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The noble Baroness said: I should have declared an interest for this part of the debate. I am of an age not only to have been brought up on formula milk, but also to have had free school milk before it disappeared.
The amendment states the importance not only of the encouragement of breast-feeding, which we know is not nearly widespread enough, but also of maintaining the presence of infant formula where breast-feeding is for one reason or another not adopted.
Infants require special protection and therefore the maintenance of infant formula is important. I accept the Government's argument about the need to move to a wider range of healthy diets, but at a previous stage we seemed to be in danger of going too far down that track.
Noble Lords may remember the tragic case a few months ago of the small baby who died because her young parents did not understand that infants cannot take an adult diet. These amendments attempt to focus back on that and to place the scheme's emphasis on infants. I beg to move.
It is worth pointing out to the House that the panel on child and maternal nutrition of the Committee on the Medical Aspects of Food and Nutrition Policy, which reviewed the current scheme in 1999 and informed what we are doing, expressed the firm view that the scheme could be greatly improved without additional cost. That is a significant finding.
Our aim is to ensure that those in greatest need get the most help from the reformed scheme. I applaud the purpose of the amendments; to safeguard the position of families with young children on the basis that they have the greatest need. We intend to do just that. Realising that the intention of the amendments would make reform almost impossible within anything close to our current budget makes it difficult to accept them. However, perhaps I may explain what we are thinking about.
It is our intention that the value of the voucher for all the scheme's beneficiaries will be at least £2.80, as this is the average amount that retailers supplying seven pints of liquid milk under the current scheme are reimbursed. It is also our intention to give greater benefit to younger infants up to the age of one and we expect the value for them to be twice that of older children; that is, at least £5.60 per week. We anticipate that this higher level of benefit will be given throughout the child's first year and will provide an essential safety net for babies who are bottle fed. That is important for mothers who cannot breast feed. But it will also ensure that mothers who are breast feeding obtain extra help to meet their own nutritional needs at this important time. It is a time when progressively less formula is needed by infants.
By these means, we will ensure that families with very young children are not disadvantaged by a move to value-based vouchers. Breast-feeding mothers of infants have long lost out because they have been able to exchange tokens for only seven pints of milk, which has a lower monetary value than 900 grams of infant formula. Under the scheme, for the first time, they will be given the same amount of benefit as all other mothers of infants. That is very much part of our initiative to encourage greater levels of breast feeding among low income groups.
Baroness Barker: My Lords, I take heart from that. I believe it is important to restate exactly what the scheme is all about. If I had a criticism of the Minister's letter, it was that at times it was too general and I do not believe that it covered the matter in quite as much detail as the noble Baroness has just done. However,
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the amendments in this group relate to a similar issue. They concern the information and advice that will be provided and the people to whom that will be provided. In debate on the previous group of amendments, the noble Baroness talked about the way in which breast-feeding is not as widespread as it should be and about how important it is.
The amendments are framed very much by the way in which the earlier versions of these provisions were written and they relate to the fairly widespread fear that not all pregnant women will be in a position to qualify for the new scheme. We consider that to be wrong; we believe that all pregnant women, whoever they are, should be included in the scheme and that they should be given appropriate nutritional advice. That is the gist of the amendments, and I hope that they will find some favour. I beg to move.
Baroness Andrews: My Lords, the noble Baroness is absolutely right. It is essential that, when we provide advice to beneficiaries about nutrition, we do so fully and appropriately. Indeed, providing that advice is a key element of our plans for reforming the scheme. However, it is important that the advice should be accessible, simple, appropriate and friendly. It should not be patronising; it should be tailored to the needs of individual beneficiaries; and it should not simply be a repetition of a set list of dos and don'ts on issues which are set down in legislation.
It goes without say that for pregnant women and mothers of infants, any advice given must include the importance of breast-feeding and encouragement to initiate and maintain the appropriate use of formula. However, having said that, we must be very careful. When mothers are already bottle-feeding or when their children are older, giving them inappropriate advice could be counter-productive. Requiring them to receive irrelevant advice could damage the relationship or the trust that they have with health professionals and their receptiveness to other forms of advice. A similar situation would occur if, for example, we insisted, through legislation, that mothers of older children be given advice on infant-feeding in general.
The noble Baroness also alluded to the fact that the amendments were tabled before we came forward with other changes. Therefore, I also point out that a number of the amendments relate to subsection (4), which we intend to remove from the Bill in response to
Baroness Barker: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply. Our concern was not that mothers should be given irrelevant advice but that it should be comprehensive and that there should be no fads and fashions in the advice given to pregnant women. It would not be the first time that that has happened. It was in that spirit that we tabled the amendment. We wanted to try to prevent the good elements of the current scheme being thrown out along with the rest of the reforms. However, I take on board what the noble Baroness said and acknowledge the changes which she will no doubt talk about in more detail. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, as I said a moment ago, these amendments were framed very much by the seeming requirement within the original provision for registration and to attend certain clinics, and so on.
Our concern is simply that all pregnant women should receive appropriate and comprehensive advice. We also felt that while the scheme is being rolled out, no one should be left out in the transition while the new system of registration and vouchers is introduced. We saw that as a potential problem. That is the spirit behind the amendments. I hope that the noble Baroness will respond positively. I beg to move.
Baroness Andrews: My Lords, as the noble Baroness explained, the intention of the amendments is to make it impossible to deny benefit to any pregnant woman, mother, infant or child irrespective of family circumstances or need, who applies to participate in the reformed scheme. They would also allow any person to benefit from the scheme even otherwise than as a beneficiarysuch as a supplier of foodsregardless of whether they need the benefits that the scheme provides or whether they meet other eligibility criteria.
Once on the scheme the intention seems to be that a person should then not be removed from it without full consideration of his or her welfare. The scheme would, therefore, in effect be almost universal and very rigid. In addition, that would contradict the historic aims of the scheme and our intentions for the future.
We intend that the reformed scheme should build on its fundamental principle and provide help with nutrition through vouchers to those pregnant women, mothers and young children who, because they are on low incomes and receive qualifying benefit, are in greatest need of them. To increase coverage to all pregnant women, mothers and young children or others, whether or not they are on low incomes, could not be done within the current financial constraints without devaluing the benefit to the point that it becomes useless.
We must have flexibility to use resources in a way that will do most good. I fully accept the principle that underlies the amendments, which is that we must ensure that pregnant women and families who meet eligibility criteria are brought on to the scheme quickly so that they begin to receive the benefits as quickly as possible. We intend to address that by streamlining and improving the application process, linking it with other benefits available to the group, such as the Sure Start maternity benefit, and most importantly, by publicising the scheme to those who are on qualifying benefit. Those are aspects that we fully intend to test and evaluate. We shall make modifications to the operation in the light of evaluation.
I also fully accept that families should not be removed from the scheme for any other reason than that they no longer meet the standard eligibility criteria, for example, having children of the appropriate age, and being in receipt of benefits. However, putting the specific requirements that have been proposed on the face of the Bill will not achieve that for the reasons I have outlined. It would be a source of confusion and contradiction within the benefit regime. For those reasons I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.
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