§ 5.31 p.m.
§ Lord SIMON of GLAISDALE rose to call attention to the report of the Committee of one-Parent Families (Cmnd. 5629); and to move for Papers. The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, it is a very great privilege to introduce this debate, although it is necessarily a short one. All noble Lords who are due to speak today have far greater experience than I of the social problems involved in the one-parent family. In those social problems lies the real importance. My only qualification for opening this debate is that a quarter of a century ago I put forward to the Morton Royal Commission the proposal for a family court, which was part of the recommendations of the Finer Committee. As President of what is now the Family Division of the High Courts, I was made very much aware of the shortcomings in the law and the judicial structures, and of the demoralisation and dire poverty of those who went for matrimonial relief to magistrates' courts.
§ I was also privileged to be chairman of the Advisory Committee on the Bedford College Research Project. Professor MacGregor was one of the directors of research and he was a member of the Finer Committee. Mr. Finer himself was a member of our steering or advisory committee, as was the noble Baroness, Lady Summerskill. I should like to express my gratitude that she has come here today because I know that she has been unwell and that coming here has involved her in personal sacrifice. The Bedford College research project revealed a most appalling situation. I believe that it was the findings of that project which led to the setting up of the Finer Committee.85
§ My Lords, I shall try to be brief. After 20 minutes your Lordships will be fully entitled to move that I be no longer heard. As so many of your Lordships have contributions to make this evening, it means that there is a time limit on speeches and I repeat the Government Whip's warning of only eight minutes each. In view of the greater knowledge of your Lordships, on the social side I shall deal mainly with the issue of family courts. As I said, that is not the central feature, although it is an important one, of the Finer report. In my view the central feature is the proposal for a new social security benefit. There are a number of other welfare proposals which are also very important.
§ I know that your Lordships would like me to start with a tribute to the late Mr. Justice Finer, who brought a remarkable and unusual equipment to the office of High Court Judge. His early death was a very great loss to the law and public life of this country. I should also like to pay tribute to the members of his Committee, who laboured prodigiously from November, 1969, to July, 1974—a period of four and a half years—in producing a great mass of most convincing evidence. I am sure your Lordships will agree that the handling of the evidence and the statistics was quite masterly, but it was animated throughout by an insight into the actual plight of the persons concerned. The plight and stresses of poverty added to emotional stresses that were inherent in their social situation. We can acknowledge those labours not by lip service but by implementing the recommendations—preferably by accepting them as they stand—but, if not, at least by finding a more efficient, sympathetic and generous way of relieving the needs of one-parent families.
§ As I said, the Finer Committee reported in July, 1974. Its report was not debated in either House until last October when, having read the debate, I feel bound to say that the response of the Secretary of State was most disappointing. Were it not for the courtesy that obtains between the Houses, I should be tempted to use a much stronger expression. In view of that it seems to me that I was justified, having failed in the last two Sessions to secure a full debate on the report, in continuing in the hope of being successful in the ballot. I am most grateful to noble Lords 86 who are due to make contributions this evening.
§ My Lords, I said that I would deal with the institutional aspect of the report—the proposal for a family court. However, in approaching the subject, I hope that your Lordships will not think me to be oblivious of the human predicaments that are so vividly represented in the report. There are a quarter of a million fatherless families, well over 1 million children without an effective father; that is equivalent to the population of the City of Birmingham. Half of those families depend on supplementary benefit—in other words, they are on the poverty line. A horrifying number of 45,000 families—not children—are below the supplementary benefit level. They are far worse off than any other identifiable group in the population. Their very needs, their very position, calls out for the succour of society.
§ Society, in my respectful submission to your Lordships, has a supervening duty, because society has itself contributed to this problem. In fairly recent years it has been enacted that a husband can repudiate his wife after five years merely because she has ceased to find favour in his eyes—generally speaking, because some younger person has found greater favour. So we are actively creating more and more fatherless families. The noble Baroness, Lady Summerskill, with her great experience, and my noble and learned friend Lord Hodson, with his unexampled forensic experience, warned at the time what that meant; that there are only a handful of people in this country who can support two families, with the inevitable result that the first family would be pushed down to the poverty line and were lucky if they were caught there by the Supplementary Benefits Commission.
§ Into that Act there was written a provision that no woman could be cast aside, repudiated, if she could show exceptional hardship. Even where exceptional hardship has been shown, in not a single case has the discretion been exercised to withhold a repudiation There were reconciliation provisions written into that Act, as there always are into that kind of Act. It looks well in the Long Title. They are a complete dead letter. So I emphasise that society has a supervening duty towards these one-parent families over and above that they are an 87 identifiable and identified group who are living in the most dire poverty. What that means is that this very night there will be tens of thousands of children who will be going to bed with inadequate blankets and threadbare blankets; who will not have had enough to eat, particularly because their mothers cannot shop around as the mother of a two-parent family can; who live in the worst areas of our cities, and pay disproportionately more than their neighbours; who have difficulties with landlords (both private landlords and local authorities); and, perhaps worst of all, who are living under continual stress—not only the emotional stress of having lost a parent or partner but, in addition, the supervening stress of living in constant, dire, nagging poverty. The children have stunted lives every bit as much as the children in the factories of the last century had stunted limbs.
§ The most important recommendation of the report was the guaranteed maintenance allowance. That was designed to take the one-parent family out of the supplementary benefit system altogether. That proved unacceptable. I thought, if I may say so, that the reasons given for its non-acceptance did not stand up to examination—indeed, they were trifling—and I would ask the noble Lord who is to reply to this debate to deal more adequately than was dealt with in another place with the question of why we should not have a guaranteed maintenance allowance.
§ If we cannot, what is proposed in its place? Is it going to be continued reliance on supplementary benefit? That is precisely what the Finer Committee said we should not have. Perhaps I can say that when a special allowance, a special social security benefit, was proposed at the Bedford College Research Project, I was not myself convinced that that was the best way of dealing with it. Our task on the Committee was merely advisory. But having read the Finer Report I have found myself completely convinced that the correct social solution, the primary social solution, is the guaranteed maintenance allowance.
§ May I deal with the family courts. At the moment, the separated wife, who forms the great bulk of this group of single parents, has to go initially to what 88 are still called police courts, with all that that involves—that is spelt out in the Finer Report itself—if she wants an order from her husband. Wives have to prove a matrimonial offence, and a matrimonial offence on their part, generally speaking, precludes relief. Even if they get an order, the Finer Report shows that the great bulk are defaulted on, and then there arises the difficulty of getting the arrears paid. If the separated wife wants relief in respect of the matrimonial home she has to go to another court, the county court. If she wants a divorce, she has to go to a divorce court. When she finds that every single means of subsistence from her ex-husband has failed her, and sometimes even long before then, she has to go to the Supplementary Benefits Commission, with a right of appeal to a supplementary benefits appeal tribunal. Thus she is shuttled backwards and forwards.
§ It was for that reason that the Finer Committee recommended the establishment of a whole series of family courts over the country. That has been done perfectly satisfactorily in Scandinavia, and in many American jurisdictions. I am myself convinced that it is perfectly feasible, and Judge Graham Hall, who has unique experience in this field, has again endorsed that. It should have a judicial side exercising a strictly judicial function, presided over by a circuit judge assisted by lay magistrates. That would be a formal court deciding all judicial matters. But alongside one would have a welfare side with its welfare officer, as every divorce court and magistrates' court has at the moment. Their task would be to help with reconciliation, where that is possible and, where it is not possible to help with conciliation, particularly to remove the stress of contention over children, and give advice on various welfare matters, for example housing, supplementary benefit, taxation and child guidance.
§ As I said, that seems to me an entirely realistic project, and I thought the objections of the Secretary of State did not stand up to examination. The first one was the shortage of buildings. Surely we could use public buildings such as town halls. They are already used for a great many statutory tribunals, and although they would be only a stop-gap measure, we need urgent and stop-gap 89 measures in this field. Many county courts are also perfectly suitable. What is not suitable is something that goes by the name and has the atmosphere of a police court. Then there was the objection about judicial manpower. That of course is real, if one proceeds on the basis that the whole of the existing matrimonial jurisdiction would be loaded on to the family court. But that was precisely what the Finer Committee sought to avoid by their proposals; their proposals, if implemented, would have removed the great bulk of cases from the courts.
§ The Law Commission set up a Working Party on Family Courts; that was consequent on the establishment of the Family Division by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, whom I heartily supported in that regard. That Working Party was mysteriously dissolved in 1974 and I know that your Lordships will be anxious to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, why that was done. We are not today asking for money. I recognise fully that to do so at this time would be an idle request. What your Lordships will want to hear from Lord Wells-Pestell is the recognition that when the money is available this will be a priority and that, in the meantime, a Working Party is set up to plan for the needs of one-parent families on the lines of the Finer Report. There can also be, without any cost, the re-establishment of the Law Commission Working Party.
