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Lord Hardie moved Amendments Nos. 105H and 105J:

Page 48, line 27, at end insert--
("( ) This section applies where such a determination as is mentioned in section 71(1) of the Administration Act is made in relation to a social fund payment--
(a) to which section 71ZA of that Act applies; and
(b) which is made on or after the day on which this section comes into force.").
Page 48, line 28, leave out subsection (2).

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Clause 73, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 74 agreed to.

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Clause 70 [Power to reduce child benefit for lone parents]:

[Amendments Nos. 106 to 109 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]

4.00 p.m.

Baroness Maddock moved Amendment No. 110:

Page 47, line 20, at end insert ("save where the lone parent has one or more dependent children under the age of five").

The noble Baroness said: This amendment stands in my name and those of my noble friend Lord Russell and also my noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby who regrets that she cannot be present today. The purpose of the amendment is to mitigate the effects of cutting lone parent child benefit for lone parents who have children under the age of five. I was fortunate enough not to be a lone parent; nor did I have financial worries when I was a mother. However, I vividly remember the time when I had two young children under the age of five, with 22 months between them, and my husband used to be away from home for perhaps a week or two weeks. The constant worry of care and responsibility on one's own was enormous. I was lucky. My children slept; I had a good mother-in-law; and I knew that it was coming to an end at the end of two weeks. But to live with that situation, day in and day out for 365 days of the years must be tough. Those are the kind of people about whom we are talking today.

I strongly believe that the Government are mistaken in their intention to lower one parent child benefit. As has been said by other noble Lords, the Minister has eloquently provided full details of the Budget changes and how they will improve the financial situation for many lone parents. It is a complicated picture. We have, I think, clarified it fairly well today. However, I wish to add another factor to the debate. I have been advised that there are still several groups of people who will lose out. No fewer than five groups will receive no compensation for the loss of the lone parent child benefit as a result of the Budget changes. Thereby they will no longer receive any acknowledgement of the extra costs that lone parents incur when bringing up their children. The five groups include working lone parents with earnings above family credit or the alternative working family tax credit levels; working lone parents who earn too much for income support but who work fewer than 16 hours a week and cannot claim family credit; lone parent students whose income takes them above income support levels; lone parents whose child maintenance income lifts them above income support levels and for whom child benefit may be their most reliable source of income; and lone parents who live on some other source of income--it may be a widow's pension--or who are ineligible for income support or other means tested benefit because of the capital cut-off limit. For all those people the arguments remain the same for the extra costs that are faced by them as lone parents.

The majority of two parent families have two incomes. That is never an option for a one parent family. And lone parents incur relatively higher costs as

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opposed to two parent families. Heating and lighting costs are exactly the same whether it is a one parent or two parent family. As I believe I illustrated by my own example, at the same time caring on one's own is more difficult than with two caring for a family. One may buy more expensive foods or use more convenience foods. One certainly has less time to shop around for bargains. As I explained from my own point of view, there is no second adult to compensate for any of that.

Lone parents often experience considerable hardship because they are likely to be in receipt of benefits for much longer periods than those in two parent families.

I wish to highlight the plight of lone parents who are students. For a lone parent on benefit, normally child benefit is deducted pound for pound from income support. However, if one is a lone parent student--my noble friend Lord Russell has referred to this--and a student who receives income in the form of a grant and a loan, not benefits, the removal of the lone parent rate of child benefit will mean a net loss of £5.65 per week.

In 1995-96, the Department for Education and Employment commissioned a report about students and their expenditure. It looked in particular at lone parents. It found that lone parent students incur higher childcare costs than other students with children. However, unlike people in low paid work, students receive no additional help specifically earmarked for childcare costs; and the lone parent rate of child benefit is the only non-taxable and non-means tested benefit which recognises the extra needs of lone parent families. Yet the Government are intending to remove this for students.

The report also pointed out--it is something that many of us will acknowledge--that for many lone parents education is a route out of dependence on state benefits and it is undoubtedly a path to secure, well paid work. I believe it is vital that this route is not blocked by a further erosion of the financial support available for lone parent students.

I have other worries. They were touched on by other noble Lords today. It is quite clear that, through a combination of this Bill and the recent Budget proposals, lone parents will find it difficult to understand and claim the amount to which they are entitled. My past experience of sitting on housing benefit and tax benefit review boards leads me to predict fairly accurately that many lone parents may inadvertently get into arrears with their housing benefit and will have other problems in that direction. My worries are further increased as I understand that the Government propose to reduce by 25 per cent. the administration costs of benefits.

I hope that the Government will support the intention of the amendment. It recognises the level of poverty which exists for lone parents and their children. It also recognises the special pressures for lone mothers with very young children. It recognises, too, the extra needs of very young children.

