HC Deb 16 December 1976 vol 922 cc1919-30

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Coleman.]

12.20 a.m.

Mr. Robert J. Bradford (Belfast, South)

Before I turn to some of the more serious problems experienced by one-parent families may I be permitted to make two prefatory comments? First, I wish to give a brief history of my interest in this matter and explain my reason for seeking this Adjournment debate. I met a group of divorced and separated wives, each of whom had been treated rather shabbily by the various statutory bodies which were operating the law as it exists.

On 25th May 1976 I received a reply to a parliamentary Question regarding the implementation of the Finer Report in Northern Ireland. While many of the recommendations had been implemented there were significant omissions from the list given in the Answer. The proposal contained in recommendation 123, dealing with personal tax allowance, had been omitted. It was not, however, difficult to discover that taxation in Northern Ireland is applied in the same way as it is applied in the rest of the Kingdom.

Some other recommendations relating to housing were said to be in the pipeline for acceptance and others were said to have been accepted. There was no way of distinguishing between those which had been accepted and those which might later be accepted.

My second prefatory point is that there is no intention on my part to castigate the Government, or for that matter the statutory bodies in Northern Ireland, for neglect in failing to implement the recommendations of Finer. The fact is that many more of these recommendations are operative in Northern Ireland than most people suspect.

I wish to elicit from the Government a statement spelling out which recommendations, particularly in relation to housing, have been implemented since the reply to my parliamentary Question. In consultation with the one-parent group in Northern Ireland I have discovered that there have been conflicting experi- ences when these families encountered the Housing Executive in the Province. I wish to go into those areas where there is ambiguity. I would like to know whether some of the housing recommendations listed as about to be accepted are now operative in Northern Ireland.

In preparation for a parliamentary Question I placed on the Order Paper for answer a fortnight ago I contacted the Housing Executive and asked it three questions. First, I asked it whether one-parent families were given a points allowance which would not disadvantage them compared with two-parent families. The answer was that no such provision existed. I then asked what was the possibility of the payment of rent directly to the Executive through the agency of the social services in cases where there were particular problems in a family and where there was the possibility of rent arrears amassing. I was again told that there was no such provision.

I asked a third question—will the tenancy of a Housing Executive home automatically go to the parent who has custody of the children after a legal separation or divorce? The answer was "No." A notice to quit could be served although it might take some time.

This week I mentioned to a member of the Housing Executive that I was to raise these questions in the House and he told me that he could provide me with the answers which I required. The conflict experienced by one-parent families is understandable and I appreciate their complaint. I received two different sets of answers to the same set of questions. I suspect that most of the problems of tenancies granted to the parent with custody of children and the difficulties involved in paying rent directly are found in the private rented sector in Northern Ireland.

The Finer Report said that one-parent families relied disproportionately on the private rented market and were particularly likely to live in low-grade conditions at high rents in stress areas. That bears out my suspicion.

Recommendation 34 of the Finer Report states: The Matrimonial Homes Act 1967 should be amended so that where the husband is sole owner or tenant, and the wife, with no property interest, claims to be protected in her occupation, the court has the power under that Act to order the owner out of the house altogether where the circumstances warrant it. In Northern Ireland, legislation is slightly different. What is the legal position for a one-parent family when the parent with custody of the children is put out of a house? I suspect that they have no right to the tenancy of the House if it is in the private rented sector. What does the Minister intend to do to change the law in the near future?

Is the facility for paying rent directly available to those who live in the private sector? One-parent families generally rely on this housing stock, and if those facilities are not available the plight of one-parent families becomes more difficult.

Two areas of the Finer Report have come under close scrutiny throughout the United Kingdom—and I do not make the point that Northern Ireland is lagging behind. I stress that Northern Ireland's need is as great as that of elsewhere. When the impetus comes from Northern Ireland Ministers to implement the recommendations of the report, hon. Members and Ministers for Northern Ireland will have done the rest of the United Kingdom a great service.

I refer to the need for family courts. I know that it is said that the necessary trained personnel and financial resources are not available, but the whole Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, requires courts with the proper ethos to deal with these sensitive problems and somehow to remove the guilt complex which exists. In this way we must, in a way which will cause the least embarrassment, assist those who find it difficult to go to a court of law and discuss their matrimonial and family problems.

As so often happens, the Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act 1976, which amended the Matrimonial Courts Act 1967, contained the words This Act shall not extend to Northern Ireland. In this case, it did not extend to Scotland either. If separated or divorced women—and separated or divorced men—in Northern Ireland do not have the protection which that Act affords in Great Britain, we are failing those in Northern Ireland who encounter domestic violence and matrimonial upset.

We must somehow regularise maintenance payments. The very fine report by the Finer Committee expressed its preference for a guaranteed maintenance allowance. I will not take up time now with a detailed discussion of that recommendation. I may be asking for something which will incur the wrath of some of my hon. Friends as well as that of the Minister, but I will risk that because we need to regularise the maintenance payments to one-parent families.

