HC Deb 21 December 1966 vol 738 cc1446-60

1.31 p.m.

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Sutton)

I wish today to discuss the topic of child poverty. In many ways, it is a dismal commentary on our so-called affluent society that this debate is necessary. The tragedy is that only over the last few years has this problem been appreciated by and delineated clearly to the general public. For that, we have to thank the work in academic units throughout the country and particularly, more recently, the efforts of the Child Poverty Action Group.

I hope that what I say today will be taken by the Government as a challenge and not as a rebuke. I know the starkness of their inheritance, and I know and appreciate the very real concern of everyone in the Government from the Prime Minister downwards, particularly the Minister without Portfolio, the Minister for Social Security and the Parliamentary Secretary, who is to reply to the debate. I hope that they will understand when I tell them that many of my hon. Friends are dismayed that we approach the third Christmas under a Labour Government still with no concrete proposals to help the low-income large family. We hope that we shall hear from the Government today a firm decision to increase family allowances, because, as I hope to show, that is the single and most effective measure to tackle this diffuse and manysided problem.

Recent estimates indicate that, at a minimum, there are 200,000 families and probably a maximum of nearly 300,000 where the breadwinners, the fathers, are in full-time work, and earn less than the basic minimum thought necessary by the Ministry of Social Security. We have a situation where approximately 500,000 to 600,000 children—more than half a million—suffer poverty, despite the fact that their fathers do a full day's work. I hope that that will answer categorically the myth that we are dealing only with parents who are irresponsible misfits or malingerers.

A further large group, which is becoming larger, are families where the fathers are unemployed, disabled or have fallen victims to the so-called wage stop. The wage stop hits low-wage earners and particularly those with large families. Often it is not widely realised that it also hits the sick, besides the permanently disabled. It is particularly tragic that this ruling should apply in sickness. Presumably it is an encouragement to people to get back to work, but how many fathers of large families with heavy commitments return to work before they should?

At a time when unemployment is rising—and, as a deliberate act following the Government's deflationary policy, though very necessary, it still means that many men are forced out of work—can we really justify a situation where, because they have lived below the poverty line before, we must ensure that they remain below the poverty line when they are out of work? The only way that I can see of circumventing the wage stop and ensuring that a man at work is not impoverished by the number of his children is the payment of a generous family allowance. When it is often said that this is an unpopular social security benefit, it needs re-emphasising that it has the full backing and support of the T.U.C.

Another large group of children living below minimal subsistence are those without a father in the household, either through divorce, desertion or death. There were half a million such children in 1961, and a reasonable estimate indicates that some 300,000 of those live below the poverty line as judged by the Ministry of Social Security.

Another group which is perhaps small, but which is very important to me be- cause of my concern about disablement, is the family where the young mother is suddenly disabled. For her, there is no industrial benefit and no war pension. She is alone. In effect, that housewife and mother is a very real breadwinner, and suddenly that family is deprived of her services and the savings which her work can bring to the family's weekly budget. Suddenly, it is all lost. Disablement can turn a medium income into a low income, a low income into poverty, and someone in poverty into squalor. All the time, the chief sufferers are so often the children.

I believe that the need for a separate disablement income is overwhelming in these cases. It appears likely that nearly 1 million children are affected and are living below the subsistence level put out by the Ministry of Social Security, and in many ways that is not over-generous. I believe that the trend is increasing, and not decreasing. In my own constituency of Plymouth, particularly near the dockyard where wages are notoriously low, I have seen this problem many times. I am determined that something must be done to alleviate the worry and anxiety that so often follow these people with low incomes and large families. Often they make no claim on social security benefits. They battle alone against the very real difficulties of poverty. If some people suspect these figures, I should like them to look at other examples in which one can, to an extent, get some measure of the incidence of poverty.

It is a strange fact that the number of people living on a diet below the minimum level thought necessary by the B.M.A. has increased in the last few years. Ill health in children, particularly recurrent chest infections, is especially related to family circumstances, and we are still able to see differences in stature and physique related to family circumstances—not so much as before the war, but still present.

It is perhaps one thing to state the problem. It is another thing to formulate a solution. Most of all, we have to try to show how we are to pay for it.

There are a few myths about family allowances which need to be killed straight away. There is no evidence that an increase in family allowances also increases the birthrate and encourages large families. The experience in Czechoslovakia, where the birthrate actually fell after the introduction of family allowances, is backed up by experience in Canada, Germany, Italy and Russia.

