HC Deb 29 November 1974 vol 882 cc1013-60

12.44 p.m.

Mrs. Helene Hayman (Welwyn and Hathfield)

I beg to move, That this House calls on Her Majesty's Government to give priority to allevating the prob- lem of lone parents and their children in the light of the recommendations of the Finer Report. I am grateful to the House and recognise my good fortune in coming so early in my career in the House to have the opportunity to propose a Private Member's motion. I must say that I have to reconsider exactly the extent of my good luck when my motion has also come on the day after an all-night sitting. Nevertheless it is a great privilege for me, having made a great study of the problems of one-parent families and having worked with lone parents and their children, to have the opportunity to move this motion today.

My main regret is not so much the sparsity of the audience in the Chamber but the fact that a report as important as that of the Finer Committee and a problem as acute as the problem of over 1 million children who are currently being brought up in one-parent families should be left to the responsibility of a Private Member to raise as a subject for debate in the Chamber.

It is now five years since the late Richard Crossman set up the Finer Committee on one-parent families. That committee's report was signed in March this year. It has been published since July. It affects the lives of one in 10 families in this country. Yet we have had no debate on the Floor of the House of the very many wide-ranging proposals and recommendations contained in that report. The one thing which would make me very sad in my use of the time which has been allotted to me today would be if the fact of having had this debate on a Private Member's motion were to be used at a later stage by the Government as an excuse for not giving proper time in the House for discussion of the subject. I hope we shall have an assurance on that point from the Minister when he replies.

As I said earlier, the Finer Committee was set up over five years ago. In the five years since then, hon. Members on both sides of the House, people outside the House and, perhaps most important of all, lone parents themselves have attempted at different stages to invoke various measures which could help one-parent families. But time and again when we have asked for individual reforms, we have had used against us the fact that the committee was sitting, that it was composed of experts and that it would be reporting and making recommendations, and it was said that the Government could take no action until they had those recommendations before them.

Therefore, children have been waiting five years for the report to be published. We have had Members of the House submitting evidence, watching the deliberations, waiting for publication of the report and being fobbed off time and again when asking for immediate reforms—such as an increase in the disregard for people receiving supplementary benefit, the granting of the maternity grant regardless of national insurance contributions, and the raising of the family allowances and their extension to the first child. On many of these issues, and on many others, we have been told that we must wait for the Finer Report. We now have Finer. It is a massive document extending to two volumes and containing 230 recommendations.

Before proceeding to the contents of the report and to what many right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House would like to see done about it, I should like to spend a little while talking about the problems of lone parents and their children and discussing exactly who we are talking about and how grave and large the problem is.

One of the most important things about the setting up of the Finer Committee was that it was, in its own way, a recognition that lone parents and their children, for whatever reason they were one-parent families—whether it was the single schoolgirl mother or the widower father, the divorced woman or the separated man—were all individuals, and in responding to their individual problems every one of them had more in common with each other than they had differences. They shared a common problem, a personal problem—that of being a single parent bringing up a child or children in a society which is geared socially and economically to two parents bringing up children.

As is well known by those of us who have taken an interest in the subject and by anyone who cares to read the findings of the Finer Report, these people share many other problems as well. Their main problem is that of poverty. The average weekly income of a fatherless family is almost exactly half that of a two-parent family. Perhaps it is appropriate here to make the point, which runs so frequently through the Finer Report, that the costs of keeping a family are very much the same whether there are two parents or one. There is still a roof to be provided, rent to be paid, rate demands to be met, cleaning and washing to be done and children to be cared for.

In fact, the costs for a one-parent family are often more, not less, than for a two-parent family. There may be one adult less to feed in the family, but there is only one breadwinner and one parent to combine both rôles. Therefore, a woman may have to employ someone to do jobs around the house which normally in a two-parent family would be shared between husband and wife. It is often necessary to get someone to care for the children and, in the absence of a wife to do the washing, there is the necessity to incur the expense of sending items to the cleaners or the launderette. One finds again and again in the Finer Report a recognition of the fact that the costs of maintaining a family are very much the same whether there are two parents or one. Yet it is the one-parent family which is poor.

When we consider the composition of one-parent families we find that they fall into various different groups. The stereotyped idea that many people have of the unmarried mother and her child as representing the one-parent family is in no way accurate. There are about 80,000 single mothers bringing up children in this country. There are 90,000 motherless families, with fathers who, by reason of being widowers or divorced or separated, are caring for children on their own. There are far more than either of those groups of divorced and separated women and widowers bringing up children on their own. When we talk about one-parent families we are talking about over 1 million children.

One thing that we must accept in our discussions about policies relating to one-parent families is that more and more of our nation's children will spend some time as members of a one-parent family, as increasingly the trends are for earlier marriage and earlier divorce and for two marriages rather than one to become the sociological pattern. We must bring ourselves up to date and recognise that fact and acknowledge the extent of the suffering involved.

Half a million of the lone parents in this country are mothers. They are poor because they are dependent on supplementary benefit, which is by definition the poverty level, and they are hemmed in when they are on supplementary benefit. They are not allowed to go out to work part-time to increase their income. Until the announcement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services a couple of weeks ago, they were allowed to earn only £2 a week before they lost their entitlement to supplementary benefit. Now they are entitled to earn £4 a week, and that is little enough for the mother who, because she needs company and self-respect which working part-time provides, often suffers economically by her decision to work part-time.

Mothers on supplementary benefit are penalised in other ways. An unsupported mother is subject to the strictures of the cohabitation rule. This subject has been raised frequently in the House. It cannot be said too often how arbitrary is the present nature of the rule and its working and how important it is that the departmental committee which is currently considering the subject should report very soon in order to bring in safeguards for many women who at the moment are liable, on the word of a snooper, an inquisitive neighbour or a malevolent person who wishes to give information, to lose their supplementary benefit with no evidence or reason being presented. I hope we shall see an automatic right of appeal in such cases and that no benefit will be stopped until after the appeal has been heard.

Mothers who are not in receipt of supplementary benefit but are in receipt of maintenance have their problems as well. We have seen—this is illustrated in the Finer Report—how totally inadequate is the present system of maintenance in divorce and separation. It is often impossible for a women to collect her entitlement as allocated by a court, and we are aware of the humiliating problems which many women face when attempting to get the maintenance which has been allotted to them. We have to admit, too, that many of the men about whom we are talking cannot afford to keep two families. If a man leaves one family, for whatever reason, he gains other responsibilities and he does not have a pay packet which can stretch to support both families.

It is absolutely essential that we accept one of the main recommendations of the Finer Report that we should separate off the assessment and collection of the maintenance that is due from a husband or father so that it can be paid to the mother or wife concerned. At the moment, as I say, she has to undergo a humiliating process of chasing a recalcitrant husband through the courts for money which she often does not get although she is taxed as though she had received it. This practice could and should be ended if we gave to the State its proper responsibility of assessing and collecting that maintenance, thus keeping the mother concerned out of at least this part of the proceedings.

Even mothers who manage to go out to work full-time and who are not dependent on supplementary benefit are poor. They are poor because they are women and because in this country women's wages are still, on average, only half the wages which men receive.

A family which is being supported by a mother as breadwinner is likely to be poor by virtue of the fact that even her full-time wage will be low.

In many ways the problems of one-parent families—five out of six heads of such families are women—are the problems of women in our society. Some one-parent families headed by mothers who would like to work full-time, who could earn a good salary by so doing and who feel that they could contribute more to their children and to their own lives and give themselves more self-respect by going out to work, are unable to do so because of the lack of day care facilities for children.

There are now fewer day nursery places for children under five than in 1945. That is a disgrace to us all. It shows that when the country needed women workers—during war time—it made adequate provision for their children to be cared for during the day while they were at work. Now, when circumstances are different, we have allowed ourselves to slip backwards. Even the mothers who manage to gain one of the scarce day nursery places for their children under the age of five are often faced with the irony that they can work when their children are very small and before they go to school but that when their children reach the age of five and go to primary school their problems begin. That is because primary school ends at three o'clock, a quarter past three or half-past three and their jobs end at half-past five, so that there are two hours when there is no one to care for their children. Employers are not happy with employees who take off eight weeks during the summer because their children are away from school.

In looking at our day care facilities for children and for mothers, we need to provide a balance that equally assesses the needs of both. We need a flexible system which provides the nursery school place for the child who can take and cope with a nursery school, the day nursery or creche for the child who is not ready for a nursery school, the playgroup that also provides a lunchtime meal so that a mother can work a half day, and the various provisions of nursery classes attached to primary schools so that we can offer a flexible range of services that caters for the needs of both the child and the mother whether she wants to work full-time or part-time if she wants to work at all. Of course, her basic job is to be the mother who cares and who wants and chooses to stay at home to look after her children with an adequate income to do so. That applies equally to fathers who choose to stay at home to look after their children while they are small.