§ Lord Wells-Pestell brings an unexampled knowledge to this problem and a very warm understanding of the human needs. If he has been given the sort of brief that was spoken to in the other place, I beg him to put it aside and speak from his own knowledge and heart. We are, as I suggested earlier, in this respect in the situation of society about 140 years ago; Lord Shaftesbury had identified the plight of children being overworked in the mills and factories. His proposals for helping them, such as limiting their hours, were opposed even by people like John Bright, who was himself a self-proclaimed progressive, and, with their stunted limbs, those children grew up as a reproach to the whole of that society. If nothing is done for one-parent families we, too, will be standing reproached at the bar of history. If we do nothing—if this great monumental State Paper is allowed to accumulate dust—it will be 90 an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual disgrace. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.
§ 5.55 p.m.
§ Baroness YOUNG
My Lords, I am sure that the whole House is grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, for introducing this debate and for his perseverance in so doing. Not only is it three years since the publication of the Finer Report, but your Lordships' House has not had an opportunity to debate it until today. It is right that we should do so now, for it seems to me that the great value of the Finer Committee was in drawing attention to the plight of one-parent families, identifying them as a group and so making for a greater public understanding of and sympathy for their great problems.
For too many years the one-parent family was regarded as a social outcast. It may be thought that in the present straitened economic circumstances of our country, there is little point in having a debate such as this today, but I do not accept that view. First, the question of one-parent families will not simply go away; the numbers are far too great and I hope the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, who is to reply to the debate, will give us the latest figures. As Lord Simon pointed out, they are growing very rapidly. In 1971, the Finer Report said that there were 620,000 one-parent families with well over 1 million children. It is now thought that there are probably 700,000 families and there are 1,750,000 children. This is a rapid growth of a very real problem, and even if the figures are not precise the fact is that the problem is growing very rapidly indeed. To say, therefore, that there is no point in discussing the problem would be wrong and indefensible and the fact that there can be little or no extra money should force us all to be constructive and to ask what we can do.
It seems to me and my colleagues that our philosophy on this matter at the moment—I think it can be simply expressed—must be that the State must help all those families it can to help themselves. If we look at the conclusions reached by the National Children's Bureau study, Growing Up In A One-Parent Family, which was taken in 1970 we see that there were 750 children at the age of 11, out of 91 the 12,000 sampled, who were children of one-parent families, and that research showed clearly that the children of one-parent families did less well at school, had worse housing and suffered greater economic hardship than their contemporaries. When all those factors were, however, taken into account, the differences in attainment and adjustment which could be associated with their parental background was very slight indeed. But of course society does not take all these factors into account when it makes its judgments, and in fact it is the children primarily who suffer more than anybody else.
I shall therefore confine myself to making a number of practical suggestions which I believe could be implemented now, given the administrative and political will to do so. Although I have great sympathy with all that Lord Simon said about family courts, I would not presume to add anything to the views he expressed so clearly and well on this aspect of the report. I would add only one point of a legal nature. It is to me very disappointing that, only a few months ago, legal aid in undefended divorce cases was withdrawn by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor. This is a matter which has already been debated in your Lordships' House, but I believe that it is a decision that is very hard on women because, although they may not need legal aid, they frequently need legal advice. I believe that it has made a difficult situation worse for a great number of women.
I should like to make three general points. One of the difficulties of the Finer Report is that its recommendations cut across a great many Government Departments. The noble Lord who is to answer probably will not be able to answer all the points that will be raised today, but I hope that he will write to me on the points that are raised if they arise from Departments other than his own. I hope, however, that he will be able to say whether there have been inter-Departmental discussions on the report and, if so, how many, what Departments were represented and—most important of all—what conclusions were reached.
Secondly, of the one-parent families, five out of six are families where mothers are bringing up children on their own. 92 All the weight of the evidence suggests that the difficulties that mothers have in getting jobs and then in keeping them are matters that, I should have thought, ought to concern the Equal Opportunities Commission. I wonder whether the Commission could be encouraged to make a special study of the subject, for what, in so many cases, is at stake is the status of women, and in this particular case it is the status of lone mothers.
Turning now to finance, it seems to me that there are practical ways in which help could be given to use the resources that we have better than we are using them at the moment. For example, the full child benefit scheme should be introduced as quickly as possible. Secondly there could also be a big increase in tax allowances or a reduction in tax rates so as to give one-parent families bigger take home pay and hence encourage them to depend on themselves rather than on the State. This could be financed by increasing indirect taxation—and I see that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has indicated that he may be moving in that direction. I hope that he will do so.
Thirdly, the introduction of the rest of the tax credit scheme would give single parents with taxable income below the tax threshold an extra cash income as of right. Again, this was part of the recommendations of the Finer Committee and it would be covered if all short-term benefits were taxed. We have an extraordinary situation in which retirement and widows' benefits are taxed but not unemployment and sickness benefits. It is very difficult to understand why this is so and why widows should have been singled out in this group. I believe that, if there were consistency, it would be possible to help these particular people.
The last suggestion is that maintenance income—not just a part of it, as at present—should be treated as earned rather than unearned income. In certain circumstances, once it rises above £1,000 it is treated as unearned income. Maintenance must surely be regarded as the same kind of income as housekeeping money given in a marriage. It seems to me extraordinary that it should be singled out and treated differently in this way. I should have thought that these were all constructive ways of giving financial help, of using the present resources more 93 effectively, to those who need the help most.
Now for some administrative points. Most mothers who are bringing up their children would, I believe, like to do a job, not simply for the money though that is extremely important, but because it is good for morale to go out for a few hours a week. However, innumerable administrative difficulties are put in their way. There is, for example, the delay in reaching the right tax codes and, therefore, benefit payments. In going back to work, there can be a delay of up to three months in coding a lone mother in which she can lose as much as £10 or £20 a week. When someone is living at that level, it is really not possible to manage for three months on a drop in income because there are simply not the financial resources to tide such a person over. It ought surely to be possible to devise a system through the tax office of settling the code immediately so that the mother can go back to work.
Secondly, family income supplement is available to those who are in work but who do not earn more than a certain amount. But for some curious reason it is necessary under the regulations to work 30 hours a week before a person is eligible for Family Income Supplement. I understand that the definition of full-time work varies from Statute to Statute. Time is too short to quote them all but, under the Contracts of Employment Act 1972, it can be said that full-time work can be defined as work for less than 21 hours a week. This is to be amended by the Employment Protection Act 1975, when full-time work will be able to be reduced to 16 hours a week because that is the qualifying period under which the Employment Protection Act comes into force. In addition, for somebody who has been employed for more than five years, the number of hours reduces itself to eight.
I only quote these two figures—there are others as well—to illustrate that the definition of full employment seems to vary from Statute to Statute. As it is very difficult for many single mothers to work as much as 30 hours a week because the school hours do not make it possible, it seems to me that it would be worth looking at this point to see whether family income supplement could be extended to a person in full-time employment defined as meaning fewer than 30 hours a week.
94 Day care is also needed for children. It is crucial to mothers going back to work. Up to a point, day care and earnings are a chicken and egg argument because, if a mother can go out to work and can earn she can pay for the day facilities but the day facilities cannot be provided until the mother can pay and can go back to work. Someone needs to break this cycle. This House has often debated the joint use of school facilities; that is, using them for a school and for day care. Is it too much to ask once again that local authorities should look at this matter and that the Government Departments themselves should use their influence to see whether it is not possible to reach some practical solution to enable children at school to stay longer until those mothers who have to work are free to collect them? Such a recommendation would be similar to Recommendation 210 of the report.
Finally, a word on housing. Housing is, in my opinion, in many respects a national tragedy. The result of much housing legislation has had the effect of giving least help to those who are the worst off. One of the uncomfortable effects of the 1974 Rent Act has been to further restrict the supply of private rented furnished accommodation in the one area in which private accommodation was in fact growing. The virtue of the private accommodation was not that it was particularly good but that it was available and that it provided a flexible means of housing for those who needed it. Now this area of housing is drying up and there is less furnished accommodation available for those who need it. It is the inflexibility of local authority housing which is such a real handicap for one-parent families. The fact that a lone mother who is separated from her husband cannot qualify in the area in which she grew up because she has left it and has perhaps been living in a council house in another area means that it is very difficult for her to return to the area where her parents and friends live and to get on a council waiting list. Perhaps the Department of the Environment might consider, among the many matters concerned with housing which it is at present investigating under its review of housing, a review of the points scheme which would take into account the need for flexibility in council housing particularly to help one-parent families. I believe that that is something 95 that should be considered as a matter of urgency.
My Lords, I shall close. The importance of this subject is well illustrated by the number of speakers to whom I am sure we shall all listen with the closest attention and interest. I only hope that the Government will consider carefully the matters that have been raised and will, above all, act upon them.
§ 6.10 p.m.
