HC Deb 07 July 1975 vol 895 cc87-101

6.20 p.m.

Mr. James Wellbeloved (Erith and Crayford)

I beg to move, That this House, recognising the serious plight of one-parent families and mindful of the resultant deprivation suffered by over one million children, notes with approval the steps already taken by Her Majesty's Government to alleviate their hardship; but expresses regret that the Finer Committee Report on One-Parent Families (Cmnd. 5629) has not yet been considered by Parliament on a Government Motion; affirms its belief that it is intolerable to a civilised society for innocent children to be the victims of circumstance; and therefore calls for the presentation to the House of positive proposals to meet the main findings of the Finer Committee. It is a surprise and a pleasure to find that the second motion in the Ballot for Private Members' Motions has been reached. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder) for having allowed a short time at the end of his important debate for my motion to be considered by the House.

Last week the House was lobbied by Gingerbread, an organisation which brings together one-parent families for mutual comfort and mutual agitation on political matters and the implementation of the Finer Report. With many hon. Members from both sides of the House, I went over to the Grand Committee Room in Westminster Hall to listen to the plea of mothers and fathers who were single parents on behalf of their children. We heard of their plight and the difficulties experienced by one parent in trying to bring up a family. That lobby has reawakened the interest of the House in the Finer Committee and in the action which the Government have already taken. I hope that today the Government will be able to announce new proposals on which they are about to embark.

It is a worrying matter that although the Finer Committee was set up in 1969 and made an extensive review of the experiences of these deprived families and which took over four and a half years to produce a report which was submitted to the Government in July of last year, we have not had an opportunity of a full-scale debate in the House on the Committee's proposals. We are all indebted to the late Sir Morris Finer for the work he and his committee put into that report, which consists of more than 1,000 pages and contains approximately 250 recommendations.

The report is broken down into five main headings which are: the problem of ensuring a sufficient income to sustain the family; the existence of a non-unified basis of law to deal with families which suffer from these serious problems; the desperate housing plight of many families; the almost unprecedented problems of obtaining employment to earn a living to support the children; and the relationships between a single parent and the family.

One of the main recommendations of which the Under-Secretary of State will be well aware is for a guaranteed maintenance allowance. I intend to leave my hon. Friend a little time in the debate to tell us what is the Government's attitude towards a guaranteed maintenance allowance, which strikes at the very core of the problem. One-parent families need a single unified allowance, sufficient, not just to enable them to live just above the poverty line, but for them to bring up their children with dignity and decency in the hope that these children who have been deprived of one of their parents shall have a chance to prosper alongside their friends both in school and in later life in whatever activity they follow.

The public in general do not understand how many one-parent families there are and how many children are involved. It must be a common experience of hon. Members during election times that in trying to put over the case for the allocation of more resources to deprived children hecklers or hostile questioners argue that it is wrong for public resources to be used in that way. They seem to believe that one-parent families are in that position through choice, but that is not so for the overwhelming majority of such families. It is also thought that very few children are involved and that they can be catered for adequately by the local authority.

I welcome the entry into the Chamber of the hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Bottomley). He and his wife have played a distinguished part in seeking action on behalf of deprived children in one-parent families. Despite our political differences, I know that he will some time, if not today, make a serious and weighty contribution to our debates on this subject.

Approximately one in ten families with dependent children in this country are one-parent families. The number of children involved according to the Finer Report is 1 million, in 620,000 families. That represents a very substantial area of human suffering in terms of the absence of the prospect of growing up in a financially stable home.

My main criticism of my Government is that even after this lapse of time since they received the Finer Report, they have not arranged a debate in the House on a Government motion. My hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mrs. Hayman) initiated a short debate many months ago on the Finer Report. My fear is that the Government will pray in aid that short debate as an excuse for not arranging for a whole day's debate on a Government motion on the Finer Report.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State may tell us that the Government do not accept the whole of the Finer Report, but the place for the Government to put forward their attitude in detail and for their rejection of some of the recommendations to be tested is on the Floor of the House of Commons in a debate initiated by the Government. It is not enough for the Government to rely upon the worthwhile measures they have put into operation, on the short debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield, or indeed on this short debate of about three-quarters of an hour. There needs to be a full-length debate in which the whole case can be deployed.

