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Noble Lords: Oh!

Earl Russell: My Lords, the link between shorter working hours and better family life is more than just symbolic. I have been looking today at the report of the Children's Society, Still Running, which is about teenagers running away from home and to which I shall return later. It illustrates that the costs of family breakdown to the state and, therefore, to the economy may be very considerable. So if we have a measure of totally free abstract competition which does not count the social cost, we will have something which is an economic as much as a social handicap.

If one looks at the way the global market has developed over the past 10 years or so, one sees that it is a market which is leaving out a vast proportion of the world's population. It is an economy with far too long a tail in terms of demand, carrying far too many passengers. That must limit the purchasing power of the world. It must, therefore, limit the profits which capitalists are capable of making; and it must also have a detrimental economic, as well as social, effect. But equally it is true--and those of us who tend to speak from the perspective of spending ministries must remember it clearly--that any social spending which our productivity cannot sustain will be a detriment to the economy. There is a balance to be struck here. As with all other see-saws, that balance may tip too far one way or the other.

At this stage of the Government's life, as we begin what may be the last full Session of Parliament before a general election, it is time to consider at least a half-time report and to consider how different things might look when we come to the next election. We certainly have a more benign economic climate. I welcome that and congratulate those responsible. But how the responsibility is divided among Gordon Brown,

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Kenneth Clarke, Wim Duisenberg and Alan Greenspan is a question which I really cannot fathom. All I am certain of is that some share of the responsibility should go to all four of them. Therefore, we are probably a little unwise to be making competitive claims across the Chamber. Let us enjoy it while it lasts and hope that that may be a reasonable length of time.

However, in my own immediate field of social security, I do not get the sense that very much has changed. We are being offered a new welfare reform Bill. Ever since 1996 I have been trying to understand what are the general outlines of the concept of welfare reform. I have not succeeded. I have now decided that I have not succeeded because there was in the end nothing there: the welfare reform emperor had no clothes. It is in fact, as came out very clearly in our debates on occupational pensions and incapacity benefit, simply a matter of the Treasury doing business as usual.

Before the last election, when I was not certain what this party would be like in office, I had in my mind a list. It is not only Mr Peter Lilley who is capable of making lists. This was a list of things which I thought any worthwhile government would change in social security. Almost all of them this Government either have not changed or have changed for the worse. In benefits for 16 and 17 year-olds, there has been no change. As regards benefits for asylum seekers, I think on balance the situation is now worse than it was in 1997. As regards the habitual residence test, there have been small changes which are little better than cosmetic and not a substantial improvement.

Regarding the element of conscription that came in with JSA, there has been no change. In fact recently there was a case, which I believe is still unresolved, of a man who was disentitled to benefit because, being a life-long supporter of the Labour Party, he refused to take a job pulling pints at the Conservative club in Cardiff. I do believe in the free market. I think it is the responsibility of an employer in a free market, and part of what makes that market work, that they should have the responsibility to make a job sufficiently attractive to an applicant as to make him want to take it.

Regarding housing benefit for shared residence to those under 25--one of the most stupid things the last government did--there has been no change. The only change was extending the shared residence in housing benefit to people over 25. And that was only because we managed to get a Prayer down against it the day before Prorogation; so it was already there. I must thank my honourable friend Mr Kirkwood and the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham, for a great deal of skilled diplomacy about that. I welcome it. As regards single parents, that is worse.

I received a letter yesterday from a disabled pensioner who lives in a Swansea council flat and who follows our proceedings on cable television--with, I may say, a great deal of care. She has written to me many times before. She tells me that she now feels rather more insecure under Blair than she did under

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Major. I am afraid that I could not tell her that she is wrong. The things I was counting on being put right have not been.

There are a lot of things I do not find in the gracious Speech which I would have liked to see. The whole thrust of government policy in social security has been towards removing barriers to work, but where there are really serious barriers they are still very often not addressed. For example, I regret that the EOC's proposals for new legislation on equal pay, which seemed very carefully thought out, were not brought in before the cutbacks in the bereavement allowance with which we have just been dealing. I regret very much that legislation against age discrimination was not brought in before the new changes in rules on the incapacity benefit contribution record.

I regret very much--and this is where I come back to the Children's Society's report, Still Running--that nothing has been done to provide more refuges under Section 51 of the Children Act for children under 16 who leave home. The estimate of the study, which is a serious academic piece of work, is that the number amounts to no less than 11 per cent of the age group. That is a significant figure by any calculation. The estimate is that in any year 14,000 left home not voluntarily but because they were thrown out. It is in that context that I have misgivings about proposals such as parenting orders. When one thinks of the cost of what may happen to these people if they stay on the streets, the money spent on having rather more than two children's refuges under Section 51 of the Children Act would, I think, be cheap at the price.

