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Lord Higgins: The noble Baroness said that this was a drafting amendment. A number of years ago I read out exactly those words on a ministerial brief only to

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discover some weeks later that I had made a large number of people criminals retrospectively. I always view such remarks with the slightest suspicion. None the less, I believe that the noble Baroness is correct in saying that this is a drafting amendment. The original draft appeared to stop earlier than it should have; a few crucial words were not added on the end.

Having said that--I shall resist the temptation to deal with the Child Support Agency more generally--as I understand it, this amendment is concerned with the sharing of functions as regards claims and information. Am I wrong in thinking that the effect of this wording is to enable local authorities to share information with the Child Support Agency? If so, the noble Baroness will not be surprised to hear me ask, yet again: at what level will that information be shared? But perhaps I have totally misunderstood the amendment.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: The amendment is required because the current clause defines a claim in relation to child support as an application for maintenance assessment under Section 4 of the Child Support Act. Section 4 relates only to private cases, and the amendment ensures that all child support applications are covered. That is the reason for the amendment. Under the "one" system that we discussed recently, if someone comes out of a relationship and becomes effectively a lone parent with a child, he or she goes to the "one" service in order to claim his or her income support. The "one" service will simultaneously deal with income support, housing benefit and, in the case of a lone parent, automatically encourages him or her to put in a claim for maintenance.

As was clear when we discussed the "one" service, fully trained staff--I refer to 300-plus hours of training--in local authorities (in the pilot schemes) will be able to handle that claim. But in order to do that, and to share the information, we have to legitimise local authorities' roles. That is the point of the amendment.

Lord Higgins: I understand that. However, am I right in thinking that the local authority will suggest that he or she should make a claim for maintenance, but will it then receive that information in the light of the Child Support Agency transaction? If so, is there a substantial increase in the extent to which information is transferred between one government agency and local authorities?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Yes, but not long ago the noble Lord pressed me for shared information on a common basis between public authorities so that the claimant was not forced to put in several complicated applications which, if there were one minor error in one, might trigger a fraud inquiry.

With due respect, the noble Lord cannot have it both ways. He cannot want common sharing of information to obviate fraud and to make life easier for the claimant, and then object if we seek to introduce that. That is indeed the path down which we are going: that where we deal with benefits we seek an integrated service, an integrated approach. That requires in the long term a common spine of information based on sound, robust

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information technology--I touch wood--in which case we should be able to provide a more efficient and effective service for our claimants.

Lord Higgins: The Minister is right to say that I suggested that only a few days ago, I think at Question Time. At that time, the noble Baroness rightly pointed out that that would involve transfer. Will that be done at very low levels in local authorities?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I could not swear to the grade. The local authority will take the information. The CSA will continue as now to sort out the claim. That is done by the appropriately trained staff. But from my experience in the local authority world, there are not appropriate grades to make an analogy with Civil Service grades. The decision makers would be the equivalent of EOs. Any such staff--they tend to be senior clerical officers and the like--would have been fully trained through the "one" training process, which is the most elaborate investment in training of which I am aware.

I cannot help the noble Lord because every local authority has different grading structures and different staff. The important thing is that staff will be empowered to do this work only if they have gone through the training process and will therefore be of an appropriate and suitable skill and calibre.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 66, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 67 agreed to.

Lord Morris of Manchester moved Amendment No. 128B:

After Clause 67, insert the following new clause--


(" .--(1) When determining levels of social security benefits and pensions, the Secretary of State shall have regard to the minimum level of income necessary to maintain good health and cover essential needs.
(2) In considering the minimum level of income in subsection (1) above, the Secretary of State shall take into consideration the need to--
(a) combat social exclusion,
(b) maintain satisfactory standards of child development, and
(c) ensure respect for human dignity.")

The noble Lord said: I tabled this amendment in consultation with the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust and perhaps I should explain very briefly how it came about. I did not volunteer to table the amendment they were seeking. It would be closer to the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth to say that my very dear and noble friend Lady Castle volunteered for me. She suggested that I should be asked to help and I am very glad she did so.

