HC Deb 23 February 1983 vol 37 cc1027-36

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

10.18 pm
Mr. Keith Best (Anglesey)

Within a short space of time recently the family has once again been in the focus of public attention on two occasions. The first was the publication of "Families in the Future" by the study commission on the family. I pay tribute to the commission's work and to the responsible way in which it has brought the problems of the family under scrutiny. I am glad that the Department of Health and Social Security and the Social Science Research Council will continue to fund this body. The second occasion was an article in The Guardian of 17 February referring to confidential Cabinet documents emanating from the family policy group set up by the Prime Minister. Its purpose was as set out in one of the alleged confidential memos of Mr. Ferdinand Mount: We are concerned with the overall well being of the family and not solely or specifically with the provision of welfare by the state and other public agencies (which is how Family Policy is sometimes interpreted). In that same article reference was made to the Conservative manifesto of 1979, which stated: We want to work with the grain of human nature, helping people to help themselves—and others. This is the way to restore that self-reliance and self-confidence which are the basis of personal responsibility and national success. It is no new idea that the family is the bulwark against the state and survives independently of it, and is therefore a bastion of freedom. Any politician who acknowledges this must be led to two conclusions. The first is that the state must not inhibit, indeed should encourage positively, family stability even though it is done at the expense of the state in terms of control, both financial and administrative.

The second conclusion is that those who fall outside the definition of the typical family, or those whose family breaks down, need succor. That can be provided in some circumstances by voluntary organisations and friends, but in a welfare state where none should fall below the safety net of adequate food, heat, shelter and health care ultimately that succour must be provided by the state. Government who fail to do so cast the first stone against the family.

If one peers through the heavy haze of hysteria that enveloped The Guardian article, we are in fact left with no more than the laudable proposition that, wherever possible, as many people as are capable should try to be more independent of the state, assume greater responsibility and, by corollary, greater freedom in the management of their own affairs. It is a Government responsibility to seek to create the correct environment in which this can occur, just as they must create a proper climate in which industry can prosper. It is refreshing to find the leadership of our party addressing its mind to these issues in the family policy group.

What we in the Conservative party must never do, however, is to forget those who are weakest in society, physically and economically: the old, the very young and those who have fallen on hard times. To do so would be to turn traitor to our traditions and the history of our party, which has contributed so much to social reform and which has moulded my political philosophy.

Let us take a lesson from the United States of America. Many ideas which are put forward here and are greeted with horror and animadversion are standard practice in the United States, which I visit regularly, and in which the individual has greater freedom than in any other society I know. Yet, as an American told me last weekend "You do not see people starving in the streets here, but you do there". The freedom of many cannot be fashioned out of the misery of the few.

The Prime Minister's initiative may lead to the formulation of an explicit family policy, which at present we do not have, although the study commission on the family urges strongly the need for a family perspective. I believe that this is right but, of course, it begs the question as to what is the family? Certain trends stand out over the past 20 years. First, there has been an increase, in fact a doubling, of one-person households, typically elderly people living alone or young people on their own, often prior to marriage. Secondly, the proportion of all families that might be regarded as typical—a married couple with dependent children—has declined from 38 per cent. in 1961 to 32 per cent. in 1980. Thirdly, the number of one-parent families with dependent children has increased; they formed only 2 per cent. of all households in the early 1960s but made up 4 per cent. by the late 1970s. Are these changes desirable or inevitable? Is there anything that the Government can do by way of a comprehensive policy to strengthen what might be regarded as a typical family?

I believe that there are certain measures that the Government can follow which seek to provide a greater stability for the family. In my speech on 17 December 1982 at c. 603 in a debate on family policy initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Bottomley) I touched only briefly on the need to ensure that there are no fiscal disincentives to family life. Indeed, I should like to think that there were positive incentives. Unfortunately, that is not the case. As this area is not the responsibility of my hon. Friend I shall not develop it at length, but I know that he will pass my views to my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor. Clearly, we have to take into account the change from child tax allowances to child benefit, but families with children still suffer a heavier fiscal burden than others.

Various ideas have been canvassed in a Green Paper "The Taxation of Husband and Wife" Cmnd. 8093, published in December 1980. This emphasises the difference of approach by the Inland Revenue and the DHSS in their treatment of married persons and co-habitees. Should we treat all people as single, even though married, or treat all cohabitees as married couples for tax purposes? In paragraph 66 of the Cmnd. Paper is the proposition In practice, therefore, the choice for the basic tax unit seems to rest between the married couple (ie continuing to aggregate husbands' and wives' incomes) and an individual. What is unsatisfactory at present is that two Government Departments treat the same people in different ways.