I agree with my noble friend Lady Barker. I am disappointed that there is nothing in the gracious Speech on long-term care. It seems to me that there is a strong tendency in this Government to look to coercion rather than constructive opportunity, and that I regret.

I am also concerned that in the new welfare reform Bill, which is promised, we are told that we shall find people disentitled to benefit if they do not obey court community service orders. There must be concern about people not obeying court orders. On the other hand I am reminded of an occasion when Reading town council said that members of the Aldermaston march were not allowed to use the public lavatories in the town for fear they might make a mess. Canon Collins pointed out that they might make an even greater mess if they did not use them!

The question is, of course, what people with a criminal record deprived of any legal means of subsidence may do. We on these Benches have repeatedly called for research on the effects of disentitlement to benefit, what people actually do, and how they make a living. We now say that until this research is done--and that is a commitment of the party--we shall oppose further measures to disentitlement to benefit. When the research is done we shall study it with care and reach a decision on the evidence, but we are not buying any more pigs in pokes.

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The centrepiece of the Bill is likely to be the CSA. I really feel that I am coming in for another performance of "The Mousetrap". I believe that I am the longest serving social security spokesman of any party in either House. I go right back to the statement in 1990 when the CSA was first announced. To my shame I did not see through it instantly. I was beginning to by the time we got to the Report stage of the 1991 Bill. Others, notably my noble friend Lord Meston and the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, were way ahead. This Government are correcting the mistakes of 1995, but only by going back to the mistakes of 1991. In terms of the effects, I think that those were the more serious.

I shall not take the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham, through my arguments about the formula. I am sure that she and I can recount that debate in our sleep, and before the Bill is through I fear we may be doing it. I shall try to avoid that if I can. I have heard the Minister criticise the previous performance of the courts. Much of what she said about the courts being essentially adversarial in child matters is out of date since the Children Act of 1989. The other thing is that the courts have been criticised for their success in enforcement. First, the record is actually better than that of the CSA. It would be quite a job to make it worse! Secondly, a small amount of extra funding, and even a small amount of extra powers, even one more member of staff for each court, would have improved the courts' performance immeasurably. Doing that would have been far, far cheaper than setting up the whole cumbrous machinery of the CSA.

The other thing the CSA takes no account of is that we are dealing here constantly with disputes between the parties concerned. Ann Chant is not usually a hero among those who criticise the CSA, but in reply to the ombudsman she had some sensible things to say. She stated:


    "The Agency has a unique position amongst government operations in that ... it has to balance the (often conflicting) interests of the three potential providers of child maintenance: the mother, the father and the taxpayer. It is precisely the nature of having to strike such a balance that can give rise to some complaints. The Agency enters people's lives at what is usually an exceptionally difficult and upsetting time and has to deal with the parents who may already be involved in an adversarial situation".

There is no mechanism for resolving disagreement. That puts the CSA in the position of a medieval court, constantly issuing a series of interim injunctions and never getting to a final resolution.

The CSA rests in a world of bureaucratic imagination where everything is fact. But it is part of the price of a flexible labour market that a person's income is not fact. I recall what the noble Lord, Lord Harris of High Cross, said about the use of figures. With an income that varies every week, the base one takes makes an enormous difference to what the income is. There needs to be a way of resolving disputes of that kind.

I am sure that the Minister has studied the Rowntree survey by Ann Coram and others, which compares child support and child maintenance in this country and on the continent of Europe. They found two rough general patterns: one is a system of fixed rules, without discretion, and levying fairly low levels of support; the

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other is a system of discretion, weighing individual cases, and levying a rather higher level of support. Anyone used to the British Treasury would guess what we did with that: we went for the high level of support and the absence of discretion. That really will not work. I admit that this time the Government are lowering the level of support in order to do away with discretion, but that is an economy in the wrong place and many children will be the worse for it.

I do not know yet whether the Bill will include anything to do with housing benefit; we are getting slightly conflicting hints. But if it does, I hope that the Government will study the evidence from the application of the single room rent--works such as the Centrepoint study of the single room rent in Devon, the CAB study of it in Somerset. Shelter, which has summed up, is as convinced as I am that attempts to limit housing benefit do not lead to a reduction in rents. They lead instead to people paying their rent out of their income support, already at a level argued to be too low to be compatible with good health.

The Government's poverty audit is welcome so far as it goes. It might do something to reassure the noble Earl, Lord Longford. But it goes only for relative figures; it is below half average income. So one millionaire coming to this country can plunge a lot of people into poverty without their being any worse off.

