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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, for the sake of accuracy, to my knowledge the Secretary of State has never said that the lone parent in work will be £50 per week net better off. She has always said that she will be £50 better off. As the noble Baroness anticipated, that does not take into account additional costs, including childcare. That is partly because they vary hugely from parent to parent. But I should not wish remarks or views which are incorrect to be attributed to my honourable friend.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, of course I defer to the noble Baroness. The figure of £50 per week has been thrown around quite loosely, including in the media. It is fair to make the point that £50 per week net is a very different proposition from £50 per week gross. In a situation in which childcare costs, according to the most recent estimate, somewhere between £120 and £160 per week for someone in a full-time or nearly full-time job, it is obvious enough that the net gain is actually a net deficit for many women with young children.

I turn now to the issue of childcare. I very much welcome the provision that the Chancellor of the Exchequer proposed in the Budget which, incidentally, if it covered the full costs of childcare would cover-- I believe I am right in saying--about 60,000 single parents.

I am very troubled about the quality of childcare to which parents will be asked to commit their children. We understand that there is to be some training of childcare minders. I understand that the training is likely to be a matter of days rather than very much longer. We know that there have already been troubling cases of frightened and inadequate young women finding themselves responsible for numbers of children. I can speak from personal experience, having been the Secretary of State concerned with the registration of child minders, that in all too many cases, childminding is equivalent to what one might describe crudely as child-warehousing--children simply in rows, not encouraged to develop, to speak to or interact with adults. That is a very frightening possibility.

Therefore, in moving this amendment, I have already pleaded with the Government to indicate what is their view in relation to parents of under-fives; what is their view about pressure being brought to bear on them to work and about how far they believe that there will be no losers in this group as a result of the changes to be made, and I have listed some of the losses about which we have not yet heard.

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Lastly, I wish to return to the issue of the kind of childcare training the Government envisage will be provided because I am worried that the poorest sections of our society will find themselves committed to forms of childcare which the better-off sections of our society would not accept for a moment for their own children. I beg to move.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I am delighted to welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, back to the debate. My only regret is that such an important and wide-ranging speech on lone parents has come not only very late at night but also very late in the debate, and I do not criticise the noble Baroness for that. She raised many issues and only some of her remarks were addressed to this amendment. Given the structure at Report stage, I must seek to address the amendment on the Marshalled List rather then engage in a Second Reading or Committee stage debate. I hope that the noble Baroness will forgive me if I do not deal with all her points but I shall of course write to her.

I am sure that the noble Baroness does not doubt that the Government are committed to helping vulnerable families. We recognise that families can face particular difficulties for a number of reasons. For families with young children, their opportunities to maximise income from work can be limited by their parenting responsibilities. That applies to lone parents and couples. Therefore, the Government believe--and I am sure that the noble Baroness does not dissent from this--that it is right to help all families with young children who need it rather than to base help on the family structure.

I suggest to the noble Baroness that in her remarks today she rather moved between the issue of poverty and the issue of family structure without, perhaps, giving the appropriate signals to the House as to what she was doing.

I entirely take her point that it is right that lone parents are more likely to be poor than coupled families. There is no doubt about that. But that is because far more lone parents are likely to be on benefit. In other words, the issue is not comparing lone parents with couples, because most couples will be in work and most lone parents will not. That is not a relevant comparison. With respect, that is comparing apples with oranges and that is what the noble Baroness did to some extent in her speech. What matters is the comparison of lone parents on benefit, and whether they are relatively poorer than couples on benefit. That is the nature of the debate in which we have been engaged with these amendments. I believe that they are not.

I am sure that the noble Baroness will agree that the second reason is that lone parents become poorer over time because they are on benefit for longer. One lone parent in three is on benefit for five years or more whereas only one couple family in eight is on benefit.

Earl Russell: My Lords, the Minister makes an extremely interesting suggestion. However, is she aware

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that the Policy Studies Institute research, What happens to lone parents, does not confirm that suggestion? Rather to my surprise, it found that single parents who stay longer on benefit tend to be in slightly easier circumstances.

7 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I was also puzzled by that comment. However, it appears at the beginning of the report and, if the noble Earl reads through to the end, he will find that it says that those who suffer severe hardship are also those who have been longest on benefit. The report is actually inconsistent in that respect. I have already asked the officials to check with the author as to why the report seems to be saying two things in the space of 50 pages.

