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27 Mar 2007 : Column 1298


22. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): What assessment she has made of the merits of further regulating landlords. [129836]

24. Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow) (Lab): What steps she is taking to tackle unscrupulous landlords. [129838]

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Ruth Kelly): The mandatory licensing of high-risk houses in multiple occupation and discretionary powers for local authorities to license other private rented accommodation were introduced in April 2006. From 6 April this year, we will introduce a scheme to protect tenancy deposits.

David Taylor: There has certainly been excellent short and medium-term progress at the bottom end of the market in the schemes for HMO licensing and tenancy deposit protection, but does the Secretary of State agree that we need some long-term reforms in this sector—either by licensing rented property or by encouraging landlords to sign up to minimum management standards, greater security of tenure and linking rent rises only to inflation? That would make private sector renting much more attractive and guarantee a lot more tenants decent homes. Does my right hon. Friend agree?

Ruth Kelly: I agree with the thrust of my hon. Friend’s comments. We should have a dual approach. First, we should encourage minimum standards and the spread of good practice across the sector. We are doing that by supporting accreditation schemes, whereby local authorities work with landlords to drive up standards across the sector. Secondly, we should give local authorities the powers that they need where management and landlords are clearly failing in their duties. If we take that two-pronged approach, we will avoid a situation in which hundreds and thousands of tenants throughout the country face the consequences of extraordinarily poor management on occasion, and insecurity in their tenure as well.

Mr. Hepburn: Will my right hon. Friend examine the grave situation on Tyneside and further afield, where people who find themselves in debt, such as my constituents Anthony and Gillian McCluskey, are enticed to sell their property at far below its market value to unscrupulous property companies on the assumption that they can rent the property back, only to be given notice to quit very shortly afterwards?

Ruth Kelly: I will certainly look into that issue. I thank my hon. Friend for drawing it to my attention; I understand that he has raised it before in this House. It is vital that anyone who is considering a sale and leaseback arrangement takes good quality legal advice. I know that my hon. Friend is working with his local citizens advice bureau to make sure that potentially vulnerable people are given the best possible advice and steered in the direction of legal advice, so that they can take out appropriate arrangements.

27 Mar 2007 : Column 1299

Darfur Asylum Seekers (Removals)

3.31 pm

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 24, to discuss a specific and important matter, namely,

The immediate pretext for my request is the fact that the Home Office is minded tomorrow to remove no fewer than three such people on flights to Khartoum, and there are plans for further removals next week. One example that illustrates the argument comes to mind: Mohammed Abdulhaddi Ali is a black African from the Zaghawa tribe who has demonstrated outside the Sudanese embassy in London and who is a known opponent of the Sudanese Government. I submit to the House that he would be at risk of persecution if he were returned to Khartoum.

The Government have signed up to the principle of non-refoulement—they accept that they have a responsibility not to return people to states in which there is a serious risk of those people being subject to the death penalty, torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The burden of the Government and Home Office argument is that it is unsafe to return people to Darfur but safe to do so to Khartoum.

My contention to this House is that there are a number of reasons why it would not be safe to return people to Khartoum. There is sporadic but intense fighting between the Government and a variety of rebel forces. It would not be safe to return people to
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Khartoum, where the national intelligence and security service is based and where it is constantly on the lookout for returnees. It would not be safe to return people who bear tribal scars and who are immediately identifiable by hostile authorities. It would not be safe to return people when we know from the published evidence of the Aegis Trust of a great many cases of people who have been returned only to be subject to intimidation, harassment or substantially worse.

“Safe as Ghost Houses”, which was published last year by the Aegis Trust and authored by Sarah Maguire, is explicit on the issue. The evidence is on the record, and the Government have not issued an intelligible or coherent response to it. It is unsafe to return people when the Sudanese embassy is hand in glove with the Home Office to get people out, with God knows what consequences for those vulnerable people. It is not safe to return people such as those whom I saw last year. I saw video evidence about a man who was returned from this country and who was then brutally attacked and tortured by the Sudanese authorities.

I put it to the House that we have responsibilities—the country has a responsibility, the Government have a responsibility and this House has a responsibility to very vulnerable people. To kick them out would be wrong and precipitate. The matter must be debated, and debated urgently.

Mr. Speaker: I have listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman has said. I must give him my decision without stating any reasons. I am afraid that I do not consider that the matter raised is appropriate for discussion under Standing Order No. 24, and I cannot therefore submit the application to the House.

