimum wage and the working time directive.

We can have no confidence in the DTI announcement. Although the Government have given an assurance that the minimum wage legislation will not apply in the related case of paper girls and boys, that has been flatly contradicted by senior European Union officials. The Minister who will respond to this debate does not have responsibility for those matters, but I ask her to secure from the Government a clear statement that they are confident that their exemption of au pairs from the minimum wage and the working time directive will not be overturned in future by the European Commission. It is clearly determined to overturn the ruling in respect of paper girls and boys.

There are about 25,000 au pairs in this country who came to Britain under a scheme that has been running for 50 years. In recent years, there has been a marked change in the nature of the au pair. One is far more likely to find a male au pair than a Swedish au pair in Britain today. The original scheme brought many au pairs from Scandinavian countries. However, as employment opportunities have opened up in the European Union, au pairs have increasingly come to Britain from eastern Europe.

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The previous Government recognised the change in society and allowed men as well as young women to come to this country as au pairs. Far from being the luxury of an affluent family, the au pair is often a necessity for a working family. If the minimum wage regulations had been passed--as the Government tried to achieve until the last moment--many working mums would have had to leave their jobs. That outcome would have defeated one of the objectives of the Department for Education and Employment: to enable more of those with young children to find at least part-time work and afford child care in the home.

We must not forget the large number of au pairs who attend adult literacy courses, certainly in areas such as Guildford. They pay the full cost of those courses, which enables local councils, despite recent savage Government cuts, to continue to provide adult literacy education at lower cost to those who live in the local community.

This debate is about much more than the role of paid employees. It concerns a cultural exchange in which young people come here to learn English, which gives them a passport to jobs around the world, and to learn about our country and, hopefully, go home and spread the good word. It is a personal exchange in which the ties between a family and an au pair can last for many years after the terms of engagement have expired.

That is why the previous Government were particularly anxious to support and build on the au pair scheme at a time of great change. That is why they cut red tape, enabled the countries operating under the scheme to switch from Scandinavia to eastern Europe and allowed men to become involved in the scheme. This Government have so far signally failed to come up with any answers to the problems facing the au pair scheme today, and we must be in no doubt that those problems are the wider reason for this debate.

There must be a problem with the au pair scheme when I hear of an au pair who was made to work from seven o'clock in the morning until nine o'clock at night, five days a week. It is a requirement of the scheme that au pairs should not be put in sole charge of children, and such cases completely contradict the scheme's purpose and intentions. There must be a problem with the scheme when an au pair arrives back on Christmas eve at the home where she has been staying to find her suitcases on the pavement and nowhere for her to go. There must be a problem when, in her first employment, an au pair receives a scalding mark from an iron on the back of her hand and, in her next job, she is sent up ladders to wash windows. There must be a problem when a case comes to my attention of an au pair who was sent out on cleaning contracts, earning £5 an hour for the person with whom she was living, when the typical au pair earns £50 a week.

This is, above all, an issue of child care, and that is why I welcome the Minister's interest. If those au pairs are not being properly treated by the families with whom they live and whom they assist, it is ultimately the children who will suffer in those families, with much greater and wider consequences. I emphasise that those are isolated cases. There are many thousands of examples of the au pair scheme working effectively and building links between this country and other parts of Europe.

I shall make a number of practical suggestions as to how the scheme could be improved. I have in my hand a guidance information note published by the Home Office.

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It was revised by the Government shortly after they came to power. It says that, if au pairs stay in this country for more than six months, they will

    "normally be required to register with the Police."

That is the system that the Government inherited but, last August, they did away with that requirement. I am told by responsible people who work in that area that the Government's action has led to a significant increase in the scale of problems that they are encountering. I urge the Government to reconsider the relaxation of that rule.

There should be a registration system to protect au pairs and to ensure that they abide by the terms of the scheme. There should be no incentive for anyone to distort the au pair scheme into a system whereby people can illegally gain entry to this country.

In 1996, the previous Government set up a complaints helpline for those who find employment through employment agencies. That scheme was intended to cover au pair agencies as well. It is noticeable that, in the revised leaflet produced under the present Government, there is no mention of that complaints hotline. I suggest to the Minister that the Government would do well to publicise both to families and to potential au pairs the availability of that helpline, so that au pairs who find themselves in trouble will have somewhere to turn to, and families who might otherwise contemplate taking advantage of the situation know that the girl or boy in their care has a means of making a protest about the conditions.

