Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Giddens: My Lords, I, too, begin by thanking my noble friend Lady Gale for initiating this debate. I also join others in thanking our two maiden speakers for their impressive speeches. We are happy to welcome them here; they are clearly important additions to your Lordships' House. I sympathise with what the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, said about the imbalanced nature of this debate. He suggested that the Conservatives have somehow resolved the work/life balance. How they have done so, I am not sure. Whether they are all in their offices working feverishly, or whether they are at Ascot, as the noble Lord suggested, we do not know. I feel that in one respect, but one respect only, I am more distinguished than the noble Lord: in my short time in the House, I have spoken in one debate in which I was the only man speaking on either side of the House. That was a debate about women and I thought that they should apply the 50:50 rule in that debate in reverse.

I have some sympathy with those who are a bit wary about the notion of work/life balance, I suppose partly because I find it hard to get a balance in my own life but, for a more serious reason, because it suggests that paid work is not a part of life. However, all sociological research shows that work is a central life value and that attitudes to work are changing pretty dramatically in modern societies.

Work is important to people for three main reasons. First, it obviously provides a source of income. One of the main changes is that far more people are dependent on two incomes than used to be the case. If you are in a two-income family, your chance of being in poverty is virtually nil in the current society, for example. Secondly, work provides stability and structure for people. You have only to look at studies of the unemployed to see how difficult it is to deal with time and find a structure for your day if you do not have work as a central part of your life. That, of course, includes domestic work as well as paid work. Thirdly, people value work because of the friendships and relationships they form. Speaking in your Lordships'
22 Jun 2006 : Column 920
House is work in a way, I suppose, and I certainly value the friendships that I have made here. I used to be the head of the London School of Economics. According to modern technology, students should all be able to work at home because you can access any source you need—any book or article—on the internet. However, the most popular place in the LSE was the library, because of the sociability that it offered.

There have been interesting changes in people's attitude to work and those have to be part of this debate. I wrote down a bit of survey material. Only 36 per cent of women in 2006 thought that they should put children ahead of having a career. A generation ago, that would be reversed; the figure was about 65 per cent. Only 32 per cent of men in 2006 thought that women should put children before work. That is also a reversal of what was true 30 years ago. Over 60 per cent of both men and women agree that it is more important to live comfortably than to have children. I cannot overstress what a major change in social attitudes that represents; it is the sort of change discussed by my noble friend Lord Haskel and others. We live in a very different economy from that of the past; it is really a knowledge-service economy, not just a knowledge economy. Over 80 per cent of the population work in services or knowledge-based occupations. Thirty years ago, more than 40 per cent of people worked in manufacture, and another 6 or 7 per cent worked in agriculture.

That is a terrific transformation in the nature of our society. It affects almost everything; it clearly affects the household. A generation ago, men and women experienced their lives as fate. If you were a woman, you more or less knew what your fate was—a life of domesticity. Many women worked until they had children, but most then gave up work or had inferior jobs. If you were a man, you were a breadwinner; that was your role in life. Many people who now say that fathers do not play much role in the family should look at the material on the 1950s, the period of the so-called absent father. Because working hours were so long, a high proportion of fathers rarely saw their children. Much of the stuff said about the traditional family is nonsense. It is good to hear David Cameron recognise the significance of changes in the structure of work and the family, and recognise the fact that you cannot apply the sorts of formulae that essentially depend on an idealised version of the traditional family to the world in which we now live.

As other noble Lords have said, it is plain that flexibility has to be the key to reorganising the relationship between work and the family. There are many contentious areas here. One reason is that flexibility is a highly contested concept. Employers and employees interpret it differently and it is a focus of struggle in many countries. A joke is told about a person who goes into civil service offices—I shall not mention in which country—where he finds a yellow line painted down the floor. He says, "What's that for?" He is told, "It's to stop the people coming into work late bumping into the people leaving work early". That is how employers tend to see flexibility. In
22 Jun 2006 : Column 921
spite of what my noble friend Lord Haskel said, for employers flexibility tends to mean "hire and fire", temporary contracts, keeping workers in insecure conditions, expecting workers to work night shifts, and so on.

From the employee's side, flexibility tends to mean all the things discussed in this debate. There are 100 forms of flexibility—not just part-time work, but flexitime, job sharing, home working, and many others, including flexibility across the career cycle. We have to learn to think across the career cycle—the life course—and not just in terms of what is happening at any particular time. Research shows that employers are becoming more sympathetic to the employee's definition of flexibility; they are becoming Haskelites in the sense that some at least accept that increased flexibility generates higher productivity and so is important to economic success. However, so far data show that employers are more sympathetic about flexibility when it applies to women, and in the public sector than the private sector, although these things are certainly changing.

A further important backdrop to this is that the old story about women applies less and less, as was recognised in some of the speeches. The idea that women live in a separate employment ghetto, are denied career opportunities and all do a double shift is becoming less and less true, which is one of the most interesting changes in our society. First, if you look at recent material, you see that women interrupt employment far less than once was the case when they have children. Recent studies in the EU countries show that the penalty of having a child in terms of career success has become radically reduced over the past 10 to 15 years, and in some professions, in particular the creative professions, has more or less ceased to exist.

