Previous Section Home Page

Mr. Waldegrave : The 30 or 40-year-old battle for a major hospital in south Bristol is the only factor that unites the hon. Lady and her predecessor. The hon. Lady should make the point that when we consider the distribution of health resources throughout the country--about which we hear a lot from Opposition Members--we realise that the Government are taking steps to ensure the fairer distribution of such resources nationally. That is partly what our travail is about. She should welcome that.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale) : The setting up of the health strategy steering group is the most positive of the measures announced today. Will the group include members of the dental profession? Given that diet can play such a large part in improving our health and that without

Column 168

teeth one cannot eat, surely dental practitioners have a major role to play in improving the nation's health by giving advice about diet.

Mr. Waldegrave : My hon. Friend is entirely right. Contributions from dentists will certainly be included. The document also considers setting objectives for child dental caries. That is not because this country's record on that issue compares poorly internationally--in fact, we do well--but because we believe that it would be relatively easy to make further progress in that sphere and attach a high priority to it.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : The Minister spoke about the incidence of ill health in factories. Does not he realise that factory inspections are at an all-time low and that the Department of Employment does not even enforce the notification of occupation of factory premises ? The Secretary of State seems to be obsessed with changes in the institutions. Will it benefit the people of Bradford when Bradford NHS trust makes 300 people redundant and closes the baby unit at St. Luke's hospital and two other hospitals in Bradford ? Surely that denies people access to medical facilities. In terms of more NHS trusts, will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that in his consultation process he will agree to a ballot of local people ? If he is not satisfied with that and is convinced about the marvellous nature of his proposals, will he have the guts to tell the Prime Minister to have a general election about them ?

Mr. Waldegrave : That was a characteristic contribution. The hon. Gentleman should realise that our capacity to look across the board at the health needs in his constituency and city has enabled us to make great advances in primary care in Bradford where there has been a dramatic reduction in lists. Health care in Bradford or Bristol, or anywhere else, cannot be improved simply by concentrating on acute hospitals. There must be a comprehensive local health strategy, and resources must be deployed across the board.

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh) : I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. I am sure that it will not take long for him to write a short note to the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) giving an exposition of the law of diminishing returns because, plainly, the hon. Gentleman does not understand that law.

Will my right hon. Friend help me with a small problem which landed on my desk today ? As a diabetic, I received a letter from consultants in diabetes telling me that the Government have withdrawn the free medical facilities that were previously available to all diabetics, even those who were not receiving medication. A confirmed diabetic being treated by diet alone was able to obtain the necessary testing equipment free. I am now told by the consultants who have written to me that you have changed that arrangement. If that is true, will you please reverse it ?

Mr. Speaker : Order. The hon. Member must not address his question to me.

Mr. Holt : I am sorry, Mr. Speaker. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that what the consultants have said in that letter is correct, in which case will he reverse his decision ? If it is incorrect, the consultants should be ashamed of writing such a letter.

Column 169

Mr. Waldegrave : The hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) understands the law of diminishing returns, because each time he publishes the same old proposal it seems to get less coverage. It would have been helpful if my hon. Friend had given me notice of his question about his letter from consultants. I shall be happy to discuss it with him. He will be pleased to discover that the document states that we wish to develop targets for diabetes and asthma. I shall certainly discuss the consultants' letter with my hon. Friend and discover what lies behind it.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : Has not the Secretary of State got the intellectual capacity to understand that for 12 years the Government have undermined the national health service, and spoken against intervention in a public service? He is electioneering to the British people and is substituting waffle for resources. Tory Members may be conned by that, but he can rest assured that people outside are not. It is time that he took his hook back to the senior common room and took all his Front -Bench colleagues with him.

Mr. Waldegrave : Of course electioneering is the last thing that the hon. Gentleman would do and would regard it as a disreputable activity. He seemed to betray one of the finest of the old Labour traditions, which was to value education. Perhaps I should not rebuke him for that.

Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West) : When my right hon. Friend consults on targets, will he please take no account of the appallingly low expectations of the Labour party? Does he recall that the chief Opposition spokesman on health said when we were negotiating the GP contract that the demands on doctors were so heroic that most of them would give up trying? Can my right hon. Friend confirm that four out of five of them have now succeeded in meeting those targets on child immunity? How many children might have died or now be suffering from crippling diseases if the Labour party had been setting the targets?

Mr. Waldegrave : That is a fair point. The Labour party is still standing by its ridiculous position that it will repeal that contract. It will allow the standards of immunisation and the targeting for cervical smears to go backwards and that will put many people at risk. That is very irresponsible, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill) is right to continue to rub the nose of the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) in it. By making a very short-term alliance with the British Medical Association at the time, the hon. Member for Livingston has got himself hooked on a very irresponsible policy, just as he did in an alliance with the drug companies when he opposed the limited list. He was wrong also on that.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Stretford) : Given that the Secretary of State mentioned tobacco as a serious factor in relation to deaths and ill health in this country, why is he not prepared to take on the tobacco lobby specifically when we know that the tobacco companies have, in advertising terms, successfully targeted young people and especially young women? Is it not time that we took action against that advertising? Why will the Department of Health and the Government be opposing an EEC-wide ban on tobacco advertising? When drugs are such a scourge among young

Column 170

people, why has there been scarcely a mention of a proper attack on drugs in our society or of the need to provide a proper health programme for young people?

Mr. Waldegrave : I do not know whether the hon. Member was in the Chamber earlier when I answered a question about advertising. The issue is more complex. A further aspect that I did not mention earlier, but which I will refer to now, is that the countries that are in favour of a total advertising ban are among those with nationally controlled monopolies in the production of cigarettes. Some people believe that the suppression of advertising is not unconnected with the fact that they wish to protect those monopolies. There is no connection at all between those countries which have banned advertising and those which have done well in diminishing smoking. As I said earlier, the first thing for the European Community to do is to withdraw its subsidies from the growing of tobacco. That would be a much better first objective.

Drugs may be an area which should be targeted and perhaps the hon. Member for Stretford would propose that. We have not included drugs among the initial main targets in our discussion document because--and I make this point to everyone who wants to add additional targets--if we make everything a priority, then nothing is a priority.

Mr. James Paice (Cambridgeshire, South-East) : My right hon. Friend deserves widespread congratulation on having the courage to lay down targets so that we can assess later in the decade how well the Government are progressing towards achieving what my right hon. Friend has set out today. Is it not significant that the Opposition have refused to set out any targets not only so that they can simply snipe at the Government's targets, but, more importantly perhaps, because they are pledged to repeal the structural reforms which would be the only way to assess whether they had ever reached those targets?

Mr. Waldegrave : That is absolutely true. The connection between the reforms and the kind of targeting procedure that we are now undertaking must be emphasised. Unless we have the capacity to deliver, it is no good talking about objectives. The Labour party must have realised that it was in some danger here or it would not have gone to all the trouble of regurgitating its document yesterday and giving it to the press.

Mr. Simon Coombs (Swindon) : At last the Government have produced a strategy for health promotion and have offered the nation targets by which that strategy can be judged. That action will be widely welcomed both inside and outside the House. Nevertheless, does my right hon. Friend accept that a large proportion of the population of this country is frankly suicidal in the sense that they will ignore all the advice of the Health Education Authority and health education officers and advice that they should moderate their diets, intake of alcohol and cigarettes and advice about healthy exercise? Given that the Government are not in favour of a nanny state, how does my right hon. Friend propose to meet the targets in the light of that opposition from such a large proportion of the population? Will my right hon. Friend also consider the targets for eating and drinking? The Green Paper states that those targets should be reached by the year 2005. Will he

Column 171

consider aiming to reach those targets by the year 2000, as that is important? Also, why is there no target in respect of the level of cholesterol in that range of targets?

Mr. Waldegrave : On the latter point, in the discussion we shall certainly consider whether those targets should be brought forward, raised or lowered. That is exactly what the discussions are now meant to do. We have issued a report about cholesterol testing and surveying.

