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House of Lords

Thursday, 15 March 2007.

The House met at eleven o’clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham.

Parents: Flexible Working

The Lord Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Truscott): My Lords, in the past two years, 24 per cent of employees with children under the age of six have asked to work flexibly. The targeted, light-touch nature of the law has assured its success. We will be publishing a compendium of the evidence on flexible working on 29 March. On 6 April, we will be extending the right to carers of adults, thereby giving it to 2.65 million more employees. We will keep the law under review.

The Lord Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. Do Her Majesty’s Government agree that flexible working can contribute to meeting many social goals, from reducing child poverty through greater parental participation in the labour market to closing the gender pay gap? Will the Government give every encouragement to the business community to embrace all the benefits that flexible working can bring for the good of business, the good of the family and the good of the community at large?

Lord Truscott: My Lords, first, I express my personal condolences to the friends, family and parishioners of the Reverend Paul Bennett, who was tragically killed in south Wales yesterday.

We recognise the considerable benefits that flexible working can have, particularly in helping parents to balance their work and family responsibilities. It also brings very real benefits to employers, as they recognise. That is why we have long been encouraging flexible working and why, in 2003, we introduced the right to request it. The law has been a huge success, with around 47 per cent of new mothers working flexitime compared to just 17 per cent in 2002. We must ensure that the law remains a success. As I mentioned in my Answer, from April 2007 we shall extend the right to carers of adults. We are also taking a number of actions to ensure that employers publicise the rights of employees to request flexible working. We are taking a number of measures—I shall not go into detail at this point—to ensure that we raise awareness of all these changes.

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Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, will the noble Lord take on board my concern about the number of highly qualified women scientists and engineers who either are not active in the workplace at all or are doing jobs at a much lower level than those for which they are qualified simply because they cannot find jobs that fit in with their family commitments? Are the Government supporting any programmes to help these women to get back to work in jobs for which they are qualified?

Lord Truscott: Yes, my Lords. I can tell the noble Baroness that we are challenging employers by building a set of exemplar employers from both the public and private sectors, ensuring that we have good practice initiatives, including flexible working, helping to spread best practice and encouraging a culture change. We have also set up a £500,000 funding initiative to increase the number of senior and quality jobs that are available part time for women. That all follows on from the Women and Work Commission report. However, ultimately, most employers recognise that they need to do more to recruit and retain good employees, and of course women are at the forefront of the skills set of employees in today’s world.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, I congratulate the Government on what they are clearly achieving and on the monitoring that they will undertake. However, will they include a survey of the percentage of fathers who have asked for, and been allowed to take up, the option of flexible working? One suspects that considerably fewer fathers than women rightly ask for and, I hope, obtain flexible working. It is important to know what that figure is and what more the Government can do to encourage more fathers to ask for flexible working and more employers to grant it.

Lord Truscott: My Lords, the noble Baroness has made an interesting suggestion, which I shall certainly take back to my department. I can inform your Lordships that 80 per cent of all requests for flexible working are agreed to by employers and, in a survey that we carried out, 75 per cent of employees said that employers treated them the same when considering requests for flexible working, no matter what their gender or personal circumstances. Of course, this Government have introduced, for the first time, paid paternity and adoption leave, which are greatly helping families.

Lord Elton: My Lords, so far all contributions have emphasised the benefits to parents and employers. Does the Minister accept that children are also important beneficiaries? Enabling parents to be with children is an important way of enabling them to become good citizens. That need extends up to the age of 18, as the right reverend Prelate’s Question suggests. Will he put that on the record as well?

Lord Truscott: My Lords, I absolutely agree with the noble Lord on that point. We are continuing to monitor the policy, in particular its effect on families and their children. The noble Lord makes an extremely important point and he is right to emphasise it.

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Lord Northbourne: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that less than 70 per cent of children in this country sit down to a meal with their parents more than once a week, many much less than that and many not at all? Is he aware that the recent UNICEF report on the well-being of children in rich countries shows Great Britain at the bottom of a list of 21 rich countries that were studied? Is it not time that we did more about this?

Lord Truscott: My Lords, I am aware of that report, although some of its details are disputed in so far as they apply to the United Kingdom. Over the years, this Government have done an awful lot to support families and working families with benefit entitlements. In the past 10 years, we have, for example, doubled the amount and period of maternity pay, tripled the length of maternity leave for employed mums and, as I said, introduced paid paternity leave. This Government are doing a lot to help families, so I would be surprised if the statistics are, in practice, quite as the noble Lord indicated.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, with the high cost of childcare, what tax incentives are there to help parents who wish to take advantage of early nursery or care provision for their children?

