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Lord Newton of Braintree: My Lords, I do not wish to follow the noble Earl, Lord Russell, down all the wide and winding paths that he sought to take us. I wish to raise only one specific point and I should like to hear what the Minister has to say. As regards housing benefit for those who are working, how far can it be right to treat lone parents and two-parent families in the way the Government care to believe would be right in all respects? I emphasise that I am talking only about lone parents who are in work. None of my questions applies to people who are out of work and receiving income support because in most circumstances all their rent is paid. I emphasise that I am talking about the group which everyone is determined to help if they can; they are the lone parents who are in work, possibly with some difficulty, or who would like to return to work.

A basic feature of the 1986 to 1988 reforms, with which I had a modest involvement, was that the starting point for calculating housing benefit in circumstances where it was not being paid 100 per cent. was the income support rate which the person or persons in question would receive. I am convinced that strategically that was right. It was the only way in which we could get rid of one of the world's greater complexities, even in the complex field of social security. I shall not weary your Lordships with the details, but a benefit which existed until that time was called "housing benefit supplement", which nobody, but nobody, understood or could make work.

The structure of 1986 to 1988 enabled that to be got rid of. But I wish to press the Minister on a point relating to the meaning of that in the context of the noble Earl's comments. I can best illustrate the point by giving a possibly oversimplified but not impossible example. Its simplicity enables the point to be clearly revealed. Let us suppose that we have a two-parent family with only one earning and two children. The modest income from the one earner means that the family is entitled to help with the rent. Let us suppose that the non-earner leaves. In that situation the house is the same; the housing need is the same (namely, three bedrooms unless the children are small); the income is the same because the non-earner has left; the rent is the same because the income support entitlement of the lone parent is less than that of two parents; the starting point for calculating housing benefit will fall; and therefore the amount of housing benefit will fall but the amount of rent that must be paid will rise.

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I ought honestly to acknowledge that that was a slightly uncomfortable feature of the 1986 to 1988 reforms in the interest of the greater good of getting rid of housing benefit supplement. As has been acknowledged by welfare rights groups such as CPAG, a specific part of the thinking was that the lone parent premium, which was also introduced at that time, would cushion the effect. It was a countervailing increase in income support entitlement and therefore in the starting point for calculating housing benefit.

What was an uneasy situation has been revealed more starkly because the lone parent premium is to disappear. Whatever the strategic advantage of the structure introduced in 1986 to 1988, it is difficult to see how it is easy to defend the position that I have described. I accept that I have illustrated a simple case and that in most cases the position will be a little muddier. But if that simple case can exist in any number, I do not understand what the Government will now say to someone suddenly becoming a lone parent in that situation.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, I support Amendment No. 12 so admirably moved by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. My noble friend Lady Hollis has won all the arguments today, even though she lost one vote, but, despite her great skills, I wonder whether she will win the argument on this amendment. I am by no means certain because it seeks to tackle the problems created by the Government when they suddenly decided--suddenly decided--that lone parents do not need any extra help.

That is contrary to the long held belief that lone parents need and deserve help. That is a common-sense belief and to deny it, as the Government have done, and to embody it in a Bill has resulted in a seriously flawed clause. My noble friend Lady Hollis said, among other gems in her speeches on Report, that research is inconclusive. She believes that we shall always have a "hung jury" on the question of the costs relating to one or two-parent families. We can argue for years about that and other famous topics such as how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But behind this fine dispute lies reality; that one-parent families will feel hung unless the Government accept the amendment.

The basic idea behind the amendment was suggested by the Social Security Advisory Committee. That is the expert body which opposed such a drastic change by the Government unless and until conclusive research could show that the costs of one-parent families are basically no different to those of two-parent families. I agree with the committee, but the Government have acted in haste and without evidence. They stated in their response to the committee that such research depends heavily upon assumptions of how to distinguish needs from taste.

That leads me on to the splendid point mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. Many of us will remember my noble friend Lady Hollis speaking about assumptions and research and that clash we had in an earlier debate. I hope we have a further clash on this shortly.

