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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: As we have said several times today, the Government are committed to supporting families. Perhaps I may come straight to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins. He asked whether, under any circumstances, the Government would think it right to give preference to lone parents, because of their status as lone parents, or other families.

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I suspect he may think that this is an oblique answer but our concern is not actually with the family structure. We are concerned with the poverty that follows, particularly for children, in vulnerable family structures.

This tends to be associated with fractured families. It could be other families which, though nominally intact, have violence or in which there is disability. There may be all kinds of stresses on the family. Our concern is to deal with those stresses and those problems, including poverty, rather than the actual family structures. That is why, with lone parents, we are seeking to address a three-fold strategy: the benefit changes that we have been talking about today; the welfare-to-work proposals of the New Deal together with the child support proposals; and, of course, over the next few months, reform of the Child Support Agency so that maintenance begins properly to flow.

We believe that support for families should be based on the needs of the children, not on the nature of the family structure. We do not believe that the current structure which pays a higher fixed rate to all lone parent families and to no two parent families is the best way of addressing the extra costs particular families may face.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, when referring to a previous amendment, talked about the extra costs of lone parents. Perhaps I may speak for a moment about costs and then go on to talk about research. It is obvious, as has been said, that lone parents share with couples similar, possibly identical, costs for housing, heating, lighting, cleaning and furniture. It is also the case that lone parents face higher costs than two parent families or couple families--above all, opportunity costs, of which the primary one is child care. I think we all accept that. From my own experience I should have thought that there are lower costs in lone parent families compared with couple families because, for example, a lone parent and a child must spend less on food than two adults and a child, particularly if the second adult is a man. They must also spend less on clothing. They also probably spend less on transport and probably less on such things as drink, cigarettes and so on. So, in terms of costs, I think the jury is genuinely out. Lone parents do have higher costs in some areas; they have identical costs in others; and they must as a family unit spend less absolutely, though not necessarily less relatively, than couple families on such items as food, clothing and so on. That has to be true.

When one adds the point which the noble Earl has made to me on many occasions--he is absolutely right--that there is, in addition, the allocation of money within the household, so even within a workless couple household a greater amount of residual money will go to him rather than to her, reflecting, if you like, the power politics within that household, it is clear that the lone parent is often better off without that partner.

That point has been expressed by other noble Lords on previous occasions. It was expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, in a question the other day asking why lone parents chose not to re-partner with a workless man. If couples were better off than

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lone parents, following the logic of that argument, lone parents would be financially wise to re-partner. The fact that they choose not to do so may well be recognition of the fact that they are better off financially without having a workless man in the household. The response to that is not that they should not have a partner in their lives, but wherever possible we should do what we can to encourage him and her, when the children are old enough, to have the choice of work. I am sure that the noble Lord will take that point.

I come now to the research itself. The noble Lord is right: I am very interested in the research. It is very important. The research comes with different baggages of assumptions as they address the problems. There are real difficulties separating what counts as need from what counts as preference. It may relate to cigarettes where we know that proportionately poorer families spend more. That is not a judgment. Far be it from me to judge the noble Earl's private tastes, preferences or habits in that direction.

I suspect that if the noble Earl and I were to carry out a study into what lone parents need we would come up with different assumptions as to whether they did or did not need cigarettes in their expenditure. Therefore, the research would reflect that. There are very different significances in the conclusions reached. Given all the difficulties surrounding such studies, there is research which supports the retention of the premium for lone parents. The work of Middleton, Ashworth and Braithwaite in Small Fortunes, which the noble Earl quoted, concluded that lone parent families are more deprived than couple families. Other research points in the opposite direction. Work by Oldfield and Yu in The Cost of a Child [1993] and by Bradshaw in Household Budgets and Living Standards found that lone parent families were relatively less disadvantaged on income support than couple families.

Research by Dickens et al in 1996 in The Costs of Children and the Welfare State shows that lone parents are under-compensated by the benefit system in relation to some family types and over-compensated in relation to others. What is clear, without in any way impugning research, is that in this area one will find the research answer which is consistent with assumptions which are brought to bear on the research. Having read at least half-a-dozen research reports, all written in the past seven or eight years on this subject, I do not believe, unlike my noble friend Lord Ashley, that further research will give an unambiguous answer and certainly not the clear and concrete answer that my noble friend asks for. As I say, there have been seven or eight highly esteemed pieces of research. But, because they come with different assumptions and seek to test the relativity of lone parent incomes against other family households within the benefit system, they come up with very different answers. They come up with what they first started with.

