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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I am sure that the Minister would accept this but, given that his words will be read in Hansard, I am sure he will want to be the first to say that the figure for teenage mothers, that is, under 20 year-olds--he is talking about "girls" so I assume he is referring essentially to teenagers--is less than 8 per cent. It is falling and is among the lowest in Europe. The average age for someone to become a lone parent is in the later twenties. For the most part it is at the end of the break-up of a stable relationship. Three-quarters of all children born to lone parents have two parents on the birth certificate. I assure the Minister that my information comes from the Rowntree Trust and from well-established research at the University of York.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I have little doubt that every child has two parents. That is a biological fact. The problem is that not all of them have two parents from birth. I said that about one-third are single lone mothers, and I emphasised the word "single". My point is that the number of single lone mothers almost doubled in the five years to 1994. I pointed out that the fastest growing group was of mothers between 20 and 29. If I use the word "girls" it is perhaps because in Scotland it has a different

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connotation from that which the noble Baroness puts on it, and there is not considered to be much of an age differential when one refers to ladies as "girls". So perhaps I ought simply to say "ladies" of 20 to 29--

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: It is getting worse!

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, that is because the noble Baroness, from the South of England and these cultured shores, is not used to the terminology of Scotland. But let us not argue. The fact is that these ladies, if she wishes me to call them ladies instead of girls--

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: They are "women".

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: These ladies between 20 and 29 certainly seem to be the fastest growing group of single, mothers resulting in lone parent families.

These regulations will incorporate the lone parent premium which has been paid in income-related benefits into the family premium, and it will also incorporate one-parent benefit into the main child benefit rates.

The aim is to provide a more flexible framework within which the Secretary of State can, at each uprating, review the appropriate level of special support for lone parents. He will of course, as he is obliged to do, consider all relevant factors and, when they permit, these regulations will allow him to narrow the gap between the level of both family premium and child benefit received by lone parents and couples. We have chosen this approach because the pace of change will be gradual. So people will be given plenty of time to adjust and there will be no cash losers.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, is concerned about the degree of parliamentary control which the new arrangements will bring about. Not counting his Motion this evening, this will be the sixth occasion here and in another place on which Parliament has had an opportunity to discuss our intentions. So the basic principle has received a fair amount of parliamentary attention.

In terms of progress towards narrowing the benefit gap, our intention is to take decisions year by year in the context of the uprating. The uprating announcement is the subject of a Statement in both Houses and of an affirmative order debated in both Houses. Although by convention the order is not opposed, there is still an opportunity to bring concerns to the attention of Parliament. Noble Lords here and honourable Members in the other place will have four occasions a year to raise this issue, as well as all the other opportunities provided by the rules of both Houses for discussing issues of concern, including this one.

The noble Earl and the noble Baroness argue that lone parents are a poor group and should have extra help within the benefits system. They are a poor group, largely because the majority rely on income support which is designed to provide an adequate but not a lavish lifestyle. Lone parents will never be well off unless they can earn their way out of income support.

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That is why we have concentrated all our efforts on providing pathways out of income support. So the key issue is not whether lone parents on income support are badly off but whether they have greater needs than couples with children on income support.

If we look at work, the Bradshaw Report was mentioned by the noble Earl. The proportion of lone parents in work did indeed fall in the 1980s in line with the increase in the number of single, never married, lone parents with very young children. Obviously, single, never-married lone parents who become lone parents at day one, so to speak, of the child's existence are going to be quite a big percentage of the group with under five year-old children. Our work incentive measures have started to reverse this trend in the 1990s. The proportion in work had risen from a low point of 39 per cent. to 43 per cent. by 1993, reflecting, I believe, the success of the improvement in family credit.

But of course there is a difficulty of deciding whether lone parents should go to work or whether they should stay at home and look after the children, which is the second point the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, made. That is a difficult one. It is a difficult dilemma for lone parents because undoubtedly, as I said, they are not going to find themselves well off on benefit. That would be a serious behavioural consequence. If we put up benefits significantly they would have relatively no incentive to go to work.

