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Miss Kirkbride: I am sure that my hon. Friend would like to know, as a good friend of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay), that before I got home, bath and tea had been provided, by someone who is not noted as a new man. Jimmy-jammies were on and it was straight to bed.
Mrs. Laing: I am amazed and gobsmacked. The Bill has already had an effect if it has made my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) deal with putting his son to bed. I am extremely impressed.
Peter Luff: I have to let my hon. Friend into a secret. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) has already expressed his pleasure that the Trade and Industry Committee intends to visit India a week after his Committee goes elsewhere, so that he can look after the baby while his hon. Friendin every sense of the wordthe Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) is away. He is really becoming a new man.
Mrs. Laing: I am not sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell will be pleased to be called a new man, but he is clearly becoming the perfect father, and we should all commend him for that.
Mr. Devine: Is it not silly to be talking about work-life balances when we are sitting here at half-past nine at night?
Mrs. Laing: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, but each hon. Member has a different hour at which they want to be somewhere else. The fact that I want to be at a charity ball right now is not the point[Interruption.] I am not used to playing Cinderella. The time that mattered most to me was 7 o'clock, just before my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove left the Chamber having explained what she was going to do. I could not, of course, take that amount of time away from the debate, so I had to telephone my four-year-old son to say goodnight. As always, he asked me what I was doing and I said that I was about to make a speech at Big Benas he calls this place. He asked what the speech was about and I replied that it was about mummies having more time to spend with their children. He said, "Great, so you'll be able to come home and read my story then." That makes extremely well a point that others have made.
It annoys me that just because Conservative Members speak up for small businesses and analyse the economic effect of proposals such as these, some Labour Members suggest that we do not understand the needs of children and families as much as they do. We do.
Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con):
I am very much a new man. Indeed, it was my daughter Charlotte's ninth birthday today and I managed to get home to south Hertfordshire for 45 minutes at 4.30 pm to wish her a happy birthday, so I am in favour of the work-life balance.
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Mrs. Laing: I am most impressed, although I will not encourage any more of my hon. Friends to display their new man credentials. The Bill has already had an effect.
The hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) made a powerful speech about carers. She is absolutely right and we should pay attention to her example. It is worth looking further at whether the right to request should be extended to all employees. It is difficult to work out where the line should be drawn. I make no commitment to the Minister about exactly what our position will be, but the matter is certainly worth considering.
Mrs. Laing: I will of course give way to the Minister as long as he understands that my speech will go on longer due to interventions.
Mr. Sutcliffe: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving me the opportunity to intervene. I am sorry that she has missed the ball, as she has mentioned twice.
The hon. Lady is making an important point about the extension of the right to request and the work-life balance, and I welcome what she says, but we have been told by Opposition Members about the role of business and the CBI, so is she committing her party to supporting an extension of the right to request, even though organisations such as the CBI are opposed to it?
Mrs. Laing: No. I am glad the Minister asked that question. I am not committing my party to anything; I was saying that it was worth looking at the point further. I am not ruling it out. It would be just as easy for me to say, "No, we absolutely rule it out", but we do not. The hon. Member for Cardiff, North made some important points and I hope that we shall have an opportunity to consider them further in Committee.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) was right to stress the importance of the balance between employees and employers. He made the important point that just because discrimination against women is illegal does not mean that some employers will not find a way around the law. That is what lawyers are for, so I stress again the importance of keeping the legislation simple and balanced.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) put well the case for small businesses. It is vital that the Government respect their position. After all, most employees work for small businesses.
The hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) was right in what she said. I do not disagree with the detail of the contributions made by Labour Members. We are all trying to achieve the best from the Bill and I hope that we can go into it in more detail in Committee.
The hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) raised an issue that the Government had not taken into consideration: surrogacy. I hope that we can amend the Bill in Committee to take account of what he said. It is right that a child born of a surrogate mother should be treated appropriately, not exactly in the same way as the child of a birth mother or an adopted child, but not left out of the provisions altogether.
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The hon. Gentleman also addressed the issue of enforcement through tribunals. We do not want to encourage more litigation as a result of the Bill. It is much better to have reasonable, balanced law that need not be broken by either side.
The hon. Member for Burnley (Kitty Ussher) also speaks with authority, because she probably has the youngest child of any female Member.
Kitty Ussher: I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) had her child first.
Mrs. Laing: The hon. Lady speaks with authority on this matter because she has a very small baby, and it is quite understandable that she will not have time to discuss any matter with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire because she cannot possibly have time while balancing her duties in the House and in her constituency with such a small baby.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) mentioned some vital aspects of the Bill. Parents' time with children is an essential part of helping to create and nurture children and therefore the next generation. Parents who have jobs are doing two jobs, especially the mothers of small children who also have a job outside the family, and we should respect that fact, but my hon. Friend is right: looking after a home and children is an important and extremely hard job. In my own humble opinion, it is the hardest job that there is, and I am glad that I do not have to do it full-time. We must respect women who choose to stay at home and look after their families. They must also have rights.
The hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. McGovern) gave us a very good historical canter around what used to happen. I am glad that we live in more enlightened times.
Much of the Bill is reliant on subsequent regulations that we have not yet seen. This is the third Bill in a month to which I have spoken from the Dispatch BoxI assume therefore that this must apply to many morefor which there has been a very short period, usually eight days, between the debate on Second Reading and the beginning of consideration in Committee and for which the Committee stage will be commenced too early and be rushed. We have had to examine Bills in Committee without the benefit of having the regulations before us. I hope that that will not happen with this Bill. It is hard to imagine why the Government are in such haste to push the Bill through. Another couple of weeks so that we could have the regulations in front of us to give the Bill proper consideration would have been much better.
In conclusion, we all want the Bill to work, so it must have flexibility and balance between employer and employee because we have jobs to talk about in the context that we have been discussing them this evening only if we have a successful economy, and we have a successful economy only if we have competitive businesses. So if anything in the Bill undermines the competitiveness of businesses, the Bill will backfire. I do not want that to happen; I want the business community and families to have confidence in the legislation that we have examined this evening. We want to examine the Bill further in Committee. We therefore want it to have a Second Reading. We will not oppose it this evening, but we look forward to improving it.
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