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5 Mar 2003 : Column 891—continued

Andrew Selous: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

It is a great pleasure to move this new clause, which has support in all parts of the House. It is a modest but necessary measure as far as local authority employees are concerned. As I said, there is something in this clause that all Members should feel able to support.

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The new clause will ensure that the children of local authority employees do not have parentless weekends. The new clause would mean that local authorities would not be able to force their employees with school-age children to work on both a Saturday and a Sunday. Our constituents would be amazed to learn that legislation is not already in place to prevent that from happening.

The evidence showing the need to do something about the problem comes from many sources, not least from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation/National Centre for Social Research report that was published in December 2002 entitled "Happy Families? Atypical Work and Its Influence on Family Life". Among other things, it showed that 20 per cent. of working parents with dependent children work on both Saturday and Sunday and that three quarters of them wish that they did not have to work at weekends.

I am, of course, aware that local authorities have to provide many vital services seven days a week. Local authority care homes immediately spring to mind, and tidy tips, some libraries and leisure centres seek to open seven days a week. There is nothing whatever in the new clause that would prevent local authorities from running services seven days a week. It would not put a barrier in the way of a local authority asking any of its staff to work on either a Saturday or a Sunday. However, it is entirely reasonable not to allow local authorities to force their employees with children at school to work on both Saturday and Sunday. If authorities were allowed to do that, the children would not see their parents at the weekend.

I have spoken to local authorities in my area and to the East of England Local Government Conference. They have told me that they do not believe that the new clause would create a serious problem for the running of authorities and that it would have only a minimal impact. However, it is necessary, given that 3 million parents work on both Saturday and Sunday. We know from recent events in Stoke-on-Trent, where plans to provide refuse services on Saturday and Sunday were withdrawn by the council, and in Richmond, which recently ran into difficulties with the provision of library services because of the way in which it imposed on its staff, that we need to address the issue.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire): I have listened to my hon. Friend's argument with interest. Does he not agree that it is a curious feature of modern life that, whereas the many enjoy much more choice, they occasionally do so at the expense of the few? Does he share my hope that, if this modest measure were adopted, private enterprise might see the lesson and introduce, of its own volition, similar provisions to ensure that people in the private sector who work on Saturday and Sunday and whose children endure parentless weekends might enjoy a freedom similar to the one that he is suggesting?

Andrew Selous: This new clause relates to local authorities, but I am sympathetic to the general point that my hon. Friend makes. He made the valid point that we need to be aware of the costs imposed on the employees who provide the services that we expect from local authorities on Saturday and Sunday. I am fully conscious of the fact that many local authority services have to be provided seven days a week, but this modest

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but necessary measure would provide some protection to local authority employees and prevent them from being pressed to work on both Saturday and Sunday.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe): Has my hon. Friend received support from Labour Members for his proposal given that trade unions must be extremely concerned about the problems that he so eloquently describes?

5 pm

Andrew Selous: As I said, the new clause is supported by all parties and hon. Members on both sides of the House. I should have thought that a Labour Government would want to be associated with it. Indeed, there is an onus on anyone who opposes it to justify why local authority employees with children, whom they would not otherwise see, should be forced to work on both Saturday and Sunday. I hope that the Minister will address that. Although it is up to me to make the argument for the new clause, it is up to the Government to justify the forced working of parents of school-age children on Saturdays and Sundays.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): Would it not be strange for the House, which voted for family-friendly hours and mid-term breaks to allow us to be with our children, to vote against the proposal? It is not even limited to the nuclear family, but covers the broader spectrum of family life in which children need adults and adults need children.

Andrew Selous: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point and is right. People outside this place look at the conditions that we grant ourselves. Those who work for local authorities are entitled to request and require us to extend the same protections and principles to them in their important work.

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde): As a non-parent, I have some sympathy with the new clause, although I suspect that more formal consultation will be needed before the Government accept it. However, I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. I am genuinely curious to know why the hon. Gentleman has limited the new clause to children of school age. In developmental psychological terms, surely the forming of the bond between parent and child is most important in the years up to the age of seven.

Andrew Selous: I understand that point. It is not that I think that the time that parents and young children spend together is unimportant, but those children who attend primary and secondary schools have fixed hours when they have to be in school. Their only opportunity to see their parents is on a Saturday or Sunday. If the House and the Government intend to deny those children and parents the time to be together as a family on one day a week, that is a sorry state of affairs. I look to the Minister to give us some comfort on that.

Matthew Green: We support the new clause. It will be interesting to hear the reasons against it. Frankly, we have a 24/7 society and, unfortunately, some people

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have to work at weekends so that the rest of us can enjoy the ability to make choices on Saturday and Sunday. The House would never consider sitting through the weekend. We can all choose what we want to do. No doubt many of us hold our surgeries and carry out constituency work, but we can choose whether to see our children. I am delighted to be the father of a six-week-old child, although I unfortunately missed the chance to serve on the Committee because I wanted to spend time with my child immediately after the birth.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Paternity leave.

Matthew Green: Indeed.

It is important for the development of children that their parents should have the right to spend—awful word—quality time with them during the week, not just a snatched half hour in the evening when children are tired and their parents probably are too. The new clause is worthy of support. As the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) made clear, Members who oppose it will have to come up with interesting reasons for doing so, as most of us would struggle to argue with its worthwhile aims.

David Cairns: Briefly, I have a great deal of sympathy with the underlying aim of the new clause, and I look forward to the Minister's response. Although the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) has researched the matter through contact with his own local authority, other local authorities may not have its flexibility, and their safety critical provisions could be affected by the new clause. That is only a surmise, but perhaps the Minister will tell us whether the Government have undertaken a survey.

At the risk of straying from the narrow confines of the new clause, I should point out that I am currently trying to steer a private Member's Bill through the House that would stop Sunday working being obligatory for shop workers in Scotland, a legal protection enjoyed by constituents of hon. Members who represent English and Welsh constituencies. When legal protection on Sunday working was given to shop workers in England and Wales, Labour's home affairs spokesperson—now the Prime Minister—said freedom to shop on Sunday must go hand in hand with the right not to have to work on Sunday. Shop workers should not suffer so that others can enjoy those freedoms. Surely, then, our freedom to enjoy non-essential council services must go hand in hand with the rights of those who are working to provide those services.

Most council services, including the more flexible ones, are not provided on Sundays. Those that are provided tend to be essential. When I was a councillor in London, councils adopted more flexible working practices in, for example, the delivery of meals on wheels. People did not have to go out on Sunday, as clients were provided with microwave ovens, steamers and so on. Under the current regulations, it is possible for councils to order their working week so that people are not required to work on Sunday. People staffing certain council facilities may be required to work at times when they would otherwise not have to work if the local authority had a more enlightened attitude as an employer. In the absence of such an attitude, legislation

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may be necessary, so the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire could well be on to something in his new clause.

I am looking forward to the response to a wide-ranging consultation that the Secretary of State for Scotland is undertaking with businesses throughout Scotland, which will affect my Bill in Committee. A consultation of local authorities to assess the impact of weekend working may not have been conducted. If so, I may not be able to support the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire if he pushes his new clause to a vote, but I am strongly sympathetic to his aims.

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