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Miss Kirkbride: Not again, sorry.

It is important that mothers, where they wish to do so, take maternity leave. It is also important that mothers should not be pressurised into thinking that they are being neglectful or inadequate if they feel that they cannot take maternity leave and they wish to go back to work, whether for their personal and professional development or because their families cannot afford for them to take maternity leave.

I implore the Minister to take on board the ideas put forward by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead and endorsed by the Liberal Democrat Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), that more flexibility should be attached to maternity leave. The Secretary of State pointed out that on the continent there are much more successful models of women being encouraged by family-friendly policies. There is a correlation between those countries where there are such family-friendly policies and the success of women at work. They are much more generous in maternity leave than we presently are in the UK. Therefore, a system whereby a woman can take six months' maternity leave but roll up the money she would receive to £212 a week, rather than
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the £106 a week for taking a year's maternity leave, might enable many more women to access maternity leave. That would begin to match the provision in other countries that are more successful at encouraging women to take maternity leave and to return to the work force at the level they left it without having to take career breaks, which inevitably mean that women fall back in the race for the top jobs.

It is desirable that, where women want to, they stay at home to look after their children. As my right hon. Friend said, it is a shame that this Bill and the Childcare Bill, the Standing Committee of which I will serve on tomorrow, were not put together. There is considerable and growing evidence of the importance of what is called the attachment theory, with which the Minister is doubtless very familiar. It is very important that babies and young children form a profound bond with their primary carer in order to have proper emotional development later. The studies on this subject are quite frightening, given the mistakes that have already been made in not encouraging such bonding to take place. Attachment theory is subject to no class or income barriers; it is as relevant to professional families as it is to low-income ones.

We should recognise that women who are able to afford to take such time off and to work on their relationship with their baby might find their baby quite frightening to begin with. For those of us who have been used to living a professional life—having things done when we want them to be done, and having our entire environment work to a time scale that we are in control of—being at home with a child is a truly different experience. We should enable women to deal with that situation in a less stressful environment. Of course, the same point applies to paternity leave. The average male wage is some £505 a week, so in calculating the average female wage, we can take 20 per cent. off that figure, which gives us a female wage of about £400 a week. Given those figures, it is much more realistic for women to take such time off.

Although I am in favour of more flexibility and enabling women to take time off work, I want also to put a little of the employer's case. The hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) encouraged the Minister in somewhat the wrong direction in this regard. I do not dispute her motive in wanting women to be able to return to work without being required to accept more onerous and less attractive terms and conditions, but I want to draw attention to an issue that many employers mention to me. When a replacement employee comes in while someone is away on maternity leave, that creates a problem, particularly for small companies, which have much less flexibility in terms of the role played by other employees. This is a cost that society and business has to bear, and it is a fact of life if we want to carry on reproducing. However, extending maternity leave entitlement to one year creates an added difficulty. The person employed to take over that job for a year gets employment rights, because they are in post for the requisite period. Such rights cannot be got rid of—at least, not without a cost.

The Minister is trying to work around this problem by   doing something of which the hon. Member for   Warrington, North is somewhat disapproving;
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nevertheless, I urge him to be cognisant of this issue when framing his proposals. After all, small businesses cannot afford to take someone on, only to have to get rid of them in an expensive and uncomfortable fashion because they have to maintain the right of the original employee to return to work. I am not saying that there is an easy answer to this problem; I am simply pointing out that the problem is a very real one for small businesses, and that in framing the law, we need to consider it.

I welcome the Government's initiative enabling women to keep in touch with the workplace. Many women who are at home with their babies genuinely want to be kept in touch with the normal world that they were used to. It is good to be kept aware of what is going on in the company, rather than simply gossiping with one's old friends. The two-month, rather than one-month, notification period for returning to work will also help in dealing with the difficult issue of the replacement employee.

Like other Members, I agree that the Government's giving carers the right to request flexible working has proved a very good idea, and I applaud their creating this opportunity for parents. There is no doubt that it has been successful, so we should say "Well done." It was successful because the Government were flexible—they are not always flexible—and created not a right to flexible working, but a right to ask for it. That helped to foster good relations between both parties, and to create an environment in which the employee can continue at work while dealing with their other responsibilities, and in which the employer can gain the value of their skills.

It is right that carers, who have similar responsibilities, be included under this provision; however, the Government are right to phase in such rights. We live in a society in which many people have caring responsibilities, and that they fulfil them is wonderful for all concerned, but we need to consider how swiftly to phase in these new rights. I urge a little caution on the Minister; we must not swamp the system. It is right that such requests be annual, rather than frequent. Frequent requests would be unfair, given that employers have other considerations on their minds.

We should extend the right to request flexibility to all the work force, as some employers already do, given that we will always come up against difficult child care cases. Children up to the age of 17 might well be dependent on their carers because they have schizophrenia or other mental health problems, for example. Of course, such problems do not go away: they continue into adulthood, and the parent may feel that they still need to care for their son or daughter well into their adult life. We want society to go in that direction, and some employers have already been successful in that regard; others should be given a little gentle encouragement to do the same.

