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Noble Lords: Lord Beveridge.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, I meant of course to say that Lord Beveridge was a Liberal; Lord Beaverbrook is certainly not the right Peer in this context.

Often in the House, the argument revolves around details of a Bill and how they impact on different groups. Today, thanks to this debate, introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Layard, we can take a broader view of this terrible social ill. I shall talk about lone parents, most of whom are women, and about their children. Lone parents have now overtaken pensioners as the poorest members of society. The fact is that 61 per cent—two-thirds—of people in one-parent families live in relative poverty. In other words, three million people, including 1.9 million children, are living below the official poverty level, compared with 442,000 in 1979. Put differently, one-parent families make up 21 per cent of those in poverty, although they comprise only 9 per cent of those in society.

There has been much argument recently about the emotional and social impact upon children caused by single parenthood. I do not propose to enter into that argument except to point out that, on the one hand, family breakdown is the single greatest predictor of offending behaviour, but that, on the other hand, analysis seems to indicate that it is poverty and the burden that it imposes upon the single parent that really does the damage to children. Three fifths of children in lone-parent families are poor, compared with one in four where couples are together.

According to the National Council for One Parent Families, the poorest fifth of the population has seen no real increase in spending on children's clothes, shoes, toys and important dietary items such as fruit in 30 years. The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, gave a vivid impression of the wider impact of poverty on those who suffer from it.

The cause of poverty for those families is the loss of a partner. It is worth mentioning that most lone parents have been in partnerships. An aggravating cause is the fact that most lone parents are women. It is an acknowledged and documented fact that women still earn less than men, even in comparable jobs, and that they are disproportionately concentrated in lower paid work. That is even more the case when we talk about women with sole charge of children. They must try to find work locally. Only 30 per cent of them have access to a car and running a car is expensive. They need flexible working hours to fit in with children's school hours and holidays. Some 90 per cent of them want to work, but, interestingly, fewer lone mothers than mothers in couples actually do so. Obviously, the burden of managing the work/life balance is particularly acute for these lone mothers.

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One-third of lone parents, and 44 per cent of those not in work, have no academic qualifications. Many noble Lords have referred to the importance of education in that situation. There is also the difficulty of suitable training opportunites, and the recent government initiative to deal with that problem by allowing lone parents to train on income supplement is therefore most welcome.

When the Government first started their drive to encourage lone mothers to work, the manipulation of benefits to encourage them to do so appeared likely to disbenefit large numbers of mothers and, therefore, their children. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Layard, and others pointed out, the increase in benefits targeted towards children has been a welcome change. The increased child element of working families' tax credit, the increase in child benefit itself and the ability to receive maintenance while also receiving working families' tax credit have been a great help. Unfortunately, the latter point will help only the one-third of lone parents who actually receive child maintenance.

Although the results have not yet shown up in the statistics, as the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, said, modelling of the effect of these changes suggests that about half a million children in lone parent families will be lifted out of poverty—part of a total of 1 to 1.5 million children. That is something upon which the Government are to be congratulated, as no doubt they will be if the figures turn out as expected.

Unfortunately, that is not the end of the matter. To move into greater security, lone mothers need better jobs and to get and hold them they need above all affordable, flexible and reliable child care. It is not an accident that only 51 per cent of lone mothers are in work in this country compared with 70 per cent of mothers who are in couples. The figures for lone mothers in work in France and Sweden are 80 and 70 per cent respectively. The problem is lack of child care. If you have no one with whom you can share child care, you need affordable child care provided by someone else. Child care at a recently reported average cost of £6,000 per annum will not do for the parents about whom I am speaking. What can the Government tell us that will encourage us to feel that locally based, affordable and flexible quality child care is a major part of their programme of poverty reduction? Do they recognise that neighbourhood nurseries could also have a positive effect in terms of community building?