There are about 19,000 one-parent families in Northern Ireland. Of those headed by women, 3,182 receive supplementary benefit and 5,109 receive child interim benefit. The equivalent figures for one-parent families headed by men are 432 and 1,187. If the Minister does not feel that we can pioneer a new system of formalised maintenance benefit, if he feels that the relationship of our laws to those of Great Britain would make such a scheme out of the question, would he press his right hon. Friends in the Cabinet to address their minds to the important matter of regularising maintenance payments?

We need to do so for at least three reasons. We need first to regularise payments because again and again separated or divorced wives especially have to go to court in embarrassing situations to pressurise husbands to pay the maintenance allowance. That is very difficult for ordinary people who detest going near courts. It is embarrassing and often quite unsuccessful.

It is reckoned in the Finer Report that a one-parent-plus-one-child family requires a regular income of £15.35 a week. Many of the one-parent families headed by wives in Northern Ireland receive nothing like that in terms of maintenance. Further, the payments are so irregular that they are thrown on to dependence on supplementary benefit. They react strongly to the dreadful sense of accepting charity. For a one-parent family plus four children the regular maintenance allowance should be about £24, but that is not on for many women, who have to chase after their former husbands to make them meet their obligations.

The third reason that we should consider a more formalised maintenance structure is that mothers who have their own children need to be with their own children. Unless they have money available on a regular basis and of a correct amount to meet the cost of living, they will be forced out to work, thus neglecting the children who already have been deprived of one parent in the family.

With these few remarks based on a massive recommendation made by the Finer Committee, I eagerly await the Minister's response to the three main matters that I have raised in this short debate.

12.37 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Ray Carter)

The House is indebted to the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Bradford) for raising this subject. It is one that he has pursued with vigour over some months. It is an issue that we discussed only this week arising out of another meeting we had. I cannot promise to reply in detail to the points that he has raised tonight, but I shall let him know by letter precisely what the position is in Northern Ireland.

One matter that will be of interest to the hon. Gentleman is the plight of a family in its search for housing when it breaks up. The hon. Gentleman was concerned principally with private housing but he knows very well that the private rented sector in Northern Ireland is now extremely small. The cases to which he refers in the rented sector would be principally within the Housing Executive sector. The hon. Gentleman will know that it is accepted in Northern Ireland that there may be delays in issuing notices to quit, but since normally the husband quits voluntarily and notices to quit are formally served prior to transfer of tenancy there has not been a problem of significant proportions. It should be noted that when the tenancy transfers the one-parent family remains in the matrimonial home, the other parent being offered suitable alternative accommodation.

I point out that that is significantly better than the system that operates in many housing authorities throughout the rest of the United Kingdom. Certainly it is better than the situation in my Bir- mingham constituency. In some areas in Northern Ireland social administration is in advance of some areas in the rest of the United Kingdom, even though generally it is pretty much the same.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act 1976 and wondered why Northern Ireland was excluded from its provisions. The reason is that it amends the Matrimonial Homes Act 1967, which applies only to Great Britain. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are looking urgently at the situation in Northern Ireland and that we shall be doing what we can to ensure that women are not at a disadvantage in Northern Ireland compared with the rest of the United Kingdom.

I will now deal with the Finer Report, and perhaps the hon. Gentleman will allow me to tell him by letter precisely where we stand on the other points that he raised.

The recommendations of the Finer Committee were debated fully in this House on 20th October 1975, and while there have been a number of parliamentary Questions since then on the subject, the difficulties facing one-parent families in Northern Ireland have not been highlighted previously.

The Finer Committee took almost five years to produce a report which covered a very wide range of Government activity and which contained 230 recommendations. The report is arguably a model of its kind but the subject covered is a complex one and not capable of easy summary.

The Committee's terms of reference did not extend to Northern Ireland but, in view of the importance of its recommendations, my right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State directed that an inter-departmental committee should be established to monitor progress on their implementation in Northern Ireland. This inter-departmental committee is chaired by the Department of Health and Social Services and covers the social services, social security, legal matters, employment, education and housing.

Progress on the implementation of the Finer proposals is monitored in conjunction with the statutory agencies responsible for these various services in Northern Ireland. In particular there has been close consultation with the health and social services boards and with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive.

In considering the implementation of the Finer recommendations in Northern Ireland it is important to remember the differences in the law and in the administrative structure of the agencies responsible for their implementation as compared to that in the rest of the United Kingdom. Direct comparisons are therefore quite difficult.

Progress with the implementation of the Finer recommendations, whether in Belfast or in London, depends to a large extent on the availability of resources. While some of the recommendations depend on changes in the law, in most cases progress has been determined by the availability of either manpower or finance at a time when the competing demands on social agencies are considerable.

As well as the physically and mentally handicapped, the elderly and children in need of care, protection or control, a great deal of attention is currently being focused on socially disadvantaged groups, only one of which is the one-parent family. As in most other facets of public activity at the present time, therefore, priorities will continue to dictate how far resources can be devoted to the needs of one-parent families.

A specific part of the Committee's terms of reference was the need to maintain equity as between one-parent families and other families". Equally important is the need to differentiate between types of one-parent families. Many can cope very well, many live in advantageous circumstances, and many take strength from their adversity. The primary need, therefore, is to assist those one-parent families who most require assistance.