Equally, they have to decide whether, given their talents, they would be better off in work in the same way as many two-parent families decide whether or not both parents should work. Indeed, an increasing number of families in this country, for a number of reasons, including correct changes in the way we look at women's participation in the labour market, have two wage earners, partly because they like the advantage of two wages but also because increasingly women have every right to careers on their own account. I am sure the noble Baroness agrees with me absolutely on that. These two-parent families with wages coming in also have problems with childcare, so they are in the same position as lone parents. But there is a problem getting lone parents into the labour market.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I do not want to keep intervening but again that statement is not supported by the evidence. The evidence is that three-fifths of households are now two-income families, one-fifth are unemployed and one-fifth have one earner. The reason why only women can afford to work if their partner is in work is two-fold. First, you do not have the poverty trap created by the benefits system. Secondly, two parents mean two sets of in-laws and two sets of opportunities for informal Box and Cox childcare. All the research shows that that is why the wives in a two-party relationship where the husband is in work are able to work. Those opportunities are denied to the single parent.

10 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I do not want to continue the debate on this line but I think there

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is more to it than the simple economic factors that the noble Baroness has given. I strongly suspect there is a lot of evidence that people who are in work are more likely to marry partners who are also in work. Therefore, I think there are other aspects, although I do not deny that the points the noble Baroness has made play a part. It is not a complete picture by any manner of means.

I turn to the problem of getting lone parents into the labour market. I accept that lone parents have difficulty getting into the labour market. One of the problems, is that many lone parents, especially single unmarrieds, do not have a high educational achievement and therefore their skills are rather limited and their ability to find jobs is that much more limited. I accept that. I also accept that there is evidence of higher than usual incidence of ill health and disability among the children. But the major pilot scheme that we announced last December alongside the proposed changes that I am making will give direct job focused assistance to get lone parents into work. That, we believe, will be more effective in raising lone parents' living standards than, for example, the JET-type schemes in Australia which focus on training.

The evidence from GAIN in America, especially the county in which it has been most successful, is that the most important thing for lone parents is to get them jobs--not so much to get them training as to get them jobs. That is where the real advantage comes. Therefore the pilot that we are doing, directed at getting lone parents into employment, is very important.

I believe that there is no solid evidence to back up the assumption that lone parents need proportionately more money than do couples. The noble Earl tells me that a lone parent with one child has two mouths to feed and a couple with one child has three mouths to feed. When I battled away on another of the Rowntree reports, which figured something called the Gini coefficient, it divided income by the number of mouths to feed in the household. But when I come to look at lone parents, somehow or other the Gini coefficient is set aside and we do not look at that. I do not think that it is necessarily true that lone parents have so much higher costs than a family couple with the same number of children. In fact, other than childcare costs for lone parents, the research by Professor Bradshaw showed that, relative to budget standards, lone parents on income support are slightly better off than couples. Certainly, at certain levels of income from work, lone parents can be better off than couples with the same income from work with the same number of children--one child each, for example. So I do not believe that the case has been properly made out that lone parents have such significantly higher costs--a two parent one child family, let us say, as against a one parent one child family--that we should have the differential in child benefit proposed.

I have outlined some of the reasons why we have decided to have these regulations. I have instanced the increase in the number of lone parent families--three-quarters of a million in 1975; one and a half million in 1994. Their dependence on social security benefits has also increased: 40 per cent. relied on supplementary benefit in 1971; 65 per cent. relied on income support by 1994. Although our work incentive

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measures have begun to reverse that trend, there is still a substantial extra cost to the taxpayer. I am sorry to mention the poor old taxpayer but he, after all, pays the bill. Benefit expenditure on lone parents is estimated to be £9.5 billion in 1995-96.

