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Energy Conservation Bill

9.17 p.m.

Baroness Wilcox: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.--(Baroness Wilcox.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Lord Elliott of Morpeth) in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [Amendment of Home Energy Conservation Act 1995]:

Lord Lucas moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 1, line 7, leave out ("1") and insert ("1(1)").

The noble Lord said: I should like to speak also to Amendments Nos. 2 to 4. Perhaps I may first apologise for the late tabling of these amendments. As a glance at the Marshalled List will suggest to the Committee, it is in fact Amendment No. 3 which is the substantive amendment of this group.

The Act requires local authorities to prepare, publish and submit an energy conservation report setting out measures which would lead to a significant improvement in the energy efficiency of residential accommodation in their area. It is the definition of residential accommodation that this Bill seeks to amend by widening it to include houses in multiple occupation and now, should these amendments be carried, houseboats.

Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 are purely drafting amendments. The wording of Amendment No. 3 ensures that pleasure boats are excluded; there will be no question of authorities being required to look at boats which regularly move, or the sort of canal boat which is let for holidays on the waterways. In addition, we have followed for England, Wales and Northern Ireland the pattern of the definition of mobile home in the Act by requiring that it should also be a dwelling for the purposes of council tax or the equivalent in Northern Ireland. The same linkage cannot be made in Scotland because of differences in its council tax legislation.

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Amendment No. 4 is consequential to the transitional provisions in Clause 2 of the Bill. It recognises the fact that there may need to be special arrangements for reports on houseboats as well as for houses in multiple occupation. In England, the first energy conservation reports are due at the end of November. Should this Bill become law, as I hope it will, there would be very little time for authorities to take account of the wider definition of residential accommodation in those reports, and it will be sensible to make some different arrangement for houses in multiple occupation and houseboats. Clause 2, with this amendment, permits that.

Measures of the kind which the Bill envisages, to encourage changes in behaviour and the use of appliances which are energy efficient, are as relevant to people who live in houseboats as to those in other kinds of accommodation. It seems right in principle that attention should be paid to the energy efficiency of boats which are people's homes as well as to the energy efficiency of more conventional homes. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Lucas moved Amendments Nos. 2 and 3:

Page 1, line 7, leave out ("paragraph") and insert ("paragraphs").
Page 1, line 18, at end insert--
("(ab) a house-boat, that is, a boat or other floating decked structure--
(i) designed or adapted for use solely as a place of permanent habitation, and
(ii) not having means of, or capable of being readily adapted for, self-propulsion,
which, in the case of a house-boat in England and Wales or Northern Ireland, is a dwelling for the purposes of Part I of the Local Government Finance Act 1992, or as the case may be, the purposes of the Rates (Northern Ireland) Order 1977, or".").

The noble Lord said: I have spoken to these amendments. I beg to move.

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Clause 1, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 2 [Citation and commencement]:

Lord Lucas moved Amendment No. 4:

Page 1, line 28, at end insert ("or house-boats").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 2, as amended, agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported with amendments.

Child Benefit, Child Support and Social Security (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 1996

9.22 p.m.

Earl Russell rose to move to resolve, That the draft Child Benefit, Child Support and Social Security (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 1996 be not proceeded with, and that this House calls on Her Majesty's Government to lay amended regulations

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which take account of the costs of lone parenthood and leave future changes in benefits more clearly subject to parliamentary control.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, last November there appeared in the Guardian, I know not by what means, a memorandum from the Secretary of State to the Treasury. In that memorandum he set out the view that if his changes designed for the public expenditure round are put forward through primary legislation, he might face a serious risk of defeat in votes. He therefore proposed to introduce them so far as possible by regulation.

The Minister will understand that, in saying that, the Secretary of State has led me into temptation. For most of today the Minister has been dealing with the consequences of one of those attempts to produce change by legislation and I really must say to him after so short a time that we cannot go on meeting like this! In the circumstances, I believe that the Secretary of State might have been wiser to deal with this by means of primary legislation.

