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Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): It is a great honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. McGovern), especially with his story of his father's management of the birth of his sister. Only recently, I had a discussion with my mother, who is 91. I talked about the birth of my younger sister and of overhearing my father saying to his employer over the telephone that he could not come into work because I had been misbehaving. He said that I had been behaving very badly following the birth of my younger sister. I told my mother that I had been shocked to hear that call. I had been given a wonderful present of some whimsies and I thought that I had been behaving well.

At 87, my mother told me rather belatedly, "Good grief, you were not behaving badly. It was just an excuse to get him off work because I needed him at home to look after you. We did not have all this leave in those days and your father had run out of his leave." For years, people had been lying to employers, managing employment situations and falsely creating impressions to manage family responsibilities. It is ludicrous that we lived in that world.

Last night, I watched Ian Hislop, who appeared in a programme about the way in which the role of women in society was changed by the great war, when they were needed to take on jobs and responsibilities because men were at the front. Years of suffrage had not secured women the vote. The experience of seeing how women rose to the challenge of the workplace led to suffrage being extended to women. That extension of suffrage changed British society. I see the Bill as being very much part of another great change that is taking place in British society. We need to recognise that parents and carers are critical to our future, and that as a society we should support them.

We heard from the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) that the Government were trying to force women into the workplace. There is an element of truth in what he said. We have a falling birth rate. We have a falling number of people in the pool of those available to work, because we have high levels of employment. We have an ageing society, and an increasing number of people need care and support. If we are to provide for those who want to work, those who need to work and those whose lifestyles have been limited by poverty, social isolation and caring responsibilities, we must engage in a new way of working. We must engage in a new relationship between society and working people, be they parents or carers of older people. We need to build into our work force regulation both flexibility and choice.

Last week I was in the Chamber debating the Childcare Bill, which recognised the importance of quality-based care for children, parents, employers and Government. Speaker after speaker acknowledged the importance of parents' spending time with their children in the early years. The Bill introduces a change in maternity and adoption pay, which will enable parents to remain at home for 39 weeks by April 2007. The goal of eventually providing a year's maternity leave is one that we should all embrace and welcome.

I ask the Minister, however, to consider a possible change. If we are to support the 61,000 people who adopt children each year, we must ensure that maternity
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pay and adoption pay are of equal value, recognising that the role that they play as parents is equally important. Statutory maternity pay is currently 90 per cent. of salary for the first six weeks, and £106 a week for the next 20 weeks. Statutory adoption pay is £106 a week for 26 weeks. I should like the first six weeks of statutory adoption pay to be 90 per cent. of salary, which would bring it into line with maternity pay and send adopters a clear message that their financial recognition as parents is equal, like their status in law.

I welcome the change that allows parents, particularly mothers, to return to work for training or appraisals while receiving maternity or adoption pay. For adopters in particular, a placement may be sudden. They and their employers must have time to adapt to their leave to take on child care responsibilities. That flexibility and choice is imperative for natural, birth parents and for adoptive parents.

I do not want to be seen as the Member of Parliament who always quotes from The Western Mail—[Hon. Members: "Oh, go on."] It is too late. Last week, The Western Mail—every Welsh Member's morning reading—reported that, according to the Equal Opportunities Commission in Wales, many women in Wales are still affected by poverty, isolation and exclusion. David Rosser, director of CBI Wales, admitted that women still dominate in child care responsibility, and that until men take equal caring responsibility in society, that will prove difficult to address. In 2005, we are still talking about women having a disproportionate experience of poverty, isolation and exclusion.

Paternity leave was the first step of both Government and society to move towards giving men equal caring responsibilities. I hope that we can introduce changes to make the two weeks' paternity leave more family friendly. Too many fathers are excluded from paternity leave because of the need to give 15 weeks' notice, which employers do not really need. Fathers can take paternity leave up to eight weeks after the birth. However, a father's support and care may be more appropriate later than eight weeks after the birth. The child may become ill. The mother may remain ill in hospital. As we all know, doting grandparents flock in after the birth. It may be more appropriate for the father to be around later on. Perhaps we could look at breaking down the two-week period into two separate one-week opportunities for a break. It would create no additional costs for employers, give employers and families greater flexibility and could be of far greater value to families.

In the Childcare Bill debate, I spoke of how families with children with disabilities are one of society's most disadvantaged groups, with 55 per cent. living in poverty, in serious debt and with both parents and children living in loneliness and social isolation. That picture of poverty and isolation can be extended to most people with caring responsibilities. I welcome the Bill's extension of the right to seek flexible working to all carers and adults. However, I believe that that right should be extended to cover all children until they have left school. As all parents know, children need the support of their parents at different stages of their lives. A child could be going through a period of illness, of difficulty at school or that most difficult of periods, adolescence, when they need a parent at home to give them the support and structure to guide them through
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that difficult process. If we do not have that flexibility, we are not building in the support that families, children and parents need.