We believe quite firmly that lone parents should have neither preferential nor adverse treatment. We want a system that helps and encourages people to support themselves and their families and which minimises the burden on taxpayers generally. Our strategy has three elements. The first is to ensure that both parents take responsibility for their children and that maintenance is properly paid. Maintenance provides an incentive for lone parents to improve their standard of living by seeking work. Over 83,000 working lone parents receive family credit and they also receive maintenance. It is that other parent who I believe has a responsibility before the taxpayer to maintain his child, even though he may no longer live--indeed may never have lived--with the mother and the child.

Our second objective is to encourage lone parents to take up work. Although I accept the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, about under five year-olds, I think one could argue the point about under five year-olds both ways. It rather depends on the economic advantage that the lone parent can gain by going into work. In order to ensure that lone parents are better off in work, we have reformed the structure of family credit. We have provided extra help with child care costs of up to £60 a week. I was pleased that the noble Earl, Lord Russell, welcomed that.

If we compare ourselves with other countries, very few other countries take the same view as we do about lone parents and their obligation to seek work. As I recall, we take the view that under 16 years they do not have an obligation. Many of our friends in Europe, for example, have cut-off points at 11 and at five, after which they expect lone parents to look for work. Since 1992 over 200,000 lone parents have moved from income support into work, supported by family credit, and they have gained an average of £30 a week. New measures to help them further include the faster processing of family credit claims, with 90 per cent. of the claims being dealt with in five days. This improvement removes the financial uncertainty by ensuring that there is no gap in income between leaving income support and receiving their first wages.

The pilots I have mentioned should provide opportunities for up to 30,000 lone parents in the pilot phase. That will be coupled with an increase of 18,000 over three years in the 50,000 after-school child care places already made available. None of these measures will force a lone parent to take up work if she prefers to be a full-time parent, but all of them are geared to trying to make sure that if a lone parent wishes to take work then the opportunities are there.

The third objective, as I have already mentioned, is to ensure even-handed treatment of couples and lone parents. That is the guiding principle behind these regulations.

On one-parent benefit, it is important to remember that in 1976 this was originally a temporary advance payment of child benefit for lone parents, because the

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main child benefit scheme was delayed. Mr. Frank Field, chairman of the Social Security Select Committee in another place, has pointed out that it was, and I quote,


    "never part of any strategy; merely an attempt at a quick fix to appease furious voters".
He wrote that in the Daily Mirror on 5th September, 1995. The then Secretary of State--now the noble Baroness, Lady Castle of Blackburn--said in another place when the Child Benefit Bill was introduced:


    "So there is to be an interim benefit of £1.50 a week for the one-parent family for a year from April 1976 until the child benefit scheme comes into effect ... the benefit is purely a temporary one".--[Official Report, Commons, 13/5/76; cols. 337 and 339.]

Improvements in help for people in work means that the situation is now very different. Instead of being financially disadvantaged, a lone-parent in work will have more net income than a couple at the same level of gross earnings. The same argument occurs in the lone-parent premium. The single rate is 64 per cent. of the couple rate. A lone-parent will receive at least 73 per cent. of what an equivalent couple family receive before adding the lone-parent premium. It is clearly unfair that this modest differential should further be eroded by a special payment to lone parents.

Finally, perhaps I can say a word about the jobseeker's allowance and the draft Jobseeker's Allowance (Pilot Scheme) (Amendment) Regulations, which were laid before the House on 10th June. This amendment is merely to correct the omission which crept into the original regulations when the Maidstone B office was omitted. I am sure your Lordships will be perfectly happy about that.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, said I should try not to tempt him into dividing. Perhaps I may suggest that the right reverend Prelate reminds him that one should yield not to temptation. I hope that today, as on other days, I have explained what we are about--not about penalising lone parents but simply putting lone parents and married couples on exactly the same footing when it comes to receiving child benefit and the family premium. We believe that is a right and proper way in which to proceed.


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