Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, as we know, most lone parents are divorced, separated or have come out of a longstanding relationship--an event likely to traumatise their children. However, I appreciate that the Minister forbids us to use that word. Essentially, therefore, the Government are freezing, and therefore reducing, benefits for lone parents, presumably in the belief that people are lone parents because the benefits are so generous. That tends to be the argument the Government use whether it is a case of asylum seekers or anyone else. In the Government's view people behave inappropriately because the system is so generous.

Yet at the same time the Government acknowledge that lone parents live in deep poverty. Three-quarters of lone parents and their children were living on or below the poverty line in 1992, compared with fewer than one in five children of two-parent families. To put it another

2 Jul 1996 : Column 1408

way, 40 per cent. of lone parents have an income below £100 a week compared with only 4 per cent. of those living in two-parent families. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, commented on the Joseph Rowntree research and the implications of poverty. I am sure we would all agree--I think we would not disagree with the Minister--that the only long-term way out of poverty is to re-enter the labour market. Benefits can never produce an adequate standard of living by comparison with what the labour market should be able to provide, particularly if it is buttressed by a minimum wage.

However, as the noble Earl rightly said, these people are unable to re-enter the labour market because childcare costs are not met, even with the latest uprating of the childcare allowance, which in any case is of no value at all to anyone on full family credit. I am not at all convinced that it is right for a lone parent of a young child to be pressed against his will, or by extreme poverty, into the labour market.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, commented on the Bradshaw figures which compared Britain with the rest of Europe in terms of the proportion of lone parents who are not in work. He is right, but I suspect that if one looks back at the earlier Bradshaw research, one will find that is because lone parents in Britain tend to be younger than most lone parents in Europe. They therefore have younger children and the deciding factor both for lone parents and for women in a longstanding relationship as to whether or not they go out to work is the age of their child and not their marital status. I think I am right in saying that about 65 per cent. of all women parents are in full or part-time work once their child passes the age of 11, whereas only about 26 per cent. of those whose youngest child is below the age of five are in such work.

Therefore in a sense we are not exactly comparing like with like once we accept that in Britain, for various reasons, lone parents on the whole tend to be younger than their European counterparts, are more likely to have younger children and are therefore less likely to be in work. I understand that two-thirds of lone parents have children under five years. That would seem to give support to that evidence.

I believe that there is no disagreement--the Bradshaw research and subsequent revisiting of the issue by various studies by Katherine Keirnan and others have indicated--that lone parents want to work. It is striking that once the youngest child is over five years the majority of those lone parents work either full-time or part-time.

The latest research on lone parents and work--I believe that it was commissioned by the DSS--indicates the factors that stop lone parents from entering the labour market. They may become lone parents quite late in life. A divorced woman in her late 40s or early 50s may lack the skills to re-enter the labour market. Alternatively, they may be extremely poorly educated without GCSE qualifications. I am sure we all agree that JET-type programmes or GAIN programmes suitably tailored for the UK are the right way forward.

There is a growing problem about which I was not aware until I read the more recent research. Increasingly something like one lone parent in six is prohibited from

2 Jul 1996 : Column 1409

re-entering the labour market either because the lone parent or his or her child has a disability or a serious health problem. As we know, disability can break up a marriage. The costs when either that lone parent or the child is disabled are extremely high. Will the Government consider mitigating the worst effect of these regulations on lone parents where there is a disabled member of the family by raising the level of the disabled child's premium, or the disability premium, to cover the moneys lost by freezing rates to lone parents?

I realise that the Minister may not wish to respond to that point tonight, but I shall be grateful if he will at least consider the matter. All the research now seems to suggest that while most lone parents churn through (if I may use that rather ugly phrase) income support--the median time on income support is only about two-and-a-half years; the labour market, family credit, perhaps a full-time job, and back to income support--those who stay on income support for the longest period are those who enter lone parenthood in their 40s, have low educational background qualifications or a disabled child. As we know, where there is disability there are huge additional costs as well as stresses. If the Minister will consider that point, we shall be grateful.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell stated--I am sure he is right--the purpose of the regulations: that the Government seek to avoid the legal challenges experienced in recent weeks by incorporating one-parent benefit into child benefit and lone-parent premium into income support and family premiums. Whether it is legal for government to do that is not entirely clear. Section 145(4) of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992 states that,


    "No rate prescribed in place of a rate previously in force shall be lower than the rate it replaces".
I believe that I have the correct phrase. Hence the Government are clearly unable to do what they would like to do; that is, to cut the benefit. Instead they seek to restructure the benefit by incorporating single-parent benefits into two-parent benefits, thus freeing them from Section 145 which would prohibit a lone-parent benefit, as it stands, from being reduced. In other words, the Government are using restructuring to cover freezing and ultimate cuts.

