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The Lord Bishop of Oxford: My Lords, I know that in this House tonight we are united on a number of issues. First, there is the fact that, sadly, the poor suffer more illness and die younger. There is also their disadvantage when it comes to education and jobs. The figures behind these assertions have been set out in a number of detailed reports which have been referred to in the course of the proceedings on the Bill. I shall certainly not repeat them. We know that these sad statistics, which tragically reflect unfulfilled and foreshortened lives, are all too true.

Secondly, we are united in wanting the disadvantaged--some l million people--to take their proper place in our increasingly prosperous society. We

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want to include the excluded and improve the life prospects of the most marginalised. I also believe that the Government are sincere in trying to do this and that there have been a number of most welcome developments over the past two years. However, we know from previous discussions on the issue that a basic disagreement is focused in the amendment.

The amendment calls on the Government to have regard to the,

    “minimum level of income necessary to maintain good health and cover essential needs".

Those of us who believe that there could and should be agreed minimum levels are not talking simply about the level of benefits. We certainly do not want to encourage dependence and passivity. We want everyone who can work to work and we recognise that incentives are an inescapable aspect of a free-market system. But, even with the working families' tax credit, many families will not have an adequate income as assessed by the Family Budget Unit at King's College, London. Let us take, for example, the net income before housing costs and council tax of a single earning couple with two children under the age of 11 who were on £144 per week. With the working families' tax credit, the government figure would bring their weekly income up to £175 a week. However, the Family Budget Unit assessment of what is really necessary is £204 a week, so there is a shortfall of nearly £29 as regards what is really needed.

On previous occasions the Minister has said that the Government like to take into account a range of research. Of course that is so. However, the validity of the Family Budget Unit research has not been refuted. If there is research which shows that it is possible for families to survive on less than the Family Budget Unit figures it is important to see that research and to assess it. In 1992 the European Commission recommended that the resources considered sufficient to cover essential needs with regard to human dignity should be fixed. A similar plea was made in the Churches' 1985 report Faith in the City. As we have already heard this evening, a number of countries have already agreed such levels.

People have different tastes and different standards of living. We like to spend our money on different things. However, if half a dozen of us got together after this debate for two hours at the bar we could agree on the minimum on which we could survive which is reasonably compatible with our health. This amendment does not ask for anything extraordinary, simply an agreed minimum level. I believe that most of us would judge the carefully researched Family Budget Unit figures as a reasonable guide to that minimum. If this is disputed, let us commission some annual independent research, as the amendment suggests, and let that minimum level be used as a benchmark for all benefit claims.

This is an important amendment which the Churches care about desperately, as is indicated by the number of right reverend prelates present this evening. I very much hope that the Minister will at least be able to accept the general principle contained in the amendment.

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12.15 a.m.

Lord Rea: My Lords, I had not intended to speak to this amendment. In fact I had not intended to be here at this time of night at all. However, I have been much moved by the speech of my noble friend Lord Morris; also by that of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, opposite and that of the right reverend Prelate. I remind my noble friend that the recommendations in this sensible and modest amendment are precisely in line with the recommendations of the report which was commissioned by the Government, the Acheson Report on inequalities in health. As my noble friend Lord Morris said, it follows the recommendations of a good recent British Medical Association book on child health problems in Britain today.

While I hope that my noble friend can accept this amendment--there are perhaps reasons why she cannot--I also hope very much that in what she says she will recognise the important arguments that have been put forward. We cannot solve the problems of poverty in this country only by increasing the proportion of our people in work. There will be a number of people who are unable to work, and there are even those who are in work to whom some of the measures in this amendment will apply.

Viscount Brentford: My Lords, I confess that I have always detested defining poverty as something like half the average income in the country, not only because that always seems to me to be a rough and ready judgment but also because either poverty or average income can move up or down without necessarily affecting the other. What I like about the amendment is that it contains a definition which would be updated every year that would tell us where the line ought to be drawn.

As has already been mentioned, research has suggested that the minimum practical cost of heating, lighting, food, clothes and other essential needs exceeds the current benefit levels. I fully accept what the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, rightly pointed out in Committee; namely, that the Government aim to produce a range of measures to ease poverty. We hope that that will be successful. However, this amendment deals with just one aspect of that.