§ Lord BANKS
My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness that the whole House will be grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, for raising this important matter this evening and for speaking to us about it with the authority of his very considerable experience. After all, it is 2½ years since the Finer Committee reported and most of its major recommendations remain un-implemented. The Finer Committee carried out a very comprehensive research into the nature of the problem and set out very clearly the position of one-parent families. As a result, we know that one in 10 of all families are single-parent families. We know that over 1 million children are being cared for by single parents. We know that between 650,000 and 700,000 one-parent families exist, as the noble Baroness said. In one in six of these the single parent is a man; 15 per cent. are unmarried mothers; one in six are widows; and about half the number of single parents are divorced or separated women.
In these circumstances, it is not surprising that the Finer Report dealt fully with matrimonial law, its administration in the courts, and the interrelation of maintenance and supplementary benefit. As I understand the position, the Government have rejected the proposal that maintenance should be collected by the Supplementary Benefits Commission by means of administrative orders. If that is correct I should like very much to know why the Government have taken this decision. Possibly the noble Lord who is to reply could explain that later.
There are reforms in the law proposed by the Law Commission, but there is no indication of when they may be implemented, and unfortunately they retain the concept of the matrimonial offence so far 96 as magistrates' courts are concerned. I am not clear what is the attitude of the Government to the principle of family courts. I understand that the Government say that they would cost too much to introduce at the present time, but I should very much like to know whether the Government approve of them in principle, because they would seem to me to be a very desirable development.
My Lords, I want to concentrate the remainder of my remarks on the need to provide adequate income. The average income of one-parent families is less than half that of two-parent families; 43 per cent. of single-parent families are on supplementary benefit, and 15 per cent. of them are actually below the supplementary benefit level—the families who rely on erratic maintenance and part-time earnings. A big factor which has been referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, is the point that women's earnings are lower than men's, despite equal pay, because they tend to be employed in low wage occupations. The Finer Committee was quite clear about the matter. It said that the financial circumstances of one-parent families showed that they were in general much worse off than two-parent families. The Finer solution was, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, pointed out, a guaranteed maintenance allowance for all single-parent families, and social security benefits of a long-term nature would be offset against it; and after allowing for the earnings disregard of £6 per week, 50p of every £1 of earnings over and above would be deducted from the guaranteed maintenance allowance, so that it would gradually taper off and be eliminated altogether around average national earnings.
The Finer Committee envisaged this being introduced in conjunction with the tax credit scheme proposed at that time by the Conservative Government of 1970/74. That scheme was somewhat restricted in the scope of the benefits which it would include, and also in the size of the benefits. It would have replaced income tax personal allowances, family allowances, and family income supplement. But the present Government have introduced the child benefit scheme, and we all know the unhappy history of that so far; but it is now being phased in. It is more limited than the previous Government's proposal.
97 It provides a tax-free cash benefit to take the place of double taxed family allowances and children's income tax allowances. It is very small, being only £1 for the first child and £1.50 for subsequent children, although single-parent families get an additional 50p for the first child. But to take all single-parent families off supplementary benefit would mean that the bulk of the responsibility would fall on the guaranteed maintenance allowance, in view of the small nature, at the moment anyhow, of the child benefit.
In the light of that proposal by the Finer Committee, I should like to know what is the Government attitude to the concept of a special benefit for single-parent families, not specifically to that benefit. I know they say that the guaranteed maintenance allowance cannot be introduced now because it would cost £250 million to £400 million a year, and because they say it would mean the introduction of about 8,000 more civil servants. But I should like to repeat the question which was put by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, when he asked whether the Government agree in principle that there should be a special payment for single-parent families. The snag with the guaranteed maintenance allowance proposal is, of course, that it is means-tested. It has to allow for the tapering off which I described a minute ago; that adds to the administrative costs, and we all know how means-tested benefits have contributed towards the poverty trap.
But I believe that the long-term solution is to be found in a more thorough-going tax credit scheme than any yet proposed, one in which all personal income tax allowances would be changed to credits and all social security benefits and national insurance benefits would also be cash credits, and all income would be taxed and the cash credits set against that tax. Then we could have a special credit for one-parent families which would not be means-tested. Inevitably it would take time to introduce a system of that kind, even if the Government were committed to it. But in the meantime some help could be given by adopting the Finer recommendation—it would be a small measure of help, but it would help—for a special one-parent family addition to supplementary benefit scales. The Finer Committee suggested £1.50 at 1972 rates, which would now be £2.90, and would 98 perhaps cost £36 million to £40 million, which, when one considers the figures which Chancellors of the Exchequer have to juggle two or three times a year these days, is a comparatively modest sum.
Then again, it would be possible to reduce the waiting time for moving from short-term supplementary benefit rates to long-term benefit rates. It could be reduced from two years to one year, or it could be eliminated altogether, and there is a case for saying that, like pensioners, single-parent families should go on to the long-term benefits immediately, since almost inevitably it is to be a long-term period of time during which they will be drawing supplementary benefit.
In conclusion, I should like to stress the need for one Minister to have overall responsibility for all aspects of the problem of one-parent families. The right honourable lady Mrs. Castle accepted this responsibility when she was Secretary of State for Social Services, but her successor has declined any overall responsibility of this kind. I find this most unsatisfactory. We are dealing with different aspects of one problem. It needs one Minister with the overall responsibility, however many others may also be involved. I think that this debate today will make clear that this House is anxious to see decisive and co-ordinated action.
§ 6.20 p.m.
§ The Lord Bishop of LEICESTER
My Lords, the noble and learned Lord, to whom we are so grateful, made it very clear that it was no fault of his that such a long delay has occurred since the publication of this report, and still more, of course, since the committee began its work. But I think we shall all agree that it is at least regrettable, if not tragic, that so many years have elapsed, and that we now have to deal with it in this very rapid-fire way, whereby each of us has to think what is most worth saying in a period of eight minutes. It really is a totally unworthy way of having to deal with a document which is of such enormous importance but also of very great length and of great complexity, although I agree of admirable clarity. I ought to say a few words in this debate because among those who gave evidence to the Finer Committee was the Board for Social Responsibility of the Church of 99 England, which acted as convener of almost all the social agencies of the great Christian Churches in this country—that is, all those agencies concerned with this kind of problem—and in the evidence which was submitted no fewer than 8,000 individual cases of the family conditions of lone-parent families were in fact under consideration.
The Finer Report very naturally accepts and works from what is now called the non-judgmental approach to this matter. I want to say that I am absolutely in agreement with that in the sense that the community as a whole must put first the welfare of the children, and that in planning its legislation it cannot take into account the individual circumstances whereby the oneness of the parenthood arises. But I feel that no word should go out, certainly from these Benches, or perhaps from the whole House, to suggest that there is no responsibility anywhere along the line for the creation of these one-parent families. Of course, in the case of widowed families there is no responsibility on either spouse (at least, we hope there is not) for that situation; and in the case of the single-parent families I am personally ready to guess that in very many cases the greater responsibility lies with the aggressive male, who is usually missing when it comes to supporting the family that is coming into existence as a result of what has happened.
In the case of the divorced and separated families, the whole pattern is so tangled that it is quite impossible to work out responsibility in any detailed way, but I shall always remember the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Summerskill, when we were discussing the financial side of the divorce reform Bill, and I am glad to see the realistic note in the Finer Report which says quite plainly that whatever may be the intentions of a man (taking the man as usually the figure chiefly responsible in these matters) in practice he just cannot support two families in the way that they ought to be supported, and we must not disguise from him or from ourselves the fact that he is in fact handing over to the community as a whole a burden which once rested honourably, and probably happily, upon his own shoulders.
We all know that an economic blizzard has swept over our country, and we are 100 making various suggestions to Her Majesty's Government as to how to combine a real and adequate response to the Finer proposals with the economic necessities of the day. The only suggestion I feel able to make in that way is that we must regard these debates as at the least an important process in self-education. We at least, as representing one phase of Government, can face up to the facts that have been put before us with such stark clarity in the Finer Report, and it may be that in any rearrangement of social benefits we may have to change our priorities. We know how very hard it is ever to withdraw any benefit that has been given in the past, but I think that we may be coming to something of a watershed.
Even when the Finer Committee was set up I think most of us thought that every decade would see the articulation of some new area of deprivation which could easily be dealt with given the will. That is something which has been going on certainly ever since the first decade of this century. Nowadays, questions are being asked as to whether we are getting near the end of what the wealth-producing part of the nation, the working population, can sustain; and if that should be the case we then shall have to look very carefully at our priorities. I myself was disappointed that there was such a blank refusal to consider the guaranteed maintenance allowance. I thought that looked as though it was something definite that could be put alongside the widow's pension as something that would be a right of the lone parent, whether it were a man or a woman.