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I do not know what the Government mean when they talk about depending on assumptions and how we distinguish need from taste. Perhaps my noble friend will enlighten us when she replies to the debate. I assume that modern researchers look at poverty in the context of normal expectations in our society. Surely our Government cannot be hinting that if lone parents aim to do the things that other families do, it is because they have a "taste" for it. Is that really what the Government are saying? If it is, perhaps my noble friend can tell the House which "tastes" one-parent families have that the Government are rejecting as a need. I should like to know and I am sure that other noble Lords would too.

My noble friend Lady Hollis also said earlier that lone parents share with couples similar costs for housing, heating, lighting, cleaning and furniture. That is precisely the point. It is meeting those costs which represent the additional burden for lone parents, especially those who work. That point is so obvious that it should not need repeating. However, two-parent families have a male salary and a female salary, albeit that the female salary is usually lower. In most lone parent families, the sole salary is the low female one. I know that there is rent relief for some families. But there is no help with mortgage payments or other fixed costs such as heating bills. That alone must make lone parents deserving of a little extra money.

I believe that the Government have made a mistake, no doubt in good faith, by making that policy change which is so damaging to lone parents on an unproven basis. Nevertheless, for all my noble friend's reservations, including her comments about research and hung juries, she said also:


    "Where research on, say, smoking and cancer, is coherent and scholarly, and is consistent with other research, that is the point at which the Government can take action".

That is fine. I am more than happy with that. For my part, that will suffice. I accept my noble friend's proposition. Therefore, what we need now and what lone parents deserve is coherent and scholarly research on that subject.

It is unacceptable on a major issue of this nature to presume that because there is a risk of assumptions determining the result, we should not bother at all. I fear that that may be the course which the Government are taking. We need well-constructed research proposals exploring all aspects of the issues. Therefore, what are the Government planning to do? Perhaps my noble friend will spell that out in her response. Are the Government going to initiate a research programme or no research programme at all? The House should be told. I ask my noble friend what the Government intend. Do they intend to commission research or do they intend to defy the SSAC and the many thousands of lone parents who are so angry and upset about being deprived?

This Government have done a great deal for single parent families and under-privileged people. I warmly commend what they have done. However, on this specific issue, I believe that they are jumping the gun without the evidence that should be there and I believe will not be there, seeking, wrongly in my view, to prove that single parent families bear no greater costs than two

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parent families. If my noble friend can assure the House that there will be that independent research, despite her reservations about different kinds of research, that will go a long way towards reassuring many of us.

5.30 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I am not sure whether I am more vulnerable to the arguments of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, the blandishments of my noble friend or the faintly mea culpa attitude of the noble Lord, Lord Newton.

The amendment seeks conclusive evidence of the relative needs of lone parents and coupled families. The Government--myself included--do not believe that further research can provide a definitive answer. There is already a wide body of research in this area. In the past 12 months or so, there have been eight major reports on the inter-relationship of lone parents, benefit, work and hardship. And yet despite that, we cannot achieve conclusive evidence on the relative needs of lone parents and coupled families. Yet another piece of research cannot answer in the way that the previous research has failed to do.

When I made the comparison with scientific research--the link between cancer and smoking-- I referred to it being coherent, scholarly and consistent with other research; in other words, where going over the same material with similar groups of people, there could be a replication of the findings. That is the basis of scientific research--replication. The point about the research is that because of the presumptions, assumptions and perspectives, scholarly and coherent though they are, the research cannot be replicated in any way which suggests that such questions are analogous with the links between, for example, smoking and cancer.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, suggested that there are several approaches and he is absolutely right. For example, I know that there are comparative expenditure surveys which make the distinction between "need" and "taste". My noble friend pressed me on that. The point is that that creates difficulty as regards research because families spend their income regardless of whether it is spent on what you or I may regard as "essential" or as "less essential". Smoking is an obvious example. Half of all lone parents smoke.


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