No debate in this House is complete without reference to child financial support and, in particular, child benefit. Fortunately, we no longer argue about whether child benefit and its beneficial redistributive effects are good or bad. The advocates of child benefit are on both sides of this House. It is the first of what many of us hope to be many steps towards a full tax credit system. We must now concentrate the argument, however, upon its level. The Child Poverty Action Group has submitted that there would have to be an increase of 55p in order to restore the benefit to its April 1979 level and that would cost £302 million in a full year. The value of £9 in 1955–56 fell back in the 1970s before rising to £9.30 in 1979–80. It has since fallen back to £7.60 for 1981–82. As a proportion of average earnings, the value of child support was also higher in 1979–80 than it is today. Compared, therefore, with earnings, the value of child support has not kept pace with rising living standards. When the Chancellor is considering his Budget, however, I hope that he will bear in mind one thing—that an increase in personal tax allowances, which we all expect and hope for, should be matched by a commensurate increase in child benefit, otherwise families with children will fall behind yet again.

Because benefits have fallen behind and because taxation for families has increased more than that for single people—and among two-parent families 95 per cent. have earnings as their main source of income—a wife often has to go out to work to increase the family's earnings which, of course, increases taxation that is paid. At the moment we seem to be locked into a vicious downward spiral. What is the effect upon the children who, in legal matrimonial matters, are of paramount importance?

There is no reason why spouses should not work, but there must be adequate support for children. There is no real acknowledgement of the fact that bringing up children is a full-time job in itself. One proposal from the family policy group was to encourage mothers to stay at home by at least removing fiscal discrimination against them, and that reputedly, was supported by the Chancellor. As every child can testify, and I do so strongly myself, there is nothing like a mother's love. A mother's presence is important to a child's development. Consequently, if women are to stay at home to satisfy that need to look after a family while it is growing up, thus sacrificing career prospects, either a tax credit financial allowance must be made available directly, or greater fiscal regard must be given to the financial position of the spouse. Otherwise we create family poverty.

A large proportion of Britain's children live in poor families and, at present, their numbers are growing for different reasons. Long-term unemployment means that many children will spend part of their childhood within families which, therefore, depend on supplementary benefit that is hardly generous if, indeed, it is adequate. Excluding housing costs this year, it is £69.80 for a married couple with two children aged between five and 10.

As the study commission on the family concludes A combination of factors—unemployment, low wages and an increase in those family types most in need—means that today a large proportion of British children live either below the poverty line or near to it. The most recent figures show that 880,000 are in families with incomes of the supplementary benefit level and, altogether, there are some 2,360,000 children in families with incomes below 140 per cent. of the supplementary level. It is small wonder, then, that I ask the Government to concentrate on what I term "families at risk". Supplementary benefit is not a proper basis of permanent income for so many families, nor was it designed as such.

It is the family that provides the great bulk of personal care for the elderly, and in that respect the family is far more important than the social services. I am glad that the Government have acknowledged that and are now doing a great deal in encouraging care of elderly people within the family. The public perception, however, is different and my hon. Friend needs to do far more to publicise that.

I believe that there is an essential element of reciprocity in elderly people living with a family in order that they can take over some of the responsibilities of bringing up the children so as to enable the young parents to go out and enjoy themselves occasionally. In return, the elderly are cared for. I believe that we should let both young and elderly ask not what they can do for each other but what each other can do for themselves. I hope that my hon. Friend can tell me more of what we are doing to encourage people to care for the elderly within our homes. My own aunt can be fairly said to have devoted much of her life, thus denying herself certain pleasures and freedoms, to looking after my grandmother.

That necessarily means that adequate home help and nursing assistance provision must be made. If that can be done, if more can be cared for within the home, then, while I accept that there will always be a need for homes for the elderly who have no relatives to care for them or who are very confused, it will be a pleasure to see institutions close.

I hope that my hon. Friend will say something about the welcome announcement recently by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State of £15 million being made available for intermediate treatment for children in trouble. We should not forget that many problems arise out of the concept known as the "latchkey child", whose parents are both out at work when he or she returns from school, to find an empty house and the temptation to go astray. As recently as 1921 fewer than one in 10 married women were working. Today, about half of all married women are in paid employment. Nowadays a woman can be earning as much as or more than her husband, and a woman may well enter married life with savings of her own. Yet women are still treated as subsidiary to men in taxation. Are not these ideas now outmoded?