I welcome the action of the Government (and the poor Government have not had a single little flower thrown at their feet today, I think) in having, I think I am right in saying, brought in the child benefit scheme, under the terms of the interim benefit scheme, one year earlier for the sake of lone parents. If that is so, that may be something of a breakthrough, because I think it is the first time in our social history, so far as I know, that this particular class has stood alone in the social legislation of our country.
As time is so very short I shall have to leave out all those other remarks I intended to make, but I agree with many of the remarks that have been made. I 101 was going to speak particularly about the question of the 30-hour rule, because it is clear that if that requirement of a 30-hour week in order to qualify for family income supplement were reduced to one of 24 hours it would make it just possible for a parent to take her child or children to or from school at the beginning and end of the morning and at the beginning and end of the afternoon if required, and still fit in a 24-hour week, whereas you just cannot do that with a 30-hour week. At least, I tried to work it out myself and found that I could not do it.
My Lords, I will end on a perhaps slightly more sombre note. We are told that these figures of lone-parent families, and, hence, of children in lone-parent families, are increasing. I saw one effort to extrapolate these figures to the year 2000. Of course, this is full of uncertainties; but if the rate goes on increasing as it is at the moment it is estimated that by the year 2000 there will be 3 million children in this category. I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, that we largely have ourselves to blame. We in this House and in another place too have gone along with the nation in making divorce easier and easier. We have sown the wind and we shall probably reap the whirlwind; but we must remember that one marriage saved is better than a great deal of ambulance work after the breakdown. Among the other things for which we may perhaps hope and pray is the revival of those qualities of responsibility—and, I will add, chastity—without which we shall never get ourselves out of this morass.
§ 6.41 p.m.
§ Baroness SUMMERSKILL
My Lords, I should like to thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, for initiating this debate. I learned from him in another place many years ago that when problems concerning women and children faced the House we could always rely upon him making a contribution which revealed his compassion and his expert knowledge of this subject. He told the House that I came here despite the fact that I was ill. Since then, I have had a number of notes. I want to assure the House that it is nothing terminal. It is simply the incurable English disease of rheumatism with which, in view of the average age in this House, I feel that many noble Lords are familiar.
102 I cannot forbear from commenting on the inordinate length of this report and on the time which it took to produce it. I do so for a purely practical reason. I know of many women's organisations, influential organisations of active women, in many parts of the country, who are unable to afford £8 for a report. The large size of the report deters women from buying it, because they have two jobs, most of them, one inside the home and one outside the home. They cannot spare the time to digest a report of this size. I do ask—and there was a majority of men responsible for the report—that perhaps they will consider having a smaller report produced which will be available for the poorer people in the community.
The immediate reaction of Mrs. Castle at the Ministry of Social Services, I think was expected in view of the precarious nature of our financial position. It was recommended that there should be a guaranteed maintenance allowance of £9.50 a week at current values for single-handed parents. Although the Government have not found it possible to accept it immediately, this does not lessen the powerful case for putting the 600,000 single-handed parents and their 1 million children in the very forefront of the queue for consideration. I hope that that is what we are doing today. This category of human beings is not only the poorest in the country but, moreover, they have little chance of helping themselves. The £72 million which the guaranteed maintenance allowance will cost the State should be regarded by the taxpayer not only as a form of financial support for the poorest but as an insurance against having to maintain the children in care or, later, as delinquents guilty of anti-social behaviour.
I regret that the Committee did not regard it as feasible or desirable to undertake an inquiry into the relationship between delinquent behaviour and family circumstances. I should think that in these days this would have provided a powerful argument for focussing the attention of the community on the urgent need to succour the child denied a normal family life. The very isolation of the lone parent who has to take on jobs in the home which are normally shared is, in some measure, responsible for the children of one-parent families showing signs of stress. The effect on the child was summed up very well by the Committee. They 103 said that a family in which a mother or father, single handed, has to bring up children will think of itself and be treated by others as a little cluster of deviants from the marital norm. I should like to know what proportion of the football hooligans guilty of vandalism and physical assault every week are "deviants from the marital norm" who are determined to get their own back on society. One must remember that a child does not forget its early upbringing and—I hate to use the phrase—revenge is sweet. The effect on the child of being regarded as outside the norm of the two-parent family is, in my opinion, so crippling psychologically as to warrant these children being numbered among the disabled in our society and consequently qualified to receive a special benefit.
The report rightly says that the old assessment of blame, which pitied widows and which attached varying degrees of moral delinquency to divorced or separated women and to unmarried mothers, should now be irrelevant. But it is still very relevant wherever we look. It still has a major effect on those in authority. For example, women still have to prove a matrimonial offence to get a maintenance order in the magistrates' court and they will not be successful if an offence is proved against them. Surely, that is totally illogical when the sole ground of divorce is irretrievable breakdown of the marriage irrespective of the guilt of either party.
Most families today, soon after the second child is born, enjoy at least two wages; but the fatherless family must depend on a single wage or on supplementary benefit. It is useless to expect greater enforcement of maintenance orders to lift these families out of poverty. The evidence in this report shows that in almost no case is the maintenance order going to be higher than the supplementary benefit that the family can claim. Undoubtedly, for these unfortunate women, part-time work is the answer for most of the one-parent families, supplemented by part-time day care facilities for the children. But, too often, part-time work and, indeed, whole-time work involves the exploitation of women's labour and very low wages. As the right reverend Prelate has said, the men against whom maintenance orders are made have 104 insufficient money to maintain both themselves and their families in separate households. I remember clearly the debate on that subject. I recall the speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hodson. I supported him when he said that the only woman who will get paid is the one who is there on Friday nights when the man receives his wages—and so it has proved to be.
The right reverend Prelate is right. What has happened is that the divorce Act has simply passed the responsibility of bringing up the children to the taxpayer. Those who agitated over the years for easier divorce failed to consider the side effects on the children which, in my opinion, involves more misery and heartbreak than that experienced by adults who find that a marriage has proved unsatisfactory. Where did we have the children's voice speaking in this House? Nowhere, of course. That cruel, ugly, hateful divorce Bill was pushed through by all kinds of adults outside who thought that they were being progressive. It was completely heartless about the effect on children, and now we find what is happening to the children in this report on one-parent families.
Of course, housing problems closely rival money problems between husband and wife, particularly over the ownership of the house; and the difficulties in finding a home for one-parent families are aggravated because of the discrimination exercised by local authorities who regard them as being less deserving. The unmarried mother is often regarded as suitable only for inferior accommodation.
My Lords, I am two minutes over my time; I am sorry, I am trying to finish. The report confirmed what organisations such as the National Council for One-Parent Families, Gingerbread and the Child Poverty Action Group are agreed about; namely, that one-parent families suffer severe poverty, are the last in the queue for housing, suffer social isolation and, in consequence, the children grow up maladjusted. This is the point which the country should appreciate. While the Government find it impossible to introduce the guaranteed maintenance allowance, there is a large administrative area where discrimination can be removed and replaced by a more compassionate attitude and a greater measure of justice hitherto denied to one-parent families.
§ 6.43 p.m.
§ Baroness SHARPLES
My Lords, I too am very grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, for providing the opportunity of this afternoon's debate, on a situation which worries many people who work in this field. My main concern is for the much neglected minority group of prisoners' families within the framework of one-parent families. Their situation is seen as temporary, and hopefully the man will return to his home, his absence usually being due to his committing a socially unacceptable act. So, besides suffering the deprivations which all one-parent families experience, the prisoner's family has to cope with the hostility of neighbours and the need to make a new relationship with the man inside gaol. Understandably, available resources are geared to the man and his aftercare; but it is the wife who has to take him back into the family. She may think that life will change miraculously for the better on his discharge; but, sadly, experience shows that this is rarely the case, and now, when she really needs help, it is not available.
Exceptionally hard pressed are the groups with special problems: the wives of other nationalities. These women often have no relations or friends; they may speak no English; and, indeed, some have never even handled money, being completely and utterly dependent on their husbands for literally all the day-to-day decisions. Lacking means of communication, they are indeed very isolated. Letters have to be translated before being censored, and this can cause long delays; and if the wife cannot read or write, she will have considerable difficulty in finding someone to help her. Children of school age may be of some assistance but they have their own problems. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Summerskill, that children suffer very much in this area. I believe that this is particularly true for some Asian families, especially those from Uganda, and for Turkish Cypriots, again because of the language difficulties. I wonder—and I feel this very strongly—whether embassies could give more practical help in these cases.
All prisoners' families need continuous support from the time the man is arrested, is imprisoned, and then in the very difficult period when he is free and, hopefully, 106 returned to his family. Their problems may be mainly financial, but stress and strain will also be evident. Constructive advice and understanding can do much to help the family (especially the wives) so that we may hope that they can take up their lives together again as a family.
§ 6.46 p.m.
§ Lord GARDINER
My Lords, I too am very grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, for giving us an opportunity to consider this important report tonight. I will not repeat any of the points which have been made because we are limited for time and must be highly selective. Therefore I want to mention two points, both matters on which I opened a debate in this House in July 1974; namely, the cohabitation rule and the defects of the Supplementary Benefits Appeal Tribunal.
