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6.50 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Ms Margaret Hodge): I am replying to the debate on behalf of three Departments, which have responsibilities for and an interest in the important issues that have been raised. The Home Office has responsibility for the immigration rules, which govern au pairs. The Department of Trade and Industry regulates the employment agencies, and therefore the au pair agencies, and has responsibility for the national minimum wage and employment rights. My own Department is responsible for the regulation of child care and for the national child care strategy.

Those Departments have an equal interest in the issues that have been raised by the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn), so he may want to know why there are not three Ministers in the Chamber to listen to the debate. The reason is efficiency and effectiveness of resources. I am a London Member and, on a Thursday at the end of parliamentary business, it is logical for me to reply to the debate.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for bringing these matters to the attention of the House. They are important for children, for the young people who are au pairs and for the families who employ them. Some issues transcend the traditional party political divides, so I am happy to deal with the serious points that he raised. However, it is one of the ironies of life that I, and many Labour Members, have spent years arguing that there is a proper role for the Government and for the state, at central and local levels, to provide a proper framework of support for parents.

The Conservative party, of which the hon. Gentleman is a member, has argued for a long time that the interests of children and families are a private concern for parents and families with the state intervening only at times of crisis, when the child is at risk of abuse. I am delighted that he has performed a U-turn, which he accuses us of doing and which I hope I can persuade him we did not do.

However, I am pleased that we have found political agreement on this important issue in respect of the role of the state in supporting families. The hon. Gentleman will agree that we have to ensure that, in providing a framework of support to families and children, we do not create a nanny state that interferes too much in the concerns of families.

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Part of the shambles to which the hon. Gentleman referred stems directly from the problems that we have inherited because of actions specifically taken bythe previous Government. Under the Conservative Government, we experienced the extensive deregulation of employment agencies, including au pair agencies. Until 1995, those agencies had to be licensed. Applicants had to publish a notice of their intention to establish an agency and the former Department of Employment, which had responsibility for these matters, would consider whether they were fit persons to trade. Matters considered included previous convictions for theft or dishonesty, and that was appropriate in respect of the au pair agency trade.

Three Members of Parliament took responsibility for deregulating employment agencies. Two--the previous Members for Tatton and for Enfield, Southgate--are no longer Members of the House and the other, who is not in the Chamber, is the right hon. Member for Henley(Mr. Heseltine). One could argue that those disappearances from the House are associated with the deregulation of au pair agencies. It is hard to envisage a more motley crew of Conservatives, and they are colourful in their diversity and division rather than because they represent a broad church within the Conservative party.

In 1995, licensing was swept away and, instead, a power of prohibition was established. That gave the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry the power to apply for an order to prevent individuals from trading as employment agencies for up to 10 years. Since we came to office, we have not hesitated to act where appropriate. Recently, the DTI secured a 10-year maximum ban against the proprietor of a schoolteacher agency. He was acting improperly, and not in the interests of children, in the employment of supply teachers.

I am delighted to inform the hon. Gentleman that the Employment Relations Bill will ensure a better framework of support through the re-regulation of some aspects of employment agencies, and hence au pair agencies. We want to improve the standard of protection for the clients of agencies, whether they are the workers or the parents who employ them.

The legislation that we inherited is inappropriate. In the Employment Relations Bill, we have made the first steps towards modernising the framework that governs the industry. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has made clear our intention to consult in the near future on a comprehensive overhaul of standards. Existing standards provide only for au pairs to be told who is responsible for meeting their return fares. The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry, my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield(Mr. McCartney), is giving careful consideration to ensuring that agencies do not arrange placements for au pairs if they are required to pay their fare to or from home out of money payable by the family with whom they live.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that the Government had made a massive U-turn a couple of weeks back on the national minimum wage in relation to au pairs. I contend that our approach was sensible and practical. During the consultation process on the implementation of the national minimum wage, we considered the likely impact of our proposals on people such as au pairs, and what the best answer would be for that group. Our decision on whether au pairs fell under the definition of workers as defined in the National Minimum Wage Act

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1998 was a logical and proper interpretation of the Act in relation to that group of young people. It was not a U-turn--just good, practical common sense.

Mr. St. Aubyn: That is the point. It was such common sense not to include those young people in the minimum wage legislation that the Government should never have proposed to do so in the first place.

