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Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, while we have great sympathy with the concept underlying the amendments, we cannot support them. I feel churlish in saying that because the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, has been supportive of everything we have done so far in the Bill.
I thank the Minister for his letter following our debate in Committee when we discussed the much-needed support of older children with mental health problems. I am pleased to see that parents of children aged between six and 18 years with mental health problems are covered by the right to request flexible
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working if the child falls within the definition of disabled. However, I remain concerned about those who will not fall within the definition.
We have enormous sympathy with those who seek to extend the right to request flexible working, but our sympathy is shared with those employers who have to shoulder the burden of the regulations. Although the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said that the Secretary of State would be able to amend that under the Employment Act 2002, I am not sure that that power would be used.
As I said at Second Reading and in Committee, we genuinely believe that flexible working is an area where big business is often ahead of legislation and where small business is the original flexible employer. One of our main concerns with the amendment is that if the right to request flexible working is extended to parents of children up to 18 years, alongside the proposed extension to carers and the existing right for employees with a child up to the age of six, you run the risk of leaving a small number of employees with no such rights and a grievance that any extra work will fall on them.
Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, I support the amendment. The Government have done a tremendous amount to improve the rights of women, and men too, and to broaden the opportunities for both sexes to continue in their jobs and undertake their responsible role as a parent.
My main reason for wanting to extend to the age of 18 is that now is an ideal opportunity. As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, pointed out, small businesses and other organisations will be able to advance a number of reasons why flexible working should not be granted. However, what I wish to take place more quickly is for fathers and mothers to be equally entitled within their employers' set-up to take parental leave for those up to the age of 18. That makes perfect sense to me. As we have heard, stress can occur within a family. To reduce the stress and help the young person to move through it, one needs that flexibility.
Another reason is that I have looked back at the pamphlet produced in 1996 by Demos on parental leave. That is a long time ago. It would be a shame if we had to wait another 10 years. I quote these words because they sum up the noble Baroness's point about persons being responsible adult citizens because they have had the full support of family and the community. The pamphlet expects to see major pressure on policymakers in this whole area. It states:
"In part this will be a shift from seeing parenthood primarily as a private choice, and children as a private good, towards seeing the quality and quantity of parenting as a public concern and well-brought up children as a public good".
It goes on in that way. That is exactly what the Government have been doing at a much faster rate, I have to say, than any previous government have done that I have been alive for. I would like to see them take this profoundly important step at this stage, which will encourage the real leap forward that we need for both fathers and mothers, and encourage the employers to set this as the normal expectation for people working within their organisations.
As we have heard already, a tremendous number of companies have done this already. We know too that Working Families, which is an amazing group of organisations, supports what is suggested here. I hope that the Government can think again.
The Lord Bishop of Winchester: My Lords, I am grateful for what has been said by the noble Baronesses, Lady Walmsley and Lady Howe, and I support both of them. I am still really taking aboard the reluctance of the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, to do so. I support the provision from these Benches.
I regret that I was not here for earlier stages, but I am here as a successor to my colleague the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham, who took part in earlier stages of the Bill.
The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, has expressed gratitude to the range of organisations which have offered briefing. In that light I should express an interest as a member of the Mothers' Union, which is among those organisations. It isas are the Churches, other Members of this House, and indeed the Billcommitted to working very closely on the welfare of children and families, so sustaining marriage and other marriage-like relationships, on the question of work/life balance as regards the welfare of children and young people, and on the welfare of adults involved in their care and of adults themselves.
Allowing flexible working in circumstances of real need for parents and carers up to the age of 18 is just as important as the noble Baronesses, Lady Howe and Lady Walmsley, have said it is. Any of us with experience of the pressures on our married children who are both working and engaged in childcare and child responsibility know that it is just as difficult as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, described to make the right arrangements. That difficulty does not stop there. I do not have family experience of this; I have a lot of other experience of it. That difficulty does not stop at the age of five or six.
I will not go into the debate that the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and my colleague the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham went into in Grand Committee of just what all that means. But the difficulties are very real. Granted the Government have admirable intentions, on which the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, has rightly congratulated them, but the logic is that this amendment should be accepted and carried.
I have read the material in Grand Committee about pressures on small businesses, and I understand that, but there are ways of assisting them. The Government
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put out an astounding amount of information assisting on a lot of things. I do not see why they should not do so on this set of matters and assist small businesses employing only a few people to understand the issues, and to understand that overcoming these difficulties in the end, as so many businesses have experienced, is good for businesses and good for relationships.
The last thing I want to say is that, as again the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, noted, there is a particular need to be alert to the needs of those representatives of families who may be less well paid, less able to negotiate, less well educated and perhaps most at threat in today's society, which puts high pressure on marriages and other relationships. I shall not go on longer but, for all those reasons, I think this is an important amendment, as are Amendments Nos. 11 and 12 for the same reasons, and I support it.
Lord Northbourne: My Lords, I, too, support the noble Baroness's amendment. We are, after all, moving into a business society in which we have a global economy and where businesses are expected to run for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and for 364 days a year in some cases. There are enormous pressures on families in this context. But we have fought these issues in this House looking in the other direction, and this is an opportunity to look in the direction of children and families and to do something positive for them. Only 27.5 per cent of a child's waking hours are spent in school, if you include holidays and weekends. That leaves some 70 per cent of that child's time which is at least nominally the responsibility of parents. How in the world can they enable their child to manage that time if both of them are working to some sort of pattern that makes them unavailable at the time?
Yesterday evening, there was a very good programme on BBC2 about children in a Welsh valley who came out of school, got on the train and mucked about as teenagers will, went home, got all dressed up, got on the train, came back and then painted the town red. Of course, they had nothing else to do. Presumably in many cases their parents were not at home. I support the amendment.
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