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Baroness Seear: Briefly, we on these Benches support the amendment. I cannot believe that the Minister will not also agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, that, however much one may want single parents to get back to work, it surely is not realistic—nor, I would suggest, desirable in most cases—that that should happen when the children are as young as one, two or three years. Although I do not know anything about such matters, it seems only common sense that, at that point, the mother should be aided, if she so wishes, to stay at home rather than have to seek work away from the home.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I listened carefully to the speeches made by the two noble Baronesses on the subject of supporting a maintenance disregard in income

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support. I appreciate the fact that the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, feels most strongly that such a disregard is the right way forward. However, I do not believe that the noble Baroness will be surprised if I tell her that my colleagues and I hold equally strongly the view that a disregard is not in fact the best way to help families to improve their standard of living and normally, therefore, the quality of their lives.

I am not sure that I want to dwell on one of the arguments put forward; namely, that it might encourage absent parents to pay maintenance and so reduce the need for enforcement action by the Child Support Agency. I do not agree with that view. Many changes have been introduced to help absent parents; and, indeed, to help the parent with care. I am not entirely sure if the campaigns by at least some absent parents to frustrate the purposes of the Act have in any way been reduced. However, that is only one of the arguments.

My colleagues in another place have described how experience has shown—and I believe that we have discussed the matter here in this Chamber on a number of occasions—that the best way of helping families to improve their standard of living has been to ease the move from benefit dependency into work. We know from surveys of lone parents that the majority of them want to return to work. That was very clearly demonstrated in the work carried out for the original child support White Paper which was published in 1990.

The £15 maintenance disregard within the in-work benefits—that is, family credit, disability working allowance, housing benefit and council tax benefit—is, I believe, a better way of providing help to parents with care who want to work than a disregard in income support. Members of the Committee will be aware that the Bill contains a provision further to assist work incentives and help improve family income. The proposed maintenance bonus which is worth up to £1,000 will provide significant help to parents with care when they start work. I believe that the bonus will be welcomed by parents with care because it will provide them with extra cash at a time when it will be helping them to establish their independence to meet the bridge from being out of work to being in work.

The noble Baroness mentioned the expense of the disregard that she seeks. We estimate that a £5 a week disregard in all cases would cost £110 million a year. That is a considerable sum of money. We believe that the proposed maintenance bonus is a more imaginative and effective use of resources.

I believe that we should help parents to work when they wish to do so, and that we should provide assistance and encouragement to parents with care to make work financially worth while. We are creating an environment where parents with care can return to work if they wish to do so. The existing disregards in the in-work benefits and the proposed maintenance bonus provide the most effective way of providing help and incentives.

I appreciate that one of the other arguments put forward by the noble Baroness is that nothing has been done to help the parent with care. While I understand that argument—and, certainly, the vociferous voices have come from the absent parents—I should like to remind the noble Baroness that, as well as the maintenance bonus, the

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Government have provided some compensation for the parent with care on family credit or DWA if his or her maintenance is reduced as a result of changes in the legislation.

The grounds for departure also apply equally to the parents with care. For example, if a parent with care works and is liable to contribute to maintenance she can ask for a departure for her travel to work costs. I would remind the Committee that there are also some grounds for departure which are specifically aimed at the parent with care, in particular in paragraph 5 to Schedule 2.

I will concede that I am not arguing that a major shift has been made in favour of the parent with care, but at least I want to counter the suggestion by the noble Baroness that nothing in the Bill helps the parent with care. She also asked me about the numbers refusing to co-operate. Since the launch of the scheme, in 73,400 cases the parent with care has had good cause accepted and has not had to co-operate in seeking maintenance. In 18,000 cases the agency has not accepted the parent with care's refusal to co-operate and has imposed a reduced benefit direction.

I do not suppose the noble Baroness is too surprised that I am not accepting her amendment. I understand where she is coming from on this and her desire to help the parent with care, but I believe that other steps I have mentioned help the parent with care, especially in the transition into work and when the parent with care is in work, perhaps of a low paid nature—

Baroness Seear: The noble Lord has completely ignored the point about the single parent—the parent with care—with small children; for example, a baby and perhaps another child of one or two. I do not know anything about the noble Lord's personal circumstances but I cannot think that even if he were at home he would want his wife, if she had a child of under one and perhaps another child of two, to go out to work. If that is the only parent—for all I know she works morning, noon and night—surely she needs to be with the child. I am the last person to argue against women going out to work but there are circumstances in which that is quite unrealistic and, I should have thought, very undesirable, and this is one of them.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: As I think I explained in response to an earlier amendment, part and parcel of the maintenance calculations which are made by the agency are to take account of the fact that the child needs a carer—I think there is a nursery rhyme that runs something like that—and that carer requires some resources. That is one of the aspects of the total amount of money that the absent parent is asked to pay to the parent with care.

