HC Deb 20 October 1975 vol 898 cc53-168

4.29 p.m.

The Secretary of State for Social Services (Mrs. Barbara Castle)

I beg to move, That this House takes note of the Report of the Committee on One-Parent Families (Command Paper No. 5629). I very much welcome the fact that the Government have been able to find time for this debate today. Since the Finer Committee produced its massive report some 15 months ago, the Government have been busy analysing, studying and, as far as possible, acting on its 230 recommendations. I think it is right that the House should now examine how far we have got, what remains to be done and the implications for public expenditure. Not least, I hope that the House will be able to stand back a bit from the Finer Committee's report and decide where, in the light of today's economic realities, we can best hope to advance to relieve the problems of this hard-pressed section of our society.

As the House knows, the recommendations cover a wide field. I shall deal with a number of them in my speech but I shall be leaving two major areas of the report—housing and employment—to my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction, who will be winding up the debate.

This division of labour does not mean that the Government do not look at the provision for one-parent families as a whole. I consider that, as Secretary of State for Social Services, it is my job to look at their problems in the round and to see that the various threads of Government policy affecting them are drawn together. I am in constant touch with my colleagues to this end. I have, for instance, had discussions with the Lord Chancellor about changes in matrimonial law and the question of family courts, to which I shall be referring later in my speech.

Looking back, it is astonishing how much the Finer Report has already done to alter attitudes. The committee succeeded in putting one-parent families squarely on the agenda of national concern. It brought to our conciousness the fact that in one-parent families we have a category of people with special problems that in the past we have tended to overlook.

Our society has always had an instinctive sympathy with the widow left to bring up a family alone and has been only too ready to help her, but thanks to the Finer Committee we now realise that widowed mothers—120,000 of them—are only the tip of the iceberg of lone parenthood. It is 645,000 families and 1 million children we are talking about—the separated wives, the divorced parents, the unmarried mothers and, not least, the widowers.

If anyone in the country likes to feel superior on this subject and suggest that all we are talking about is feckless young women who get themselves in the family way and then expect society to bail them out of their difficulties, let me echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mrs. Hayman) said in that brilliant speech she made on this subject to the House some months ago. There are, in fact, more lone fathers—100,000 of them—than there are unmarried mothers. We are not dealing with a breakdown of moral values; we are dealing with the problem of parents who are struggling to meet family responsibilities which for various reasons they are left to deal with single-handed.

I think that the only way to deal effectively with this problem is to look in some detail at those reasons and the situations to which they lead. As I said, society has always been prepared to cater for widowhood—or, rather, it has made the husband and his employer cater for it through national insurance contributions. National insurance is the social bedrock in this country and I am convinced that the Government were right to give priority in their social policy to lifting the level of this basic provision through successive upratings.

As a result of those upratings—the third of which is due next month—we shall in our period of office have distributed £1,000 million extra in real terms to pensioners and a wide range of other beneficiaries. The widowed mother has benefited enormously from this policy. For example, a widow with three children who was receiving £17.25 when the present Government took office will next month receive £29.80 a week—nearly 73 per cent. more or an increase of at least 15 per cent. in real terms. As a result of the increases in the needs allowances for rent and rate rebates, she will continue to qualify for these despite her higher benefits, to say nothing of the advantages she has gained from rent controls and food subsidies and other aspects of our policies.

But, as we have seen, widowed mothers form the minority of one-parent families and in many respects they are the luckier ones. Their widow's benefit is not means-tested. If they go out to work their earnings are completely disregarded, and this is another reform introduced by a Labour Government. Their right to the matrimonial home is seldom contested. Their husbands have often left them a little extra income in the form of life assurance or an occupational pension. They command the sympathy and respect of society. Not least, whatever their sorrow they do not, as the Finer Committee puts it, experience the additional failure of their emotional or family lives. To quote Finer again, to fail in marriage nowadays is to go bankrupt in a business of life in which almost everyone engages. I found the chapter in the Finer Report on "Origins and Themes", from which I have just quoted, the most evocative in the whole report because it highlights the attitude with which society has in the past approached the problems of the 425,000 lone mothers who are separated, single or divorced and the way three-quarters of a million children suffer for the failure of their parents' emotional or family lives. And the numbers are growing. We owe a great debt to the Finer Committee for shaking us out of our moral superiority about them and making us think their problems through afresh.

What are these problems? Of course not all deserted, separated and divorced lone mothers are left in poverty, but the majority of them are, and for three main reasons. First, even where maintenance allowances are payable, they provide a totally inadequate substitute for the loss of the wage of the normal family breadwinner. As a source of income they are not only uncertain but in most cases they are pathetically small. Even of those mothers not receiving supplementary benefit, according to Finer's 1971 study, 44 per cent. with one child have maintenance orders worth £3 a week or less. Of those with three children, 79 per cent. receive £5 a week or less.

The stark fact is, however, that 243,000 lone mothers, 57 per cent. of the total, are dependent on supplementary benefits because the maintenance they could get from the father of their child or children is less than they can get from the supplementary benefit scale rates. Another 40,000 lone mothers are living around or just above the supplementary benefit level.

The second factor that keeps them in poverty is the reduction in their earning capacity. The lone mother with a preschool child and no relative to help her just cannot leave the child to go out to work, nor, in most cases, ought she to do so. Even with her children at school, she can often manage only part-time work. Without full-time employment she is not entitled to family income supplement, but with only part-time earnings she still needs supplementary benefit and here the earnings disregard comes into play.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield told us, it is the lone mother on supplementary benefit who comes off worst. She does not benefit additionally from the increase in family allowances. Her earnings are taken into account as the widowed mother's are not. That is why the most important steps that this Government have taken to help these mothers are, first, our decision to increase supplementary benefit in line with national insurance benefits in all our upratings—including next month's—and, secondly, the doubling of the earnings disregard. This alone, from next month, will add £2 a week to the income of a lone mother if she is earning £4 a week or more. One of our reforms which pleases me most is that if any of her children manage to earn some extra income by part-time work, these earnings will in future be totally disregarded.

The third penalty suffered by a mother in this group, is that if she manages to take up full-time work her earnings will often be pitiably low. This is partly due to her family responsibilities, but it also reflects the poor job prospects and low wage rates of women generally. Some 30,000 lone mothers in full-time work are drawing FIS. Another 10,000 would be entitled to do so. This gives some idea of the low wages they receive.

Mothers in this group are beset by a number of other heartaches which the Finer Committee lists, including problems over housing, difficulties in getting suitable and properly paid part-time work, the shortage of good day care for their children—which is also a particular problem for lone fathers—a general sense of insecurity and lack of dignity. There are two indignities these mothers resent most—the cohabitation rule and the fact that they have to pursue the fathers of their children through the courts in an often fruitless effort to get maintenance.

It is this comprehensive analysis which led the Finer Committee to its two main recommendations which were designed to transform the status of one-parent families and which, it argued, were interlinked. The first was for a single, unified system of family law, operated through a new system of family courts, which would substitute the concept of breakdown of marriage for that of matrimonial offence as the grounds for liability to pay maintenance and would end the matrimonial jurisdiction of the magistrates' courts.

As a corollary of this, the committee proposed that a new system of administrative orders should take from both the courts and the mother the responsibility for assessing and collecting maintenance from the liable relative. It was this emphasis on what the committee called a more satisfying recovery from the liable relative which led it to the concept of a new type of benefit for one-parent families: the guaranteed maintenance allowance, non-contributory, designed in conjunction with tax credits to take these families off supplementary benefit, but with a built-in earnings rule under which the benefit would taper gradually away to nothing when the lone parent's earnings reached the national average. When introduced, the GMA would be administered by a new authority which would take over the administration of maintenance orders from the Supplementary Benefits Commission.

Let me deal with the proposed legal changes first. Everyone in this House would agree with the Finer Committee's analysis of the class discrimination of the present dual system of matrimonial law: one law for the wealthier through the divorce courts, another for the poor who overwhelmingly have recourse to the magistrates' courts. That is why in 1970 the then Home Secretary asked the Law Commission to consider what changes in the matrimonial law administered by magistrates' courts were desirable as a result of the changes which had been made in the divorce law. As the House knows, the working party set up by the Law Commission has produced its provisional proposals, which have been widely welcomed, not least by the Finer Committee itself, which wrote in its report: We were gratified to find the expert body responsible for it had on the fundamental points reached conclusions similar to our own. The Law Commission's final report is not likely to be ready before the end of the year, but the way forward to implementing Finer's most important reform in this field is already clear.

Here, not for the last time, we have to distinguish between what is crucial in the Finer recommendations and can be achieved and some of the more elaborate and certainly more expensive solutions that the committee proposed. In essence, Finer's criticism of the present arrangements was that we possessed two different systems of law with overlapping jurisdictions. The system administered by the magistrates was, said Finer, archaic, and its procedures were those of criminal courts. This is the area in which reform is urgently needed and in which it will do most good.

The Law Commission's working paper, to which I have referred, makes it clear that the Commission will recommend getting rid of the principle of the "matrimonial offence", under which proof of a husband's "guilt" is a precondition of his liability to pay maintenance, just as proof of his wife's innocence is the precondition of her right to be paid. If we get rid of this—my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor has asked me to tell the House that we intend to press on as fast as we can with implementation of the Law Commission's forthcoming report—we shall have struck at the root of the main defects in our law.

The second of Finer's criticisms was that there was an overlap between the jurisdiction of the divorce court, whether High Court or county court, and that of the magistrates. We accept that the present position is not ideal and can be improved. However, it is no good trying to cure this defect until the basic faults of the magistrates' jurisdiction have been corrected and the new legislation is on the statute book. My noble Friend the Lord Chancellor will be urgently examining this matter as soon as the substantive law has been reformed in the way that I have described.

The third of Finer's criticisms was directed to the criminal atmosphere in which the magistrates' courts have to administer the matrimonial jurisdiction. There are two sides to this. The first is that the practice and procedure of the magistrates' courts resembles that to be found in criminal courts. This, however, is not a matter of court structure but depends on the substantive law which we intend to reform in the way I have already described.

The second aspect concerns accommodation. No one dislikes more than I do the fact that a woman seeking a matrimonial order may have to attend court on a day when criminal proceedings are being heard in the same building and may in consequence have to share waiting and other accommodation with people who are being dealt with on criminal charges.

There is nothing that we should like more than to be able to provide separate accommodation for all forms of domestic business. But here we come up against the grim realities of public expenditure. Unfortunately, even if we could afford to man new courts, we simply cannot provide the accommodation on any scale. We have already had to cut back our programme for new magistrates' courts, Crown courts and county courts, though these are very badly needed. This cutback means continued inconvenience and discomfort for litigants, jurors, judges, court staff, prison officers and others, and against this background it is simply out of the question to contemplate building new courts throughout the country for dealing with family cases. On any reckoning, therefore, family jurisdiction will have to go on being exercised in our existing courtrooms.

There is also the problem of trained manpower. If there are to be family courts—I mean, as Finer meant, real courts and not glorified welfare offices—there must be judges who will, and I choose Finer's own words, constitute a judicial institution which, in dealing with family matters, does justice according to law". Finer contemplated that the family courts would be manned by circuit judges sitting with lay magistrates. The emphasis, and this is vital, is on the part to be played by circuit judges. But there is a limit on the number of people who have the experience and personal qualifications suitable for appointment as professional judges, and the sad fact is that the persistent increase in the volume of serious crime is already making it difficult for my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor to man the circuit bench at the high standard which he very rightly intends to maintain.

The number of committals to the Crown courts goes up by about 10 per cent. a year, and this trend shows no sign of levelling off. We simply cannot afford to put extra demands on the circuit judges unless they are absolutely essential. We must not delude ourselves into thinking that Finer's proposals for family courts would not create such a demand: they certainly would, and for more staff too. I am bound to tell the House, therefore, that we can see no prospect of accepting the recommendation for family courts, but we do not believe that this need prevent us from solving the central problems to which Finer refers.

Linked with Finer's proposals for the guaranteed maintenance allowances were the far-reaching and complex proposals for State intervention in the pursuit of maintenance. I shall be coming to the new benefit in a moment, but in the meantime we have been studying what Finer proposed should be the first step which should be taken, even if GMA was not introduced: the introduction of a system of administrative orders operated by the Supplementary Benefits Commission.

Here again everyone in the House is anxious to relieve the lone mother of the indignity and misery of court proceedings as far as possible, even if the introduction of a system of administrative orders would make no difference to her financial position. I entirely agree with Finer that it is her peace of mind that counts.

Of course, under the supplementary benefits scheme arrangements already exist whereby women in receipt of supplementary benefit who have court orders for maintenance enforceable in magistrates' courts in England and Wales may authorise clerks to the justices to remit to my Department any moneys received under their orders. Through this administrative device the woman is relieved of the worry and trouble of a fluctuating income if the order is not paid regularly because she receives her full supplementary benefit entitlement each week by means of an order book which she can cash at a post office. About 100,000 orders—over three-quarters of all orders in such cases—are diverted in this way. In Scotland, where the system for paying maintenance is different, arrangements on similar lines can be made with the agreement of the man, the woman and, if appropriate, her solicitor.

What Finer suggested, however, was that a woman should not have to go to the court for an order in the first place. The system of administrative orders that the committee outlined would mean that the Supplementary Benefits Commission—at laest for the time being—and not the court would assess the means of the liable relative tand would be able to order him to pay wht was due, up to the level of supplementry benefit payable to the lone mother.

But it is important to note three things. The first is that the liability of the man to pay at all, if in dispute, would still have to be decided by a court of law. Even Finer realised that legal responsibility to pay cannot be fixed by administrative diktat. It would be a serious interference with the rule of law if it were. The essential difference between the Finer proposals and the present situation is that in the ordinary case, where liability was not in dispute, the amount of maintenance would be fixed by trained assessors in a uniform way. There would be a right of appeal to a national insurance tribunal on this assessment, and, of course, on legal questions of liability to the court.

The second thing to bear in mind is that the new system would apply only where the amount of the administrative order did not exceed the amount of the lone mother's entitlement to supplementary benefit, and for any higher sums she would still have to go to court.

Thirdly, the new responsibilities for the assessment of the liable relative would mean a big change in the work of the Supplementary Benefits Commission and would certainly involve an increase in staff. We are still examining whether the advantages to the mother would justify this major development in the responsibilities and staff of the Supplementary Benefits Commission or whether Finer's essential objective could be achieved in other ways.

Here again we have acted swiftly to remove perhaps the major cause of complaint: the fact that deserted, divorced and separated wives or unmarried mothers have in the past been encouraged by the Supplementary Benefits Commission to take out a court order for maintenance even though they could rely on supplementary benefit. The Supplementary Benefits Commission has acted from the best of motives. For example, it has felt that it would be in the woman's own interests to have a court order, because it would not lapse if she no longer drew supplementary benefit.

Following the Finer recommendation, however, the Supplementary Benefits Commission has changed its practice and has issued a leaflet explaining to the woman that it is entirely for her to decide whether to take out a maintenance order and that no pressure of any kind will be put on her. I have placed a copy of this leaflet in the Library, in case hon. Members have not seen it and would be interested to study it. I believe that this single, simple step will do a great deal for the lone mother's peace of mind.

I now come to the other major recommendation of the committee: the guaranteed maintenance allowance. We have to decide first whether we should give special financial help to one-parent families and, if so, in what form. Let me say at once that I think that the case for some form of special help for one-parent families has been proved and, secondly, that I do not like the guaranteed maintenance allowance.

I do not like the allowance for a number of reasons. First, I think that its title is significant. It perpetuates the suggestion that there is a considerable amount of money waiting to be collected from liable relatives if only we could improve our system of collection, whereas the Finer Committee spent a good deal of its expertise explaining to us that most liable relatives are too poor to pay much anyway. It is poverty we are dealing with, the poverty of the liable relative as much as that of the unhappy victim of a broken relationship.

Secondly, the allowance would introduce a complicated new form of assessing means, and incidentaly it still incorporates a cohabitation rule. As Peter Townsend has put it in his penetrating critique, What is the point of rescuing families from the Supplementary Benefits Commission if only to submit them to an alternative means-tested scheme? Thirdly, guaranteed maintenance allowance would require an elaborate new structure to do just that. For example, the provisional estimate of my Department is that it would require some 8,000 more civil servants to administer guaranteed maintenance allowance and the associated full scheme of administrative orders. That is as expensive in manpower as value added tax.

The answer of those who are understandably campaigning for the cause of one-parent families is that they do not like means-testing either. They therefore argue that we should introduce the guaranteed maintenance allowance without its in-built earnings rule, and that in so doing we should be prepared to finance it to the tune not of £250 million, the cost of the means-tested guaranteed maintenance allowance, but of £400 million, the cost of the non-means-tested guaranteed maintenance allowance, net of any savings on supplementary benefit, family income supplement and recoveries from liable relatives. Those are the net figures that we must face in each case. They give us some idea of the financial problem with which we are faced in discussing the new type of Finer benefit.

Of course, the guaranteed maintenance allowance would have cost less if there had been a tax credit scheme, and it was a vital element in the Finer solution that it would not achieve its purpose of lifting one-parent families off supplementary benefit unless the guaranteed maintenance allowance were linked to the introduction of a tax credit scheme for the adult of the kind advocated by the Opposition when they were in office.

Here I hope that we shall be spared the facile patter that we expect from the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) to the effect that if his party had been in office it would have introduced its tax credit scheme, which would have been in full operation now and would have solved the problem of poverty at a stroke. [Interruption.] The facile patter is being echoed all round the Chamber. The hon. Gentleman and other Conservative Members must know, if they are honest with themselves, that that would not have happened. At today's prices the proposed tax credit scheme would have cost over £3,000 million to operate. The Conservatives never began to educate the people of this country to the fact that they would have to pay for it—to the tune of about 5p in the pound on income tax or 6 per cent. on the national insurance contributions. Instead, they spread the cruel illusion that they could have financed this attack on poverty without taking anything from the better-off.

Indeed, the gravest defect of a tax credit scheme on the lines that the Opposition proposed was that by its very nature it had to distribute its benefits indiscriminately, and that therefore no less than £1,000 million of the £3,000 million total cost would have gone to those in the higher income brackets. That is why we rejected it, because we know—heaven knows!—that it is hard even to find the money that we need to combat poverty without squandering any of it in this way.

If the hon. Gentleman were to claim that his Government would have introduced the tax credit scheme, that would hardly tally with the speech made by his shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer last night. The right hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East (Sir G. Howe) spent his time belabouring my right hon. Friend, the real Chancellor, for having allowed us to spend too much. The "cruellest folly", he stated, was to refuse to face facts. He added: It is Mr. Healey's failure to control the Government's spending programmes that is now the principal cause of Britain's difficulties. For the shadow Chancellor to have made that speech on the eve of this debate does not seem to indicate much co-ordination of policy on the Opposition Front Bench. It could hardly have made the hon. Gentleman's task easier this afternoon.

It is true that the country is struggling through a grave economic crisis. It is true that public expenditure must be controlled. But it is also true that we have not had much help from hon. Members opposite. It is they who jubilantly defeated us not many months ago on the earnings rule for national insurance beneficiaries, forcing us, against the Government's advice, to relax the rule massively in the next few years at a cost of £130 million in 1976–77 and £195 million in 1977–78. We resisted this not because I would not love to abolish the earnings rule but because, knowing that public expenditure must be controlled and that there are so many unmet needs—including these of one-parent families—I could not accept this as top priority. There was no facing up to priorities by the Opposition Front Bench.

Again, I see that the Liberals are now demanding an increase in the old-age pension, to 50 per cent. of average net earnings for a married couple. That would cost £3,750 million net. Do the Liberals really believe that we could afford that increase in public expenditure at the present time? I hope to heaven that we shall have some constructive consistency from Opposition Members this afternoon.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe)

As the right hon. Lady is descending to belabouring us on a party basis for our choice of priorities, perhaps she could explain the priorities of the Government in giving indiscriminate food and housing subsidies in face of the Finer commitments which they knew were coming before them.

Mrs. Castle

I know that the hon. Gentleman's opposition to food subsidies leads him to give the impression that there is in them a bottomless well for money which could be spent over and over again for ever for the ad hoc purposes he likes to justify. He knows perfectly well that the Government have reduced and are increasingly reducing food subsidies, but that the decision to increase the amount above the figure to which they would have been reduced, and to temper the size of rent increases, formed an integral part of an effective counter-inflation policy, as Opposition Members would realise if they ever were in power again to operate such a policy. If they do not realise it, it is no wonder that they failed in operating the last one.

What the Government have done since coming to office has been, within the limit of the resources we have, to build a systematic framework of social provision within which we can begin to roll back the grip of means testing. We have introduced non-contributory benefits as of right for the disabled. We have put on the statute book our new pensions scheme, which in the long term will almost entirely eliminate means testing in old age and, incidentally, bring major benefits to widows and introduce a widower's benefit for the first time. We have increased family allowances for the first time since a Labour Government last increased them in 1968.

Last but not least, we have legislated for one of the key elements in the Finer policy—the child benefit scheme, in which, by combining the child tax allowances with family allowances, including a family allowance for the first child, in a new tax-free cash allowance, payable to the mother as of right, we have done what Finer asked us to do as the starting point of any effective system of family support.

Also, because it is impossible to introduce the new child benefit before April 1977, we have taken special steps to extend the family allowance to the first child of one-parent families. This will bring help in varying degrees to some 255,000 one-parent families on our latest estimates, the full amount of the allowance going to that tragic group of the 45,000 families with incomes so small that they are below the tax threshold and who are neither receiving supplementary benefit nor family income supplement. So another £21 million will go into the pockets of one-parent families on top of the £150 million that they have already received through our upratings and the increase in family allowance.