My hon. Friend is a long-standing campaigner on these issues, and I pay tribute to his contribution. It is true that in a free country we cannot compel people to good health. I made that clear at the beginning of the Green Paper. There are some pressures, however, that both sides of the House regard as legitimate, and one of those is price. In relation to cigarettes and alcohol--this relates also to the question by the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd)--we must ensure that the European Community, by the harmonisation of taxation levels, does not lower the levels of taxation on cigarettes and alcohol in 1992.

Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West) : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the welcome targets that he has set today will be achieved only if there is a full partnership between the Government, local government, employers and voluntary organisations, and that, for that partnership to be meaningful, they can play their full part only if they have targets and objectives to which to work? Is it not a fact that the Labour party's document which was published yesterday, without such targets and objectives, was designed to be meaningless, is meaningless and, like the rest of its health policy, means absolutely nothing to anyone?

Mr. Waldegrave : That is true. That document was not a great contribution to the debate, and I do not think that it will be long remembered. I agree with my hon. Friend. I specifically mentioned voluntary organisations in my statement. If the strategy is to work, it will not be done simply by Government or simply by the national health service. It must be done by persuading people in a range of organisations and by persuading individuals that it is worth doing. That is why it is worth having a proper consultation period and having discussions throughout the country to get people committed to the kind of targets that we are proposing.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge) : In the consultations that are to take place on these excellent proposals, will my right hon. Friend reject some of the more facile and easy solutions that are sometimes offered? Does he agree that it is not an adequate response to the fact that many epidemiological surveys show that smoking is associated with various lung conditions and that other lifestyle factors may be every bit as relevant? Should not that sort of thing be borne in mind as well, otherwise merely to opt for the easy option of a total ban on advertising may miss some factors that are every bit as relevant?

Mr. Waldegrave : In my scepticism about the effectiveness of a general ban on advertising, I would not want to mislead the House into thinking that I did not believe that a continued, rapid fall in smoking would not be one of the best things that we could do for health. It would be one of the best things that we could do for health. Nobody knows the exact causation between lung cancer

Column 172

and smoking, but no one now doubts the absolutely clear statistical evidence that one goes with the other. It is central to our strategy to set a challenging target for the further diminution of smoking and to see that it comes about.

Mr. Ted Leadbitter (Hartlepool) : Is the Secretary of State aware that his hon. Friends are wrong in suggesting that he has courage in deciding on targets? They are 12 years too late. Will he have the courage, however, to deal with one target, and that is the practice of health service consultants saying to patients that they must wait 12 months or more for treatment, but end up treating them if those same patients go private?

Mr. Waldegrave : Everything that we are doing in the reorganisation of the health service is aimed at getting more health care for the money-- the increasing amounts of money--that we are spending. Our record on health spending and on the number of people treated stands easy comparison with that of the hon. Gentleman's party, which, as I remind him once again, has never left waiting lists lower than it found them.

Sir Ian Lloyd (Havant) : If, as I believe, the health of the population is the result of the careful and considered application of science, medicine, compassion and resources, is not the population much more likely to be served by the calm and courteous rationality that my right hon. Friend has exhibited this afternoon than it is by shouting and leering and the kind of intellectual nonsense that has been exhibited by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)? Perhaps one day the hon. Gentleman will become a fellow of All Souls. I shall look forward to that day.

Mr. Waldegrave : My hon. Friend is very kind. I am sure that the House would not want to miss the contributions of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). My hon. Friend must be careful because it is more dire an insult for him to describe the hon. Gentleman as "an intellectual" than for my hon. Friends to describe me as such.

Mr. Robin Cook : No doubt through oversight, the Secretary of State omitted to give us the figures, on current trends, for the reduction in coronary heart disease and strokes by the year 2000. Will he now tell the House those figures?

Mr. Waldegrave : I shall write to the hon. Gentleman with those figures, but of course they will be speculative. However, I assure him that the targets that we are setting are challenging. That is what challenging means. They are not simply predictions.


