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Lord Patel: I support the amendment put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester. Research carried out by my colleagues and I has clearly demonstrated the strong link between low birth weight and the low socio-economic group of the mother.

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists presented evidence of the association of poor nutrition of the mother with low birth weight to Sir Donald Acheson's committee. The work of Professor Eva Alberman, a renowned epidemiologist, has clearly demonstrated the reduction in childhood mortality and morbidity that would result from improvements in birth weight of babies born at less than 2,500 grams through improved nutrition of the mother. The relationship between low birth weight and adult diseases such as hypertension, heart disease and diabetes has already been referred to as evidence produced by the Medical Research Council in its research.

Many gains are to be had by improving the nutrition of pregnant women through improving income support of women in poverty. I support the amendment.

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7.15 p.m.

Lord Higgins: The amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, raises both emotional and important analytical issues. The debate has reflected the personal experience of the kind of problems that he outlined and reference has been made to various academic studies.

The noble Lord began by referring to the work of Adam Smith. Welfare economics has moved on since his time. Perhaps my experience of lecturing on the subject at Yale University where most of my students had names like Rockefeller III and Henry Ford IV may have been in a rather strange environment.

The research is important and it is right to refer to it. One distinction which economists tend to make and which is also crucial to the issue is the distinction between fundamental poverty and comparative poverty and secondary poverty. In a country like Chad, there is a level of absolute poverty which to those in this country is quite horrifying, and to a large extent the situation here is one of comparative poverty. Even since the time of Beveridge, the standard of living in this country generally has risen so much that our view of what is comparative poverty now is rather different from what it would have been in 1948.

The question of comparative poverty is important. I refer to the subject with great diffidence. The noble Lord, Lord Murray, with his experience in charitable work, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford, no doubt with his own experience, speak with far greater authority.

The noble Lord, Lord Morris, referred to the work of the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust. I have studied with interest the points made in that study. In particular it refers to the consequences of inadequate income in ill health which leads to diminishing life expectancy. One set of figures was produced with regard to the fact that life expectancy of semi-skilled and unskilled workers began to decline in the 1980s, which I find somewhat puzzling. The study does not suggest why that should be so.

The study also refers to people of an earlier period. The noble Lord, Lord Morris, referred to the life expectancy and the nutritional situation with regard to the mother. One has to go back some years before one sees that reflected in the statistics for life expectancy at the end of the generation rather than at the beginning of it. It is undoubtedly true that the nutrition level is important in that context. Reference has been made to the Acheson report and to various other BMA reports, all of which are important.

I turn to the point I made a moment ago about secondary poverty. When I was governor of the then Institute for Policy Studies a report was produced on that subject particularly concerning smoking. It is not just a question of establishing the income level. The amendment suggests that the Government should introduce a level of income which will produce sufficient nutritional value.

But there is still a high degree of choice for those receiving that level of income. One aspect that I found utterly horrifying was the extent to which people on income support who, presumably, are living at the

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lowest level of income which is acceptable, spend a very high percentage of their income on cigarettes. Indeed, the amount of money returned to the Treasury from the tax on cigarettes was quite a high percentage of the total amount being received on average by this particular group on the lowest acceptable level of income.

As regards the complaint made by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, about the use of standard supermarket prices in assessing the minimum level of income, if there are people in this group who are unable to get to a supermarket, it may well be that they gain rather than lose because some studies seem to support the view concerning secondary poverty that people in that lowest income group tend to spend a great deal of money on convenience and junk food which may be even more expensive--for example, if one is buying frozen sprouts--than buying fresh sprouts and so forth.

These are not simple issues. One has to consider very carefully whether the establishment of a level of income which will produce the degree of nutritional benefit we should all like to see can be defined in such simple terms. Having said that, both from personal experience and the various reports that have been referred to, they provide important yardsticks against which we can judge the amendment, which has given rise to an extremely interesting and valuable debate.

Lord Haskel: I do not believe that anyone can disagree with the amendment tabled by my noble friend. No one can disagree that we want to combat social exclusion or that we want to maintain satisfactory standards of child development. No one can disagree that we need information on these matters and that we need to ensure respect for human dignity.