I know that some of my hon. Friends will argue that this interim benefit is of little value because it will not help these families on supplementary benefit. But we have got to face one fact. As Finer shows, we can only lift lone parents off supplementary benefit altogether at a cost we simply cannot afford at the present time. I want to be honest with the House and tell hon. Members frankly that there is no early prospect of our being able to introduce a new special benefit for lone parents, certainly not at a level which would lift them off supplementary benefit.

As in many other areas of our social policy, we have got to face facts and achieve the maximum we can within the resources available. In the meantime we shall be able to study the rôle that the new child benefit can play in helping us to achieve the end we all have in mind.

In the meantime, too, we must do everything we can to humanise and make more effective the help which lone parents get through existing means. Here again we have lost no time in implementing a long list of Finer recommendations designed to adjust the scales in favour of one-parent families.

In his last Budget, for example, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer increased the additional personal allowance for lone parents so that they now get tax allowances equal to those of a married man. This in itself is worth over £1 a week to the lone parent paying tax. Lone fathers receiving supplementary benefit are no longer required to register for work. Non-householder lone parents under the age of 18 receiving supplementary benefit will receive the full non-householder scale rate automatically. When claims for exceptional needs payments are being considered, the Supplementary Benefits Commission will now take account of the special difficulties faced by one-parent families in furnishing a home.

The Commission now also gives full weight to the difficulties of one-parent families in finding accommodation when it decides whether to accept the amount of rent as reasonable and more readily pay rent direct to the landlord where this is in the claimant's interests. The whole question of education maintenance allowances is being considered interdepartmentally as a matter of urgency, and a White Paper on the subject will be published as soon as possible. I am well aware that one of the main reasons why lone mothers hate going on supplementary benefit is the indignity they have to suffer under the cohabitation rule. Some months ago I asked the Commission to review the rule thoroughly to see in what ways we could take the stigma and unfairness out of it. The Commission has been doing this, but it has found it a complex job. It has certainly approached it with a sense of humanity.

It now tells me that the report is nearly ready, and I expect to receive it before the end of the year.

I am also well aware that one of the most effective ways in which we could help lone parents on supplementary benefit—not only financially but psychologically—would be to enable them to retain more of the earnings they get from part-time work. As I have said, the doubling of the earnings disregard next month will bring substantial benefit to many one-parent families. I am now considering whether it is possible to do more to help them by giving an increased preferential earnings disregard to these families.

Apart from anything else, when the last child of the family has reached school leaving age the lone mother is normally expected to take up full-time work like anyone else, and it is only common sense from the employment point of view as well to help her keep in touch with the outside world by making it worth her while to take a part-time job while the children are growing up, always provided, of course, that their care and needs do not suffer. We are currently reviewing our social security priorities as part of the review of public expenditure. The extra preferential earnings disregard and these families must be given high priority.

In all our concern with cash payments we must never forget the importance of the social services, and particularly, as Finer points out, the provision of day care facilities for the under-fives. I am glad to say that virtually all local authorities regard the children of lone parents at work as having priority for day care, but the basic problem once again is a lack of resources. That means that we have not yet even been able to meet the needs of priority classes. Here again we must put on our thinking caps and consider whether we are making the best use of the money and manpower that we have so as to reach the most people and those with the greatest need.

We are currently re-examining our whole policy for the under-fives. We shall be helped in that re-examination by the extensive survey of the day care needs of the under-fives which the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys has been carrying out at the request of my Department since 1973. This will give us an authoritative picture of the kind of day care facilities that parents use, prefer or need if they are to go out to work, as well as the effect of the different types of facility on the children's progress and health. We hope that the report on the first stage of this survey will be completed by the end of this year.

Mrs. Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

Will the right hon. Lady say whether this particular day care facility will be one of the services that may be protected from the pruning which local authorities are now undergoing? It has been suggested that this is an area in which cuts will be made. I should be grateful if the right hon. Lady were to give an assurance about this.

Mrs. Castle

I should be delighted to have this facility protected, but it is not for the Government to dictate how local authorities distribute their resources, given that they will be severely restrained. This must be a matter for local democratic decision. However, like the hon. Lady, I would very much hope that protection will take place. Perhaps this debate will help to focus attention on that need.

It is clear from what I have said how complex are the needs of one-parent families and how important it is to develop a many-sided attack on their problems. That is what we are trying to do. However, as I read the Finer Report I was struck by one feature—namely, that the report is, in effect, about the whole status of women in our society. I believe that we shall improve the treatment of lone mothers only to the extent that we improve society's treatment of women generally. On this matter the Government's record is second to none.

It is not only that the Equal Pay Act which I put on the statute book in 1970 is now coming into full force. Of course, it was my Tory predecessor who refused to make an interim order under it in 1973. We have buttressed the Act in the innumerable ways which Finer recommended. For example, it was Finer who said that the Act would not in itself transform women's pay and that it should be reinforced by a Sex Discrimination Bill. That Bill will become law before this Session ends. It will form the foundation on which we can at least equalise the educational and training opportunities for women.

Finer also urged the need to encourage and to give better status to part-time work, particularly for widowed women. That is powerfully helped by another great reforming measure—namely, my right hon. Friend's Employment Protection Bill. Incidentally, that Bill ensures that mothers at work, whatever their marital status, will become entitled to paid statutory maternity leave for the first time.

It is the present Government who introduced a comprehensive free family planning service, including the counselling service for which Finer asked. It is this Government who are determined to sweep away the remnants of Victorian matrimonial law now operating in magistrates' courts. All this, together with the new framework of family support which we have set up and on which we can build over the years, will begin to create a new climate for women, a climate in which they can breathe more freely and live more fully. There is a long way to go but our course is set.

5.15 p.m.

Mr. Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)

It is a pity that the right hon. Lady spoiled what was developing into a good speech by descending into party politics, but like her I congratulate the Finer Committee on its report. Its inquiry took almost five years to complete and cost over £200,000. In every sense of the word it is a major report focusing on a major human problem. It is, therefore, a great pity that it has taken so long to arrange a debate in the House. Finer reported in July 1974 and I know that there were certain attempts to have a debate, but this is the first full-day debate on the report—16 months after the Committee reported. If the right hon. Lady wants to talk about priorities, I think that that delay is some commentary upon the Government's priorities.

The Minister of State, Department of Health and Social Security (Mr. Brian O'Malley)

What about Supply Days?

Mr. Fowler

The report also provides commentary upon how we identify social and human problems. The problem of the single-parent family is not a new problem. It may have become worse over the past 30 years but it was a problem clearly present in the 1940s. It could have been identified then or in the years following. However, for many years we were content to accept the Beveridge assumption that there was no need to pay family allowance for the first child. The fact is that two-thirds of the families we are talking about have only one child. By clinging to an out-of-date concept we have deprived some of the most hard-pressed families of help. The fact that we as a nation did not intend that result may be of some comfort to us, but it is of no great comfort to the one-parent family.

I suggest that the first lesson from Finer is that we must devise better ways of identifying social problems and monitoring the effects of our policies in tackling the problems. That was a point made by the recent report of the Central Policy Review Staff. In its report it pointed out that there is both a lack of information about many social problems and no effective mechanism for determining coherent and consistent priorities on social policy generally.

What is the problem we face with the single-parent family? In bare statistics, there are about 620,000 one-parent families in Britain today. The majority are fatherless families, but it is always worth remembering that 100,000 are motherless. Of the fatherless families, there were 190,000 wives separated from their husbands, 120,000 women who were divorced, 120,000 widows and 90,000 single women. It is worth stressing, as the right hon. Lady stressed, that the unmarried mother is numerically the smallest of the problems defined in the report. The most typical case is where the mother is separated or divorced and where it follows there is a father who retains a responsibility for his children. In statistical terms that is the problem as regards parents.

In human terms the characteristics and needs of this group are much more difficult to catalogue neatly. Generalisations are extremely difficult, but as Finer points out many of the parents face social isolation. They suffer not only from loneliness in their homes but also in terms of difficulties which cannot be shared. Of course, they are lonely in their responsibility for their children, a responsibility which often places enormous physical and mental strains upon them.

Over the years many of us on both sides of the House have met delegations from organisations such as the National Council and Gingerbread. We have met on national delegations or locally in our constituencies. It would be right for the House to pay tribute to the cheerfulness and courage with which these parents carry out their difficult role. We should also remember that the parent is only one side of the coin.

The essential problem to which the House must turn its attention is that of the children, over a million of whom are placed at risk by the one-parent situation. I emphasise the point that they are at risk. Fortunately, in the vast majority of cases the children are cared for remarkably well, but if we accept that parents face special problems—and the evidence in this report appears to be overwhelming—surely we must also accept that the children are at risk from many of the same problems. The child can grow up in a home in which the mother is not only lonely but also overstretched financially. The child can grow up in a home where the mother or father seeks to escape from dependence on supplementary benefit but in order to do so has to turn to a child-minder to look after the child while the parent is at work. Alternatively, the child can grow up in a home in which he has to fend for himself and carry responsibilities way beyond his years.

The effect of home environment on a child's attainment, behaviour and development has been well-documented in reports from Newsom to Seebohm. Adverse effects do not automatically result, but that they are more likely is beyond doubt. Finer indicates that there is evidence to suggest that the risk of distorted behaviour and delinquency is greater in one-parent situations.

That is a brief sketch of the problem. Few who have read the Finer Report would doubt the problem, but we must face the truth of the economic situation. In regard to the Finer proposals, the economic situation could hardly be worse. The report was written mostly during a time when the economy was expanding and when expansion in social service provision could be adequately contemplated. But that is not the position today. Government and local government are thinking not of how they can expand social service provision but of how they can preserve programmes already in existence.

Anybody who believes that social service policy is miraculously separate from economic policy has now been brought to earth with a crash. Until industry can get going again, and until we can create more wealth, we are stuck in the position of seeking to divide a cake that is steadily getting smaller.

I hope that the right hon. Lady will note that nothing is gained if we do not recognise the reality of our economic position, for we simply raise hopes that cannot be fulfilled. The only qualification I wish to add is that clearly even in our present desperate position there must be priorities of expenditure. I am conscious of the fact that each Government Department feels that it represents a priority section. However, what I hope can be agreed is that the interests of children must be given priority in whatever departmental budget they appear. The interests of the children must come first.

Mrs. Castle

I take this point very seriously because we all have to consider priorities, and I agree that the interests of children are extremely important. We must get our social service spending into balance. Does not the hon. Gentleman, on reflection, agree that the Government were wise to warn the House not to divert more resources to the older sections of the community by abolishing the earnings rule since it was bound to pre-empt the spending of money on children?

Mr. Fowler

I was not seeking to make a party political point, but it is a pity that the Government did not take notice of our warnings about inflation a great deal earlier. We should then have available more resources to give to the retired person and also the young.

Mr. Charles Morrison (Devizes)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Secretary of State's intervention was extraordinary since she completely ignores the effect of the Community Land Bill, the provisions of which will cost the taxpayer a million pounds a week?

Mr. Fowler

I find most of the right hon. Lady's interventions extraordinary.

Let us return to the point at issue, namely the one-parent family and the children involved. Those children must come first because omissions during childhood are difficult, if not impossible, to put right later. For those who find that argument a little too generalised, we should also recognise that there are identifiable costs of failure. If the one-parent family is unable to cope, the child goes into care and the cost is enormous. The Director of Social Service in Camden now puts the cost at £82 a week. It is estimated that at least 6,000 children from one-parent families are being received into care each year. Therefore, there are at least some balancing costs to be taken into account.

Having said all that, there is no point in pretending that the nation currently is in a position to afford the kind of guaranteed maintenance allowance envisaged by Finer. It would be easy enough for me to dress this up, but I do not believe that that is right or credible. I believe that we should consider our aim, even if it is to be a medium-term aim.

Should we adopt GMA or some other scheme? There are advantages in the GMA. Its detail allows it to be confined to those most in need, but it is not the only scheme that is able to channel resources to those in need. The tax credit scheme also has that advantage and the Government's child benefit scheme also is part of the total scheme. For the child benefit scheme to be fair, it must also be flexible. It should provide, for example, benefits that increase with the age of the child, and there is no reason why it cannot be adapted to give greater benefit in the single-parent situation. In other words, the child benefit scheme can be devised in such a way that it gives greater aid for the most expensive children and the most exposed families.

The snag is that the Government say that the child benefit scheme cannot be made flexible until 1979. That is the question with which my hon. Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clark) will want to deal when he sums up for the Opposition. Again, we must be frank. We may be able to agree on that approach or aim, but we are talking about the medium term. There still remains the crunch question of what can be done now to tackle the immediate and urgent problem.

This same dilemma is evident throughout the whole social services area. We have plans and hopes for the late 1970s and 1980s. but we also have the reality of an immediate problem to tackle. The temptation is to say that nothing can be done until the economy turns. But is there not an alternative course? Can we not resolve to make the best of the present situation by using the resources at our disposal and also by considering new methods to put those resources to use? In other words, should we not be thinking in terms of an action programme—a programme designed not for an ideal world, but to meet the exceptional circumstances of today?

My impression in the talks I have had with representatives of single parents, such as Gingerbread, is that although clearly they would like more, they see the limitations of the present position. Indeed, in the paper submitted by the Finer Joint Action Committee that same realism is evident. Again, its members would like more, but they also point to actions that can be taken. As they point out, two of the main reasons why so many one-parent families are living on supplementary benefit comprise the irregularity of maintenance and inadequate day care provision. We should seek to do something about these matters.

I suggest that the Government should, after immediate consultations with the organisations representing single parents, produce an action programme—a programme which, while recognising the economic crisis, concentrates on what it is possible to do now—and a programme which also aims to use voluntary organisation and voluntary effort. Although this list is not intended to be comprehensive, I suggest that there are six essential points in such a programme. First, we should aim to improve day care facilities for children. This emerged as a prime need in the consultations of the Finer Joint Action Committee.

There are differing views on the question of mothers working. Many feel, especially with the very young child, that the balance of advantage is in favour of the mother remaining at home. The aim of this Parliament should be to provide a choice for the parent. There is special scope for action with the older children, the over-fives, whom I do not think the Minister mentioned. Here the balance of advantage may change for the single parent as her child grows older, for the ability to work, the ability to go outside the home, the ability to mix, may well be a positive step towards promoting the family unit. Her isolation can be broken down, and by her own efforts she can perhaps end her dependence on supplementary benefit. Yet to take that step is not easy, as often there is nowhere for the children to go after school or during the holidays.

It is absurd to believe that simply because a child has reached the magic age of five he is able to cope for himself. Here perhaps above all else there is an opportunity for promoting day care schemes using existing buildings, schools, halls and the help of volunteers. A few schemes of that kind have got off the ground. For instance, Gingerbread told me of one scheme in London, mainly designed for the children of one-parent families, but which was so successful that children from all families used it. That problem is not confined to the single-parent family. That is an evident fact.

There is enormous potential, but only if the Government take the initiative. If the Government take the initiative, by using existing buildings and volunteers, the costs may be kept low. There is also a potential saving on supplementary benefit to be taken into account.

Our second step should be to reform the law governing maintenance. We agree with the right hon. Lady on that, although I think that the Opposition will have something to say about the timing. There is an absurd position in this country. The law of divorce is based on the breakdown of marriage, but entitlement to maintenance depends on the court to which the wife goes. If she applies to the High Court or the county court, broadly speaking her misconduct will not affect her claim for maintenance save in the most exceptional circumstances. However, if she goes to the magistrates' court, different rules apply. Here the concept of the matrimonial offence still applies. The result is that many women are refused orders as they have committed matrimonial offences, even though their husbands have deserted them, no longer give them financial support and may well have committed matrimonial offences themselves. Two matrimonial jurisdictions co-exist, but one is based on principles which have been rejected by the other. I believe that that is an absurd position and should be changed as a matter of urgency.

The Minister said that the Law Commission is considering this position. I urge the Minister to seek from the Law Commission a report which would enable legislation to be introduced in the next Session of Parliament. I do not think that that is asking too much from the Law Commission. From what the Minister says, it will require only the briefest acceleration of the Law Commission's consideration and presentation of that report.

Third, we must take action to improve the collection of maintenance from the father. The faults in the present system are legion. Most maintenance orders made by magistrates' courts—it is to such courts that the poorer single parent is likely to go—are for amounts below the level of supplementary benefit. In other words, the orders are below the guaranteed minimum set by the State. Another serious defect in the system is the strain that it puts on the wife pursuing a separated or divorced husband through the courts. It is a soul-destroying process. I can see no justification why a wife should be sentenced to it.

The system put forward by Finer recognises the reality of the position. The Committee proposes that the lone mother who is unsupported or inadequately supported will go to the Supplementary Benefits Commission and make her claim for supplementary benefit, as she now does, and that assessment will take place. The difference in the process will be that the asssessment and enforcement of the liable-relative contribution will be a process which will take place entirely between the Commission and the liable relative. The Commission will assess the means of the liable relative to pay and will make a legally enforceable administrative order against him. It is therefore a scheme which is more efficient and which does not involve the mother, above all, in pursuing her husband through the courts. For those reasons I advocate and support that proposition is spite of what the Minister has said on that question.

Fourth—this is a question which the Minister did not examine deeply, if at all—we must examine more closely the methods of enforcement. If my third point is accepted—although we may disagree on detail, the Minister presumably accepts the principle—one effect will be the system will become fairer. The husband will be assessed objectively. He will be required to pay what he can afford. No longer can he say that a payment is beyond his means. Therefore, if the scheme is fair, it is also fair that it should be strictly enforced. I accept the view of the Government that the current major part of the problem is the inability of separated men to pay and to support two families. But we shall have gone a long way to meeting that point of view if we put my third suggestion into effect.

There will remain the problem of those who refuse to pay. Here there is an essential balance, with which the Minister did not deal. Society is taking over the responsibility of the father. Society therefore has the right to seek compensation from the father for shouldering that responsibility. That will represent a widespread public view of the position. The Opposition will have more to say about that matter. However, we must look more closely at the attachment of the earnings process. Perhaps—I put this forward tentatively—we should not rush to abolish the deterrent of imprisonment. I agree that imprisonment in an inappropriate deterrent to hire-purchase debtors who have been allowed to run up debts which they are incapable of meeting. However, in the case of maintenance arrears I am not so sure. It is worth remembering, although I have no strict views on the subject, that some countries with impeccably liberal penal systems—I refer to Holland and Sweden—use short sentences in some situations.

Mrs. Helene Hayman (Welwyn and Hatfield)

Will the hon. Gentleman say why, when imprisonment for non-payment of maintenance is such an effective deterrent, the majority of people in jail are there for that reason?

Mr. Fowler

That is the obvious argument against it. The magistrates' association supports the retention of the deterrent. The fact that the deterrent exists makes a great number of people pay up. There is a balance. I do not have strong or rigid views on this matter. However, it must be looked at more carefully. Maintenance debtors should not be bracketed with hire-purchase debtors.

Fifth, we must start preparatory work, or at least consultations, on a family support system. The report deals with the casualties of broken marriages. We admit that we have insufficient means now to deal with them as generously as we should like. I believe that is the summary of what the Minister said.

The Minister should consider how broken marriages can be prevented. Thai is one of the advantages of the family support system. The report envisages a court which is not only a judicial institution but which also has the function to promote welfare. It will apply a uniform set of legal rules. It will seek to provide the best possible facilities for promoting conciliation. For that the court will need a skilled and trained welfare service and preferably separate buildings. I have referred to preparatory work, and nothing more, as these proposals are ambiguous and will cost money.

It would be a mistake, after all, it was one of the major mistakes of the Children and Young Persons legislation—to move without the resources to give the new system a chance to work. I see no reason why some preparatory work on these lines cannot now be begun.

Mr. A. P. Costain (Folkestone and Hythe)

Does my hon. Friend accept the advice given by the Secretary of State that lack of buildings might be a reason for not establishing such a court? Does not my hon. Friend agree that many council offices which are now empty would make excellent premises for this purpose?

Mr. Fowler

My hon. Friend makes an interesting suggestion. Given the crisis that we face, that is a suggestion which we should consider, but I do not think that we are in a financial position at present to take a decision to operate the new legal system.

Sixthly, in the interests of prevention, we must carry out more research into this area. Research is no panacea, but enormous sums of money are being spent in this area. Some research into marriage breakdown would be a sensible step towards prevention, and it would also be a cost effective step.

I do not claim that that programme is a comprehensive list. That is why the Government should enter into consultation upon it. The Government have announced the special earnings disregard, but I urge them to adopt this manner of proceeding. I do not claim that the plan is an ideal one, but it recognises the reality of the economic position and if the Government are equally frank about the position they will find a response.

The Finer Committee took five years to prepare its report. We have waited another 15 months to debate it. Let us now resolve to move forward on an agreed programme—I hope that it can be an agreed programme because this is not a matter for party division—and seek to improve the position of the one-parent family in this country.

5.42 p.m.

Mrs. Helene Hayman (Welwyn and Hatfield)

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to contribute to the debate, and I promise to be relatively brief because many hon. Members wish to take part, even though not many wish to form an audience. It is a serious reflection that one man's problems can fill the Chamber while the problems of 1 million children seem to be capable of emptying it.

About 60 years ago Tawney wrote: The continuance of social evils is not due to the fact that we do not know what is right but that we prefer to continue doing what is wrong. No one who has read the Finer Committee Report, no one who listened to the speech of my right hon. Friend, no one who has sat in surgeries and advice bureaux and spoken to and tried to help single parents and their children to cope with their myriad problems, can be unaware of what is right. It is right that children should not go hungry, but many do. It is right that parents should not have to sacrifice their own health to feed their children, but many do. It is right that no child's development should be stunted, but many children's development is stunted. It is right that no family should have to suffer bad housing conditions, the fear of homelessness, the experience of homelessness and the weeks of living in bed and breakfast accommodation, but many do. It is right that all those problems should disappear overnight, but they do not. Problems of poverty, bad housing, innumerable wrangles with the law and lack of decent alternative care for children all heap themselves on one-parent families.