Another myth is that the Welfare State in Britain is a great provider and that we cannot possibly increase our expenditure. In fact, in this country we are spending less on social security benefits than practically any other European country. Our family allowances were last raised in 1956, and they were raised only once before then since their introduction. Germany is the only other country among the E.E.C. who, like us, does not give family allowances for the first child, but even they spend double the amount that we do on family allowances. When one looks at the other figures one sees that. France spends about six times as much, and Italy closely follows that. If Beveridge's original recommendation in wartime were introduced now, we would have a family allowance of about 25s. per child. These allowances have been allowed to fall markedly behind.

Given the need, given, as I believe, a solution, or at least a temporary solution, the question is payment. It is not my intention to cover all the numerous schemes which have been put forward in the newspapers recently. I should just like to warn the Government of one of the real dangers. That danger is that they could sabotage the credibility of family allowances by introducing an old-fashioned means test to overcome this problem in the short term.

If, as I hope, we successfully negotiate entry into the E.E.C., it will be vital to have developed before entry a system of family allowances which is acceptable throughout the country, a system which is fair, and is seen to be fair, for this I believe is the only possible way we have of offsetting gradual increases in the cost of the food prices which will inevitably follow entry.

It will be a bitter indictment of our contingency planning if we are now to be told that all the changes in the tax reliefs are to be defeated because the Inland Revenue is unable to introduce them before the Budget in 1967, and that we will have to wait until 1968. We have been discussing this problem for nearly two years, and I hope very much that this will not be the Government's attitude.

If that regrettable situation were to be true, I would prefer the Government to concentrate an increase on the third and subsequent children as an interim measure. Even an increase of 5s. of the third and subsequent children would cost £32 million, giving a family allowance of 15s., but, here again, we would be paying allowances to those families which were well off, and to a certain extent at the expense of those less well off, unless we were not to give the increase to anybody who was claiming tax relief.

We must look again at the problem. I know that it is complicated, but let the Government make a declaration that in times of economic difficulties we will not shirk the perhaps unpopular decision in some quarters of redistributing wealth, that we simply cannot afford, for the sake of these children, to wait until we get expansion in our economy, expanding resources, and the establishment of growth.

I recognise that there is a real problem affecting the middle-income groups, people earning £1,200 a year, if we withdraw all tax relief, and I am fully aware that their position must be safeguarded. I would not like to see them worse off by withdrawing tax relief, but a Labour Government should not be prepared to continue a situation in which a family of four children, with the wage earner on £10 a week, has allowances to the value of £85 12s. a year, whereas a similar family, with the father earning £30 a week, gets allowances and tax relief to the value of £239 9s. a year. This is a situation which I believe exists, and which should not be allowed to continue.

I should like the Government to raise the low-wage earner's income so that it comes up to the supplementary benefit scale. This would mean about 30s. per child, which is a large amount of money. This is also the approximate amount which would be needed to compensate the standard rate Income Tax payer if we took away all his tax relief. By making allowances payable for all children, I believe that we could make this very much more acceptable, because at the moment quite a large number of families where there is only one child feel great bitterness that they are exempted from family allowances and receive no benefit.

The estimated saving to the Exchequer in 1966–67, if tax relief were abolished, would be about £580 million. I think that we would need more money, and I would be prepared to look at the situation of the single man and increase his tax, for there is no doubt that he has developed a preferential position over the years. Perhaps I should add that I speak as a bachelor, so it would affect me.

How the Government finance this is a problem of great interest to us in the long term, though I realise that they are faced with a very real problem in the short term. However, quite apart from family allowances, there is something else that must be done. I believe that there is a growing need for an overall positive poverty programme, an attack on the problem from all fronts, for family allowances alone will not solve the problem.

Let us look at the problem first from the point of view of the home. We need more education for the mother and the father. In many cases facilities already exist in this country to help them. The tragedy is that the facilities which exist are only partly used. Whether out of ignorance, pride, or a lack of understanding of these very facilities, we see the situation in which those in need are not claiming them, and I should like the Government to bring all the propaganda that they can to bear on this, in the newspapers, and on the radio and television.

At school, I should like to see a new method whereby those children who are receiving free school meals are not known to be receiving them, are not labelled as receiving free school means, for this causes very real difficulties in the school and marks the child out as different from the others.

We also need very much more information about uniform allowances and about clothing grants. These valuable benefits are again under-used. Whether again it is from ignorance or pride, we do not know, but both can be broken down with greater education.

Mr. Peter Archer (Rowley Regis and Tipton)

Would my hon. Friend agree that the test of need for these purposes varies from authority to authority, and sometimes within departments of an authority, and that often a headmaster cannot tell what is the test of need for a pupil?