The Reverend Paul Nicolson, who chairs the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust, has been unfailingly helpful to me in preparing my submission on the amendment and I hope that he and his colleagues will feel that our debate this evening is worthy of their humane concern for the achievement of its purpose. With them I deeply regret that, sadly but unavoidably, the noble and most reverend

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Lord, Lord Runcie, as a patron of the trust, cannot be here for a debate which I know he most warmly welcomes. I was extremely sorry also to hear from my noble friend Lady Castle this morning that she, too, would be unable to join us this afternoon.

My amendment is about the importance of providing Britain's poorest people with the means to cover their essential needs and of urgent action by the Department of Social Security to set minimum income standards. The Commons Health Select Committee reported as long ago as 1992 that the DSS could not,

    "comment with authority on the adequacy of income support rates in the absence of research to support their view".

No dietician and nutritionist is involved when the department decides the level of pensions and benefits. Yet the British Medical Association reported on 1st July that poor families in Britain include some of the unhealthiest children in the developed world. Only Albania has a similar proportion of dangerously underweight babies. And the United Nations today sees Britain as one of the most unequal industrialised countries in the field of child health. The BMA report attributes this to poor nutrition, low educational standards and lack of priority for healthcare. Others will blame underspending on benefits for our most vulnerable citizens and point to Britain's unenviable place near the bottom of the league of the OECD's 21 member states for the proportion of GDP spent on health, education and social security.

In November last year the Independent Inquiry into Inequalities in Health, chaired by Sir Donald Acheson, reported that empirical evidence from research demonstrates that people whose incomes consist entirely of state benefits have,

    "insufficient money to buy items and services necessary for good health".

It reported also:

    "The generally agreed 'healthy diet' in pregnancy may have long-term benefits in reducing the baby's later risk of cardiovascular disease ... Mothers reliant on state benefits may not be able to afford a healthy diet, and may go short of food in order to feed their children".

The first clear implication is that, when a pregnant woman is unable to afford a healthy diet, the consequences can be disastrous for the child. The foetus is underfed, leading to sickness in childhood and low life expectancy. And the second implication of Sir Donald Acheson's report, just as clear, is that satisfactory standards of child development are impossible to achieve on current levels of benefit in the UK.

In the United States guaranteeing a minimum income to pregnant women has been shown to increase birth weight and life expectancy. But the UK is today equal 18th in the international league table for infant deaths. Japan, Germany, France, Spain and the Scandinavian countries, among many others, all have lower rates.

My noble friend Lady Hollis will recall that the Commission on Social Justice--chaired with such distinction by my noble friend Lord Borrie--showed that the poor in Britain were dying younger in 1991 than in 1981. The reasons given were stress, inadequate healthcare and malnutrition. But the rich are living

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longer. The British Medical Journal reported in February 1998 that professional workers could expect to live over five years longer than unskilled manual workers. Their life expectancy has fallen.

In February 1998, the Department of Health published a graph showing that the life expectancy of semi-skilled and unskilled workers began to diminish in the mid-eighties, while the life expectancy of everyone else continued to increase. Nick Davies writes in his book Dark Heart:

    "Poverty kills with subtlety and skill. This is not the clumsy tyranny of the Third World dictator, leaving his subjects in pieces by the road side".

But the effect of poverty on health in Britain can be stated without subtlety: it is the same in total as a plane crashing and killing 115 passengers every day of the year.

The National Consumer Council reported in 1992 that it is primarily lack of money that causes families to go without food or to have to depend on an inadequate diet in Britain. In 1995 the council urged the Government to sponsor or undertake budget studies to find out what standard of living is implicit in social security benefit levels. But shamefully the DSS replied that it could not,

    "contribute to deliberations on the practical aspects of living on a low income".

In answer to a recent Parliamentary Question tabled in another place, asking what assessment had been made of the ability of families and individuals living on income support to afford a healthy diet, the Minister replied:

    "A wide range of foodstuffs is available at affordable prices and a healthy diet is obtainable within the means of anyone receiving income support".