So far as the cohabitation rule is concerned, as your Lordships know, often the Commission's officials can say to, perhaps, a widow, "Now you have a spare room in your house you must help yourself. You can create some income for yourself by letting your room". As soon as the widow lets it, she is liable to be charged with cohabitation. Of course the official has complete power to take away her book or books. If she is a widow she may have a widow's pension, which is not enough to take her above poverty level but which has been topped up by supplementary benefits. From the moment her book is taken away, she is destitute and has no money coming into the house.
She has to appeal then to two tribunals: in respect of her pension, to the National Insurance tribunal; in respect of supplementary benefit, to the Supplementary Benefits Appeal tribunal. The Finer Committee made two recommendations about this. They considered whether these payments ought not to continue pending the hearing of the appeal because, after all, supplementary benefits are the last refuge against destitution. They thought there were difficulties about that, but they said that at least where she disputed the facts on which the official had found cohabitation, the payments should go on until the hearing of the appeal. The average time for appeal is about five weeks. I should like to ask 107 my noble friend Lord Wells-Pestell whether after 2½ years the Government have accepted this recommendation, or have rejected it. If they have rejected it, why.
Secondly, the Finer Committee said that it was very hard on the children when all money was withdrawn because the Supplementary Benefits Commission, even in the case of the children, went on paying the money for only four weeks and not until the appeal had been heard. They said that had given them particular concern. The report continues:'The purpose of these payments is to cushion the family against the abrupt reduction in their income, give the couple time to claim any family income supplement to which they may be entitled, and time to adapt to a situation in which the whole family must in most cases rely upon the man's income for their support' We regard this period of four weeks as insufficient. Proper as the decision to withdraw the benefit may be, its sudden loss creates in many of the cohabitation cases a crisis within the household of the first order…the loss of income from the benefit may result in the total disruption of what may already be a parlous household economy; rent may fall into arrears, other debts may accumulate and gas and electricity meters become tempting targets. As the Fisher Committee observed, 'The Commission…recognise that the rarity of payments to meet urgent need in cohabitation cases may well conceal a fair amount of genuine need that is not being met. We recommend that the four-week period to which we have made reference should be extended to three months.'I should like to ask my noble friend Lord Wells-Pestell whether, after 2½ years, the Government have accepted or rejected that recommendation and, if they have rejected it, why.
In the debate of July 1974 I adumbrated the many defects of the Supplementary Benefits Appeal Tribunal. In the case I have put where a woman has to go to two different tribunals, I have known cases where, on exactly the same evidence, the Supplementary Benefits Commission have found there was cohabitation and the National Insurance Appeal Tribunal have found there was not: never the other way round. I know of no complaint against the National Insurance tribunal. There is an appeal from that tribunal. There is a Commissioner with the status of a High Court judge. His decisions are public and they are binding on the tribunals, who have to follow the ordinary doctrines of precedent. In the case of the Supplementary Benefit Tribunals, they are the lowest rung of the tribunal ladder.
108 The chairman is supposed to be a lawyer—that is why the Lord Chancellor has to appoint him—but in fact only 6 per cent. of them are lawyers. They have great difficulties in finding enough people to sit; and they say there is no law; it is all discretion. I think I told your Lordships last time that I had just met a solicitor friend of mine who had just come back from one of these tribunals. The chairman had told him that they had a letter which proved cohabitation. My friend asked to see the letter but was not allowed to. He asked whether he could be told what was in it, but the chairman said they would not tell him. They say themselves they apply no law of evidence. They act on anonymous telephone calls and things of that kind.
In September 1975 Professor Bell, who had been asked by the Department to make an extensive report on these tribunals, published her report and it fully substantiated all the complaints which I and other Members of your Lordships' House had made about these tribunals; for example, the fact that very often only two turned up instead of three; the fact that so few of them were lawyers or really understood the jurisdiction they were supposed to entertain; the fact that there was no appeal from them and so forth. After 18 months, what do the Government say about that? The Government spoke last night in a Written Answer to a Question put in another place. The Government have known for some little time that your Lordships were going to debate this subject tonight. This Question came so late in the day that although I got Hansard as soon as I could it ends:Continued at column so and so"—which means we shall not get that until tomorrow morning. My noble friend Lord Wells-Pestell, with his usual courtesy, was kind enough to give me a copy of what most of your Lordships will not be able to see until tomorrow. The Government have accepted one or two recommendations of the Bill Committee on training, and so on. Then there is a whole group of them, and they say:A number of improvements have been made or are being considered, in particular stressing the independence of the tribunals, making them as accessible as possible, and generally simplifying the appeal procedure.Then they go on to deal with a few small points made by the Professor. They include 109 better tribunal premises, clearer and more complete documentation of appeals, improved forms of explanatory leaflets, reconsideration of the role of the tribunal clerk and the officer who represents the Supplementary Benefits Commission at appeal hearings, measures to overcome the difficulties in attending hearings of elderly or handicapped appellants and those who live in areas badly served by public transport, and efforts to reduce the time between making an appeal and the hearing. All those are prefaced by the words I first quoted, as being a number of improvements which have been made or are being considered.
I do not think your Lordships will need me to tell you that when a bureaucracy uses the phrase about an improvement that "has been made or is being considered", it means absolutely nothing at all. As to each of these, I would ask my noble friend Lord Wells-Pestell to tell us which they are. First, as to clearer and more complete documentation of appeals, has that been made or is it being considered? Improved forms and explanatory leaflets: has that reform been made or is it being considered? Reconsideration of the role of the tribunal clerk and the officer who represents the Supplementary Benefits Commission at appeal hearings—has that been done or is it being considered? It is rather like a cosy family party. The Minister appoints the other two members of the tribunal and, I believe, in practice most of the chairmen as well, because the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor is not familiar with those who might be appointed from non-legal sources. The clerk comes from the Ministry and of course the man who presents the case on behalf of the Commission. As regards measures to overcome difficulties and so on, are they still being considered or have they been taken?
Finally, I should like to ask what the answer is to the other very sensible recommendations made by Professor Bell. For instance, with regard to training, she says:Stage 1: these are the intermediate and simple things which could be done at once: improve and strengthen the quality of the existing tribunals and their work by taking a number of steps as quickly as possible, appoint a legally-qualified chairman for each region or a national SBAT chairman with particular responsibility for training and improving the consistency and quality of decision making.110 Out of the hundreds of chairmen, 6 per cent. (18) are lawyers, I understand. If there are 18 legal chairmen, why can they not be appointed as senior chairmen for the regions, and why should that proposal not be implemented.
Finally, there ought really to be a proper system of appeals as in the case of the National Insurance Tribunal, as I[...] gather all the Government propose to do is to give the appellant a right to appeal in law to the High Court. With great respect, I think that is most unsatisfactory. The National Insurance Commissioners who have the status of a High Court judge are very familiar with the cases which come before National Insurance Tribunals and the cases are so allied that they would not have any difficulty with appeals from the Supplementary Benefits Appeals Tribunal. High Court judges, of course, are unfamiliar with those cases. There are many other cases put by Professor Bell, but time does not permit me to mention them. I should like to ask my noble friend Lord Wells-Pestell whether he could say at least a word about the other reforms of which at the moment all that is said is that they must await a long-term review. Since I first raised this matter in July of the year before last, how long is long.
§ 6.58 p.m.
§ Baroness FAITHFULL
My Lords, I should like to take this opportunity of paying a tribute to all those who served on the Finer Committee and in particular to the late Morris Finer and the late Professor Titmuss. The report, is a significant social document, not likely to be put aside by any Government. Therefore I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, for introducing this debate.
I could have wished that the terms of reference of this report covered children of one-parent families, not because the content would be any different, not because the parents obviously are very crucial to the whole debate, but because the Department of Health and Social Security or the Department of Education might have had a sense of responsibility for taking action on this report, whereas, as it is, the recommendations cover a wide spectrum of the social services and therefore the ultimate responsibility appears to lie with no Department.
111 The noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, asked me to include the welfare aspect, and here I tread on the same ground as the noble Baroness, Lady Summerskill. A child inevitably experiences certain deprivations with only one parent caring for it, be it mother or father, and there are many fathers caring for children on their own. There are the two aspects—outward and visible difficulties, such as housing, finance and legal problems, and the inner emotional needs and conflicts of lack of identity, lack of status and split loyalties. Let it be said, however, that children are resilient and one loving, caring, competent parent with a sense of purpose can, and does, redeem the situation. I speak with feeling and with gratitude as the daughter of a mother widowed when her two children were two and four, and with a minimal war pension, but the war pension came regularly and was not means tested.