There are 6 million carers in the United Kingdom, 3 million of whom are working, who will welcome the opportunity that the Bill provides to tackle the stress, social isolation and, for many, the poverty created by caring. The peak ages for becoming a carer are 45 to 64. Eighty per cent. of carers fall within that working age band. Their experience, skills—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady has had her 10 minutes.

9.22 pm

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): To finish the sentence of the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon), it is likely nowadays that someone may be a carer and a parent of young children at the same time. It is a serious matter that we must all recognise.

We welcome the intention of the Bill and we want it to work but we have, of course, some concerns about its detail. There are two points in particular. First, the Bill must be kept simple. If it leads to an explosion in red tape and bureaucracy and extra rules for businesses of all sizes and for employees as well as employers, it will not work because people will not have confidence in it. Secondly, we do not want the pendulum to swing so far that the Bill becomes counter-productive. As some of my hon. Friends have mentioned, it would be wrong if rights were created that required so much of employers, particularly small businesses, that they were unwilling to employ people who had family duties, particularly young women of child-bearing age. If that were to happen, and I hope that it does not, the Bill would backfire and it would not work. We want it to work. In everything I say, I want to ensure that the Bill is improved, so that those concerns are taken care of and the legislation will work.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) said earlier, the economic case for such a measure is proven. In today's work force, for the economy to work with maximum efficiency, it is absolutely necessary that every single person who is willing and able to work, and who has the experience and talent to do so, is able to use their abilities to their fullest extent.

Unusually, the Minister for Women and Equality, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn), is not here, although I am not surprised, given the burden of legislation that she has had to deal with in the past few weeks. I pay tribute to her for bringing to light a fascinating statistic, which I have mentioned several times in recent weeks in this Chamber and in Committees considering similar legislation. If all the women in the UK work force were working at the height of their capacity and to the best of their talents—instead of taking jobs of a lower standard because they want to work part-time; or taking a career break and subsequently being unable to slot in at their previous level—our gross domestic product would improve by 3 per cent. That is a stunning statistic: 3 per cent. of GDP is equal to our annual trade with Germany. That is an enormous sum and I am sure that the Chancellor would welcome such an improvement, given the awful
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figures that he was forced to announce to the House today. That said, I stress that we want this legislation to work.

The hon. Member for Bridgend made a very good point about people often having to tell white lies, let us say, in order to cope with a situation about which they should not have to tell lies. When I discovered last week that the Bill was to be given its Second Reading today and that I would have the great honour of winding up for the Opposition, I had to change some of my arrangements for this evening, which had included attending a very worthwhile charity event. I also had to change arrangements with my nanny, who looks after my small son. I told her this morning that unfortunately, I would be unable to go to the ball because I had to be here this evening, and she said, "Can't you just call in sick?" I had to explain that it does not work that way here, but at that point it occurred to me that, of course, that is what people have always done. People call in sick when in fact, if the employment arrangements were reasonable and flexible, there could be far more honesty, and both employer and employee could be above board about what is actually going on.

The hon. Member for Bridgend told a very good story about her father, but my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) takes the prize in this regard. Just a few weeks ago, his wife gave birth to—a child. [Interruption.] My helpful hon. Friends tell me that it was a boy: my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury has a new son. Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who had to explain to the Whips in rather difficult circumstances that he intended to take paternity leave, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury simply fell over on his way out of the hospital and broke his leg. [Interruption.] I am inaccurate in that as well; apparently, he broke his foot, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) helpfully points out. The principle is that it should not be necessary for people to find excuses to be there for the first few weeks of their child's life, whether they are the mother or father.

We have had a constructive debate this evening. The hon. Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman) spoke passionately about carers and she was right to highlight the predicament of parents who have children who are in need of extra care but who may not be categorised as having special needs. They may still have extra needs that should be taken into consideration as far as their parents' employment is concerned. The hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), who spoke on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, was right to talk of the need to get the work-life balance right. I hope that that term has not become jargon, because it is important. We are trying to achieve a reasonable balance and, for once, I did not disagree with everything that the spokesman for the Liberal Democrats said. We may have a constructive time in Committee.

The hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) is right about the business case. She made a good case that was similar to what my hon. Friends and I have said, so I do not understand why she claims that the Opposition are unsupportive of the Bill. We welcome these provisions. She has listened to a small number of   my colleagues, but not to me. Nor has she listened
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to    my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Miss   Kirkbride), who made a powerful speech. She understands these issues very well and she is right to have spent some time with her son this evening. We forgive her for not having been here for the whole of the debate, because that is what she was doing.

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