|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
The Lord Bishop of Oxford: My Lords, I know that in this House tonight we are united on a number of issues. First, there is the fact that, sadly, the poor suffer more illness and die younger. There is also their disadvantage when it comes to education and jobs. The figures behind these assertions have been set out in a number of detailed reports which have been referred to in the course of the proceedings on the Bill. I shall certainly not repeat them. We know that these sad statistics, which tragically reflect unfulfilled and foreshortened lives, are all too true.
On previous occasions the Minister has said that the Government like to take into account a range of research. Of course that is so. However, the validity of the Family Budget Unit research has not been refuted. If there is research which shows that it is possible for families to survive on less than the Family Budget Unit figures it is important to see that research and to assess it. In 1992 the European Commission recommended that the resources considered sufficient to cover essential needs with regard to human dignity should be fixed. A similar plea was made in the Churches' 1985 report Faith in the City. As we have already heard this evening, a number of countries have already agreed such levels.
People have different tastes and different standards of living. We like to spend our money on different things. However, if half a dozen of us got together after this debate for two hours at the bar we could agree on the minimum on which we could survive which is reasonably compatible with our health. This amendment does not ask for anything extraordinary, simply an agreed minimum level. I believe that most of us would judge the carefully researched Family Budget Unit figures as a reasonable guide to that minimum. If this is disputed, let us commission some annual independent research, as the amendment suggests, and let that minimum level be used as a benchmark for all benefit claims.
This is an important amendment which the Churches care about desperately, as is indicated by the number of right reverend prelates present this evening. I very much hope that the Minister will at least be able to accept the general principle contained in the amendment.
Lord Rea: My Lords, I had not intended to speak to this amendment. In fact I had not intended to be here at this time of night at all. However, I have been much moved by the speech of my noble friend Lord Morris; also by that of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, opposite and that of the right reverend Prelate. I remind my noble friend that the recommendations in this sensible and modest amendment are precisely in line with the recommendations of the report which was commissioned by the Government, the Acheson Report on inequalities in health. As my noble friend Lord Morris said, it follows the recommendations of a good recent British Medical Association book on child health problems in Britain today.
While I hope that my noble friend can accept this amendment--there are perhaps reasons why she cannot--I also hope very much that in what she says she will recognise the important arguments that have been put forward. We cannot solve the problems of poverty in this country only by increasing the proportion of our people in work. There will be a number of people who are unable to work, and there are even those who are in work to whom some of the measures in this amendment will apply.
Viscount Brentford: My Lords, I confess that I have always detested defining poverty as something like half the average income in the country, not only because that always seems to me to be a rough and ready judgment but also because either poverty or average income can move up or down without necessarily affecting the other. What I like about the amendment is that it contains a definition which would be updated every year that would tell us where the line ought to be drawn.
As has already been mentioned, research has suggested that the minimum practical cost of heating, lighting, food, clothes and other essential needs exceeds the current benefit levels. I fully accept what the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, rightly pointed out in Committee; namely, that the Government aim to produce a range of measures to ease poverty. We hope that that will be successful. However, this amendment deals with just one aspect of that.
Certainly in the UK poverty is not the same thing as I and many other noble Lords have seen in other countries, where there is a far greater absolute poverty than anybody in receipt of any social security benefits here experiences. We have a duty here to ensure that people have the power not to live in poverty. We need a definition like this to achieve that. My biggest concern is for the health and welfare of the children who are suffering in deprived families. If this small amendment, which will help to ease that, can be accepted, I shall be very pleased.
Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, this is a subject upon which I would normally never dare to speak. I rise to say something very simple. We are always being told about joined-up writing. It seems to me that if ever there was a case of a need for joined-up writing, this is it. As has been said by several people,
The Lord Bishop of Hereford: My Lords, I spoke very warmly in support of a similar amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Morris, in July. Some of the points I wanted to make have already been made and it is very late.
In supporting this new amendment, I am encouraged by the enormous range of support which has been expressed by Church leaders. Some of your Lordships may have seen the letter in The Times this morning. There were six signatories printed but I believe that in the final count 112 Church leaders signed that letter. They were from the African and Caribbean Baptist, Methodist, Orthodox, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic and United Reform Churches, together with 42 bishops of the Church of England. That is an extraordinary degree of unanimity and support from the Churches of this country. We signed it because we are in touch with the misery of poverty in the United Kingdom. Our clergy and our ministers see its consequences in their daily ministry in the inner cities, in the bleak outer estates and in the rural areas, as the noble Earl, Lord Russell, pointed out. It is an extraordinary list of Church leaders and, together with the evidence which the noble Lord, Lord Morris, mentioned from many voluntary, specialist organisations, I believe it puts together a voice for the poor, to which I hope the Government will listen and take action with some urgency.
We are asking the Government to endorse the dignity of human life for the poorest people in the nation; that they may have enough to eat; that they may keep warm and clothed; that they may afford bus fares in order to find shopping which is not the most expensive; that they can feel included as part of society. Yes, we want to see people in properly paid work; it is much the best way for them to feel included and valued citizens. Yes, we support health action zones and anti-smoking programmes; all this is desirable. But the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, in replying to the debate in July said:
There is a group of Christians walking from St. Columba's Holy Island of Iona to London. They are coming to see the Chancellor of the Exchequer on Monday next week. They are marching to support the principles behind this amendment, to establish minimum income standards, to make it possible for people to enjoy good health and live in dignity, and to set benefit levels which in each case enable those needs to be met.
This amendment does not ask for a flat-rate increase in benefits. It is asking for the information that will allow the benefits to be targeted where real need still exists. I hope that the Minister can assure us that those Christian pilgrims will be able to receive good news from the Chancellor next week.
Back to Table of Contents
Lords Hansard Home Page