I turn briefly to the subject of the treatment of mothers and expectant mothers by some employers, particularly smaller employers in lower grade occupations. The CAB, responding to the Government Green Paper, Work and Parents, pointed to a gap in that paper's approach to improving and simplifying maternity benefits. Every year the CAB handles about 700,000 employment inquiries, of which tens of thousands are related to maternity or parental rights. Women are being penalised for visiting their doctor during pregnancy. They are even being sacked because they are pregnant—a case was reported this very day—and they are being refused the ability to return to work.

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I was reminded by my noble friend Lord Russell, who will speak later, that in reply to my Starred Question last week the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland of Asthal, suggested that British people might have no need of the option of an appeal to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women. However, I am talking about existing rights which are being flouted and ignored by employers. I agree with the CAB that as well as extending maternity and paternity benefits, the Government should take steps to monitor the application and implementation of those that exist. My final question, therefore, to the Minister is to ask whether the Government have taken that point of view on board and whether they will do anything about it.

4.16 p.m.

Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Layard, on introducing the debate. This is an important matter and it is high time that it is addressed in a debate of this kind.

It also gives me great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, as I substantially agree with what she said. I refer to the extraordinary difference in statistics as regards the UK and the EU on the matter of single mothers. The number of single mothers in Britain is miles above that of any other country in Europe and twice the European average. Those statistics constitute social problems in a rather pure form in some respects but they have major economic consequences.

The raw data have been described in a number of ways, but I do not think that the data I shall discuss have been mentioned. I refer to an article in the April 2001 edition of Economic Trends issued by the Office for National Statistics entitled, The effects of taxes and benefits on household income, 1999-2000. The article states:

    "Before government intervention, the top fifth of households have an average of £54,400 per year in original income (that is from sources such as earnings, occupational pensions and investments). This is around 19 times as great—"

I am not just talking about David Beckham, but the top fifth of households—

    "as the figure of £2,800 for the bottom fifth. However, after taxes and benefits, the ratio is greatly reduced to four to one".

Of course, a tremendous amount of work is carried out by staff through the tax and benefits system to reduce that ratio considerably. They undertake a huge task to arrive at a situation which most people may consider is not a million miles away from a relatively satisfactory distribution, although many of us would like to see bigger strides made towards greater equality. I repeat that before government intervention the figure of original income for the top fifth of households is 19 times as great as that of the bottom fifth. That increase grew exponentially in the Thatcher years of 1980-1990. We now have to climb a mountain to get back to the income distribution, the GINI coefficient, that pertained at the start of that period.

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The official Economic Trends states,

    "Inequality of disposable income was fairly stable in the first half of the 1980s. This was followed by a period where it increased rapidly, reaching a peak around 1990. Inequality then fell slightly in the first half of the 1990s, although the fall only reversed a small part of the rise seen in the previous decade. However, the latest figures show that inequality of disposable income rose again in the late 1990s".

As my noble friend Lord Layard mentioned at the start of this debate, that information is probably out of date. One must give credit where credit is due for the enormous amount of work done by the Government and the Chancellor in particular.

Perhaps I may mention a couple of statistics. There are 1.2 million fewer children in relative poverty now than in 1997. On average, families with children are £1,000 a year better off in real terms. Families with children in the poorest fifth of the population are on average £1,700 a year better off in real terms. A family with two young children with half average earnings (£12,700) is £3,000 a year better off in real terms. By April 2002, pensioner households will be £840 a year better off on average with the poorest pensioner households being £1,000 a year better off in real terms since 1997. One could continue with other major statistics and commitments for the future such as maternity provision, parental leave and so forth.

I now wish to look at some of the fundamental questions from my perspective on these matters. I have taken it as axiomatic, as many speakers have done, that poverty is part of the bigger problem of inequality. The issue of public expenditure and public services all come into the question in a world of advancing globalisation. My position on the issue goes back to the three years I spent on the Royal Commission on the distribution of income and wealth in the late 1970s under the very distinguished chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Diamond.

