Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for giving an authoritative account of the development of this particular skill. As I hope I made clear in an earlier response, the British Association for Counselling and the other very important national body, the British Psychological Society, maintain registers to which people can apply.

Education (Student Loans) Bill

3.21 p.m.

Brought from the Commons; read a first time, and to be printed.

4 Nov 1997 : Column 1324

Delegated Powers and Deregulation Select Committee

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Boston of Faversham): My Lords, I beg to move on behalf of the Committee of Selection, That the Lord Mayhew of Twysden be appointed a member of the Select Committee in the place of the Lord Kingsland.--(The Chairman of Committees.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Local Government (Contracts) Bill

Read a third time.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill do now pass.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.--(Baroness Hayman.)

Lord Bowness: My Lords, we on this side of the House supported the aims of the Bill; namely, to clarify and remove doubt about the powers of local authorities to enter into private finance initiatives and partnership deals. We had concerns about some aspects, particularly the circumstances in which discharge terms might be challenged. But that matter was debated fully in Committee. I believe that distinguished legal opinion in your Lordships' House did not altogether share my concerns. I hope that that proves to be correct.

I thank the Minister for her detailed explanations of the provisions and the amendments introduced by the Government at Committee stage. We on this side of the House hope that the Bill succeeds in its aims, as private finance initiatives and partnerships are vitally important to local government. They are matters which the Conservative administration and the Conservative Benches support.

Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, first, I should like to apologise on behalf of my noble friend Baroness Hamwee, who has been involved in the discussions on this Bill, for the fact that she is not able to be present this afternoon. We support the Bill and its central objectives. We look forward to the Government dealing rather more boldly with the issue of local government powers. This Bill aims to provide reassurance to the private sector which is involved in the private finance initiative. We hope that the Government will be sufficiently bold to address the wider issue of local government powers in accordance with the spirit of the European Charter of Local Self Government. We congratulate the Government upon having signed that charter. We hope that the Government recognise the merits of local government having powers of general competence--in computerspeak, that its default mode is full power unless specifically limited by statute, rather than the other way round.

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords who have contributed for their support. This

4 Nov 1997 : Column 1325

is a non-contentious but quite technically challenging Bill. I was most grateful for the courteous and extremely patient way in which your Lordships dealt with the Bill throughout all its stages, particularly the way in which noble Lords considered a large number of government amendments. Those amendments reflect the Government's response to suggestions from experienced practitioners and legal experts as well as issues raised in another place.

I was grateful to both the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, for their constructive approach. Their questions provided me with the opportunity to clarify the purpose and effect of the Bill. I should also like to thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson of Lymington, and my noble friend Lord Mishcon for their expertise at Committee stage. As I believe the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, has admitted, that had a helpful effect in maintaining the Government's position.

The Bill was introduced in response to demands from the private sector for the Government to clear up uncertainties about local authority powers to enter into partnership contracts. I am confident that the Bill as it now stands will satisfy those demands. I am grateful for noble Lords' patience in dealing with the large number of government amendments tabled in this House. I am sure that local authorities and their private sector partners who wish to do business together will also be grateful for the care that has been taken to ensure that this Bill meets its purpose.

As to the wider question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, I hope that he will not be disappointed by the Government's performance in this field. This is a small measure but it is a token of the way in which the Government wish to work effectively with local government in future. In that spirit, I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill passed, and returned to the Commons with amendments.

Plant Varieties Bill

3.27 p.m.

Report received.

Clause 48 [Regulations and orders]:

Lord Carter moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 20, line 9, at end insert--
("( ) Before making any regulations or order under this Act, the Ministers shall consult such organisations as appear to them to be representative of persons likely to be substantially affected by the regulations or order.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, Amendment No. 1 requires Ministers to consult organisations that represent persons who are likely to be substantially affected before making regulations or orders. The Plant Varieties Registration Office (PVRO) always consults widely on all proposals for secondary

4 Nov 1997 : Column 1326

legislation before submitting them to Ministers. This amendment will therefore not affect existing practice in any way. The Government have no difficulty in making this practice a legal requirement.

At Committee stage the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St. Johns, tabled an amendment which would have required consultation with bodies representing plant breeders, farmers and growers. Although we welcomed the amendment in principle, I pointed out that the amendment was not sufficiently wide to encompass all interests. I therefore undertook to table a government amendment at Report stage. This amendment discharges that obligation. It requires Ministers to consult organisations representing those who are likely to be substantially affected before making orders and regulations under the Bill. I beg to move.

