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House of Lords

Wednesday, 8th March 2000.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Wakefield.

Marriage: Fiscal Support

Baroness Seccombe asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What financial support they are giving to the institution of marriage.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg): My Lords, within my own departmental responsibility, I am increasing the money spent on marriage and relationship support in England and Wales to £4 million in 2000-01, rising to £5 million per year in 2002.

Let me add, however, that the Government are unequivocal in their strong support for marriage. Our consultation document, Supporting Families, affirms that,

    "marriage is still the surest foundation for raising children and remains the choice of the majority of people in Britain".

We firmly believe that,

    "marriage provides a strong foundation for stable relationships".

Baroness Seccombe: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for that reply, but it does not quite answer the Question. The work being carried out by the noble and learned Lord's department is necessary, but it is not really producing the goods. We have the second highest divorce rate in the western world. The Government say many warm and comforting words about marriage. Indeed, the noble and learned Lord himself said that we have a duty to support marriage. Is he aware that after the abolition of the married couples allowance on 5th April, we shall be the only country in the western world that does not recognise marriage through the tax system? Does he believe that that decision supports marriage, or is he saying one thing and doing another?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, certainly not. I do not believe that people choose to marry or to remain in marriage because of fiscal inducements from the state. I have a much higher view of people than that. I believe that people, often women, can be trapped in a dependent relationship because of their means, but that is a quite separate issue.

Baroness Crawley: My Lords, will my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor explain how the Government's fiscal policies work to prioritise the interests of children?

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The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, it is a particular pleasure to answer that question from my noble friend, who is the chair of the Women's National Commission, and to do so today on International Women's Day--the very day on which my noble friend the Leader of the House has promulgated a campaign to promote the participation of women in public life.

Yes, our fiscal priority is to put children first. Children are 20 per cent of our population, but 100 per cent of our future. We concentrate resources on where they are most needed: on families bringing up children, particularly those on lower incomes. It would be wrong to discriminate against children on account of their parents' status. By 2001, we shall be spending £6 billion per year on extra support for children.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, can we set aside the previous planted question and return to my noble friend's Question? Does the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor believe it sensible that we, of all the countries in the western world, will not have any recognition of marriage in our tax system after 5th April? Does not that seem wrong? Is it not sending out the wrong signal? Does not the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor realise that some people do indeed refrain from marriage for financial reasons? After 5th April, there will be an additional financial reason to refrain from marriage. As the noble and learned Lord rightly said, marriage is the best way to bring up children.

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, I have to say that a vast amount of humbug is talked about abolishing the married couples allowance. It falls outside my responsibility, but it is really a misnomer. The married couples allowance is not restricted to married couples. It is a tax break paid at the same flat rate to married couples, to single parents, and to unmarried parents living together. The previous government called it an anomaly and reduced it from 40 per cent to 15 per cent. When I hear the merits of that allowance invoked by the Government Front Bench--I mean the Opposition Front Bench; I must not mix them up again!--I must remind your Lordships that the now shadow Chancellor, Michael Portillo, is himself no supporter of the married couples allowance. When cutting it in 1994, he said that it was the most anomalous of allowances and that there was no ongoing justification for it. I have no reason to believe that he has changed his mind.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford: My Lords, Sir Graham Hart's review published last March suggested that a clear distinction should be drawn between funds for research and development and the strategic funding of marriage support agencies. The noble and learned Lord has assured that House that there has been a real increase in expenditure. Will he indicate how much or what percentage of that expenditure is going to the marriage support agencies?

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The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, I shall write to the right reverend Prelate about that matter, but I believe that the overwhelming bulk--if not all--is going to the agencies, not to research, and that there is a separate research budget.

Lord Strabolgi: My Lords, in view of what has been said from the other side of the House, is it not a fact that the Chancellor of the Exchequer who abolished inheritance tax between spouses was a Labour Chancellor, my noble friend Lord Healey?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, I believe that to be correct.

Lord Rotherwick: My Lords, as a divorced parent of one marriage that has failed and in the light of what has been said about children coming first, may I ask the noble and learned Lord whether he agrees that it is important that we encourage and reward parents for staying in a marriage because we know that children brought up in a proper stable marriage perform better in school and later in life?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, I can only repeat what I have said. I believe that marriage is the surest foundation for bringing up children. One has no grip on reality if one believes that fiscal incentives induce people to marry or to stay in a marriage that has failed.

Lord Swinfen: My Lords, do the Government have any plans to amend the working families' tax credit when no account is taken of the married wife who stays at home to look after children and does not go out to work, thus disadvantaging the whole of that family?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, I do not accept that description of the working families' tax credit. It is much more generous than the family credit that it replaced. Working families with children will receive an average £24 more a week than under family credit. That, combined with other government policies, will lift 1.25 million people out of poverty, of whom 800,000 are children.

Police Numbers

2.44 p.m.

Baroness Blatch asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What are the latest figures for the total number of police officers in England and Wales; and whether these figures represent an increase or reduction in the total number of police officers in England and Wales since March 1997.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton): My Lords, at the end of September 1999 the total number of police officers in England and Wales was 125,464. That is 1,694 fewer officers than in March 1997. At the same date, civilian support staff numbers were 53,254, an

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increase of 243 since March 1997. Civilians now account for 30 per cent of police service personnel. Following the passage of the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994, the actual number of police officers at any one time is a matter for chief constables to determine within available resources.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Will he agree that since March 1997 police numbers have fallen from 125,052 to 123,050 and that 30 police force areas out of 43 have fewer police officers, or are my figures fictional?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the figures that the noble Baroness has read out differ from mine, but that may be because the accounting period is slightly different. I had expected some sympathy from the noble Baroness as on 22nd July 1996 she said (at col. 1164 of the Official Report):

    "we can play with statistics as much as we like, but I can say that the money for 1,000 police officers has been made available to the police ... The chief police officers themselves are predicting that there will be over 1,600 more in this present financial year, 1996-97".

Sadly, the noble Baroness got it wrong and there was an increase of 257 police officers.

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate: My Lords, does my noble friend recall that it was the previous administration--this is not a planted question--who enacted the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994 which, as he rightly said, took away the power to determine the number of police officers from the Home Secretary and gave it to the chief constables, some of whom unfortunately decided that the money was better spent on things like bigger headquarters, bigger and better cars, and so on, but not on manpower? Does he also recall that it was the previous administration who took away housing allowance for new recruits, thereby, at a stroke, creating a two-tier police service and that that is one of the major factors in low morale and the great difficulty that many of our police forces have in attracting recruits?

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