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Lord Higgins: My Lords, one must speak with great diffidence in a debate of this kind in your Lordships' House as a number of noble Lords, including the right reverend Prelate who has just spoken, have firsthand experience of the kind of problems that we are discussing. It is extremely helpful to have debates of this kind. However, it is unfortunate that it should have to take place so late at night.

There has been considerable representation on the issue from a number of outside bodies, including the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust. It is important that we should examine their research. However, it is also important that we should be rigorous in determining precisely what it is that we are talking about. As I suggested in Committee, it is important to draw a distinction between the level of absolute poverty of a kind that might be experienced in South America or Africa (where clearly the vast mass of the population are much worse off than anyone in this country) and that

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encountered here. In a sense we are talking about comparative poverty, and again one can run into difficult problems of definition.

One definition of poverty includes anyone living on less than half the national average income. Of course, if that is so, it is a constantly moving target in the sense that, as incomes generally go up, so people who are said to be living in poverty will be living at a different level. However, what has worried me about some of the arguments we have heard this evening is that if we were to determine absolute levels for nutrition and so on--and presumably the Minister would take them into account--such factors would be constant and would not go up in terms of social security benefits or with changes in the prosperity of the country as a whole.

I do not wish to burden the House for long, but I should like to repeat the point I made in Committee about secondary poverty. Whatever level of income one sets, there will be some at or near the poverty line who will then not use the resources provided to alleviate their poverty. I give again the example of smoking. Studies carried out by the Policy Studies Institute have shown that the Revenue received back by Customs and Excise on tobacco and so forth have suggested that some--not all of course--of the problems referred to this evening arise as a result of that secondary poverty and the inter-relationship between the poverty itself and other problems.

However, what is important is that there should be adequate research into these matters. There is a whole range of research like the Acheson report, which has been referred to, that certainly the Government ought to take into account.

However, I think it is an appropriate response of the Government to say that they of course study all the research and take it into account. Indeed, I would be astonished if it were not the case that in reaching his decisions on these difficult matters the Secretary of State did not do so. My only doubt about it is the extent to which it is sensible to include the provisions in legislation. I say that because many of the items specified are not clearly and closely defined--certainly not in quantitative terms. Therefore, I believe that the appropriate way to proceed is by having on as many occasions as possible the kind of debate we are having today. However, whether one should incorporate the provisions in legislation as such, I have some doubts.

12.30 a.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Morris very warmly for his inspired and informative speech. Indeed, if I may be so impertinent, I thank the House for the eloquent and moving speeches which have been made in support of my noble friend. I am also grateful to have the opportunity to say what the Government are proposing to do in the light of these and other issues and to say what the Government are going to do about tackling poverty and social exclusion.

As noble Lords will know, we debated a similar amendment in Committee and I hope I made it clear during that debate that the Government were

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determined to create a fair and more socially just society. Since then my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Social Security has launched the Government's first annual report on their strategy for tackling poverty and social exclusion--Opportunity for all. I am sure that your Lordships have been reading the report, with its 160 or 170 pages, in advance of today's discussion.

The report sets out the steps that the Government are taking to realise their belief in a fairer society. It confronts the poverty of opportunity that denies many individuals and their families opportunities to learn, to work and to live healthy and fulfilling lives. The report has come out since the Committee stage discussions in your Lordships' House. It is one of the bravest and boldest documents that this Government, or any government in my recent experience, have published on the subject. It makes clear what the problems are as the Government judge them, what the Government believe they need to do to address those problems and what the indicators are--the measures of success or otherwise--by which the Government will be judged. Furthermore, the report will be reviewed annually and will be informed, as the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, suggested, by the research that is continuously coming out each and every year.

Perhaps I may take just one aspect--the issues associated with lone parents: their opportunities, benefits, strategies for dealing with poverty, moves into work and so on. By my reckoning there have probably been two dozen major pieces of research over the past two years. I have read them all and I am fairly sure that the noble Earl, Lord Russell, has read them all. This type of research continually and regularly informs the Government's work and will certainly be informing the review of the poverty audit which we will be conducting each and every year and by which the Government may be held to account.

