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Earl Russell: My Lords, this is an attractive and generous amendment. It is the sort of amendment that one would expect from the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, who has thought long, carefully and usefully about the matter. There is no doubt that the issue of work/life balance will demand a great deal more attention from all of us. To take the latest topical example, I cite the report in The Times on Monday from the young solicitors' group recording the fact that an alarmingly large number of women are leaving the legal profession as a result of problems with work/life balance.

Of course, business may complain of the burdens placed on it. But business can employ no one else but people. Increasingly, the issue of work/life balance is affecting both genders, not yet equally, but the gap is closing so rapidly that that may come within many of our lifetimes. Something needs to be done. Our concern is whether the prescriptive form of the amendment, confining the provision to Saturday and Sunday, is necessarily the best way to approach the matter—especially for separated families, where there

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is the problem of ensuring access for fathers. I know that the noble Lord has concerned himself with that problem for some time; it requires concern. Friday may often be a crucial part of the package.

To take a topical example—I am here speaking off the top of my head—this morning, to my great regret, I had to withdraw from accepting an invitation to a wedding in Oxford on Saturday because I could not find the time to do my shopping on Friday, being engaged in an all-day conference. That sort of situation will be repeated in a great many cases. If we do not consider the problem of Fridays, we shall not succeed in the object of the amendment, which is to clear Saturday and Sunday.

As has been said, there are a great variety of people who do and must work on Saturdays and Sundays. Some arrangements should be considered for finding time for those people to get time off during the rest of the week because they have the same rights and needs to see their children as all the rest of us. If we could find the right words to do it, I should prefer to approach the matter in the spirit of the Renton report on the preparation of legislation—laying down a general principle asserting the need and the obligation to do something to meet it without having prescriptive allocation of particular days of the week. I do not immediately see how that could be done. I find it hard to imagine that it could be compulsory.

I should like to hear the Minister say that he will set up consultation about how such a thing can be done. Meanwhile, whether or not the noble Lord has got his amendment right—personally, I do not think that he is quite there yet—he has done us a great service by drawing attention to a problem about which we ought to be thinking hard and which will take some time, especially because, like the Irishman's pigs, it keeps changing every time we try to count it. I thank the noble Lord for moving the amendment. If I say that it is not quite right yet, I say so in no unsympathetic spirit.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, as everyone will recognise, the new clause is very similar to one we debated in Grand Committee and to one debated and withdrawn at Report stage in the Commons.

On the face of it, I have a great deal of sympathy with the amendment. I have to work long hours in your Lordships' House and greatly value my weekends with my children. It is hard to argue against that point. However, the noble Earl, Lord Russell, has put his finger on part of the problem—the prescriptive allocation of days of the week—and there are other important considerations. I hope that your Lordships will bear with me while I go carefully through them.

The new clause is intended to ensure that no local authority employee or employee of a local authority company is required to work on both a Saturday and the immediately following Sunday if that person has the care and control of a school-age child. The clause

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covers any adult with whom a school-age child customarily lives as part of his or her family, or who has the care and control of that school-age child.

It is important that I start by setting out what legislation already exists to encourage flexible working. The Government have in place a range of family friendly policies, including a commitment to help to support working parents. As the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne recognised, on 6th April a new series of new rights specifically for parents were announced, provided through the Employment Act 2002. This includes a new right for parents with children under six or a disabled child under 18 to ask their employers for flexible working arrangements. That law places a duty on employers to consider these requests seriously. The 2002 Act specifies the grounds under which any such request can reasonably be refused.

The new flexible working law is a "light touch approach" based on best practice. It aims to provide parents with more choice in when they work and how they manage their time while understanding the needs of management, particularly in businesses of a smaller size.

Prior to the introduction of new rights for flexible working, there was extensive consultation—this is the key—on the needs of working parents. At no stage during the two-year policy development and consultation process were concerns raised specifically about local authority employees, or any parents in any sector, having to work weekends. The consultation process established that parents and employers alike wanted flexibility so that they could make choices and that they did not want rigidity in the legislation.

The working time directive already ensures that everyone is entitled to at least one day off per week or two days per fortnight. So there is a regulatory framework in place to ensure that employees are treated fairly. It does not just apply to local authority employees.

In addition, work-life balance for all employees is promoted through the Government's Work-Life Balance campaign and the Challenge Fund, which provides subsidised consultancy advice to assist employers in introducing and developing work-life balance practices and flexible working into their workplaces.

Sadly, Amendment No. 19 is inconsistent with the Government's general approach to better regulation; that is, we regulate only where there is an identified problem which cannot be solved in another way. Our approach to employment legislation has the specific aim of creating flexibility and choice in the workplace.

This amendment is based on a supposed need that has not been raised at any point to date. I believe that in practice the amendment has the potential to reduce choice and flexibility in the workplace because it is so specific, inflexible and, to use the term of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, prescriptive. For instance, it will potentially require local authorities radically to reorganise existing shift-working patterns. This may mean that some local authorities, in order to ensure

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that they do not breach the law, actively prevent all of their employees from working full weekends, even when they are willing to do so and they do not have responsibilities as parents. Such rigid legislation could also potentially have an adverse effect on other flexibility currently offered by local authorities, such as midweek shift patterns or flexi-time or compressed hours that allow employees to take time off at other times when they need it, perhaps because they are carers. The Government aim is to promote flexibility on both sides—for employers and employees.

I have so far addressed the possible impact of such regulation on the employees, but it is also important that we recognise the potential impact on the services that they might provide. As we have made clear when this clause was previously debated, within local government there will always be situations where staff are required to work at weekends. In regular circumstances this would apply, for example, to residential homes, as has been mentioned, where care needs to be provided on a 24-hour basis, seven days a week. In less regular circumstances, as I think I pointed out in Grand Committee, it would apply to road gritting in adverse weather conditions or to other critical environmental or security emergencies.

Whether these services can be adequately provided if employees are given the right not to work, the impact on recipients of such services being inadequately staffed and local authorities being unable to meet demand, and the possible cost to local authorities of having to pay premium wages for employing weekend staff do not appear to have been properly addressed or considered.

I see no special local government case for making the provision sought by the amendment. Local authority workers have full general protection under existing employment law and are as fully protected as any other employee in any other sector. Moreover, local authorities—I think this is recognised by your Lordships' House—are generally at the leading edge and proactive in promoting flexible working and adopting best practice policies in this field.

The new flexible working law, which is unprecedented across Europe, has only just been introduced. The Government are committed to commence a review of the law's impact in three years' time. The Government are currently developing a monitoring strategy in collaboration with the key stakeholders. It would be inappropriate to bring in another piece of legislation in this area before we have had the opportunity to review how existing legislation is working. If there are perceived to be problems in this specific area—and I repeat we have not had this brought before us—then the review might be an appropriate vehicle for addressing such issues.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, made the point that you have to have consultation. He is absolutely right on that point. During such a review it will be important for us to consult the employing organisations and ensure that we get it right if there is a perceived and major problem. We do not see one now although we entirely understand the spirit and the generosity that lies behind the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne.

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In any event, the impact of the cut-off age of the child is an issue and we will look at that in particular. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, made a point about that.

We recognise the generosity of spirit behind the amendment. We do not yet have any information that suggests this issue is a major problem. We are impressed that the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, wants to encourage good practice and we think that local authorities are generally at the leading edge of that good practice. We see no need at present for this amendment.

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