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Earl Russell: I am happy to support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, to which I have put my name. I was not volunteered for this amendment and the Minister will know that I have spoken on roughly similar themes for as long as she has been in the House and, I think, rather longer. I shall say exactly what the effect of the amendment would be. It demands that the Government have regard to the minimum level of income necessary to maintain good health and cover essential needs.

It has always been the Government's position hitherto that, at least inside the Department of Social Security, they did not know what the amount necessary to maintain good health was. They said that it was a matter for choice and that they were not concerned with how people spent their benefits. I have had many exchanges with my noble kinsman Lord Henley who said that it is not a matter on which the department possesses any information.

I understand why the Government may resist the amendment. If I may borrow words used in another context by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goff of Chieveley, caution--otherwise known as the Treasury--would never allow it. But caution takes more than one form and, as the BMA continually reminds us, ill-health caused by lack of adequate income may cause other costs of many different sorts whose size may be great enough to interfere with the Treasury's calculations.

I shall mention briefly some of the work that has been done on the issue. For example, NCH Action for Children surveyed a sample of people in which one in five parents turned out to have gone hungry in the preceding month and one in 10 children under five had gone without food in the same period. No parent or child was eating a healthy diet.

I should also mention the National Consumer Council survey Your Food: Whose Choice? It makes the vital point that all survey information is based on the standard supermarket price. If you live, say, in rural Wales, or if you are unable to get to the supermarket because like many people on benefit you cannot afford to run a car, you may well end up paying 20 per cent over the standard price. That means that in many areas of the country all the survey information is understating the problem by up to 20 per cent.

The issue has been put fairly and squarely back on the agenda by the Acheson Report. It states, bluntly, that income from benefits is insufficient to maintain good

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health. That is a stark and striking finding and it must call for action. I am sure that all of us have Treasury teams which tell us that we cannot solve the problem instantly. However, we can set out to move in the right direction. If we are not doing so, we are storing up greater problems for the future.

I also have with me extracts from the newly-published book by the BMA, Growing Up in Britain. The BMA reports that children in social class B5 have more than twice the rate of long-standing illness, are smaller at birth, shorter in height and have a markedly poor diet. It also reports that we have become a country of rapidly increasing inequality, which means that the extent of these problems is likely to spread.

The effect extends into health. The Minister will be familiar with the work of the Medical Research Council on low birth weight. It also makes the point that the effect of low birth weight is to diminish apparent intelligence and therefore to diminish educational performance. It states:

    "Inadequate nutrition can impair cognitive development and is associated with educational failure among impoverished children. Nutrition early in life has a big impact on the development of the brain.".

Therefore, a small increase in benefit levels might do more to improve educational performance than 10,000 Woodheads; if, indeed, 10,000 Woodheads would do anything to improve educational performance! I pass over that because it is wide of our present purpose.

The document illustrates that the costs of not providing an adequate level of benefit may be far more various and manifold that anyone has taken into account. The effect of the amendment is extremely modest. It does not call for any immediate spending; it simply calls on the Department of Social Security to try to discover the size of the problem. In any political decision we take, we must count costs. In any decision about spending money, we must also count the costs of not spending it. That need has become urgent and if we do not address it we cannot claim that we are doing anything serious to try to fight poverty. I am most happy to support the amendment.

7 p.m.

Lord Murray of Epping Forest: The aim of the amendment is to begin the process of putting flesh on the bones of the Prime Minister's determination to end within a generation the scandal and tragedy of child poverty. He has declared his interest, which will be shared throughout the Chamber. I, too, declare an interest as vice-chairman of one of the charities referred to by my noble friend--NCH Action for Children. He powerfully described the relationship between poverty and ill health. As the noble Earl said, the situation is deteriorating.

The report issued today by the Institute of Fiscal Studies demonstrates that the number of children in households with incomes below half the national average climbed from 1.4 million--one in 10 children--in 1968 to 4.3 million--one in three children--in 1995-96. Half today's poor children live in households where no one works. Of course the Government are

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right to work towards providing work for those who do not have it. I share their aim. Indeed, the idea of work for maintenance was written on the banners of the trade union movement in the 19th century. However successful the Government's policy may be, some will not be able to work and will need support if their families are to be maintained in anything like decent living circumstances and children maintained in decent health.

It is not inconsistent enthusiastically to support the Government's efforts to tackle social exclusion and to draw attention to the need to provide a reasonable safety net to the people who continue to need it. That is the only and laudable purpose of the amendment.

Lord Goodhart: The amendment raises not only issues of domestic law, raised by my noble friend Lord Russell and introduced most effectively and powerfully by the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, but issues of international human rights law. There are twin United Nations conventions to which the United Kingdom is a party. The first is the international covenant on civil and political rights, which is very well known to lawyers. The second, much less well known than it should be, is the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights.