We regret the loss of one-parent benefit. Although it is incorporated in income support, it is disregarded for purposes of family credit. It is, therefore, a valuable passport from welfare into work, which we all want. It is not tapered; it is not means-tested; it is not a disincentive to move into work; it is not cut as earnings rise. Over half a million lone parents gain from that. They will not do so in future. Frankly, I believe that the Government are making a great mistake.

We are unhappy about these changes. However, having said that, the noble Earl, Lord Russell, moved a Motion which, if we were to support it, let alone if he were to win it, would turn out to be fatal. The elected House has already voted these regulations through. I may regret that; I may deplore it; but they have done so. If an unelected, appointed and largely hereditary House should effectively vote the regulations down, we

2 Jul 1996 : Column 1410

should be challenging the hegemony of the Commons because, unlike an amendment to a Bill, the Commons could not overturn our vote. We should not merely be asking the Commons to think again, which is perfectly proper; we should be overturning a Commons decision which the Commons could not rescind. By any democratic test, that would be offensive and improper. As a result, although I entirely support the substance of what the noble Earl said, if he were to pursue the matter to a vote we would abstain. In my view, it would be improper for us to seek to overturn what the elected House determined.

9.45 p.m.

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, as I expected, the noble Earl and the noble Baroness have made a number of effective and detailed remarks about the Government's proposals. I intend to make two more widely focused comments which I hope the Minister will be prepared to bear in mind when making the decisions which the Government clearly intend to make as a result of passing the regulations.

I recognise that the Government are on the horns of a dilemma on the issue of single parent benefits. I wish to make two points which should inform the Government in any decision they make. The first is that the committed two-parent family, supporting and caring for its own children, often with the support of the extended family, is generally agreed on average to be the family structure which gives children the best chance of growing up with the love, support and care that they need. I do not say that it is the only structure, nor that it always succeeds, but that it is the most likely to. It is also the family structure which secures the children's upbringing at the least cost to the state and taxpayer. Thus any government who produce tax benefit structures which discourage parents from bringing up their children in a family of two committed parents living together are no friend of children nor of the taxpayer.

The second point is very different. It relates to encouraging lone parents to take employment. There is substantial evidence, both in this country and the United States, that for the healthy emotional development of a young child under the age of two or three, it is critically important that the child should be looked after consistently by one or at most two adults to whom he or she can learn to relate and with whom he or she feels secure. The converse is that a very young child who suffers constant changes in its care and the person who looks after it will tend to become confused and insecure. To provide a consistent, one-person, high quality care, unless it is provided by the mother or a member of the child's family, is possible but very expensive.

I suggest, therefore, that in framing their tax benefits policy, the Government should have in mind two governing principles. The first is not to do anything which will discourage parents from forming long-term stable partnerships, preferably in marriage. The second is not to do anything which will discourage those mothers who want to from caring full-time for their own child during the first two years of its life.

2 Jul 1996 : Column 1411

9.48 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I wish to respond to the Motion put by the noble Earl. In doing so it might be for the convenience of the House if I explain the purpose of the regulations standing in my name on the Order Paper which were laid before the House on 5th June.

We are all agreed that this is a difficult problem. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, that the ideal situation for bringing up a child is undoubtedly in a two-parent family. I may be old-fashioned, as perhaps the noble Lord is, but we probably all agree with the proposition that that is the best possible situation for bringing up children. Unfortunately, over the past few years in this country the growth in the numbers of lone parents has been quite dramatic. I believe I am right in saying that it has been faster than in most other countries around the world, certainly in Europe.

The proportion of one-parent families increased from 12 per cent. of all families with children in 1980 to 23 per cent. in 1994. Of that group, the number of single lone mothers--unmarried mothers, as perhaps my politically incorrect explanation would have it--has almost doubled in the past five years. Single mothers between the ages of 20 and 29 are the fastest growing group of lone parents.

Undoubtedly this is a serious problem. It is certainly not good for the children and it is not good for the mothers themselves. I have no intention of launching into any kind of homily on the subject, but it is something that we ought to note, and we ought to be prepared to say loudly and clearly to young girls that being a lone parent is not a sensible course of action on which to set out. It is not good for the girl herself; nor is it good for the child. I hope we are all agreed on that.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page