However competent a lone parent, there must be steady and consistent supportive services. Many of these have been, or will be, touched upon. I will confine myself to one area, that of the legal and social position when the maintenance allowance does not come through regularly and on time. Seen through a child's eyes, the lack of basic needs spells rejection. When the mother has to pursue her husband through court proceedings or has to spend endless time at the supplementary benefits office, when the Giro from the Supplementary Benefits Commission does not arrive or a maintenance cheque from the court does not come, for the child this spells deprivation, lack of security and a sense of rejection. I must, however, pay tribute and say that it must be recognised that, in the last few years, there has been a closer tie between the court and the Supplementary Benefits Commission. There is now an arrangement by which the maintenance allowance can be registered with the magistrates' court, and the magistrates' court can pursue the parent for maintenance. But I should say here that there are very real difficulties, from the legal point of view, in getting an affidavit, et cetera.
I should just like to make some recommendations which are very simple, not costly and at grass roots level. When 112 parents have been widowed, separated or have had a child outside marriage they are bemused, bewildered and life is difficult. At that stage, I believe they should be given a simple pamphlet by the court, or, in the case of widows, by the registrar of births, marriages and deaths, laying out simply and clearly where they can go for help, what they can get and what they are entitled to. I believe that another difficulty lies in the complex social situation that we have at the moment, in that there is no one person who really knows and who can give advice to a single parent. So I should like to see named in the pamphlet somebody from the court to whom parents know they can go if they want to discuss taking the father to court for non-payment of maintenance. I should also like to see in the supplementary benefit office a responsible named person to whom a parent can go, who is conversant with the wide complexity of grants; and I should like to see both these names on this pamphlet supplied to parents.
On a long-term basis, I would support the noble Baroness, Lady Young, in regard to an inter-Departmental committee perhaps producing a Bill. I recognise that it might not be able to be introduced now, or for some time to come, but at least thought would be given and perhaps some sections of it could be implemented without extra cost. May I say—this is slightly way out—that if this Bill is produced there will obviously be discussions with the EEC countries. But may I just mention the difficulties of parents married to men who leave them and go to a country such as Switzerland, where there is no reciprocal arrangement for taking a man to court for a maintenance allowance. I hope that at some point in time we may have reciprocal arrangements with other countries. With those few remarks—I have taken seven minutes—I would say that these simple recommendations could be implemented at no cost and with great benefit at the grass roots to the lone parent.
§ 7.6 p.m.
§ Lady KINLOSS
My Lords, when I spoke last June in the most reverend Primate's debate on the family, I complained that we had not yet found time to debate the Finer Report. So it is an especial pleasure to me to congratulate 113 the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, on having been lucky in the ballot.
The first thing that struck me, when I began to study the problems of one-parent families, was the enormous complexity of the subject. It is an absolute jungle. The Finer Report has 519 pages of report and 391 pages of appendices; it makes 230 recommendations and of these I am happy to note that some have already been accepted and implemented by the Government. At the same time, thinking of the fathers or the mothers who are left to bring up the child or children in a one-parent family, they must feel overwhelmed by an absolute jungle of options, possibilities, form-filling and regulations with which their situation faces them.
The Finer Joint Action Committee did a fine job in producing a guide to the report and this is, of course, most helpful to us. I wonder whether the noble Baroness, Lady Summerskill, has seen it, priced 50p? Could not, I venture to wonder, the Government produce a guide for the use of one-parent families, or even, perhaps, a series of guides for the different categories of one-parent families—the widows and widowers, the divorced or separated, and the deserted of both sexes, or the single mother. I fully recognise the complexity and difficulty of the task, but over a number of years successive Governments have produced a Highway Code that the young can understand. I should like to see available in every Post Office a simple guide for one-parent families, and a poster to advertise it. I am sure that this would be very helpful to those who want to know, and are entitled to know, how they are placed. I think it is of extreme importance that we should make the regulations as simple and as explicit as possible. People in distress are in no state to understand the complexities of law.
The composition of one-parent families is varied, and the idea of an unmarried mother bringing up a child alone as the normal one-parent family is not accurate. There is an ever increasing number of fatherless families and motherless ones. The motherless ones, I think, face additional hardships, or at least the father does. Not only is he unaccustomed to dealing with the washing and ironing and cleaning of the house, but there are all 114 the little things in the every-day life of a child, from a cut finger or a bruised knee to a broken toy. The lone father also suffers from comments from neighbours who, no doubt through ignorance of the situation, castigate him for not working but living at the expense of the State, not realising that he is doing a hard but honest job of trying to bring up his children in a happy family atmosphere and to keep the family united.
I am disappointed that so far the Government have not yet seen their way to introducing family courts, as first recommended by the eminent woman judge, Jean Graham Hall. We do not have many women judges, and therefore I think we should listen to them, especially when they speak upon family matters. I was very disappointed by the Attorney General's statement on 26th October last on family courts, because I can see no justification for two parallel systems of jurisdiction in family matters. It seems to me to be illogical to have anything other than a wholly unified system of matrimonial law. We speak of rifts in the matrimonial lute, but no one in their senses would try to make marriage like playing on a two-manual church organ. But of course it is not sufficient merely to deal with the formal law; one must also have regard to administering it in a suitable place. I can think of many nervous women—and, indeed, men, too—who are frightened by the formal atmosphere of a court. Could not the rooms at present used informally for juvenile courts be used for family courts? Indeed, it would seem to be quite logical to use for family courts the somewhat less awe-inspiring atmosphere provided for the juvenile courts.
Many others who have already spoken in this debate have made, and no doubt others who are to follow, will make, many valuable points. I shall therefore confine myself to one other matter only. The one I have in mind is day care. The reduction of the rate support grant means that very many local authorities are cutting back on day nurseries. In the most deprived urban area of the United Kingdom, Strathclyde, the total closure of all day nursery provision is under consideration. Nothing apparently is being done to expand comprehensive nursery centres, day fostering, employers' day nurseries and all-day play groups. In one area in 115 which services of this kind are a most obvious need, nothing is apparently being done. I refer to after-school play groups. Would it not be possible to use the schools for this purpose and so make use of buildings which otherwise would not be in use? Not only are there difficulties with the child in primary school, but there is the problem of the comprehensive school child, especially in rural areas, who arrives home before mother or father. There is also the problem of school holidays which preclude the lone parent from working, or certainly from working full-time.
For lone parents, the possibility of working is often the only way of participating in adult society. The disappearance of the facilities that enable them to go out to work can only be a psychological disaster for many of them. A psychological disaster for a lone parent is a disaster that can only be worked off on the children. In the case of motherless one-parent families I think that day care, in whatever form, is of special importance because it may well provide the only contact with women that the children may have. I have in mind a little boy of my acquaintance whose mother deserted his father and her family. At first he went round saying to different women whom he knew, "May I call you Mummy for today?".
I beg the Government to give urgent thought to this matter. With the exception of Ireland, EEC figures show the United Kingdom provision of day care to be the lowest in Europe. I realise that this is not the time to discuss economies in expenditure, but surely we could save in areas such as excessive lighting and heating in public buildings. There is plenty of scope for economy and we must avoid extravagance. Perhaps what was thus saved could be used to help towards day care for children who need it.
§ Lord STRABOLGI
My Lords, may I remind your Lordships that this debate must finish at eight o'clock, and in order to give my noble friend Lord Wells-Pestell adequate time in which to reply I should be grateful if noble Lords who are about to speak would limit their speeches to five minutes.
§ 7.15 p.m.
§ Baroness GAITSKELL
My Lords, we should be very grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, for introducing this urgent debate. In any debate on either one-parent families or divorce I must confess that I find myself wondering whether there is not some merit in polygamy, because at least the discarded wife and the children are often kept in the common home. But, seriously, the solutions are so difficult in terms of human relations.
Despite the fact that I agree with the contributions of my noble friend Lady Summerskill and the right reverend Prelate, that the Divorce Reform Act may, for the time being, have increased the difficulties for children in one-parent families, I do not believe that the children are any better off in countries where divorce is not allowed, and I should like statistics. I find much more comfort in the practical suggestions of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale. I must also confess that I am very ignorant about the problem that is dealt with in the Finer Report. I have tried to read a certain amount but I find that my knowledge is still quite inadequate. However, I have learned a certain amount during the course of the debate this evening.
In Britain over many years we have given very low priority to families and children. There was a distinct bias in taxation policies throughout the 1960s against the family with children. However severe are the consequences of taxation on low paid, two-parent families, the consequences of taxation on a one-parent family are far more severe. To maintain older children in a one-parent family obviously means that conditions are most inadequate. I agree with my noble friend Lady Summer-skill that this may be one of the reasons for the increasing number of drop-outs in education and for general discontent among young people.