Dangerous Dogs

Mr. Secretary Baker, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Secretary Heseltine, Mr. John Gummer, Mr. Secretary Hunt, Mr. Secretary Lilley, Mr. Secretary Lang, Mr. Attorney-General and Mrs. Angela Rumbold, presented a Bill to prohibit persons from having in their possession or custody dogs belonging to types bred for fighting ; to impose restrictions in respect of such dogs pending the coming into force of the prohibition ; to enable restrictions to be imposed in relation to other types of dog which present a serious danger to the public ; to make further provision for securing that dogs are kept under

Column 173

proper control ; and for connected purposes : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time on Wednesday 5 June and to be printed. [Bill 169.]

Statutory Instruments, &c.


That the draft Cinemas (Northern Ireland) Order 1991 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.-- [Mr. Greg Knight.]


Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 99 (2) (Northern Ireland Committee),


That the Proposal for a draft Electricity (Northern Ireland) Order 1991 published on 19th April 1991, being a Matter relating exclusively to Northern Ireland, be referred to the Northern Ireland Committee for its consideration.-- [Mr. Greg Knight.]

Question agreed to.

Column 174

Employment of Children Act 1973 (Amendment)

4.35 pm

Ms. Mildred Gordon (Bow and Poplar) : I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Employment of Children Act 1973 in respect of the definition of "child" ; and to make fresh provision for its commencement.

Most people think that if children find a job in which to earn a little pocket money, that is good. Indeed, many children do a few hours' work which they enjoy. It gives them a degree of independence, provides them with some money for extra clothing and helps them to keep up with their friends. The money that children from poor families earn is often important for the family's survival. I agree with the prevailing public opinion that we would not want to prevent children from getting a taste of the world of work, but I am sure that hon. Members agree that that work must be properly regulated. It is our duty to see that children are not allowed to undertake work that involves lifting heavy loads or endangers their physical well- being in any way. We do not want children to work such long hours that they cannot benefit from their education. We do not want children to have accidents because of undertaking unsuitable work, and we do not want them exploited as a source of cheap labour in an adult job at a fraction of the adult wage.

The present laws date back to the very different world of the 1920s and 1930s and, in some ways, are inadequate for today's conditions. The entertainment industry, for example, has been fairly well regulated, but modelling, which has expanded enormously since the growth of television, is wide open to abuse. Those old national laws exist in conjunction with a plethora of local government byelaws, some of which look fine on paper, but are flouted throughout the country.

In 1970, considerable public anxiety was aroused as a result of research sponsored by the Department of Health and Social Security. It showed a lack of uniformity in the local byelaws and serious problems of enforcement. Following that, a private Member's Bill, which was considered uncontroversial, was passed unopposed, becoming the Employment of Children Act 1973. Its primary purpose was to provide a rational, uniform pattern of law-making throughout the country by removing the local authorities' powers to enact local byelaws and by giving the Secretary of State regulatory powers so that, after consultation, regulations could be made centrally for the whole country. The second purpose of the 1973 Act was to enable local authorities to appraise the work which boys and girls go into before they actually begin that work. The Act has never been implemented. In answer to questions which hon. Members have asked from time to time, the Government have said that almost all local authorities have byelaws, but in January this year they said that they would look again at the 1973 Act if evidence should be forthcoming that children are being exploited.

Recent research by the Low Pay Units in Scotland and England and the Anti- Slavery Society for the Protection of Human Rights has shown that there is a need for the 1973 Act to be enforced now. It has proved that need up to the

Column 175

hilt, which is why I am presenting my Bill today. The Bill would bring up to date the Act's definition of a child and would provide for its implementation by January 1992.

Recent research shows that 43 per cent. of children in Britain between the ages of 10 and 16 have some type of paid work. That is almost 2 million children. They have been called the hidden army. Of those children, 74 per cent. are employed illegally, either working illegal hours, employed in work prohibited for children or working without a local authority permit under which education authorities are supposed to ensure that medical health checks are carried out and that conditions of work are not harmful to the child involved. Only one child out of 65 children interviewed from two schools in Strathclyde had such a permit.