The Government's intention is to encourage lone parents into work. We could argue whether for those with very young children that is a good idea; but that is their stated intention. I believe that cutting lone parent

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benefit will work as a disincentive. It is the only means tested benefit especially tailored to meet the needs of one parent families at present; and the benefit is deducted pound for pound from income support. It is mainly of benefit to lone parents in employment, so the lone parent rate of child benefit provides one-fifth of the increase in income that is available for lone parents who start work. As such, it is essential to help them overcome the work disincentives which they face. Removing that benefit at the same time as trying to encourage lone parents into work is not consistent.

The amendment recognises that lone parents of very young children should not be subjected to the penalty of withdrawn entitlement to benefit. They often face the highest costs, have the least job flexibility and possibly the lowest earning power. In putting the case for the amendment, I am grateful, as I am sure are other noble Lords, for information supplied by the Child Poverty Action Group, the National Council for One Parent Families and the Children's Society. Those groups support the view that this benefit should not be cut.

I feel that the proposal is a rather mean-spirited move by the Government. It has been estimated that in the first three years the total cost of not reducing the lone parent child benefit would be about £45 million. The total social security budget is £100 billion. But in 1998-99, for 75,000 individual lone parents it will be a cost of £5.65 each week. But the amendment does not refer to all parents. It asks for part of that £45 million because we are considering specifically parents with children under five. I beg to move.

Earl Russell: I support the amendment, to which I have put my name, and speak to Amendments Nos. 113 and 114 which are in my name.

I agree with everything that my noble friend said about the amendment. Clause 70 is a peculiarly inappropriate measure for a Government whose ambition is to get lone parents into work. It has blocked the most direct route available for the purpose. It has produced instead a route so roundabout that it is practically going to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head. I speak as one who had to do that journey, and a very laborious process it was.

Amendment No. 114 provides an exemption from the provisions of Clause 70 to a lone parent primarily responsible for a child as a result of the death of the child's other parent or of another person who was primarily responsible for the child's care, or as a result of domestic violence.

The noble Lord, Lord Evans of Parkside, is no longer in his place, but I am sure that noble Lords will remember his moving speech at Second Reading, and I am sure he will forgive me for referring to it. When the noble Lord was six his father went down the pit and did not come back again. The noble Lord said that for a year after that he and his two younger sisters would not let their mother out of their sight. It would have been extremely difficult to get that mother to return to work. The noble Lord's case is exactly the kind of case that the amendment is designed to meet, and there are more of them than one would wish.

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The other part of that amendment deals with domestic violence. It is, sadly, necessary on many occasions for a woman who has been the victim of domestic violence to keep herself out of sight where her former partner cannot find her. That tends to make actively seeking work difficult. I hope that, if the Minister is making no other concessions, she will take that point seriously.

We have to look beyond the amendment, bearing in mind that Amendment No. 105A is still on the books, and to the right of single parents who do not wish to work. This is for us a question of the basic philosophy of the state. It is not the state's business to tell us how to live. It is the state's business to help us live the way we choose to. We on these Benches will bend over backwards to help single parents who want to work, but equally we will bend over backwards to assert the right of those single parents who wish to work at home caring for their children. Both of these are rights and we are prepared to defend them equally. We see the state as capable of being used as a heavy roller to provide a level playing field but not as a new broom to sweep grass off the pitch. There is a very big distinction between those two functions.

The state cannot judge the sufficiency of the many reasons why people may want to stay at home with their children. Indeed, there is no reason why the state should judge; it is a personal matter and a human right.

Changing the benefit system to "encourage people to go to work" (which are the words used by Mr. Alistair Darling and others) is something that would worry us. The Government should think about the maximum rate of success they could achieve in encouraging single parents into work. I know that the Minister is familiar with the Bradshaw 20 Countries Study. The highest rates for single parents in employment in those 20 countries are Japan 87 per cent., France 82 per cent., Luxembourg 73 per cent. and Sweden 70 per cent. No other country is over 70 per cent. The Government would be optimistic in hoping to get more than 70 per cent. of single parents into work, and in fact it would be quite an achievement. That leaves 30 per cent. of single parents. These people have rights. They may have very good reasons as well. I welcome the many ways of financing the measures in relation to childcare, but to raise the money from the other 30 per cent. who do not want to work is the wrong way to go about it. It is getting the money from those least able to provide it.

Single parents who do not want to work are not, I understand, to be compelled, and I welcome what the Minister has said. It is being "encouraged" that worries me, being starved into submission like a besieged town. The Minister does not like that, but she may have seen yesterday's Observer which records that Ministers are looking at proposals to force more than a million lone parents to attend jobcentre interviews to help them find work. If that is not pressure, I do not know what is. A ministerial source is quoted by the Observer as having said that it does not seem too much to ask lone parents to attend just one interview to discuss whether they want help in finding work or training. That may not appear to the lone parents quite as it may appear to the Minister. If I were to guess the source of that remark, if I were to be playing "I spy", I should be tempted to spy someone

6 Apr 1998 : Column 521

beginning with "F". It worries me. I am happy to support the amendment and the wider implications behind it.

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