My right hon. Friend knows why Labour Members are sometimes critical and unhappy and never feel that the Government have done enough. We never shall feel that the Government have done enough. We know the extent of the need and we have no great faith in the tax credit havens of future generations of supposed Tory Governments. We know that we have to look to our own Labour Government for further action, that we have to press our Government and support those who are fighting for greater expenditure on social and educational projects. It is only in a spirit of support that I say that I am disappointed with what has been achieved since the Government came into office. We have acted on several of the Finer recommendations but not on the major ones.

Today we heard a welcome announcement about a possible relaxation of the earnings rule, but we heard no commitment to the principle of an allowance for one-parent families. The one-parent families who are here today and those who will read the debate tomorrow want the Government to say "Although the economic crisis is such that we cannot help one-parent families now, we recognise the rightness of their case and commit ourselves to the principle of a special cash allowance for one-parent families as soon as possible." That commitment has come from neither Front Bench. It is a commitment that I should be happy to hear and it would make it easier for the people who are being asked to wait and to restrain themselves, It is easy for us to ask people to restrain themselves, but it is difficult for people to do so when they have to decide how much they can afford to spend on food. As one one-parent family put it in a survey which was published last week: Poverty is when you have to save up to buy food each week. That is the sort of poverty that we are talking about.

People who campaign for one-parent families tend to come back to the problem of income, because income is central to so many other problems—not all—that those families experience. One-parent families could buy their way out of their housing difficulties if they had the resources, but they do not have them. Poverty is the overwhelming problem for most one-parent families and for most of the children. It is in the context of poverty, the absence of a commitment to an allowance and a little more generosity in other aspects that I and one-parent families are disappointed at what has been achieved so far.

For those who are dependent on supplementary benefit, there has been an uprating and little else. The increase to £4 of the £2 disregard must be put in the context that the £2 was fixed in 1966. In 1975 the £4 does not even match the £2 then. I hope that the increase, which it was hinted would be announced, will be a generous increase and that the Government will consider linking the earnings disregard to the number of the children in the family. One way to help the part-time earner would be by taking account of family size.

For many one-parent families part-time earnings represent more than money. Going out to work gives the opportunity for contact with the outside world, it promotes self-respect and the feeling of not being isolated but being part of the community. That is of great value to one-parent families and is particularly important for many mothers who otherwise would be totally isolated at home with their children and no one else for 24 hours a day, probably in a home that lacks facilities for relaxation or development. If they are at home that means more day care.

Why should one-parent families always have the worry of looking for the inadequate form of day care when they want to go out to work? They want, perhaps more than any other parent, to be sure that the quality of the day care they give their children is excellent because all the time they are questioning themselves about the care their children receive.

It is important that we look at day care for the over-fives as well as the under-fives and that we look towards the cheaper forms of day care rather than those which are capital-intensive. Rather than thinking of vast day nurseries we should think about training child-minders, making sure that instead of such people being the bottom end—the worst form of substitute care as they often are now—they are trained and used as the best form of substitute care for many children.

It would have been nice today to hear that those on supplementary benefit, who have not benefited from the interim child benefit, are to get something in terms of hard cash. That is the most immediate help they require. Finer recommended a special supplementary benefit addition for one-parent families. We have not heard of that today. Why not? Finer also recommended that the length of time needed to qualify for the long-term addition should be reduced from two years to one year. That would bring in thousands of one-parent families who are dependent on what is essentially a short-term financial scheme for long-term financial support during all the years when they are bringing up their children.

We know that the guaranteed maintenance allowance is expensive. We know that even £1.50 extra a week is expensive. A reduction from two years to one is expensive. There is one reason why this is so—because there are many one-parent families and they are very poor. If the House wants to raise their living standards it should realise that it cannot be done cheaply. Let us not delude ourselves that we can do it cheaply. We shall have to find the money from somewhere. While I resent the type of argument which suggests that everyone who campaigns for more money for an area of the social services should automatically look to the same area of social services to find where some cutback can be effected, I do not simply say that we should instead reduce defence expenditure.

No one who looks at the maintenance issue in the round can fail to be struck by one way in which maintenance helps those who are best off. Fathers paying maintenance who are receiving higher incomes get that maintenance tax-relieved. These people are far higher up the scale than the ordinary working man who pays only the standard rate of tax. This is a phenomenon mirrored exactly in mortgage interest relief. Perhaps my right hon. Friend could suggest to the Chancellor—when he is next proving obstreperous and refusing to say "Yes" for some sum of money for one-parent families—that there are areas such as I have mentioned which could help ease the burden a little.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

We are grateful to the hon. Lady for revealing the name of the back-bench Member who The Times forecast this morning would be rehearsing the views of the Undersecretary about where to find alternative money. Will she assure us that she is not saying that we should look for money for the poorest of one-parent families from other one-parent families? Is she aware that the sort of group that would be affected by what she is hinting at have financial difficulties themselves, compared with equivalent two-parent families?

Mrs. Hayman

I do not accept that fathers paying surtax who are also paying maintenance have great financial difficulties. I will not go into that—

Mr. Clarke


Mrs. Hayman

I think the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that Mr. Hayman is paying maintenance. He is not, I assure the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

The hon. Lady knows perfectly well that for those tax-paying, mortgage-paying families who are divided there are special costs. A father in that position normally finds himself providing a second house and paying mortgages on two homes. He finds the special cost of providing for the family from whom he is separated. It is more expensive than if the family keeps together. For that reason, although of course they are not in poverty, they are not the better-off group to whom we should look for resources to pay to the poorest one-parent families.

Mrs. Hayman

I will not pursue that point. It is valid to look to any better-off group to pay. I prefaced what I said by remarking that I do not particularly look to one-parent families. But those who are rich should, equally with any other members of the community who are rich, be willing to pay their share.

We tend to look upon all one-parent families as being deprived, as having special problems, and as having children likely to be disadvantaged. Statistically, that is true. We all know that there is a minority that is not disadvantaged and that does not live in poverty. We also know that the absence of one parent by itself does not necessary mean that a family will be deprived. That is not what makes those children "Born to Fail", as a recent publication says. What makes these children likely to fail is what we do to them when they are in a one-parent family. It is the fact that we do not provide that family with an adequate income. We do not ensure that it has decent housing. We do not give the parents of such families a real choice between going out to work and staying at home. That is what deprives those children. It is what society chooses to do.

I was disappointed to hear no hint that parents on low incomes—as the Secretary of State has said, many of these mothers in full-time work are on low incomes—are to receive help on the family income supplement front. We know what would help these families here, namely a reduction in the number of hours worked to qualify for family income supplement. A reduction from the present 30 hours to, say, 24, would help. Many of the parents trying to fit in their commitments to their children together with their working commitments work a three-quarter week. If they could also benefit from family income supplement rather than losing out on that benefit we would see fewer families living below supplementary benefit level than Finer shows.

The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) was right to say that we should concentrate on the children. It is natural that we should identify with the adults in the family, should be able to see the problems of isolation, loneliness, and of trying to cope with all the difficulties alone. We have to realise, when we ask one-parent families to tighten their belts because of the economic climate, that we are having an effect on the children in those families. There is devastating evidence of how such children are handicapped by their circumstances—economic and housing—and how they are more likely to be socially disadvantaged, to do less well at school and to be less well adjusted. All of these problems heap one upon the other.

What is the solution we offer to these children? What is the final panacea that we as a society will always provide when everything else fails? It is not an income. It is not a home. It is not adequate day care or help in the house. The solution from which we never draw back and for which we shall always pay, even if it amounts to £82 a week, is residential care. That is the alternative which one-parent families are always offered and will never be refused. Is it not the cruellest thing that we can do to children who have already lost one parent to deprive them of the other? Yet that is in effect what we do.

That is why I am not ashamed or embarrassed to argue for a diversion of resources for one-parent families, even at a time of economic crisis, because let no one forget that the economic crisis is hitting them harder than it is hitting us. We sould be prepared to commit more resources to them than we heard about from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services.

6.1 p.m.

Mr. Peter Walker (Worcester)

The hon. Lady the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mrs. Hayman) has spoken effectively, passionately and enthusiastically on a subject on which she has gained for herself a reputation since becoming a Member. I agree with her that we should not be arguing that there is no room in public expenditure to take action on this social problem. There should be a shift of resources to deal with it. I believe that she was correct in saying to the Secretary of Stale for Social Services that, as one of the right hon. Lady's supporters, she made her criticisms in the knowledge that backbench Members were impatient to make progress on this subject.

There is talk about publishing the Crossman diaries, but probably the most important legacy of Dick Crossman is the Finer Report. It was Dick Crossman who, in 1968–69, set up the Finer Committee at a time when the then Government were contemplating and carrying out public expenditure cuts. It is a normal process of both Conservative and Labour Governments that, if there is a rising and urgent social problem at a time when the economic climate is such that cuts should be made in public expenditure, the escape route of Ministers is to say, "We shall set up an inquiry or a Royal Commission". It has been used by Governments of every political complexion this century.

I ask the House to consider the devastating delay which is created by that method of government. Dick Crossman, whom I am sure, knowing him as I did, was very concerned about the problems of one-parent families in 1969, doubtless decided that to set up the Finer Committee was the best way to make progress, but I doubt whether he realised that major reforms would not be made for perhaps 10 years.

The Finer inquiry took 4½ years. It is 16 or 17 months since its report was published, and today we are having our first debate on it. The speech of the Secretary of State today—and, as a former Cabinet Minister, I know the difficulty that she was in—was full of such phrases as, "The Lord Chancellor's office is considering as swiftly as possible", "The Law Commission will report to me any month now", "The Supplementary Benefits Commission is looking into this with some enthusiasm", "If we cannot do this immediately, we are beginning to make progress", and, "We cannot do this because there are not enough courts available". Five or six years after Dick Crossman embarked on the Finer Report, we still hear phrases about why nothing fundamental and important will happen.

What always happens when it comes to considering cuts in public expenditure due to economic circumstances is that existing programmes are preserved and no new programmes are embarked upon. That is what happens under all Governments. The Chancellor of the Exchequer and the rest of the Cabinet agree that there is a need to cut public expenditure, so that the first thing that happens is that any plea for fresh public expenditure is swept aside and Ministers fight to preserve the aspects of expenditure in which they are involved.

I do not believe that if we had never had any social services, and if we started afresh with our present volume of public expenditure on the social services, we would treat single-parent families as badly as they are being treated. The Finer Report argues persuasively and effectively that these families, compared with others, are having a bad deal. The single-parent families make up a very large group. In most constituencies there will be about 1,000 families, with 2,000 children. Nearly half of them will be on social security and half of those receiving maintenance allowances will have their allowances in arrears. There is much misery among families which have broken up for matrimonial reasons, putting a great deal of pressure on the children, together with the other pressures to which the hon. Lady the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield effectively referred.

At a time like the present, it is the Government's duty to examine potential shifts of resources. The Social Services Department is a massive Department, with five Ministers and about 90,000 civil servants. It should be the task of a Department with such ministerial and staff resources effectively to analyse the social problems and to decide the switch of resources and programmes which make sense.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) made perhaps the most fundamental point when he said that the Finer Report is yet another illustration of the lack of analysis of social problems. The report has brought out many details and facts previously unknown, but if we had had an effective Social Services Department over the years those facts and figures would have been known and an independent inquiry would not have needed four and a half years to ascertain them. Such facts and figures should be readily available to the Secretary of State, but they are not. There is a failure to analyse the problem until a political atmosphere is built up by pressure groups. If no public money is available, nothing is done other than the setting up of committees of inquiry. If money is available, something is done to quieten the pressure groups concerned. But never is an effective analysis made.

If in 1969 Dick Crossman, instead of setting up the Finer Committee, had said, "This is an area of concern. Therefore, I order my staff to obtain facts and figures on the following matters and to do the following research", we would have obtained the results much quicker because his full-time staff would have been employed instead of a committee which met regularly at intervals, with the general slow progress of such committees.

Governments of whatever political complexion should face the reality that such questions as single-parent families should be the subject of speedy ministerial decision-taking and should be dealt with by Government Departments with immense resources available to them in terms of staff and Ministers and not by independent committees which take years to report, followed by further delay before we debate the issue and by years of postponement thereafter.

I confess my disappointment with the reply of the Secretary of State on the report. The issue of separate courts is fundamental. My experience of government is that such Departments as the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Home Office are incredibly reactionary and slow-moving. One-parent families constitute a social problem and yet the right hon. Lady had to read—I do not say this unkindly because I have had to read similar passages in the past—the piece from the Lord Chancellor's Department which has said that there was difficulty about building the necessary courts. I have the feeling that if, heaven forbid, the right hon. Lady became the first woman Lord Chancellor she would have demanded speedy and more effective action.

Therefore the first major finding in the report, which relates to giving a substantial grant more quickly to a very deprived section of the community, is in the main swept aside for further consideration, and the second, relating to having separate courts to deal with these problems in a much more human and sensible way, is to be deferred into the long-term future.

I am sure that those members of the Finer Committee who still survive will be depressed and despondent that more progress is not being made, but the 600,000 families and over a million children involved will be even sadder that more progress has not been made.

6.10 p.m.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell (Southampton, Itchen)

It is quite right that the major part of this debate should be devoted to considering how we can assist the existing one-parent families, but I do not think that we shall be remiss if we spend a few minutes considering what I think was the sixth point mentioned by the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler)—the need for a great deal more research than we have now into the reasons for the breakdown of marriage.

There is no indication in the Finer Report of whether it is accepted that in the future there will be more one-parent families, the same number, or fewer. The report states that there are 90,000 unmarried mothers. With the spread of birth control and the availability of contraception, one would expect that figure at least to remain static, if not to go down.

We are told that there are 120,000 widows with young children. Again, one would expect that number not to increase, bearing in mind the advance of medical science. It may well decrease. We are left then with the 310,000 divorced or separated persons, and obviously it is here that any increase is likely to come in the future.

I want to see not just a statistical inquiry but something much more fundamental. I believe—although I admit that I cannot prove it—that many of the ills in our society today, such as violence, hooliganism and crime, can be attributed to the break-up of the family unit. What are the reasons? Is it the decreasing importance of religion in our lives? I am an agnostic. I do not know the answer. Is it the change—I use the term neutrally and advisedly—in moral standards? Is it the increasing natural desire of married women to follow a career?

All these explanations and many more have been offered. Are any of them correct? I ask for a thoroughgoing inquiry into all these matters. What happens now is that we change our social legislation and make new divorce laws and abortion laws and change our attitures towards crime very much on a piecemeal, ad hoc basis, without any full realisation of the type of society that we are building for our children and our grandchildren.

Two factors emerge very clearly from the report. The first is that a large proportion of one-parent families are in financial difficulty. The second is that in addition many of these families have stresses and strains of a non-financial character in excess of those in a normal family.

Most one-parent families wish to be independent and to earn sufficient money to provide for themselves. How, then, can we help those who are working? I believe that a radical change in our taxation system is needed. Time and time again a mother of a one-parent family will tell me that it is not worth her while going to work.

There is not only the marginal rate of taxation, but the fact that she loses the welfare benefits if she tries to provide for herself, and there is also a reduction in rent rebates, rate rebates and so on. So the one-parent families are particularly susceptible to what has become known as the poverty trap. It is hardly worth the parent's while going out to work at all, particularly if she can work only on a part-time basis. There is also a need for a further provision of day nurseries and nursery schools.

I hope that the Government, by persuasion, can bring about a new attitude on the part of the employers towards hours of work. It should be quite possible for many employers to work out a system enabling the mothers in these one-parent families to go out to work and to be home when their children return from school.

As an ex-teacher I feel that there is nothing worse than a child coming home at four o'clock with no one to meet him. Often I have been out canvassing at six o'clock in the evening and had the door opened by a child of 10. Alongside him there will often be three or four other children. This applies also to ordinary families. When I ask for the mother or father, I am told that the father is working half a shift overtime and that the mother is doing the evening shift at the local factory, so that often the children are on their own for one or two hours. I have often seen that, and as an ex-teacher I believe that it is one of the factors leading to juvenile delinquency.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Hemel Hempstead)

I am following closely what my hon. Friend says about the special problems of single-parent mothers. Will he accept that in some respects it is worse for the single-parent fathers, for whom there is an almost total unavailability of work at suitable hours when they are struggling to keep children together? They get little or no help from employers.

Mr. Mitchell

I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend, and I see no earthly reason why employers cannot devise greater flexibility of hours. It has been done to some extent in local government, but there is still a very long way to go in that respect.

Then we have to consider the many instances when the parent, particularly with young children, is not able to work and when the balance of the child's advantage is that the parent should not go out to work. Given the present economic situation and the general rise in the unemployment rate, this category may well increase. It may become more and more difficult for women to find suitable work, even if they want to work. Obviously, the main point here is the general inadequacy of the social security benefits, mentioned time and time again in the Finer Report.

There are, however, one or two minor alleviations that would not cost a great deal of money. One of the problems of one-parent families arises when there is a need to renew bedding or furniture. The parent can go to the Supplementary Benefits Commission and get a grant, which is often inadequate. There is also a grant provided by the Commission because of the inadequacy of clothing. In the case of older children it is provided by the education authorities. There is nothing more degrading to mother and child than having to go to jumble sales to find children's clothes. There is nothing more degrading for the child than constantly to have to wear second-hand clothes. The allowances given by the Commission are inadequate.

There is a new problem arising, particularly over the last six months, and it is well-known in my constituency. I refer to the increase in fares which has to be met by those sending their children to school by bus. In recent months many bus companies have said that they will no longer allow half fares for children going to school. This applies, of course, not solely to the one-parent families, but for them it is a particular hardship. There has been a very rapid increase in bus fares in the past few months.

There is another hardship not mentioned in the report. I am frequently told by one-parent families that the situation is not so bad when the children are at school, receiving free meals, but that during the school holidays, particularly the long holidays, it is very difficult for them to find the money for meals. This is especially so when families have to keep the children full time. They receive no more money during these periods and it is very difficult for them to manage. I strongly urge the Government to consider the introduction of a system whereby during the school holidays extra money may be made available to compensate for the fact that the children are no longer getting their free school meals.

One other aspect which has not been mentioned much today and which could be attended to without spending much money is the provision of help to one-parent families in the matter of housing. Too many local authorities tend to regard the one-parent family, particularly the family with an unmarried mother, as a rent risk, and therefore they put her in very poor accommodation, in acquired property, or into property at the bottom end of the town. She therefore starts at a tremendous disadvantage. Many local authorities which operate the points scheme regard the one-parent family as being in a different category from the two-parent family, and therefore bedroom deficiencies and overcrowding occur.

There is also the question of residential qualification in some areas, although this does not apply so much in my area. One-parent families, more than others, tend to move about from one local authority area to another and are therefore confronted by residential qualification difficulties.

One matter which repeatedly creates difficulties is the refusal by many local authorities to transfer a tenancy before a court order is finalised. There is an intervening period, and then numerous problems arise, involving foreclosures on mortgages and so on.

I believe that everything I wanted to say on maintenance has already been said in the debate, but I strongly urge that the one-parent family already in great difficulty should not have the additional worry of having to go back to court day after day to apply for a maintenance order. There is also the difficulty created by the non-arrival of maintenance. A family may spend the whole day at a social security office explaining that the money has not arrived and asking for immediate help.

I should like to mention one point which may seem to be controversial. I am not convinced by the Finer recommendation on committal to prison for non-payment of maintenance. Any magistrate will confirm that a large proportion of persistent bad payers will pay only if they are threatened with imprisonment. The last thing I want to do is to fill the prisons, but I am sure that there are many who would not pay if the deterrent of prison did not exist. I suggest that the Government should at least consider this point.

It is unlikely in the present economic climate that the whole of the Finer Report will be implemented quickly, but many things among those that I have mentioned could be done. I am a little disappointed with the speech from the Government Front Bench. Many things which could be done without too much cost were not mentioned. I hope the Government will do as much as they can, as quickly as possible, starting from now.

6.23 p.m.

Sir John Eden (Bournemouth, West)

Like others who have spoken in this debate, I was disappointed by the speech of the Secretary of State. I thought she was very much on the defensive, as though she were acknowledging her responsibility in the economic situation, which so sadly circumscribes the scope for action to deal with this matter. What all hon. Members are really looking for from the Minister is a recognition not only that this problem exists, but that it is now time to have a fundamental reappraisal of the order of priorities in the disposal of the vast sums and resources available to the Department of Health and Social Security.

Surely there is need for fresh thinking here, especially now as we gain in knowledge of the problems experienced by so many families. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) said in his admirable speech, this is not a new problem, but it is one which undeniably is on the increase, and I think that the worry that many of us have is that what we have been learning about over the past years and to an increasing degree during the past months is possibly the precursor to developments likely to present us with cause for concern of much greater magnitude in the years ahead. I think my hon. Friend was absolutely right to stress the need to avoid generalisations, and therefore so far as possible one should be wary of labelling or categorising one-parent families as though there were a single definable problem capable of one simple straightforward solution.

I think that the one thing which has impressed itself upon all hon. Members who have had close dealings with people experiencing difficulties of this nature is their variety and complexity. There is, therefore, an overriding need in Government thinking, in Government practice and in local government attitudes, for the greatest possible degree of flexibility and understanding of the variety of individual needs that they are being called upon to heed and, so far as resources will allow, to help to meet.