I welcome the fact that the Department has announced that it intends to end the scandal whereby fathers in the past were required to register for work if they had children under school age or of school age because they wanted to stay at home to look after them, whereas mothers with dependent children were automatically entitled to supplementary benefit if they so chose. I am delighted to know that the Department intends to change this rule in line with the recommendations of the Finer Committee. I shall be even more delighted when it is actually implemented.

There is another measure that the Department could take. I am now dealing with the smaller and less expensive points but points that could be of enormous help to lone parents and their children. I refer to family income supplement. Much as I dislike means-tested benefits and much as I opposed the introduction of FIS in the beginning, we now face the grim reality that many thousands of families are dependent on family income supplement. Any withdrawal of it would necessitate a much longer-term strategy of fighting poverty overall.

We could do something to help one-parent families. We could lower the number of hours worked per week which entitle a worker to be eligible for family income supplement. If we reduced the level to 24 hours a week we would cover the mothers and fathers who work part-time—the three-quarter day—to cover their child care responsibilities. We could help those parents a great deal more than we do at the moment, because they are effectively wage stopped and they have no hope of getting either supplementary benefit or family income supplement.

What we ought to have done, and what I greatly regret that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer was unable to announce in his autumn Budget, was to have brought in family allowances for the first child as well as increasing these allowances. Over 50 per cent. of one-parent families have only one child. It would have been an enormously valuable interim measure for those families if we had introduced family allowance for the first child. I consider it extremely sad that this Labour Government have found themselves unable to bring in that provision.

However, when we hear the Secretary of State speak about the child endowment scheme as if it were the be-all and end-all solution for one-parent families and their poverty, we must not be deceived. There will have to be differences in the administration of the child endowment scheme from that of the family allowances scheme if one-parent families are to benefit.

In many cases the family endowment scheme is effectively a transfer from husband to wife of the child tax allowance. A cash benefit from the husband becomes a cash benefit for the wife.

When a mother is sole head of the household and works, what she gains on the roundabouts she loses on the swings because she loses her child tax allowance when her new family allowance comes in. A mother on supplementary benefit feels most bitterly resentful about the fact that family allowances are counted as income for the purpose of assessing supplementary benefit entitlement. She is no better off, because by getting an increased family allowance she will lose out of her supplementary benefit what she seemingly gained. When we introduce this much-needed family allowance for the first child we will have to ensure that it is disallowed against supplementary benefit entitlement.

All the matters about which I have been talking relating to the poverty of one-parent families hinge around the central issue whether we should look again at how we provide income support for lone parents and their children and end the present disorganised system which perpetuates their poverty.

At present some lone parents—widows and widowers—are entitled to a pension and national insurance benefit, other lone parents are out working, but for the reasons I have outlined they are often on very low wages, and yet others are dependent in the long term on supplementary benefit—the official poverty line—to meet their needs.

That system is totally unsatisfactory. Unfortunately, however much we may deplore it, the local offices of the Department of Health and Social Security and the Supplementary Benefits Commission are not the most welcoming places. The whole system of supplementary benefit was never designed to provide long-term income support to families. Yet that is how it is being used for one-parent families.

What we need is a totally new scheme, a special cash allowance as of right for all one-parent families whatever their status. That was the recommendation we were most pleased to see included in the Finer Report on one-parent families. It is the recommendation which, sadly, seems mostly firmly to have been rejected so far by the Government. We recognise that it is an expensive recommendation. I and many of my hon. Friends were disappointed that the benefit recommended by Finer is in some way means- tested or, to be more accurate, has an earnings rule attached to it. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has expressed concern about this.

One simple way in which we could put that right is by abolishing the earnings rule on the guaranteed maintenance allowance and making the scheme more generous than the committee initially set out.

We are here arguing about detail, and what I would contend that lone parents and their children would like us to do is to establish the principle of a special cash allowance as of right, regardless of age or status, and to get that on to the statute book and administered by a completely different authority from the Supplementary Benefits Commission, which could then do much more effectively the work it is intended to do—that is, give emergency financial aid to people in sudden and dire straits.

Apart from the main financial recommendations, many other valuable suggestions are put forward in the Finer report. There is a large section dealing with housing. We know that the problems of one-parent families are not simply those of poverty, although most of their problems are inter-linked with their basic problem of poverty. Housing is one of the areas in which the heads of many one-parent families are discriminated against because they are women. One of the two main areas of difficulty and insecurity is housing. One-parent families are far less likely to become owner-occupiers than the rest of the population. They are far less likely to become unfurnished tenants. One-parent families are far less likely to get council housing, often because of the allocation policies of housing committees of every political complexion throughout the country.

One-parent families sometimes suffer from policies that are not designed to discriminate against them but which do so unintentionally. There are still local councils which will not accept on to their lists single mothers and their children as a family unit. This is a disgrace. There are other councils which do not recognise the way in which they are discriminating against lone parents and their children. For example, a points system that works on allocating points for each adult and child in the household means that the one-parent family, compared with the two-parent family in the same bad housing conditions, will automatically lose out because it will have one person less.

A neighbouring authority which allocates its points on room deficiency rather than on the number of adults in the household will say that a one-parent family needs the same number of bedrooms as a two-parent family and, therefore, will not discriminate in this way against the one-parent family.

A whole range of measures are set out in the Finer report aimed at abolishing the underprivilege of fatherless families. They are three times more likely than two-parent families to become physically homeless and to end up in the horror of bed and breakfast accommodation—bed and breakfast accommodation for the people who can least well cope with it. These are people who are already lonely, who have already probably gone through some sort of emotional trauma of separation or loss. They are already poor.

The recommendations concerning local authority housing, owner-occupation and homelessness are among the most important sections of the Finer Report. There are also sections dealing with the need for better day care facilities and there is a major section—which has been accepted by the Government and which was included in the Labour Party manifesto but which I am sad to say was not included in the Gracious Speech—on the need for family courts.

We still have the problems of custody, separation and maintenance being discussed and decided in a magistrates' court, with all the paraphernalia of policemen and lay magistrates untrained in the specialised skills necessary to domestic jurisdiction and more used to the ethos of the "drunk and disorderly" type of Monday morning with which every neighbourhood magistrates' court is associated.

If we are to deal in a civilised and humane fashion with the facts of life as they are in our society—that people have children out of wedlock, that marriages break up and that people lose husbands and wives through death, divorce and separation—if we are to deal humanely with adults and children affected by these facts, we must have a specialist system of family courts with properly trained and sensitive personnel who can staff such courts. I hope that we will have an announcement very soon stating what progress is to be made in the implementation of the manifesto pledge to bring in family courts.

There are many other recommendations within the Finer report. I was talking earlier about the difficulties that lone mothers have in obtaining a decent wage. It is a fact that many of these problems stem not from a lack of employment opportunities but from a lack of training opportunities. When we look at the figures for apprenticeships, we see that 95 per cent. of apprentices are boys and that the 5 per cent. who are girl apprentices are in hairdressing.

The present situation is not good enough, if we are to use our woman-power as well as our manpower—and, God knows, we need to use both well in the years ahead. Even before we get to the training and vocational side, we look at the educational opportunities for women and see how they are discriminated against throughout their educational lives in the curricula offered to them, the course of subjects and the job advice they get.

In pre-school education we can see that most of our underprivileged children in the most underprivileged areas are the least likely to get the nursery school education they most need. We go downwards in that vicious cycle of poverty, which I hope we are all determined to break, not by stepping in and saying that the way to end the problem of poor children is to stop them being born but by saying that the way to do it is to end their poverty.

That, I suggest, is the only approach we can and must make to this problem. There are 230 recommendations in all the Finer report. The most important is for a special cash allowance for all one-parent families, but there are the other matters I have mentioned. For example there is the question of the maternity grant. It is a small point and my colleagues on the Front Bench will be delighted to know that it is cheap to implement. At present about 92 per cent. of mothers are eligible for the maternity grant since they or their husbands have sufficient national insurance contributions to be eligible for the measly £25 allocated to them on the birth of the first child. That is supposed to provide for everything that is needed for the birth of the first child. We will leave the sum to one side for the moment.

The mothers who are not eligible for the grant are the very mothers who need it most. They are schoolgirl mothers. They are the mothers who have just started work and have not built up a contribution record. They are women who are living with cohabitees or who have been deserted by a cohabitee and are not eligible on a cohabitee's record. These women suffer most.

What I have suggested would be a cheap measure. I should be glad to see us moving away from the conventional type of approach to the payment of this grant. It should be dependent on the birth of a child whether a person gets a grant for providing for that child, not whether that person has been out of work for the past 52 weeks.