However, the Government recognise that all families have extra costs as a result of caring for their children. That is why we are committed to retaining child benefit as a universal benefit and why we have announced a £2.50 increase in the standard rate of child benefit for the first child. We also recognise that some families

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have specific extra costs. Lone parents in particular, but also some couples, where both may be students, often have to pay for childcare. We could never meet the costs of childcare, which can easily be £100 a week or more, through a higher rate of child benefit for all lone parents. Instead we are introducing the childcare tax credit which will focus help on those families who have additional costs associated with childcare, thus relating it to specific needs. Lone parents will be the main beneficiaries of that childcare tax credit. Some two parent families will also need help with the cost of childcare. In my view the childcare tax credit will help those families as well. Like the noble Earl, I share concerns about lone parents who are unable to work. But again we need to consider what help is appropriate to all families and what specific help is required to address those particular difficulties facing the family.

Earlier this evening we outlined two measures; namely, the increase in the family premium for those on income-related benefits and the increase in the child personal allowance for the under-11s by a further £2.50 a week. Together those increases mean that a family with two young children will be better off by £7.50 a week.

Lone parents experience high levels of hardship. That is because they find it harder to obtain work and therefore spend longer periods of time on benefit than other groups. Only one workless couple in eight tends to be on an income-related benefit after five years; for loan parent families it is one in three. It is the longevity of time spent on benefit and therefore the difficulty of replacing carpets, the cooker, clothes, bedding and blankets, rather than the relativity of the benefit income to lone parents and other family types, that is the issue to be addressed as well as trying to help lone parents back into work. That is why, as part of the changes to budgeting loans in the Social Fund--this was discussed earlier at Committee stage--we have included the length of time on income support and family size as two of the personal circumstances which we use to determine budgeting loan applications. The longer the lone parent has been on benefit and the greater the hardship she is likely to experience as a result, the better and speedier the access she will have to budgeting loans. Indeed, because lone parents already face a longer period on benefit they already receive over half of the annual budgeting loan expenditure of £140 million.

I hope that I have met the questions raised by the Committee. We shall be treating both lone parents and two parent families in the same way when they face long periods on benefit. We believe that they should be treated equitably. We seek to ensure that all vulnerable families receive an adequate income when out of work; we seek to address the barriers they face when moving into work. We are breaking down those barriers for lone parents and workless couples alike through our new deal for lone parents, our national childcare strategy and our working families tax credit. We shall guarantee an income to every working family of at least £180 a week.

As Members of the Committee will know, we have also put in place measures to ensure that all four year-olds have an early education playschool start at the beginning of the school year. These measures will

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provide lone parents with the opportunities they have asked for to work--opportunities not previously open to them. If lone parents choose not to work in the short term--perhaps because they have very young children--we have sought to meet that need by increasing the income support premia. We hope that we shall be able to reduce the time they spend on benefit but to give them while they are on it priority access to a budgeting loan.

Research is inconclusive about the relative needs of lone parents and two parent families. We know that the specific costs that lone parents face are the length of time that they spend on benefit; the difficulties of getting access into work; and the costs of childcare. Our strategy is to address not just the symptoms of their poverty, which is the differential between their benefit and those of a couple, but the causes of it. There is the fact that they have young children which means that they are not free to go to work; there is the obstacle of moving into work and the difficulties that stand in their way as regards the Social Fund. We are addressing those problems. As a result I believe that in years to come lone parents will enjoy a level of prosperity that they have not experienced so far. I hope that this amendment will not be supported and that in due course Clause 70 shall stand part of the Bill.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: I challenge my noble friend on one point. The noble Earl and my noble friend said that they respect research, but my noble friend has just spent 10 minutes rubbishing research. She said that one cannot really depend on research because people bring all their own assumptions and presumptions to bear. Their own bias is built in. Anyone can rubbish that kind of research.

In saying that, my noble friend is really saying that research is of no value. That is the clear implication of what she said. Everyone brings their own presumption, assumption, predispositions and bias to bear and so the research is clearly of no value. That is a very big statement for my noble friend to make.

It is always a great pleasure to listen to her. As I have said before, she is one of the most persuasive Members of this House. But we cannot really buy her argument. The request does not come from me but from the Social Security Advisory Committee. It has said that we should try to have independent, quality research about whether the single parent family has more costs or not. In my credulous view, there is no argument: of course they have many more costs despite the persuasive points made by my noble friend.

Perhaps I may take one example. I refer to the research of the effect of smoking on cancer. My noble friend Lady Hollis is surely not going to say--and she must say this logically--that proving that smoking causes cancer is ridiculous because there is bias and prejudice built into the research. That invaluable research has saved many lives throughout the world. I hope that my noble friend will not give a definitive no.

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She is not a dogmatic person; she is very reasonable, so I hope that she will think about this matter, sleep on it, and possibly answer at a later stage.

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