I hope that the Government will look also at absolute levels of poverty, which are shown by indicators such as malnutrition and hypothermia. It is in those indicators that we will see the effect of attempts to cap housing benefit. I wish that the Government knew the answer to that question. I hope that before the Bill passes through the House they will.

9.43 p.m.

Lord Kingsland: My Lords, I echo the comments of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, about all nine maiden speeches made by noble Lords. For some weeks, I have much admired the skill with which the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, manoeuvres down the labyrinthine corridors of your Lordships' House. On listening to her, I have now discovered that her navigational skills are well reflected in her intellectual abilities. I thought that her speech was not only delivered with great feeling but also contained many innovative ideas about her special subject. I know that your Lordships will look forward eagerly to the noble Baroness's contributions in the coming years.

As I understand that I am to play a role in the financial services Bill when it comes to your Lordships' House, I was particularly pleased to hear the contribution of my noble friend Lord Bagri. From his unique vantage point as chairman of the London Metal Exchange, he was in an excellent position to remind your Lordships that, meticulous though your Lordships will undoubtedly be in scrutinising the Bill when it comes to your Lordships' House, technological innovation in this world is likely to be several steps further down the line by the time the Bill becomes an Act. I hope that my noble friend will find

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time in his busy life to come to your Lordships' House when those parts of the Bill relevant to that matter come before us.

The noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, brings to this House the highest reputation as an advocate. I quite understand the noble Lord's relief at finding himself able to sit in the House without wearing his full-bottomed wig. I believe that the noble Lord explained that it was particularly gratifying because it meant that at last he could hear what your Lordships said. As someone who has sat in this House a little longer than the noble Lord, perhaps I should remind him that there are occasions--rare though they may be, especially when your Lordships are listening to the Judicial Committee of the House--when it is even advantageous not to hear what a noble Lord is saying. However, I know that the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, will agree with me that on this occasion it was quite right not to wear his wig because the debate has been of the highest quality.

The noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, left us in no doubt whatever that she is a complete master of the topic of race relations. I am quite sure that she will ensure that, when the Bill to which she spoke most eloquently goes through your Lordships' House, the Government will be firmly on the bit.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Millett, spoke to us with great authority on the subject of insolvency. My first memory of the noble and learned Lord was when I was a very humble junior barrister and happened to find myself in the Chancery Division Court in which he appeared on the first day after he had taken Silk. If my memory serves me rightly, I believe that Mr Justice Plowman was the judge; but no doubt the noble and learned Lord will correct me either now or later if I am wrong. I recall, at the time, that the noble and learned Lord made a most impressive opening. He has exceeded even the high standard which he set himself on that occasion with his contribution to your Lordships' House today. I hope that in his busy life, as a member of the Judicial Committee, he will find time to come to this Chamber to contribute to the debate on the Insolvency Bill.

The noble Lord, Lord Harrison, and I have met in another world. Indeed, the most amusing story that he told about "la sagesse normande" is absolutely true--because I happened to be present in that chamber at the time. I believe that your Lordships will all agree that he made a most powerful speech today. His expertise on the European Community, and on matters pertaining to local government in Cheshire, will prove enormously valuable to your Lordships' House.

The noble Lord, Lord Elder, told us that he spent the first eight years of his working life with the Bank of England--before spending the next 20 years working for the Labour Party. It must have been a dramatic transition going from the Bank to the Labour Party, particularly in those years, but he gives all the appearances of having survived the experience without any obvious damage either to his intellect or to his

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ideological convictions. I know that your Lordships will very much look forward to the noble Lord's future contributions.

We understand that the noble Lord, Lord Gavron, made his second maiden speech today. It was a speech of such quality that the noble Lord who heard his first speech must have had an extremely vivid imagination. I know that your Lordships will be delighted not not to have heard his maiden speech today! Perhaps I may say that his speech contained, for me at any rate, some extremely original ideas on the topic of enterprise, to which I hope that the Government Front Bench listens carefully.

Last, but certainly not least, was the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord King of West Bromwich, who has done so much for the Black Country in general and for the area of Sandwell in particular. I travel by train every weekend from London to Shrewsbury and I always pass through Sandwell station. In recent years much has been done for the Black Country; but the station at Sandwell is still somewhat bleak in appearance. I am quite sure that, in the not too distant future, that station too will benefit from all the physical and economic improvements that have been going on in that area.

I must declare an interest in the debate in that I was a supporter of the previous government. I am, of course, now a supporter of the existing Opposition.


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