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Earl Russell: My Lords, when the Home Secretary is attempting to transmute the principle of parliamentary sovereignty into the principle of the infallibility of the Secretary of State, we must welcome any government climb-down, however small. However, on this occasion the Department of Social Security has forgotten the first law of climb-down: "You must reach the ground". It has also forgotten the second law of climb-down: "The longer you put off the climb-down, the further you have to climb". Political climb-downs are like having got onto the wrong escalator. If one gets on to the up escalator by mistake and does not reverse very quickly indeed, one has an extremely long way to come down.
We have given the Government plenty of warning that we could not indefinitely go on supporting the continuation of the Act. We have now reached the point where those warnings have to move from the conditional into the actual. The Government should not be surprised. I hold a press release issued by my honourable friend Mr. Kirkwood on 9th February 1994. It says,
The Minister knows, or at least he ought to know, that I have repeated those warnings in private on many occasions to his honourable friend Mr. Burt, to his noble friend Viscount Astor and, indeed, on at least one occasion I can remember, to the Minister himself. At last, very belatedly, we have a few changes. In fact we have the shell of a number of changes I recommended on 9th February 1994. But when we look into that shell we find that it is largely empty.
Let us take the travel-to-work concession. We have here, as the Minister puts it, a "broad brush" formula. That brush is as broad as the way that leads to damnation. We have concessions only at 10p a mile for journeys above 150 miles a week. People who travel through fare zone 4 on the London Underground pay £932 a year. For people who are assessed to the bone under the Act, to get no concession on that is not equitable and not helpful. It seems to be a mistake that the agency can insist on doing the assessment as the crow flies. We all know that we do not go to work as the crow flies. To take an example, the journey from Tarbert to Tighnabruaich is 10 miles as the crow flies across Loch Fyne but 80 miles by road. The Minister is unwise to shake his head because the evidence for that
Earl Russell: My Lords, that I cannot tell him. However, if a person wishes to go to work across that route he should have the right to do so. An injustice which is done to one person remains an injustice. That is a fundamental principle.
It is also one of the flaws in this travel-to-work concession that it will be useful almost entirely to those who travel to work by public transport. As I have reminded the Minister on many other occasions, we are rapidly developing a new poverty trap because there are a great many people who cannot go to work by public transport and on the wages they are offered, or indeed on benefit, they cannot possibly afford a car. The really big costs of work for those people are the road fund licence, insurance and the maintenance of their cars. I warned the Minister on 23rd January that if the concessions included nothing on this point, they would be unacceptable. They do not.
I will warn the Minister also that I think he was unwise today in putting as much blame as he did for past misfortunes on the agency. The agency has run into difficulty very largely because the Government have not appreciated the back-breaking burden of work it was asked to undertake. We did warn them but they did not listen.
As regards property settlements"dirty break" settlements because the Minister does not like the phrase "clean break" again we have a token concession. Where we have a settlement between £5,000 and £9,999, allowance and exempt income of £20 may mean an actual maintenance reduction of £3 a week, and on the figure of £25,000 and upwards, an actual maintenance reduction of £9 a week. That is not equitable.
As regards second families, I believe that the Minister was offering a red herring in suggesting that any of us had for a moment suggested that second families should take priority. What I have suggested in this Chamber over and over again is that first and second families should count equally. The children are all there and, being there, they need support.
I welcome the concession on housing. That is genuinely valuable, and I am glad to see it. But it still falls short of the concession that the first and second families should count equally. I remind both the other two parties that it is very unwise to portray this as a straight confrontation between men and women. I have heard from large numbers of second wives who are becoming increasingly irritated at being treated as honorary men. They believe that they have a point of view which needs to be heard but which has not yet had a hearing.
I welcome the cap on maintenance. I welcome the concession on fees, but I do not understand why that has to operate for only two years and not permanently. Of course we agree, as all Benches do, with the principle that fathers, and indeed the parents in these changing times should support their children and that that liability should continue. In coming round to supporting the repeal of the Act we do it because we support that principle. We believe that the attempt to pursue that principle in an unreasonable and impossible manner risks discrediting for a generation the principle that parents should pay. If that is the price of the Act, it would be a very heavy price indeed.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, we have had a short and interesting debate. I hope to respond to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, who again emphasised the support of the Labour Party for the principle that parents cannot walk away from their children when they walk away from their marriage and they have a continuing responsibility to those children which, I guess, goes on throughout their lives. As far as we are concerned in this Bill, it goes on financially while the children have to be maintained and looked after.
In the speech of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, which I understand comes from the other place, I detected a kind of disengagement by the Liberal Democrat Party from that general principle and a moving away from support for the principle that absent parents and parents who have been divorced-
Earl Russell: My Lords, I ask the Minister to withdraw that remark. He must have heard me say very plainly that we are dedicated to the principle that parents should pay. We have taken that position because we believe that the Government are discrediting the principle.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I am pleased that I have managed to get an assertion from the noble Earl that the Liberal Democrat Party is not disengaging. There has been just a little suggestion that it has been disengaging, presumably because on the doorstep Liberal Democrats have met a few irate absent parents.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I was just about to say that I am more than happy to hear that the noble Earl continues to be in the same company as the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, and myself in supporting the principle that absent parents should pay. I am glad to have on the record that clear commitment from the Liberal Democrat Party
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