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After Clause 70, insert the following new clause--

Lone parents with children under 5

(" . Regulations shall provide that single parents with dependent children under 5 shall continue to receive the single parent premium on income support, housing benefit and council tax benefit, and may make consequential amendments to the Social Security (Lone Parent) (Amendment) Regulations.").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I should like to associate the amendments with Amendment No. 58. I shall begin by asking the Minister to show her usual magnanimity. As she will know, when Amendment No. 58 was originally put down in my name, I was very much involved in social security and employment matters. Subsequently, in January of this year, I became involved directly in European and foreign affairs matters. I was therefore unable to attend most of the debate in Committee. I must therefore plead for the indulgence of my colleagues in reappearing at this inappropriate stage, as it now turns out. It is a matter about which I feel very strongly, and have done for a long time. I invite the Minister and her colleagues to accept, and not to feel too strongly about, my reappearance on these Benches.

The two amendments are directed in particular at single parents with children under the age of five. The purpose of these amendments is to ensure that single parents in that situation will be free without any form of pressure--economic or moral--to decide what is in the best interests of their very young children.

The Minister talked about the equivalence of single parents with married couple parents. The extensive statistical material in this field shows quite clearly that

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single parent families are, by and large, very much poorer than married couple families. I shall give a few examples of that.

The evidence is that 41 per cent. of single parents live on an income of less than £100 per week. The equivalent figure for married couple parents is 5 per cent. That is 5 per cent. against 41 per cent. The evidence on that issue from the Rowntree Foundation Study, published in 1997, was that 43 per cent. of single parents fell within the poorest fifth of all the income deciles. That is a much higher figure than the figure for married couple families. The evidence, according to the EU report, which was itself based on the Luxembourg Income Study comparing 20 countries, is that 56 per cent. of single parent families in Britain live below the median wage. Fifty-six per cent. of single parent families living below the median wage, which is an appalling figure, compares with a figure, according to a study, of 3 per cent. in Sweden and 4 per cent. in Finland. Of all European countries we have the worst record in terms of the proportion of single parents living in profound poverty.

I do not accuse the present Government of being responsible for that. The evidence is clear that in the 1980s the speed with which this country became unequal was not matched by any other industrialised country, save New Zealand. That rapid growth in inequality has, to be fair, been somewhat mitigated since the administration of Mr. John Major and more markedly since the new administration took office. Nevertheless, overwhelming evidence shows that, compared with other European countries, the United Kingdom has an extremely serious problem of single-parent poverty.

Secondly, it is worth pointing out that approximately 62 per cent. of single parents in this country do not represent the tabloid presentation of single parents as irresponsible teenagers, but are single parents for reasons of widowhood, divorce and separation. Among them is a particularly tragic group which is not as small as one might wish. It comprises the single parents who have separated from their spouses or partners because the spouse or partner abused either the wife and mother or the children. Some single parents are profoundly reluctant single parents. They are single parents through no choice of their own, but, in some cases, to protect their families.

When I tabled the amendment I would have felt even more passionate than I do tonight. That was before the Government brought forward the proposals in the Budget. The Minister and all Members of the House will recognise that, not knowing what would be in the Budget, many Members of the Government's party and the Opposition parties were appalled by the idea that those already in poverty should become more deeply impoverished as a result of the Government's decision to withdraw single parent premiums.

The Budget measures have considerably mitigated that problem, but they have not fully met all the requirements to put the single parent back in a position where she or he is not suffering profound poverty. First, there is the period of 18 months, referred to by my noble

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friend Lord Russell, which falls between the original cuts in single parent premiums and the making good of them and more in the Budget. That is the first existing and continuing aspect of deepening poverty, but one may say that it is short-term. The second is the loss of lone parent premium from housing benefit and council tax benefit, and for a proportion of parents that will continue to be a real loss.

In our debate on the previous amendment, the noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn, referred to the losses which will continue even after the Budget changes. He is correct, because in an Answer to a Written Question tabled on 31st March the Government agreed that 60,000 families would be worse off even after the Budget changes. Many of those people are likely to be working but, because of the loss of the lone parent premium for housing benefit and council tax benefit, they will be net losers. I must repeat that those 60,000 families fall within the range of the very poor--not necessarily extremely poor--or they would not be in receipt of housing benefit and council tax benefit.