I cannot believe that the Government reject all the 250 recommendations of the Finer Committee. There must be some which they want to accept and on which they are anxious to get parliamentary opinion so that they may test the possibility of getting legislation through the House on an agreed basis, which could go through almost on the nod. That could be done if the Government accept at least some of the recommendations that command universal support.

As my motion says, I do not believe that it is tolerable in a civilised society to have more than 1 million children deprived. We all know from individual constituency cases the great depth and extent of the problem. I have recently dealt in my own constituency with the case of a father whose wife died in the most tragic circumstances leaving him with three children. It has been the devil's own job to convince the local authority that he should have special help in the home. He has gone all out to maintain his job and to keep the family unit together, but it has been an uphill battle. That example must be repeated in innumerable cases across the country.

It is hard enough for a man with a background of stable employment and with a skill that commands some consideration by employers, but it is much more difficult for a widow who does not have that employment background, or that industrial or commercial skill, or whose skill dates back to when she was single. She has to find a job with an employer who will give her some degree of consideratoin, so that she may reasonably stagger hours to look after her family and earn a living. Most of these families are in this plight not because of the tragedy of matrimonial difficulties but because of the tragedy of death, and although matrimonial difficulties may be avoided by working hard at the marriage business, the chance of death cannot be avoided.

Whatever the cause and although some members of our society may not feel sympathetic towards divorced families and may not feel sympathetic to the unmarried mother, those prejudices should be put aside and the children considered, because the children are innocent, whatever the sins, real or imaginary, of the parents. It is the children who are the major sufferers in this tragic situation.

The Government must take positive action. It is not enough for them to claim that they have reacted swiftly to the Finer Report as they claimed to the Gingerbread lobby last week. They cannot claim to have reacted swiftly to the Finer Report when it has not been debated in the House, and this is the key question to which I want my hon. Friend to turn his attention.

We demand—and by "we" I mean not just some of my hon. Friends, for on this issue I can probably claim to speak for all backbench Members on this side of the House and I am certain that I am supported by the back benches opposite. We want the Government in a full debate to spell out their reactions to the Finer Report and to give at least the hope of future legislation and positive action to back up the moderate measures that they have already taken to help these deprived families. We want the full story spelled out and the Government's decisions tested in debate. Above all, we want positive proposals based on the main recommendations of the Finer Report.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. George Thomas)

Let me explain that only just over 10 minutes remain for back bench Members.

6.34 p.m.

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

I should like to say how much I welcome the speech of the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved). The subject has been raised only once before—by his hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mrs. Hayman), again on a Private Member's motion.

The matter came to my notice only as a result of my meeting single-parent families and single parents in my constituency. We cannot all claim to be experts on everything facing us in the way of human, social and economic problems. The work of Members of Parliament is sometimes derided, but I take no pride in having found out for myself the problems facing single parents. For once I met a worthwhile lobby when I was approached by single parents and their children. Here is an area of deprivation about which successive Governments have not done the right thing.

Although we live in critical economic times, when every pound of Government expenditure and increased expenditure has to be weighed, we cannot ignore the deprivation that single-parent families are undergoing. I have been moved by some of the problems that they face, not least the degrading approach—degrading for them—that women sometimes have to make to the local office of the DHSS when they ask for supplementary benefit, because it is not until the four weeks' statutory period has elapsed that a woman may claim benefit for lack of maintenance by a separated or divorced husband. Such wives have to approach the local DHSS office as it were on bended knee, and that is absolutely wrong in these times.

I take my hat off to the one-parent families for the terrific struggle that many of them have to make to provide a home life and normal opportunity for their children. All the single parents I have met, men and women, without exception have been struggling against all the odds to do the best they can for their children, including against all the odds generated by the Government.

Out of 600,000 single-parent families there are only 80,000 unmarried mothers, and they should not be condemned, but there is a certain feeling that all these people are a little beneath the pale, are unfortunate, because they are unmarried, or that they do not have the moral conduct that we have come to accept as normal. But the unmarried or widowed mother with young children to bring up needs additional income to do so. Unfortunately, hours of work do not always coincide with the hours the children go to school or come home and often the children leave school at 3.30 p.m. but the job goes on until five o'clock. Women in this position need a great deal of help and understanding.

I hope that the Under-Secretary will recognise that there is a universal feeling in the House on the subject of an area of genuine deprivation, and I hope that the Government will consider it sympathetically, notwithstanding the difficult times in which we live.