It would be helpful in dealing with the problems of single parents and their children if we had more information available about their numbers and the circumstances giving rise to their situation. The Finer Committee estimated that there were, in April 1971, 620,000 one-parent families, with over 1 million children in Great Britain.

The basis for these figures included the 1971 census, national insurance records, and other sources, including specific research. It has proved very difficult, however, to ascertain accurately the number of one-parent families in Northern Ireland. The number with which health and social services boards are in contact is relatively low—only 2,000 in the Eastern Board area, which includes Belfast—and the number in receipt of supplementary benefit is only just over 8,000.

The tradition in Northern Ireland of close family ties may be a factor in not revealing the extent of the problem, and it would be wrong to try to underestimate it. As indicated to the hon. Member in a reply last July, the best available estimate for Northern Ireland is 19,000 one-parent families.

Coming to the nub of the matter to which the hon. Member has drawn attention, the Finer recommendations can be grouped into those which have already been implemented in Northern Ireland, those which are being or will be implemented there, those which require to be examined and further developed before a decision on implementation can be taken, and those which will not be implemented. Details of the recommendations falling within each of these classifications can be provided, and I shall certainly give the hon. Member information by letter if I do not cover it fully in what I have to say now. A great deal is being done to alleviate the problems facing one-parent families in Northern Ireland, and I know that my noble Friend with responsibility for the social services in Northern Ireland is anxious that implementation of the Finer recommendations should continue at a reasonable pace, taking account of the constraints which I have mentioned earlier.

It is not possible to cover every recommendation or every aspect in a short debate. Indeed, there is limited value in focussing on one aspect of the recommendations. An integrated approach is essential and I will concentrate, therefore, on broad bands of issues.

With regard to the social security recommendations, strict parity with the rest of the United Kingdom applies, and it can be assumed that any cash benefit introduced or decisions made in Great Britain as a result of Finer will apply equally in Northern Ireland. Some progress has already been made in this field with the introduction of child interim benefit for one-parent families and the adjustments in the earnings disregard.

Other specific matters relating to benefits are being examined. Parity does not, however, determine the position in other important fields and this will be apparent in examining the recommendations relating to reform of the law and the legal system, to housing to education and to the social services.

On law reform, the Finer Committee examined three systems of law—the law relating to divorce, the law relating to maintenance and the law relating to social security. All of these provisions have a bearing on family breakdown and therefore on the creation of one-parent families. There is no comparable legislation in Northern Ireland to the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 on which Finer concentrated so heavily and, with regard to divorce, the law in Northern Ireland is still based on the matrimonial offence, whereas in Great Britain it is based on the irretrievable breakdown of marriage. The need for law reform in these fields in Northern Ireland is currently being considered, as well as other related proposals arising from the recent report of the Law Commission.

I turn now to the question of housing. The Finer recommendations relating to housing are numerous and not easily summarised. Some of the more important, however, are adequately covered in Northern Ireland, where advantages of size are evident. There is, for example, close liaison between the departments responsible for housing and for the social services, as well as between the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and the health and social services boards. The housing needs of special categories, including one-parent families, are therefore given careful consideration.

Finer also made proposals about the homeless, but in this case the statutory position in Norhern Ireland is quite different from that in Great Britain. In Northern Ireland, the statutory responsibility for finding temporary accommodation for homeless families rests with the social services departments of the boards while the Housing Executive has responsibility for finding permanent accommodation.

Although the position is obscured by the substantial demands on the Executive for providing emergency accommodation for families made homeless by the civil unrest, the problem of homelessness within Northern Ireland is not on the scale evident in parts of Great Britain.

With regard to the selection of housing accommodation, the Housing Executive operates on the basis of a group plus points scheme, and there is no discrimination against one-parent families— —

Mr. Bradford rose——

Mr. Carter

I am afraid I cannot give way. I have not enough time left if the hon. Member wants me to finish my remarks.

Contrary to the Finer recommendation, some allowance can be made for periods of residence in a given area but, even in this respect, special consideration can be given where there is a danger of family breakdown. The whole tenor of existing policy, therefore, is to give full weight to social problems in the allocation and management of public sector housing in Northern Ireland.

Most of the recommendations which relate to education are matters which would be for implementation by school authorities and teachers. These authorities are responsible for the curricula of schools, for the extent to which pastoral guidance is provided for all pupils in need of help, and for links with parents. Most of the recommendations reflect current developments in educational thought. This is another field where close liaison is being developed between departments and statutory agencies, between education and the social services.

I move on finally to the question of social services. The Finer recommendations relating to parents and children are broadly in line with existing policy in Northern Ireland. More rapid progress with the provision of pre-school care—whether by way of pre-school playgroups or day nurseries—of mother and babies groups, of home helps and mothering aides, and of general family support services, depends on the availability of resources, including trained staff. A review group is currently examining the law governing the services for children and young persons and will shortly be publishing a consultative document which will touch upon a number of the matters raised by the Finer Committee in the context of parents and children.

In conclusion, I wish to thank the hon. Member for providing——

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Thursday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at ten minutes to One o'clock.