HL Deb 24 July 1967 vol 285 cc631-8

3.42 p.m.


My Lords, with permission, I should like to repeat a Statement which has just been made by my right honourable friend the Minister without Portfolio in another place. It is as follows:

"The problem of family poverty is complex and there is no simple or single solution to it; nor can poverty be removed overnight. Our attack on it must therefore have many aspects and include long-term as well as short-term plans. Our immediate intentions are as follows:

"In April, 1968, we shall increase the existing family allowance by 7s. for second and subsequent children. But we intend to give help before the winter to the large families, who are those most in need. Therefore from the end of October next 5s. of this 7s. will be paid for fourth and subsequent children. There are about one million such children in 609,000 families.

"The cost of the increase in family allowances, net of tax and other adjustments, will be about £83 million in a full year. Such a sum could be raised in a number of ways. Since the purpose of the increase in family allowances is to improve the incomes of families in need, it would be logical, in considering how it should be paid for, to consider, among other things, some adjustment of the income tax allowances which affect families. It must be left to my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to propose, at the right time and in the light of all the relevant circumstances, the method or methods by which the necessary revenue could be raised.

"We are much concerned that those entitled to school meals and welfare milk free often do not take up their entitlement. We shall arrange publicity campaigns to see that families are quite clear what they can get and how to get it. The arrangements are now being reviewed so as to make it easy for them to exercise their rights without embarassment.

"We shall be raising the income limits below which families can get free school meals and welfare milk in line with the recently announced increases in supplementary benefits. We shall improve our provision for large families by extending free school meals to the fourth and subsequent children in a family and free welfare milk to the third and subsequent children under five (including expectant mothers with two or more children under five). This will be in both cases regardless of income and will take effect next April.

"We feel bound to increase the charge for school meals and welfare milk for those who do not qualify for them free. The present charges were fixed in 1957 and the cost has since greatly increased. Continuation of the present level of charge involves a claim on our resources that can no longer be justified. We intend next April, therefore, to increase the charges for school meals by 6d. and for welfare milk by 2d. a pint. There will still be a substantial element of subsidy in these charges. The subsidy will be 1s. 1d. per meal at a net annual running cost of about £64 million. At the present retail price of milk the subsidy for welfare milk will cost about £35 million a year.

"The net saving resulting from the increased charges for school meals and welfare milk after taking account of the wider free provision for large families will be about £25 million. Thus the total net cost of the increases in family allowances and the charges in regard to meals and milk will be about £58 million a year.

"We recognise that these measures cannot alone solve the complex problem of family poverty. Rent and rates can bear heavily on families of low income. Our rate rebate scheme, which, like rent rebate schemes, applies to the person as distinct from the house, is of great help to the needy. We have also introduced generous new housing subsidies and we are encouraging local authorities to extend local rent rebate schemes so as to ensure that subsidies are used to give help to those who need it most.

"The relief of poverty is not however solely a matter of cash benefits to individuals. It is also a matter of social capital, and it is necessary to tackle the poverty of the physical environment in which many children grow up. It was this which the Plowden Report had in mind when it spoke of educational priority areas. The Government propose to make a start on tackling this problem by allocating an extra £16 million over the next two years for schools in such areas on top of existing programmes. Additional funds will similarly be made available for Scotland."

That is the end of the Statement.

3.43 p.m.


My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Lord for having repeated that Statement, which is of great importance and which obviously will have to be looked at very closely. It seems to divide into two parts: those measures which will take effect soon and those which will not take effect until next April. First of all, there is the interim measure for an increase in the family allowance for the fourth and subsequent children of 5s. each from October. Am I right in thinking that this will be done by Order under the National Insurance (No. 2) Bill, which has not yet received the Royal Assent but will enter into effect very soon after the House has returned?