However, I believe that in this debate speakers have been a little unfair to the Treasury. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, said that the Treasury would not allow the proposed measures. I believe he has been a little unfair. The Treasury has taken the initiative in trying to eliminate poverty and with the working family tax credit in order to try to get people out of dependency. Surely, the key to improving nutrition is to get people away from dependency. The Treasury is to be congratulated on taking these initiatives. It has committed itself to removing nearly 1 million children from poverty. It has produced the highest ever rise in child benefit. We are promised a new children's tax credit.

It seems to me that we are moving in the right direction. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, said that perhaps we would just like to hear that the Government are moving in the right direction. I believe that the Government are doing so with the actions that I have mentioned. In addition, the work that they are doing to provide skills which are necessary to facilitate employment is a very important aspect of the programme. I say this because it adds a little balance to the debate.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: As the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, said, we have had a very interesting debate. In a way I wish it had been in the form of an Unstarred Question drawing attention to this issue rather

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than it arising at this rather late hour in the passage of the Bill. But I welcome the opportunity provided to describe the Government's approach to the fundamental and crucial issues raised this afternoon.

Our commitment is to create a fairer Britain. Our reform of the welfare state is an integral part of that. Perhaps I may explain why we believe that our strategy is the best way to achieve that aim and why this amendment is not necessary.

It seeks to address the problems of poverty and social exclusion through social security benefits. Certainly, benefits have a role to play and when setting the rates for benefits and pensions we bear in mind the whole range of research that looks at adequacy. For example, we recently raised the income support rates for families with younger children and our decision was influenced by the recent research report Small Fortunes, which has been quoted by noble Lords in the past.

However, as Members of the Committee will appreciate, the question as to which level of income is adequate for all types of family has no simple answer. Different research methods provide different answers. We shall continue to review all the research, but setting a single minimum level of income would not do justice to the range and complexity of the work in that area.

As I am sure Members of the Committee will agree--this is the important matter--the problems of poverty and social exclusion go much wider than benefits. If we are to wage a serious assault on poverty and social exclusion in Britain we need to tackle the causes. They are multi-faceted. The Committee concentrated in particular on children. One child in three in this country is poor; one in five children lives in a family where the parents do not work; thousands leave school without even basic skills; 3 million people have been out of work and dependent on benefits for over two years.

As the Secretary of State, Alistair Darling, said, children are born in poverty, live in poverty and die in poverty, especially if they come from a workless and fractured family where the mother does not work and the father does not support the child. In that case they are doubly disadvantaged.

The face of poverty in this country is not the face of a pensioner, a widow or a disabled person, it is the face of a child. We know that disadvantage passes from generation to generation. We are determined that that cycle should not continue. That is why the Prime Minister made his historic pledge that we aim to eradicate child poverty within a generation. That is an outstandingly bold pledge.

How do we propose to do that? We are investing in our children's future by tackling the causes of poverty and by raising standards in health and education. Why do people come to live on benefits rather than the level of benefits it is necessary for them to have? Subsection (2) of the new clause would require to have taken into account child development needs in setting benefit levels. I agree that providing children with opportunities to develop and flourish are essential. We are introducing a range of measures, first, in tackling health inequalities raised by the Acheson report. We are including £320 million to cut waiting lists; £49 million for health

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action zones; £266 million to improve primary health care. We have just published our health White Paper Saving Lives which sets out tough and challenging targets to reduce mortality rates in key areas with the potential to save over 300,000 lives over the next 10 years with all the implications for the low birth rate which the noble Lord, Lord Patel, mentioned.

We are also seeking to introduce a range of measures to increase the incomes of families with children including the improvement of nearly £5 per week on the rate of income support and the working families tax credit from October this year. There will be an additional £1,000 per year also for disabled children in low WFTC families. There will be a further record increase in child benefit from April next year. There will be a new children's tax credit of £426 per year from April 2001.

As my noble friend said, the passion of this Chancellor is to tackle child poverty. So far every Budget has been shaped above all with that end in view. I cannot believe that Members of the Committee do not accept that everything he has done with the WFTC, child benefit and all the other changes in income support and the rest, are designed to help families with children and motivate him in holding that office.

As a result of the last two Budgets and the national minimum wage, the poorest fifth of families with children will be over £1,000 a year better off; and, if they have a disabled child, £2,000 a year better off. But providing financial help is not enough. We need to be much more ambitious. One of my complaints is the poverty of the horizons of tonight's debate, which assumes that the issue is about increasing the benefit levels of people who, even if we increased them by £20, would not lead the generosity of life that everyone in this Chamber believes necessary for social inclusion.


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