I return now to the points raised by the noble Baroness. The point is not whether lone parents are poorer than couple families; they are poorer than couple families on average because far more of them are on benefit. It is important, therefore, to address why they are on benefit and, in particular, why they remain on benefit for so long because that is why they are trapped. The true reason is that lone parents in Britain are far less likely than those in Europe or the United States to be in work; indeed, a far lower proportion, compared with their equivalents in Europe or the US, will be in work. Moreover, lone parents are far less likely to be in work than married women as regards age for age of children.

There is no dissent between myself and the noble Baroness that lone parents with children, especially with young children and immediately after the break up of a relationship when those children are vulnerable, have the right to choose not to work. I do not believe that anyone in this House, certainly not myself, would argue with the view that parenting is not only the most important job but also one of the most difficult that any adult can do.

I have to stress that that has been abundantly confirmed by the report that both the noble Earl and the noble Baroness just cited. The Rowntree Report published this month makes it abundantly clear--if there was any doubt--that not just the material well-being of lone parents but also their emotional well-being are determined by whether or not they are in work. Indeed, that has been confirmed much more so than I had expected and it took me by surprise. The report is entirely clear that not only are lone parents materially better off but they are also emotionally better off. It is a longitudinal study which looks back over the experiences of lone parents during the previous four to five years. Those lone parents who have said that their lives have improved are those who have moved into work; not those who have re-partnered, but those who have moved into work. Therefore, the quality of the life of the lone parent has been immeasurably enhanced much more so than I expected. I had expected a recognition of a material gain, but not necessarily a gain in the emotional quality of life. However, it is there and unambiguously there in the voices of lone parents over time.

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I turn now to the amendment. I produced those wider points which I had not meant to make simply because the noble Baroness made a Second Reading speech, to some extent, which contained very important points that I did not believe should go entirely unaddressed. The Government have demonstrated their commitment to support vulnerable families. There will be increases in both the family premium and in allowances for children under 11 years in the income-related benefits. This means that no lone parent receiving an income-related benefit who has a child under 11 will be worse off, after taking account of all the changes to benefits for families. In fact, a lone parent who is out of work with two young children making a new claim will be £2.80 a week better off compared with the situation before the changes.

In addition to providing extra help to lone parents who cannot or who choose not to work because they have young children, those whose opportunity to maximise income from work is limited will benefit from the increases in child benefit and family credit. Even more help will be available through the working families tax credit which will kick in in October 1999. We have also put in place measures to ensure that all four year-olds have an early education place from the start of the next school year.

I take the point that the noble Baroness made about the availability of affordable and quality childcare. I believe that not only the increase to family credit but also the working families tax credit will take care of the affordability point. In response to this, it is already clear to me that many new initiatives for childcare are opening up. There are issues associated with unregistered childminding, but now is not perhaps the right time to explore them. However, we may wish to return to them at some subsequent time. The Government are satisfied that both the quality of childcare and its affordability should be there to meet the needs of lone parents.

While some lone parents may choose not to work immediately, because they have young children, they will have the opportunity to take up work much sooner when they are ready to do so. That will reduce the time they spend on benefit thereby reducing the high levels of hardship that they experience. We are extending that help not just in the way proposed in the amendment to children under the age of five; we are extending it to families with children up to the age of 11--and not just to the children of lone parents but to all couples in that situation. There is no magic cut-off point at the age of five. Children need parental involvement beyond that age.

Therefore, unlike the amendment, we are seeking to provide help for children up to the age of 11. Moreover, if a lone parent under the proposed amendment received extra benefit because his or her child was three or four, the benefit would drop when that child hit its fifth birthday. Therefore, with the fifth birthday of the child would come an actual cash reduction to the lone parent. If the amendment were adopted, the only cash losers in the entire lone parent system would be those who did not go into work on the day that their child reached the age of five. I am sure that that is not a consequence which the noble Baroness would wish to see.

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In my view, the amendment is not well judged. The Government's proposals, which give benefit to all couples who are workless with children under the age of 11, irrespective of whether they are single families or couple families, are a better and more appropriate way to move forward. Our proposals have a wider age range: they do not stop at the age of five but continue up to the age of 11. Of course, in any event at that point the higher range of benefit for 11 year-olds kicks in for income support, so there is a smooth movement. We feel that our proposals also support the situation whether it concerns a single lone parent or a couple. Therefore, we believe that the Government's proposals are better focused on the needs of poverty and of poor children than those that the noble Baroness's amendment would offer. Therefore, I invite the House to reject the amendment.

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