27 Mar 2007 : Column 1301

Points of Order

3.35 pm

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your advice in respect of an answer that I received during Health questions on 6 February from the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), in response to a question about the activities of and payments to private treatment centres, which are being paid irrespective of whether they complete their work. At column 703, she is recorded as having said:

Yet following a freedom of information request to the local PCT, it now appears that the private treatment centre at Bodmin—which is represented by my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Rogerson), who is assiduous in pursuing the issue—has fulfilled only 45 per cent. of its target in the first six months of this year and 65 per cent. in the second six months, not the 100 per cent. claimed. I am sure that the Minister had no intention to mislead me or the House, but I seek your advice as to what sanctions are available to ensure that inaccurate or misleading information is properly and quickly corrected by Ministers on the Floor of the House.

Mr. Speaker: As the hon. Gentleman said, the information given was probably inadvertently misleading. The beauty of being able to table questions is that he can table another question today, which might tie up with the freedom of information answer that his colleague received. That is the way to resolve the matter.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. From listening to and watching the news on television over the past three or four days, it has become clear that almost everybody in Britain has been discussing and worrying about the kidnapping of our soldiers and sailors by the Iranians. So far, we have not had a statement of the official position from Her Majesty’s Government. Have you received a request to make such a statement, as it would be remarkable if the one place in Britain where the matter was not being discussed was this Chamber?

Mr. Speaker: My understanding is that the Leader of the House announced that there would be a statement this week. I hope that that is helpful to the right hon. Gentleman.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your guidance as to how it might be possible to question orally a Minister from the Department for Communities and Local Government on the written statement about local government reorganisation. None of the
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questions on the Order Paper was appropriate for raising the matter just now. In the county of Bedfordshire, there is confusion and consternation about the written statement. It is not at all clear what will happen to local government, particularly in the middle and southern part of Bedfordshire. Chief executives of local authorities do not know what to tell their staff about whether they will still be in jobs. My constituents deserve better. It is impossible to take forward important local matters when we do not know what councils will exist in future. The House rises in two days, and it is too late for an Adjournment debate. How can I question a Minister orally on the matter?

Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con) rose—

Mr. Speaker: If the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) will let me answer the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), he might need not need to raise a point of order. I understand that at least three months of consultation will take place with the community at large, which will allow the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire to make representations. I agree that we are about to enter a recess, but one of the advantages of that is the Easter recess Adjournment debate, in which the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire could raise the matter on the Floor of the House. If the period involved is three months, he will have the opportunity of tabling further questions and of seeking an Adjournment debate, in which the Minister concerned would appear at the Dispatch Box. Does that help, Mr. Dunne?

Mr. Dunne: Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. In connection with the announcement in the written statement by the Minister for Local Government today, the allegation was made that there has been a broad cross-section of support in the county of Shropshire for the unitary authority proposals. The Minister seems to have completely ignored the ballot of opinion in Shropshire, which was overwhelmingly opposed to a unitary authority. I seek your guidance as to whether we can get Shropshire struck out from the proposals.

Mr. Speaker: I do not comment on the cases that Ministers make. It is for hon. Members to rebut the case that a Minister has made.

Bill Presented

Northern Ireland (St. Andrews Agreement) (no. 2)

Mr. Secretary Hain, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Secretary Prescott, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary John Reid, Secretary Des Browne, Mr. David Hanson, Paul Goggins, Maria Eagle and David Cairns, presented a Bill to modify the effect of the Northern Ireland (St. Andrews Agreement) Act 2006: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time, and to be printed. Explanatory notes to be printed [Bill 84].

27 Mar 2007 : Column 1303

Flexible Working

3.40 pm

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I beg to move,

As Liberal Democrat spokesperson for women and equalities and for small businesses, I often have to balance the needs of both groups when looking at policy. It might be thought that flexible working is a topic that would require such balancing. I introduce this Bill, however, in good conscience that I am serving the interests of equality and good business.

I am indebted to Mrs. Susie Ankrett, who is both a constituent and a small business owner, for suggesting this Bill to me. Mrs. Ankrett runs an award-winning recruitment agency, Plum Personnel, and is well placed to understand the issues from all sides—as indeed am I, having had my own small business and brought up my family at the same time. Even if someone is Superwoman, doing such things while developing a career is tough. That is the dilemma facing so many families today. Women begin their career with roughly equal status with men. I say “roughly”, because women graduates still earn on average 14 per cent. less than men at the start of their careers, and by the time they reach the age of 35 to 40 the gap has widened to 40 per cent.