Our strategy includes help to those on low incomes, but goes further, seeking to tackle the causes of poverty. Those causes, as my noble friend so rightly said, and as was said also by the right reverend Prelates the Bishops of Oxford and of Hereford, are multifaceted. One in five children lives in a family where no parent works; 1 million children live in fractured families where they do not get the maintenance they should and therefore they are unnecessarily poor; thousands of children leave school without even basic skills; and 3 million people have been out of work and dependent on benefits for more than two years. We know that it is persistent poverty--longevity on benefits, not benefit levels as such--that scars and may do so in a way that goes through from generation to generation.

We are committed to making a difference to people's lives. Too many people are denied opportunities because they do not have appropriate skills and they face difficulties sustaining jobs. Too many feel unsafe, too many do not have access to good-quality public services. All those factors condemn people to a life of poverty and social exclusion. Together, they interlock to create a cycle of disadvantage in which, as noble Lords have said, deprivation is layered on disadvantage through the generations in the fields of health,

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education, income, access to work and family stability that is passed on as a dowry to children who then remain edgy observers of other people's prosperity.

Our strategy aims to break that cycle and to halt the transmission of low expectations, low aspirations and low outcomes from parent to child. We are committed to providing that opportunity. That is why we are: tackling the causes of social exclusion, not just alleviating the symptoms, although that is necessary too; creating a fairer society in which everyone has the opportunity to achieve his or her full potential; and investing in individuals and communities to help them take control of their lives.

We know that the benefit system has an active role to play. It is there to protect, support and sustain the vulnerable in their time of greatest need. Noble Lords are no doubt aware that two key groups among the most disadvantaged are lone parent families and elderly pensioners. Those are the two groups that most face poverty in Britain today, and this is particularly the case, therefore, with the children of those lone parents. We have already done much to help those two groups, spending over £4 billion in this Parliament on pensioners alone and, for lone parents, ensuring record increases in child benefit; help for the first time in finding work; and better arrangements for child support, which I hope to have the pride and pleasure of introducing in the next Queen's Speech if legislative time permits. We are also beginning work on a child tax credit which could eventually lead to a basic citizen's income for children. I agree with the quotation given by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford that the face of poverty in this country is the face of a child. The way to tackle that is, as far as possible, to build an income for children that is portable from benefit status into work and thus ensure that that child has a decent springboard for life.

This amendment focuses on benefit rates. In setting these, we examined findings from a wide range of research on adequacy. Those findings disagree. That struck me when the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and I exchanged arguments over the future removal of lone parents' additional benefit over that of families. There is research to indicate that in some cases two-parent families where neither parent is in work are at a greater disadvantage than lone parents; other studies indicate that lone parents are at a greater disadvantage. What was clear was the finding on longevity on benefit. The finding was also clear in relation to lone parents with the same level of income--tested by sophisticated studies of indicators of acute hardship: for example, did the lone parent have more than three out of 10 of the following: did he or she lack a pair of winter shoes; was he or she unable to afford a roast dinner; was he or she unable to afford seven days' holiday in the UK in a modest setting such as a caravan? It was shown that, income for income, some lone parents suffered that hardship, and some did not. The general explanation was the length of time that they spent on benefit rather than the income level itself. In turn, the length of time they spent on benefit was almost entirely correlated with, on the one hand, how close they were to the labour market, how recently they had been in work and how

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adequately skilled they were, and on the other how much child support they received in order to return to work. Those findings taught me that benefit levels alone are just part of the issue, even for lone parents who are among the poorest of the poor.

Subsection (2) of the amendment requires that we take into consideration the need to maintain satisfactory standards of child development. I absolutely agree. We are putting children at the heart of our strategy. The Prime Minister has made it our objective to eradicate child poverty within 20 years. That is, again, a commitment of dazzling bravery on his part in terms of the standards by which we must be judged.

Four of the 30 indicators that we have set out in the report cover the issues by which we shall be judged: an increase in the proportion of 19 year-olds with at least five GCSEs or equivalent. That is worth emphasising because it is clear that the lone parents who go back to work and whose children do well are those with GCSEs. It is the education qualification of the parents even more than the income or benefit level of parents and even more than the longevity on benefits that predicts the outcome for children. The research reported in the past fortnight shows that the GCSE test is the best possible predictor for a lone parent of what her child will go on to do.