What is clearly wanted here in the first instance is practical help. I agree very much with the hon. Lady the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mrs. Hayman) and others who said that ideally this should take the form of cash payment. I am not clever enough to know whether at the moment the Government can find the necessary amount of cash to give practical help in that sense. I believe they could do so, but this is a question of priority. The Government quite rightly are in the dock today, and if they choose to relegate this matter behind others which they have chosen to advance in their order of priorities, they must be held responsible for that, and they are rightly accountable to us in this House and to the country for their decisions.

However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield said, there are a number of comparatively simple and less expensive areas in which the Government could act straight away. No doubt, in the light of this debate and in the light especially of my hon. Friend's speech, they will be giving further thought to the guidance that they can give and the direction which they can provide for this type of help to be brought forward-some kind of centralised counselling to make it possible for people who need advice and practical help to turn to one person from whom they can get this help, rather than having to go to a multiplicity of departments or individuals.

The proposal in the Finer Report for the family court is most imaginative, and I hope it has not been relegated. I hope the Government will take serious note of what my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield suggested—that at any rate the first steps should be taken to see how the family court system could be established and that every encouragement should be given in these early days to its establishment as soon as resources and other factors will allow.

Obviously, also, the provision of some kind of practical help during the working day would be of immense benefit to those with younger children. The two councils which serve my constituency—the Bournemouth District Council and the Dorset County Council—are, I am delighted to say, showing a considerable degree of imagination and understanding in the attitude which they have already brought to bear when considering the problems affecting one-parent families.

I know that the officials who deal with these matters would say that this is only a small beginning, and they would wish to be able to do much better and go much further. But what matters here is the attitude which they bring to bear behind what they are able to achieve, and already they have made clear ways in which they would be prepared to help.

For example, they would be perfectly prepared to help with the provision of school premises during school holidays so that they could be used by playgroups or for other purposes by one-parent family groups which may be formed. They may be prepared also to assist, perhaps with monetary grant, the creation of more one-parent family groups. They have indicated that they are prepared to give priority places in their day nursery provision, such as it is, for children of one-parent families, and they have made clear also that there is no bar of any kind against one-parent families in the provision of housing.

The hon. Lady the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield, who first spoke on this subject in the Chamber nearly a year ago now, has shown considerable mastery of the subject, and in her speech today she made one observation in particular which bears repetition—that it is serious enough already for the children of the family concerned to have only one parent, and that it is essential, therefore, that authority, in whatever guise, should do whatever it can to avoid further distress or break-up.

Through the Government, through local government, or in any other way, we should do all we possibly can to keep child and parent together. That, at the very least, should be the main purpose which our help, the practical help that we want from the Government, should be designed to achieve. It should certainly be the prime purpose of the programme for action which my hon. Friend urged on the Government, and I hope that, as a result of today's debate, the Government will be made aware of the feelings of hon. Members on both sides of the House in urging a more understanding and more imaginative approach in dealing with this problem.

6.32 p.m.

Mr. D. E. Thomas (Merioneth)

In my short time as a Member of Parliament, the two categories of problem which have caused me most personal concern and distress in constituency work have been those of industrial injuries and of one-parent families. Whatever I have to say in this debate will be drawn from my experience as a Member representing a rural area which has its share of social deprivation—indeed, more than its share compared with some of our older industrial centres.

All of us in our constituency surgeries encounter the problems of one-parent families—the divorced mother with a husband in arrears of maintenance, the resulting strain of low income, and, in particular, the problem of housing deprivation. We have all had to deal with such cases, and I shall concentrate principally on housing, because help in this direction would not require enormous additional public expenditure arising from some aspects of the legislative changes which may be needed.

I welcome the small crumbs which we have had from the Government Front Bench. For example, the new extra preferential treatment for earnings disregards is certainly to be welcomed, although I stress, as other hon. Members have, the need to relate this to the number of children in a family. I should like to know from the Undersecretary later in the debate whether there is any possibility of a special addition for one-parent families on supplementary benefit.

I noticed that the Secretary of State referred to Peter Townsend's excellent critique—I think that those were her words—of the guaranteed maintenance allowance, and I endorse what she said about the shortcomings of the Finer GMA proposals, but I remind the right hon. Lady that in his excellent critique Peter Townsend goes on to advocate not only the need for the child benefit scheme which we now have but, in addition, an allowance for the care of children, for those who stay at home to look after children are unpaid, except, of course, for those receiving attendance allowance. Yet a tax allowance has been available to husbands irrespective of whether their wives have children or other dependants to care for. We have the invalid care allowance as a possible prototype for a similar child care allowance, and I hope to hear the Under-Secretary's views on that and the possibility of such a benefit being introduced.

There has been reference also to day care facilities. It is my experience in my part of Wales that day care facilities are virtually non-existent in rural towns and villages. I hope that the DHSS, the Welsh Office and the Scottish Office, when they come to examine their policy for the under-fives as a whole, will look especially at the shortfall in day care provision and the shortfall in child minder provision, especially in Wales—certainly in our rural counties—which has been revealed to me in recent answers to Questions.

I turn now to the housing issues which were highlighted in the Finer Report. Over half the total of unmarried mothers and one-third of separated wives on supplementary benefit were not classed as householders. A far higher proportion of one-parent families relative to other sections of the population are being forced into the private rented sector, at high rents and with poor housing conditions. We see both from the Finer Report and from other surveys that among one-parent families there is a greater tendency to become homeless than there is among two-parent families. A much smaller proportion of one-parent families own their own homes, and acute difficulties arise for the unmarried mother who, in most cases, has no independent accommodation in which to start her family. Similar difficulties confront one-parent families at the point of marriage breakdown when the ownership and occupation of the marital home comes into question.

Widows usually have the least problem in housing. The transfer of a tenancy in local authority housing tends to be automatic in most cases. But this does not happen with separated or divorced women, and all too often at the point of marital breakdown they are forced to leave with their children to look elsewhere for totally unsatisfactory alternative accommodation. I have encountered many bitter cases of that kind in which, partly because the district councils in my part of Wales cover a rural area, there is no accommodation made available for homeless persons in such circumstances. There is one piece of accommodation which is made available—the old Part III accommodation of the social service department—but that accommodation is totally unsatisfactory. Thus, the one-parent family can all too often be made homeless at the point of marital breakdown, with no adequate accommodation whatever available.

The position of the unmarried mother looking for independent accommodation of her own is especially difficult in my area. As the House knows, a high proportion of our housing stock is vacant for most of the year. In my constituency, 20 per cent. of the housing stock stands idle, apart from the occasional weekend during the summer. We see one-parent families being let privately-owned flats during the winter months and being thrown out at the beginning of the summer period when the accommodation is required for tourists. This grave accommodation problem is faced not only by one-parent families in urban areas, but by those people in tourist areas where there is an excess housing stock which is being under-utilised and which is not available to families who wish to live in the area permanently.

The Committee recommended that housing advice should be improved. I have been very concerned about the links between the social service and housing departments of district councils and about how often there is no liaison between them. There is a strong case for social service departments to appoint specialist housing officers to liaise effectively with housing departments. This would do more than anything to improve the standard of housing advice available to one-parent families.

A number of the Finer Committee's recommendations on homelessness were accepted by the Government in Welsh Office Circular No. 34/74. The Government should have included paragraph 665, which recommended that local authorities should be advised that evicting tenants simply because they had rent arrears was no longer tolerable. The careful wording of the circular indicates that the Government have not been prepared to come out as strongly on this issue as the Finer Committee. I hope the Minister will say something about this matter when he winds up.

One-parent families are at a particular risk of becoming homeless. Mr. Brian Glastonbury, in a survey of South Wales and Western England, showed that 30 per cent. of the homeless were one-parent families and that marital breakdown was the primary cause of temporary homelessness in 36 per cent. of the sample.

Apart from these people, there is also hidden or concealed homelessness. Many families in private rented accommodation regard themselves as being insecure in their tenancies. Many non-householders—the front room families—also regard themselves as being homeless.

The recommendations on homelessness may have been accepted by the Government in their circular, but the adoption of circulars by district councils has been extremely uneven, and that applies not only to one-parent families, but to homeless people generally. The Government, the Welsh Office and the Department of Health and Social Security should monitor carefully the implementation of housing circulars, especially the advice given on the points system some years ago and this most recent circular on homelessness.

There is still a lack of liaison between local housing departments and social service departments, and local councils are not being made aware of potential homeless cases. They cannot act before the crisis occurs and eviction takes place. There is room in the new Session of Parliament for legislation on homelessness to place the burden firmly on the shoulders of district councils to take responsibility for the homeless in their areas. This is still a grey area and there is far too much imprecision in the legislative responsibility for homelessness.

The Secretary of State for Wales has told me that in Circular 42/75 advice has been given to local authorities about recognising the need to provide more accommodation for small households, including one-parent families, and I welcome the special yardstick amounts given to such cases. However, in allocating new house building priorities and schemes submitted by district councils, the Government should scrutinise carefully the extent to which they have taken account of the housing needs of one-parent families.

This debate takes place at a time of severe public expenditure restrictions. Some of the recommendations I have highlighted, particularly on homelessness, could be carried out effectively without any increase in public expenditure. When we talk about who pays for our economic crisis and for the delay in recommending a substantial income maintenance programme for one-parent families, we must conclude that it is the deprived, the under-privileged, one-parent families, people on low incomes and the homeless who will be called upon to bear the brunt.

There is no sign from the Government of a serious re-allocation of priorities or of a serious decision to re-allocate spending to social policy. However many red booklets may be produced by the Central Policy Review Staff advocating a new joint approach to social policy, they will be less than useless unless we have a firm commitmeent from the Government to re-allocate resources to social policy. At the moment, we are suffering cutbacks in the work of social service departments, and it is likely that the problems we have been talking about in the debate will be severely aggravated this winter by the Government's actions.

6.47 p.m.

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

There can have been few occasions in this Parliament when there has been such a unanimity of view as we have heard during this debate. There has been scarcely a dissenting voice. Everyone agrees that the report was worth while and is worthy of speedy implementation and we regret that, because of circumstances of which we are all aware, the recommendations have not been carried out speedily.

I wish to express my appreciation of the fact that, after a very long time, the Government have provided an opportunity to debate this vital report. Some hon. Members have said this is the first debate on the report, but, strictly speaking, it is the third. There have been two much shorter debates. They were no substitute for a full debate, but we should set the record straight.

The right hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker) gave us an interesting analysis of the decision-making processes of government. He said that Royal Commissions and committees of inquiry were set up to delay and that, once they had reported, there was often considerable delay in implementation. I am sure the Government are aware that even if there were a series of departmental pigeonholes awaiting this report, there are many people inside and outside the House who will not allow the report to gather more dust than is absolutely necessary. There will be continuous agitation for the reforms advocated by the report to be translated into real decisions.

The Government must somehow build a bridge between the words and the good intentions on the one hand and the firm decisions which must be taken on the other. The campaign on behalf of one-parent families has a number of advantages. One clear advantage is that it shows there to be little apparent dispute between the political parties or the different wings within them that this report should be acted upon. There are many obstacles which must be overcome. A number of specific recommendations have already been implemented.

In the past 15 months not enough action has been taken, however. Almost everyone wants the Government to accept the report, as they have, but we also hope that they will translate into effective action the recommendations which spring from the laborious efforts of the Finer Committee. We all know that there is a long way to go before we reach that stage.

The late Sir Morris Finer said in a seminar organised by the All-Party Group for One-Parent Families that the report was likely to be long-term. How right he was! He said that it was to be educative, and he emphasised the complexity of his recommendations and the need for them to be given time to be absorbed. He said that it would be regrettable if the Goverment rushed at them like a bull at a gate, and that is one accusation which we certainly cannot make of the Government.

The Government have had a long time to reflect on the recommendations. My hon. Friends and I hope that when the economy is ultimately on the upturn, one of the groups to gain will be the one-parent families. There are obstacles, and one of them is the departmentalism of British Government.

The Finer Committee made a number of enemies when it made its report. The report was radical and innovative, and not all Government Departments welcome innovation. I believe that in certain instances Government Departments will have cause to regret the report's recommendations, because those Departments would lose their jurisdiction over specific areas, and no organisation likes to lose its autonomy in that way. These factors are certainly no recipe for early legislation.

It is vital that there should be a campaign which is sufficient to overcome any entrenched bureaucratic positions. Secondly, a great obstacle which must be overcome is the potential hostility which exists, perhaps in the House, but certainly outside, and which feels that somehow one-parent families are less deserving than other groups. Statistics show the undoubted need for swift action. The report says that its examination of the financial circumstances of one-parent families showed that they were in general much worse off than two-parent families. The need is undeniable, but whilst some groups can gain favourable treatment from the Government because their cause can evoke considerable public sympathy, the campaigners outside the House are more than aware that their cause for one-parent families is not universally accepted as just.

There are those who regard one-parent families, except those of widows, as being to blame for the situation in which they find themselves. Victorian morality still prevails, and many people who might be quite innocent of the charge can be accused of immorality and of having contributed to the failure of a marriage. In some way this attitude weakens the position of the cause we are supporting. The stigma that is attached to the separated and divorced and, in some cases, to the widow is still too great. The greatest stigma of all is attached to the unmarried mother.

We must consider the situation of the children and ensure that any hostility to the parent is not passed on to them. We have been told very often that our greatest national asset is oil, but one could advance the proposition that it is the youth of the country. Unless we can provide the right framework within which it can grow up and develop, unless we can provide adequate schooling and housing and the proper financial security for the family setting, the future cost to the nation will be incalculable. There are about 1 million dependent children in one-parent families.

Our social security legislation has failed dismally in respect of one-parent families. These families are at a great disadvantage vis-à-vis other sections of the community, and one disadvantage often compounds another. These families represent the largest and most disadvantaged minority in the country.

There are other obstacles. We are living in a society in which industrial and political muscle is an essential prerequisite for success. Until recently, the campaign on behalf of one-parent families has not been characterised by any great degree of success. I must however compliment the Finer Joint Action Committee, which has merged together the various campaigning groups. By so doing it has provided a representative basis for its campaign, bringing together the disparate groups involved in this issue.

This organisation has close liaison with the all-party group in Parliament, and its researches and its authoritative approach to the problems of one-parent families do the campaign a great deal of good. It is in the business of educating the public, Members of Parliament and the Civil Service. It is only when the public are attuned to the views of the organisation that we can expect swift decisions.

Another obstacle, which has been mentioned repeatedly, is the economic state of the country. A knock-out blow to any campaign on behalf of one-parent families is the fact that the economy is unable to sustain the demands that are being made. One-parent families have been neglected for decades, indeed for centuries. They have had to wait four-and-half years for the report, and very little action was taken while the report was being prepared. They have been waiting for a year since the report was made and now they will be asked in the national interest to make further sacrifices.

I agree that there are many expensive recommendations in the report, and that at present these recommendations may be impracticable. Perhaps we may be told what strategy is being devised to replace the recommendations for the guaranteed maintenance allowance in the Finer Report. Many people have knocked the concept of the GMA. If it is not to be introduced, we must know what efforts are being made to devise an alternative model, and at the moment no success on that score has been communicated to back benchers. That does not mean that I would not support any measure that would cost the Government money. Clearly, the one-parent families have as much claim on the diminishing cake as other groups. It would be wrong to say that just because some of the recommendations cost money we would support the Government in not implementing them. Many recommendations would cost little or nothing. The Finer Joint Action Committee listed two dozen reforms which would cost the Government very little. I believe that the Government are responsibly trying to carry them out. They are pointing in the way of the 230 recommendations. The cost to the Exchequer of carrying out many of them would be limited.

What feasibility studies have been undertaken by the various Government Departments of the recommendations that would not be too costly? How successful is the co-ordination between the various Departments with responsibility for implementing the Finer Report? Which Departments are lagging behind? What local authorities are oblivious to the fact that the Finer Committee reported over a year ago? A number of hon. Members have mentioned the housing problem in particular, perhaps because for those representing an urban constituency it is the problem that we face most when dealing with one-parent families. I received a number of telephone calls from one-parent families yesterday urging me to speak on their behalf in this debate. There are so many problems that I have time to deal only briefly with the housing problem. As Finer said: Second only to financial difficulties…housing is the largest single problem of one-parent families. Earlier speakers have pointed out the difficulty of one-parent families obtaining council accommodation, perhaps because they are more mobile than other sections of the community, and so do not qualify. Moreover, because they lack a partner it is more difficult for them to acquire the necessary points to qualify for a house. A high percentage of one-parent families live in the privately rented sector, many of them paying very high rents. Many are billeted with friends and relatives, many live in condemned houses and many are homeless.

Action is necessary. Many groups in our community have a strong case for council accommodation, so when I urge the provision of more housing it is not just for one-parent families but for other groups which desire council accommodation. However, a high priority in new council building should be for one-parent families. There should be a change in the points scheme. Recommendation 149 of the Finer Report says Where points systems are used in the allocation of housing, a lone parent should qualify for the same number of points as a married couple with a comparable family. There must be changes in the law of property. Government bodies must view with greater sympathy those one-parent families in rent arrears. The Supplementary Benefits Commission should give greater assistance to one-parent families for the furnishing of their homes.

There should be much more assistance for one-parent families who are owner-occupiers. The building societies have not done enough in aiding this sector of the community. Local authorities should not insist that a separation order or divorce is obtained before transferring a tenancy. A tenancy could be transferred as soon as marriage breakdown could be proved. Many of the recommendations on housing could be implemented at minimal cost. I look to the Department of the Environment to continue making the right decisions. A number of steps can be taken. Much more can be done, and I hope will be done.

Many one-parent families are not aware even of their present rights. We are talking of extending their rights. If we could be satisfied that the existing benefits, mean or meagre though they are, were fully known to one-parent families, perhaps we could be reasonably happy. My local authority produces a newspaper, much criticised by the local Conservatives. It has devoted two of its pages to a pull-out supplement giving advice to one-parent families on their rights in social security, social services, housing and other areas. Much more could be done by others in this regard.

The Government have a record in combating poverty of which, despite Opposition protests, they can be proud. In many ways they are like a general commanding troops who are not there. The Government, trying to plug the holes left by our system of social security, have been handicapped by severe financial constraints, but in many areas they have a record at which they can look with satisfaction. They have begun to make a movement on one-parent families. I hope that in the not-too-distant future we shall see the disadvantaged, worthy group with which the report deals receive the kind of attention from the Government that it so richly deserves.

7.5 p.m.

Mr. Fergus Montgomery (Altrincham and Sale)

I hope that the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) will forgive me if I do not dwell too much on what he said. He made a good speech, except for the end, when he suddenly produced a great deal of praise for his Government. If he is pleased with what they have done so far, he must be easily satisfied.

The debate started badly with the speech by the Secretary of State for Social Services. The right hon. Lady could not resist making political gibes.

The subject should be one that rises above politics. All of us who take part in the debate should set our minds to ways in which we can help one-parent families and should not try to score cheap political points. I thought of the difference there would have been if the right hon. Lady had been sitting on this side of the House. If she had been in Opposition, we should have heard the emotional speech to which we were treated so many times when we were in Government. Now, as a member of the Cabinet and Secretary of State for Social Services, when she has the power to do something to help one-parent families the right hon. Lady produced only a mouse of a speech. She is tinkering with the problem.

During the Summer Recess I visited the Gingerbread Group in my constituency. If I had had any doubts before about the problems of one-parent families, I received ample proof of those problems from the talks I had there. The problem is immense. More than a million children are growing up with one parent trying to be mother and father to them.

Statistics show that there are 620,000 one-parent families in this country. We have 635 Members of Parliament. That means that on average there are 1,000 one-parent families in each constituency. That no doubt explains the enormous number of inquiries that the Department of Health and Social Security has had to deal with since the publication of the Finer Report.

I read an interesting article by Judith Cook in The Guardian of 7th April 1975. in which she said: A request for an interview with Barbara Castle on the subject"— the Finer Report— was met with a letter which pointed out to me that Mrs. Castle could see nobody unless they came from her own constituency. My query as to whether this meant that in future all journalists requesting interviews would have to move house and home to Blackburn therefore produced a worried gentleman on the telephone who said that he was sorry. 'We get so many letters on the subject that when I read the words "Finer Committee" I sent you the standard reply.'". As Judith Cook remarked, this was a revealing response, but to date nobody at the Department of Health and Social Security has found time to discuss the matter. That shows the size of the problem. The Department has been so overwhelmed by people inquiring about the Finer Report that a standard reply has been prepared.

The Committee under the chairmanship of the late Sir Morris Finer took over four years to produce its report. The delay was explained by Sir Morris at the annual conference of the British Association of Social Workers in 1974 by the fact that the central question for the Committee had not been thoroughly examined since the Elizabethan Poor Law. The Committee also reckoned that it would take at least four years for its recommendations to be implemented. Time and again speakers on both sides of the House have spoken of the inordinate delay that it appears there will be before anything of help to one-parent families can be done.

However, I hope that some interim measures can be implemented, because no one can doubt that there are cases of real poverty among one-parent families. About 250,000 of them exist on supplementary benefits, and about 43,000 families living below the level of the scale rates are not receiving benefits. That would be bad enough if we had stable prices, but with inflation running at about 25 per cent. a year the plight of these families causes great concern.

To ease this problem, the Committee has recommended a guaranteed maintenance allowance which would consist of two elements—first, a cash benefit in respect of the child paid as of right and, secondly, a means-tested benefit which would encourage people to work and which would taper off completely when the income reached the level of average male earnings.

The right hon. Lady seems to have rejected the guaranteed maintenance allowance. One of her reasons was cost. She said at a meeting when the Finer Report was first published that it would cost about £250 million a year. But I remind her that the report has said that whereas the gross cost would be about £240 million, the net cost was estimated to be about £72 million because of the savings there would be in supplementary benefit, tax revenue and maintenance recovery. Therefore, the amount being discussed is a great deal less than some people have given us cause to think.