I have said that there are 230 recommendations. I was disappointed with the reply I received from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister when I asked whether he was satisfied with the coordination of Departments on the implementation of these many and varied recommendations which span right across problems of education and science, the Department of Health and Social Security, the Attorney-General's Department, the Department of the Environment, and many Departments and Ministries. The reply I received was that the Prime Minister was satisfied.

The Prime Minister may be satisfied, but I am not and I think that this is a view that many of my colleagues will share. We would be much happier with the approach to tackling the very important document which we have before us if a departmental committee were to be set up to see how we could integrate our approach to the problems of one-parent families and how we could make a proper and concerted attack.

One-parent families are the most significant minority group that we as a society neglect. We have always seen them as separate, as different—some single mothers here, the widows there, the divorced and separated somewhere in the middle. We have never done enough for this important underprivileged group. Although we have made much progress in other fields of social welfare, we have made very little progress here.

One-parent families are the most rapidly growing group of families living in poverty today. They have been neglected as to the help they have received. They have been neglected in the respect that we as a society give to them.

There is one thing that I want to say on behalf of lone parents struggling to bring up children on their own, in many cases against overwhelming odds. This is something that should be said, because too often we seem to assume that a lone parent is ipso facto a failure and that ipso facto the child of a lone parent will be a failure. This is just not so.

We know that many men and women on their own do a marvellous job and bring up children in a happy, warm and loving atmosphere. We know also that many children are better off with one good caring parent than with two unhappy parents kept together unnaturally. If those children are deprived, it is not the fault of the parent. It is the fault of a society that allows their physical underprivileges to continue and to intensify, as they are intensifying in these days of inflation.

I guess that my hon. Friend the Undersecretary will not argue too strongly over the case I have put forward that one-parent families have needs. He will not argue against the assertion that many of the recommendations of the report of the Finer Committee are things that the Government would like to see implemented. The case that we will hear from both sides of the House is that we are in a time of economic stringency, that inflation is rampant and that we cannot afford to help these families now.

If we accept that doctrine we shall fail. Certainly we on this side of the House will fail in our Socialism. If we do not help these families now, we shall be allowing them to go to the wall. These are the very people who suffer most from the effects of inflation, and then we have the contempt to say that, because of inflation we cannot afford to help them. We are mortgaging the future of over 1 million children if we do not act to give assistance to lone parents and their families now, and we cannot use the economic situation that hurts them more than it hurts those of us in the House as an excuse for not helping them now.

1.25 p.m.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South-West)

I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in congratulating the hon. Lady the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mrs. Hayman), not only on her success in the Ballot, which obviously was not within her control, but on choosing this subject and on the absolutely admirable way in which she presented the case. I have never heard a better speech from the back benches—in fact I do not think that I have heard a better speech at all—on a social services subject.

What stood out in the hon. Lady's speech was that, although there are always temptations in a situation like this, she did not make any party capital out of it. That is something for which I am very grateful. The whole House will wish to join me in that sentiment.

The hon. Lady was so fluent and so comprehensive as to intimidate those of us who will follow her. She said almost everything and left us with nothing other than to applaud, to echo and to hope. However, it is important that we should unite across the Chamber and make our contributions to the debate. Obviously it is a pity that more Members are not here and that many, like the hon. Lady, had to stay up throughout the night. That in itself is a great tribute to the hon. Lady—that after staying up all night she can still deliver a speech such as that. For obvious reasons many Members had to return to their constituencies.

The fact that there are not many Members here underlines the need, which was stressed by the hon. Lady in her opening remarks, for the whole House to have an early opportunity of debating this subject in Government time. I was delighted when yesterday at Business question time the Leader of the House assured me that he would do his best to find time as soon as possible after Chirstmas for such a debate. We must all respect the enormous pressures on the Government's timetable, a timetable which has been thrown out of gear this week, for understandable reasons. Therefore, of course, we do not criticise the Leader of the House for saying that it must be after Christmas, but I hope that it will be soon after Christmas, and I hope that there will not be any excuse offered or proffered because we have had today's debate. It is important that the Government should make a definitive pronouncement—again, we cannot expect that today—about this report and it is important that Members should have the opportunity of debating its implementation.

This is a subject which unites Members in all parts of the House. The motion which stands in my name and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Wallsall, South (Mr. George) and about 130 other hon. Members crosses all party lines and includes members of every party in the House and of all wings and sections and groups within every party in the House.

This is also an appropriate time to mention that one of the most active of party groups, of which I have the honour to be chairman, is the group for widows and one-parent families, which meets regularly and discusses these issues in an entirely non-party and non-partisan spirit, motivated by only one thing, which is a genuine desire to do something to help these people who, through no fault of their own, very often are deprived.

One thing that we shall all have to recognise in debating this subject is that this is a continuing social problem which no Government will ever be able to solve. There have always been, and there always will be, society and human nature being what it is, families that break up. There will always be families devas-stated by tragedy, sometimes sudden, swift and terrible as in Birmingham a week ago, sometimes quiet and domestic, but always these things will happen and always they will leave in their wake children with only one parent on whom to rely.

These children, who are all quirks of nature and circumstance, obliged to live in a sort of twilight area, are never to blame. We should always remember this. It is easy and perhaps sometimes justifiable to comment on the conduct of parents, but the one person who cannot be blamed is the child. If a schoolgirl has a child, one may throw up one's hands and deplore her morals—although I believe that that reaction should have no part in a debate such as this—but one cannot blame the child, who is all the more deserving of the consideration and help of society in general. So these children, deprived as they are, must always be our first and our proper concern.

Members of Parliament are in an almost unique position to appreciate this, because all of us, wherever we sit, have our surgeries and advice bureaux. We all find that the most heart-rending cases often centre around these single-parent families—perhaps a woman deserted by her husband, a man left by a wife whose attentions have wandered, or people like the parents of a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl who came to my surgery the other week distraught and distressed because she is pregnant and about to give birth.

Members of Parliament have a double qualification and therefore a double obligation, because those of us who are married and have children appreciate a little more acutely than most the problems of a one-parent family, because many of us with constituencies far from London have to leave our children with our wives during the week and attend to our duties here. We can see the tension which can be created even in a normal, healthy, happy and relatively affluent family by the absence, even if only temporarily, of one of the parents.

Because of these things, we have an obligation and a unique privilege in the sense of being able to see exactly what the problems are. We could also be in a unique position to know more about how to solve them than most people know. At the centre of our discussion when debating an issue like this should be the thought that, around a happy, healthy family life a happy, healthy society can flourish and that, without family life as its basis, society and indeed civilisation can be placed in jeopardy.

I was particularly struck to read in a recent edition of Poverty, the journal of the Child Poverty Action Group, an article by Victor George of the University of Kent, from which I will quote one tiny passage. There are things in his article with which I would not agree, but we can all agree with this, that an enlightened social policy for one-parent families must have as one of its main aims to encourage as many mothers or fathers to continue caring for their children when their spouse dies or leaves. In spite of all the criticisms levelled at the family, it is still the best and cheapest way of bringing up chidren and until a better way is found"— I suggest that it never will be— social policy must aim at supporting the family. At present, social policy fails to do this. A rough indication of this is that about one-third of all children in the care of local authorities come from one-parent families—a disproportionate figure, since children of one-parent families account for only ten per cent. of the child population. Those comments are particularly pertinent to our debate, and I believe that there is not a Member in the Chamber who could not echo and endorse them. If we are adequately to maintain and enhance family life, we should try with care and determination and passion to do more and more for these families.

The hon. Lady was particularly right when she said that, because this social area is fragmented, we often tend to ignore it. There are, of course, the widows, and we are all conscious of their plight. Then there are unmarried mothers, the divorced, the separated and the widowers. Do not let us forget the widowers, who in a sense are in the most difficult situation of all. Because they come in these various groups and compartments, we sometimes find it difficult to think of them as presenting the single social problem that they do present.

Widowers are perhaps in the most difficult situation of all, because a woman obviously has her maternal instincts, she is fitted by nature to look after the family and she has generations of inherited experience behind her. A man is not in that position and suddenly to be deprived of his wife by death or desertion devastates him. He must always be encouraged and helped to the uttermost to try to keep the family unit together.

The major recommendation of the Finer Report, which is at the centre of this debate, is the GMA, the guaranteed maintenance allowance. I agree with the hon. Lady that it is a matter of high priority that it should be introduced. I do not want to inject partisan notes into my speech, any more than she did into hers, but she closed with a passing and entirely permissible reference to Socialism, so perhaps I can be forgiven one partisan comment.

The money which we are at present expending on food subsidies could be better spent and a portion of it could be devoted to bringing in this allowance, to the much greater benefit of this important and deprived section of the community. When the Government protest that it is economically impossible to bring it in at the moment, I would say, "Please look at your priorities and the money that we are already spending. Please consider whether some of the money might not be more constructively diverted to this policy." Without increasing capital expenditure—we all know how important it is for everyone's sake to contain that—the GMA could be brought in as a matter of priority, and fairly soon.