6.38 p.m.

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

In an age of increasing partisanship it is a pleasure to come across an issue about which there is unanimity in the House. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved) on his good fortune in securing a mini-debate.

There appears to be almost a conspiracy to deny us the opportunity of debating this subject at any length. The last time it was debated was on a Friday following an all-night sitting and very few of us were here. Now, because of the circumstances, there is little time in which to comment, and it appears to be a waste of time to deal with any specific item of the Finer Report. The main thing to do is to put over to the Government the desperate need for urgent action on the Finer Report and the need for an opportunity to debate it fully.

Whenever we say that more should be done to help the one-parent family, we are told that there is enormous pressure on public funds. Whenever we ask for a debate on the Finer Report, we are told that there is enormous pressure on the parliamentary timetable. The timetable should be more easily adaptable, and I hope that there will be a full debate next week and I hope not on a Friday.

There is a great deal of support. For example, an Early Day Motion on this subject was signed by over 150 Members. That is a clear indication of the strength of feeling that exists. I am sure that anyone who attended the Gingerbread lobby last week, including my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, will be aware of that feeling.

However, if the public were asked to strike a list of the most deserving cases, one-parent families would not be at the top of the list. We must all be aware of that problem and we must ensure that we do not inject into this subject any false morality. Let us remember that we are talking about children and widows, about divorced parents, and about unmarried mothers and over 1 million dependent children.

An obligation has been placed upon us to see that this area of grave omission is shown up quickly. I inject a slight note of controversy in that I believe the Government's record as regards poverty is one of which they can be reasonably proud. However, the Government have done much less than they could have done for one-parent families. On the other hand, it is wrong to say that they have done nothing.

We have been told how many items in the Finer Report have so far been implemented. The list is not a magnificent testimony to the swiftness of the action that has been taken by the Government. At the moment the number of recommendations that have been implemented are very few. Let me issue a word of warning. We must do more as Members of Parliament than say "Why do they not implement recommendations 121. 229 and 230?" Let us remember that the Finer Report was constructed as an integrated attack on the problems of poverty as they affect one-parent families. We must see the report not in isolation, not in terms of one group of recommendations, but as a report in its entirety. It is a well-constructed report and, as I said in a previous debate, one of the most important reports ever to come out of the report-making machine. We must see it as an integrated whole and we must do more than pick up one recommendation after another.

Why has not the report been implemented so far? First, there is the lack of finance. However, as has often been said, many of the recommendations in Finer would not involve any extra expenditure. The reason that there has been no swiftness in implementation is perhaps that the report trespasses on too many areas where those people making decisions regard their areas as sacrosanct. The Finer Report is a fundamental report that makes fundamental criticisms of the way in which we operate our system of Government. I believe that there are too many vested interests which are unprepared to let go of their areas of responsibility.

Thirdly, I believe that the report does not strike any degree of national popularity because of its very nature. I very much regret the vast areas of green benches facing the Minister and the similar areas behind him. Indeed, I especially regret the empty benches behind my hon. Friend. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House does not interpret the attendance of the House as an indication that there is not a great deal of enthusiasm. Such an interpretation would be injurious to the people we are seeking to help.

I very much hope that we shall have a full debate on this matter and that swift action will be taken. I hope that those who have the opportunity of saying a few words after me will reiterate what has already be said. It is clear that there is a wish to see action on Finer now. The action has so far been limited, and we look for further action. Indeed, we demand further action. I hope that we shall have a further opportunity to discuss this matter so that other Members who have strong feelings will be able to make them clear to the House.

6.44 p.m.

Mrs. Margaret Bain (Dunbartonshire, East)

I am aware of the exigencies of time, but I join in congratulating the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved) on raising this subject.

All of us who have a social conscience must be deeply concerned about the deprived situation in which one-parent families find themselves. We are speaking not of a small group in society but of a fairly substantial group. We are talking about the unmarried mother who, despite all the talk of a permissive society, still has to face considerable problems if she makes the decision to keep her child with her and to bring it up in a family environment. We are also talking about widows and widowers who often, as the result of the sudden death of their partner, have to come to terms with being the breadwinner as well as caring for and looking after their children and bringing them up with the hope that they would have had had there been two parents.