At that time we made one of the important breakthroughs on the question of family poverty, which was the "wallet to the purse" provision. Noble Lords may recall that we in the trade union movement agreed, with some major difficulty, to a big transfer of money from the wallet to the purse and a large expansion in the role of child benefit. There have been many important moves under the present Government to extend some of that thinking to the working families' tax credit, pensioner credit and so forth.

But we cannot tackle poverty in isolation from the great changes in society both at home and abroad. The question of single mothers has been mentioned. But we have to look at inequality per se because poverty of esteem always follows inequality. It is not just a question of having absolute increases. We need a background social philosophy in which we can address the problem. I would include as an important part of discussions the European social model. Jacques Delors got it absolutely right. He said that the problems of atypical, marginalised workers, fixed and short-term contract workers, part-time workers and other issues such as maternity leave and parental leave were central to dealing with poverty.

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The social policy questions are linked with those of the labour market. All the self-serving propaganda against these measures by the Institute of Directors et al is proving to be grossly overstated. Indeed, many employers now admit that the challenge of giving proper mainstream terms of employment, which I call quality terms of employment, to many atypical workers is a big incentive for them to undergo training and improve the value added, in order to justify the outlay on the minimum wage and other benefits.

I now turn to the philosophy to which the noble Lord, Lord Moser, alluded. It is reasonable to have a relative concept of poverty. There is the idea that it is ridiculous to say that one is poor because one does not have a washing machine or motorcar. Nobody had them 100 years ago. Even the upper and upper-middle classes did not have such things 100 years ago. We now say that to be deprived of something which others have is a way of considering poverty. So the relative concept of poverty must be accepted side by side with the absolute level of poverty.

Finally, it would be useful if the Minister were to say a little more about mobility. It is very important although we must not caricature the situation by saying that this generation's poorest can be the next generation's plutocrats. A very important study by the Cabinet Office indicates that there are many barriers to income mobility. We have heard about that as regards the education system. In the professions the phrase is "hoarding opportunities". In the debate about inheritance tax there is an argument for the redistribution of income through increasing income tax and inheritance tax. I do not believe that that would be universally popular, but we have to look at what obstructs people from changing their position as regards wealth distribution.

4.26 p.m.

Lord Paul: My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Layard on introducing this debate. One of the reasons that I, along with many others on these Benches, joined the Labour Party was in the interest of social justice and what needs to be done to tackle poverty and to support families. So I am proud to rise this afternoon to speak about the advances this Government have made during the past five years in strengthening British families and combating the blight of poverty, both at home and abroad.

In 1997, when Labour took office, United Kingdom unemployment was widespread and the level of child poverty was high. Homelessness was growing at an alarming rate, as was the gap between rich and poor pensioners. These problems were unfolding against a backdrop of global poverty that was being left largely unattended.

Between 1997 and 2002, Labour has not only slowed these damaging trends, but reversed them. Over one million new jobs have been created, helping employment to rise to record levels. Long-term unemployment among young people has fallen by

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75 per cent, 1.2 million children have been lifted out of poverty, and the families supporting them have been given the smallest direct tax burden since 1972.

On the world stage, the Government are taking great strides to fight global poverty, committing much more of their resources to foreign aid and ensuring that the world's most heavily indebted nations are not punished for the aid they are given.

Along these lines the Labour Government have cancelled the debt owed to Britain by 42 troubled countries and have pledged to halve the number of people living in extreme poverty by the year 2015. Here I congratulate my friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the work that he is doing towards that.

Homelessness—Britain's most visible manifestation of poverty—has been alleviated in the past five years through a series of sensible measures that include the Rough Sleepers Unit, which has reduced the number of people sleeping on the streets by about 30 per cent in the past three years. There are new laws to ensure that councils will accommodate homeless persons until suitable long-term housing becomes available.

As president of Family Service Units, I have paid special attention to the ways in which the Government have sought to improve the lives of Britain's children, especially the many children living in poverty. I am proud, then, that we have raised child benefit for the first child by more than 25 per cent since 1997 and have made the children's tax credit worth up to £520 per year. Both changes dramatically improve the quality of life for children.