But of course we accept that the economic conditions of today are such as to make it difficult for any Government of any party to indulge in any large-scale extra expenditure. Only by a change, an alteration, a diversion can this be brought in. Although I have made my plug, I know that the Government are wedded to their system of food subsidies and I fear—I hope that I am wrong—that my plea has fallen on deaf ears.

If so, I would say, as the hon. Lady said, that many recommendations in the Finer Report could be implemented at little cost or in some cases at no cost at all. It is to these that I urge the Government to direct their attention. I hope that, if not today at least when we have our definitive debate, the Minister will promise us the early implementation of some of those recommendations. The hon. Lady has referred movingly and persuasively to many of those recommendations. I will therefore not mention all that I had intended to mention. But I hope that I can reinforce some of her comments and perhaps even be able to add some others to them.

It is essential, for instance, to do something to humanise the cohabitation rule. It is not the hallmark of a civilised and humane society to place widows in fear of their moral reputation if they take in a lodger. A system which relies even to the minutest degree on the anonymous allegation is entirely to be deplored.

The Child Poverty Action Group, when it recently drew up what it thought was a code for the reform and the humanisation of the cohabitation rule, hit upon certain important facts. First, it recom- mended that anonymous allegations should never be accepted as admissible evidence. I hope that we can all agree about that. Second, it recommended that both sides should have an absolute right to call witnesses instead of that procedure being dependent upon the chairman's discretion. Third, it recommended that there should always be a clear written record of proceedings which should be sent to the claimants, as is done by national insurance tribunals. Fourth, it recommended that the written reasons for the decision sent to the claimant should be in the form of a statement which should apply the relevant statutes to the facts and arguments presented at the hearing so that the appellant would know the basis on which the decision had been reached. In the interests of justice we can accept no less than that.

There are those who say that the rules should go altogether, but I do not suppose that the Minister would associate himself with that line of argument. We must be realistic. Successive Governments have argued that it would be indefensible and unfair to abolish the rule totally. If that argument is accepted in this debate, and for the purposes of my argument I accept it, I think that a humanisation of the procedure is of the utmost importance and should be a matter of high priority for the Government. It would have the incalculable advantage that from an administrative point of view it could be implemented with almost no cost.

The hon. Member for Welwyn and Hatfield talked of family courts. She referred to them as courts which can be conducted in a friendly and relatively informal manner and in a warm atmosphere. It is something of which we can hardly be proud that people faced with the most acute, distressing and depressing social and domestic problems are often brought into an atmosphere which they find intimidating—namely, a courtroom with police officers and with the smell of stale beer hanging heavily in the air. I hope that something can be done quickly about this. As it was within the Labour Party's manifesto, I hope that the Government will be able to do something with the family courts at least in the next Gracious Speech.

The hon. Lady also referred to the housing situation. She mentioned how many local authorities unwittingly penalise the single-parent family. I should like to see the Secretary of State for the Environment send out a circular to local authorities within the next few weeks requesting a harmonisation of the procedure that is operated by local authorities. I am asking for a harmonisation which will deliberately not place at a disadvantage the single-parent family. If that alone could come from this debate it woud be well worth having. I hope that the Minister will pass on that suggestion to the Department of the Environment and that he will add his persuasive Celtic powers to my voice so that the Secretary of State gets down to the job fairly soon.

The hon. Lady also referred to maternity grants. Again, I do not think that anyone who dwells for a moment on the needs of people could possibly disagree with what she said. It is a strange system and a weird form of justice that penalises the child for the sins of the mother. It is those mothers who are not eligible for the grant whose children are most in need and for whom the £25 could make a considerable difference. I hope that the Minister will take on board that matter. Again, there is the inestimable advantage that the public expenditure required would be of minute proportions.

I do not wish to detain the House for much longer. I know that there are other hon. Members who wish to make their contribution to this debate. I end by drawing attention to another matter that the Government should undertake immeiately in bringing about the form of coordination to which the hon. Lady referred. I have suggested that we should have a circular on housing. I also suggest that the Minister and his right hon. Friend go before the Prime Minister at No. 10 Downing Street and ask him to set up as a matter of urgency a co-ordinating committee representing all the major Departments of State which are affected by the recommendations of the Finer Report and whose united endeavours and joint experience must be brought together if the single-parent families are to be given a new dimension in which to live.

That should be our aim. We cannot prevent the tragedies of death that result in widows and widowers being left with small children. We cannot act as a court of morals and we cannot prevent deficiences of various kinds. Still less can we prevent conception by schoolgirls that results in children being brought into the world and having to live with only one parent. What we can do is to take such children into our collective care. We can encourage the family unit and ensure that if children have been deprived through death or the accident of birth, they will not also be deprived by the fact that society is unconscious and neglectful of their needs.

1.48 p.m.

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

It must be reiterated that there is all-party support for the motion. There are very few matters on which the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South-West (Mr. Cormack) and I agree. If we begin to agree too often I shall need to re-examine my political philosophy. I am sure that he, too, would need to consider his position. However, on this subject we have reached near unanimity. Indeed, all-party agreement is testimony to the fact that it is not always necessary to adopt a partisan approach to achieve our political and social objectives.

It is a pleasure to follow the superb speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mrs. Hayman). There were parts of my hon. Friend's speech which were so moving that I swear I saw some tears in the civil servant's box. That is testimony to the weight of her speech. My hon. Friend not only said many of the things that I meant to say but she probably made many of the points that the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South-West intended to make. Probably she has rendered superfluous many of the matters that the Minister would have put forward in winding up. It must be emphasised that this debate should not be seen as a substitute for a fuller debate. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has indicated his willingness to arrange a full debate. It is important that what is said on this subject is not listened to by only a handful of people such as the number present today.

The output of Her Majesty's Stationery Office is enormous. Many reports are published such as weighty Royal Commissions and committees of inquiry of various kinds. I am convinced that awaiting each report is a pre-arranged pigeonhole which is swiftly filled. Many reports have been consigned to oblivion, with very few of their recommendations implemented. Many reports are greeted by the Government with apparent enthusiasm, but after an initial flurry here and in Government circles they find their pre-arranged niche, for ever more to be forgotten.

But one thing we can assure Ministers is that the Finer Report on one-parent families will not have that fate. There is an enormous amount of support for its recommendations. We must warn Ministers and senior civil servants that there is a great deal of support within the House and a whole range of organisations outside. They have got together in the Joint Finer Action Committee. The supporters inside and outside the House are in close liaison.

We must also warn the Government that other groups and organisations within our society have come to our support. This morning I attended my party conference, which unanimously passed an emergency resolution supporting improvements in the lot of one-parent families. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was there. The phrase "one-parent family" was used often by many speakers. My right hon. Friend is aware of the problem anyway, but that repeated use of the phrase shows that within the Labour Party and the trade union movement there is a groundswell of support. Most important of all, the vast numbers of people who come within the scope of the report are anxious to see an improvement in their situation. All in all, an enormous amount of pressure will be coming the way of Ministers in the not-too-distant future.

We could not support a cause that was not just. We feel that our cause is just, and that the recommendations should be implemented not merely because there is a growing army of supporters but because the report has shown that the area is one that has hitherto been largely ignored and neglected by Government. The committee has shone a pitiless floodlight on this area of neglect, and none of us will allow that floodlight to be switched off.

It is a magnificent report. When historians and social administrators appraise important reports of the 20th century, they will place the Finer Report on high. It is a superb work, invaluable not only for Ministers. I hope that many local authorities are scrutinising its 230 recommendations very closely.

It is a great report for both the long term and the short term. We arc not so naive as to assume that even if the Government had the money, which they have not, the 230 recommendations could be translated into reality at the wave of a wand. As Professor McGregor, one of the committee members, said when he visited the House recently, the report is educative in many ways. Many of its recommendations are long term, striking at the heart of our administrative system. We face not just financial obstacles but administrative obstacles, the natural inertia with any bureaucracy, especially when it is fragmented and departmentalised.

The recommendations are not confined to the Department of Health and Social Security. They cut across the entire spectrum of the machinery of central and local government. A great deal of co-ordination should be involved, and we are not entirely satisfied that it is taking place.

We have waited a long time for the report. We recognise the difficulties that were faced by the committee—a number of deaths and resignations as well as all sorts of other problems. But at last the report is out. Having waited a long time for it, we do not want to wait a long time before its recommendations start to reach the statute book.

The Government's initial reaction was not totally encouraging. When the report was published, I asked my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State a question, and her reply was not completely satisfactory to many supporters of one-parent families. She said that the Government accepted many of the recommendations, that they were having consultations with local authorities about their sphere of the recommendations and that there were some recommendations that the Government could not accept.

