Local Government Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:00 pm on 10th July 2003.

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Photo of Earl Russell Earl Russell Liberal Democrat 4:00 pm, 10th July 2003

My Lords, this is an attractive and generous amendment. It is the sort of amendment that one would expect from the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, who has thought long, carefully and usefully about the matter. There is no doubt that the issue of work/life balance will demand a great deal more attention from all of us. To take the latest topical example, I cite the report in The Times on Monday from the young solicitors' group recording the fact that an alarmingly large number of women are leaving the legal profession as a result of problems with work/life balance.

Of course, business may complain of the burdens placed on it. But business can employ no one else but people. Increasingly, the issue of work/life balance is affecting both genders, not yet equally, but the gap is closing so rapidly that that may come within many of our lifetimes. Something needs to be done. Our concern is whether the prescriptive form of the amendment, confining the provision to Saturday and Sunday, is necessarily the best way to approach the matter—especially for separated families, where there is the problem of ensuring access for fathers. I know that the noble Lord has concerned himself with that problem for some time; it requires concern. Friday may often be a crucial part of the package.

To take a topical example—I am here speaking off the top of my head—this morning, to my great regret, I had to withdraw from accepting an invitation to a wedding in Oxford on Saturday because I could not find the time to do my shopping on Friday, being engaged in an all-day conference. That sort of situation will be repeated in a great many cases. If we do not consider the problem of Fridays, we shall not succeed in the object of the amendment, which is to clear Saturday and Sunday.

As has been said, there are a great variety of people who do and must work on Saturdays and Sundays. Some arrangements should be considered for finding time for those people to get time off during the rest of the week because they have the same rights and needs to see their children as all the rest of us. If we could find the right words to do it, I should prefer to approach the matter in the spirit of the Renton report on the preparation of legislation—laying down a general principle asserting the need and the obligation to do something to meet it without having prescriptive allocation of particular days of the week. I do not immediately see how that could be done. I find it hard to imagine that it could be compulsory.

I should like to hear the Minister say that he will set up consultation about how such a thing can be done. Meanwhile, whether or not the noble Lord has got his amendment right—personally, I do not think that he is quite there yet—he has done us a great service by drawing attention to a problem about which we ought to be thinking hard and which will take some time, especially because, like the Irishman's pigs, it keeps changing every time we try to count it. I thank the noble Lord for moving the amendment. If I say that it is not quite right yet, I say so in no unsympathetic spirit.