Thirdly, there is the group of people who, responding to the Government's wishes, take a job and therefore find themselves moving off benefit but returning to it because the job does not work out. I recognise that in the Budget the Government made a concession. The concession is called the 12-weeks linkage. As the noble Baroness fairly pointed out, it means that if a single parent on benefit starts work but after 12 weeks finds it impossible to continue she will return to the same level of benefit as previously. As someone who has been a single parent, I ask your Lordships to examine the position of such a man or, more likely, a woman. She starts work and endeavours to obtain childcare. The words "quality childcare" have become combined in a phrase. When people speak of childcare they make sure that the word "quality" precedes it. Obtaining quality childcare is like trying to get a rich man through the eye of a needle. It is the hardest possible thing to do because little is available. The available facilities are full to the gunnels; every quality childcare minder around has a waiting list. I will give evidence as to why I say that.

Our parent starts work, makes some childcare arrangements, but within a matter of five or six months they break down. I appeal to your Lordships' human experience. In my human experience, childcare broke down time and again when I was a single parent, and I was an infinitely wealthy single parent because I was a Member of Parliament and a junior Minister. Nowadays, the single parent whose already limited income is cut has to pay £25 to £30 a day to hire a childminder. That is not an exceptional figure, and in London the figure is higher. She then finds that her childcare arrangements break down. She has no option but to give up her work. She then finds herself for ever penalised for having tried to so do. I wish the Government would look again at the 12-week linkage--although I welcome the concession--and ask themselves whether that linkage can be extended for a considerably longer time.

The fourth difficulty which troubles me relates to the single parent who starts work, but, because of her loss of single parent premium in the ancillary benefits, finds

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herself worse off. Perhaps the noble Baroness will comment on that. Those are four instances of the way in which, even with the changes the Government have made, some single parents will for a period or for ever find themselves worse off.

I ask your Lordships to consider two other crucial factors. We on these Benches seek as a minimum a strong reassurance from the Government that no pressure will be put on mothers or young parents to go to work and that they will look again at the linkage issue. We know from a great deal of research that children who have suffered a bereavement--a father who walks out on his family is a bereavement as surely as is widowhood--desperately need the care of the remaining parent, be it a man or a woman. We know that children who have gone through the trauma of divorce are likely to suffer emotionally much more than research conducted a few years ago suggested. Major research has been undertaken by, for example, Boston College and other universities in the United States, but also in this country, which shows that divorce, in particular for children between five and seven, has serious emotional consequences. Therefore, on these Benches we believe that if single parents believe that their presence is important for the well-being of their children, they should be able to make that decision freely and without feeling constraints upon them.

We know also--and I am sure that the noble Baroness, who is extremely knowledgeable, knows about this--that extensive studies carried out in Canada by the office of the present prime minister have produced dramatic evidence that the impact on the early development of the brains of children under the age of three who are deprived of both physical and emotional care is much more serious and less remediable than was once thought. There is a great deal of evidence, most recently from the University of California at Davis, to show that the development of a child in terms of its long-term expectations and prospects is much more seriously affected even than was believed a decade or so ago.

I do not wish to detain the House too long. In this country, even today, we seriously underestimate the effect of the first five years of a child's life on its future chances. Many children are virtually excluded from the opportunity to advance into high skills and advanced education because of what happened in the first five years. If that were not so, such programmes as Headstart would not have such a dramatic impact on childrens' opportunities.

Therefore, I plead with the Government to think extremely carefully about that impact on the first years of their children's lives of parents not being there to help, if they choose to do so--nobody suggests coercion. I speak as somebody who shares many of the Government's values, as do my colleagues on these Benches and, I am sure, members of the Conservative Party also. It is important to say that we should not give the impression that paid work is the only kind of work that we value because the unpaid work of bringing up children is the most important work that anybody can do.

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Having talked a little about early development and emotional factors, I wish to refer now to the economic factors. Quite bluntly, the rational decision of most single parents of young children not yet of school age is not to work. I am well aware that the Social Security Secretary has referred to, if I may say so, somewhat shaky evidence to indicate that the working parent will receive as much as £50 per week more than will a parent on benefit. That is only the case if she has made arrangements which cost less with regard to childcare.

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