Secondly, women's share of household income is increasing dramatically in all industrial countries. It is approaching parity in Denmark, where women earn about 42 per cent of total household income. In this country, according to the latest statistics that I could find, it is about 31 per cent but increasing rapidly. That is an important structural backdrop in persuading men to take on more domestic responsibilities, which they are doing, especially in the Scandinavian countries.

Thirdly—perhaps the Minister will comment on this—we have to watch the issue of women exploiting other women. The flexibility of some professional women is purchased at the expense of poorer women who work for them. Many of the poorer women who do the domestic chores and work as childcarers are poorly paid and sometimes outside the formal labour market. They may have none of the contractual conditions that the professional woman has, which is clearly a contradiction.

Finally, I must accept what the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, said about there being one group of people whom we want to work more—older people. I am against the whole idea of retirement and pensions; pensions simply should be an investment mechanism for the future against the background of a flexible life
22 Jun 2006 : Column 922
course. Again if you look at the Scandinavian countries, you see terrific changes. They had 30 per cent of people over 68 in work 10 years ago, but now over 60 per cent of those men and women are in work. They did that through the kind of incentives that the noble Lord suggested.

2 pm

Baroness Howells of St Davids: My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Baronesses, Lady Kingsmill and Lady Thomas, on their maiden speeches. I am sure we all agree that they have given us much food for thought. I also congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, on her foresight in raising this debate. It got me to think about how the black British were managing the work/life balance when statistics show that in that group there are a huge proportion of female-headed households with more than three children.

In the United Kingdom we have advanced beyond the level of aggressive feminism through the traditions of democracy and equal opportunities. Nevertheless, there is still a need to explode some of the myths about the role of women in society. This society has defined the role of men and women in a certain way, sometimes forgetting that there are many single-headed households. Single mothers—and, in some cases, single fathers—find themselves in the role of breadwinner as well as nurturer of their family. How they get into that position has no place in this presentation. What matters is how they manage the breadwinning as well as keeping the family together. That means finding the proper balance between domestic chores, working responsibilities and other responsibilities outside the home. The most notable result is that siblings grow up in the black community sooner than those in the white community. They are required at an early age to take responsibility for younger siblings. They share household tasks. A greater use of grandparents and relatives is also required if single women are to take their place in the workplace.

Policy-makers and employers have taken some strides to change the way we in the United Kingdom live and work. This Government can take much credit for employment changes that allow a better work/life balance. Legislation has changed employment laws to reflect the benefits of more flexible working patterns and provide more generous time off for family reasons. Some of these changes have been referred to by other speakers, so I will confine myself to the ones that I understand benefit the single parent.

The Government have ended discrimination against part-time workers and given all workers new rights to join a trade union. They can go further by addressing the need for quality part-time work, as requested by the Women and Work Commission and referred to earlier. The protection of the new national minimum wage, paid maternity leave and family rights give mothers real choices. Then there are the Sure Start programmes; the right to take time off when a child is ill; the right to three months' parental leave when the mother has been in work for one year; flexible working
22 Jun 2006 : Column 923
rights for parents of children under six and disabled children under 18; and the increase in child benefit. All of those have been part of the Government's plan to tackle child poverty, with an additional £7 billion in children's financial support. Greater attention is now paid to education and there is the right to healthcare at the point of need. Those are important assets for the single mother.

Government initiatives are seen as aids to managing the work/life balance. Nevertheless, there are particular difficulties for women who are highly educated and wish to put their skills to good use. The majority of such women find that climbing the corporate ladder means that work dominates and family life suffers. To compete, they are forced to work longer hours than they should. Heavy workloads and the long-hours culture still pervade in many organisations. Stress levels are having negative health effects, in terms of both the physical effects—such as headaches, exhaustion and depression—and unhealthy lifestyles; lack of exercise, overeating and increased alcohol consumption. What actions are the Government taking to encourage employers to meet the Health and Safety Executive's management standards for stress?

There are large numbers of outstanding single parents who make a success of their careers, shoulder the burden of family life, organise that family life and take on the responsibility not only of nurturing their families but ensuring that their own parents are well looked after. A great tribute ought to be paid to such women, who achieve so much in and for society, as opposed to the men, who essentially neglect the domestic concerns of family life and go on their merry way to create other single families.

There are some 40 per cent of people on incapacity benefit who are unable to work because of mental illness, which is very prevalent among British Caribbean men and women. The noble Lord, Lord Layard, who has already been mentioned in the debate, estimates in his report published this week that the cost of depression to the public purse is around £7 billion. The report suggests that an expenditure of only £600 million on counselling would assist up to half the number of such people to recover from their illness and enable them to rejoin the work market. What steps do the Government intend to take to implement the seven-year plan contained in the noble Lord's report?

2.06 pm

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page