There are many reasons for the poor results of our welfare services for one-parent families. One of them is that the basis of entitlement to welfare benefits is too complicated to be understood and taken up by those in greatest need of these benefits. It has been estimated, as the right reverend Prelate has said, that 117 by the year 2,000 over 3 million children will have had experience of a one-parent family. Whatever hardships are endured in our society by the low income groups in two-parent families, we can be sure that they are very much worse in the one-parent family. Taking this into account, it seems ludicrous that single parents have to wait two years before obtaining any benefit entitlement.
A remnant of old-fashioned social disapproval still haunts the one-parent families and I suppose that this is reflected in the social policies which we adopt. Otherwise how can we justify our tax systems, which show that the proportion of tax taken from the average affluent worker—which of course has also increased over the last 10 years—has not increased so much as the proportion taken from the low paid? We find among the low paid most of the one-parent families. It is a sad comment on the times we live in when we remember that in 1965 a low paid worker, defined as one earning two-thirds of the average national wage, paid no income tax whatever. This shift during the last 10 years in the burden of taxation towards the low paid must be reversed. Although I am not an economist, and I have no doubt that I shall be shot down in flames by the Minister, it seems to me that this tendency to shift the burden of taxation on to the low paid must be reversed. I am not thinking of the wealth tax. I do not believe that it would cost so much as day care and nursery schools and all the other things which we have suggested. It seems to me that here is an area where a change in taxation policy can help the one-parent family and that we should stop discrimination in taxation in favour of single and childless couples.
In areas of deprivation we all know that personal taxation should be based on the needs of families with children of different ages. Assessments for one-parent and two-parent families must be different in order to be fair. Many of the Western democratic countries in Europe are better than we are at dealing with these welfare problems. Norway is particularly good and has an outstanding record, with tax-free child allowances and graded grants up to 16 years of age for pupils, and up to the age of 27 for students and the disabled. I must leave out the other countries which also do rather better 118 than we do. Unlike in Britain, in five European countries none makes full-time work a bar against social insurance benefits. What causes the poverty trap is the means-tested benefit; and most experts today ask not for means-tested, but for universal benefits, and other things which, unfortunately, there is not time to go into.
I believe the in-built inequalities of our tax system and our social security system must be ironed out if we are to achieve better results from our social policies. The choice for a civilised society to achieve progress in this field is, as has been said, not whether to have a family policy but what kind of family policy we should have to make up a system of family income support in need, wherever that need may be. I believe that the selective systems have proved to be imperfect and a strong case has now been made out for universal benefits.
§ 7.22 p.m.
§ Baroness ELLIOT of HARWOOD
My Lords, we have had a remarkable debate. I thought the speech made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, was not only moving but very dramatic. What would Charles Dickens have made of this situation if he had been alive today? Oliver Twist would have been nothing compared to what he could have written about the conditions that have been described.
I believe that local authorities should be made to understand the real problems with which one-parent families are faced. I was horrified to hear the noble Lady, Lady Kinloss, say that Strathclyde, one of the most unsuccessful reorganisations in local government in Scotland, has now decided to cut down on all the services to help mothers in the way of day care for children. We ought to make it as easy as possible for the one parent to go to work, and I entirely agree that we must alter the hour rule so that people can get benefit and assistance if they are working, say, only 20 hours or even less. That is absolutely vital.
Also I think the simplification of applications for rent and other allowances should be tackled at once. These delays, complications and form-fillings could certainly be done in a far simpler way if 119 somebody were to look at the matter straightforwardly and make it as easy as possible for the one parent to get the necessary allowances. We all know what complications there are when wages are altered and codes have to be changed. That is all right if you are in work and earning good wages, but it is not if you are left, as these women are, with responsibility for a family and not knowing which way to turn and how to tackle these complicated things. I would tackle the administration of these benefit schemes immediately.
I agree that the housing situation is a vital matter. Again, I would go to the local authorities and I would press for these emergencies to be treated just as one would treat an emergency when a person is knocked down by a motor car and has to be taken by ambulance to a hospital. The hospital would not turn the patient away because it was an emergency case; they would take that patient in at once. I believe the local authority should be told that these emergencies for housing are of the greatest importance in this terrible problem.
There are many other things I should like to say, but I would merely add my voice to those we have heard today and say to the Government that they should do something now—not in a few years' time and not, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, pointed out, in the phrase of the civil servant, waiting to see what is going to happen. We know what is going to happen if we do nothing: the situation will get worse and worse and worse. Now is the time to do something. Much can be done without spending money, simply by reorganisation and an intelligent use of what is available. I am quite sure that we could do something today which would be of vital importance in this desperate situation.
§ 7.26 p.m.
§ Viscount HANWORTH
My Lords, speaking late in a debate of this nature one necessarily merely emphasises what other people have said, but as my speech was going to last only five minutes, in order to save time I will roughly follow what I intended to say. The magnitude of the problem has already been stressed. Many one-parent families are the result 120 of easier divorce. Quite apart from the moral obligation to help those in our community who are in need or in difficulty, we have a social responsibility to do so, arising from the divorce legislation which Parliament has enacted. It is hard to understand why, after three years, so few of the recommendations of the outstandingly excellent Finer Report have been implemented.
I intended to deal with only two matters of great concern to one-parent families, but if time permits I may add a third. Our present system of income supplements and benefits is a jungle. It is not so much that more money is required, but that it is wastefully employed and the system so complicated that no Administration, however efficient, could make it work effectively. Not only is there in many cases a positive disincentive to work, but those who are really in need fare worst. There is probably no section of the community which suffers more from these shortcomings than one-parent families. When a lone parent tries to return to work, he or she faces delays of up to three months or more before benefits and tax are fixed correctly. During this time a family can lose even as much as £20 a week and be worse off than on supplementary benefit. Furthermore, a lone parent working more than 30 hours a week can receive a family income supplement if the gross income is below a specified amount, but two months' pay slips have to be submitted before a claim is made and the total delay before any benefit is received is usually about three months. Even longer delays may arise before the penal emergency tax code can be adjusted. How does the Treasury expect the family to live during that period of three months or more.
My third point, briefly, is that there should be more opportunities for part-time working. Originally, it was said that part-time working was impossible for teachers. But when there was a shortage of teachers it was found that this was an excellent and easily arranged matter. It was also said that one could not have part-time workers in the hospitals, but it was found to be necessary and quite efficient. It has been argued that part-time working in research is impossible. My reply to that is that most of those working in universities, professors and lecturers, are part-time researchers, and if it is true that it is impossible, why do 121 they carry on? No, part-time working is in most cases perfectly possible if one is prepared to make some alterations in the way affairs are managed.
The other matter which I should like to mention concerns the courts. The Finer Report stresses that at the moment there are three systems of family law in operation. One stems from the High Court, another the magistrates' courts, and a third is administered in camera by the Supplementary Benefits Commission. As Finer said, nothing could exceed the confusion created by three modes of assessment of a liability, all different from each other, and two of them employed in courts of law acting in ignorance of the third mode which the Supplementary Benefits Commission use in making decisions which affect the very same group of people. What is needed is a family court. It is absurd to contend that new buildings must be provided for such a court to operate, or that new legal expertise needs to be generated. In all this I am reminded of the cynic's prayer for use in Government Departments:Grant that this day we come to no decisions, neither run into any kind of responsibility, but let all our doings be ordered to establish new and quite unwarranted departments, for ever and for ever.
§ 7.32 p.m.
§ Lord HYLTON
My Lords, I should like to turn to the housing aspect of the very urgent and serious problems facing one-parent families. All the authorities are in absolute agreement, from the Francis Committee to the National Child Development Study, to the Catholic Housing Aid Society Study of 1973 and the Shelter Housing Aid Centre Study of 1975. These concur completely with the Finer Committee on the seriousness and the urgency and the lack of suitable accommodation.
I should like to suggest two preventive measures that would help things. The first concerns the co-ownership of the matrimonial home, and here we are awaiting eagerly the report due from the Law Commission. We very much hope that it will fully take into account the Finer Report and that it will produce recommendations that will help, both during the currency of a marriage and after its dissolution.
The second preventive measure concerns joint tenancies for local authority houses 122 in the names of both husband and wife. The best authorities—for example, Leeds, Birmingham and a number of others, and more recently the GLC—have always done this, but last year only eight out of the 33 London boroughs made a regular practice of offering joint tenancies. The corollary of the joint tenancy is that it should be transferred by the authority to the parent, who has actual care of the children, in all cases of marital dispute. So much for prevention.
I come to aftercare measures, after a family has broken up. The noble Baroness, Lady Summerskill, rightly pointed out that discrimination against the one-parent family as such should be unthinkable but in fact does happen. It should also never be the case that one-parent families are rehoused in a concentration, in a ghetto, in one particular estate or street. There is need secondly, for revision of points schemes which at present discriminate severely against the one-parent family (Finer Committee, paragraph 673). My noble friend Lady Young mentioned residential qualifications. The trend is to place less emphasis on these, and I am very glad to see that the London Borough of Hammersmith has given a striking lead in this. The Finer Committee Report, paragraph 678, laid down the two criteria which should be predominant when it comes to rehousing.