We all realise the economic situation and that Government expenditure has to be limited. But I want to pass on some of the views put to me by Gingerbread in my constituency. Undoubtedly, income is the principal factor. It is the item which causes greatest concern to one-parent families. For many deserted and divorced women, the collection of maintenance is another problem. Some can never be sure whether their husbands have paid. There is the similar problem of the husband determined to avoid responsibility, or the husband who has deserted his legitimate wife and set up a second home which he has to maintain as well. There is the man who is determined at all costs to avoid his responsibilities and disappears. Having to go to court looking for money that is not there causes serious problems for many of these women.

It is much easier to budget if one knows exactly how much money one will have at the end of the week. The uncertainty whether the money has arrived causes undue aggravation for many one-parent families. I hope that when the economic situation improves the guaranteed maintenance allowance will be implemented.

However, in the meantime, perhaps some thought could be given to certain other aspects. One point put to me by Gingerbread was the question why tax concessions could not be allowed on the maintenance for children. Members of Gingerbread feel that it is wrong that at the moment the maintenance should be lumped together in the income of single parents for tax purposes. Their complaint is that mothers are awarded money for their children then find that 35 per cent. of it is taken back by the Government, who then allow the husband to claim it back.

It would also be helpful if the single-parent families could be allowed to make a claim for tax relief for the payment of registered child minders. People on social security who send their children to nursery schools get their nursery fees paid by the Department of Health and Social Security, and it is important that we help the heads of one-parent families to go out to work rather than penalise them for so doing.

Many of these people go out to work not just for financial reasons but also because it gets them out of the house and gives them an extra interest. Nothing can be worse for the man or woman than that, as the head of a one-parent family, he or she has to spend all the time at home. By going out to work, they meet other people, get company, and add a great deal more to their lives.

It is important that these people should have more incentive to work. The amount which a supplementary benefit recipient can earn without reduction in benefit is to be raised from £2 to £4 a week as from 17th November. This improvement will be of some help, but surely the earnings rule could be further upgraded in view of the inflationary spiral. This is one of the rays of hope we got from the right hon. Lady, who told us that she is looking at this aspect. I hope that fairly soon she will be able to tell us that the amount that people can earn without having their benefit touched will be substantially increased.

Under our present system, it is possible that someone who is a single parent could find himself working a 40-hour week but at the end of that week living on less than he would have got on supplementary benefit by the time that the national insurance deductions, fares and so on have been deducted.

We all realise that although this increase takes place on 17th November and they will be allowed to earn £4, nevertheless after 17th November for every £1 they earn over £4, £1 will be lopped off their social security benefits. I am glad that at last this aspect is being looked at, and I am delighted that the right hon. Lady was able to announce that the cohabitation rule is being looked at.

The Finer Committee stated that it would like to see the cohabitation rule relaxed but not abolished. At the moment, the rule is preventing many who might otherwise legitimately supplement their family income from using their property and working at home to care for their children from doing so. When I was young, many people took in lodgers, usually unmarried mothers, widows or even divorcees. No one then seemed to think anything of it. But suddenly it seems that there is something terrible in a woman taking in a man as paying guest in the house. This situation is causing concern, and I am delighted that the rule is now being seriously considered.

I have already pointed out that many of these people are anxious to go out to work and to support themselves and their children. Surely we should encourage them to do so. As has been pointed out, more nursery places are urgently required to enable single-parent families to become independent and self-supporting. There are also problems involved with children of school age. Where the parent goes out to work, the crunch comes on the question of who is to look after the children in school holidays. Thought should be given by the Government to encouraging local education authorities to allow the use of certain schools as day-care centres in the school holidays.

There also seems to be a shortage of women available for child-care out of school hours. This causes great problems, particularly for the male single parent. In Gingerbread in my constituency, there is a teacher who has had to reduce his working hours in order to be home in time for his children after school, but this has reduced his salary by about 20 per cent.

In the Greater Manchester area, day nursery places are in tremendous demand. I am told that people are put on a waiting list and when a place is available the next person must then try to find a job. If he or she fails to find one quickly, it could mean the forfeiture of that nursery place. It is like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle all having to be fitted into place at the same time.

Whilst the heads of one-parent families generally have great problems, it is the parents with school age children who find it most difficult to make adequate arrangements. Many, particularly women, feel that, by the time the youngest child has reached the age of five, they are psychologically ready to return to work but then find that, because of lack of day-care facilities, it is impossible to return to the kind of work for which they were trained. There are few opportunities of suitable jobs which coincide exactly with school hours and school holidays. This is why I have stressed the importance of improving day-care centres.

The question of finance is always a problem. We have to keep things in perspective. If a one-parent family should break up, the children have to be taken into care. My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) emphasised this point when he told the House that the Director for Social Services for Camden had estimated last January that the cost of keeping a child in care was £82 a week. That is why I believe it would be much better for the nation to do something practical for one-parent families now. Evidence has shown that one-parent families suffer severe poverty, are often last in the queue for housing, suffer social isolation and risk their children falling behind in school and growing up socially maladjusted.

That is why I hope that from this debate we shall see action being taken on the principle enshrined in the report. But what chiefly matters in such situations is to assist and protect dependent children, all of whom should be treated alike, irrespective of their mothers' circumstances. I asked Gingerbread in my constituency to let me have its views. In the House we read and talk about the problem, but it is organisations such as Gingerbread which have knowledge of the problems of people bringing up families on their own.

I have tried to put some of the views before the House that Gingerbread has put before me. I cannot sum up the situation better than to quote the final paragraph of the note which it sent me, which reads: These are some of the problems encountered by one-parent families which, when added to the emotional pressures of bringing up children alone, often cause social and mental breakdown within families. If the Government can help us over any of these problems it will help us to help ourselves. That is why I hope that at the end of of the day the Minister will be able to announce measures to encourage these people to help themselves.

7.22 p.m.

Miss Jo Richardson (Barking)

I join those who have already spoken in welcoming the opportunity for a full debate on the Finer Report. I know that we have had a chance before now to make reference to it, but we have never had such a long period in which to examine thoroughly the recommendations of the Committee.

I add my voice to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) in the tribute which he paid to the Finer Joint Action Committee, the umbrella organisation of many other bodies. It has done a marvellous job over the past year or two since the Finer Report was published in co-ordinating the activities of the various groups of deprived people and of interested people. The various organisations have brought the nature of the problem not only to Members of Parliament, but to the general public. It is important that the public, many of whom may not be single-parent families and in no way deprived, should have examples of what is happening kept very much in the forefront of their minds. They should know how other sections of the community are feeling and thinking.

Although I welcome the warm and sympathetic tone of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, I must say that she did not bring very much of an answer to the Finer Committee's recommendations. We are naturally glad about one or two of the concessions at which she seemed to be hinting, but I hoped that she could go further.

We all know that the Government are facing severe economic problems and severe pressure in all areas of public expenditure, but one-parent families are not merely families in isolation living in little places of their own; they are a public problem. If we have a public problem, we must consider spending public money so as to ensure that those in a deprived situation are better looked after. Various references have been made to the inadequacy of housing of many single-parent families where they are deprived of an income, where they are unable to work because of the ages of their children, where they are faced with all the problems which face people who have to claim benefits and who know little about claiming them.

I have found that one of the biggest single difficulties which face our constituents is not the claiming of benefits but finding out what can be claimed, where it is to be claimed and one's rights in such matters. We have all had experience of many cases in which we have been able to point in the right direction and where we have found that some of our constituents have been unfairly disadvantaged through not knowing what to claim.

On the whole, one-parent families are a lonely and terrified set of mums and dads. They are deprived of the comfort of a partner in their home. They are deprived of someone with whom to share responsibility in bringing up their children. I believe it is our duty, as well as something which should come from our hearts, to ensure that one-parent families are adequately provided for in terms of income, housing and child-care. We must ensure that they can live decent lives as of right and not as of charity.

I shall not rehearse more than one or two of the report's recommendations, many of which have been adequately dealt with this evening. I mention in particular the guaranteed maintenance allowance referred to by the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale (Mr. Montgomery). As I understood it, the hon. Gentleman was in favour of a guaranteed maintenance allowance, but I am not. Anything which involves an unacceptable means test is not something we should be pushing. I hope that the Government will be thinking instead of a different kind of special allowance to be paid as of right to one-parent families, and not in the way of a general maintenance allowance, irrespective of its cost.

I am not concerned so much with the cost of the guaranteed maintenance allowance as with the kind of allowance which it represents. Any kind of special allowance costs money, and we all know that there must be some cost if we are to cover something that is worth while. That must be so if we think in cash terms. There would be an undoubted saving with a special allowance in terms of supplementary benefit, housing rebates and family income supplements.

We must not overlook the indirect gain from a reduction in the number of children of one-parent families who are in care. I believe that about 6,000 children a year from one-parent families are taken into the care of local authorities. To think of the matter purely in cash terms makes it a monumental figure, but to think of it in social terms makes it an even worse problem. We do not want that situation to continue. I know that the one-parent families whom I know personally—I believe this applies to the majority of such families—would prefer to bring up their children. They do not wish them to be put into care. They are anxious not only to be the one-parent mother or father but the one-parent mother and father. They want to try to create a rounded family unit.

I make one special reference to a recommendation which I had hoped the Government would have accepted. As far as I can see, it would cost very little. I refer to the recommendation concerning cohabitation. The Finer Committee recommends that the operation of the cohabitation rule should be amended so that when a benefit is threatened to be removed from a claimant, the claimant shall know precisely the grounds upon which that benefit is to be withdrawn, to enable the matter, if she disagrees with the decision, to go immediately before a tribunal. That would be a change which the Department could introduce immediately without any great cost.

I am becoming more and more surprised and more and more sick about the issue of cohabitation. Earlier this afternoon we were told by my right hon. Friend that the Supplementary Benefits Commission was holding an inquiry and would produce a report to her by the end of the year.

I thought we might even be told that we would have the report by the end of next week. We have now been waiting for months for the results of the inquiry. The committee has not met that many times or taken a great deal of evidence. Almost a year ago I recall asking the Department when the report would be published, and I was told that it would not be until the New Year. That was a reference to the New Year of 1975. We are now fast approaching the New Year 1976. The fact that an inquiry is set up into the operation of the cohabitation rule is tacit acceptance that there is something wrong and that it needs examination.

I take the view that even if the inquiry is taking a long time, the Department in the meantime should take care to guide its officers to deal with claimants in the most sympathetic way. However, that has not been happening. There are good, kind, sympathetic and dedicated investigation officers, but equally in a large number of cases investigating officers are suspicious. They have been known to withdraw benefit on what appears to be mere suspicion. The Department should send out a special instruction to its officers on the lines, "We have reason to believe that you are not operating the system in the best possible way and we want you now to do so."

I go much further than the Finer Committee went, because I should like to see the rule abolished. I do not believe that we should tinker with the situation any longer. It is an indignity for people to have to undergo the present system. I am referring not only to one-parent families but to others who are forced to suffer indignity. I shall be campaigning for total abolition of the cohabitation rule.

I welcome this opportunity to debate the subject of the one-parent family, but I am disappointed that the Secretary of State has not been able to give more encouragement. I know that the Government face pressing needs in various directions to spend money at this difficult time economically. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South hoped for an upswing in the economy and thought that the one-parent family should be the first to benefit. However, I hope that we do not have to wait that long before some action is taken, because the expected upswing may not be that soon.

If the Government are seeking suggestions about where they can obtain money to help one-parent families and other deprived sections of the community, I suggest that they cut defence spending and use that money for more social purposes.

7.33 p.m.

Mr. David Penhaligon (Truro)

It is worthy of comment that the Finer Report, which has been much appreciated in the speeches so far in this debate, has taken six years to get this far. I must quickly add that It has taken six years to get this far and no further. Many of the serious proposals in the report appear to be receiving little practical support from those sections of the House that matter most.

During my year as a Member of Parliament a substantial number of visits to my constituency surgery have been made by single-parent families. Their main concern is finance, a subject mentioned by them above all others. When I have tried to pursue the Government on finance for these families, I have met with varying degrees of success.

One of my constituents, a young woman with a small child, decided to take a job which involved her being away from home 20 hours per week. She thought she would take up her old job as a shorthand typist with a former employer, a local solicitor. She arranged for somebody to look after her child during the day. However, when she went into the matter she discovered that even though she was working 20 hours a week, she would be no better off than if she were to stay at home and do precisely nothing.

We have heard that the disregard will be increased from £2 to £4, but the recent increases in bus fares in my constituency, which of course is rural, will account for a third of the disregarded increase. Therefore, we have a system in which a young person who is willing to work 20 hours per week has no incentive to take a job, because she will be no better off. In other words, by increasing the disregard the situation will be made a little better for some, but it will not remove the trouble for a large number of people who wish to work.

I suggest that there should be a tapering disregard which will allow the benefits to reduce as the income gradually increases. We must have a system in which those who wish to make an effort to solve their own problems are allowed to do so. Surely difficulties should not be placed in their path.

A number of hon. Members have drawn attention to the child benefit allowance. I have tried to initiate a discussion in the House on whether the allowance should be taxed. To my amazement, I have found it almost impossible to obtain a debate on whether benefits should be taxed. We have heard much praise of non-means-tested benefits and I agree with what has been said on that matter, but praise has also been given to the fact that the benefit is not taxed. I fail to understand that argument. The Secretary of State mentioned the number of people who pay no income tax and suggested that through the allowance system those concerned would be better off. However, one constituent complained to me that, because her maintenance was taxed as unearned income, she was taxed at a higher rate.

Another problem which must be considered when debating one-parent families is the whole subject of housing. We learn from the excellent literature which has been sent to hon. Members by outside bodies—it is true to say that we should not be half so well informed if we had only the Finer Report and not the other excellent literature that is available elsewhere—that 65 per cent. of one-parent families occupy shared accommodation and that 17 per cent., or one in six, are in owner-occupied dwellings.

The report refers to the large number of homeless people. I suspect that this may be one of the tragedies of the situation that has evolved over the past 16 months. The number of homeless is larger than the report outlines. If the limited experience of my area is anything to go by, the situation is becoming worse. Forward-looking people in my community have pressed the local authority to give automatic joint tenancies for its accommodation. Although that does not strike me as a revolutionary approach, that proposal was nevertheless turned down.

The effect is that if a couple occupying a council house fall out—a tremendous number of us fall out with our other halves from time to time—if the wife leaves the husband, as often happens, unless the wife is legally separated or divorced, the council will do nothing about deciding who should occupy the property. Often the husband lives in the council property on his own while the wife is homeless, or at best living with her parents in cramped, overcrowded conditions, with all the psychological and mental problems that that creates.

Many hon. Members can quote case histories, describing people's incomes, how they spend them, and how little remains. I have heard of cases from Cornwall, Inverness, Cumberland and London. Those who voted themselves by a substantial majority a pay rise of £1,250 a year must wonder how these people manage, let alone why some of them are short of money at the end of the week. Hon. Members must wonder how these people manage at all.

There are 620,000 families in the category described, and 1,080,000 children are involved, making a total of 1,700,000 people, or 3,000 per parliamentary constituency. We know that 43 per cent. of these people live on supplementary benefit, while those living at or about suppletary benefit level form a higher percentage.

It is not good enough for the House to say that it will do virtually nothing. We ignore the social problems created by the situation at our peril. I beg the Government to find some money with which to alleviate the problem.

Much criticism has been made of means-tested benefits. I fought several elections critising the 46 means-tested benefits. If the financial situation is as appalling as we are told, I suggest that perhaps the 47th means-tested benefit might provide short-term help for these people until the great upturn in the economy occurs.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)

The closing speeches are due to begin at 9.10 p.m. A number of hon. Members wish to take part in the debate. If their speeches can be limited to eight minutes each, everyone who is anxious to take part can do so. That is fair.

7.45 p.m.

Mr. James Wellbeloved (Erith and Crayford)

The hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) said that a large percentage of those attending his advice centre are one-parent families. That has been my experience during the 10 years in which I have been a Member of Parliament. A substantial number of such people who appear at my advice centre are struggling with their supplementary benefit or are experiencing difficulties connected with the tragedy of the responsibility of bringing up a family. One of the highest priorities facing the Government is the question of finding adequate ways of bringing succour to the one-parent family.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) that we do not always receive public sympathy when we discuss one-parent families, and the need to assist them and provide a decent standard for their children. There are grave questions in the minds of many of our constituents about unmarried mothers and people who have been through the divorce courts. I am not qualified to judge these matters, however much members of the public feel that their prejudice qualifies them to do so. As a result of death, the breakdown of marriage, or of sex before marriage, there are about 1 million children who should be the cause of concern to Parliament and the country. The Finer Joint Action Committee has done a first-class job in presenting the briefs to Members of Parliament on the many aspects of the Finer Report, and amplifying the many recommendations with up-to-date illustrations of the plight of these families.

In reply to the debate the Minister should concentrate a few moments on the recommendations set out in the joint action committee's brief to hon. Members, which indicates much that could be done to implement the Finer Committee's recommendations involving little or no public expenditure. All Members of Parliament recognise at this critical moment in our history, in view of our economic crisis, that there is a limit on what we can do. We must not however allow the economic crisis confronting us to persuade us to turn our backs on the human crisis confronting us in respect of the plight of the million children of one-parent families. I share the joint action committee's view that there is much which could be done while involving little or no public expenditure.

I listened with interest to the Secretary of State. I paid special attention to her promise that the amount of part-time earnings taken into account for reckonable income in the assessment of supplementary benefits will be raised from £2 to £4 per week next month. I take it from what she said that we can expect a further increase in tht limit within a reasonable time. The Government will experience no difficulty with any part of the House in enacting legislation, if necessary, to give effect to that hint of what is to come.

Even if the limit for reckonable income on part-time earnings was raised to £15 a week from the £4 per week which is promised for next month, that will not be the end of the story. Before people can earn money to be disregarded, or regarded, in the assessment of supplementary benefit, they must obtain a job and find somewhere to put their young children. Therefore the greatest priority now, given the constraints on public expenditure, is the provision of day-care centres. That could be done with a minimal expenditure of public funds.

Trouble arises for the single parent when children are at home from school during the holidays. There is no reason why the school, or part of it, should not be made available. There would be no increase in public expenditure. The building is there and the caretaker's costs are already met from local authority funds. Rooms within the school building could be made available for Gingerbread and other voluntary organisations to organise day care centres for the children of parents who have to work during school holidays. That is one positive suggestion that, given Government encouragement, every local authority could take practical steps to implement.

An enormous amount of accommodation is available in church halls, British Legion halls and halls belonging to similar organisations. Those halls could provide accommodation at virtually no cost to the Exchequer. Day care for the children could be organised on a voluntary basis so that single-parent mothers and fathers could earn a little money. If those mothers and fathers were enabled to leave the home environment and its appalling sense of isolation to take a job even for a few hours a day or a few hours a week, their horizons would be broadened.

Local authorities, voluntary organisations and churches which have control of accommodation have a vital rôle to play. Springing up throughout the country are the organisations of lone parents who come together for mutual aid, comfort and support in overcoming their problems. They, too, have a vital rôle to play, and the expenditure involved would be minimal. If the Government were to make a small grant to organisations such as Gingerbread those organisations could extend their activities by organising local groups to institute self-help programmes for day care centres, with the co-operation of the bodies I have mentioned.

In the early part of her speech my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State commented on the vote earlier this year on the earnings rule and half hinted that had it not been for that perhaps more money might have been available for one-parent families. I do not accept that argument. I recall that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that if the House were to agree to a change in the earnings rule he would raise the money from those who could best afford to pay it. I would prefer the Chancellor to do that rather than for the Government to use changes in the earnings rule as an excuse for not doing what is vitally necessary for one-parent families.

The hon. Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) twitted my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mrs. Hayman) about raising revenue from those who are in receipt of tax relief. One useful way of raising revenue would be to alter the tax allowances available to people such as Sir John Davis of the Rank Organisation who manages to get tax relief on at least some of his many wives. That would be a suitable way to raise a little revenue, a way which my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield and all Labour Members would take great pleasure in supporting. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will tell us how much revenue might be available if the Govrnment were to take that desirable step.

7.55 p.m.

Mrs. Lynda Chalker (Wallasey)

We all welcome the Finer Committee's report and ever since its publication we have been eagerly awaiting a debate on one-parent families. There is no doubt in my mind that income is the basic problem. That problem may not be soluble in terms of a grant to single-parent families at the present time, but we can at least do some chipping away at it. The hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved) is right to say that the vote in the earnings rule has nothing to do with our failure to help one-parent families. Seven months after the Finer Committee's report was published last year a Government White Paper entitled "Public Expenditure up to 1978–79" was issued. It contains a reference to an increase in real terms of £1,200,000 in the health and social security budget but no mention of one-parent families. It was no answer for the Secretary of State to reply as she did to the earlier intervention.

I am concerned about the individual families who come into my surgery week after week. Last Saturday a girl who visited me said that she had a weekly income of £16.91 and weekly outgoings of £17.79. She had a roof over her head but, although her husband had assured her that he had paid up the mortgage, when he left she found that she was in arrears with it. She is faced with the problem of multiple debt build-up which faces all girls and some men in that position. Neither she nor her building society local office knew—as the Supplementary Benefits Commission has advised—that it was possible for her to make interest-only repayments on her mortgage. I hope that the Government will press all building societies to allow one-parent families to have interest-only repayments on mortgages. That would cost a little money but it would prevent these people from getting into even worse difficulties.

In Greater London, 41 per cent. of homeless families are one-parent families. Much of the one-parent family homeless-ness comes about because of the old-fashioned view that the private sector one-parent families are irresponsible and will not look after the roof and the surroundings in which they live. Every hon. Member has a duty to educate landlords and landladies that just because there are children one-parent families should not be turned down for a possible tenancy.