We are also continuing a debate, in which the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, was joining not long ago, about what appears to many of us to be a process of victimisation; a picking, in the course of a search for expenditure savings, on those least able to defend themselves and from whom, for the very same reason, often the smallest savings can be expected.

The Minister tends to join argument with us on the question of whether there should be savings. We join argument with him on the question of whether he is looking for those savings sensibly or in the right place. That is an argument which I hope will continue and to which I shall return later in my speech.

The effect of the regulations before us, which are manifold and as usual extremely technical and complicated to follow, is an amalgamation of benefits; to amalgamate single parent premium and one-parent benefit with the overall structure of benefits and especially with child benefit. The Government, in paragraph 7 of their reply to the Social Security Advisory Committee, admit frankly that they are doing this because they believe in what they perhaps euphemistically call a narrowing of the differential between benefits for single parents and benefits for others.

Be that as it may--and I do not agree with it and shall return to it in a few moments--that raises the possibility of a constitutional issue because, of course, once the benefits have been merged with each other, we shall no longer be able to take in separate regulations or as a separate issue any attempt to narrow the differential between single parents and other parents. That is a policy issue on which the House is entitled to an opinion. The matter will come before us only on the social security uprating statement.

I imagine that the Minister is familiar with paragraph 12 of the Social Security Advisory Committee's Report. However, our primary concern in that report is with the legal consequences of implementing the proposals. It would provide the Secretary of State with much better flexibility to adjust differential benefit provision for one

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and two-parent families. The freezing of one-parent benefit and the lone-parent premium in the uprating order for 1996-97 demonstrates that some flexibility already exists and some respondents have suggested to us that that provides an adequate answer since, over time, the differential could be reduced.

Therefore, in effect the Secretary of State is taking power to let the benefit advantage existing for single parents wither on the vine. That is a pattern with which child benefit has made us familiar. While it may be argued in theory that some possibility of parliamentary control still exists, the Motion to resolve may be a very flexible instrument. However, it really is not practical to use that against the social security uprating statement. If the Motion to resolve is to have any teeth at all, it must be in the words that the regulations be not proceeded with and the Government lay amended regulations which specify the savings.

If we were to move that the social security uprating regulations be not proceeded with, we should be taking money out of so many people's pockets and food out of so many people's mouths that, in effect, it would be politically impossible. Therefore, the Secretary of State is taking any attempt at a further reduction of the differential between single and other parents out of the range of parliamentary control. It is that which I regard as a constitutional issue, and I make no apology for using that phrase.

I do not believe the facts of the Secretary of State's argument to be correct. I have a great sheaf of evidence here and the House may be relieved to hear that I shall not go through it all. I am sure that the noble Baroness will find plenty more. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation recently found, looking at the family expenditure survey, that the costs of a child aged 11 in a one-parent family are typically 30 per cent. of those of a single adult but, in a two-parent family, they are around 20 per cent. of those of a single adult. For children aged 11 to 18, it was found that the costs of a child for a lone parent are about 50 per cent. of those for a single adult compared with less than 30 per cent. for a two-parent family.

That seems to me to accord with common sense because many of the costs fall on one parent just as they would on two. For example, the costs of heating and electricity and much of the basic maintenance such as the replacing of a fridge, if one is lucky enough to be able to do that, are not doubled by the presence of the extra parent.

It is also the perennial problem of fox, goose and cabbage. While my wife was doing work for publication, I have taken charge of the children and attempted to do some juggling. People may say that I do not know very much but at least my ignorance is not total. I found that I always had to be in two places at once and therefore the travel costs were always higher than they would otherwise have been. That is a problem which many people face and it is a substantial part of why single parents are worse off than other parents.