Dr. Owen

I agree, and I think that this is one of the real problems, that we have a whole series of different types of means test. It may be that we have to develop a situation in the welfare services where there is selectivity. I am not opposed to this in principle, but what I wish to see is an equable and fair means test. I think that this has to be done by having a universal tax code system, with everybody being put on it, but this is long-term and not short-term.

Health education is very important. Here, I think, we must face more courageously than in the past the real need to provide family planning advice to mothers. This must be freely available under the Health Service. This is its right place. To put it under local authorities would be a mistake, just to get a short-term benefit.

I think that we must place very much more emphasis on nutrition and on educating mothers about what foods are important and what constitutes a really adequate diet. I pay tribute to those who have gone to live with a family and shown them by practical example some of the real benefits which can come from using the same amount of money. I think that there should be very much more propaganda about welfare foods. In November, 1965, only 5,715 children in families not receiving National Assistance were getting free welfare foods. It looks as though only 4 per cent. of those eligible were getting welfare foods. This is something into which we could well look, bearing in mind the appalling statistics of nutritional standards.

Finally, and perhaps most important, there is the problem of housing. We need many more four- and five-bedroomed council houses for large families. In my constituency too many large families have to buy old-fashioned houses in order to house their large families at even minimum standards, often with high rates. We need very much greater publicity for rates, and, where they exist, rent rebate schemes.

So far, about 660,000 people who were thought to be eligible have not claimed rate rebates. This is an indictment of the system by which the onus is always put on these people to claim. They have so many different types of claim that they are simply befogged by the whole situation.

We obviously need the emphasis again to be on slum clearance and rebuilding slum schools. All this I think that the Government are doing, but I urge them to give the Minister without Portfolio, whose sympathies we all know are with us, the money to co-ordinate and force through a programme for abolishing poverty and to be not afraid of a greater redistribution of wealth. They should resist any temptation to bring in yet another old fashioned means test, which I believe will result in people losing out on the benefit which is being made available and which would be a retrograde step in establishing family allowances.

Above all, let us resolve that by Christmas, 1967, the incidence of child poverty will be markedly reduced in this country and that a Labour Government will have established their fundamental priorities, for it is at Christmas that child poverty is revealed in all its starkness. Many families dread Christmas. Many families regard Christmas as one of the most distressing times of the year because they have to say "No"—"No" to toys and "No" to good food, and they are constantly faced with their children comparing their circumstances with those of their neighbours. We now want more than sympathy from the Government. We want positive and concrete proposals for these children who live in poverty.

1.52 p.m.

Miss Mervyn Pike (Melton)

I am sure that we all regret that we have such a very short time for this debate. Nevertheless, we are grateful to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Dr. David Owen) for bringing this matter before us at this time. I have promised that I will be very brief so as to give the Joint Parliamentary Secretary adequate time to reply to the debate. I have about five minutes at my disposal. I am sure that we all regret the fact that the Minister herself could not be here today. We recognise her great sympathy in this matter.

However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is not sympathy that we want. It is action we want in the few months that lie ahead, because this winter could be one of the worst winters that many of these families have known. I hope that we shall have a full debate on this subject after the Recess, because it is possibly one of the most important matters we could be thinking about at this time.

As the hon. Gentleman said, there are 300,000 families with incomes below the old National Assistance level, which means that there are at present 600,000 children not receiving the basic essentials of life. We all recognise that all large families, except those who are very rich, have greater difficulties than smaller families. Therefore, it is in sharper contrast even still that those on low incomes are trying to get by in these increasingly difficult times.

The hon. Gentleman said that, nutritionally, they are often at a disadvantage. Their diet is inadequate. Today's newspapers contains more figures showing the inadequacy of diet, not only amongst old people, but amongst the very young. We also know that very often children in large families seem to be at a disadvantage. The perinatal mortality rates are higher in large families. Statistics show that there is a greater incidence of stunted growth and smaller children in larger families. In terms of educational development and academic achievement these children seem to be at a disadvantage. According to some of the statistics which are available, there seems to be a negative correlation between family size and intelligence quotient in the child. This is probably connected with slower development of younger children in larger families because of so many of the economic and social difficulties which they face.

The Crowther Report showed that 42 per cent. of only children stay on at school after 15, whereas only 8 per cent. of children from families of six or more stay on at school after 15. The Robbins Report showed, in regard to children of parents of the same income and social background, that the chances of the child of the small family staying on to take A levels were dramatically higher than the chances of the child from the larger family. The difficulties of housing are so much greater with larger families. These are all things that we urge the Government to see to.