I also commend the Government on introducing SureStart, their programme to ensure that infants in the most under-privileged areas get a good start in life, and on their extension of the disability living allowance to three and four year-olds, which will go a long way towards providing improved care for disabled children.

After all, it is families that need the most support if we are to prevent child poverty and cycles of youth unemployment. In 1997, Labour pledged to advance policies that would build strong families and strong communities. And I am happy to report that it has done just that, through introducing such policy measures as the working families tax credit, parental leave and extended maternity leave. That is a powerful show of support for Britain's families.

Our minimum income guarantee has made the poorest pensioners at least £15 better off than they were in 1997. Over the past five years, our commitment to combating poverty has not ceased at our borders. As I mentioned, Labour has reversed the trend of shrinking foreign aid and has extended debt relief to dozens of heavily indebted countries. Our foreign aid is being used to support education in developing countries and to improve healthcare for the poor, specifically in the fight against HIV and AIDS. In addition to increasing aid for developing nations, the Government have increased government involvement in international development through the creation of the Department for International Development. I congratulate the Secretary of State for International Development.

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But, no matter what has been achieved so far in eradicating poverty and raising the quality of life for families, there is still a lot to do. We must push for further initiatives at home, such as the pension credit for pensioners who want to save money and the neighbourhood renewal action plan for deprived communities that want to pull themselves out of decline. And we must continue to couple our goals for fighting poverty at home with the desire to fight poverty across the globe. As the Prime Minister said only this week,

    "you can no longer divorce foreign policy from domestic policy".

We must craft our anti-poverty and pro-family measures with a view towards their global applications.

Truly, we cannot claim to be working for families if we work towards the improvement of only our own family and not our neighbours. Likewise, we cannot claim to be fighting poverty if we are fighting only our own nation's poverty and not the poverty of our neighbouring nations. I commend the Prime Minister on taking the trip to Africa tonight and I wish him all success.

Labour has made a good start and set us on the path toward lasting progress. Let us make sure that we do not impede that progress and that we work to extend it to more communities within Britain and to more of the global community.

4.34 p.m.

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Layard, for this opportunity to celebrate the Government's achievements over the past five years in supporting families and tackling poverty. I shall concentrate on what more can be done rather than on what has already been achieved. I should be grateful if the Minister would be good enough to read my speech in Hansard of 19th December, at col. 256, in which I took trouble to describe at length the great achievements that have been made.

I should like to concentrate on the importance of a child-centred approach to child poverty and to the association between poverty, family dysfunction, prison and the care system. In the Government's drive to combat child poverty, I am concerned that we should not overlook the needs of the child. During the past 18 months I have been attending seminars at the Anna Freud Centre, which is a centre of excellence for child psychotherapy and the psychotherapy of parents. It was established by Anna Freud at the end of the Second World War for refugee children. I have been trying to understand the rudiments of child development. The more I learn, the more aware of my ignorance I become. But one thing is clear: the relationship between an infant and his primary carer is most important. Ideally, the primary carer should be available to give his or her attention—individual and undivided—to the needs of the infant in the first two or three years of life.

I believe that although the Government are well aware of that need of the very young child, they are determined to encourage as many parents as possible to work. That is the best way to relieve child poverty,

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as demonstrated in Scandinavia and other countries. Their tax reforms in that area have lifted many children out of poverty. However, do we really want to encourage the lone parent of, for example, a four month-old baby to leave her child in inadequate child care so that she—most probably, the person will be a "she"—can work to provide an adequate income for herself and her child? Surely, with such a young child, she should feel that she has an adequate income to sustain herself and her child if she chooses to work at home caring for her infant.

I understand that in Norway there are substantial financial incentives for a parent to work at home caring for his or her child until that child reaches the age of three. On the Continent—this is a very important point—it is very much less the practice that the primary carer of a very young child goes out to work.