Baroness Anelay of St. Johns: My Lords, I thank the Minister for the amendment. It meets the objective that I hoped to achieve in the amendment I tabled at Committee stage. His wording is perhaps more felicitous than mine. I had not intended to exclude from consultation any relevant party. We support the amendment.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 51 [Consequential amendments]:

Lord Carter moved Amendment No. 2:

Page 20, line 32, at end insert--
("( ) In section 2(4) of the Trade Descriptions Act 1968, after paragraph (g) there shall be inserted--
"(h) the Plant Varieties Act 1997;".").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 2 I should like to speak also to Amendment No. 3. These two amendments correct some drafting omissions. Section 2(4) of the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 provides that any description or mark applied in pursuance of Acts of Parliament listed in it is deemed not to be a trade description. The Plant Varieties and Seeds Act 1964 is listed. The first amendment adds the Plant Varieties Act 1997 to that list so that the variety names continue to be deemed not to be trade descriptions.

Amendment No. 3 repeals redundant wording in the Resale Prices Act 1976. Currently, that Act refers to protective directions under the 1964 Act. The Bill does not provide for protective directions, and this wording will therefore become redundant once the Bill comes into force. The amendments have no practical effect other than to keep the statute book tidy, which I am sure your Lordships will agree is a thoroughly worthy objective. I beg to move.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, I am sure that it is an admirable objective to keep the statute book tidy. However, how are we to know that the Bill will become an Act in 1997 rather than in 1998?

Lord Carter: My Lords, I do not have the Bill in front of me; therefore I am not sure of its

4 Nov 1997 : Column 1327

commencement date. The Bill enters the statute book and becomes law next week when we have the Motion that the Bill do now pass.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Schedule 4 [Repeals]:

Lord Carter moved Amendment No. 3:

Page 29, line 12, at end insert--
("1976 c. 53.The Resale Prices Act 1976.In section 10(4)(b), the words from "or" to the end.")

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Social Security (Lone Parents) (Amendment) Regulations 1997

3.30 p.m.

Earl Russell rose to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Regulations (S.I. 1997/1790), laid before the House on 30th July, be annulled.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I look forward with eager anticipation to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Higgins. It is a challenging assignment to make a non-controversial maiden speech on this subject, but the noble Lord is an experienced parliamentarian even if as yet only in one House. We look forward to his continuing experience in this House. Whether it is impossible or not, I am sure that he will succeed.

The regulations against which I pray cut benefits for lone parents. Lone parents are easily stereotyped, as I am sure the Minister agrees; indeed, I have heard her say so. In thinking of that point, I was moved to remember a moment in my life which I would normally prefer to forget. It is of sitting through a very long afternoon in the wing of a maternity hospital waiting to find out whether I had become not merely a parent but a lone parent.

Fortunately, that period did not last long enough for me to need to take any decisions, but it did last long enough for me to contemplate some of the choices. They are not particularly easy. Had I decided that it was my duty to give up one responsible job in order to undertake another and become a full-time parent it would, of course, have been a wrench. Had I then been told that I was a scrounger, a sufferer from welfare dependency and an exploiter of taxpayers, I might well have replied, like the former President Nixon, in words from which the expletives would have had to be deleted. But as it is, now that the Conservative Party has had such a welcome conversion to the cause of compassion for single parents, I hope that I need not develop that point further.

The regulations abolish the single parent premium; that is, the extra payment for the specific expense of being a single parent. It was formerly paid with income support, housing benefit and council tax benefit. Because of the inclusion of housing benefit and council tax benefit, they apply to those in work as well as those out of work. The average loss for those in work ranges from £10.40 a week to £6.05 a week. The loss for those on income support is £4.95 a week.

4 Nov 1997 : Column 1328

In the words of the Department of Social Security, the aim of the regulations is "more even-handed treatment" for couple parents and for single parents. The Social Security Advisory Committee stated that it ends the tradition of special support for single parents which goes back to the Finer Committee. The Social Security Advisory Committee has understated its case; it should have said that it ends a tradition that goes back to the book of Exodus.

I believe that the regulations will worsen hardship in an area where it is already particularly severe. They cause considerable concern to the Social Security Advisory Committee, which advised that they should not be proceeded with until there had been further research on the costs, income and expenditure of lone parents. The department dismissed that argument, saying that all evidence remained inconclusive.

The research for which the Social Security Advisory Committee asked appeared within a few days of its report. It was published by the Rowntree Trust and was entitled Small Fortunes by Sue Middleton and others. That established the interesting point that when we three debated that issue in the past we were all barking up the wrong tree. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, clearly remembers a good many exchanges about whether special costs are attached to being a single parent. I continue to believe that the answer to that question is yes. The problem of fox, goose and cabbage is an old one, but, because it depends on exceptional circumstances, it is in its nature difficult to prove.