The source of au pairs has switched from a part of the world where people are typically as affluent as in Britain to a part of the world--eastern Europe--where there is a great deal of poverty and deprivation. Many of those who come to this country do not have the standing, nor does the scheme have the history, that would tell them that advantage is being taken of them. Rules and regulations developed under the previous Government need to be adjusted to take account of the new circumstances.

Without wishing to impose regulations and bureaucracy on the au pair scheme, I suggest that some simple form of check-up on the whereabouts of au pairs might involve them giving information about the hours per week that they have been asked to work during their employment. Such a form could be handed in at the end of the period of employment, thereby removing any pressure that might jeopardise their position.

Those who come to Britain as au pairs have no formal training. They may have experience in their own families, but they have had no training that would raise them, for example, to the status of a nanny. In severe cases, where it has been found that families have persistently infringed the terms of the scheme and taken advantage of someone who has come to help the family, I suggest that some follow-up should be considered. That might be by local social services under the terms of the Children Acts or by some other means.

It is unacceptable that young people who come to Britain on a cultural exchange should be exploited and used as household skivvies. That must stop. It may be possible to draw up a register of such cases, limited as they are.

Above all, we should build on the good standard developed by responsible agencies and responsible families. There is far too much regulation of business,

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which is extremely burdensome, as I am sure my hon. Friends would agree. However, there is a case for self-regulation of child care, which is the subject of the debate.

I should like to draw a parallel with the year-out organisations. My last Adjournment debate last summer was on the topic of gap-year students and the development of guidelines that would ensure that they got a fair deal from the organisations with which they set up their gap-year programme. It is fortuitous that, this morning, I held a meeting with the senior gap-year organisations, in which we formally constituted a new association of gap-year organisations, among whose aims is to develop quality standards and clear guidelines to assure school leavers and others seeking a gap year that they will get the best possible deal. I pay tribute to the Minister and her officials for their help in developing that initiative. I have no doubt that, with additional help from the Department and through their own efforts, the year-out organisations will succeed in issuing guidelines and developing standards.

In the course of that meeting, we debated whetherau pair agencies should be included as year-out organisations. Many of those coming to Britain as au pairs want a year out before they go on to university, or between university and the real world of work. There must be a distinction between organisations that are primarily in the voluntary sector, and send people from this country overseas, and au pair agencies. There is, however, a role model that au pair agencies could follow. With, I hope, the help of the Department, I shall be inviting the senior agencies to a meeting to establish whether a self- regulating body can be set up. In the past, agencies could be affiliated to the national organisation for all employment agencies, but I am told by experts that that system is far too expensive.

What could a self-regulating body achieve? It could certainly ensure the existence of a test of suitability. It could be said that there are not enough tests to establish that those who come to this country to look after children have the right attributes. We can all think of recent tragic examples in which people have been misplaced, with very sad consequences. A self-regulating body could provide for feedback to ensure that best practice is followed, and that those who work with families have not just a helpline to Government but another route by which they can improve their circumstances. It would enable the agencies to develop standards, and, in time, to establish a "kite mark" to distinguish the best and most responsible agencies from the one or two fly-by-night organisations.

I have heard of organisations that are placing advertisements in eastern Europe, offering what appear, in terms of the local currency, to be lucrative opportunities in this country. Only when the young people concerned come here and discover the costs of living in this country, and the terms and conditions under which they are expected to work, do they realise that they are being taken for a ride--and by then it is far too late.

The cost of a typical au pair placement is about £150, barely £1 a day for the term of the placement. I do not think that is enough for parents to pay in order to ensure the welfare of their children. A small increase could be secured if some cheap organisations were excluded as a result of higher standards. There is still considerable

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competition among the agencies, which, until a few years ago, were governed by a licensing scheme. It would be in the interests of child care, as well as those of families, if the best organisations felt able to charge a little more for giving a great deal more in terms of service and safety.

The United Nations convention on the rights of the child demands that children be protected from abuse and neglect. That is why I am so pleased that a Department that is already taking responsibility in regard to nannies is also taking an interest in au pairs, with the aim of ensuring that children eventually receive what they expect. Let us not forget, however, that this is a cultural exchange. If, after the shambles of the last fortnight, the Government finally get their act together, we can be sure that, as a result of that cultural exchange, the country's reputation will also be safeguarded. We can be sure that many more thousands will go home speaking well of Britain and their experiences here, and will continue to do so throughout their working lives.

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