Is there not a danger of our perpetuating our culture of child neglect—albeit inadvertently—in this area? Today, the National Childcare Trust announced that our child care costs are the highest in Europe. The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, drew attention to that. The cost of child care provision has risen by 10 per cent during the past year. Demand for places is exceeding supply.

Barnardo's reports that last year there were 42,000 free or subsidised child care places for under 3 year-olds. In 1999, there were 600,000 children in poverty. While SureStart and other initiatives are indeed most welcome, even when they are taken into account there will still be a large gap to fill, according to Barnardo's.

Does it makes sense in those circumstances not to balance incentives for all parents to return to work with incentives for the primary carer of very young children to work at home caring for his or her child if that is the parent's choice? At the very least, they should surely be able to afford to make that choice, and the income support scale rate—or whatever now replaces it—should be set at such a rate as to enable them to do so.

Could more be done to enable mothers of young children to work part-time when they so wish? I know that there have been improvements in that area; that matter too was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas. Perhaps the Minister can indicate whether he will take up these concerns with those of his colleagues with responsibilities in the area of child poverty and family support.

I turn to my concerns with regard to the association between poverty, family dysfunction, the prison system and the care system. According to my information, 32 per cent of young offenders have been in care. The percentage of fathers under 21 who are in prison is 25 per cent, which is far above the national average. While researching for the Adoption and Children Bill, I learnt that most children being taken into the care system, and most of the 2,000 or so adopted each year, come from families in poverty. Further, it is often the case that these children's parents have been in care; indeed, often those parents had parents who were put in care.

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Again, rates of pregnancy in teenagers who are, or have been, in care are far higher than the deplorable, but happily decreasing, national average. It appears to me that there is a nexus of deprivation within the group of those who have been in care, in prison and in poverty. The Government have been giving welcome attention to this area but, as they admit, there is still a long way to go. For example, information accompanying the launch of the report by the Prison Reform Trust and the Federation of Prisoners' Family Support Group into prison visitors' centres published last week suggests that the number of prison visits has declined by one-third since 1997; yet prison numbers have soared. We have the second highest imprisonment rate in Europe.

Moreover, of member states of the Council of Europe, only Romania, Estonia and Lithuania have higher rates of imprisonment than England for those under the age of 21. About one-third of these will have been through the care system; 25 per cent of them are fathers. Family breakdown and inadequate corporate parenting may be an important factor in their incarceration. What more could the Government do to address this nexus, and break the cycle of family dysfunction and poverty of this group? They could make a positive response to the suggestions in the Just Visiting report, the review of the role of prison visitor centres.

In particular, the Government could do even more to encourage the many young fathers in prison to have regular contact with their children. For example, I am told that many teenage girls arrive at Feltham Young Offenders' Institution during visiting hours. Much more could be done to make such visits attractive to these young girls and to introduce parenting support during those visits to their partners. They could ensure that the Quality Protects Initiative is made a permanent part of the care system. Further, as Professor Sonia Jackson, the authority on education for children in care, suggests, they could ensure that our system of care becomes more similar to that on the Continent. The professor would especially like to see an immediate injection of large numbers of graduates into the residential social work profession, with a clear career path made available for them, as well as a raising of the educational attainment as regards foster parents.

I see that my speaking time has run out. I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply. I apologise, again, for not taking more time to praise the many important achievements of this Government.

4.44 p.m.

Lord Haskel: My Lords, why should the Government tackle poverty and support families? Is it a matter of economics, or is it a matter of morality? My noble friend Lord Layard is an eminent economist and I think that he has demonstrated that it is actually a matter of both. I congratulate him on moving the Motion. I join my noble friend Lady Andrews in congratulating him on researching and stimulating government action on poverty.

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I agree with my noble friend Lady Andrews and the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, that tackling poverty means tackling inequality. This is what this debate is all about. A belief in equality is the boundary that separates the political left from the political right. Perhaps that explains why there is relative lack of interest on the Tory Benches opposite in this debate—apart, that is, from the honourable exception of the noble Baroness, Lady Byford.

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