The Small Fortunes Rowntree research has left that argument on one side. It shows that the child premium on income support is a good deal less than the cost of bringing up children. It states that on average the premium is about 70 per cent. of the cost. Therefore, all children need to be subsidised out of their parents' income support. Where there are two parents there are two to share the subsidy. Where there is only one parent inevitably in practice the parental subsidy is twice as big. Inevitably there will more poverty among lone parents than among couple parents.

Since then, two further pieces of research have appeared and both are worth mentioning. One is by Alex Bryson and others, published by the Policy Studies Institute. It found that income support appeared inadequate to maintain stable family living standards where the head of the household was a lone mother. That is a strong finding and it should have been known to the DSS since the research in which it was included was funded by the DSS.

The other piece of research was published by the Office for National Statistics and entitled Social Focus on Families. It found that between 1981 and 1991 the proportion of single parents at below half average income had increased from 13 per cent. to 52 per cent. That is a fourfold increase in 10 years. That finding does not suggest to me that if we lack a level playing field it is tilted in favour of single parents. Indeed, it suggests the reverse. It seems to me that there is considerable hardship among lone parents and if these regulations go ahead it will become significantly worse.

4 Nov 1997 : Column 1329

The Government's answer is set out in the Secretary of State's speech to NCH's "Action for Children" on 22nd October. That speech was as good as the Treasury allowed it to be. Lest that sounds like the 18th century tourist who said that Switzerland was a very nice country except for the mountains, I will say that since 1st May my opinion of the Secretary of State has consistently gone up and my opinion of the Chancellor of the Exchequer has consistently gone down. That is an unambiguous statement. The Secretary of State said:

    "Work is the best form of welfare for people of working age and this Government have already taken action to get lone mothers off welfare and into work, where they want to be".

The Minister knows that I shall not argue about the conceptual framework of that argument. She has certainly heard me develop it many times before, most recently on 3rd June. But what the Secretary of State said needs qualification. She said that lone mothers should be,

    "into work, where they want to be".
"They" in fact means 80 per cent. of single parents. The other 20 per cent. are not insignificant because the right of a parent to remain at home with the children is fundamental. I do not wish to see that challenged or threatened.

Also, we must remember the finding of the Policy Studies Institute that those parents who suffer severe hardship while at home with their children are less likely to obtain work later on. That is a credible finding. Malnutrition is not an assistance to the exhausting task of actively seeking work.

There will also be a number who, although they want to work, will not succeed in doing so, some of them for transport reasons. The ONS research Social Focus on Families found that 51 per cent. of lone parents have no access to a car as against 10 per cent. of married couples who have no access to a car. In many areas, not all of them rural, no access to a car means no opportunity to work. In some cases, there will be no job and in some cases there will be no childcare. More generally, I believe that the Minister will agree that no policy brought into effect by any government, however competent, has ever been 100 per cent. effective.

Therefore, I am not happy with a policy which helps to get single mothers back to work, however good that objective may be, if that is done at the price of starving the remainder. If the Minister invokes, as I think she must and probably will, this Government's adherence to their predecessors' spending limits, I shall ask her to tell me and the whole House why the Government have decided to adhere to their predecessors' spending limits because, of course, that was a pledge that Mr. Kenneth Clarke, who is a prudent man on occasions, never gave. Why his successor felt the need to do so is something which I should like to have explained to me.

At this stage I say nothing about the arguments for and against voting on the Motion. I do not like to take final decisions on a vote before I have heard the Minister's reply. For the moment, I shall mention only the Resolution of this House on 20th October 1994 that this House affirms its unfettered freedom to vote on subordinate legislation.

4 Nov 1997 : Column 1330

I shall leave the House with one or two statistics from the Rowntree Report. First, 63 per cent. of the income support allowance for children of single parents goes on food. That research measured poverty by a list of indicators and classed as severely poor those who were without five of them. The department argues that the use of indicators measures tastes and not needs. But many of those indicators, such as meals, a warm coat or single use of a bed, I do not count to be a matter of taste; I would regard them as a matter of need. I do not think that there will be much disagreement about that.

It was found that 13 per cent. of children over the age of 10 share a bedroom with a sibling of the opposite sex. Children of single parents who are not working are 7½ times more likely to lack five of those basic necessities than children with two parents who are both not working. That is a remarkably precise quantification of the extra hardship in single parent families. All of those who lacked all three food items were in single parent families and of those who were without one of the three food items, 24 per cent. were in families of single parents with no work and 25 per cent.--the larger number--in families of single parents who had part-time work.