I am especially concerned about families who are below the tax level. The Supplementary Benefits Commission does its best but it lacks flexibility in assisting with furnishing. Some offices of the Supplementary Benefits Commission do not know how much furnishings cost.

The offices also lack flexibility in the provision of help for clothing. I suggest that someone from the Commission should examine the cost of household essentials so that we do not give an allowance of £2.50 to a one-parent family to purchase winter shoes for a five-year-old child when the cheapest pair of shoes that I was able to find in my constituency which could be worn during the winter by such a child cost £3.95. That is the sort of individual problem which every one of these one-parent families faces.

What happens is that many of these people are driven to the tallyman. That means increasing debt. I am convinced that increased flexibility on the part of the Supplementary Benefits Commission could do a lot to prevent the court proceedings that follow when these girls cannot pay the tallyman. They want to earn. I was delighted to hear the slightly quiet and defensive admission that the Secretary of State is examining a preferential earnings disregard for one-parent families. I hope that it will be a tapered disregard. Will the right hon. Lady please look at this soon, because we have been waiting for a long time? Tonight is not the first time in this House, either in this Chamber or in Committee, that we have asked the Minister to look at such a scheme for one-parent families.

There are one or two practical points which I would like to raise. Some of the Inner London Education Authority schools have what we call "end on" classes—classes that take place from the close of school until about 6 p.m. I know from experience of those families who have come to me in trouble in the South-West London area that such classes have done much to help them. In the classes the children—sometimes under the supervision of the parents, or non-working parents in two-parent families—can be looked after and can benefit from organised play and secure surroundings until they can be returned to their home environment. This helps prevent them from going out and doing things which they ought not to do.

I come now to the use of halls for day centres. There are many halls in every city and village lying idle. The Women's Royal Voluntary Service and the Towns-women's Guild held a conference last week at which they said that they were determined to help such families. These organisations are not perhaps terribly fashionable pressure groups. They will man the halls and give the support needed to allow the one-parent mother or father to go out to work and regain that contact with the outside world and above all self-respect which they have lost. There is also the question of the use of non-professional staff in school buildings and halls. Can we please send a message to local government asking it to stop putting up barriers preventing volunteer work? I am sick and tired of hearing that this or that can be done only by professionals. There are plenty of mothers with lots of experience who can help with today's pressing problems.

Finally, I pay tribute to Gingerbread and the Finer Joint Action Committee for what they have done. Without them I do not believe that this debate would have taken place. I do not think that the suggestions coming forward from local new Gingerbread groups could have happened without their courage and persistence. I congratulate them and thank them. I hope that the Secretary of State and her cohorts will now take the action for which we are all pressing.

8.4 p.m.

Mr. Leslie Spriggs (St. Helens)

Thanks to the Finer Committee we have this detailed report on poverty in one-parent families. Unfortunately, it is about six years too late. If ever Dick Crossman did the poorer sections of the community a good turn, this was it. He was responsible for setting up the Finer Committee. The report is divided into different sections. In view of the cases made out today by right hon. and hon. Members it is only fair to those who still wish to speak that I should confine my remarks to that section dealing with maintenance assessment and collection and enforcement orders.

This area mainly affects young mothers, those who are left with the children when the husband walks out. It is a simple thing for a court to make an order on the application of the young wife and mother. It is quite another matter to collect the maintenance or enforce the order. It is the duty of the courts to enforce it. A separated woman is entitled to as much maintenance as the court thinks reasonable. The magistrates' courts receive no guidance about how to calculate the approprate amount in individual cases. The magistrates may make inquiries but they are not obliged to do so. The court has a duty to enforce the maintenance order but in practice it is difficult to do so.

The men against whom such orders are made often do not have enough money to maintain themselves and their families in separate households. The Finer Committee concludes that a number of reforms are necessary, including a new social security benefit for one-parent families, reform of the matrimonial law and the courts which administer it and better relationships between the courts and the social security authorities operating in the area of family breakdown.

What I want to bring to the notice of everyone is that it is not just the parents in these one-parent families who have problems. We are talking about approximately 1,080,000 young children. That is what the main part of the debate is about—whether we are to find the necessary finance so that one-parent families can live a decent life. Most of us have had experience of mixing with various people associated with Gingerbread. Members will observe from my lapel badge that I am an honorary member of the National Gingerbread Group. I am proud of that. I have met both men and women who have been left to fend for themselves in one-parent families.

Until Dick Crossman decided that there was a case to investigate the country was not interested. A number of these men and women had to get together and set up local groups, eventually forming a national group, before something was done. Gingerbread has been able to organise systematic reports to the Finer Committee. It has given evidence on behalf of the families who really need the help which the Government can give if it is their will to do so. I appreciate that there are financial problems and that the Government must have their priorities. But which is most important to a country—its future citizens, the children, or something else upon which we are spending millions every year? I associate myself with what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mrs. Hayman), namely, that she was disappointed with what the Secretary of State had not said about the recommendations of the Finer Report.

When my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State replies, I hope that he will take into account what hon. Members have said about the need for providing financial aid to one-parent families. They do not have a begging bowl in their hands all the time saying, "Give me, give me, give me". They are working hard every day and almost every evening to raise funds to help the poorest of the one-parent families, and that is a credit to them. Because they are the kind of people that they are, and because they have proved their worth and the right to a decent standard of life, I appeal to the Government to think again and to implement the recommendations of the Finer Report in full.

8.11 p.m.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Woolwich, West)

I am happy to follow in the debate the speech of the hon. Member for St. Helens (Mr. Spriggs).

We all accept that we should do something quickly about the problems set out in the Finer Report. It is worth reminding ourselves that the pay increase of £28 a week which we received this summer was the same as the amount of social security received by a widower bringing up four children by himself. Perhaps that puts the matter in context.

We should also remember that the children and parents in one-parent families amount to about 1,700,000 people. I am not an honorary member of Gingerbread, as is the hon. Member for St. Helens, but I am a member of the Transport and General Workers' Union—the largest union in the country—which has the same number of members. It is about time that as much prominence was given to Margaret Bramall and the Finer Joint Action Committee as is often given, quite rightly in many cases, to my union's general secretary. One-parent families would not then be ignored as much as they have been by successive Governments over many years.

We have dealt with five of the classic risks facing people—the death of the breadwinner, old age, unemployment, illness, and, in the last few years, we have done a great deal more about invalidity and disability. Perhaps one of the most modern classic risks is being a member of a family with only one parent.

Leaving aside party politics, I should like to congratulate the Secretary of State on being one of the first to recognise that modern category of risk when she announced that family allowances for the first child would be increased first for one-parent families. Plainly someone like myself, who is chairman of an organisation which is part of the Finer Joint Action Committee, would have liked that first child allowance to be made a disregard for social security purposes, which would have helped half the one-parent families who will not receive that help. It is an indictment of all of us—and I include myself in this, even though I have been a Member for only three months—that half the one-parent families are on social security. Supplementary benefits are not doing the job which they were designed to do for a group as large as that. Such an enormous group should receive a special benefit of their own.

I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir B. Rhys Williams) is not present because he would be able to put these points much more eloquently than I can. His expertise in these matters is as much valued by the House as is that of the hon. Members for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved) and Welwyn and Hatfield (Mrs. Hayman). I cannot contribute much except to say, perhaps following up the Archbishops, from where some of the money might come. Unless proposals to combat the problems outlined in the Finer Report cost money, we shall not give much help to the families in need.

I do not see why I should continue to receive a tax allowance for my children—an allowance which is not available for people whose income is not as great as mine—while one-parent families remain on the poverty level. I do not have to explain this matter to the Undersecretary of State because he and I have only to look at what the Child Poverty Action Group says about the work done by his wife and mine when they were low-paid employees of that organisation. [An HON. MEMBER: "He is a Socialist."] There is not much difference between Socialists, Christians and other people in this Chamber and in the country on an issue like this. I am not a Socialist.

If we were to say to people, "Do you want high subsidies for people who travel by British Rail rather than for those who travel by long distance coach?", or "Should we continue indiscriminate subsidies on food and give mortgage interest relief to people like me who have not the housing problems of many one-parent families?", the answer we should get from most people would be, "Let us give the help to those who need it. We are willing to pay our share". It is curious that society expects the liable relative to make a contribution to the maintenance of the family—and most liable relatives have not much money to spare for a second family—while people like myself are not expected to make a full contribution to the cost of school meals and we are not even allowed to make a contribution to our children's education.

Mr. Max Madden (Sowerby)

The hon. Gentleman has explained that he is not a Socialist but that he is a member of the Transport and General Workers' Union. Does he support the vigorous campaign of that union, conducted over many years, to reduce expenditure on defence and on other undesirable aspects of public expenditure which would release resources which are so badly needed to help single-parent families?

Mr. Bottomley

No. I am campaigning in my union to get one-third of the delegates to the Trades Union Congress to be Tories like myself.

With the help of the Finer Joint Action Committee, of the Daily Mirror, which has referred to "bread and butter children", and, most of all, of back-bench Members, we must bring pressure, both of those we represent and of ourselves, to bear on the Government, whatever their political complexion, to provide significant help in financial terms and to remember that any child born when the Finer Committee was set up is six years of age and has not had any greater help.

8.18 p.m.

Dr. M. S. Miller (East Kilbride)

I sometimes wonder whether I am on the right side of the House when I hear speeches such as that just made by the hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Bottomley). He has been winding down the campaign in which he engaged in order to win the seat in Woolwich, West so that gradually he will fit into the Conservative Party policy which is adumbrated by hon. Members opposite. If he were to adopt a policy with the kind of humane outlook which he seemed to be putting forward, he should be on this side of the House.

One would imagine that what we need is something which can be divorced from practical action associated with principles which are political in their orientation—and I do not make any bones about that. There is a political action, a Socialist action, involved in this matter which I am not ashamed of. I am proud of it. We are dealing with a distressing human problem affecting the lives of 620,000 families—one in 10 families with dependent children. There are more than 1 million children involved. This is more than the population of the city of Glasgow, and equivalent to the population of Birmingham.

Most of the women concerned in this problem fall into three categories—first, the widows; second, the divorced; and, third, the separated. The problem is not becoming any easier—indeed, it is becoming worse.

The guide to the Finer Report indicates quite clearly that the number of one-parent families in this country is rising, and that since the end of the Second World War the number of divorce petitions has nearly trebled. Divorce rates have been rising throughout the century, and marriages which took place at the end of the Second World War experienced four times as much divorce as those contracted in the aftermath of the First World War. Therefore, we have a situation of severe deprivation, poverty and humiliation which, in my opinion, is intolerable in a modern, affluent, civilised society.

The Finer recommendations fall into two broad categories. First, we have the suggestions for cash benefits, which include a guaranteed maintenance allowance and many other provisions for which extra finance is necessary. We also have a second category, dealing with administrative and legal changes which need not entail or involve extensive financial arrangements.

With regard to the first category, I have heard the sum of £250 million a year mentioned as the additional net revenue required. If this is the sum standing at the moment between us and a square deal for this section of our society, I can only say that somewhere along the line we have got our priorities wrong.

We realise that in regard to Government spending we are up against it at the moment, but dissatisfaction with the level of spending on essential services is not a new phenomenon. It has been going as long as I have been a Member of Parliament—11 years. We need more money for hospitals, for doctors, for nurses, for medical auxiliaries. We need more money for medical research, more money for the disabled more for the elderly and for the young. Students need more money. Therefore, it is obvious that, as well as having a problem of redistribution of our national wealth, we also have a problem of baking a bigger cake. We have to bake a bigger cake because the cake we have at the moment is too small, and there is absolutely no point in a situation where we rob Peter to pay Paul.

I come now to those recommendations in the report which at this stage, at any rate, do not involve the spending of a great deal of money. I am very much impressed by the ideas embodied in pages 492 to 499 of the report, volume 1, concerning recommendations on law. The guide to the Finer Report states, in page 4: The proposals are that a woman who has separated from her husband claims in full in the normal way. If the Supplementary Benefits Commission decides that the liable relative should contribute to the recipient's benefit they will assess his contribution according to a set of clearly defined and published criteria, and take out an order against him for that amount. What is wrong with that? I think that is an eminently sensible way of going about things. I do not think it would cost a lot of money. Many of these recommendations could be put into effect, with very great benefit to the people whom we are trying to benefit, without any great cost being involved.

Hon. Members will be familiar with the human tragedies to be found in this area. It is a matter of supreme coincidence that I have just received this letter, from which I should like to quote in conclusion. It is from a young woman in the Gingerbread Group in my constituency. She writes: I personally have just had a nervous breakdown due to the emotional issues which surround a marriage breakdown, and which have been reawakened in me in an attempt to obtain a fair proportion of my husband's income towards the upkeep of our family. The distress resulting from the legal process in doing this would be minimised if we had family courts, and also if we had a guaranteed maintenance allowance. One's children are already handicapped by having one parent instead of two, and should not be further humiliated by poverty when the other parent is more than adequately able financially to provide for them. Of course the world has always been an unfair place to live in, but the Finer Report states our needs in a positive way and we must in all conscience demand its more important implementations. The case could not be put more succinctly or more clearly, and I believe that in this respect action is required now.

8.29 p.m.

Mrs. Margaret Bain (Dunbartonshire, East)

Like most other hon. Members, I have waited for a long time with baited breath to hear the Finer Report debated in the House, and I waited with great interest on the opening remarks of the Secretary of State. As I listened to her, and welcomed the very minor concessions she made towards the recommendations, I was very disappointed by the overall approach of the Government to the report.

I tried to think of an appropriate simile. The only one I could think of was that it was like trying to use a Meccano set to build a North Sea oil rig. The size of the problem is so vast that the Government are coming nowhere near meeting it in the measures that they have announced today.

The Secretary of State spoke about priorities, putting the problem on the map, and so forth, but she gave no concrete promise of a timetable, and she advanced the excuse of the economic climate. It seems to me that the economic climate is always the excuse for refusing to do something which would be worth while. It is always the weakest sections of our society who suffer. Is the time never right to look after our widows, old-age pensioners, the mentally and physically handicapped and one-parent families? What is lacking in the House is the political will to tackle the problems and find the real solutions.

Everyone accepts that maintenance allowances would be a major cost, but no mention has been made of the drain on social work departments in catering for children taken into care. In some areas it costs £100 a week per child. So many of these families are deprived and many more of these children will go into care during this winter as we go through the economic recession. If every child in a one-parent family were to go into care, the cost would be more than the cost of introducing a reasonable maintenance allowance for all one-parent families. In addition, there is the other cost to society—the crisis in the one-parent family when the child goes into care, the disruption of the family unit, the psychological effect on the child, which continues well beyond childhood and into adulthood.

There has been much talk about the housing problems, and, like others, I am concerned about these problems. I am worried about the points system and the allocation systems of local authorities.

The Secretary of State spoke about the humanisation of the problem. I should like to quote the typical case of Mrs. X, who wrote: I am divorced and have two young kids to support. I receive social security every week, plus rent, and I have just had notice to quit. Accommodation is scarce in this area and jobs badly paid. It could take months to find someone to take us in. I have lived in the area long enough to qualify for a council flat but have twice been refused—no reason given although my youngest child suffers from bronchial trouble. It is impossible to drag the kids around whilst I look for a place and I can't leave them with anyone as most of the people I know are out working. Someone suggested that I put them into care so that they would be out of the way for a while…. Whilst I recognise that local authorities must have a certain amount of autonomy, the Government could be giving a lead and they could recommend or instruct or cajole the local authorities into giving one-parent families equality within the system. A constituent of mine is going to be homeless at the end of the week because she has been living as a sub-tenant and the full tenants will be moving out, leaving her homeless, and she cannot get on to the housing list as a one-parent family.

There is the situation of people waiting for a divorce. People waiting for the final word cannot get on to the housing list. It is worse in Scotland because divorce there is far more difficult, as the Government refuse to give us time to discuss divorce law reform in Scotland. I believe that if a marriage is dead, it should at least be given a decent burial. I urge the Government for goodness sake to make some recommendation to the local authorities.

For day care the Government should give a lead in encouraging local authorities to use all available halls and schools. It would not cost anything to utilise them, and they would be put to much better use than many of them are at the moment.

Here is another genuine case, from Mr. Y: My wife died and I was left with two little boys aged 3 and 5. The Children's Welfare offered to put them in a home. I was broken hearted and am finding it hard to cope with the children, as I want to work for the twofold purpose of keeping my head above water and the self-respect it brings not only to me but to my kids. I accept that death is democratic and can visit anyone at any time but I desperately need help and all I get is platitudes. What kind of society do we live in where they wait until people like me are at the point of desperation before they offer help? Surely they should practise preventive assistance before one reaches this stage. All I want to do is keep what is left of my family unit together. It seems ridiculous to me that with all our empty halls we cannot use them for providing care facilities.

We have waited so long for this debate. I hope that when the Minister winds up we shall not have had another five and a half hours of hot air, but that some major recommendations will be sent out to the country, with something concrete that we can offer one-parent families. We in this House cannot expect to have the respect of the public if we do not have the courage of our convictions and do something for those who matter.

8.35 p.m.

Mr. John Ovenden (Gravesend)

My hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens (Mr. Spriggs) said that the problems of one-parent families are recognised in this House, and this debate has amply demonstrated that. Unfortunately, what is lacking is a sense of urgency among those who have power to act to remedy the plight of one-parent families. The families about whom we are here concerned have already waited six years while the Finer Report has been prepared and published, and we have waited a long time for an opportunity to debate it. It is worth remembering that children in such families who had just started school when the committee was set up are now entering secondary school. If they have to await a solution of Britain's economic problems before we give them any help, they will have reached adulthood, and they will be adults who have spent all their lives in family poverty.

We should all have liked to hear my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announce full acceptance of the Finer Report, or perhaps even go further than Finer and introduce a non-means-tested maintenance allowance. But few of us who are realists could expect that. How ever ever, there are parts of the Finer Report on which the Government could and should act, and on which we must, I fear, express disappointment at the Secretary of State's statement.

For example, 60 per cent. of one-parent families are in that situation because of the breakdown of marriage. In general the mothers are deserted or divorced wives. Our system of enforced maintenance payments is chaotic, and something must be done about it. For too many wives the amount of maintenance awarded is of purely academic interest because they will never get it anyway. But we miss an essential aspect of this matter if we think that we can solve the problem merely by tightening up the maintenance allowance system.

It is important that husbands should not be allowed to escape their financial obligations, but it is not just a question of ensuring that maintenance is paid regularly. That will not solve the problem, because many of the men involved have insufficient money to maintain a separate home for themselves and for their families, especially when they have taken on other family commitments as well. One may say that it is irresponsible for a man to desert one set of family commitments and establish another, but these things happen, and if some people in our society are irresponsible it is all the more important that we, as a society, should act responsibly and do something to help the families who are affected.

In the long term, the child allowance system, or something of that kind, may assist one-parent families. It may do something to take us away from the jungle of means-tested benefits which we are suffering today. But I ask the Secretary of State to bear in mind that child allowances will bring no special benefit to one-parent families after 1977, for the one-parent family will be in receipt of only the same amount as that received by the two-parent family.

We need from the Government a statement that they recognise the particular needs of one-parent families and the justification for a special allowance. Since the Secretary of State did not find it possible to accept the principle of a maintenance allowance, most deserted and divorced wives with children will still remain dependent on the social security system, and as time goes by they will discover how inadequate that system is to meet their needs. If the Government are unable to implement the Finer Report in full, it is even more important that they do something to improve the social security system so far as it affects one-parent families.

Although the rent and rate rebate systems now operated recognise that the needs of one-parent families are comparable with those of two-parent families, the supplementary benefit system maintains a discrimination which few could justify. For example, while the two-parent family with, say, two children aged 8 and 12 receives about £23 a week in supplementary benefit plus rent allowance—little enough anyway—a one-parent family in the same circumstances receives only about £17 a week on which to live.

We need a commitment from the Government that they will narrow the gap between the one-parent and the two-parent family. The Finer recommendation was modest enough, that there should be an increase of £1.50—presumably, at 1974 prices—in the allowance given to the single parent. I had thought that the Government would find it possible to accept that modest increase in the allowance, and I feel that there can be no excuse for anything less than that.

We have heard of the problems which the earnings limits place upon the recipient of supplementary benefit, and we all welcome the Government's commitment to raise the earnings disregards. I support the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn and Hat-field (Mrs. Hayman) that this disregard should be geared to family size and I hope that the Secretary of State will look at this point.

We could help these families, outside the social security system, by enabling them to qualify for family income supplement. None of us on this side likes FIS. We should like to see the system abolished and replaced by a non-means-tested benefit, but we shall not get that for some time and we have to use the existing apparatus to bring the maximum help. One way would be to reduce the number of hours' work needed to qualify for FIS. I suggested in a recent Question in the House that the figure should be reduced from 30 hours to perhaps 20 hours. I was told that very few families would benefit, but I think that many more people would be helped by this move than the Government believe.

Many people on supplementary benefit are deterred from working because if they do, they are no better off. If we relaxed the hours' limitation to 20, many more women with dependent children could go out to work, supplement their incomes and qualify for FIS. In our present system there is terrible discrimination against one-parent families in the rate of allowances and disregards. It means that thousands of mothers go to bed hungry so that they can adequately clothe and feed their children. Is this the Britain we want to see? Are these the people who must wait until our economic ills are cured and North Sea oil starts to flow before they can be given a decent standard of living? It has been the central principle of the Labour Party's economic philosophy that the broadest backs must bear the greatest burdens and that the poorest people must be protected. Unless we give a firm commitment to one-parent families, these words will have a very hollow ring indeed.

8.42 p.m.

Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst)

We are debating a wide-ranging and impressive document. I am sure that the House will not think that I underestimate the importance of other aspects if I confine my remarks to just one part of the report—the relationship between one-parent families and the courts and the proposal for a family court.

This is not a new idea. It has been suggested on a number of occasions and a lot of work has been done on it by Judge Jean Graham-Hall. However, this is the first time that workable proposals have appeared in detail in an official document and I am surprised and disappointed by the Government's lukewarm attitude towards the idea as demonstrated by the Attorney-General's indication that family courts might not come into existence for several years, the Secretary of State's unenthusiastic comments this afternoon, and the absence of the Law Officers from the Government Front Bench during the debate. I would remind the Labour Party that the establishment of family courts was included in its election manifesto in October.

A Royal Commission under Lord Gorell in 1909 criticised the handling of matrimonial matters by magistrates in what were then known as police courts. Regrettably, nothing was done. The Finer Report seems to take a rather jaundiced view of magistrates, but the criticisms are less justified than they were 60 years ago. Hon. Members may think that I am biased because I am a justice of the peace and I have often presided at domestic court proceedings.

I thought it was unfortunate that a Sunday newspaper published a survey showing that a majority of litigants were dissatisfied with the proceedings in domestic courts. This is not altogether surprising, because in civil cases someone wins and someone loses so that 50 per cent. of those involved are likely to be satisfied and 50 per cent. dissatisfied. In matrimonial cases, the wives want enough money for their needs while husbands want to limit the amount they pay—they may have others to support—and the court decision is usually somewhere in between, with the result that neither party is satisfied.

One also receives complaints about the way in which wives are treated within the social security system. No arrangement can be ideal for coping with these sorts of problems in emotional circumstances. It is interesting that a survey by Dr. Dennis Gray at Solihull Court showed that of those who appeared before domestic court proceedings 91 per cent. thought the proceedings were fair, and 9 per cent. who thought they were unfair said it was because there was a bias towards the wife.

I accept, however, that a family court would be preferable to the existing magistrates' court proceedings, and I accept, too, that it will be some time before that proposal can be implemented in full. I welcome the intention in the report to use the experience and expertise of the lay magistracy who are available for this work. The Minister indicated that there were limitations on the family court proposals because of the limited number of judges, but I am not sure that judges are necessary in the lower tier of the family court. The present domestic court proceedings manage perfectly well with lay magistrates.

Some magistrates are more suitable than others for this work and it is right that they should be elected or selected like the juvenile court panel, and that they should undergo training on appointment and whilst sitting. Such a court should include both men and women.

Although the Finer Committee seemed to have doubts on this score, it should be possible to combine dignity with informality in the family courts. I am not happy about the suggestion by the Magistrates Association that proceedings should be round a table. That seems too informal, but something like the present juvenile court proceedings might be appropriate.

I know that the Finer Report favours having the welfare service in the family court but comes down against probation officers because they are connected with criminal cases and nowadays are less involved with children and young people. However, they are doing good work in the divorce courts where they are called court welfare officers.

The House of Commons Expenditure Committee recommended that children and young people should continue to be dealt with by probation officers. It would be a pity to lose their knowledge and experience of this sort of work, and it may be preferable to have probation officers doing it rather than local authority social workers who may already be involved in particular cases.

I welcome the emphasis in the report that the family court should be an impartial, judicial institution. I welcome the report's recognition that adjudication and welfare may walk hand in hand but are two distinct processes. Whilst I therefore accept the case for the Supplementary Benefits Commission calculating the husband's contribution, I wonder whether, if it is to be legally binding, it is sufficient simply to register it. Surely it should be registered at some sort of court sitting at which the husband would be present, where it would be impressed upon him that it was an order of the court which must be obeyed and not simply another bill which could be ignored.

If it is not possible to initiate the family court arrangement immediately, it does not follow that some of the ideas must await full implementation of the Finer Report. If we are to wait for new buildings and a new structure of law, we shall wait for ever. Some steps can be taken now. There are instances of there being an air of criminality attached to domestic proceedings. In many instances they are held separately from ordinary magistrates' court proceedings, but they are in the same building and sometimes take place at the same time as criminal court proceedings.

Certainly the ideal would be separate buildings, such as with the county courts, but at least the domestic courts could be held on a day separate from those for the criminal courts. Why should there not be evening sittings, or even sittings on a Saturday morning? That might be more convenient and not only for the litigants. It might also attract to the bench people who are well qualified to serve as magistrates but who have difficulty finding the time.

Please may we have an assurance that policemen will not be used as ushers in domestic court proceedings? In addition, any notice which says "Police Court" outside the court should be covered up. Juvenile court rooms could be used for domestic proceedings, or the proceedings could even be moved to other buildings such as church halls and youth clubs. Many of these are reasonably bright and cheerful.

Whatever the building used, it is essential for there to be adequate facilities, such as toilets, crèches for small children and, not least, somewhere where women can get a cup of tea. I believe we could introduce informality now. Could we not also give the court clerks power to vary or to make a consent order so as to save themselves the trouble of a further formal hearing?

There is criticism of the level of maintenance fixed by magistrates' courts. Should not magistrates' courts have some formula of guidance such as that used by the Supplementary Benefits Commission? In any case, would it not be advisable if there could be as there are in many courts, closer liaison between the magistrates' courts and the commission?

There is obvious need for informal reconciliation and conciliation procedures before a formal court hearing and for dealing speedily with cases where children are involved and where perhaps interim arrangements should be made for the children and for maintenance. Manchester and Solihull are operating such schemes and Coventry is preparing a pilot scheme. I urge the Government to examine this matter and perhaps issue guidance as to how these schemes could be applied elsewhere.

Finally, I re-emphasise that it would be a very great step forward if the concept of the matrimonial offence could be removed from summary jurisdiction as it has already been removed from the divorce court. I welcome the right hon. Lady's sympathetic approach to that matter. The discrepancy between the divorce court and the magistrates' courts drew the strongest criticism from the Finer Committee and simple legislation would remove it.

I realise that on these and other matters I have raised I shall be told we must await the Law Commission's report on domestic proceedings in magistrates' courts, which is expected shortly. But its contents have largely been anticipated and the arguments have already been rehearsed. Once that report is issued, I urge the Government, in the interests of all those who need the services of the courts, to act.

8.52 p.m.

Mr. Stan Thorne (Preston, South)

It is unfortunate that yet again we are debating a subject and addressing ourselves to Ministers of a Department without the people who are in fact deciding those problems being directly involved. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services has in Cabinet undoubtedly applied considerable pressure on the Chancellor of the Exchequer to make funds available to meet some of the recommendations of the Finer Report, but without success. It would be churlish not to recognise that the Ministers in the Department of Health and Social Security have tried very vigorously in recent months to emphasise the nature of the problem we are dealing with.

Having said that, I recognise that the hon. Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) made several points on the question of reforming the law which are very appropriate. I do not propose to follow his line of argument, but it seems to me that what he said had considerable merit. Most of those who have taken part in the debate have taken a positive approach to the Finer recommendations.

In the housing sector, there must be some major changes to ensure that discrimination does not operate against one-parent families, as I strongly suspect it does. If we carried out any major research to monitor the situation in local authority areas throughout the country, we might be somewhat ashamed of the result.

The two main areas we are concerned with are income and care. Many of us on this side of the House feel considerable regret, to put it mildly, that the idea of bringing in immediate benefits—in April 1976—has been rejected. Arguments against introducing a payment of £3 a week for all children of one-parent families in April 1976 are arguments that we return to again and again, because we are talking about priorities, the allocation of resources.

I have received many letters on the subject, as I am sure have many hon. Members. Some of those letters are very saddening to read. One recent letter was from a woman who withheld her name, who said that in desperation she had turned to prostitution as the only way in which she felt she could supplement her income as one caring for a one-parent family. Some of us might feel that it is appropriate to moralise about such a situation. I am mindful that His Grace the Archbishop of Canterury recently made a statement about some of the problems we face. We in this House have a moral responsibility towards one-parent families in allocating our resources. If we are to improve home care, provide additional nurseries and persuade employers to provide nurseries in major plants, if we are to do the whole range of things which arise from the Finer Report, we inevitably come ad nauseam to the problem of resources.

I question the moral standards of Members of Parliament who continually put high on their priorities an expenditure of £4,500 million on armaments and yet cannot find the small sums involved in meeting the needs of one-parent families. We must press upon the Government again that we can no longer go on expecting the support of the country while we fail to grasp the essentials of our priorities.

8.58 p.m.

Mr. Tony Durant (Reading, North)

It is sometimes worth while to be called at the end of a debate, particularly when one does not know whether one will be called, because one listens to the debate, and that is always very good for one. One learns a great deal as the debate progresses.

I do not wish to deal with the suggestion of the hon. Member for Preston, South (Mr. Thorne) that expenditure on armaments should be cut to pay for the Finer Committee's recommendations. Instead, I want to move into the whole area of social care, which is what the debate is about. The hon. Member for East Kilbride (Dr. Miller) implied that all those on the Government benches were the goodies, while all those on the Opposition benches were the baddies. His attack on my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Bottomley) was unjustified.

A society that cares for all sections of the community, and spends a considerable time about it, has come to the conclusion that the group of people covered by the Finer Report has been neglected over a period of time. That has come out in the report. We have heard from all sides that the problem is mainly financial, and I accept that. However, most of the financial points have been made and therefore I shall deal mainly with the social side.

After talking to the Gingerbread Group in my constituency, my belief is that most of the people concerned want to be independent. That is the main impression that one gets when one meets them. It is good that they want to be independent. Everything must be done financially to make that possible.

It is interesting to note from the Finer Report that many of the single-parent families lack information about taxation. This is particularly true of women suddenly left on their own when the husband has dealt with taxation matters before.

I criticise the Government in that they have not grasped the proposal for a guaranteed maintenance allowance. At the least they could have said "We shall examine it." The Government have dismissed it as being too expensive.

On the social side, we heard the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Mitchell) talking about housing. I support practically everything he said on that issue. Councils must reconsider their points systems and treat single-parent families with as much priority as married families with children. The children must be the principal influence on the housing lists. Council must also consider transfers. That is something for which everyone in the House is pressing. A place should not be lost on a housing list if a family breaks up. Often the wife takes the childen to another town to get away from the atmosphere in the area in which she has been living. When she moves to another area, she goes to the bottom of the housing list. She should have the opportunity to enjoy equal rights on the new list.

We must also press the building societies to reconsider their attitudes. Often they are too harsh and act too quickly when dealing with one-parent families. Mention has also been made of jobs. There is an excellent jobcentre in Reading and I believe that more centres should be encouraged. They should taken on the special problems of one-parent families.

I have always been keen on day-nursery schooling. It is a pity that it has always been the Cinderella of the education service. I believe passionately in such schooling. An extension of nursery school facilities would greatly help one-parent families. Mention has been made of school holidays. This is a matter that has been raised again and again by the Gingerbread Group. What happens to the children of one-parent families during the long summer holidays? During those holidays what are the children up to; where are they?

A matter that has not been mentioned is the problem that faces single-parent families when the parent goes sick and enters hospital. The neighbours generally rally round, but often the hospitals discharge their patients early because they need the beds. The result is that the single parent is sent home and the friends and neighbours say "She is all right now she has returned home. The children will be all right". The family is then left unattended.

There was a case in my area when a woman had two broken legs. She was dumped at home with small children to look after. What does such a woman do? How does she cope with that situation? Hospitals should take more cognisance of the family circumstances before they discharge a patient.

I believe that we heard a most excellent speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) concerning the law. A matter that has come to light in my area is the varied advice that solicitors give regarding the matrimonial home. There seem to be many versions of what a person should do when the divorce comes along. This has proved to me that the merits of the family courts are paramount. Mention is made in the Finer Report of the fact that better legal advice is needed about the matrimonial home.

My experience in dealing with the matter began when handling the first problem that came to me as a councillor. I was summoned to someone's house to see a young woman who had returned home. It was her mother who had called me. The young woman had been threatened with a gun by her husband. She had left the matrimonial home and had gone to the local authority to see whether she could put her child in a nursery while she did a job. The local authority representative told her that that would not be possible until she had a job. She said that she would try to get a job, but when she went to try to get one she was told that she could have a job only if she had somewhere to live. The problem was going round in a circle.

It is that sort of situation which causes tremendous difficulties for people suddenly faced with a traumatic situation. Very often everything seems to be going well for a happy family, and then suddenly the whole of their lives crashes and there is a tremendous emotional disturbance. The result is that their world collapses and they need money, care and understanding. We need to get out of the present bureaucratic muddle.

I was interested in the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker), who observed that everything was always put to another Royal Commission, another committee, or another activity at Government level. I agree that, for a change, we should try to get something done rather than ask for yet another report or committee.

I have long believed that one of the great troubles in the social services is that in respect of all the various levels of care—whether in the Department of Employment, the social service departments, housing departments involving rent rebates and so on—when a person goes from department to department he is never treated as an individual. We may have to look to a time when all these various activities are brought together in one department so that applicants are treated not as numbers on a card but as individuals. They should be interviewed separately and their problems analysed so that the correct department is brought in to assist. At present people are bucking the system by going from one department to another and obtaining moneys here and there.

Mr. Ron Thomas (Bristol, North-West)

Or none at all.

Mr. Durant

Or none at all. Therefore, we must seek the opportunity to see that individual problems are discussed so that the right department is called upon. We as Members of Parliament indulge in this kind of work every day of the week by receiving letters, seeing constituents and trying to sort out their problems. I believe that if an agency could be set up to deal with the various handout problems, much improvement would come about, with a consequent saving in money. We need to co-ordinate caring. I hope that we shall see some action on that front.

I was disappointed with the speech by the Secretary of State. It was the usual answer—lots of sympathy but little else. Ft is about time we had some action—and action now.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)

I wish to thank hon. Members for responding to my appeal for brevity. I shall call two further hon. Members before we have the Front Bench replies.

9.7 p.m.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Stockport, North)

The major problem in a debate such as this is that we are constantly being told that because of the economic situation there are great difficulties in implementing the Finer Committee's recommendations. I believe that we should cast our minds back to the Labour election manifesto on which we fought the election a year ago. We then said: …our objective is to bring about a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of wealth…", If we mean what we say—and I am certain that most Labour Members are fully behind the message in the manifesto—we should deal with this problem and not hide behind the economic difficulties. We should be finding the wealth in our society and using it to put the problem right. That is the most important message we must seek to get across.

Some hon. Members have already dealt with the question of tinkering with the problem—for example, by trying to make a little money available in various ways. The increase in the disregards which has been hinted at will be very welcome indeed. But I feel that we could do very much more, even in a tinkering sense, than we are now doing and that we should not merely wait for the future to bring change. We should seek to reduce the period of waiting before a person is entitled to short-term sickness benefit. We could also set about clearing up the anomalies of the cohabitation rule.

A major problem that besets one parent families who wish to move to a different status is the lack of clarity in the present situation. We must remember the difficulties of those families in which children after the age of 16 are unable to continue education because of the lack of educational maintenance grants.

Lastly, we must consider the question of housing. Many local authorities tend to weigh up priorities without taking account of the needs of the single-parent family. I hope that we shall hear something from the Minister to give us hope that there will be governmental pressure on local authorities to deal with the housing problems of single-parent families.

9.9 p.m.

Mr. David Lane (Cambridge)

I have found from my constituency experience that one-parent families are as deserving of help as any group of disadvantaged people with whom we come in contact. Even within the present financial constraints—constraints which I do not minimise—the Government should be able to find ways of doing still more for these families.

The hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) and others in the debate have referred to the important subject of housing. There appears in the Department of the Environment to be a lack of urgency over homelessness. It maintains an ostrich-like attitude about the less desirable effects of the Rent Act 1974: I have a letter from a constituent, a divorced landlady of modest means, who faces severe housing difficulties because of the activities of two heartless tenants. I am sure, too, that more could be done by local authorities and private owners to enable empty property to be used more quickly. This question has been discussed in the House on other occasions and I hope that we shall hear more about it when the Minister of Housing replies.

I do not believe that the Department, with all its resources, is yet putting its full weight behind the various lines of action which could help, at no extra cost, the people about whom we are concerned.

I hope that as a result of the many points made today by a generally dissatisfied House, there will be quicker action by the Government in a number of desirable directions.

9.11 p.m.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe)

I am always glad to speak after my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane), who most effectively and forcibly underlined the slight sense of dissatisfaction which was expressed on both sides during the debate.

I am glad that the Government have finally allowed the House a full day for a debate on the Finer Report, as it is an important subject. I remain a little unclear as to why the Government finally gave way after 16 months of pressure. The subject has now been debated, but nothing new by way of an announcement has come forward. Normally when a Government announce a debate of this nature on a subject which they have previously avoided, some statement is forthcoming. I hope that I am being fair to the Secretary of State when I say that the only matter on which she informed us which we did not already know was that consideration was being given to a special rate of disregard for earnings and supplementary benefit for one-parent families. The right hon. Lady would not even commit herself to that. Otherwise nothing new emerged.

For some time the Secretary of State has been under considerable pressure on the subject of disregards on supplementary benefit. The overwhelming concern on all sides for one-parent families emerged in the debate, in which no hon. Member regarded these people as a strange minority group. We have now reached the stage where everyone discussing this subject accepts that a broken marriage or a relationship outside marriage are incidents of life which happen to a large number of people rather like car accidents, with, in most cases about as much moral blame involved, and which cause individual problems.

The other point which emerged was that many people had this experience. At any given stage there are 600,000 or so single-parent families. As many of the people involved re-marry, it means that over the years being a single parent is an incident of life which is experienced by many people. Almost every broken marriage or illegitimate birth is a serious personal crisis for the people involved, but we now realise in more detail, helped by the Finer Report, that there are many practical as well as emotional problems to be overcome whenever this situation arises.

Despite the personal and emotional problems involved, the people in this situation desire to resume leading full and normal lives in the world of employment, housing and security, and caring properly for the children who are left with them. This gives rise to problems with the law and the courts which resolve problems of matrimonial status.

The Finer Report makes out a convincing case that there are special practical problems of housing, resuming employment, and, above all, finance, which a large proportion of one-parent families must meet.

We must decide not about the personal and emotional problems but what is the duty of the Government when using public money. Both sides agree that it is not the duty of the Government, as was thought at one stage, merely to provide a system of courts and a framework of law to sort out contested questions of status, and to provide the minimum social security for those reduced to poverty by what has happened to them. There is a public interest which should go beyond that.

The main cause of the public interest should be the poverty and deprivation which is caused to so many children in one-parent families. We must make every effort to minimise the effect of the broken home both materially and otherwise on the upbringing of children. We know that the broken home is often one of the major causes of difficulty in upbringing and in later life.

For adults—as my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, North (Mr. Durant) said—over-dependence on the State is forced upon people who want to help themselves and need help in overcoming practical obstacles in the way of getting back to living a full responsible life, caring and working for themselves in the ordinary way. The public interest is in that approach and not in the "compensation for a disaster" approach which some passages of the Finer Report suggest to me was the approach of some members of the Committee.

I begin with the courts and the court reforms which Finer proposes and which have received general welcome. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker) said, it is a pity that the Secretary of State was unable to be wholly enthusiastic about the principle of family courts, which has received general support. The concept of professional and lay judges with a full backup of welfare and other resources is clearly a move forward which should come at some stage. It would not only remove this work from the criminal courts, which should deal with crime and traffic cases, and deal with it in a more suitable fashion; it would also take a load off the probation service if a proper welfare service is provided. It is a structure of courts which in the long term, once the buildings and the finance can be obtained, should be welcomed by the Government.

As envisaged by Finer, the proposals are extremely expensive and extremely ambitious—perhaps somewhat overambitious. From my own practice in the divorce courts I feel that the idea of case conferences at regular intervals in every case of a broken home provides a degree of welfare support and follow-up which probably is not necessary in many marriages which are dead, dormant or finished and overloads the court. Nevertheless, some structure of this kind is desirable. We should bear in mind—here I sympathise with the Government—that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) said, it would be a disaster simply to call the courts we have family courts or to give the present structure a few taken-over buildings or even a few disused council chambers—as was suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain)—and call that a system of family courts, without providing all the resources that Finer imagined would back it up. I welcome the idea in principle, and perhaps more enthusiastic words from the Lord Chancellor's Department to suggest that it was doing more work on it would be a good idea.

Meanwhile, we have the Family Division of the High Court and the county courts which are changing their procedures and might be encouraged a little further. In recent years the procedures have been changed in worthwhile directions. Because of the removal of the concept of matrimonial offences, the divorce hearing is now somewhat of a formality in most county courts and there is no significant number of contested cases. My view—contrary to that of my professional trade union—is that divorce hearings should be made more of a formality and that the resources of the Family Division should increasingly be engaged on periodical payments, custody matters and transfer of property orders dealt with in chambers as informally as possible.

The real problem is with the magistrates' courts, which are left behind administering the law anomalously because the House forgot to reform them, or, because of controversy, hesitated to do so when the divorce law was reformed in 1969. Here there is an unanswerable case for changes to be made which cost nothing. That suggestion should be especially attractive to the Government, who are bothered by the financial problems of dealing with one-parent families.

At the moment we have a situation where the magistrates are applying the old domestic law, based on the principle of matrimonial fault. It is true that, particularly for the poorer sections of the community who seem to have regular recourse to the courts, there is some measure of legal aid. It must be borne in mind that most divorce hearings are also legally aided. People go particularly to the magistrates' courts to get separation orders for such purposes as obtaining a council tenancy. Sometimes one cannot see why on earth a wife bothers to go to the magistrates' court for a humiliating, difficult and embarrassing hearing at which she tries to prove the offence of cruelty against the husband, but it will often be found that the local housing authority will not transfer the tenancy to her unless she can wave a court order under its nose. I hope that the Minister will deal with that.