Economic and social rights under the covenant include rights to, for example, education, healthcare, housing and social security. In the past, it was assumed that those rights in the covenant were mere statements of intention and in no way legally binding. But there is an increasing recognition among organisations and individuals concerned with human rights that economic and social rights should be legally enforceable rights. Those rights and their enforcement must be subject to a government's ability to meet them. We cannot expect poor countries to provide a level of education, social security or health equivalent to that appropriate to a richer country. But countries should do what they can and should aim to improve what they do as they grow richer. For example, the Republic of South Africa, a poor country, recognises a number of economic and social rights in its constitution and makes them justiciable within the limits of its ability to afford them. If South Africa can do that, surely a rich country like the United Kingdom can do the same. That is what the amendment does and that is an additional reason why I support it.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford: I warmly support the amendment. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Morris, for moving it and I thank other Members of the Committee for supporting it. We have just heard a contribution from a lawyer and it is important that a voice is heard from these Benches in support of the amendment.

It raises profound moral issues. The noble Lord, Lord Morris, said that this is not a technical matter; it is a political matter. It is technical and political, but above all it is moral. The unequal distribution of wealth, the need for social justice, are matters on which we ought all to be deeply concerned. It is imperative to comment on issues of social justice in the light of the Christian

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tradition to work for a society which is more socially inclusive and less unjust. Our ideas of social justice are all derived from the teachings of the Judaeo/Christian tradition and to permit or collude with the exclusion of the poor, to accept that in a wealthy society some, and in particular children, should have to go without the necessities of healthy living, is to be guilty before one another and before God. That was the message of the prophets of Israel, the message of Jesus and of Christian teachers and reformers across the centuries: Thomas Aquinas, John Wesley, William Wilberforce, Josephine Butler, R.H. Tawney and William Temple.

My postgraduate research was concerned with social thought and action of the Churches in the 1920s and 1930s. I carried out the work in the early 1960s at a time of relative prosperity, of high levels of employment, of hope and of confidence. I was hardly able to believe how the caring society in the 1920s and 1930s had tolerated such gross inequalities of wealth and poverty and such appalling conditions of housing and unemployment as accompanied the Jarrow marches and so on.

The concern for adequate and therefore just provision for the poor has been taken up in more recent years by the Christian Churches. I refer to the work of the Church of England in calling for the Government to commission independent research which could lead to publicly recognised, minimum income standards based on need. That was a message of the Archbishop of Canterbury's Commission on Urban Priority Areas. In 1985, Archbishop Runcie, as he then was, in the report entitled Faith in The City, called for,

    "an assessment of need rather than what can be afforded".

The report continued:

    "The basic question 'what are benefits supposed to cover?' has not been answered since the system was introduced in 1948".

Benefits have been uprated a little most years, but even in 1948 the levels were based on figures constructed by Beveridge 10 years earlier and insufficiently uprated. Since 1948 no attempt has been made to set the rates according to an agreed standard of what they could and should cover. The rates for children have never been costed. For that reason I welcome the report which asks for that work to be carried out.

The report of the Council of Churches of Britain and Ireland inquiry into unemployment and the future of work, published two years ago, focused on the debilitating effects of unemployment and the human need for good work. The report was based on a mass of research carried out by people who lived with and talked to people living in the poorest areas of this country. It was not simply Civil Service statistics; it was the real experience of people who discovered what life was actually like for such people.

The report highlights the role to be played by the state in combating unemployment, especially long-term unemployment, and the role of the Churches in supporting good work for all. Since then the Government have taken impressive steps in the direction of combating long-term unemployment. We believe that

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the transfer of the Benefits Agency into what is fairly described as a user-friendly unemployment advisory service is welcome indeed.

Many people, despite the best efforts of government and employers, remain in long-term unemployment and I fear many will continue to do so. The CCBI report comments that levels of income from benefits were never intended to support those in long-term unemployment. So there are particular difficulties for such people who live on benefits today. The report makes it abundantly clear that income support levels are too low to maintain a minimum standard of living as commonly understood in Britain today.

My support for the amendment is framed within the concept of justice, derived from an understanding of the Hebrew scriptures, the New Testament and the Christian tradition of reflection on these vital issues. Perhaps there is no better text than the famous words from the prophet Micah:

    "What does the Lord require of you? To do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God".

That tradition sees wealth enjoyed by humans as ultimately the gift of God in creation. It affirms that wealth is to be used for the meeting of human need, according to the will of God, which is a will for justice. The amendment intends to bring about the commissioning by the Government of proper independent research into the weekly cost of essential needs, good health, social inclusion, the maintenance of satisfactory standards of child development and the setting of minimum income standards which will meet those needs in an economical, low cost, but acceptable manner.

I am delighted that the Minister has in her possession at this moment the report which sets out the case so cogently. I look forward to hearing her positive and enthusiastic response to the amendment.

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