The pivotal recommendations relate to income and finance. What the report has shown is what we realise anyway—but now we have more documentary evidence to support us—that the financial position of one-parent families is generally inferior to that of two-parent families. The Finer recommendation was the well-argued guaranteed maintenance allowance. We have heard that the Government will not implement it. They have their own child endowment schemes, and we look forward to those being published and implemented.

We shall be told that there is the cost problem. We are realists. If the Government tell us, "We have not got the money", we acknowledge that they are in a better position to know. But we are saying that when the money is available we expect to see the recommendations receiving high priority. There are other groups with equally strong claims on a diminishing public treasury, but the case for the one-parent families has been put strongly, and we expect priority treatment.

The hon. Member for Staffordshire, South-West spoke about many recommendations that would cost little or nothing to implement but would at least show the Government's good intentions. I am sure that my hon. Friend will tell us that there have been modest beginnings, but they are modest. Perhaps a couple of the recommendations have been ticked off, but we shall not be satisfied until we start seeing large chunks of them being ticked off and can say that the Government are acting.

I reinforce what has been said by both previous speakers about the cohabitation rule, which illustrates the problems of bureaucracy and not of cost. We mounted the campaign on the matter some time ago, and it has received a great deal of support. When a former Lord Chancellor, Lord Gardiner, comes out so strongly in favour, we know that we have a good case.

After considering the Finer recommendations, I believe that the Committee is almost saying that there is a strong case for the cohabitation rule to be abolished, but Finer says that we cannot go quite that far. He says: There are few subjects in the field of social security law and administration which give rise to more heat and criticism than the cohabitation rule in supplementary benefits.…Granted the necessity for the rule, the task must be to improve its administration so as to minimise the dangers. There are dangers: widows walking in fear, afraid to engage in a reasonable relationship with a member of the opposite sex for fear that someone will inform upon them and there will be an investi- gation, the result of which will be the withdrawal of an order book, which can spell financial disaster.

I personally could not support the abolition of the cohabitation rule. Clearly public funds must be protected against fraud. However, the statistics show that there are remarkably few cases in which fraud is proved and not all that many cases in which it is suspected. The rule affects a potentially large number of people. Examples have been given showing how it can be improved. One way of improving it is to have a code of conduct for investigators. Throughout the night we have been talking about potential invasions of our privacy. Privacy can be invaded in a far less spectacular way. Clearly there is a strong case to be made for a re-examination of the regulations as operated by social security investigators.

There must be a statutory definition of cohabitation for the benefit not only of claimants, who have to know whether the relationship on which they have em-barked comes within the definition of cohabitation, but of the officers. Someone must find a reasonable definition of cohabitation which can then be placed inside the order books so that widows or others potentially liable to prosecution may understand the position.

Another danger of the present operation of the law is that order books can be withdrawn on suspicion. In many cases Department of Health and Social Security officers make allegations and the book is withdrawn and it is impossible for a widow or perhaps a single parent to prove innocence. An automatic stage should be inserted in the proceedings so that the book can be withdrawn only after an investigation and a hearing at which the accused person is represented. From my questioning of Ministers, it is clear on the question not only of cohabitation but of tribunals in general that if a person is represented his chances of getting off are significantly increased.

I hope that we shall be visiting the Minister in the not-too-distant future in order to thrash out some of the problems I have mentioned because if ever there is a case for close examination and action it is in respect of the operation of the iniquitous cohabitation rule.

Mention has been made of the Finer Committee's recommendations on housing. The cost of some of the recommendations of the Finer Committee is not incalculable. When we say that we must build more houses for one-parent families, we must not forget that there are two groups equally in need of adequate housing. In my area, over 7,500 people are on the council housing waiting list. We must move ahead with building not only more houses but specialist accommodation for one-parent families.

Mention has been made of the points system, a system which in principle I support. At least it gives an air of rationality and objectivity to what is often a disastrous situation. Without the points system we would be forced to resort to subjective assessments, which could be disadvantageous. The points system is very wayward in its operation from local authority to local authority, and it heavily penalises the one-parent family. Therefore, perhaps a directive or advice could be issued to local authorities inviting them to consider the Finer Committee's recommendations.

It is important that one-parent families should be given adequate support. When one is widowed, divorced or separated, one is in a vulnerable position and is faced with not only financial problems but psychological problems. I wonder whether the social services and housing departments provide adequate information not simply on housing but generally for people who, against their will, are regrettably thrown into this category. The advice systems must generally be considerably improved.

Temporary accommodation must also be improved. People thrown into the one-parent family category are desperately vulnerable before they can be found permanent accommodation, and much more must be done by local authorities to tide them over.

One of the strongest sections in the Finer Report relates to the legal system. It is a terrific indictment of the way in which the law operates. I foresee some great problems. We have problems enough with Departments such as the Department of Health and Social Security, but others are equally intransigent. Perhaps the Law Departments come within this category. In view of the way in which other Departments are moved, the outlook is not entirely encouraging. I therefore hope that the Finer Committee's recommendations about the law will be quickly implemented.

The onus of responsibility for implementing the Finer Report is not simply on the Department of Health and Social Security but on almost every Government Department. One wonders whether they are taking their responsibilities seriously. They may think that by inviting a Minister from the Department of Health and Social Security to deal with these matters they can forget their responsibility. Many of the Finer Committee's recommendations on education must be considered. Modest beginnings have been made. Let us hope that we can go on from them and see an improvement in the lot of one-parent families. The Finer Report not only deals with the question of improving the lot of one-parent families but is a charter for women's rights. That has been largely ignored.

It has been a pleasure for me to speak in the debate. I hope that, though there are many empty seats in the Chamber—understandably in the circumstances—the not entirely deaf ears of the Minister will be opened further and that he will transmit what has been said in the debate to other Ministers not only in his Department but in other Departments, because two-thirds of a million one-parent families and over 1 million dependent children are anxiously awaiting the results of the Government's deliberations. They cannot wait too long. Nor can we.

2.8 p.m.

Mr. Cyril D. Townsend (Bexleyheath)

The hon. Lady the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mrs. Hayman) has picked up one of the most enviable speaking characteristics of the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), namely, that of being able to speak without notes. She has been a most knowledgeable and articulate exponent of her cause, which today is the cause of all of us. The ground has been well covered and I hope that sufficient seeds for thought and action have been planted on the Government Front Bench.

Two General Elections have made me acutely aware of the deprivation, hardship and suffering among the group we are discussing which is worthy of special attention and financial support even at a time of great financial stringency. Society is more fluid than it was even a few years ago. Many divorces take place at an earlier age. Divorce is easier and it is becoming more acceptable socially. The House and the Government must react to this new feeling in society.

I have been working for several years for a London charity called St. Christopher's which deals with the problems of homeless and delinquent adolescents. This was virtually my introduction to the problem of one-parent families. Many of the children in the society's homes are from homes where the parent was unable to bring up the family in modern conditions without proper financial support. We all agree that it is much better to bring up children at home rather than in a home. That is perhaps the main argument as to the correct action to be taken on the Finer Report.

May I mention the problem of the single schoolgirl who is expecting a child and possibly is a casualty of our so-called permissive society. I suggest that if she knows that society will not neglect her if she has a child and will try to help her financially and in other ways, there is a chance that she may not have an abortion and may be prepared to go ahead and bring up her child. Is that not an important factor for us to consider?

Housing authorities, particularly in our big conurbations must adopt a more flexible approach to the problem of lone parents and, indeed, single people in general. We must have an interdepartmental committee to co-ordinate the main thrust from Whitehall. I echo the call which has already been made for a major debate on this subject before too long.

I believe that the answer is a supplementary cash allowance as of right. I do not think I am alone in saying that I do not know how some lone parents survive financially when prices are rising by 20 per cent. per year. Such parents try to survive by spurning luxuries and accept that their living standards frequently will fall below those of immediate neighbours.

One of the great weaknesses of our society is the ludicrous way in which society hands out financial rewards. A football pool winner will receive an enormous sum of money which will probably bring him much ill health and unhappiness. Then there is the property developer who through his ability and risk-taking will make his first £500,000 before he is 30 years of age. Yet how small are the rewards for those pillars in society such as the hospitals, doctors, the policemen and the group of people I shall meet when I open an old people's home bazaar on Sunday.

We are today turning the spotlight on a large group of our society who are the salt of the earth, yet that group is very badly rewarded for its efforts. These people struggle against the odds in trying to bring up children in decent Christian homes with loving care and attention. In doing so they are saving the taxpayer and ratepayer from many extra demands. I believe that a decent civilised society should go out of its way to reward these members of our society; in doing so it will become a more just and compassionate society.

2.14 p.m.