Yet the report of the low income project team of the Government's nutrition task force makes it plain that a healthy diet is beyond the means of a great many people.

There is no published research by the DSS to disprove the widespread evidence of malnutrition in Britain. For its research into living standards it relies mostly on expenditure data, but this does not convince the low income projects team that people on low incomes can afford a healthy diet. Expenditure by the poor is no guide to human need. They have to live with the reality that food, heating, clothing, transport and poverty-related debt must compete with one another for a share of inadequate benefits and low earnings.

One and a half million people in Britain have no access to normal financial services. A further four million have no more than very limited access. They often have to rely on door-to-door moneylenders who charge exorbitant interest rates. Their participation in normal social life is minimal with very serious consequences for their communities and British society as a whole.

An important distinction has to be made between poverty and social exclusion. While poverty is caused by lack of money, social exclusion also has to do with way of life and the environment in which people live. For example, poorer children are more prone to accident and injury. This is because they often have nowhere to play but the street. They live on estates where there is broken glass, used needles and other dangerous objects. Between 1981 and 1991 death by

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fire among affluent children dropped by 28 per cent. Among poor children it rose by 39 per cent. These statistics shout the case for this amendment.

Lack of money can lead to children being excluded from school outings and holidays and to going without adequate clothing, Christmas and birthday presents and many other things which are generally considered normal, not extravagant, by other children. Adam Smith wrote:

    "by necessaries I understand not only the commodities which are indispensably necessary for the support of life, but whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people even of the lowest order to be without".

Britain is one of the few developed countries which has made no effort to set governmental minimum income standards as distinct from relying on contestable academic measures of expenditure. We still fail to implement the European Commission's recommendation to member states of 24th June 1992,

    "to combat social exclusion [by] fixing the amount of resources considered sufficient to cover essential needs with regard to human dignity".

This year public expenditure on income maintenance will cost approximately £150 billion, of which some £100 billion will go on social security benefits, student grants, training allowances and other transfer payments and the balance on income tax allowances and income tax reliefs. This spending dominates the national budget, yet it is made without any scientifically based estimates of the needs and living costs either of claimants or taxpayers. As the Guardian argued in a leading article yesterday:

    "Labour needs to set out the most fundamental welfare principle of all: what is an adequate income. This is not a technical but a political issue. No British government has ever set out a minimum acceptable standard of living, but six western nations have already done so in the last decade. The inadequacy of our current benefits can no longer be ducked".

As of now, while it is aimed to eliminate poverty in 20 years, there is no estimate available of the minimum incomes required for essential needs and to promote good health among pregnant women, children, disabled people, unskilled manual workers or frail elderly pensioners living alone. The 20-year time scale understates both the urgency and seriousness of the problem. But the methodology to provide the DSS with the information needed for it to set standards is available. It was pioneered by the Family Budget Unit at the Department of Dietetics and Nutrition at King's College London.

Nor has there been any estimate of how much it would save the Exchequer to be rid of poverty-related crime, court and prison costs, preventable ill-health, violence, stress, low educational achievement, divorce and other poverty-related costs. Yet the BMA estimates that every £1 spent on improving a child's health ultimately saves £8 in health care.

This is why the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust is calling for clear undertakings from my noble friend the Minister this evening to,

    "implement the European Commission's recommendation of 24 June 1992 on combating social exclusion; secondly, to assess all policies, old and new--not, in the words of the White Paper, only 'major new policies'-- for their impact on health; thirdly, to commission independent research into the weekly costs of essential

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    needs for the appropriate categories of people; and, fourthly, to publish the reasons, and all the supporting evidence, on which the levels of minimum incomes for the appropriate categories of people have been determined".

This is a necessary amendment to the Bill, which has the backing of Age Concern England, Barnardos, the Low Pay Unit, the Maternity Alliance, NCH Action for Children and the UK Public Health Association, among many other admirable organisations to which the Government should listen not just with attention but the utmost respect. Acceptance of the amendment would require government to arm itself with information essential to combating social exclusion and promoting both respect for human dignity and the building of a just society. I beg to move.

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