What happens? It starts when children come along. For me, having my daughter was the most wonderful experience of my life bar nothing, and I am sure that many women feel the same. I am also sure that being a father carries the same sense of privilege for many men. Men want to exercise that privilege, but there is a problem. In many companies there is a long- hours culture—I call it “presentism”—under which someone’s worth is valued more by the number of hours that they are at work than by the economic contribution that they make. So when baby comes along, the option of both parents taking their share in the caring is often not feasible. One partner has to make a career sacrifice and take the lion’s share of the child care. That is often gladly and willingly done, but the trouble is that the parent who makes that sacrifice will pay the price in future career advancement—and, let us face it, that is usually the mother.

The mother will, therefore, often take part-time work far below her skill level to fit in with school hours and holidays, and when she wants to return to work full- time she finds that the boys have raced ahead. She still takes the main responsibility for the children, and she is unattractive to employers as a result. The equalities review published only a few weeks ago found that, in the recruitment stakes, women with children under 11 are 45 per cent. less likely to be employed than men. Employers are, therefore, missing out on a wealth of talent that they could be tapping into for fear that a mother will need time off to exercise her caring responsibilities. She has hit the glass ceiling, and they are losing real ability, loyalty and a much stronger economic contribution to their company.

In the home, the husband often sees too little of the children. He continues to work long hours because the
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economic responsibilities have fallen to a disproportionate extent on his shoulders. The inequality of the relationship is reinforced by the economic divide, but it does not have to be that way. Flexible working can rescue the situation for the employer and the family.

Research into flexible working by the Department of Trade and Industry in the 2003 work-life balance study discovered that employers who provided flexible working found that that had a positive impact on employee relations, enhanced employee commitment and motivation, reduced labour turnover, and had a positive effect on recruitment, absenteeism and productivity. Two thirds of respondents to a survey by the Work Foundation said that flexible working helped to reduce absenteeism, and research has shown that flexible working practices have enabled small businesses to recruit and retain higher-quality staff. DTI research in 2000 found that some small businesses saved up to £250,000 through reduced staff turnover, simply by adopting flexible working policies.

For businesses small or large, flexible working can bring benefits. Let us consider Microsoft, some 85 per cent. of whose UK employees work flexibly. Need I say more? In fact, I do need to, because there are many situations where flexible working would not work for some employees. There are good business reasons for companies to say no, and everyone understands that. Under the current legislation, no employer is forced to accede to a request for flexible working if there is a business case not to. I know that some small businesses feel that employment legislation puts them at a great disadvantage. Small business people want to put their energies into building their businesses, rather than getting bogged down in worrying about falling foul of Government legislation, or acting as an unpaid revenue collector for the Government.

Maternity leave is a bĂȘte noire for many small companies. When one employee constitutes 25 per cent. of the work force, losing them on maternity—or paternity—leave obviously causes a problem. How much better it would therefore be if such an employee could work flexibly, continuing to contribute—albeit in a more limited way—instead of being lost altogether for a period.

Employment legislation should act as a facilitator for a fair business relationship between employee and employer, not as a dictator. Flexibility works both ways; when there is appreciation of the needs of each party, the situation works to mutual advantage. I would therefore like to see more flexibility in the implementation of Government legislation, allowing mutual agreements that are in the spirit of accommodating the needs of both parties.

I have talked about businesses, but let us consider fathers for a moment. Again, research supports what is common sense: the more time a dad spends with his child, the less likely that child is to experience developmental problems. That is a benefit to society, as well as to the father. A more balanced home/work life also means that the father is less likely to suffer the stress that damages productivity and increases absenteeism. For women, flexible working could help to raise that glass ceiling, enabling them to enjoy a career and a family without having to be Superwoman to achieve both.

27 Mar 2007 : Column 1305

Existing legislation provides for parents of children up to the age of six to have the right to request flexible working. In my view, there is a business and a social case for extending that right to all workers, which the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Minister for Children and Families, the right hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Beverley Hughes), have called for. I would like to see a definition of flexible working wide enough to accommodate the needs of all parties. However, before such a step is enshrined in legislation, I want to see a full economic impact assessment, and a pilot study to assess the effects post-implementation, as well.

Today, I want simply to pave the way for this enhancement, which extends the right to request flexible working to parents of children up to the age of 18. I submit that parents of children aged between six and 18 have just as important a parenting role, and just as many trials, tribulations and challenges—and triumphs—to face. How much better it would be if mum and dad could still be around, particularly at stressful times such as when their children change school, or at exam time?

I leave the last word to the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the leader of the Conservative party, who in a recent speech to the Working Families charity said:

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Lorely Burt, Susan Kramer, Jo Swinson, Annette Brooke, David Haworth, Stephen Williams, Lynne Featherstone, Danny Alexander, Jenny Willott, Sandra Gidley and Dr. Evan Harris.

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