Children on milk rounds start long before the legally permitted time of 7 am. Therefore, all children doing early morning milk rounds are working illegally. If I had the time, I could cite many other examples. Children are lifting heavy loads in street markets and heavy bags of soil in garden centres. Newspaper rounds are considered a suitable form of employment and 30 per cent. of children who have jobs do one. Many have benefited financially from such work and have come to no harm, but Sunday papers can weight up to 60 lb--far more than a postman is allowed to carry on his round. Children are working illegally in kitchens which have slippery floors and pans of hot oil or boiling water.

Unfortunately, hospital accident and emergency departments are not required to record accidents to children at work, but they should be. Hon. Members will be horrified to learn that research shows that one third of working children have accidents at work, such as a sewing machine needle going through a finger, losing the end of a finger in a bacon slicing machine, breaking limbs and spraining backs. Answers that children give about their accidents at work make sad reading. It is not surprising that weary children have accidents at work. If one adds up the number of hours spent at school, the two or three hours' homework a night in the run-up to exams, the number of legally permitted hours of paid work and time helping the family in the house, it often comes to a long week of 50 to 60 hours--more than most adults undertake.

I have taught classes of children, many of whom were too tired to concentrate, and that is when I first became aware and concerned about the problem. It is clear that,

Column 176

although some children just do odd jobs which they enjoy and from which they benefit, many are used as a source of cheap, easily disposable labour, often to replace school leavers and part- time women workers.

On average, children earn about £1.80 per hour. About 500,000 children --24 per cent.--earn less than £1 an hour and 7 per cent.--a significant number when nearly 2 million children are working--earn less than 50p an hour. One hapless 16-year-old boy earned £1.50 after 20 hours of door-to-door selling--7p an hour.

Parents, children, teachers and employers are all woefully ignorant of the byelaws that are being honoured in the breach throughout Britain, leaving our children without the protection that we would all wish them to have. Children look to us for help and we are failing them. Our inaction is not fair to them.

Many aspects of child employment need to be reviewed, but the most immediate requirement is to replace the existing confusing patchwork of local regulations with national statutes which standardise practice and provide protection across the board. We need regulations which everyone will understand and know about and which will be properly publicised, monitored and enforced by the provision of a sufficient number of child employment officers. The few whom we have are trying valiantly to do an impossible task.

My Bill will not require precious parliamentary time. The 1973 Act is already on the statute book. We need to rectify the disgraceful negligence of all Governments who have left the Act unenforced for almost two decades.

I end with the words with which I ended my speech on Second Reading of the Children Bill two years ago when I first addressed the subject :

"Our children are our stake in the future, and it is our duty to protect them from exploitation of all kinds."--[ Official Report, 27 April 1989 ; Vol. 151, c. 1151.]

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Ms. Mildred Gordon, Mr. Ron Leighton, Mr. Greville Janner, Mr. Peter Archer, Mr. John Hughes, Mrs. Alice Mahon, Mrs. Audrey Wise, Mr. Gerald Bermingham, Ms. Dawn Primarolo, Mr. Keith Vaz, Mr. Tony Benn and Ms. Joyce Quin.

Employment of Children Act 1973 (Amendment)

Ms. Mildred Gordon accordingly presented a Bill to amend the Employment of Children Act 1973 in respect of the definition of "child"; and to make fresh provision for its commencement : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time on 14 June and to be printed. [Bill 170.]

Column 177

Lloyd's of London

4.47 pm

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As you know, some 50 Members of the House are members of Lloyd's and four of those are members of the Government. I understand that Government orders for Ministers do not require them to divest themselves of their membership of Lloyd's while they are in office. The Finance Bill is before the House--part of it, as usual, being taken on the Floor of the House and part of it in Committee. A letter from Lloyd's of London, signed by the chairman of that body, has come into my possession. I am anxious to notify you of that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because the section of the Bill which is dealt with in the letter could come before the House at any time.

