Alistair Burt, a junior minister at the Department of Social Security, also insisted, contradicting a famous phrase of Lady Thatcher's, that 'there is such a thing as society'. His speech is likely to provoke a fierce debate. The Conservative Party has not previously highlighted the conflict between free enterprise and family life - two favourite themes - and has been hostile to European legislation limiting working hours.
Speaking to the Scottish Tory Reform Group in Glasgow, Mr Burt said: 'Too many companies and businesses demand outrageous time commitments from those who work for them, without thought of the damage to family structure or for the strength their employees should get from a sound family life if they are
allowed to foster it.
'The business which will base promotion on an individual's willingness to be in at 7.30 in the morning and their equal willingness to remain to 6, 7 or 8 o'clock in the evening, are businesses which will ultimately be peopled by unhappy individuals'.
Arguing that the breakdown of the family crossed class divides, Mr Burt added: 'Some of the most deprived children in society have every material convenience available to them, all they lack is their parents' time and affection because it is so committed elsewhere.'
Regarded as a 'wet' by Margaret Thatcher, who refused to promote him to ministerial office, Mr Burt gave a caveat about the economic success of the 1980s. It had 'left a gap in our thinking in the development of social policy'. He added: 'There is such a thing as society and it stands or falls on the strength of the individuals who make it up.'
In the 1990s the atmosphere is different with 'those on the moderate left of centre accepting that there can be no future for the welfare state which solely involves the acquisition of an ever-larger budget' and the right becoming 'somewhat milder as political reality has intruded upon their dreams'.
The minister believes there should be greater cross-Whitehall cooperation to achieve a more coherent family policy. Discussion among different ministers, for example on the ministerial group of women's issues, could help produce a sharper set of social policies, he believes. However he does not believe in legislation to control working hours, arguing that individuals and companies as collectives should act to achieve a change.
He added: 'The UK has the highest divorce rate in Europe. One in two marriages are heading for divorce. The number of lone parents has increased from 840,000 in 1979 to 1.3m in 1991. This decline in family structure is causing and will continue to cause enormous social damage.'
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