Sir George Young (Ealing, Acton)

The House is grateful to the hon. Lady the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mrs. Hayman) for this opportunity to debate the Finer Report, but we are more grateful to her for her penetrating analysis of the problem with which she introduced the debate. That analysis benefited from her work in this sphere before she entered the House. Incidentally, I very much liked the way in which the hon. Lady reprimanded her Labour colleagues when she thought that a reprimand was due.

It is appropriate that we should discuss this matter after an all-night sitting when many of our own families perforce became "one-parent" families, but the fact is that the coming of dawn, which many of us witnessed from the terrace or from the warmth and comfort of the bar, has meant that the attendance at this debate has been hit to some degree.

The depth of feeling on both sides of the House, and the support of the all-party committee, which is examining this problem, have not perhaps been represented in this debate to the full. The Finer Report comprised 1,000 pages and took five years to compile and in the process got through three secretaries, which is a high mortality rate for the Civil Service.

After all this investment and research work and the analysis which has been undertaken, we owe it not just to one-parent families but to those who worked on the Finer Committee to give top priority to the report. There is no point if Government after Government set up committees and Royal Commissions and then, after receiving their reports, Parliament takes no notice. Many recommendations involve Government funds, and the expenditure of such funds is not at the moment popular with the Treasury. I believe, however, that this is the right time to get in the queue, because at some other time the circumstances will change as we solve our economic problems. It is right that this group of people should be at the forefront of the queue knocking at the door until the time when the Treasury reopens its gates.

Some figures that were given after the Finer Committee reported showed that one-parent families have to survive on £26.09p per week—less than half the average income of two-parent families with children. These statistics underline the problems of one-parent families.

There is a popular misconception that in talking of single-parent families we are talking only of unmarried wothers. But fewer than 15 per cent. of the people involved are unmarried mothers. There are other groups who form the bulk of single-parent families. This is a group which after pensioners comprises the largest single group of poverty in the country.

The Minister would do well to cast his eyes overseas and look at how European countries tackle the problem because they give greater priority to these areas of poverty than we do in this country. If we cannot persuade Labour Members to vote for the EEC on other grounds, perhaps the fact that we may have to revise our standards upwards in the treatment meted out to single-parent families may bring them into the Lobbies at the appropriate time.

I personally regret the Government's decision to continue to allow supplementary benefit to be the main source of income for single-parent families. So much of the friction between these parents and the Department of Health and Social Security is due to their dependence on supplementary benefit. If only we could reach a system which gave a guaranteed maintenance allowance as recommended by the Finer Committee so that that element of dependence would be removed, much of the problem would be solved. Furthermore, it would give many people affected by these matters an incentive to work which has not existed before. Many of the parents need to work, not just for financial reasons but on psychological grounds. It could help the country out of its economic difficulties if they can be encouraged to join the labour market.

The situation would have been eased considerably if a Conservative Government had brought in the tax credit scheme to which Conservatives were committed, but Finer was unable to predict the outcome of the two General Elections. This has led to the present situation. I hope that the administrative programme will not delay for long the introduction of a guaranteed maintenance allowance. The children in such families are the ones we must bother about. They are at a disadvantage financially, socially and psychologically. Their problems today are society's problems tomorrow.

I am reluctant to be partisan in this debate, but it would be much easier to tackle these problems by a selective rather than by a universal approach to the social services. With respect to Labour Members, I believe that it is this principle of universality in the social services which has prevented us from tackling particular pockets of poverty.

We would do well to look at the words of the Finer Report on this topic which are as follows: What chiefly matters in such situations is to assist and protect dependent children all of whom ought to be treated alike irrespective of their mothers' circumstances". Few people would dissent from those sentiments and I am sure that the Secretary of State for Social Services would not depart from those emotions.

These two substantial volumes will not disappear. They will remain with us for some time and we shall have to tackle them.

I conclude by saying that there is a widespread belief that it is the big battalions that get all the help. That belief is growing in credence every day and it threatens some of our democratic institutions. I can think of no better way of shattering that belief than for the Government to say, "We accept the recommendations of the Finer Report. Here are sections of our society who have no big battalions and no money behind them. But we accept the logic of their case and implement the recommendations of that report." The uplift to Government in accepting a case backed not by any big battalions but by careful analysis and logic would be tremendous.

2.20 p.m.

Mr. Robert Boscawea (Wells)

The whole House—and it is understandably a small one after an all-night sitting—congratulates the hon. Member for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mrs. Hayman) on initiating this debate and on the extremely knowledgeable way in which she introduced it. We know that she had great practical experience in these matters before coming to this House, working in a society which has done so much for widows and single-parent families. We valued her contribution greatly. I am sure that it will be some compensation for her predecessor in her seat to know that she cares so much about these matters, because he, too, cared a great deal.

This has been an extremely interesting debate and an interesting and useful trailer for the full debate which I hope the Government will allow us very soon on the Finer Report. We need such a debate, and I know that my right hon. and hon. Friends want to go into the details of the report with great care.

The debate has had one other use in that we shall be touching on some of these matters during the Committee stage of another Bill which is to begin next week, and we shall be able to make good use of much of the information which the hon. Lady gave us.

The first major recommendation of the Finer Report relates to the guaranteed maintenance allowance. I do not think that there is any difference between the two sides of the House about the need for this. It was with this very much in mind that Conservative Party candidates in the recent election campaign said that we intended to use the tax credit scheme as the principal means of bringing help to one-parent families as soon as economic circumstances allowed. We regret that a start on this has not been made already by an announcement that the first child will receive family allowance. We hope that that will not be too long coming.

Whether the new allowance is called a guaranteed maintenance allowance or a tax credit scheme matters little. What matters is that we bring selectively to these deprived families some income as of right which they have not had before. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) said, universality has so often been an enemy in helping those most in need, and it was the same universality which made successive Governments carry on longer than they would have wanted the cheapest solution, namely, that which involves means-tested benefits. Now that means-tested benefits or any other benefits linked solely to incomes are no longer as socially acceptable to the country generally, we have to move to a new system where we select people according to other categories of need, and the single-parent families are very much in those categories.

I turn to one or two individual matters raised by the hon. Lady which caught my attention. The first related to the day care of children whose single parents go out to work. I agree with what she said about the gap in time between the child coming home from school and the normal end of the parent's working day. This is especially true where the single parent happens to be a man. Usually he cannot take a job which ends at 3.30 in the afternoon, which means that he cannot take a job at all. I know of one instance where this has caused great misery to a man who has two young children to look after. He does it very well, but he is quite unable to take on a proper job. Here is a case where some flexibility in school times or in day care and day nursery arrangements would help a number of people considerably.

Several hon. Members mentioned their dislike of the cohabitation rule. I share that dislike, and the Under-Secretary of State and I have been on the same side in arguing for an end to the rule. But it must be realised that it presents the administration with great problems, and they are not easy of solution. If we decided to do away with the rule, we should come under considerable criticism from those who are eager to show up the abuses which can arise if no system exists. This needs looking at carefully, and it may be that that can be done in Committee. We need to make the cohabitation rule more flexible, particularly as it affects single parents looking after several young children. But I sympathise greatly with the Under-Secretary in having to meet these very difficult problems.

My hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South-West (Mr. Cormack) spoke movingly and with great knowledge of these matters. He does an extremely valuable job as chairman of the all-party Committee on Widows and One-Parent Families. He drew attention to one very important fact. So often these families become single-parent families overnight, and there has been no long-term preparation for the event. In the case of a family who lost a parent in the recent Birmingham bombing, for example, there has been no time to build up inner resources and mental reserves against it. When families meet these situations they find them desperately hard to overcome. Thus it is not only the matter of the sudden fall in income which attaches to such tragedies. Many have difficult mental problems which they have to face.

It is not only the cash side to which we have to pay attention. There is also a great need for advice to single-parent families, and I question whether all the paraphernalia of the social security system really works well on many of these occasions to give single parents in need the advice, almost parental advice, that they want in order to work out the matters which in all probability the deceased hubsands or wives looked after during their lifetime. They include matters such as paying social security contributions, what happens when alimony is not paid and other problems that, as every hon. Member knows, come to us regularly in our advice bureaux.

There are some proposals in the Finer Report that would not cost a great deal of money and those should be implemented as soon as possible. Among them is the proposal to have family courts. One suggestion that has caught my attention is that family courts should be held on Saturday mornings. Why not? That would be a day when a court need not look like a court, need not be surrounded by policemen and so on, when it could be a place when problems could be sorted out much more simply and in a much more humane fashion. That proposal would not be expensive to implement.

I have already mentioned the need to make the cohabitation rule as compassionate as possible, and I am certain that the Under-Secretary will take that matter very seriously.

The hon. Lady said that local social security offices were not the most welcome places in the world for anyone, but particularly not for those accompanied by young children and with serious problems. How true that is. But I am sure she would not extend that to the dedicated people who work in the local social security offices. I often find, as I am sure she has found, that those people do a marvellous job. We all owe the Department a debt for the civil servants it has working for it, often in adverse conditions, in some local offices. I can say that with great emphasis of my own constituency, and I am sure that it applies to others.

