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Earl Ferrers: My Lords, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all produced schemes that worked, when ours did not. Is that Ministers' fault for choosing such an awkward scheme?
 
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Lord Rooker: My Lords, that is a question about the past; we are a new team of Ministers. The Select Committee is carrying out an inquiry about what went on and is taking evidence from Ministers, former Ministers and civil servants. I do not know. I understand that the schemes in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland are not exactly the same as each other. The devolved Administrations had a degree of choice about the schemes. I am not in the game of indicating fault at the moment; I just do not have the evidence and I freely admit that I have not spent my time looking for it in the past five weeks. I have tried to concentrate on the present and the future rather than the past, as plenty of others are doing that.

Work/Life Balance

1.15 pm

Debate resumed.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Rooker for allowing us that short comfort break. It has given us a chance to reflect on the excellent maiden speech of my noble friend Lady Kingsmill, who, I see, is not in her place. That is not surprising; she is probably running down the Corridor right now. Actually I rather hope she is having a jolly good lunch. She set a standard in style and content which puts those of us who come after her rather on our mettle. I am very sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, has had her agony prolonged, but I can assure her that we are all looking forward just as much to hearing her speech shortly.

I am very grateful to my noble friend Lady Gale for introducing this debate. I hope that she will not take it amiss, as she personally did not coin the phrase, if I start by saying that the expression "work/life balance" seems to set up a false dichotomy. It implies that work and life are different, perhaps even incompatible, but that is far from the truth. For many people, work is a vital source of strong social relationships, which often spill over into non-working time. Life away from the workplace, particularly family life, can and should be incorporated into how work is structured and how we bring to bear in our work practices the best of what we learn from our wider network of relationships. I certainly learnt a huge amount from my experience as a parent about managing people—and I do not mean that I advocate treating one's colleagues like children.

However, I do not intend to question the value of this debate. In the week in which my noble friend Lord Layard and his team at LSE have published their work on the impact of depression and anxiety on individual lives and on the economy, it is especially pertinent that we should discuss the importance of developing working environments that do not contribute unduly to the stresses of modern life. Conflict between professional and personal priorities can too often be the source of such problems, as my noble friend Lady Kingsmill pointed out.
 
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My noble friend Lady Gale and the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, who is not in her place either, talked eloquently about what the Government have done since 1997 to promote humane and flexible employment practices. I join them in saluting those achievements, together with those of the increasing number of excellent employers, such as the one cited by the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, who have gone well beyond the legal requirements to develop good practice.

I would like to say a bit about my own experience of trying to make the demands of personal and professional obligations work together, and to consider how things have changed. I shall also touch briefly on the difficulties faced by those who work to enhance other people's leisure, particularly performers. The world of work is very different today, particularly for women, from how it was when I started my career. There is a greater range of benefits; better maternity pay and leave; better paternity leave; parental leave, about which we have heard a great deal; and a far greater awareness of the needs of family life than there was 30 years ago. When I was having my children in the mid and late 1970s it was still not the norm for women to take maternity leave and return to work. Indeed, I was the first person with my then employers ever to do so. Fathers were not expected to take an active part in the daily routine of family life. Those who chose to do so, taking children to school, attending parents' meetings or filling in when childcare arrangements failed, were too often regarded with suspicion by their employers.

We have made progress—although not yet enough, as we have heard—in changing attitudes and encouraging many more people, particularly women, into the labour market. But there are also pressures now that are both different from and more extreme than anything I experienced when I was first trying to make my way. We have heard about some of them already. I worked because I wanted to and I was able to pay for childcare from what I earned. But had I wished to stay at home with my children, my husband's income, which was not at that time large, would have been enough to support us. My children and their friends rarely have the luxury of making that choice, largely because the cost of keeping a roof over their heads, particularly in London and the south-east, is now so enormous that one income is most unlikely to be sufficient. That is especially so at the start of their careers or if they work in occupations that do not pay well or are insecure, of which there are many, such as large chunks of the voluntary and public sectors and the arts. This, in turn, contributes to the familiar phenomenon, already mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, of young people putting off having a family until much later in life—sometimes, for women, until it is too late, when they start to encounter fertility problems.

The effort to get and keep enough work to pay the bills is still a real struggle for a lot of people, even those who have benefited from a good education and have excellent skills and experience. For them, the question
 
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of work/life balance is almost academic. Despite all the opportunities created by a buoyant economy and enlightened legislation, I do not envy today's young men and women the challenges they face. I wonder whether we have given them some pretty mixed messages. I do not lay this charge entirely—or even mainly—at the Government's door, but I would ask the Minister to consider, with his colleagues in other departments, what more can be done to help those who want to start families to do so at the best time, and without facing frightening financial consequences.

Finally, I would like to remind your Lordships of those who work while others are at leisure, and how difficult it is for some of them to benefit from the flexible working practices we have heard about. They include, for instance, nearly everybody in the entertainment industry, especially those involved in live performances in theatres, concert halls and opera houses. In the main, they rehearse during the day and perform in the evening, sometimes six days a week. Although members of Equity, BECTU and the Musicians' Union mainly now work under far more enlightened contractual arrangements than used to be the case, they still must observe the disciplines of a profession in which the curtain goes up when it goes up. They cannot ask to do their work at another time or at home and, frequently, they cannot take advantage of, for example, parental leave or other forms of compassionate leave, because their absence would often be too disruptive.