In concluding, I apologise to the next speaker for my having to rush off.

7.46 pm

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): I am very pleased to welcome another progressive Bill. Last week, we considered the Childcare Bill, and we recently considered the Equality Bill. All these Bills will contribute to a healthier, happier society and to the
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country's economic prosperity by ensuring a diverse and more contented work force; they will also ensure that the diverse needs of parents and carers are more recognised than ever.

I want in particular to discuss clause 12 and the part of the Bill that deals with carers of adults. I am very pleased that the existing law will be amended so that carers of adults can apply for flexible working. I must declare an interest, in that I have been the carer of my 94-year-old mother for five years, since she was severely disabled by a stroke. I have managed to continue in the very demanding job of Member of Parliament with the help of an army of paid carers—I pay tribute to the people, mainly women, who work in the caring professions—and with a lot of understanding and support both here and at home. However, I meet many carers who are isolated and are struggling to do their best for their relatives, often at the expense of their own health and well-being. It is well recognised that the health of carers suffers; most reports on carers have shown the strain that caring for somebody can impose.

Many carers are in employment and have to give up their job because they cannot manage both roles. There is now much greater recognition of the importance of caring for older and disabled people, but, as I said in an earlier intervention, many carers do not think of themselves as carers in a formal sense; they think of carers as being paid people. They are doing what they regard as their duty, and what they want to do for members of their family—for people whom they love. Nor do the many people who are working and caring for adults recognise their huge contribution to the welfare state—the billions of pounds that they save the welfare state. The Carers (Equal Opportunities) Bill, which was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis), recognised the need for carers to have access to the education and employment opportunities enjoyed by those who are not carers. This Bill partly addresses that issue.

The Employment Act 2002 introduced flexible working rights for parents of young or disabled children and, as everybody has said today, that has been a success, despite concerns that it granted only the right to make the request. I was very concerned at the time of the debate on the Act that the provision would not be strong enough and that employers would not respond properly. The employer has to consider the request and take certain factors into consideration when deciding whether to allow flexible working. In any case, as many hon. Members have said, the Act has been a tremendous success and only about 10 per cent. of requests are refused.

The Government did the right thing, because the Act has made it much easier for parents of young or disabled children to continue to work. It has also brought benefits for the employer. I declare an interest, as my two daughters have benefited from the provision. After they had children, they requested flexible working and benefited from it. It is logical, therefore, that the right to request flexible working should be extended to carers of adult relatives or others, and I am pleased that the Government propose to introduce that right from April 2007. Several hon. Members have suggested that the right to request flexible working should be extended to all employees, and I believe that the consultation by the Equal Opportunities Commission has reached that conclusion.
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When we talk about family friendly policies, we tend to think of the family as a unit with dependent children, but in the UK more adults care for elderly relatives than for children. The Government have concentrated on work-life balance as one of their priorities, the benefits of which are as great for the carers of adults as they are for the carers of children. Many hon. Members have mentioned the benefits to employers of family friendly practices, such as reduced sickness absence, better staff retention, greater productivity, and better morale and commitment. Those are real and important points.

I remember the stress of juggling bringing up children and working as a local authority social worker. When the Government first took office, we undertook a major consultation of women, and it revealed that work-life balance was one of the primary concerns. Women wanted us to do something about it, and all the measures in the Bill will help. They will also involve fathers more meaningfully, and I very much welcome the paternity leave provisions.

I am glad that the Government recognise that families are not just those with children. My hon. Friend the Minister and other hon. Members spoke of the importance of the definition of "carer". I hope that the definition will be flexible and will take into account the many varied ways in which carers cope and provide support. I was pleased to hear my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State say that a carer does not necessarily have to live in the same house as the person for whom he or she cares. I can think of many carers in my constituency who hold down full-time jobs yet support elderly or disabled parents in their own homes. I hope that such carers will benefit from the Bill.

It is also important that the Government consult closely with carers' groups. The UK has some well established carers' groups, such as Carers UK, whose members know the reality of caring. We will have to consider their needs when we examine how clause 12 will work in practice. One of the big issues for carers who care for adults is lack of sleep. We all go through sleep deprivation when we have small children and, like many, I am used to getting up frequently in the night. However, if one has to do it for an adult, one knows that the situation will not change—indeed, it may get worse, not better—but children grow out of it and allow their carer to have a good night's sleep. However, it is difficult to give one's best to one's job without a good night's sleep and we need to talk about that issue with carers. The lack of sleep is one of the major issues raised with me by carers in my constituency. We must take such issues on board.

People cope with caring in many varied ways, and we have to try to address that. It will not be easy, and the regulations will have to be as flexible as possible. Presumably, we will have to consider the amount of time that people spend caring. Some, for example, are not actually physically present, but keep in frequent phone contact to check whether everything is okay. They may get a response that means that they have to alter the pattern of their day, so we will need to be flexible to address that issue.

I congratulate the Government on the Bill, especially clause 12, and I think that we are making progress towards a society in which everyone can make a greater contribution than they have been able to make in the past. The Bill will be of benefit to society as a whole.
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7.56 pm

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