We warmly welcome the whole document that has been produced by Sir Morris Finer. It will be a milestone in the country's social history. It is an enormous document and I cannot say that I foresee all 230 recommendations being taken up by Governments overnight. I am certain that that will not happen because some are vastly expensive. But I want us to start to march along that road very quickly. I want us to march along the road to an income as of right to the one-parent families. I want us to march along the road of making life more tolerable for these large numbers of deprived children.

We wait upon the Government to lead the way, and I am sure that if they go along that road steadily and with determination they will have much support from the Opposition.

2.34 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Alec Jones)

I am conscious that many hon. Members have been here all night, but there has nevertheless been a remarkable quality in the debate and much of it has been due to my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mrs. Hayman). I can put her and others out of their misery straight away and say that the Government certainly have no intention of opposing the motion. Its ideals could not be opposed by anyone genuinely concerned with this subject. I propose in rather general terms to outline the Government's attitude and approach to the Finer Report and, where necessary, to express our reservations on certain features.

I know that there are hon. Members who are somewhat critical of the writings and actions of the late Richard Crossman, but the fact that Dick Crossman set up the Finer Committee in 1969 is a further reason why many of us still hold him in high regard. Since that time and partly before it there has been a quickening of public interest in the subject of one-parent families.

I shall not mention the groups outside the House, because if I leave out one, I shall cause a great deal of trouble. There has also been great interest among groups inside the House. There is the all-party Committee on Widows and One-Parent Families to which my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), and the hon. Member for Staffordshire South-West (Mr. Cormack) belong. The setting up of that committee has helped to engender further interest.

I should like to pay a personal tribute to Sir Morris Finer and the committee for the four-and-a-half years of hard labour that they must have undertaken. The report has excited the interest of those who for years urged the case of one-parent families. More than that, it has awakened the interest of others who had never considered the problem, or who had failed to appreciate its scale and complexity.

My hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield is certainly not one of those. The House and the country are indebted to her for choosing this subject for debate today. If I may use the phrase, she gave us a wonderful precis of the Finer Report and if anyone wants to read a shortened version of the Finer Report, my hon. Friend's speech was just that.

That is what we had expected of her. Many of us knew her before she came to the House and knew of her interest in the subject as Deputy Director of the National Council for One-Parent Families. Her speech today confirmed our expectations and convinced us, if we needed convincing, of her sincerity and compassion for those in need.

After four-and-a-half years, the Finer Committee has produced its recommendations, which cover a wide range. It has gathered an enormous amount of stastistical information. The size and nature of the problems associated with one-parent families are spelled out in detail. For instance, we are told of the 620,000 families and, according to the 1971 census, the 920,000 children who are affected. We are told that 40 per cent. of those families received supplementary benefit and that for most of them supplementary benefit is their main source of income. The report says that about 50 per cent. of those have been receiving supplementary benefit for more than two years and that a further 7 per cent. are living in effect on incomes even lower than supplementary benefit. The figures are there for all to see and I do not want to repeat a mass of statistics that we can read for ourselves.

But the figures show the financial circumstances and other problems associated with maintenance orders, housing and so on. Those figures are essential for Governments and voluntary organisations that play a part in solving these problems. However, when I first read the Finer Report—I was then a back-bench Member—I was particularly attracted by a passage in Part 8 from which I should like to read a short extract. It refers to the mass of factual and statistical information that is assembled and says: There is a missing element. This has to do with what it is like in terms of immediate human experience, in the process of living from day to day, rearing children, and coping with the repetitive small problems as well as the pervasive great ones, to be and have the responsibilities of a lone parent. When looking at the statistics we forget the ideas behind that quotation at our peril and to our shame. I think that this was the point about which the hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Boscawen) was talking. But we are talking about human beings and not just statistics.

I have a personal point to make here. My own father died when I was two, so I am a son of a one-parent family. But in the Rhondda in those days it was the normal custom if such a tragedy occurred that the family would return to the home of the grandparents. My mother and the four boys did this. The family, friends, the chapel and the whole community wrapped itself around us and provided a sort of protective shield to help us to overcome the difficulties that we were facing.

That is really what we want from Finer—a protective shield covering the whole range of difficulties facing one-parent families. In the creation of that shield obviously the State and the Government have a major part to play. I should hope that the shield which we can help to create will help all one-parent families as far and as fast as lies in our power and certainly as fast as present resources permit.

Most hon. Members have commented on the financial problem. This was one of the committee's central themes—it is certainly the theme which has attracted most attention inside and outside the House, today and previously—and it concerns the financial hardship faced by so many one-parent families. Certainly the evidence presented in the Finer Report demonstrating their poverty in relation to the generality of two-parent families is formidable. The detail of this was spelt out today by my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield. The Finer Committee's solution to the problem, as we know, was a special social security benefit for one-parent families, large enough to lift them off supplementary benefit and acting as a guarantee of maintenance. Some people, certainly some hon. Members, are disappointed that the Government have not said that they can accept that recommendation. I should like, therefore, to make our position clear.

We accept in principle the case for additional support for one-parent families. We are at present preparing our own child benefit scheme which we believe will take the place of child tax allowances and family allowances and prove a benefit for all children including the first. One-parent families stand to gain in particular from this scheme because so many of them are one-child families and do not qualify for family allowances. It will also be a special help to those among them who are trying to support themselves but do not earn enough to get any benefit from child tax allowances. In bringing in this scheme we shall be fulfilling one of the recommendations of the Finer Committee. We are also carrying out another important financial recommendation by doubling the disregard on the amount that people such as lone parents can earn before their supplementary benefit is affected.

The Finer Committee recognised that the benefit it recommended, the guaranteed maintenance allowance, was not a short-term solution and would take some time to introduce. We have reservations about the nature of this allowance because it is means tested. I must say that in my experience the greatest difficulties that I face as a constituency Member are the problems created every time means-tested benefits are introduced or extended. As the House knows, it is our purpose in the main to reduce dependence on means-tested benefits and not to increase it.

Although means tested, the guaranteed maintenance allowance would also be extremely expensive. I know that the House will expect to hear the costs involved, as it has been indicated that I would mention them. In current terms an allowance calculated on the basis suggested in the Finer Report would need to be about £20 a week for a woman with one child, and the cost would be about £250 million. The Finer Committee envisaged that part of the cost would be met by maintenance payments from the other parent, usually the father.

Mr. Boscawen

Is that £250 million a net figure, after reduction of supplementary benefit, or is it in addition to the cost of supplementary benefit at present?

Mr. Jones

I understand that it is a net figure, but if I am wrongly advising the hon. Gentleman I shall take the opportunity of correcting myself later.

The Finer Committee was talking in terms of only part of the cost being met by maintenance awards, and that this would involve a new system of assessing and collecting maintenance payments, which the report presents as part and parcel of the benefit arrangements. This raises fundamental issues of principle, for it proposes to shift the responsibility from the courts to officials. We are particularly anxious, as a Department and as a Government, to hear the views of interested persons and organisations on this aspect of the Finer proposals. These proposals to remove much of the work of assessment and collection of maintenance payments from the courts are only a part, though an important part, of the fundamental changes in the legal system that the committee recommends.

The other major proposals were for a unified system of family courts—as requested by many hon. Members today—exercising matrimonial jurisdiction, which would replace the existing jurisdiction exercised by the divorce courts and the magistrates' courts, and for a reform of matrimonial law in magistrates' courts.

We can appreciate the complexity involved in trying to make such a change and to deal with this recommendation at any great speed. The family court recommendations are so closely linked to the other legal recommendations—on maintenance and matrimonial law—that it would be unrealistic for the Government to consider them until decisions have been reached on these linked proposals. I assure the House, however, that substantial steps towards meeting the Finer Committee's criticisms of the matrimonial law now enforced in the magistrates' courts are in prospect and are now being taken.

The legal and financial recommendations occupy the bulk of the Finer Report and are central to the consideration of the problems of one-parent families. But there are other areas which the committee researched and which the House regarded today as of fundamental importance to the well-being of these families. I should like briefly to mention some of them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South referred to them as "modest beginnings." I mention them only because they have been referred to by hon. Members. I do not suggest that they are a substitute for the major task which lies ahead. I should love to be doling out large chunks, which I think is what has been suggested, rather than these modest beginnings.

One or two special points have been raised. One concerned the disregards, which I have mentioned. We are dealing with the matter by doubling the disregards which are now in the Bill which, as the hon. Member for Wells mentioned, we shall be discussing in some detail next week.

The suggestion that the requirement to register for work should be waived for lone fathers has been accepted by the Supplementary Benefits Commission, and we hope to be able to implement this in the very near future.