Work is not by itself a wholly adequate answer, however welcome it may be. I shall leave the House with a quotation from the Prime Minister's party conference speech. The Prime Minister said:

    "Children should not have to go hungry to school".
We agree with the Prime Minister's aspiration, and therefore we do not agree with these regulations. I beg to move.

Moved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Regulations (S.I. 1997/1790), laid before the House on 30th July, be annulled.--(Earl Russell.)

3.46 p.m.

Lord Higgins: My Lords, the Guinness Book of Records has no reference to the fastest time taken for a Member of your Lordships' House to proceed from being introduced to making a maiden speech on the Opposition Front Bench. But since it is barely 24 hours since I had the great privilege of entering your Lordships' House, noble Lords will understand that I feel a little intimidated this afternoon, even though I find opposite me at least two faces I have encountered on more Finance Bills than any of us would probably wish to recall.

I trust that the House will be kind and indulge me as a maiden speaker. I have always taken the view that it is right that a maiden speaker should seek to be uncontroversial and brief. Having said that, I thought it appropriate to carry out some research before engaging in today's debate. One thing emerges very clearly; namely, that the noble Earl, Lord Russell, is assiduous in proposing Motions of this kind regarding statutory instruments and is immensely expert in the area we are discussing. I am most grateful to the noble Earl for the extremely generous remarks with which he began his speech.

4 Nov 1997 : Column 1331

The fact is that, more and more in legislation, the details and even large chunks of the proposal are embodied in statutory instruments but less and less is given adequate scrutiny either in this House or the other place. Therefore, it is entirely appropriate that we should have this opportunity and I am grateful to the noble Earl for providing it.

The quick research I was able to carry out also reveals that the regulations which we are discussing appear to be, so far as I can ascertain, in every respect similar to those which the previous government were likely to introduce. Therefore, I do not recommend my noble friends--although it seems presumptuous of me at this stage--to vote against the regulations. The arguments previously put forward remain valid and appropriate, although I shall comment in a few moments about the point made by the noble Earl as regards the influence of the Treasury.

However, I have discovered that the arguments put forward by the opposition previously seem somewhat inconsistent, if I may say so, with the regulations now before us. The Library, to which I am very grateful, provided me with a large number of quotations from the noble Baroness who is to reply to the debate. It would be inappropriate, in a non-controversial speech, to refer to them extensively. Perhaps, on Second Reading of another Bill, there may be that opportunity.

The essence of the noble Baroness's argument, which she has put consistently, was that the benefits we are discussing today, which the Government are--I was going to say proposing to reduce but, more accurately--proposing to eliminate, are extremely valuable in as much as the recipients find that they are not means-tested and therefore, if moving from welfare to work, retain them. I believe that that was the essence of the Minister's argument, repeated in a number of speeches. As the essence of the Government's case now is to have a system which operates from welfare to work it would seem entirely appropriate that the noble Baroness should have pursued those arguments rather than do what appears to be a clear "U" turn. It is possible that I have misunderstood the point, but it seems to me to be one of very considerable importance.

Similarly, so far as concerns the noble Earl's point, it is true that the Government have said that they will remain within the limits of public expenditure specified by the previous government. However, if I am correct--and I believe that I am--the noble Baroness objected to the measure that she now proposes when she was well aware that that restraint had already been put forward by the present Chancellor of the Exchequer when he was in opposition.

I should like to pose a few specific questions for the Minister. On the back of the regulations that she has signed an "Explanatory Note", says:

    "These Regulations do not impose a charge on business".
However, it is surprising that there is no mention of the likely effect on public expenditure. Can the Minister clarify for the benefit of the House and myself what the effect of the measure is likely to be as regards public expenditure? I well understand that that will require an

4 Nov 1997 : Column 1332

estimate. The regulations are not retrospective; indeed, they are concerned with the situation in the future. However, it would seem that the effect of the regulations, together with the related clause in the new Social Security Bill in another place, will be well over £250 million. That is not a small amount of money. Therefore, can the Minister say what the Government's estimate is of the actual savings in public money which will result from the measure? In particular, can the Minister say whether or not that is greater than the amount of money--I believe some £200 million--which it is said she has obtained from the Treasury as a result of the windfall tax? I believe that noble Lords would be interested to know.

