Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, it is a great pleasure—indeed, an honour—to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Kingsmill. I congratulate her on a quite outstanding maiden speech, which tells us of the pattern that women of her generation have been through. I say without hesitation that she is an outstanding example of those women who have taken full advantage of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and Equal Pay Act 1970. It has not been easy, however; one has heard the story so many times. But they have set the pattern so that others can follow and, hopefully, they will come through slightly more easily than those of the noble Baroness's generation.

The noble Baroness's own expertise, when you read it, is quite amazing. She was a solicitor in many firms, but I notice that she also went into her own practice for a while. I wondered whether that was to fit in with bringing up children; I suspect that it was. She then came more into the public arena, in commerce and a number of important areas such as deputy chairman of the Competition Commission, formerly the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. She has made a very good start, and we will all look forward to hearing many more speeches from the noble Baroness. I hope that it will not interfere too much with her recreation of trying to keep fit.

I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, for giving this House the opportunity to emphasise the importance of work/life balance. Indeed, achieving this objective for both sexes is one of the most important prerequisites for finally delivering the objective of this country's 30 year-old equal opportunities legislation. Given that the original sex discrimination and equal pay legislation was passed with almost unanimous support, it is fair to say that all Governments since have played some part in encouraging the implementation within government departments, as well as across the public and private sectors of our economy. As the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, has already pointed out, however, this Government undoubtedly have the best record.

Since 1997 there has been radical legislation in a number of equal opportunity areas; for example, the opportunity for political parties to adopt positive discrimination when selecting candidates. But the Government have also taken action in a number of financial as well as legislative ways, to encourage women to work as well as bring up the next generation, or care for their aged or disabled relatives. All of these have been crucial in helping to increase the percentage
22 Jun 2006 : Column 899
of women with skills who are able to earn a living and of course contribute to their own pension. As your Lordships will know, a high proportion of the elderly in poverty in today's world are women, even though the Government have moved quite a way to help them.

Noble Lords will have two recent Bills—the Work and Families Bill and the Childcare Bill—in mind in this debate. The vital ingredients in the Work and Families Bill that will facilitate an acceptable work/life balance are the increased maternity and paternity leave entitlements and the right for carers to ask for a period of flexible working. The Childcare Bill, equally vitally, places an increased duty on local authorities to ensure the availability of sufficient quality childcare to meet needs, especially the needs of the most deprived families and those wishing to take training to enable them to apply for work.

These are excellent steps forward, but still more needs to be done to extend these rights if a really satisfactory and generally acceptable work/life balance is to be achieved. In my remaining time I want to underline why giving this priority should be seen not only as acceptable, but as a positive bottom-line benefit to our whole community. First, we need to publicise the findings of those companies that have embraced this approach—they have been mentioned and examples taken from them—and those that have retained valuable employees, and saved themselves the considerable cost of replacing and training new employees.

Secondly, in this context, we need to talk about flexible, not part-time work. Part-time work is now seen as a low-pay route, which once entered effectively blocks the route to promotion on re-entry. I noticed that the Equal Opportunities Commission's latest report on fathers pays attention to flexible working. It states that the availability of part-time work has increased, yet it still attracts 1970s-style pay penalties. Women working part time are earning 40 per cent less per hour on average than men working full time; about the same as 30 years ago. So we have a good example from its latest research. Part-time work, it goes on to say, has a scarring effect on earnings. The longer a person is in part-time work, the lower their wages are likely to be, even if they return to work full time. If part-time work is seen as a low-pay route, then even if the employee has only intended part-time work to cover that initial child-rearing period, when they return those problems will remain.

Thirdly—and by far the most important pre-requisite—if this is to succeed, we need to ensure that exactly the same terms for requesting and being granted flexible working apply, whatever the job level concerned, to fathers as well as mothers. Today, most couples are dual earners, and as Demos put it, even in 1996, in its report, Parental Leave: the Price of Family Values:

That, too, has been referred to.
22 Jun 2006 : Column 900

There is one other important aspect of all this. We are living longer, and many more women—about one-fifth of those born since 1940, we are told—will remain childless. As that reduced number of children will be helping to pay the pensions of those with children, childless employees' contributions should be to accept willingly a degree of inconvenience that might facilitate adequate parenting. For, to quote Demos again, there will be,

I have one final thought which, if it came about as a result of these changes, would bring a huge benefit to all: a return to earlier childbirth. The age at which women give birth has risen steadily since the equal opportunities legislation, partly because more and more women wait until they can negotiate a more acceptable return to flexible working with their employers. Some six years ago during one of your Lordships' debates, which looked at what more needs to be done to promote equal opportunities, the noble Lord, Lord Winston, made the important suggestion that, given this trend, more research was needed into human embryos to ensure safer, late childbirth.