Then we had the fact that the commission had previously used discretionary powers to pay the adult rate to certain lone parents as recommended by the committee. The commission has now implemented the recommendation fully and has extended the use of its discretionary powers to pay lone parents under the age of 18.

Many hon. Members have mentioned the cohabitation rule. It is certainly true that whenever this subject is raised, either inside the House or outside, it causes considerable difficulties for all concerned. The Supplementary Benefits Commission is carrying out a review of the administration of the cohabitation rule. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has asked the commission to take into consideration the question whether any changes are called for in the relevant legislation and to report to her on its findings. The hon. Member for Staffordshire, South-West mentioned that matter. The Commission will also be considering various points on the subject which were put forward by the Child Poverty Action Group. I have agreed to meet a deputation of hon. Members on the question of the cohabitation rule.

The hon. Member for Walsall, South mentioned appeal tribunals and their effect on supplementary benefits. We are mindful of the criticisms which have been made of these tribunals, and my Department is sponsoring an independent research study into problems associated with this matter. The hon. Member for Wells also mentioned buildings. One hon. Member suggested that the social security offices were not very pleasant places to attend. In part, this is true although we are taking steps to try to improve the buildings as rapidly as possible. I visited the offices at Stockton a fortnight ago, and I found there offices the like of which I had not previously seen. It is true, unfortunately, that the staff has to operate in local offices which are not adequate and we are doing all we can to improve them. I join in the tribute which has been paid to the staff, not only for the extra work which has been put on them in recent years but also because on many occasions they have to work in completely unsuitable conditions.

Several hon. Members have mentioned the lack of co-ordination. This is a point which is not easy to substantiate. While we are satisfied that there is ample opportunity for liaison and discussion between the officials of all Government Departments concerned and at ministerial level, we have a form of co-ordination in the social services committee and the Cabinet, but if any hon. Member has evidence of lack of co-ordination I shall be pleased to receive the information so that we can see whether anything can be done to improve it.

I will not go into the Common Market argument. I understand that when the Finer Committee looked at the various solutions proposed on the Continent, the Committee said that none of the proposals which it had examined offered the right solution for one-parent families in this country, although I would not make too much of that.

May I now deal with housing. The report contains some useful recommendations on housing. They are wide-ranging and, although they do not suggest any major upheaval in existing housing law and practice, they touch on many facets of this subject.

The Government welcome the report pinpointing the special difficulties which one-parent families face in finding and keeping a home—difficulties which are often shared by others in the community whose needs may be described as special. The Government are actively examining the recommendations in this connection. While I can say that the Government accept those recommendations which bear on their own actions in the matter of housing, the majority of the housing recommendations and those which are of the most immediate and direct concern to one-parent families relate in the main to the activities of other bodies such as local authorities and building societies.

In many cases those bodies have a statutory responsibility for carrying out the duty which the Finer Committee would have them perform in a particular way. They are not obliged to follow advice suggested by central Government and they are certainly not subject to direction by the Government. I would, however, make it clear that the recommendations often represent what is already the best practice amongst those bodies or are in line with advice which has been put out by the Government.

Our plan in relation to all the recommendations that affect the responsibilities of other bodies is to consult the body or, where appropriate, the representative organisation, putting the Government's view on the recommendation and seeking theirs. We shall then get down to considering whether further guidance, and if so in what form, would be appropriate.

The section of the report on homelessness has been carried into Government action. The Committee's recommendations coincide with those made to local authorities in a circular issued last February. Since then, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has announced a review on homelessness which we hope will result in a clarification of the legal responsibilities of housing and social services authorities. Homelessness resulting from marital disputes can happen suddenly and can bring a great deal of distress, as the Finer Committee says. Any improvement which can be made in the arrangements for dealing with homelessness generally should be of special benefit to those like one-parent families who are especially vulnerable.

The personal social services obviously play a large part in helping one-parent families. The recommendations made by the Committee on Personal Social Services are generally in line with the Government's own views. In particular we very much endorse the view of the importance to one-parent families of a sympathetic and understanding reception by the services to which they go for help and advice. This point was made by the hon. Member for Wells.

We welcome the expansion of services and improvement in facilities broadly on the lines recommended by the Committee, and we share the Committee's view of the important part that the social services play in improving the quality of life.

It would be wrong not to recognise that much is already being done by local authorities and voluntary bodies to try to help one-parent families, and equally wrong not to recognise that further progress depends on the manpower and resources available to local authorities, which will be limited in the immediate future, and on local authorities' judgment on the priority needs.

Hon. Members have drawn attention to the importance of adequate day-care services. My hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield spelt out the importance of day-care services to lone parents whose children are below school age. The Finer Committee made a number of valuable recommendations about what could best meet their needs. The Government's programme for the expansion of nursery education will help single parents, although I recognise that this is not day-care as such. Within the limits of available resources, local authorities and voluntary organisations will be encouraged to develop a range of services to meet the needs of these and other children.

The Committee's views on the needs of small children and on forms of day-care which would best promote their social, emotional and intellectual development are reflected in the development of day-care services. We endorse in particular the Committee's emphasis on avoiding the long separation of very young children from their parents each day, on providing warm and stable alternative care where separation is unavoidable, on providing an opportunity for the development of skills, play and involvement where possible for the parents in the care of a child and on contact with other parents and care staff.

I should now like to say a few words on employment because the employment prospects for the single mother are important. The Government welcome the objectives in Part 7 of the Report relating to the improvement of opportunities for employment and the circumstances in which it should be undertaken. Some of the recommendations were not ad- dressed to the Government, but on those which were, a number of developments have already taken place.

For example, Recommendation 178 suggested that rights under the contracts of employment, redundancy payments and the unfair dismissal provisions of the Industrial Relations Acts should be extended as a minimum to cover those working 18 hours a week. The provisions in the forthcoming Employment Protection Bill will extend protection to those working for at least 16 hours a week with one employer. The desirability of making statistics on all aspects of women's employment available in one publication—Recommendation 181—has been met by the publication earlier this month of a Department of Employment booklet, "Women and Work: A Statistical Survey". Also Recommendations 185 to 187 on women's training needs are in line with current official thinking.

Finer highlighted particularly the plight of lone mothers because they tend to occupy less skilled, less responsible and, therefore, lower-paid jobs. As I have said, we hope that the implementation of the Equal Pay Act and the proposed legislation against discrimination in employment on grounds of sex will help to improve the employment position of women generally, and lone mothers should benefit from this.

Many hon. Members made special individual points, and if I have missed any I will write to those concerned. Other hon. Members mentioned matters which could be referred to other Government Departments. The hon. Member for Staffordshire, South-West referred to a circular on housing. I will make sure that that, like all other suggestions, goes to the appropriate Department.

I think that the House has generally welcomed this opportunity to debate the Finer Committee Report. This is certainly the first opportunity that the Government have had to hear the views of hon. Members. I was pressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House to ensure that this debate would not preclude a fuller debate in Government time. I cannot believe that we have heard the last of Finer in this House. Fortunately, I am not directly responsible for what Government business comes up week in, week out. However, I assure all concerned that the points that have been made on the need for a further debate on the Finer Committee Report will be conveyed to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. I believe that it is important to continue the consideration that hon. Members have given to the Finer Committee Report so that the common aim of all of us can be achieved. I believe that common aim to be the maximum possible relief for one-parent families.

3.2 p.m.

Mrs. Hayman

I wonder, Mr. Deputy Speaker, whether it is in order for me to reply.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. George Thomas)


Mrs. Hayman

I am conscious that I have received more of your eye today than a back-bench Member can normally expect. I will not take up much more of the time of the House.

I should like to thank hon. Members for their contributions to the debate and their kind words about my having initiated it. I also thank the Minister for his very full and detailed reply, for which I am sure we are all grateful.

I am pleased that the Department is with us so completely in spirit. If some of us feel that the flesh is a little weaker than the spirit, perhaps we can combine together to ensure the more rapid rate of progress that we should all like to see on this issue.

I should like to leave my hon. Friend with one last thought since there is obviously so much Front Bench good will towards the plight of one-parent families—the thought of Christmas approaching. We were pleased when the £10 bonus for pensioners at Christmas was introduced. Indeed, we were all pleased when it was extended by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services. But some of us are disappointed that families—after all, Christmas is a time for children and families—who are dependent on long-term supplementary benefit are not to receive the £10 Christmas bonus. Many lone mothers this Christmas will be buying their children's present at jumble sales just as they did last Christmas and the Christmas before that. I suggest that a Christmas bonus for long-term recipients of supplementary benefits would be a very well received gesture of Government support for the spirit of Finer as well as for the implementation of those 230 recommendations.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House calls on Her Majesty's Government to give priority to alleviating the problem of lone parents and their children in the light of the recommendations of the Finer Report.