Certainly in the UK poverty is not the same thing as I and many other noble Lords have seen in other countries, where there is a far greater absolute poverty than anybody in receipt of any social security benefits here experiences. We have a duty here to ensure that people have the power not to live in poverty. We need a definition like this to achieve that. My biggest concern is for the health and welfare of the children who are suffering in deprived families. If this small amendment, which will help to ease that, can be accepted, I shall be very pleased.

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, this is a subject upon which I would normally never dare to speak. I rise to say something very simple. We are always being told about joined-up writing. It seems to me that if ever there was a case of a need for joined-up writing, this is it. As has been said by several people,

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including the noble Lord, one of the problems that beset poor people is stress and ill health--particularly stress, which is becoming a bigger and bigger problem. I feel that the departments dealing with the money we spend on our health have everything to gain by seeing a regular annual review of this kind. We could well be saving money by spending money in this way. If one is ever to justify the idea of trying to make all departments work together rather than proceeding separately, this is an excellent example. It is very much strengthened by the proposal that it should be a regular, annual, independent review.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford: My Lords, I spoke very warmly in support of a similar amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Morris, in July. Some of the points I wanted to make have already been made and it is very late.

In supporting this new amendment, I am encouraged by the enormous range of support which has been expressed by Church leaders. Some of your Lordships may have seen the letter in The Times this morning. There were six signatories printed but I believe that in the final count 112 Church leaders signed that letter. They were from the African and Caribbean Baptist, Methodist, Orthodox, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic and United Reform Churches, together with 42 bishops of the Church of England. That is an extraordinary degree of unanimity and support from the Churches of this country. We signed it because we are in touch with the misery of poverty in the United Kingdom. Our clergy and our ministers see its consequences in their daily ministry in the inner cities, in the bleak outer estates and in the rural areas, as the noble Earl, Lord Russell, pointed out. It is an extraordinary list of Church leaders and, together with the evidence which the noble Lord, Lord Morris, mentioned from many voluntary, specialist organisations, I believe it puts together a voice for the poor, to which I hope the Government will listen and take action with some urgency.

We are asking the Government to endorse the dignity of human life for the poorest people in the nation; that they may have enough to eat; that they may keep warm and clothed; that they may afford bus fares in order to find shopping which is not the most expensive; that they can feel included as part of society. Yes, we want to see people in properly paid work; it is much the best way for them to feel included and valued citizens. Yes, we support health action zones and anti-smoking programmes; all this is desirable. But the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, in replying to the debate in July said:

    “The face of poverty in this country ... is the face of a child".--[Official Report, 20/7/99; col. 884.]

She also said:

    “We are a government prepared to be judged by results".--[Official Report, 20/7/99; col. 887.]

and she criticised the “poverty of aspiration" behind the debate of 20th July. I do not believe there is any poverty of aspiration in our desire to see healthy children developing well. There is indignation, there is shame, but in so many parts of the United Kingdom this is not

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so. However well intentioned, the results of the Government's policies so far, as we have heard, are to leave in this country more underweight and malnourished babies than almost anywhere else in the developed world. That means under-weight babies borne by ill-fed, pregnant mothers; more problems in terms of childhood illness, mental retardation, behavioural disorder and, in later years, unemployability and greater vulnerability to being sucked into a life of drugs and crime.

One of the letters sent in support of this amendment came from the NSPCC. It was, I believe, a very powerful and moving letter saying that,

    “The pressures involved in coping with inadequate income cause stress, which exacerbates the health problems experienced because of poor diet, inadequate heating and poor housing and increases the likelihood of family tension and breakdown".

The letter continued:

    “Child abuse occurs across all classes and the actual causes are complex. Nevertheless, most children on child protection registers are from low income families and the most commonly identified stress factors in all registered cases of child abuse are unemployment and debt".

The connection between inadequate income, debt and child abuse is serious and convincing evidence of the need for this amendment.

There is a group of Christians walking from St. Columba's Holy Island of Iona to London. They are coming to see the Chancellor of the Exchequer on Monday next week. They are marching to support the principles behind this amendment, to establish minimum income standards, to make it possible for people to enjoy good health and live in dignity, and to set benefit levels which in each case enable those needs to be met.

This amendment does not ask for a flat-rate increase in benefits. It is asking for the information that will allow the benefits to be targeted where real need still exists. I hope that the Minister can assure us that those Christian pilgrims will be able to receive good news from the Chancellor next week.

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