The problem we are talking about is largely due to the low income coming into these families. In spite of the high wages we often point to at present, half the industrial working population earns less than £18 a week. Ten pounds to £12 a week is still all too common, particularly in many of our large nationalised industries. Increased training to increase skills and to advance our industrial development so that we can get a high wage economy is better than bringing in things like minimum wage legislation. In this area what we should be aiming at is to ensure that people can get the skills that give them higher wages and to bring about the economic growth that can make this possible in our society as a whole.

The hon. Gentleman talked about children's allowances. We could debate this question for a considerable time. I remind the House that we have on several occasions in this Parliament, particularly on the Social Security Bill, put forward proposals to help the low wage earning family with a special supplementary children's allowance. We believe that a special supplementary children's allowance for large families below a certain limit should be payable, whether the husband is in work or not. It could be on a sliding scale. It could get over many of the difficulties of the wage stop to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

We have also brought forward in this Parliament a scheme for an invalidity allowance for the chronic sick and the disabled. We all recognise that some of the most tragic cases are in homes where there is disablement, particularly of the mother. This is why on the last Finance Bill we pressed for special tax allowances in these circumstances. We shall continue to go on pressing these matters.

It is exactly 10 years ago today—on 21st December, the last day of Parliament before the House adjourned for the Christmas Recess—that I took my seat after a by-election. I can remember on that occasion being asked by the Press, because one is always news on these occasions, what had brought me to the House. I remember replying that it was the poverty and the injustice that I had grown up with in Castleford, a mining town in the West Riding of Yorkshire, which had driven me into politics, and which I hoped will always be my driving force in my political life.

I was told then that the one thing I would learn in Parliament was patience. I have learned some patience, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman that our patience is now running out. We have been too slow to recognise these problems. It was only in the hard winter of 1963 that this problem of family poverty came to our recognition. This is why we on this side believe that one of the best solutions to this problem does not lie only in cash, important though that is. It depends so very much on having an integrated and coherent policy.

This is why we believe that the Ministries of Social Security and Health should be merged into one Department so that cash and care can be co-ordinated. The Children and Young Persons Act, 1963, passed by a Tory Government, to some extent helped with co-ordination at a local level. The children's committees can now do a great deal to give the sort of help the hon. Gentleman talked about with regard to care—help in the home, education in the home, the health visitor, the welfare visitor, help with family planning, and so on.

We also believe that there should be a definite responsibility on the Government and on the Ministry of Social Security to seek out need, because so many of these people do not know what their rights are. So often we do not know where these pockets of poverty really exist. This is why we press on the Government the need for the co-ordination which we believe would come about by combining the Ministries of Social Security and Health and the ground and by establishing the responsibility to go and seek out need.

We also believe that there must be a research unit in the Ministry so that these problems can be pinpointed as they arise. One of the great tragedies of the past was that we did not realise that this problem was creeping up on us. We have known now for over three years and now is the time for action. There will be many different problems in future and I hope that the Minister will listen once again to our pleas and that this time we shall not simply be told that there will be a review but that there will be some definite action as soon as the House reassembles.

2.0 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Social Security (Mr. Norman Pentland)

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady the Member for Melton (Miss Pike) for honouring the time limit. She mentioned that she came to the House exactly 10 years ago and that she was inspired to come here, among other things, to fight on this subject. It is just over 10 years since I came to the House and anyone who looks at my background and that of my right hon. Friend will realise that one of the motivating forces which inspired, provoked and directed us towards the House was poverty. We did not simply know of it: we endured it. Our fathers and mothers endured it. My wife and I, when first married, certainly experienced poverty, whether we mean relative poverty or in real terms.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Dr. David Owen) on his choice of this vital subject. I join the right hon. Lady in complimenting him on the cogent way he deployed his case and the manner in which he drew attention to the plight of these families, who are deprived of so much that the rest of us these days take for granted for ourselves and for our children. Like other hon. Members, I think that it is appropriate that, at this festive season, on the last day before we enter the Christmas Recess, we should be compelled to acknowledge the reproach to our prosperous society which these families represent.

I know that my hon. Friend will acknowledge that, in her Answers to Questions recently, my right hon. Friend the Minister left no doubt in anyone's mind of the seriousness with which the Government view this problem and the importance which we attach to devising means whereby these families can be most effectively helped within the limit of available resources. I assure my hon. Friend that many of the methods which he and the right hon. Lady advanced are being seriously considered, along with many other proposals, by the Government. I also agree with my hon. Friend when he says that there should be a real attack on poverty and all its implications.