Increasingly, performers are also being asked to work on Sundays. From the point of view of potential audiences it is easy to see why. Despite our 24 hours a day, seven days a week world, Sunday is still not a working day for most people. For those with families it may be the only day when everyone can be together, so it makes sense for entertainment of all kinds to be available. In a recent letter to the Society of London Theatre, Christine Payne, general secretary of Equity, points out that performers and stage managers have families too. Sunday is an important day for them, just as it is for the rest of us. We should bear in mind that our freedom to enjoy our own balanced lives may sometimes be bought at the expense of unbalancing someone else's.

I suspect that most of us have spent periods of our lives ricocheting between obligation to our families, our work and ourselves, cross and exhausted, wondering where it all went wrong. While even the most benign government cannot entirely free us from these conflicts, this one has certainly done a lot to help. We have come a long way in a generation; we must make sure that we protect what we have gained.

1.23 pm

Baroness Thomas of Winchester: My Lords, as I rise to speak for the first time in your Lordships' House, I must first crave your Lordships' indulgence, not only for what I shall say, but for my slowness, I fear, in rising to my feet. This is due not to any reluctance to join in the debate but is the result of rather a lot of dystrophic muscles. Before turning to the subject of the debate, I should like to thank noble Lords on both
 
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sides of the House for the warmth of their welcome, which has been quite overwhelming. I should also like to pay tribute to the staff of the House, for their kind and cheerful help not just over the past few weeks but over the past 29 years. Working as I have in my party's Whips' Office since 1977, I have grown into middle age—and beyond—with many members of staff, particularly the senior Clerks. The House is indeed lucky to have such wise and knowledgeable people to serve it. As my mobility has decreased, my problems have been minimised by the help and care I have received from staff and Peers alike, particularly from all my Chief Whips and the staff in my party's Whips' Office, who have given me quite magnificent support, both physically and metaphorically.

This brings me, very appropriately, to the subject of today's debate: the importance of work/life balance. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, on securing this debate. I also add my congratulations to my fellow maiden speaker, the noble Baroness, Lady Kingsmill, on her excellent speech. The term "work/life balance" is relatively new. The very fact that it has been invented surely means that for many employees work and the rest of life are not in balance. There is a complex range of reasons for this, two of which are that more and more women with caring responsibilities are now able to enter the world of work, with all the benefits—and, undoubtedly, some down sides—that that entails; and a lot of those in senior management positions—men as well as women—want to re-evaluate their lifestyles long before retirement. In passing, I note that all political parties are now addressing the issue of what it takes to have a contented life, or what some call more idealistically "the pursuit of happiness". They are not just focusing on the importance of personal wealth or taxes.

Looking back over my working life of some 43 years, in the first 10 years or so I would think nothing of being out every evening, singing in choirs, socialising with friends, doing an evening class in watercolours, or perhaps playing tennis. Any stress that had built up during the day was quickly dissipated after work, and any particularly difficult problem might be talked over with friends. Speaking of stress, I see that the recent survey conducted by the Work Life Balance Centre found that 56.8 per cent of respondents felt their workloads occasionally to be out of control. I could certainly identify with that finding when I was an election agent for my noble friend Lord Livsey of Talgarth on more than one occasion.

In many ways I was lucky. Others now start their working lives in a new culture, where staying late is the norm, as the right reverend Prelate and others have pointed out; there is ever more bureaucracy in terms of management reports and evaluations to be written; there is no administrative backup; and many weekends are spent catching up with work. The rise of new technology must not be seen as a curse, but it sometimes seems that way when laptops are taken on holiday and e-mails checked in the middle of the night, so that employees, however senior, quite literally never switch off.
 
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The main group of people who never switch off are, of course, full-time carers, to whom the term "work/ life balance" can sound like a cruel joke, particularly those who cannot afford private respite care. I look forward to a time when far more support is available to those in that position. Having said that, the overall picture for those seeking a more satisfactory work/life balance has definitely changed for the better, particularly with the increase in flexible working. From 1998 to 2004 the percentage of non-managerial employees switching from full-time to part-time hours increased by almost 20 per cent. Perhaps the most staggering increase has been in paid paternity or discretionary leave for fathers, which has more than doubled in the same period. Here, it must be remembered, flexible working arrangements, not surprisingly, are more prevalent in the public than the private sector.

I have two more areas of particular concern. The first is that daughters—and they usually are daughters—are having to keep an ever more watchful eye on elderly parents, or parents-in-law, who are often now able to live into very old age in their own homes. This is a problem that can only increase, and it will have to be taken more into account by employers. However good any care arrangements are, they will inevitable break down from time to time, and a family member will have to leave work to go to the rescue. Who will take these frail but independent people to the opticians or to the hospital for appointments? This family member, as I have already suggested, is more likely than not to be a woman, even if the dependent in question is not related to her. I hope that this situation can be closely monitored to see that no employees are being penalised by their employers for taking time off to care for elderly relatives. The savings to the state if these people are able to stay in their own homes must be considerable. I note that there is evidence to show that employees are nowadays able to be more honest about this kind of absence from work.

My second area of concern is for those of us without children. Employers have as much of a duty of care to those without children as to those with children and any request for flexible working by single, childless people should be looked at sympathetically. These are the people who often have to work extra hours to cover for those with childcare duties, and there is a danger that employers will expect workers with no dependants to work long hours as a matter of course. I have a particular worry for young professionals at the start of their working lives who are in danger of being exploited rather than cherished by their employers. We need these keen young people not to become resentful at work, but to have enough energy and enthusiasm at the end of the day to enhance society, and I hope that our choirs, drama groups and amateur orchestras of the future will not wither on the vine because young people are working too hard to take part in these activities, which are our country's cultural lifeblood.

I end with a personal plea, and that is to be treated not as an old hand in your Lordships' House, but as the novice in this Chamber that I really am.
 
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1.31 pm


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