On the more general question of whether the mother of a one or two year old child should stay at home, I think I am in more than enough trouble with the legislation I have already put through the Chamber without adding to it by coming to a judgment on whether mothers ought to go out to work if they have young children. Suffice it to say that

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my wife has extremely strong views on the matter, but I think I shall take a neutral position on that and say that it is a decision for the mother concerned.

10.45 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: That was very prudent of the Minister. I shall come back to the phrase, "a decision for the mother concerned". I think that is the most useful phrase the Minister has uttered for the past quarter of an hour. I think the Minister made three points, one of which he dealt with lightly, the second of which he dealt with in a far more heavy-handed manner, and the third which he ignored altogether.

On the first point, I was glad to note that the Minister did not this evening belabour the question of cost. This is a welcome relief for which I give many thanks, but then it would have been a little impertinent of the Minister to have done so in the light of the fairly substantial hand-outs that the Minister had offered only a month or two ago. I recognise that it would have been inconsistent and graceless of the Minister to have given hand-outs a couple of months back and then to have belaboured the question of cost a couple of months on. At least a decent reticence prevails on that front and I think we are all appreciative.

The second point that the Minister made—which I think he did belabour—was that the Government had adequately, generously, substantially, usefully, undeniably helped parents with care, and that we were failing to recognise this. The evidence for that was, first, a back-to-work bonus—and we shall come to that later. That takes four years before one achieves the maximum sum. That is modelled on the Jobseekers Bill and benefits only those women moving into work, not those women out of work.

Thirdly, the Minister made the point about family credit. Perhaps he did not emphasise sufficiently the fact that the only changes made to family credit were for those affected by the April changes and the preceding changes in the formula. We shall return to that subject in subsequent amendments. Any later changes in maintenance payments will nonetheless not allow for subsequent changes in family credit.

We find that very worrying because, as the Minister will know, family credit is fixed for six months at a time and any discontinuity or erratic quality in maintenance payments will not be overcome by family credit. Therefore, the much vaunted changes in family credit the Minister mentioned are only a temporary smoothing so that, as we change the formula, parents with care will not be immediate losers. That is not to say that that is not welcome, but it is a once-and-for-all concession to get over the Government's difficulties and will do nothing to address the continuing problems of women on family credit. Therefore, that is not a serious contribution to women's welfare.

I note the point about the 18,000 people who did not have good cause and whose benefit was therefore deducted. That was half the number of 40,000 I had estimated. The Government were not able to address our concern that to some extent there was no financial incentive for women to co-operate with the agency, while

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not colluding with any fraud. The Government would perhaps persuade more of those women to work with the agency were they to have a disregard.

The Government handled the argument in relation to cost lightly. That was wise. The argument that parents with care are being treated generously is not true. I wish to return to the original arguments, which were well made by the noble Baroness, Lady Seear. We all agree that over time the best way for a single parent or parent with care to move out of poverty is to get back into work. There is no doubt about that. However, while they have very young children, perhaps tiny children of six months or 18 months, while child care is not available or affordable, and given the present economic situation in which appropriate jobs are not available, such parents cannot move into work. If they cannot work they are dependent on maintenance. If they are dependent on maintenance they need a disregard now, not rolled up, at the time when they go to work, and they are moving up two or three steps on the ladder and beginning to look forward to a period of relative prosperity.

I think that the Minister agrees with us but is stuck with his brief. He is stuck with the brief because the Jobseekers Bill has cast a long shadow over this Bill. As a result, we have the bright idea of a rolled up, back-to-work bonus. A back-to-work bonus in the context of jobseekers is relevant. One is dealing for the most part with unemployed men who are moving in and out of the labour market. There is something to be said for a back-to-work bonus which helps to overcome the immediate problems of the costs of getting back into work. That is not the situation with lone parents who are carers. They need the money now, not at the point when their situation is going to improve substantially because they are going into work.

I should like the Minister to respond, because this is one of our most serious anxieties with regard to the Bill. We part with the Liberal Democrats on the issue. We support the principle of a child support agency. We do not begrudge the changes which occurred earlier this year to help absent parents, because we believe that many of them had a good case and were hard done by under this Bill. However, we believe with all our hearts that the Government have not recognised with equal clarity the situation of parents with care. They have not done so because those parents with care, being mothers, do not walk away from their children, do not go on strike, do not abandon their kids, do not "sharp elbow" and do not harass the Minister at public meetings. Had they done so, we might have had a disregard by now.

I hope that the Minister will respond once more. It is a matter about which all noble Lords on the Opposition Benches feel strongly. I believe that in his heart of hearts the Minister would prefer to be on our Benches on this issue. I hope that the Minister will respond to me.

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