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Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I do not know whether the hon. Lady knows that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) is Chairman of the Trade and Industry Committee, which is probably why he was interested in her views.

Kitty Ussher: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that clarification. I am sure that the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire will mention it to me in person, if we ever discuss the matter.

I believe that the legislation will reduce discrimination against women of childbearing age, because if more men of the same age act as role models by taking greater paternity leave, it will become normal for all parents to do so. That is one of the reasons why I support the Bill, which will help us move towards a culture in which all people—male and female—can organise their lives to suit their caring responsibilities without fear of stigma in the workplace.

I am in the unusual position of agreeing with something that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) said—she said that the business case for the legislation is proven, which is true. Businesses will benefit by having higher staff retention if they make it easier through this legislation to allow their employees to balance their work and family commitments, and anecdotal evidence shows that productivity rises in such cases. They will also have access to greater talents not only among their existing employees, who will not have to leave their jobs when the time comes to look after their families, but among a larger pool of potential employees, because more people will want to apply for work, realising that they can more easily balance their work and family commitments.

I particularly support the measures in the Bill that give greater parental rights to fathers, which the evidence shows that they want. An Equal Opportunities Commission survey conducted earlier this year found that two thirds of fathers intend to take up their paternity rights, and nine out of 10 fathers take time off when their children are born. Crucially, half of fathers say that the existing legislation is not sufficient.

The Bill is good for men, but because it is good for men, it is potentially good for women, too. It will end the pernicious cycle by which young adults who form a couple and who are equal on the career ladder before they start a family inevitably end up in a situation in which the woman experiences a pay gap after the first or second child. At the moment, because only the mother can take a substantial period of time off when a child is born, it becomes financially logical for the father to work longer hours and seek promotion and for the mother to remain at home. Fathers often work harder when their child is in its first year until their pay rises.
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When the mother returns to work after six months or one year, a wedge has begun to be driven between the salary of the man and the salary of the woman.

Norman Lamb: I agree with what the hon. Lady is saying about redressing the balance between men and women as women become increasingly unequal as a result of time off relating to childbirth. Does she recognise, however, that the Government estimate in their regulatory impact assessment that it is possible that as few as 9,000 people will take advantage of the right to paid paternity leave because, at £106 a week, it will be uneconomic for many fathers to do so? Does she see some merit in giving a father, like the mother, greater flexibility in taking a shorter time than the maximum but with a higher weekly rate than £106?

Kitty Ussher: I do not favour that, because it would send out the wrong signal. We should either support someone on parental leave or not support them. I note the hon. Gentleman's general point. I hope that take-up by new fathers will be high, because fathers and families would benefit from that. However, it is not up to the Government to tell families how they should organise their lives. We should provide an enabling environment so that they can make the choices that work for them.

The Bill will allow both parents to be equal at the end of the first year, if that is what they want. The mother can take the first six months off, during which time the father continues to work. The father can then take the second six months off while the mother returns to work to seek promotion opportunities and whatever else she wants to do. That is a wholly advantageous move that we should all support.

I want to take my example a little further. Earlier, I asked the Secretary of State about a situation in which a woman wants to go back to work after three months. We should not force her to do so, but I can imagine many situations where she might want to, perhaps because she likes working or because she is in a sufficiently senior position in the organisation that she is genuinely worried that there will be negative business effects if she does not go back—or, God forbid, she is a Member of Parliament whose constituents could not tolerate the idea of her having six months off. Colleagues will know that I have some experience of that.

It would be wrong if the mother wanted to go back to work when the baby was three months old and the father wanted to take over but the legislation or regulations did not allow it. The mother would have to remain at home for the second three months to wait for the father to be allowed to take over, thereby damaging her business, or they would have to employ another form of child care for that period. It would be unnecessarily disruptive for the child if both parents wanted to share the year between them. When I mentioned that to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, he said that it was not favoured in the consultations. I have read those, however, and some groups did favour it, particularly Fathers Direct, which claims to speak for a large interest group on this matter and should not be ignored.