However, if women also began to feel reassured that their talents and experience would be equally valued if they had children at a younger age, then at least some of those potential dangers and costs, to individuals as well as to the whole community, could be avoided. The technical changes that have taken place during the 30 years since the Sex Discrimination Act has been in place have made flexible working—where one works and when one puts in one's hours—very much a matter of negotiation between the employee and the employer. If the employers can wake up to that and the possibility it gives them to have and retain the best quality workers, men and women, we will begin to see a faster move to achieve not only a better work/life balance for us all but a return to earlier parenthood.

Rural Payments Agency

12.37 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall repeat a statement on the Rural Payments Agency made in another place earlier today by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on the Rural Payments Agency. In my Written Statement of 9 May, I promised to keep the House informed on progress made by the Rural Payments Agency on the single payments scheme. At Oral Questions today, no Questions on the SPS were on the Order Paper. I therefore thought it right to give honourable Members the chance to raise the issue. In summary, there has been some progress, but the situation is far from
22 Jun 2006 : Column 901
satisfactory in a number of respects. As of Tuesday 20 June, some £1.38 billion, representing over 90 per cent of the total fund, has now been paid to over 100,000 applicants; 82,571 claims have now been settled in full; and 18,785 applicants have received a partial payment and are awaiting their 'top-up' payment.

"On 9 May I said that the top priority for the Rural Payments Agency would be those claims of more than €1,000 where no payment had been made. The number of such claimants in this category is now approximately 2,300. I recognise the hardship involved for them and deeply regret the distress caused. The Rural Payments Agency is taking further steps to pay those complex claims, including discussing issues direct with claimants and, where feasible, bringing parties together in cases of continuing disagreement. The Rural Payments Agency has written twice to all individuals concerned.

"I also recognise the importance of the unresolved hill farm allowance payments. Of the approximately 10,500 eligible HFA claims, 5,000 have been paid in full and a further 900 authorised for partial payments. Full and partial payments are continuing to be made.

"The European Union defined payment window for making 2005 single payment scheme payments runs from 1 December until 30 June. Work is continuing to pay as many claims as possible by 30 June. However, farming leaders have made representations to me on behalf of any farmers who do not receive the full sum due to them within the payment window—that is, by Friday next week. I have therefore authorised the Rural Payments Agency to make interest payments of the London InterBank offered rates plus 1 per cent calculated from 1 July, in respect of any payments where responsibility for the delay rests with the Rural Payments Agency. This will be subject to a minimum interest payment level of £50. Further details will be given on the timing of these payments once the Rural Payments Agency has assessed how they can be integrated most effectively into the existing payment schedule.

"Work on delivery of the 2006 single payments scheme is under way. As I said on 9 May, the 2006 scheme year will be very challenging. The Rural Payment Agency's interim chief executive, Tony Cooper, has made an initial assessment of the task ahead. He has confirmed that in respect of customer service and management information there is no quick fix. Possible options for the 2007 scheme—for example, the use of a minimum payment level—are not available for 2006.

"Against this background, farming leaders have understandably called for partial payments to be made under the 2006 single payments scheme. I have both discussed the need for the necessary EU legislation to make partial payments with Commissioner Fisher-Boel and authorised the Rural Payments Agency to start work on necessary
22 Jun 2006 : Column 902
systems. However, until the RPA's chief executive has had an opportunity to make a realistic assessment of the prospects for full payments, I do not want to commit to a particular timetable or specify whether or when partial payments might be made. Initial validation of 2006 claims is under way and detailed validation should start next month. By the time the House returns after the Summer Recess, therefore, we should have a better understanding of the prospects for the 2006 scheme and I will make a further Statement then.

"Given the position on the 2006 scheme, I have decided to simplify to the maximum possible extent the arrangements for the incorporation into the single payments scheme of additional support arising from last November's landmark EU sugar reform. In practice, that means that £52 million will be added entirely to entitlements held by sugar beet producers who meet defined criteria, rather than some of the funds being used to increase the flat rate value of all entitlements. Further details, including on arrangements for 2007, will be announced in due course.

"I can also report that an EU regulation has been adopted which provides for all 2006 single payments scheme claims to be accepted without penalty until 15 June. This extra time, above and beyond the extension to 31 May I referred to in my Statement on 9 May, will mean that around 4,000 farmers will not now be penalised. I am grateful to the European Commission for its understanding on this issue.

"The fundamental review of the Rural Payments Agency that my right honourable friend the Member for Derby South set in train earlier this year will be important for the future of the Rural Payments Agency when it reports at the end of this year. In the mean time, I know that this year's problems have caused real distress and I repeat the apology to farmers I have made before. I can assure the House that the Rural Payments Agency chief executive, with the support of the department, will be looking to take interim steps to aid the recovery process and improve the experience of farmers dealing with the agency to the maximum possible extent. I will keep the House informed as matters progress".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

12.44 pm

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page