Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, does the noble Lord, Lord Peston, have any evidence of what those costs would be?

Lord Peston: My Lords, I believe, and I know from speaking to noble Lords opposite—the Tories—that there was a time when they believed in the working of the free market, and essentially I take the view that when we live in a free market economy the free market outcome is prima facie the correct outcome. Every so often when I say that to them they all look at me with horror, but the fact is that that used to be at least the Conservative view. I do not commit the Cross-Benchers to anything.

My general view is that imposing burdens on the economy, bearing in mind that the overwhelming majority of people in this country work in the private sector, is something that we ought at least to be careful about.

As I said, I rise not because I do not accept the argument, I am extremely concerned about parents not being there for their children, but the consequences of this proposal are absolutely massive and I would wish to pause before we place this on the statute book in a local government Bill simply because we are discussing a local government Bill. I do not want to be negative in the sense that I do not agree with the sentiment. I do agree with it wholeheartedly, but I am genuinely concerned about the principle rather than the specific.

Lord Elton: My Lords, I rise to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Peston, on the skill and elegance with which he evaded the question asked of him by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, which was where was the evidence for the massive cost to which he said this would give rise.

Lord Peston: My Lords, is the noble Lord, Lord Elton, actually saying that this would be costless? Is he saying that the business firms that do employ people over the weekend are idiots, that they do not know what is in their best interests, and they are somehow going out of their

10 Sept 2003 : Column 374

way to ill-treat their employees? The argument is ridiculous. All I am arguing is that the free market outcome is prima facie the correct outcome.

Lord Elton: My Lords, that was not actually the point on which the noble Lord was addressed. The question was, what was the evidence for the massive nature of the costs to which this gives rise. I am being prompted, but I cannot hear the prompts, so I shall continue unsullied by help or hindrance.

I support the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, in a crusade that he has pursued for decades. It started in the days of "Keep Sunday Special", when he attempted to keep free an area of the week when people could count on being free at the same time as the others in their family. That attempt failed. The noble Lord is now trying to secure a time when children at school can be free at the same time as one of their parents, if one of their parents wishes.

I follow the noble Lord, Lord Peston—to his surprise—in thinking that, in principle, the proposed measure is a good thing. I would like to see it as accepted practice among all employers. The Bill applies only to local authorities, but, on the grounds that it is good to pilot any such innovation, this is a good, concise, contained area in which to do so.

I regret that the issue has arisen so late this evening, because my noble friend opened his remarks by saying that he had been advised to test the feeling of the House. I suspect that, on this matter, there is more dirigisme on the other side of the House than there is on this, and that it will be directed at seeing that the amendment fails. I would not like it to do so without recording my warm support for any move that strengthens the bond between parents and children in a society that is becoming increasingly corrosive of that link.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, perhaps I may briefly, and without repetition, support the spirit of the amendment. For the very same reasons as were so well put by my noble friend Lady Blatch, which need no repetition, I hope that the opinion of the House shall not be sought tonight on the amendment. There are problems of costs to the local authorities. The essence of the problem arose when the House accepted Sunday trading—this is a spin-off.

There is a wider dimension, to which the noble Lord, Lord Peston, referred, that requires consideration. If the noble Lord divides the House, I will go with him, but I hope that he does not. I will go with him as a humanitarian gesture which is worthy of support. But I think that it is premature, if I may say so.

I ask the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, to consider one matter to which I draw attention. Look at subsection (3)(c). Why on earth should the criminal law be introduced as a sanction for enforcement when the funds go to the wretched Treasury? What you want is a process of civil law compensation whereby, if the local authority breaches the code or regulations, the person involved says, "Look here, I have suffered damages worth x—say 50, 100 or 150—will you

10 Sept 2003 : Column 375

pay me?" If they say "Yes", that is the end of it. If they say "No", he goes to the registrar of the local county court and says, "I want more". The registrar would listen to it all and say, "No, they have given you quite enough; you must pay all costs; so there is a sanction" or "They have not given you enough; I will give you more" and then pay all the costs. The injured person gets compensation by a civil process.

What on earth is the use of giving the Secretary of State powers to introduce criminal sanctions? I ask that that may be taken into account. I have given notice to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, by his series of secretaries in Cambridge or somewhere, that I was going to take this point, so I hope that it does not come as a surprise. If he divides, I will support him as a humanitarian gesture, but, with respect, I think that he would be unwise to do so.

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, as I said on Report, in principle I support the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. That was the attitude taken in the House of Commons. I do not think that any noble Lord, particularly those who have children, would not say that weekends are extremely precious, and that they are a very precious time to be with one's children. But to start by saying that all local authorities will have to agree to any request not to have to work on both Saturday and Sunday, without us having some idea of the implication, seems too far-stretched to be included in legislation.

It is well worth exploring the implications of the proposal. My noble friend Lord Hanningfield, the leader of Essex County Council, who has canvassed the idea, believes that the measure would cost potentially millions. He said billions—I have changed the "b" to "m"—but he may well be correct, and I may be wrong as a former leader of a local authority. Under the circumstances, it would be unwise for the measure to be embarked upon in that way.

Somebody needs to take a grip on the matter and see whether the measure is possible. It ought to be possible within the terms of flexible working, which is already part and parcel of employment law. Good employers, under special circumstances, ought to be able to grant such freedom. But I do not know whether they can grant it perpetually to people who have taken on a job that says they will work at weekends. We need to consider that.

I told the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, that I would agree in principle—I did so during the previous debate. I hope that he will accept that as a sensible stance by someone who is basically very supportive of the measure but worried about the practicalities. Like my noble friend Lord Campbell, I hope that the noble Lord does not push the amendment to a vote today. But I hope that it does not get lost in a welter of ministerial bromides, and that it is taken seriously. If possible, in the not-too-distant future, someone—not only the Rowntree Trust, which is a valuable organisation—should investigate the implications of

10 Sept 2003 : Column 376

this proposal. We could then balance them with the cost to local authorities of children being on the streets. That work needs to be done.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, we on these Benches have difficulty with this amendment. My noble friend Lord Russell dealt with it at a previous stage and I will not follow him in referring to the Irishman's pig. At some point, I will ask him what that was all about. However, I follow him in his comments. Our preferred approach is not to look at the prescriptive allocation of particular days of the week. I would be far happier to see what is clearly an important issue addressed in the round.

This matter does not only concern weekdays and weekends. There are hours during the week when many parents operate in an almost child-free or childless zone. They hardly see their children during the week. The issue is much broader than just weekends.

Although local authorities should set a good example, I am unpersuaded that it would be appropriate to impose this arrangement on a sector that is actually a pretty good employer. Earlier in this debate, the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, mentioned local authorities being against the proposal. Certainly, as others—especially the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham—have said, there should be a huge investigation into the implications.

I cannot resist mentioning an article about the French school system that I saw in the Independent two or three days ago. Many French schools still require attendance on Saturday mornings, and many children prefer that, because the alternative is spending time with their parents going to the supermarket. I am sorry that we cannot support the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page