Lord Truscott: My Lords, over the past few years, the Government have extended quite remarkably the number of nursery places and places to support young children. The Government are doing a lot to provide more places for families, which is important.

Zimbabwe: Governance

11.13 am

Baroness D'Souza asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Triesman): My Lords, I have personally raised Zimbabwe with President Konaré at each of the past three AU summits. Yesterday the Prime Minister discussed Zimbabwe with President Kufuor of Ghana, who is also the AU president. They agreed to work with the AU to support and help a process of ensuring that proper order is restored in a lawful and constitutional way so that people are able to express their views and proper democracy can be introduced. We work with African leaders to try to press on Mugabe the steps needed to end that country’s nightmare.

Baroness D'Souza: My Lords, I thank the Minster for his Answer. It is widely recognised that the UK is in a peculiarly difficult position vis- -vis Zimbabwe but the Government nevertheless give that country a significant amount of humanitarian aid. Does the Minister agree that now is the time to support all those organisations, both inside Zimbabwe and in neighbouring countries, that are working towards

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creating pockets of democracy by increasing their funding, particularly those that work with citizens to enhance citizen participation and democratic protest?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, we work hard with those who are trying to improve the democratic space in every respect. Sometimes when we assist they are immediately denounced as being in some sense in the pockets of the former colonial power. It does not always help them. None the less, that work is imperative, whether it is with journalists, women’s organisations or the Zimbabwean trade unions that I saw yesterday morning. We will continue to do everything we can to improve that democratic space.

Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, the International Crisis Group report suggests that Commonwealth member countries in southern Africa should help to mediate a political settlement for a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe. Is my noble friend seeking to detect and support currents of opinion in the African Union which are going in that direction?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, absolutely; hence the discussions with President Konaré, Ambassador Djinnit and others. We are trying to build as much of an alliance as we can within the African Union, and between us and it, towards exactly those aims.

We have also made it plain that this is not a bilateral dispute between the United Kingdom and Zimbabwe which can be mediated. It is the terrorisation of the people of Zimbabwe by their Government. That is what must be resolved and where we must put our efforts.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, I was pleased to hear about the discussions that the Prime Minister held with President John Kufuor yesterday. We also heard yesterday evening about the discussion between the Secretary of State for International Development and President Kufuor. Did any practical suggestions emerge from these discussions on how the UK could best help the African Union to rescue the people of Zimbabwe from the economic and political abyss into which they have been plunged by Mugabe and ZANU-PF? Following the awful reports in yesterday’s media of the murder of Gift Tandare and the systematic torture of 50 opposition leaders, is there not a case to be made for indicting some of Zimbabwe’s leaders before the International Criminal Court? How does the Minister think that that could be pursued?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, on work being done with the African Union—a good deal of which is between the EU and the AU, not just the UK—first, we are sustaining the sanctions against 130 named individuals. Secondly, we are doing what we can with the AU to ensure that the return to law and order and the underpinning of the legal institutions that President Kufuor also demanded yesterday are central to the work being done. In due course, people will have to consider whether crimes against humanity are being committed. We are currently trying to get changes in the economy and the political space, as I have described, but everybody must understand that there can be no process by which people go along with this kind of brutality.

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Lord Blaker: My Lords, do the policies made by the president, welcome though they are, go as far as the policies already in the African Union treaty, the NePAD treaty and the SADC treaty, which call for human rights, the rule of law and good governance, and peer pressure to ensure that they are observed? The danger is that if the African countries continue to fail to enforce those undertakings, the fate of the African Union one day—not just yet, but later—may be the same as the fate of the OAU, which was folded up in ignominy not long ago.

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I understand the point that having words on paper in treaties and in the formulation documents that start organisations is very different from taking the steps that then secure the aims of those constitutions and treaties. I believe that there are many in the African Union who see the matter as we do. They are not always as forthcoming in what they have to say, and that sometimes must be a matter of regret, but most of all I want them to do the things that are in those treaties and I want us to work with them to secure those outcomes.

Lord Hughes of Woodside: My Lords, will my noble friend try to make it clear to the members of the African Union, especially southern African members, that a failure clearly to denounce the oppression in Zimbabwe begins to call into question the commitment to good governance? Does he not agree that the continued failure to act will lead almost inevitably to the dissipation of the good will towards Africa, which was shown so clearly in the Commission for Africa?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, we plainly want them to be forthcoming on these fundamental issues and it is damaging when people are not. However much one understands the history of reticence, it does not help. I like to try to recall with African leaders that the Gleneagles outcomes were an agreement. We undertook to do many things in the aid area, with the cancellation of debt and the stimulation of trade. They made undertakings on good governance. That was in essence the agreement and an agreement should be seen through as an agreement.