Secondly, there is the publicity that is to be given to the extension of free school meals to a higher proportion of those eligible for them than at present take them. Can the noble Lord say what proportion of eligible children do take school meals at the present time? Can he also say how far the method of collecting the amounts due for school meals is responsible for the fact that a great many children do not take them who are eligible?

On the wider aspects of the 6½ million children who are to get 7s. a week more from April next, am I right in supposing that this will be the subject of legislation or, at any rate, an Order under the Family Allowances Bill? If that is so, am I right in supposing that that would be the right time to debate the wider issues of help for families containing a large number of children, and where the resources coming in are small?

Finality, may I ask the noble Lord about the measure he announced of allocating an extra £16 million over the next two years for schools in educational priority areas? Is that to come into force right away? Perhaps I have given the noble Lord enough to answer at the present time, but I have no doubt that a number of noble Lords will want to raise questions on this important Statement.


My Lords, I am bound to say that perhaps the most important question the noble Lord has asked me, as a business manager, is how these matters will be dealt with, by Order or by legislation. This is the one piece of information that I have not with me. It may well be that the increases in the family allowances could be carried out under older legislation, but my guess is that that will be done under the Bill in which the noble Lord took such a prominent part some days ago. I will look into that question and give the noble Lord the information that I receive.

I am glad the noble Lord raised the problem of children and free meals, because this was one of the most worrying aspects for previous Ministers, and it has some bearing upon what one might call "means test" and "selectivity". I think the noble Lord himself drew attention to the fact that we have a system in our classes whereby school teachers collect money for a meal from one child, but because another child comes from a poorer family and comes in the exempted class, that child is not required to pay. Therefore we have in the classroom selectivity, class or fortune. I am sure the noble Lord is right when he says that this is utterly wrong, and that we should speedily remove this system. This is the reason why we have said in the Statement that we are going to review the manner in which these things are done, to see that families can exercise their rights without embarrassment.

I believe that over half of the children who are entitled to free meals do not get them, although perhaps a quarter of these are children who may go home. But what is increasingly worrying is that the proportion is higher where there are fatherless children, or children with fathers who are sick or unemployed. This is a matter with which we shall need to deal, because it is obviously in these families that the greatest need to help arises. I shall certainly see that the noble Lord is provided with the information as to how these matters will be dealt with by Parliament.


My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement made in another place. We on these Benches welcome the efforts to help those who are referred to in the Statement, and particularly those, if I may say so, who are to be the recipients of the increased family allowances, which were pioneered by such great people as Eleanor Rathbone and the late Lord Beveridge. But can it be right to bring forward proposals of this sort in a piecemeal fashion? We are told that there has been a complete review of public expenditure, and that it is still going on. Surely, we have the right to ask the Government for a comprehensive statement showing not only what we are going to spend by way of increased subsidies, but what cuts are going to be made, and the increased taxation that we are in for, so that we can see the whole picture. I suggest that the House cannot wait until the Chancellor of the Exchequer brings in his Budget next April to be told what is going on. Does this mean that there will be an Autumn Budget?


My Lords, I think the noble Lord has gone rather wider than the Statement. But your Lordships' House is sometimes too generous, and we will forgive the noble Lord on this occasion. He will be aware that the review of public expenditure is a continuous review. We felt that it was right, before Parliament rises for the Summer Recess, that this Statement should be made, particularly taking into account that the early payments for those families in greater need will be made in October. It is for this reason that this Statement has been made in isolation. But I should have thought that on its merits it was entitled to stand on its own.


My Lords, I would put it to the noble Lord that this is relevant, and it is wrong to come forward with additional expenditure of over £50 million, for however good a purpose, and to be told that we have to wait for many months until the Chancellor of the Exchequer tells us how the money will be raised. This is a wrong principle, and it is relevant to this Statement.


My Lords, I am sure that if I had been asked to make a Statement about family endowments, and I had said that it should wait for a general review of public expenditure, I should have been criticised from all quarters, because these people are in great need, and it is right that we should meet that need as soon as possible.