We are also talking about the divorcee, So often the financial payment awarded by the courts to a divorcee, whether it is alimony, as it is called in England, or aliment, as it is called in Scotland, is not paid. When it is paid it is often derisory. That puts the divorcee in an incredibly difficult position. The result is that in many cases the children are put into care very much against the will of the one-parent family.

When we consider not only the social misery but the cost of putting children into care, we can ask the Government to set the cost against providing a meaningful allowance for one-parent families. It is variously judged that to put a child into care costs between £25 and £100 a week. The cost to the State could so easily be offset by meaningful allowance. That would encourage the rearing of a child in a family environment. My remarks are not meant to be disrespectiful to the various institutions which do so much to bring up the children who are put into care, but we all accept that the family is the best institution in which to rear a child.

I ask that the Government have three priorities when they finally get round to considering the Finer Report. First, I ask that there be a meaningful allowance, an allowance which will ensure that the child can be brought up with its one parent in a satisfactory manner, a manner which is much more worth while than being institutionalised.

Secondly, I ask the Government to consider the need for crèche and nursery facilities. In the West of Scotland—I am sure that that area is not unique—there is a waiting list that means at least a six-months' wait for a one-parent family to have a child taken into crèche or nursery facilites. That six months is often the period which forces the parent to place the child in care.

Thirdly, I ask the Government carefully to consider the attitude of housing authorities to the needs of one-parent families. It constantly amazes me that so many housing authorities have some kind of puritanical attitude towards one-parent families. It seems that they will not give them decent living accommodation.

All too often the one-parent family is forced to live in slum accommodation and to pay Rachmanlike rent to landlords who are not interested in them apart from making money out of them. It is horrifying that one-parent families should be forced into such a situation. I ask the Minister to bear in mind that the so-called humane society in which we live will be judged by its attitude to the deprived sections of the community. One-parent families have enough deprivation to face as they go through the struggle of bring-up their children—for goodness sake let us not make deprivation something which is institutionalised.

6.48 p.m.

Dr. Gerard Vaughan (Reading, South)

This is an area of deprivation the extent and significance of which is becoming increasingly apparent to us all. I suggest to the Minister that it is increasingly urgent that some sort of action be taken. There are over 1 million children involved and there are some thousands of children going into care in very unsatisfactory conditions which could be avoided.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved) on introducing this subject today. However, it is deplorable that we do not have more time available for a debate of this importance. I do not want to delay the House as we are all anxious to hear what the Minister has to say, but it is well known that Conservatives would like to have a full-scale debate on this subject as soon as possible.

I suggest to the Minister that there are a number of recommendations in the Finer Report which do not require large sums or resources. For example, there are the questions of family courts, nursing facilities, the system of points allocation, interim benefits next April and the collecting of maintenance. Surely we should examine those recommendations now, debate them, see what we can pick out within the resources available today, and go ahead.

Briefly, I would ask the Minister to give this subject much higher priority than the Government so far have given it—and please let us have a full debate as soon as possible.

6.50 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Michael Meacher)

I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved) on introducing the motion, and certainly on his choice of the subject matter. I congratulate him on the reasonable and forthright way in which he dealt with it. I note the support which he has received on both sides of the House.

I also wish to pay credit, as did my hon. Friend to the force and determination of the Gingerbread and National Council for One-Parent Families in their lobby last week. They showed forcefully how desperate is the situation of many of these families. If I may strike a personal note, I wish to say how deeply moved I was by their representations. There can be no doubt that one-parent families are among the hardest hit in our community and face difficult economic circumstances. Many of them feel desperately trapped in supplementary benefit terms despite the strenuous efforts which many of them have made to escape them.

The Government have been criticised for failing to implement the recommendations of the Finer Report. I hope to be able to assure the House that we have gone perhaps a little further than my hon. Friend said. We have been criticised for being insensitive to the plight of the 1 million children who are being brought up in one-parent families. We have also been criticised for not having provided Government time for a debate on that report. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has said that he will seek to find time for a debate on this subject. I have taken note, as I am sure will my right hon. Friend, of the strong desire among hon. Members in all parts of the House for an early debate on this important subject. What I am about to say will underline the fact that, although there has been no parliamentary discussion in Government time, this does not mean that the Government have been inactive and have taken no action.