Ms Hodge: We could argue about that all night, but I suggest that it was during the implementation of the national minimum wage legislation that we considered this group of people and took the appropriate steps. It was not a U-turn, because we did not implement the legislation and then withdraw that provision.

This group of young people are not workers as defined by the 1998 Act because they work as if they were members of the employer's family. Foreign nationals in the United Kingdom under the au pair scheme who undertake light household duties or child care and are treated as members of the host family clearly fall within this category.

We have provided in regulation 2(2) of the national minimum wage regulations a limited exemption from the provisions of the 1998 Act for such work, provided that the worker is treated as a member of the employer's family, particularly for the provision of accommodation and meals, and the sharing of tasks and leisure activities.

Our approach will enable au pairs living as a member of the family to continue to undertake work for their host family, and it will also prevent exploitation through low pay for those workers who do not enjoy the benefits of family life. The hon. Member for Guildford asked whether the measure could be challenged in the European courts. That is not my direct departmental responsibility, but I undertake to ensure that he receives a full answer.

It being Seven o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Ms Hodge: I will deal now with how we see the role of au pairs developing. It is amusing that the word "au" could be an abbreviation of the Latin word "aurum", and is the chemical symbol for gold. Gold is one of the four oldest words in English, so it may that au pairs have been with us for some time.

Certain rules regulate the way in which au pairs can be treated. They must be unmarried, young--between 17-27--and without dependants. As the hon. Gentleman suggested, they come to the UK to learn English, for cultural exchanges, to live as a member of an English-speaking family and to have opportunities to study. The scheme is open to young people from a limited and named range of countries. A maximum of five hours work can be done a day, in return for a reasonable allowance and with two days free per week. There is also a maximum period in which they are allowed to stay in country.

The fact that we now have male as well as female au pairs was not as a result of a great liberal move by the previous Government, but in response to a court case in relation to a Swedish au pair. As well as the rules, guidance is produced by the Home Office, suggesting the

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sort of work that au pairs should do, that they should have a room of their own and that they should have an allowance of up to £35 per week.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether there should be new regulation for au pairs, as they involve child care issues. My Department has recently undertaken wide-ranging consultation on the regulation of early education and day care. On 12 January, I announced a four-point plan for taking forward some of the issues that the consultation raised. We were aware of the strong lobby for a register of individual nannies and child care workers, but we felt that that was not appropriate, as it would not bring the security and benefits that families want. The benefits would not be commensurate with the bureaucratic burdens that such a move would impose.

The Department has begun work with the nanny agencies to draw up a voluntary code of practice to complement the revised regulations for the employment agency industry that are being drawn up by the Department of Trade and Industry. When the work is complete, agencies will be recognised as working to new, higher standards and parents using the agencies will be reassured that certain checks will have been carried out on nannies before they are submitted for jobs.

At this stage, there are no plans to include au pairs, who are not normally trained in child care, in the scheme. However, I am happy to assure the hon. Gentleman that we will look at the issue as we learn from our experience in running the scheme. However, some of his suggestions were incredibly bureaucratic, cumbersome and over- regulatory, would intervene enormously and would diminish the cultural exchanges and the flexibility of the current scheme. I am sceptical about some of his suggestions.

The hon. Gentleman referred to information and support for au pairs. There is a leaflet on immigration requirements for entry to the UK under the au pairs scheme. I know that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary would be happy to include in that leaflet information on where advice on au pair rights might be sought. That might include the Department of Trade and Industry helpline, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. I undertake to ask the Home Secretary to look further both at what is incorporated in that leaflet and how it is distributed--whether there should be greater access to it at points of entry into the country and through au pair agencies.

Au pair agencies will give advice to both the au pair and the employer about their respective rights and responsibilities. We probably have to make more clear and publicise better the fact that, if people have complaints about the agencies through which they secure employment or, indeed, the services of an au pair, they should complain to the employment agency standards inspectorate at the DTI, which will not flinch from taking action.

The agency may be committing an offence in the situations that the hon. Gentleman described of au pairs working excessively long hours or being exploited. The agency must not knowingly place an au pair in a situation that is contrary to the terms of entry that govern the au pair scheme.

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