Children can also be at risk in a family from which one parent is missing altogether—the single-parent family—some 40 per cent. of whom have supplementary benefit as their major source of funds. I should like to acknowledge the assistance given by the Government already and, of course, it is important to ensure that supplementary benefit levels do not lose their real value but are maintained in line with prices.

One cost that is particularly high is heat. I welcomed in November 1980 the increase in heating additions to their highest ever real value and more than fully price-protected. In the year from November 1982 more than £300 million will be spent on this. That is a real achievement. The old electricity discount scheme which last operated in the winter of 1978–79 helped only those with electricity. The new scheme concentrates on the poorest, including an entitlement to the lower rate of heating addition—£1.90 per week—for most supplementary benefit householders with children aged less than five. This measure will help many single-parent families. Moreover, the Government have improved the earnings disregard and there is now a day-care initiative for the under-fives which, again, will be of assistance. I repeat a plea. The Government have thought it right to provide pensioners with a £10 Christmas bonus to help them over the festive season. I believe that the single-parent families are a section of society that is equally, if not more, deserving of such treatment. A £10 Christmas bonus for single-parent families would cost £7.3 million in a full year and would enable many children to have a happier Christmas—with presents—than they enjoy at the moment. Only today, the secretary working in my chambers told me how she has to buy the Christmas presents for the two young children of her single-parent daughter as well as provide clothing, because the daughter cannot manage on her present income.

Finally, I am sufficiently old-fashioned to believe that marriage should still be looked upon as forming the basis of the family in normal circumstances. Marriage carries many responsibilities, particularly on breakdown, which an increasing number of people feel does not result in fairness to both parties in many cases. But how many rights does marriage confer? It is time that we started giving more rights in acknowledgement of the responsibilities. When marital breakdown occurs we still need to do far more to investigate the prospects of reconciliation than is done at present and, when the break is irretrievable, we should concentrate on bringing the parties together to discuss and agree on many more aspects of financial provision and care and access for the children than there is machinery for doing within the existing structure of the courts. I welcome the publication of a consultative paper about the establishment of a family court, although many of us will never be satisfied until we ae something along the lines that was suggested in the Finer report. Nevertheless, this is a beginning. I hope, also, that we shall see the institution of a statutory conciliation service integral to the family court, since such a service has proved itself beyond measure in various places such as Brighton and Bristol.

The concept of conciliation is important because a determination reached by agreement rather than by the court's arbitration is likely to be that much longer lasting. At present an inter-departmental committee on conciliation, as set up by my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor, is considering evidence on conciliation. I was informed recently by my right hon. and noble Friend that it was hoped that the committee would finish its work by January this year, but the volume of work involved has caused the timetable to slip by only two months, and it is now expected that the report will be delivered to Ministers in March. No decision has yet been taken on the publication of the report, but Ministers are aware of the strength of feeling on this subject and will certainly take account of it. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will pass on my strongest representation that the committee's report should be available to hon. Members, in order that we may consider fully its implications, which will lead to a proper debate about the role of conciliation within the matrimonial jurisdiction of the courts.

Ms. Jane Streather of One Parent Families has written to me expressing support for the Bristol courts' family conciliation service, which is threatened with closure unless the Government provide £40,000 for 1983–84 and guarantees funding for a further two years. She tells me that her organisation believes that a national network of conciliation services is necessary to take the bitterness out of divorce, promote the well-being of children, and save public money. Evidence demonstrates that expensive and sometimes destructive legal proceedings can be avoided by helping couples reach agreed decisions. Conciliation gives priority to children locked into parental battles over custody, access, housing and property. It is voluntary and confidential and can lead co reconciliation. One in six of the cases dealt with by the Bristol courts' conciliation service ended in saved marriages, even though solicitors were filing divorce petitions. A conciliation service saves public money, not only in obviating the need for court welfare officer reports but in rendering unnecessary the time spent on assessing legal aid applications. The cost of the Bristol service averaged £43 per head in 1981–82 whereas legal aid costs for High Court and county court proceedings averaged £403 per head in 1980–81. In the context of this debate, one of the most important aspects of conciliation is that it allows no State interference into private affairs and gives couples control over decisions and responsibilities.