Let us examine the situation of the 620,000 one-parent families in this country in the light of the action which the Government have taken in the last year. The central handicap experienced by one-parent families is that of low income. In part, this is due, as the Finer Committee recognised, to the fact that in most one-parent families the breadwinner is a woman. Women's wages are still lower on average than men's, although the situation has been improving. We hope that it will continue to improve as a result of the equal pay and anti-discrimination legislation.

In part it is due to the fact that many heads of one-parent families cannot work because of family responsiblities, however much they desperately wish to do so. In part it arises because in cases of divorce or separation the other partner all too often cannot maintain himself and his family in separate households—a situation made even worse if he acquires a second family. Consequently, large numbers of them—we estimate about 40 per cent. of all one-parent families—are receiving supplementary benefit.

The Finer Committee's principal recommendation for tackling the problem of low income involved the introduction of a special social security benefit—the guaranteed maintenance allowance—for all lone parents and their children. The Government are not alone in their rejection of the Committee's favoured solution. Our position is quite clear, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services has spoken on this subject. Guaranteed maintenance allowance, apart from being expensive—it would cost £250 million—is a means-tested benefit, and our purpose is to reduce dependence on means testing. If a means test in the form of an earnings rule were not applied the cost would be £400 million. To pre-empt resources on that scale—as we would like to do, let me make that clear—against the known public expenditure background which faces the nation at present is extremely problematical to say the least.

Mrs. Bain

On the basis of 6,000 children in this group per year taken into care from one-parent families at a cost of £100 each, surely that cost can be set against the other figure. If one takes into consideration the problems of social attitude which often arise in the minds of children of one-parent families surely the extra expenditure would be worth while.

Mr. Meacher

I follow much of what the hon. Lady says, but even her calculations go only a small way to meet the problem. In terms of the public sector borrowing requirement there is a great deal of difference between money actually spent and the potential saving in terms of money which otherwise would have been spent. That is one of the difficulties in terms of its public expenditure consequences. I take the hon. Lady's comment about the desirability of that consideration.

We are aware of the financial difficulties experienced by many lone parents. Our strategy has been to introduce measures which benefit all vulnerable sections of the community and to provide where possible, new benefits as of right. This has been our strategy since we came into office. Three increases in social security benefits will have taken place in the 18 months between July 1974 and December this year. Altogether this means that £1,000 million extra in real terms, not in money value terms, is being spent on these benefits in the two years up to 1975–76.

We have decided to concentrate our resources on boosting the standard of living of those who are the most defenceless members of the community, namely old-age pensioners, widows, invalidity pensioners, and dependent children. This help includes a long overdue increase in family allowances which were left to wither on the vine since the last increase in 1968. That increase alone will cost £180 million net of offsets in social security dependency benefits.

We must not ignore the extent to which this group of people has been assisted. First of all, we must note that 100,000 widows with young children will benefit as a result of these extra resources. For example, a widow with three dependent children who was receiving £17.25 a week when we took office, now, after the last April uprating, receives £25.55 per week. All families with more than one child will benefit from the increase in family allowances. Those on supplementary benefit will receive the full equivalent value of these increases. They have also benefited from other measures such as the increase in needs allowance in respect of rent rebates and rent allowances. Therefore, in the area of family support we have done more than merely uprate family allowances and family income supplements.

We will introduce a provision in terms of child benefits from April 1977. That scheme will involve payment of cash allowances to the mother for all children in the family including the first. That legislation goes further. There will be an interim benefit of £1.50 a week for the first child in the one-parent family and that, subject to parliamentary approval, will apply from April 1976.

Mrs. Bain


Mr. Meacher

I have little time left to complete my remarks. No doubt the hon. Lady was about to ask me about disregards to which I am coming.

Except in a few cases where the entitlement to supplementary benefit is small, the interim benefit will not help those one-parent families on supplementary benefits. Those whom the benefit will help have an income above or even below the supplementary benefit level.

On the question of disregards, I know that a great deal of feeling has been expressed. I cannot stress too strongly that one of our major aims in our social policy is to lift what the normal family has per week possibly over supplementary benefits. That is why we have concentrated the resources on non-means tested benefits, family allowances and non-contributory invalidity pensions—

It being Seven o'clock, the proceedings on the motion lapsed, pursuant to Standing Order No. 6 (Precedence of Government business).