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5 Mar 2003 : Column 895—continued

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon): I, too, shall make a short contribution. Someone famously said that you could not buck the market. It is also true that you cannot buck nature. No one can sustain a working pattern of seven hours a day, seven days a week. Families cannot survive unless there is an opportunity outside work for parents and children to spend quality or quantity time together and learn from another. I strongly support the modest measure proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), as it sends an important signal.

We enact laws in this place not just for the benefit that the law will bring, but also for the signal that it sends to the wider community. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) that although the new clause is a modest measure limited to local government and local government companies by the nature of the Bill, it sends a signal to the wider community. I hope that it sets an example to many private sector companies that want to be good employers and want to learn best practice. It might encourage them to put parents of school-age children at the centre of their thinking when they plan their rotas. For large companies and large organisations such as local councils, that might be a little inconvenient, but they could cope with it. The benefits would be immense.

We must recognise that family life is under pressure. We all sit in our surgeries and listen to case after case linked to the Child Support Agency, welfare benefits and so on. We think about the children involved in some of those cases, who are denied time with their parents or are subject to some other pressure. For people like me, who had the advantage of growing up in a secure family setting, spending time with parents and learning right from wrong, even if we did not always agree—we all have our moments—it is horrifying to think that so many children today are denied the consistency of parental input. The new clause is an important attempt to put that right.

We heard, I think, that 20 per cent. of parents work on both Saturdays and Sundays. Will my hon. Friend confirm that that was the statistic that he gave?

Andrew Selous: My hon. Friend is right. According to the Joseph Rowntree study, 20 per cent. of parents of school-age children work on both Saturdays and Sundays, and three quarters of them wish they did not have to do so.

Mr. Streeter: I find that a terrifying figure. If it is right, when do those school-age children spend time with their parents? We know that children watch a lot of

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television—I do not criticise that—listen to a lot of music, and spend time with their peer groups. They are getting their values and standards from somewhere, and surely that should be primarily from their parents.

On quality time as opposed to quantity of time, I am fortunate that both of my children are adults and therefore off our hands.

Mr. Syms: My hon. Friend does not look old enough.

Mr. Streeter: I know; say it again. I remember a classic example of when my son was a teenager of 15 or 16 and going through some of the things that teenagers go through.

Mr. Leslie: Bored with his father.

Mr. Streeter: I hope those comments are being picked up by Hansard. They do not always reflect well on those who make them.

My son was working on his computer in our front room. I was lying on the floor reading something or other, and for several hours there was little interaction between us, but after a while, because we were in the same room together, he suddenly piped up and wanted to discuss something that had been troubling him. That would not have happened if we had not spent time together in the same room, even though we were not interacting. Time together is important for parents and children. It is not a touchy-feely thing; it matters.

The measure proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire is an important improvement to the current law, and I hope the Government will respond positively to it.

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon): Most of that which needs to be said has been said, so I shall be brief. I welcome the new clause and commend the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on moving a modest, limited clause that could do some families some good. So often, because we cannot do everything that we would want to do, many of us fail to do anything. I hope it will not be patronising to say that although the hon. Gentleman has been in the House for a relatively short period, he is putting to shame some of us who could have done the same thing, and I commend him for his initiative in doing so and for his well researched argument in support of his case.

The hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns), who has his own private Member's Bill dealing with weekend working, observed that many council services are not provided on a Sunday, but there may well be pressure for that. The hon. Gentleman cited examples of councils that were looking to expand weekend services. We need to put the safeguards in place now, not when the expansion has already taken place and we cannot get the genie back in the bottle.

I also commend the fact that the hon. Gentleman is concerned about all sorts of families. Essentially, the new clause deals with the welfare of children. Whether children and parents are in lone-parent families, two-parent families or families of any shape or size, it is in their interests to spend time together. This modest new clause would help to achieve that.

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5.15 pm

A question was properly raised about children of pre-school age and their need to spend time with parents. I am aware from experience in my area that bodies such as Ofsted report that children starting at primary school show all the hallmarks of not spending time with parents. The hon. Gentleman is right that those are important and formative years. In a world in which children are increasingly starved of parental attention, often because both parents are working simply to meet the cost of their mortgage, the sort of protections that he is trying to introduce are entirely appropriate. If anything, they are more needed today than ever before.

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman tabled the new clause. Should there be an opportunity now or in future to support it in a Division, I shall be very pleased to do so.

Mr. Goodman: I should also like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on tabling the new clause. I know from serving with him on the Select Committee on Work and Pensions that he takes a serious and informed interest in issues of social exclusion.

I want briefly to make a suggestion to the Minister that he may find helpful. I suspect that he is about to tell us that, as matters stand, he cannot accept the new clause. I suspect that one of the reasons that he will give is that the Government cannot single out local authority workers as the new clause suggests. My first suggestion is that he should take up the idea of the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns) and try to see how local authorities would respond to the measure on a wider basis than that which my hon. Friend has so far had a chance to investigate.

Secondly, if the Minister is going to argue that the Government are unwilling to single out local authority workers, it would be helpful to give some hint of whether they are considering more widely the problem about which my hon. Friend so eloquently spoke with regard to parents and children. Since the Labour party tends to regard the vulnerable and those on low wages as its special property—I profoundly believe that that is an error on its part—he may want to spell out a little more fully how he might give workers generally the protection that my hon. Friend is seeking for local authority workers. I am sure that my hon. Friend would also want the measure to be more widely extended.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I think that my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) has done his constituents who are local authority employees a great service today. Indeed, he has done all our constituents who are such employees a service. I suspect that this will be one of those landmark occasions in the House when the Minister may not accept a proposal—in this case, the new clause—but the idea that it contains will be like a seed, as it will germinate and put down roots and everyone will suddenly become convinced of its merits.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): In anticipation of the Minister's possible response, does my hon. Friend agree that it may be necessary to give thought to circumstances in which there might be an override? For

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example, a particular emergency might require the services of people with family responsibilities. One looks to the Minister not merely to respond that difficulties in respect of one emergency invalidate the important principle that is being floated and established today, and welcomed from the Opposition Front Bench.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend, who has great experience in these matters, makes a prescient point, as he alludes to a part of my speech to which I was about to come.

My hon. Friends the Members for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) and for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) and others sitting behind me, including my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), have spoken very eloquently about the need for a more family friendly atmosphere. My children are now in their later teens, but when they were at a more formative age, time spent with them at the weekend, especially over Sunday lunch, was extremely valuable. Even as a Member of Parliament, one was able to make time to spend with one's family. Nowadays, too many children grow up without spending enough time with their parents. They do not have that prime time in which to interact and learn from their parents.

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