I must point out, however, that, when we first took office in October, 1964, we had to face the fact that very little was known about the scale and nature of this problem, the numbers of families living within any particular definition of poverty, the composition of such families, the factors which caused them to he in that position and so on.

Therefore, to obtain this essential information, we carried out an inquiry in June and July of this year based on a statistical sample of about 2,700 families selected from family allowances records. Perhaps I might say in passing, Sir, that we received an excellent response from the families approached and their cooperation in answering a lengthy and detailed questionnaire will be of great value to all Government Departments concerned with this problem. We are certainly indebted to these families.

The processing of all the material resulting from this inquiry is proceeding as rapidly as possible and it is hoped to publish a full report no later than the late spring of next year. However, we have some provisional figures already extracted which provide us with some essential background information. As my hon. Friend indicated, the inquiry suggests that there are about 160,000 families, including perhaps 500,000 children, with incomes below the appropriate rate of non-contributory benefit, where the breadwinner is in full-time work, or on non-contributory benefit but subject to the wages stop. This figure has been adjusted, of course, to take into account the fact that non-contributory benefit rates have gone up since the inquiry was made. This, incidentally, illustrates how, if we take the current non-contributory benefit rate as defining the level of poverty in this country, improvements in the non-contributory benefit rate have the paradoxical effect of raising the number of families regarded apparently as living in poverty.

This figure of 160,000 is appreciably lower than some earlier estimates have suggested, as they were based on the very scanty evidence which was available at the time.

Nevertheless, I would agree and I think that every hon. Member would agree, that it is much too high for our peace of mind. One can only guess at the extent of deprivation and human misery which these figures represent. But without suggesting that I want to minimise the need for further Government action, it might not be out of place for me to remind the House of some of the ways in which these families can be helped by existing social services. For example, all school-children in such families have the right to a free school dinner, as well as the free milk available to all school-children. At the most recent count, about 387,000 children were receiving a free dinner, at a cost of about £9 million a year.

Then there is a right to free milk and vitamin supplements if the family includes a child under school age or an expectant mother. These and other services for children have helped to bring about a striking improvement in the general health of schoolchildren over the past 20 years. The latest report of the Chief Medical Officer to the Department of Education and Science shows that, in 1965, the percentage of schoolchildren found to be in an unsatisfactory physical condition fell to 0.38 per cent., the lowest figure on record.

Among the measures already taken by the present Government, the provision for rate rebates is designed to be of particular benefit to householders with large families and low incomes. Fatherless families, who face special problems, have been helped by the improvements in noncontributory benefit and the raising of the widow's benefit and guardian's allowances.

My hon. Friend has spoken particularly of the problems facing families where one or both of the parents are disabled. There can be no doubt that these are some of the saddest cases with which any of us have to deal. But when we receive the full results of the survey to which I have referred, we shall know more clearly how far disablement is a factor in child poverty generally. But the problem of disablement is by no means the same as that of child poverty, though there is an area in which they overlap; and to a large extent they represent competing claims on the resources which can be made available for improvements in the social services field.

The breadwinner who is unable to work is already substantially better off as a result of the benefit increases to which I have referred. For example, a chroni- cally sick man with a wife and two children aged, say, 9 and 12 years can now receive £10 5s. a week. plus rent and rates, to which additional payments can be added, if, because of his disablement, he has extra expenses not covered by the 9s. long-term addition. Nor is it the case, as is sometimes suggested, that if he is a low wage-earner his benefit is wage-stopped. The wage stop, and I want to make this very clear, has never applied to the chronic sick.

But, of course, we all recognise that much more remains to be done—and that is not in dispute with the Government. In particular, none of us can be indifferent, as my hon. Friend said, to the plight of the family where the wife is incapacitated and is not entitled to either National Insurance or supplementary benefit. My right hon. Friend has assured those who have put the case of these families to her on more than one occasion that the Government are very conscious of the financial needs of all chronically sick people in this country, and these are being very carefully considered in connection with the review of the social services.

We also have to face the fact that we cannot simultaneously do all the things that we would wish to do and for which everyone is agreed that there is an admitted need. But I know that my hon. Friends will agree that the record of improvements which we have already made in very stringent and difficult financial circumstances demonstrates in no uncertain manner the very high priority which this Government give to the strengthening and development of the social services.

In my view, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton has performed a valuable service by highlighting this problem today, and I assure him, and all those who have supported him from time to time both inside the House and outside, that we join with them in assigning the very highest priority to measures aimed at dealing with child poverty, however caused.