The chairman of Lloyd's says :

"Thirdly, I have been pursuing with the Government for some time certain aspects of the tax arrangements for names. I had a meeting with the Chancellor last week when I received a sympathetic hearing. We discussed both reserving and the extension of the relief proposed in the Budget to Names."

It is with that latter point that I wish to deal now.

The letter refers to an extension of a concession to companies proposed in the Budget to members of Lloyd's. That would mean that rules in "Erskine May" which preclude an hon. Member voting when there is a clear pecuniary interest would apply both to members who are Conservative Back Benchers-- the 50 members concerned are exclusively Conservatives--and to members of the Government. The amendment in question could come before the House at any time, and as the chairman of Lloyd's has made it clear that he has "received, as I have said, a sympathetic hearing, and I hope that I shall be able to report a successful outcome to you in my June address",

he clearly anticipates success.

I hope that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will report my comments to Mr. Speaker --so that he can make a statement at the earliest opportunity--and make it clear that none of the right hon. or hon. Members who have an involvement in Lloyd's will be allowed to vote on that matter.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean) : It appears from the hon. Member's remarks that the case that he puts is hypothetical at the moment. I am not sure whether Mr. Speaker has seen the letter to which the hon. Member referred, and I shall be grateful if he will let me have it. I can then draw it to the attention of Mr. Speaker.

Column 178

Orders of the Day

Child Support Bill [Lords]

Order for Second Reading read.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean) : I must inform the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

4.50 pm

The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Tony Newton) : I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

As the House knows, the Bill follows from the White Paper published last autumn entitled "Children Come First"--itself in its title expressing a sentiment which I know right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House recognise and support. Our proposals aim at benefiting children and those who care for them. In society today, increasing numbers of relationships are breaking down, but the breakdown of a relationship between parents does not remove the responsibility of the parents towards the children of that relationship. Having said that, I firmly acknowledge that parenthood is of course about much more than just financial responsibility. But financial provision is one very important part of the responsibility which parents owe to their children, and payments of child maintenance are a way of meeting that responsibility.

Regular maintenance benefits children. It provides a regular income, and serves, in a literal sense, to bring home the responsibilities that family members owe to one another. It also benefits parents looking after children, by providing a regular basis of what is sometimes called "portable" income which the parent can take with her when she moves, as so many lone parents want to do, from dependence on benefit into work. While it is a point of a somewhat different kind, it should not be ignored that, where maintenance can reasonably be expected but is not paid, the effect is to transfer the responsibility to taxpayers, many of whom will themselves be families who are bringing up their own children on perhaps quite modest incomes.

It is very widely--I might almost say universally--agreed that the present system of child maintenance is not working as it should. It is fragmented. It involves several different levels of courts, together, in many cases, with offices of my Department. It is too often slow. For example, a quarter of cases in magistrates courts take more than 70 days, or more than two months. It is unreliable. Payments not infrequently fall into arrears, the caring parent has to ask the courts to take action, and it can take weeks, or much longer, to re-establish payment. It is increasingly ineffective. In 1989, only 23 per cent. of lone parents on income support received regular maintenance, whereas 10 years before the figure was some 50 per cent. Lastly, it is inconsistent. People cannot predict with any certainty what their liabilities will be, and some variations in the levels of awards appear to have no systematic relationship to differences in circumstances.

Having considered all this, we concluded that significant change was needed, and the Bill represents the legislative framework within which we plan to bring about that change. That framework has been worked out in close co-operation between a variety of Government

Column 179

Departments--although the legislation comes before the House today as a DSS Bill. In particular, it had the close involvement of my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor, who introduced the Bill in another place. If I may say this without causing offence to my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General, that interest is reflected in my right hon. and learned Friend's presence in the Chamber today and his interest in the Bill.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe) : The child maintenance formula takes no account of the extra cost of caring for a disabled child, and the Bill makes no special provision for families with disabled children. That is a matter of deep concern to Mencap. I ask the Secretary of State sympathetically to address that concern, and to explain how he intends to cope with what is viewed as a serious problem by the organisations that represent the interests of disabled children.