Meanwhile, the courts are trying to prove cruelty, adultery or desertion and women are losing maintenance for an act of adultery committed even after they have got their order and have been separated from their husbands. All of this should be swept away. No one is criticising the lay magistrate. It is envisaged that the magistrate will be an important part of the judiciary in the new family courts. But it is the law that the magistrates are having to apply which is so outmoded. As someone who a few years ago started his career at the Bar by appearing in a large number of contested matrimonial cases, I can say that in most cases they were a squalid lottery. The whole circumstances of the hearing, the law being applied, and even the conclusions reached were open to doubt.

I know that no significant body opposes the change in matrimonial law. Therefore, I think that we can add urgency to this appeal to get a final report out of the Law Commission and get on with legislation, presumably in the forthcoming Session. We have been waiting for this report from the Law Commission. It was asked to report finally quite recently. We have been led to expect its report within a month or two. Meanwhile we have a working party report from the Law Commission suggesting that maintenance should be awarded basically on a failure to provide such reasonable maintenance as seems reasonable in the circumstances.

I would have thought, and I think I can say this on behalf of the official Opposition, that no obstruction would be placed in the way of a Bill based on any such recommendations. It ought to have some priority in the timetable of the next Session. It would not take up a great deal of time on the Floor of the House.

That leads to the only slightly more controversial subject of the assessment and enforcement of maintenance for deserted wives or single parents. Here we must look at the position of the women, in most cases depending on maintenance, and the obligation of the man to discharge his responsibilities. The main problem we must never forget, which Finer underlines, is that most men cannot afford two families. A broken marriage is a financial disadvantage to anybody at whatever level of income. This goes back to a point I made to the hon. Member for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mrs. Hayman) earlier. Whatever level of wealth or poverty a family has, a divided home and marriage inevitably means some drop in living standards.

At the extreme end, for a few the drop in living standards may simply involve dividing up the horses and deciding who has the villa in Spain and working out how big a mortgage can be afforded on two houses. At the other, and much more typical, end, it means that a man cannot afford to maintain two homes above the level of poverty. The trouble is that the parties in a matrimonial break-up are extremely reluctant to accept this. They are resentful, and one party or the other—normally the man—makes great efforts to ensure that his living standards remain unaffected by the fact that he has now acquired two women and two sets of children. We have to decide what we can do about that.

In that setting, from the point of view of the mother with the children, I would have thought that the suggestion in Finer for an administrative order, as it is called, made by the Supplementary Benefits Commission and paid to the mother as of right, is a desirable change. For the Commission it is no great financial change because it pays the money already in all those cases where the mother is sufficiently well-informed to apply. Then it directs the claimant on the enforcement procedures against the husband. But that involves the women in repeated, self-destroying and hopeless visits to the courts trying to take enforcement proceedings against her husband on the instructions of the Commission. It certainly involves her going to court in the first place to get an order on the advice of the Commission.

Therefore, we should be in favour of this part of the change—the administrative order—to get round the business of going to the courts and putting on the supplementary benefits system the obligation of maintaining mothers and children who are on supplementary benefits level.

I could not understand why the Secretary of State implied that further work was still going on in considering whether the administrative order was the best way to deal with the matter. No indication was given of what other methods were being considered. The Finer recommendations seem to me the best answer available. With the administrative order procedure, the courts would still decide matters of paternity and affiliation and allegations made by men against wives of such gross conduct that they should not be obliged to make a contribution but such cases would be very limited.

We should consider with care the other side of the matter—the obligation which would fall on the liable relative, to use the jargon, or the man in most of these cases. It is important that in our desire to help the woman and to avoid the awful process of court proceedings we do not go too far in encouraging even more men to avoid their obligations when they are in a position to make a contribution to meeting the public costs involved. It is not correct to say that all men cannot afford to make some contribution towards the maintenance of their wives and families, but it is correct to say that a number of men who make contributions go out of their way to avoid doing so.

If we had a new system, with the Supplementary Benefits Commission automatically providing for the wives and children so that the men knew that there was no risk of their suffering hardship, more men than ever would be encouraged to try to get out of any obligations on themselves. The Finer Report envisages that the attachment of earnings would be the principal remedy used against men if they were reluctant to pay what they were assessed to pay. With the SBC procedure, they would be assessed to pay only what they could afford to pay. The attachment of earnings was a complete breakthrough when it was introduced and I think that we should continue to consider ways in which that procedure might be strengthened to deal with the kind of cases with which we are concerned. I would not be so slighting about it as the Finer Report is in certain instances.

There is, however, the difficult matter of the imprisonment of defaulting husbands. No one advocates that we should fill the prisons, but we should not dismiss this remedy out of hand. The cases about which the Payne Committee made recommendations are different. The Payne Committee recommended the abolition of imprisonment in most cases for civil debt, which is why most people are in prison for maintenance matters. That Committee dealt with the way in which the courts were used to enforce debts for hire-purchase companies and television rental companies.

With the cases that we are considering, it is not a question of the man not being able to afford to pay. Paragraph 4.169 of the Finer Report puts the matter starkly and refers to the hatred expressed by the wife as a reason given in many cases for non-payment. It will be made worse if we introduce the "no fault" principle into magistrates court maintenance. When men are ordered to pay maintenance, at the moment they wrangle with their wives because the courts have found them guilty of a matrimonial offence. In the divorce courts, explaining to a man that his wife's conduct has nothing to do with the matter and that he is under an obligation to pay maintenance to his wife and children is hard work in many cases. Many men, once they find that State has taken over and there is no risk of anyone suffering hardship, will refuse to take any more interest in making provision for their wives and children.

Therefore, we must consider carefully the question of the recovery of some money, but not out of the desire to punish the men. People have matrimonial differences and in most of them it is a question of six of one and half a dozen of the other and no concept of punishment comes into it. But in considering the cost of what we may wish to do for one-parent families there must be a limit to the extent to which the public takes over the responsibility of men for their wives and families. We should consider the effective sanctions for getting back money from the heads of the households involved.

There are other proposals which should cost very little money and with which I hope the Minister will deal. The first is the important matter of day centres, and day care for people who wish to work during the day and who cannot care for their children. My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield made a point of this in his speech. He has been supported throughout the debate, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker) and by the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved), and the Secretary of State said very little about it. I trust that that means that my hon. Friend who deals with another Department will be able to tell us how some of the proposals can be proceeded with, particularly that of extending the use of school buildings at the end of the day, with volunteers looking after children.

Perhaps also more training could be given to the childminders we have at the moment, with an amnesty to unlicensed and unregistered child-minders, so that they will come forward and get advice upon the proper care of children. This could be done at modest cost.

I do not want to avoid the difficult matter in the Finer Report—the level of benefit and the level of financial commitment. Following the remarks of the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett), it ought to be said that it appears that the family income supplement, always opposed by the Labour Party, and introduced by the last Conservative Government, has been a great boon to one-parent families, and is increasingly being used by them in the absence of anything else.

It always was a temporary provision We would have replaced it with the tax credit system. But the Finer Report has recommended the guaranteed maintenance allowance, which has not received a universal welcome. It involves a new means-tested benefit. Its great atttraction is that it would give to single-parent families a qualifying income for the purposes of the tax credit scheme.

To be fair to the Finer Report, looked at in the context of the report GMA would then appear to be much more attractive. Standing alone, outside tax credits, it looks unattractive, and it would be a great complication, in the maze of social security that we already have, to have a new authority with a new benefit. But anyway, we cannot afford it, and the Government, spending money indiscriminately on food subsidies, housing subsidies and large-scale nationalisation, certainly cannot afford it in the foreseeable future.

Therefore, meanwhile we must look at what interim steps might be taken, as my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Mr. Montgomery) said, after he had been a little more welcoming to GMA in principle.

A special addition to supplementary benefits, if it were possible, would be the best way of getting directly to the one-parent families most in need. If not, there is the possibility, at less cost, of qualifying for long-term supplementary benefit more quickly in the case of one-parent families, and also the decision to make maternity benefits non-contributory would be a particularly small-cost change that would be of bnnefit to some one-parent families.

A £1.50 a week addition to supplementary benefit would cost £20 a year. The Government are telling us, therefore, that it cannot be afforded, and it is not open in present circumstances to the Opposition to press for immediate public expenditure of that kind. I am sure that. in response to this kind of pressure, when trying to stave off the debate, the Goverment have added £23 million to the interim child benefit for one-parent families under the child benefit scheme, to come in during April, 1976, and that will help all the better-off one-parent families. The cost of a £1.50 addition to supplementary benefit, as I have said, will be about £20 million. The sum of £23 million has gone, instead, to all the better-off one-parent families. It is of no help to the poorest, because it is not disregarded for supplementary benefit. We are entitled to ask what system of priorities, other than trying to stave off this debate, has caused the Secretary of State to do this.

Mrs. Castle

Was not the hon. Gentleman listening when I pointed out that the benefit of the interim child benefit would go in its full extent above all to the 40,000 worst hit one-parent families who are below the tax threshold and who get no supplementary benefit and no FIS?

Mr. Clarke

It certainly would be those who benefit most from what the right hon. Lady has done, but it is of no value at all to the quarter of a million who are totally dependent on supplementary benefit, and they are the poorest of all. In the long term—I must leave the Undersecretary of State to deal with this aspect and, I hope, give us some refreshing news—we must look to the child benefit scheme for all families. We have already debated the fact that the Government are delaying it until 1977 because of the high alumina cement in Washington, Co. Durham.

We believe, as we said in Committee, that age-related benefits should be introduced on to the child benefit structure. Certainly consideration should be given to providing extra benefit for the first child, and perhaps extra benefit for the one-parent family would be the way forward once we can introduce a more sophisticated child benefit scheme. We shall have the opportunity at some stage of questioning the Secretary of State's assurance in Committee that no differential rates can be introduced until 1979 because of the pace at which the Department of Health and Social Security is clanking into the computer age in the North-East so that nothing more than a simple one-rate benefit is possible in 1977. Meanwhile that must be the way forward in this huge range of problems.

Finer reveals the extent of the problems. Although we cannot cope with them all today, we accept the obligation to help people to cope with one-parent status. To be a single parent will always be unhappy but it need not be a disaster. Finer has shown us with 230 recommendations, many of which are obvious and non-controversial, many of the practical ways of getting nearer to help these people to lead a full and satisfactory life in the community so that they and their children will not suffer unnecessarily from domestic tragedy.

9.36 p.m.

The Minister for Housing and Construction (Mr. Reginald Freeson)

I think it would be fair to describe the debate, through which I have sat most of the afternoon and evening, as being quietly passionate. That is a feeling that I share with other members of the Government.

The fact that there can be differences of view as to how and whether certain recommendations in this field should be applied, and differences of view on the availability of resources and how they should be used, does not alter the fact that those who have been involved in handling this matter feel strongly about it. Certainly I do, and, if I may make the point, this issue did not arise simply with the arrival of the Finer Report. Some involved in local as well as in national politics have been concerned about the problems facing unsupported mothers, single-parent families, for many years.

Before I proceed to deal with as many of the points as I can I should like briefly, for the record, to express appreciation in two directions: first to Morris Finer himself, who not only produced this report, but was a man of wide experience, wide concern and of great humanity, who was called in to help in many good works in the course of his life before he was called upon to assist in this matter.

The other tribute that I should like to pay is to an organisation which, so far as I am aware, has not been mentioned tonight—understandably so—but which has probably got the longest track record, to use a common phrase these days, in this field. It is nowadays known as the National Council for Unsupported Mothers. It used to be known as the National Council for Unmarried Mothers. I have forgotten how long it has been in existence, but some of us who were concerned with policy and assistance in this matter well before the issues were put to the Finer Committee by the late Dick Crossman have good reason to express and record appreciation of the work that that organisation has done over generations and that it is continuing to do today. Of course, it has been involved greatly in recent action and campaigning in this field, together with the Finer Committee and since the Finer Report.

I turn first to the question of resources, which has underlain most of the comments about the guaranteed maintenance allowance and the Government's decision, supported by the Opposition Front Bench, not to proceed with GMA, quite apart from whether it is the right mechanism with the resources available. Others have criticised the Government either for not introducing the GMA, or at least for not acting in this direction and spending the money that is available.

The simple question is whether the resources are available or can be diverted from other expenditures. Certainly, in the present situation, both in this field of concern and others in the social services—in activities of the Government themselves or sponsored by the Government—the total resources are limited. As for whether there can be diversion, apart from one or two brief suggestions, principally by way of intervention, I think at the very start of the debate on the question of food subsidies and housing subsidies, although there has been a good deal of talk about diversion of resources, no specific sources from which resources could be diverted to assist here have been proposed. As for the subsidy question—food subsidies and council house subsidies, as well as subsidies going increasingly to housing associations—it should be remembered that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State dealt with that very well, though briefly, when the intervention came.

The question, therefore, is one of cash. Nevertheless, I shall deal as fully as I can in the time available with the points made by several hon. Members who discussed the matters arising out of the Finer Report which could be acted upon or could be considered for further action in the near future and which would involve no great expense, or in some cases virtually no expense at all.

In a situation such as that facing the country now, this is the area where the greatest progress can be made. Indeed, I go so far as to say that perhaps even in good times we should pay far more attention to the undramatic ways in which both central and local government and other social institutions can help in this and other respects alongside the campaigns for greater expenditure in all sorts of directions.

The Finer Report has attracted attention in very much the way that any report of this kind does when presented to Parliament and the country. Such reports often reveal in sharp relief the great need in both national and local government terms for better co-ordination, for better cross-fertilisation of services and thinking and in the use of resources than we have yet achieved. This was the main theme of the speech of the right hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker), and I shall come back to it if time allows. Certainly, the need for what is outlined in our paper, "A Joint Approach to Social Policy", has been great for a long time, and I am glad to say that, in the wake of that document, produced within the past few months, action is proceeding within the Government to move in that direction.

It will be a long hard slog. No one must underestimate the difficulties of departmentalism at both national and local level, or the mechanical problems involved in budgeting for and running services in this way, but moves are in hand in the Government Departments directly concerned in the wake of that paper, "A Joint Approach to Social Policy", which we published not long ago.

I hope to come back to that theme in more specific terms if time allows, but I wish to turn now to the matters raised in the debate, and here I have to say what one so often has to say on occasions such as this. There have been so many detailed points raised, as is inevitable in view of the nature of this voluminous report, that I shall not be able to answer them all now. Accordingly, I undertake that we shall study the report of the debate, and either directly, in so far as I am concerned with housing and related matters, or generally under the co-ordinating guidance of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, we shall study all that has been said, and both my hon. Friends and hon. Members opposite can be assured that the Government will pursue matters by correspondence thereafter. Inevitably, I cannot cover everything now, but it should not be assumed that an omission of comment at this stage means that we do not take this report as presenting a heavy agenda for the Government to seek to act upon. Much action has already been taken, despite the tone of much of this debate.

Inevitably, I turn, especially as I have put on one side the prospect of GMA or anything equivalent to it, to deal with the question of poverty and the importance of income support, which has been discussed so fully in the debate, initially by my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mrs. Hayman) and later by others.

Sir Timothy Kitson (Richmond, Yorks)

Before the hon. Gentleman leaves that subject, will he say something about day schools on the theme he has been developing?

Mr. Freeson

I must ask the hon. Member to be a little more patient. There are a number of topics I have to get through and I have it very much in my mind to get on to the question he raises. It is very relevant to what I have been discussing.

The Government share the concern expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield and others over one-parent families. It is to deal with the problem of poverty, however we may argue about the timing or correctness of particular new benefits that have been recommended, that we have the supplementary benefits scheme. That is not to say this is a perfect vehicle—it is not—but it is the one available now and is concerned with the needs of all the poor people who are out of the employment field, whether sick, unemployed, elderly, or one-parent families.

The Government are concerned to improve this system to make life more tolerable for these groups. Our concern has been shown by the fact that supplementary benefit rates have been raised in line with national insurance rates in two upratings since we came to office and there will be another increase in November. We are protecting the living standards of more than a quarter of a million single-parent families on supplementary benefits and others who have to rely largely on benefits.

Whatever its inadequacies and whatever the differences of view about it, family income supplement exists to help those in full-time work and on low incomes. It has a built-in preference for the one-parent family. The same amount is paid to a one-parent family as to a two-parent family. This is of some importance and should be emulated in housing matters. The Government's concern, particularly at a time of economic stress, must be for all the poor and we have amply demonstrated that concern. It can be said without challenge that this has been so in the last 18 months, whatever else needs to be done in future.

The question of whether the child benefit scheme should be more sophisticated was dealt with very adequately, according to reports I have read, in Committee. The kind of questions raised tonight by the hon. Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) were then dealt with at great length and in great detail. In order to save time for points not yet dealt with, I would prefer to pass on to other matters, but if I have time, I will come back to the points raised by the hon. Member for Rushcliffe.

Mr. Penhaligon

Would it not be possible to get a better redistributive element if one taxed child benefit allowance? The revenue gained by the Government could be given out by increasing the basic allowance. Would that not help poor people?

Mr. Freeson

I do not want to get too involved in matters that have been considered in Committee. If we subsumed the child tax allowance and income tax allowances into the new scheme, there would not be much point after that in applying a taxable system to them. That, briefly, is the case, though it has been put in great detail by my right hon. Friend and her colleagues in the Department.

I come now to child day care, which was the first of six points put by the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler). I was very impressed by the various observations that were made on this issue by different hon. Members. I accept immediately that over a good many years, not simply since 1974 when the report was presented, this area of policy has been given insufficient attention, locally or nationally.

I have responsibility in the Department of the Environment for urban affairs. Therefore, among other things, I am concerned with inner area studies, which the right hon. Member for Worcester initiated as Secretary of State for the Environment, and with other related work in this area which has been started in recent times. The object of co-ordination and policy development in which I am interested and which I am seeking to sponsor within the study areas such as Lambeth, Birmingham, Liverpool and elsewhere is an aspect of policy which is causing great concern to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and her colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Security

The Government, either through the DHSS or through the initiatives I have referred to in my Department, are encouraging local authorities to adopt a much more informal and flexible form of day care. A scheme I was discussing in Lambeth recently involves registration and training of child minders in day nursery activities. This is one of the areas recently chosen as part of the urban affairs studies, and the Government support this development.

There is growing concern in the Department of Health and Social Security, the Department of Education and Science and my Department, in so far as there is an urban affairs element in my work, to get better co-ordination locally between the provision of day nurseries and the way they are used, and nursery schools and classes. Work is going ahead on this matter, and the Government will take very careful note of the detailed representations submitted by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I am interested in this aspect of urban policy, and it is one facet that I shall seek to encourage.

The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield made a second point concerning reform of matrimonial law. The Government are awaiting the Law Commission's report on matrimonial proceedings in the magistrates' courts. That report must take account of the Children Bill, but it will be ready at the end of this year, and we hope to introduce legislation next Session. It will go a long way to implementing the Finer Committee's proposals on matrimonial law.

The hon. Member's third point concerned the collection of maintenance. This issue is being urgently examined and there seems to be little difference between the approach adopted by the Opposition and that of the Government. This is a question of carefully studying the methods which can be used most effectively, bearing in mind the points made by the hon. Member for Rushcliffe, and seeing what action we can then take upon the conclusions.

Enforcement of maintenance, a fairer system for assessing and collecting maintenance, was the fourth point. There are practical difficulties. For example, attachment of earnings would be particularly difficult where the person concerned was self-employed. It is open to the courts to apply that solution, but there are such difficulties. We shall pursue the proposals as vigorously as we can.

Consultation and preparatory work are going on about the family court system. The first thing to do is to cure the defects in the matrimonial law, and then to see the area of overlap between the courts and the divorce courts. Then, on the basis of that and the changes of the law that will be forthcoming fairly shortly, we can come to conclusions about any changes in the court system, whether precisely along the lines of the Finer recommendations, or an adaptation of them, which I gather the hon. Gentleman implied. This is not the first time family courts have been suggested as a matter of policy. There are differences of view about them. It is a matter of awaiting the results of the changes in the law.

Research was also recommended. This recommendation links up with the points stressed by the right hon. Member for Worcester and others. There is no doubt a need for research, together with more co-ordinated policy and practice in a whole range of social and economic matters in the urban situation. I endorse what has been said. The Government take the same view. The work will follow in the wake of the paper, "A Joint Approach to Social Policy".

This problem of housing is one particularly of management and not so much of law. We have had to pay close attention to the position of local authorities and housing associations. As Minister responsible, I propose to initiate a drive to secure better housing provision for one-parent families. It will be my aim, through consultations, guidance by circular, personal visits and contact through the Department's regional offices with local authorities and housing associations, and with new town corporations, to secure the co-operation of those bodies in improving the housing lot of one-parent families in the spirit and detail of much of what the Finer Report recommended.

The point was made time and again in the debate, as well as in the report, that local authorities needed to adjust their managerial and allocation system, their points system, to take full account of the situation of single-parent families. There are still far too many cases in which they are at a disadvantage, in which they are discriminated against, consciously or unconsciously, because the way in which the points systems operate does not take sufficient account of the absence of a husband or a wife from the family situation. There is an assumption that there is a lesser need because the number of people involved in the applications is not so great.

The recommendation on that matter is the most important, but there are many others on housing, many of which are being carried out by local authorities which adopt the best practice. But not all are doing so, and I intend in the initiative to which I have referred to follow up these managerial questions.

Most important at the end of the day is the physical provision of more housing for single-parent families, whether by local authorities or by housing associations. As we continue our housing drive—and expansion is going on—we need to pay more and more attention to a greater variety of special needs than has been paid by many local authorities over many years. It should not be our policy merely to provide housing for the conventional family unit. We need to provide more dwellings across the board for smaller households. In that context we should be providing for single-parent households—

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.