Lord Shutt of Greetland: My Lords, I hope I am not alone in this House in hoping that some day soon this fellow Mugabe will get his come-uppance. But what happens next? Who is doing the thinking, either elsewhere in the world or here as a former colonial power, as to how on earth, whenever that happens, this place gets an incredible and tremendous lift?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, that question would require a very long answer, but detailed work is obviously being done about what might be in the next phase. That was one of the things Kofi Annan was addressing when Mugabe said he did not want him to go to Zimbabwe. That post-Mugabe period has to be looked at with great care. I can assure the House that that is exactly what is happening.

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EU: Article 308

11.22 am

Lord Pearson of Rannoch asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, Article 308 does not require that every proposal using it as its legal base should relate in a narrow and restrictive sense to the operation of the Common Market. There is limited Community competence in relation to civil protection and the protection of critical infrastructure from security-related risks and damage to these interests could have an impact on economic activity and the operation of the Common Market.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply, from which it is depressingly clear that most of the failed constitution is being put in place surreptitiously and illegally using this and other treaty clauses. If this process leaves Brussels with the constitution’s aims of a new foreign secretary, a more permanent president and the reweighting of votes in the Council—for which even the Euro-crats may lose their nerve before using such provisions—will the Government give us a referendum on those initiatives? Also, assuming that that would leave only one unfulfilled ambition in the constitution—the big one, which is the EU’s proposed new legal personality superior to that of all the member states—will the Government guarantee to veto that or, if they do not, put it in a referendum to the British people?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, says. This is not an attempt to bring in through the back door provisions relating to the constitutional community. The noble Lord knows that only too well. I congratulate him on his ability to use this Question as a stalking horse. Article 308 has been in the treaty for a long time. It has been used proportionately and appropriately in this instance, as the noble Lord knows, in order to support member states in carrying out their duties. It has passed the scrutiny committee, which was content.

Lord Tomlinson: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is blindingly obvious to anyone, as it should be to the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, that if we had terrorism for which we were not prepared in Europe, at least one of the consequences would be the disruption of the single market?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I agree without reservation.

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Lord Dholakia: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, is taking a rather restrictive view of Article 308? This is very much an enabling article, and surely, in the present day and age—when we are fighting cross-border crime and terrorism—it is right that we should make use of it. Surely incidents such as 9/11, 7/7 and the Madrid bombing have an effect on the economies of the countries involved and of other countries in Europe.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I also agree with that. We must also remember that Article 308 can be used only where there is unanimity. Where all 27 agree, it must be right that we can do something better to protect our countries.

Lord Jay of Ewelme: My Lords, I declare an interest as a Euro-crat. Does the Minister agree that, very important though it is that we observe the proper legal basis for European Community instruments, it is also important to focus on the real benefits that the European Union brings to British industry, to British workers and even to British tourists travelling in countries where, alas, Britain no longer has full consular representation? Although the link is rather indirect, may I ask the Minister or perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, to thank all those, whether British, Ethiopian or Eritrean, who worked so hard and successfully to secure the release of the British tourists in Ethiopia earlier this week?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for uttering those thanks. Again, I agree without reservation. He is absolutely right: all those who engaged in that activity did an absolutely first-class job, and we owe them a debt for that work. I also agree with his other comments about the real benefits that we get as a result of being a full partner in Europe.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree: My Lords, is it not also blindingly obvious that the use—indeed, the increased use—of Article 308 means that more and more, and by stealth, this country is losing its right to govern itself? Should there not have been a veto on behalf of the British people in this matter?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: No, my Lords. I absolutely disagree. We have made it clear that the provision can be used only within the Community’s competence. The language has been honed to enable that to happen. Yes, we have partnership, but we have not ceded any competence at all by joining our partners in our joint endeavour.

Lord Vinson: My Lords, does the Minister agree with the EU Commission’s communication that Article 308 and the recent measures that have been introduced under it facilitate,

It is well known that throughout history individual freedoms have been chipped away at under the guise of crime prevention and terrorism. This is a most serious matter. It falls to Britain to read some of these publications. Behind this is a gradual erosion of this country’s sovereignty, and I think that the Minister should take that most seriously.

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