It was the Finer committee which wanted husbands and wives to be encouraged to agree through conciliation by a neutral third party rather than have a court decision imposed on them, and I hope that my right hon. and noble Friend will take on board the great strength of judicial and lay opinion in favour of such a course. In so doing he would be effecting no more than was called for by the Law Commission in its summary of recommendations on the financial consequences of divorce. Everything possible should be done to encourage recourse to conciliation rather than litigation". In my submission to the inter-departmental committee, I stated that between 1 March 1981 and 30 September 1981 there were 30 referrals to the Brighton in-court conciliation service which led to 17 agreements reached, of which only two subsequently broke down. In Eastbourne/Hastings, of 18 total referrals 10 agreements were reached and only two subsequently broke down. I believe that conciliation has a vital role to play in the administration of justice in matrimonial jurisdiction and will be in the best interests of the potential litigants as well as making savings in costs.

A family perspective by Government does not involve just the inevitable cry for more resources. It is something much more subtle. It requires a comprehension of the overall situation confronting families, particularly the families that are most disadvantaged, such as those that I have mentioned today. If the Government can demonstrate a commitment to that perspective and show that their measures are considered in the light of that perspective, a substantial advance will have been made in the stability of our society based upon the family unit which, after all, has endured longer than the House of Commons and longer than the oldest religion in the world.

10.35 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Tony Newton)

If this debate were to have a subtitle, it would have to be "Perseverance Rewarded". It is perhaps within the knowledge of the Chair, as it is certainly within my knowledge, that my hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey (Mr. Best) was frustrated in an endeavour to raise this subject last month. With his usual persistence, he has returned to it today, and I am glad that he has done so. Apart from congratulating my hon. Friend on his persistence, I should also congratulate him on the number of words that he managed to pack into 15 or 16 minutes. I am not sure that I can match him in delivery or indeed in consequence to deal with all the points that he raised.

My hon. Friend was kind enough to indicate—at least, I hope that this is what he was indicating—that it would not be right for me to comment at length on specific benefit levels and tax allowances or the structure of the tax system so close to Budget day.

I was glad that my hon. Friend acknowledged the fact that in the past two or three years the Government have taken a number of steps which reflect the importance that we attach to some of the issues that he raised. We have fulfilled our pledge to maintain the November 1980 value of child benefit. The supplementary benefit scale rates for children have been improved by 100 per cent. for the under-fives and the 11 to 12-year-olds and by 65 per cent. for other children, compared with an increase in the retail price index excluding housing of only 56 per cent. in the same period.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the relatively new policy of automatic heating additions for families with children under five. I could also add to the items that he mentioned the improvements that we have made in the family income supplement, including some improvements in eligibility directed especially towards single parents, as well as the real increase in one parent benefit and the strenuous and successful efforts that we have made to increase the take-up of that benefit.

Whatever the family is—the concept is not always so easy to define as some people assume, it is certainly far more than simply a financial unit whose interests can be seen solely in terms of the size and level of welfare benefits. More than anything else, I believe, it is an institution whose hallmark is mutual care and responsibility of people for one another, and it is on those aspects that I shall concentrate.

I was glad that my hon. Friend referred to the work of the study commission on the family and its recent report, "Families in the Future", as we certainly attach value to the work that it has done. That is why, in concert with the Social Science Research Council, the Department is funding a successor body to the study commission. We shall share the costs of the centre with the Social Science Research Council by providing a grant of up to £90,000 per year for three years, possibly to be extended. Among other tasks, it is intended to continue the valuable analysis of research and other data concerning families and public policy. We hope that it will be able to work on various suggestions that it has itself made of possible ways in which a family perspective may be maintained within Government.

In considering what the Government can, are and should be doing to strengthen, support and assist the family, we must be clear on one thing. Government help can be a relatively minor activity compared with what families can do for themselves and for each other. Indeed, the policies of the Government concerning the personal social services are based firmly on a recognition that the family is the front-line provider of social care in the United Kingdom.

Between the informal care provided by families, relations and friends and the statutory services lies the important contribution of the more formal voluntary systems of providing care. The various arms of Government provide considerable financial assistance to voluntary organisations, a large proportion of which are concerned with helping families or members of families who have problems of old age, mental handicap or growing up as responsible adults. The most recent figures show that central Government gave a total of about £140 million in grants direct to all kinds of voluntary organisations in 1981–82. The total of my Department was £13.75 million. In the same period, social services departments in England made grants of some £22 million to voluntary organisations. A significant amount of help is going to support this kind of activity. Within those totals, much is going to organisations specifically concerned with the kind of areas on which my hon. Friend touched.

