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House of Lords

Monday, 6th December 1999.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Derby.

Message from the Queen

Lord Carter: My Lords, I have the honour to present to your Lordships a message from Her Majesty the Queen signed by her own hand. The message is as follows:

    "I have received with great satisfaction the loyal and dutiful expression of your thanks for the speech with which I opened the present Session of Parliament".

Parental Leave

2.36 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether the Minister for Women is recommending the Prime Minister to take paternity leave.

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington): My Lords, any decisions that the Prime Minister makes about his personal life are, of course, for him alone. My right honourable friend is well known as a devoted and attentive father, and I am sure that he will want to spend as much time as possible with his new child. I am equally sure that any suggestions from his ministerial colleagues will be outweighed by the wishes of Mrs Blair.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, I am grateful for that Answer. I am sure that the whole House congratulates the Prime Minister and Mrs Blair on their productivity. As to the Answer, is it not government policy to encourage new fathers to take parental leave, and is there not a statute to that effect to allow them to do so without loss of pay?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, the Government are about to introduce regulations in your Lordships' House--they have already passed through another place--which provide details of the new employment law and give parents of both gender the right to take parental leave within very wide boundaries. The notion of encouragement is perhaps too positive.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, does this particular provision relate to people who work in relatively small companies? I agree wholeheartedly that parental leave should be encouraged, but I am

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aware that many small firms find it difficult to provide it. It would, however, be desirable if parental leave could be extended.

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, my noble friend is right that there are more problems for small firms with a small labour force than for large ones. That was why the Government conducted widespread consultation before introducing the regulations. The regulations, which are to be debated in your Lordships' House on Thursday, are flexible in operation to enable firms with smaller labour forces to take advantage of them and to use them appropriately. I agree with my noble friend that there are benefits to employers, as demonstrated by other countries which have introduced these provisions, including reduced staff turnover and greater commitment. I am sure that noble Lords agree that a happier, more motivated and more productive workforce is good for the economy as a whole.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, on behalf of these Benches, I congratulate the Prime Minister and Mrs Blair on this excellent news. Is the noble Baroness aware that the travelling public would give a great sigh of relief if the Prime Minister took extended paternity leave, thus allowing the Deputy Prime Minister to play a fuller role and a massive unlocking of what has come to be known as "standstill Britain"?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I shall pass on to my right honourable friend and Mrs Blair the very kind congratulations of the Leader of the Opposition in your Lordships' House. However, his question is wide of the one on the Order Paper. I also remind the noble Lord--I am sure that he is aware of this already--that the Prime Minister is the Prime Minister whether or not he is on parental leave.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, I add my congratulations to Mr and Mrs Blair on the future addition to their family. Can the opportunity be taken to remind adoption societies that anyone over the age of 35 is just as capable of looking after children as people under 35?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I am not sure whether my noble friend asks a question or makes a request that I pass on his congratulations and the point that he makes. He is right that the extended provisions for parental leave under the regulations include adoptive parents. They are flexible, as are the remainder of the regulations, and enable adoptive parents to take advantage of the provisions for rather longer than birth parents for whom the regulations apply only until the child is five.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, I read the documents put forward by the noble Baroness, as Minister for Women. What advice does the noble Baroness offer her noble colleagues as to how a father in his 40s should operate in this area; indeed, does she believe that she needs to offer advice?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, as I stated in answer to the original Question of the noble Lord,

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Lord Skelmersdale, it would not be appropriate for Government Ministers to take a policy position on a personal aspect of the Prime Minister's life. As I said in response to a supplementary question, the Government believe, and as Minister for Women I believe, that anything we can do to enable people to have a more appropriate balance between their working life and their family, which means that we do not have the so-called "long hours culture" which has produced great problems for both genders and therefore for family life, is good for the whole of society and therefore the economy.

Lord Clark of Kempston: My Lords, if the Prime Minister takes paternity leave, will he leave John Prescott or Alastair Campbell in charge?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, there is some confusion. Under the regulations to be introduced, there is no such concept as paternity leave. There is so-called "parental leave". That is an entitlement for both parents of either gender to take specific forms of leave up to the time that any child is five years old. That may be worth mentioning because there is some confusion. There was some confusion in the original Question. The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, was kind enough to explain to me before asking the Question that he was referring to parental leave.

On the responsibilities for government, as I said to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, the Prime Minister remains the Prime Minister whatever he is doing, whether abroad or on parental leave.

Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords, rather than the Minister for Women recommending that the Prime Minister take paternity leave, has not the provision been made available for families, in particular the children, who would otherwise be disadvantaged, so that those who do not require such leave do not have to take it?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. I repeat: the Government hope that it will become a more common practice for people who are able to do so to take this parental leave, and that that will lead to improved family cohesion at times of change in family life and reductions in the stress which often arises with parents trying to balance complicated lives where both may work outside the home but who still want to be, as they always have been, responsible and effective parents.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, is paternity leave available for a minor?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, the noble Baroness uses the phrase "paternity leave". We are referring to parental leave. Such leave is related to an individual's employment status. He has to have been employed by someone for one year. If he has been so employed, presumably he will qualify.

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World Trade Organisation: Environmental Concerns

2.45 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What proposals they will make at the World Trade Organisation talks to ensure environmental concerns are addressed.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the United Kingdom and the European Union remain committed to ensuring that sustainable development is a key objective for a new round of multilateral trade negotiations. At the unsuccessful Seattle ministerial conference last week we proposed that environmental considerations should be taken into account throughout the negotiations and that negotiations should specifically include clarifying the relationship between WTO rules and trade measures stemming from multilateral environmental agreements; clarifying the relationship between WTO rules and eco-labelling schemes; and examining the role of the precautionary principle in WTO rules. We shall continue to press for these objectives in the further work of the WTO next year.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does the noble Lord agree that it is a matter of great regret that the message did not get across to some NGOs and many in this country that those issues were of great importance?

The Government say that they will take a lead in overhauling the WTO agenda: that it should reflect social, environmental and economic concerns in equal balance. Does the Minister believe that the failure to get that message across was the reason for so many angry protests at Seattle?

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