The level on which that is happening is a very low one. If the Minister would look at Nutrition and Diet in Lone Parent Families in London by Elizabeth Fowler

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and Claire Calvert, he will find a good deal of support for that view. Indeed, he will find, for example, that 35 per cent. of lone parents on low income do not have adequate bedding for all the members of their household. He will also find that 31 per cent. of them lack hot water and that 38 per cent. have a problem with damp. Problems with damp tend to lead to illness. The Minister will talk about saving money. I shall suggest to him that he is simply exporting his costs and landing them on his noble friend Lady Cumberlege. It is not fair to her, to the Exchequer or, indeed, to lone parents.

I am sure that the Minister will run through all the arguments about the taxpayer that he has made before. I believe that the Minister's economies are false economies. I would advise him to look carefully at the research carried out by Professor Jonathan Bradshaw, and others, on The Employment of Lone Parents--A comparison of policies in 20 countries. It is the comparative evidence which really explains why we have so big a problem with paying benefits to lone parents. I will agree with the Minister in that there is a problem.

In the 1960s, only 10 per cent. of single parents were on national assistance. The figure is now nearly 70 per cent., whereas the figure in Germany is still very much what it was in the 1960s; namely, about 10 per cent. That differential must be addressed. I strongly support the right of parents, especially those with young children, to stay at home and not work. I make no suggestions as regards any change in the availability rules. However, when single parents want to work it is a wanton waste of public money to prevent them from so doing. It is cruel to them and it is often unfair to the children, because a happy parent is easier to live with than a frustrated one. Moreover, it deprives the Exchequer of a great deal of revenue.

Therefore, if the Minister starts invoking the interest of taxpayers I shall reply to him, "I am a taxpayer as well as you". There is more to it. A great deal of it seems to result from the cost of childcare. One of the key findings of the comparative study is that we have one of the lowest proportions of single parents working in any of the 20 countries studied. I believe that we come 19th out of 20. We also have one of the most striking differentials between the number of married parents working and the number of single parents at work. Indeed, in many countries there are actually more single parents who work than is the case with married parents. The situation is very much the reverse in this country.

One needs to look at what is actually going on. Professor Bradshaw found that the United Kingdom has the most expensive childcare of any of the countries in his study. The average figure that he found was £347 per month, or 28 per cent. of average earnings. The Minister knows that I have welcomed many times the disregard introduced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I do so again tonight. However, it comes nowhere near that figure. Once again, the Minister will have to face the possibility that he might actually save money by spending a little. Indeed, that is something that every household has to face and perhaps the Minister will also be able to do so.

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The next finding in the study was that disregards are much lower in all the other countries reviewed. It was found that housing benefit tapers, or the equivalent, are a great deal steeper in other countries. The rise in housing costs as people begin to work is exceptionally steep in this country, and the interaction between housing costs and childcare costs produces the poverty trap.

If the Minister wants to save money on lone parents--as I accept he does, and as he legitimately may--it is far better, both for the Exchequer and for them, to set them free to do what they want than to introduce niggling little measures of this sort. He may be interested to know that Professor Bradshaw and his colleagues have also reported that in all the 20 countries they have studied, maintenance is not the answer to the problems they have been studying. They also draw attention to the exceptionally poor leave provisions in the United Kingdom--in particular the lack of any parental leave in which the father can join. In many of these families there was once a father; in many of the others one hopes that in future there may be a father or a step-father.

In general, the way in which the problem of childcare must be resolved is in more and more involvement of both parents. The Equal Opportunities Commission is now taking up as many cases on behalf of men as on behalf of women. The rights of men to take part in childcare will be one of the big issues of equality for which to argue in the future. Before single parents can even meet the men, they have to be able to go out into the world of work. For a woman who has been at home with children that is often her only social life. There are a great many reasons why I think the Minister has taken quite the wrong approach, and why I think what he is doing is not at all in the interests of the taxpayer. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Draft Child Benefit, Child Support and Social Security (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 1996 be not proceeded with, and that this House calls on Her Majesty's Government to lay amended regulations which take account of the costs of lone parenthood and leave future changes in benefits more clearly subject to Parliamentary control.--(Earl Russell.)

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