Mr. Newton : The right hon. Gentleman shows slightly less than his usual patience. I thought he might have realised that I have barely got beyond the preamble to my speech. I am aware of the concern to which the right hon. Gentleman refers, and I promise to address it later in my speech.

The Bill's provisions cover the whole of Great Britain, and we intend to make comparable provision for Northern Ireland. As the White Paper made clear, proposals have been informed by the results of research commissioned by the Department, which has for some time been available in the Library, and has now been published in the normal way.

The principles behind our proposals have had widespread support from many quarters--including, I think, from all parts of the House. Our strategy has three main features, two of which are provided for in the Bill. First--this touches on the right hon. Gentleman's point--we shall introduce a clear and consistent formula by which maintenance assessments will be made, and rules by which those assessments will be reviewed, to take account of changing circumstances. The key features of that formula appear on the face of the Bill, and I shall come to a fuller explanation of them in a moment.

Secondly, we intend to set up a Child Support Agency, accountable through me to Parliament, which will bring together in one organisation all matters to do with the assessment, collection and enforcement of child maintenance in the great majority of cases. That will be a new, specialised organisation to do a specific and important task. Because its powers and duties fall to be expressed as belonging to the Secretary of State, there is no explicit reference to the Child Support Agency as such in the Bill itself.

The third part of our strategy does not appear in the Bill itself, for different reasons, but it is an integral part of our proposals. I refer to the benefit proposals, which are designed to make it easier to combine working with the responsibilities of looking after children. We intend to introduce regulations reducing the number of hours of work needed to qualify for family credit from 24 to 16 hours a week. In addition, parents with care who are receiving family credit, housing benefit, community charge

Column 180

benefit and disability working allowance will have the first £15 of their maintenance ignored in working out their benefit.

I hope that it may be for the convenience of the House if I outline the main provisions of the Bill itself. It sets out all the main elements of our policy, and contains much detailed material, and also a considerable number of powers to make regulations. That structure reflects the need to strike the right balance between two considerations.

On the one hand, it is obviously right to ensure that the main features of the new system are plainly set out in the Bill and are open to full debate at this stage. On the other, it is also obviously sensible not to burden the Bill itself with detailed, technical or procedural matters--not least because of the need to retain flexibility to adjust the detail in the light of practical experience once the new scheme has come into operation. [Interruption.] I notice that the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) is giggling. However, as a former Social Security Minister, the hon. Gentleman will be well aware of the parallel that I must draw. The approach we have adopted is similar to one with which the House is familiar in respect of social security legislation, where most of the detailed provisions governing the administration are set out in regulations. Over the years, that has generally been thought to be sensible.

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West) : It should be said that hon. Members are becoming familiar with the procedure precisely because the present Government have taken such action repeatedly. Other Governments-- including Conservative Governments--have not acted in the same way. The fact that so many important decisions will be left to regulation and discretion after the House has dealt with the primary legislation, rather than being contained in that legislation, represents a major flaw in the Bill.

Mr. Newton : I invite the hon. Gentleman to look at some of the social security legislation that was passed while he was a Social Security Minister--or, at least, under the Government in which he was a Social Security Minister. He will find that there is nothing new about the general pattern that I have described. It has been felt under Governments of all kinds, over most of the period since the war, that this is a sensible way to deal with much of the detail of social security and comparable legislation, especially when it is subject to change.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire) : The Secretary of State cannot blame me for any past misdemeanours in this respect--

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) : Lloyd George started it.

Mr. Kirkwood : Lloyd George may well have started it.

I could not agree more with the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher). It is not good enough for the Secretary of State to expect to be able to present the House--as he so often does nowadays--with Bills from which so much secondary legislation consequentially flows and expect to get away with it. I have said that before. There will come a time, I believe, when the House will throw some of this primary legislation back in the right hon. Gentleman's face--and so it should.

Next Section

  Home Page