Another indicator is the reduction in the proportion of children living in workless households of a given size, over the economic cycle. We have already seen that beginning to happen and we must do more. Another indicator is a reduction in the proportion of children in households with relatively low incomes and a reduction in the proportion of children living in poor housing. We have already put in place a range of policies to achieve that.

We are investing £540 million in Sure Start schemes across the UK. I have the privilege of being the Minister in the Lords responsible for the Sure Start programme. Sure Start programmes are set in the most disadvantaged areas and we have so far named 68 trailblazers and we have another tranche coming through. They will bring together, with the joined-up thinking for which noble Lords have called, early education, health provision, family support and nurturing of all families with children under four and in the period before birth. They will support those parents where the parenting is less than adequate, where the parent herself may have been damaged in her upbringing. She may have to re-learn how to parent. Sure Start will come in with her support and goodwill and it will ensure that the children do not suffer the deprivation she had as a child.

In that way, we will ensure that children are ready for school, ready to learn and acquire education skills, GCSEs and are free to spring forward.

As I have already mentioned, we are investing £19 billion to drive up standards in education. We are already seeing improvements in educational attainment for ll year-olds in literacy and so on. We have also taken on some of the research findings. We are introducing a range of measures to increase the income

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of families with children. There are increases of nearly £5 a week on the rate of income support and the working families tax credit from last week. There is a record increase in child benefit from last April and there will be an above inflation increase next year. There will be a new children's tax credit worth £416 a year from April 2001.

The combined effects of the last two Budgets and the national minimum wage will give the poorest one-fifth of families with children an extra £1,000 a year. That is an extra £20 a week. For the majority, work is the best and surest route out of poverty and social exclusion, but, as the amendment makes clear, as the Government acknowledge and as Opportunity for all states, for some people work is not possible, that route out of poverty is not available to them.

Subsection 2(b) proposes that we should consider the minimum level of income in order to combat social exclusion. We recognise our responsibility to those living on the edges and margins, the twilights and shadows of our society. I hardly need to remind the House that it was this Government who had the courage to set up in the Cabinet Office the Social Exclusion Unit so that we could tackle issues neglected for too long. Even a quick look at the 30 indicators we have set out shows that we are prepared to be judged on our progress. Your Lordships will be derelict in your duty if you do not judge us on our progress in that respect. The indicators include a reduction in the number of people sleeping rough; a reduction in cocaine and heroin use by young people and a reduction in the death rate from suicide and undetermined injury. Those are all issues on which your Lordships have spoken movingly tonight.

We all agree that economic prosperity and social justice depend on people being able to achieve their potential. But for too long too many have been denied the opportunities to do so. We are determined to restore the opportunities for all our society.

The amendment is part of that approach, but I hope that I have shown today that we still believe that it is too narrow. The amendment sets out three factors to be taken into account and we have set out 30 measures in the document. We have made it clear that we are prepared to be judged on them each and every year. If there are other issues to be taken into account, we are prepared to listen. I am happy to agree to the suggestion of my noble friend Lord Morris that I should meet

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trustees of the Family Budget Unit, and pass on their views to the Secretary of State. Since the Bill was introduced last autumn, DSS Ministers, including myself, have met representatives of almost all the major organisations which represent the interests of children, families, the disabled and older people ranging from CPAG to Age Concern, Gingerbread, the Poverty Alliance, the Disability Alliance and so on. I am more than willing to meet, listen to and learn from the trustees of the Family Budget Unit and take their concerns on board.

In the light of our broader policy to produce opportunity for all and bring people out of the shadows of social exclusion and into the mainstream of life and society, in the light of the fact that since Committee stage we have published our poverty audit and standards by which we shall be judged and also in the light of our willingness to meet those representatives to whom my noble friend Lord Morris has referred, I hope that my noble friend will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

12.45 a.m.

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, can she give an assurance that Parliament will have the opportunity annually to debate the Government's annual poverty audit?


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