Earlier, my right hon. Friend said that World Health Organisation guidelines suggest that women should breast-feed for six months—so does the Department of
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Health, but it also recommends several other things including not smoking, not drinking too much, and eating five portions of fruit and veg each day. In the end, it is up to individuals to decide how they wish to interpret such advice. If the Government really think that women should breast-feed for six months, they should legislate to that effect, but I am sure that they do not think that women should be forced to do so. In fact, the Government have, I am proud to say, introduced regulations that require employers to provide areas where women can breast-feed or—without troubling the House with too much technicality—express milk and so on. I therefore urge my hon. Friends on the Front Bench to consider as they consult further whether greater flexibility should be allowed on the matter.

In summary, the Bill will transform the culture of our workplaces, and that is excellent. It will help to provide male and female role models to whom young parents can look when they decide how to balance their work and family lives. It will lead to less, not more discrimination. It will be good for small and large companies as they realise that the measure requires them to think beyond their existing talent pool. That is good for our economy and for families in this country.

8.55 pm

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Burnley (Kitty Ussher), who made such a powerful speech. I agree with many of her points. However, I hope to deal with matters that have been touched on only briefly in the debate.

I read the Work and Families Bill with interest. It details how parents should have more choice through flexible working to create a better work-life balance. It advocates a longer period of paternity pay from 26 to 39 weeks from April 2007. It allows regulations to be made for additional statutory paternity leave and ties in with the Government's 10-year strategy for child care. That is all good and to be welcomed. However, the measure is incomplete—it is half a Bill. It does not mention those mothers who want to stay at home to bring up their children. What about mothers who are forced back to work for financial reasons but would prefer to stay at home to look after their children?

The measure is simply another Government initiative that will break down the family model, forcing parents to go out to work instead of giving them the genuine choice of looking after their children at home. It is a proven fact that children do better when they are brought up in a family environment and even better when one parent is at home to give them constant care and attention in the early years of their lives.

I have run the Listening to Wellingborough and Rushden campaign in my constituency for many years. It aims to seek the views of local people, groups and organisations and campaign on their behalf for change. I listen to people through surveys, public meetings, door-to-door canvassing and visiting local residents. Throughout the time that I have run the campaign, the length of maternity pay, paternity leave or flexible working has never come up. However, families' concern about the amount of tax that they have to pay comes up
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all the time. They are concerned about the detrimental effects of the inefficient and inconsistent tax credit system. They are worried that they would be financially better off if they lived apart.

The Government are determined to get parents back to work as soon as possible after a birth. They have now realised that they need to extend maternity and paternity leave. However, they still believe that, after a few months—whether nine or 12—parents should return to work. They have given no thought to mothers who decide not to work but to bring up their children.

Many parents are frustrated because there is no option to stay at home in the early years of their children's lives. I must declare an interest. I have a son, Thomas, who is nearly five years old. I also have two older children who are 23 and 21. My wife has spent time at home to bring them up. She returned to full-time working only since Thomas started school. As with our other two children, Jennie and I believed that it was vital that she was with them in the early years. We were in a position to do that, but the Government have ensured that that is not an option for most families in our country. Such woolly-minded, liberal thinking will lead to disaster.

The Government's desire to control everything, whether through their nought-to-five curriculum, their insistence on getting children into school as soon as possible or the pressure on mothers to go back to work, constitutes nanny-state, centralist intervention. It is socialist planning that might go down well with Labour Back Benchers, but it is not good for 21st century Britain. It has more in common with the state planning of the former Soviet Union than with a modern, 21st-century country. When will the Government trust families and allow them personal responsibility? When will they allow children to be brought up by their parents, rather than by the state?

I have no illusions; we are living in a changing world, and work and family life are very different from what they used to be. I completely understand that many women now choose to pursue a successful career, and that should be welcomed. However, my concerns rest with those women who want to be full-time mothers. The Government have removed the choice for such women to stay at home and bring up their children.

The Government have also discriminated against the family by introducing measures that benefit couples living apart. In a recent report published by the charity Care, the tax credit system is blamed as one of the drivers forcing mothers out to work even if they would prefer to look after their children at home. The Government do not regard running a home and bringing up children as a worthwhile career option. They do not believe that it constitutes work, let alone hard work. If Ministers were to spend a few weeks trying to run a home and look after two young children, there could be a rapid rethinking of Government policy.

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