I wish to mention some of the initiatives that central Government have announced recently that in various ways will further help support and strengthen families and enable them in turn to assist and be in better contact with their members. Several of them were mentioned by my hon. Friend in his speech. I deal first with care in the community and joint finance.

One of the main anxieties that has been expressed about my Department's policy of providing care in the community has been that sufficient funds would not be available to the local authority social services and other relevant local services to provide the necessary nursing and domicilliary support to the elderly, the handicapped and disadvantaged children when they came out of the institutions which have hitherto looked after them to live with or be nearer to their families and friends.

Joint finance money is one of the main sources of such additional help and it has been possible since 1979–80 for the Government to increase the funds available from £34.5 million to an expected £96 million in 1983–84. That is a substantial increase. The 1983–84 figure includes an extra £6 million announced in July last year of which £1.5 million will be used to fund pilot projects to develop and assess the effectiveness of community care schemes. Over the next five years, we propose to make available up to £15 million for such pilot projects. We hope to extend the range of projects for which joint finance can be provided if legislation now being considered by the House is passed.

Secondly, I refer to a recent initiative involved with mental illness in old age. To help the initiative proposed by the Health Advisory Service, the Government are providing an extra £6 million over the next three years. Each regional health authority has been asked to nominate by June of this year at least one development district where the extra money would help to create suitable services more quickly than elsewhere and which would act as an example to other districts.

Thirdly, we have been making renewed efforts to get mentally handicapped children out of hospitals, which are not the right places for them to grow up. Health and local authorities have been asked to get together to review the needs of all such children in hospital and to set a date by which they expect to get each child out.

Fourthly, and this is something to which my hon. Friend referred, there is the question of the under-fives. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced on 6 December, we are setting aside £2 million a year for the next three years to encourage projects to help such families. The money is intended mainly for use in the voluntary sector to assist projects to make child-minding more effective or to promote home visiting and community self-help schemes.

One of the groups that we have especially in mind is the one-parent family group, to which my hon. Friend made several references.

Lastly, I refer to the recent initiatives concerning children in trouble. The first of those is concerned with drug abuse. The sum of £2 million is being made available in 1983–84 to encourage new ways of tackling drug misuse and to provide support for parents, who are recognised as being very important in counteracting the effects of addiction. The special funds will help to implement some of the recommendations of a report on treatment and rehabilitation of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.

The other important initiative concerns intermediate treatment. The range of community-based facilities which has grown up over the past few years to help young people who have been in trouble with the law—which the Government want to develop more fully and which is known generally as intermediate treatment, or IT—is, we believe, of very considerable importance. Essentially, it is a way of dealing with young people in trouble that is half way between removing them from home to some residential or custodial institution, and leaving them at home under the passive supervision of a social worker or probation officer.

The sorts of programme run under the IT umbrella vary widely, but they are all designed to involve the youngster in a range of positive activities under the guidance of concerned adults. One of the main advantages of such schemes is that they keep the child within the family and the community and thus do not multiply, in some cases, the disruptive consequences of removal from home. Local authorities have increasingly recognised the value of IT. They are expected to have spent some £9 million on it last year—20 per cent. more than the preceding year—and their expenditure is estimated to rise by a further 30 per cent. in 1982–83.

We, too, as a Government have recognised the value of IT. This year, the Government increased the grants we make available to voluntary bodies for this purpose by some 40 per cent. in real terms to well over £1 million. Recently, as my hon. Friend knows, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced that there would be a further substantial increase of £15 million over three years for a special development programme. Claims for this money may be made by inter-agency voluntary organisations, whether newly established or existing, to provide IT facilities for young people.

I fear that the time remaining to me in this brief debate will not allow me to do full justice to everything that my hon. Friend has said about the law in relation to marital breakdown and the administration of the law. As my hon. Friend knows, some developments have been put forward about family courts in a consultation paper issued recently by the Lord Chancellor. I do not have time to comment as fully as I should like on what my hon. Friend has said about the importance of conciliation services. As he knows—and indeed, said—an interdepartmental commit-tee of officials is looking at these matters now, and it is, therefore, difficult for me to comment further tonight.

I have ranged widely in my speech, just as my hon. did. For that I make no apology. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for having brought such wide-ranging matters to the attention of the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.