I have a further point to make. It relates to the extremely helpful report from the Social Security Advisory Committee which was commissioned by the previous Secretary of State for Social Security. He received a reply; the election intervened; and the Government have now published the report together with their comments. As the noble Earl pointed out, the committee made some remarkably modest proposals both with regard to the provision of greater data upon which we could base decisions in such matters and a very modest proposal to help with transitional arrangements. However, both proposals have been rejected by the Government. Indeed, they reject both proposals, then thank the committee for its advice. Therefore, despite the fact that something like 60 organisations and individuals were consulted, the Government have not felt able to accept these reasonably modest proposals. No doubt the Minister will be able to tell us why.

I should like to make one final and perhaps rather broader point. The Government are engaged in a great many studies concerning the welfare state. I must confess that I have somewhat lost count of them. I believe that there are between seven and 11 of them, depending on whether one is concerned with those of the Department of Social Security or those which also involve the Treasury. I am sure that we all look forward with great interest to studying all of them, not least one which I see is related to a tax credit scheme which, had we not lost the election in 1974, we would have introduced. Alas, the incoming Labour government did not implement it.

From my personal point of view, and as I am conscious of the responsibilities which fall upon me in my new role, perhaps I may point out that many years ago I had the privilege of studying economics at Cambridge and of working in the Marshall Library. Marshall was, I suppose, one of the greatest economists who ever lived. I am glad to see that at least I carry the noble Baroness with me in that respect. It is said that Marshall used to work in the library with a portrait of a poor man in front of him so that, however mathematical his calculations, he would, at the same time, have in the forefront of his mind the effect that they might have in benefiting those who were impoverished, be they lone parents or whatever. That is something I learnt at that time.

4 Nov 1997 : Column 1333

I know that the noble Earl and the Minister are very concerned with the analytical side of such matters. It is tremendously important that we should go in great depth into what are at times very complex matters to ensure that we get the right answers. As the results of reviews come back to us and we consider them, I hope that I shall be able to play some small role in analysing such problems so that the whole House will manage to improve the lot of those whom we seek to help.

I am grateful to noble Lords for their patience and kindness in hearing me this afternoon. As I said, we are discussing a difficult issue and one which we clearly need to return to when we come to discuss the Social Security Bill on its arrival from another place. However, on this occasion, perhaps I may express the hope that we are able to improve matters. I look forward very much to hearing the answers that I hope I will receive from the Minister.

3.55 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Baroness Hollis of Heigham): My Lords, my first pleasure is to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, to the Opposition Front Bench. He brings to the task of official Opposition spokesperson for social security his vast experience in the Treasury as a Minister and then of course as chairman of the Select Committee on the Treasury and on the Civil Service. That experience will not only enrich proceedings but will, I am sure, continue to stretch the acumen and experience of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and certainly myself on this Front Bench, as the experience of his predecessor the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, always did. So the House is indeed enriched. I believe the evidence for that is to be found in the contribution that the noble Lord made this afternoon. I think that the noble Lord was perhaps helped in being less controversial than he might otherwise have felt the need to be given the fact that, as he noticed himself, this is a hangover measure. Therefore, to that extent, it took the noble Lord away from that embarrassment, although he would like to think that it has now shifted to me. Perhaps I may address that point at a later stage.

I should like to respond to this Prayer against the regulations by first putting the measures in context. The Government's objectives for the social security system are clear. We believe--and I doubt whether there is any dissent in the House--that work is the best and most independent form of welfare. It raises the living standards of families and is the best route out of a dependency on benefit. In addition, a working parent provides a positive role model for future generations as their children see that work brings not only financial benefits but satisfaction, fulfilment and self-respect.

More than that, a recent research study suggests that children of working lone mothers are more likely to get a job; that their daughters are more likely to do well at school; and that the daughters are themselves less likely to become lone mothers. In other words, work breaks some of that inheritance of deprivation. The Government believe that a life on benefit, at whatever level, cannot satisfy the aspirations of lone mothers to

4 Nov 1997 : Column 1334

provide the best possible life for their children; nor can the example of that way of life be a healthy one for children. We know--and I am sure that no one disputes this fact--that lone parents themselves want to achieve independence and to regain personal control over their lives. Our policies are on the side of what they themselves wish and want to do as they tell us.

For too long the welfare state has excluded lone parents from the rest of society, writing them off to a life of dependence on benefit and ignoring both their aspirations and responsibilities. We start with a policy of social inclusion because we believe that lone parents should have the same opportunities as everyone else to take up work or training and to improve their standard of living. Independent research suggests that the average additional income for lone parents who are in work and supported by family credit is over £50 a week above the estimate of their out-of-work incomes. Promoting social inclusion benefits all of society.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page