My Lords, can the noble Lord say whether his cost of £83 million for family allowances is before or after the Inland Revenue claw back their share?


I believe it is net.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord—


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that many of us on these Benches appreciate very much the action of the Government in taking immediate steps to deal with the poverty in these homes with children, and that we do not take the view that this review should be postponed until there has been a proper estimate made?


My Lords, I welcome the support from behind me.


My Lords, may I, in fairness, tell the noble Lord that I did not suggest any postponement whatever. I asked that we should not wait for many months to be told how the Chancellor of the Exchequer proposes to deal with these matters. On consideration and examination of these figures, I think we shall discover that, taking into account the cost of living, which has gone up by 2s. 6d. a person since 1964, all that each child gets is about 2s. That is why we want to examine how the Chancellor of the Exchequer will deal with the matter.


My Lords, we must be careful not to get into debate. If I may say so, I think that, between my noble friend Lord Brockway and the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, we have placed ourselves in some difficulty at Question Time, in that there is a tendency for one side to keep on asking questions, placing noble Lords on my side, who cannot catch the Minister's eye, at a disadvantage. I hope that we shall continue with a good arrangement across the Floor of the House.


My Lords, the Statement is rather difficult to follow, but I hope that I have it right. I want to ask the noble Lord three questions. First, as to the cost of the meals, as I heard the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, he said that the saving would be £25 million, taking into consideration the number of children from the families with three or more children who were going to get meals free—and I am glad that this is going to happen. Therefore, there is no estimate for the amount of money that will be lost—and I use the word "lost" in a technical sense—to the Exchequer when the means test is altered. This is going to be an extremely difficult thing to do. And the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, as I understood him, put the teachers on notice that they will not in future have to collect this money. We should all have liked to relieve the teachers of this particular—


My Lords, with very great deference, I hope—


My Lords, I think I might be allowed to put this argument. This is very serious. I am dealing with what the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, said. Indeed, we have all tried to find ways to relieve the teacher. My question is: Has this reason of the means test been decided without knowing what is the exact machinery for implementing it? If so, that is very serious. That is my first question.


My Lords, may I suggest to the noble Viscount that he was making a statement, and that therefore, in so far as anything is ever a little irregular in this House, what he was doing was not quite in the usual form?


My Lords, is it not a tradition of this House that if two noble Lords rise to their feet and one does not sit down, then both should sit down?


My Lords, I was trying to help the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, because this is a very serious matter, which will get into circulation: that possibly the teachers are going to be relieved. So I am asking him whether that is so. My second point concerns the £16 million for schools in the backward areas. I am very glad indeed that this money has been allocated. May I ask whether it is only for primary schools, or is it, as I hope, for both primary and secondary schools? Secondly, is it intended for minor works as well as for reconstruction? I hope that it is for minor works as well as for reconstruction.


My Lords, in regard to the first supplementary question which the noble Viscount asked, the net cost for the meals service will be some £72 million. In regard to the question of the teachers' being relieved of collecting for the meals, I think the noble Viscount went a little beyond what I said. What I was agreeing with the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, was that one must try to find a way in which children of families in need should receive those things to which they are entitled; and the fact that at present embarrassment is caused to families in taking free meals, because under the existing system it is quite clear that the child is receiving a free meal, means that we must find a way of replacing the existing system.

In regard to the £16 million, I am afraid that at this stage I cannot say whether it is to apply to primary schools, but as the Plowden Report is specifically referred to I believe that that will be the case. But I should not at this stage wish to be specific.


My Lords, it will undoubtedly, apply to primary schools, because of the Plowden Report; but will it also apply to secondary schools?


My Lords, I could not be definite on that point at this moment.


My Lords, may I he very virtuous and ask what is really a question? Are we to understand that there is to be no change in the system of providing school milk?


My Lords, it is going to be extended. More children will come into this group, because we shall be raising the qualifications that flow from the rise in the supplementary benefits.