I have already mentioned the question of transferring tenancies from husband to wife, or vice versa, and this needs to be done conditionally when a family dispute first shows itself. That can be done administratively. There is also a need for changing the law under Section 7 of the Matrimonial Homes Act 1967, to give power to the court to transfer local authority and housing association tenancies in the same way that it can already transfer private tenancies. I understand that the Government are having discussions with the Building Societies Association and with the local authority associations on what happens when a mortgage is current and you have a family breakdown. These discussions have been going on for a long time. I hope they will soon be brought to a positive conclusion and that we shall have some effective action.
Finally, on these aftercare measures, may I say how very badly we need a 123 circular on the whole question of the housing needs of the one-parent family. The reason for asking for a circular is that one-parent families are almost totally unrepresented on local authority housing committees. We were promised, or at least it was officially stated in October 1975, that a circular would come out very soon. I should like to ask why the delay and when will we get that circular? So much for housing.
If I may touch on the question of self-help and mutual help in and among one-parent families, this is something absolutely essential and necessary to their morale. It is relatively cheap to provide, and there is a considerable range of voluntary bodies existing to do just that. To name a few, Gingerbread, Mothers in Action, the National Association of Widows and the National Federation of Women's Aid. I hope the Government will give them all possible encouragement and help. One or two have already received EEC funds, and I hope that this will be possible in many more cases.
§ 7.37 p.m.
§ Baroness SEEAR
My Lords, your Lordships want to hear Lord Wells-Pestell's reply and not listen to me speak; I will be as brief as I possibly can. I want to focus on the position of single parents who want to go out to work, because I believe it is exceedingly important that it should be made as easy as possible for them to do so. Will the noble Lord tell us—not necessarily tonight—what steps will be taken, even in the present economic situation, to ease the position of the single parent who wants to work? It must be not only an economic but also a considerable psychological relief to be able to do so.
One of the points already mentioned is the ridiculous restriction of family income supplement to those working less than 30 hours a week. One can see why it was introduced originally, but surely it would be possible at very little expense to vary this requirement. As the noble Baroness, Lady Gaitskell, pointed out, there is the further quite ridiculous handicap arising from our tax system. This is perhaps not the moment to mention it, but it is quite crazy that we start to tax at what is effectively a 40 per cent. marginal rate, 124 35 per cent. plus the social security contribution. To charge 40 per cent. when one first starts paying tax is quite absurd. I have said this on a number of previous occasions, and it is high time this matter was looked at again.
I want especially to refer to child care services. In times of economic stringency child care services, which are not popular in the community as a whole, however much they are demanded by the women particularly concerned, are obviously up for attack from a number of quarters, but they are absolutely vital to the single parent who wants to go to work. I speak as a non-parent, but surely it must afford the most enormous relief to be able to put your child into care for a few hours while you are working and having adult society rather than the society of small children.
Day nurseries of course have the reputation of being very expensive, and so they are. However, can we not somehow get together those most expert in this area, to see what in the present situation can be done to make child care services—day nurseries—available without any great additional cost to the community? I could expand on this, but in the time available to me I shall not do so.
While I am on the subject of day nurseries, I should like to put in a special plug for a care which is all too little developed in this country but which is very widely developed in other European countries and which in many ways is even more important than the day nursery. It is the provision of care facilities during school holidays. The single parent with a child of seven or eight years, with no one at home for the holidays and with nowhere for the child to go, is in an impossibly difficult situation. If I had to choose where to allocate the expenditure I would spend it on holiday care rather than day nurseries, but that is another matter.
These are matters of the greatest urgency. I am sure that with ingenuity and imagination we could find ways of making far more child care facilities available. This would be of prime importance for the single parent, but it would also be very important for many other women. I am sure that if we do not make this a central issue it will be a casualty of our economic plight.
§ 7.42 p.m.
§ Lord WELLS-PESTELL
My Lords, I am sure the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, will not misunderstand me when I say that I cannot join with all the other noble Lords in thanking him for introducing this particular debate. I cannot do so because I share the view of the noble Baroness, Lady Faithful. I think that we have attempted, through no fault of the noble and learned Lord because he was limited to a short debate, to cover far too much ground of great significance and considerable importance in a short space of time. That is certainly not the Government's fault. A certain amount of business must be got through. There are a large number of No Day Named debates and they must be fitted in. However, perhaps with all its limitations it is desirable that we had this debate today because I for one believe that the issues are not only of great significance to the community, but are of considerable importance to individuals. If a Government cannot move from time to time in directions in which people want them to move, it is a good thing to remind those people occasionally that there are still hurdles to be taken. Generally speaking, I do not think that there is a great deal of difference between the view of the Government on a number of matters, although there is on some, and some of the views that have been expressed today.
The noble and learned Lord asked me not to speak from a brief and that would be no new thing for me—but rather to say what I think. Of course, that is what I cannot do. As the noble Baroness, Lady Young, knows only too well, Ministers speak for the Government, they do not speak for themselves. All my experience—and I am getting on now—has been in the field of professional social work and voluntary social work in the selection and training of social workers. However, I am sure that some of your Lordships are sick and tired of hearing that. Therefore, I understand the problem; I understand what noble Lords and Baronesses have said with regard to this matter. I should, perhaps, have preferred to take one or two of the areas covered by the Finer Report and to discuss them in depth. Nevertheless, we have spread what we had to say over a very wide area instead of putting our roots down deeply in defined areas.
126 Under the Rules of your Lordships' House I must sit down by eight o'clock, so I cannot deal in detail or ever adequately with the vast number of questions which I have been asked. I shall try to deal with one or two of them. I shall read, as one normally does, Hansard, and if I think that a matter should be dealt with by post, I shall reply in that way. However, I am bound to say that pressure is such that the replies may not come within a matter of a few days. As the noble Baroness, Lady Faithful, knows, I dealt with some over the Christmas Recess. However, I undertake to do that. I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot, did not mean what I think she implied; namely, that conditions today in some respects are as bad as they were during the days of Oliver Twist. I shall not let her get away with that because it is just not accurate, and she knows it.
The Government have been criticised because they have not implemented all the recommendations of the Finer Report. It was asserted—and perhaps if it were not explicit, it was implicit in what certain noble Lords said—that there was a lack of sympathy and understanding by the Government. That just is not true. If any noble Lord believes that there is a lack of sympathy as regards the matters raised today by Members of your Lordships' House—and I know that I shall be accused silently of making a political point here—since this Government were returned to power in March 1974, in spite of a severe economic difficulty can noble Lords honestly say, bearing in mind the benefits and the increase of benefits which we have made fairly substantially over a very wide area, that this shows a lack of concern on the part of the Government? I do not think that anyone would say that.
The real truth of the matter is that we are not indifferent to the hardship which is being felt and experienced by one-parent families—we accept that—and we are not indifferent to the difficulties which are being experienced by other groups. In the last analysis a Government must show that they understand the needs of the various groups and must parcel out what they can give over a wide range of groups and not make unfair provision for perhaps one particular group.
I do not believe that we have done too badly when it comes to one-parent 127 families. However, what so many of your Lordships tend to forget is that the recommendations of the Finer Committee include a drastic restructuring of financial support for one-parent families, wholesale reform of the matrimonial law in magistrates' courts, which I agree is long overdue, and a completely new system of courts for family matters which, when I was in that particular field, I too advocated following the advocacy of people far better informed on these matters than myself.
However, the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, is quite wrong in saying that there is no problem about buildings. Anyone who has the least understanding of the problem would not make that claim. People wait for months in custody and on bail to come to trial because we do not have enough facilities to deal with them. We are building Crown Courts. When I first entered the Probation Service there was one quarter sessions for London which had three courts, which surprised the rest of the country. I do not know how many Crown Courts there are in London at the present moment but there are certainly more than 20 of them, with more than one court meeting in them simultaneously.
It is not easy to find buildings. Investigations have been made into the use of town halls for a variety of purposes, but they are now using them. Although we have amalgamated boroughs in London—twos and threes into a new borough—and there are two or three town halls, they are in use. You cannot take a room in the town hall and make it into a family court and then move it all out the next day. I think the noble and learned Lord would agree with me that there has to be a special kind of environment. There has to be a special kind of setting if one is to have a family court. It is not a question of shoving in a few tables and chairs and then moving them out next day, or stacking them up in the corner.
§ Lord WELLS-PESTELL
My Lords, I do not want to, if the noble Lord does not mind. I have only 9 minutes to go. There is so much one could say on this. 128 This is going to be very unsatisfactory, much more unsatisfactory for me than it is for your Lordships, because I cannot deal with so many of the essential matters. There would be major and far-reaching propositions whatever the prevailing economic circumstances, and today we have to face the unpleasant fact that we are up against the lack of money and the inability to have the manpower to do all the things that we want to do.
Of course we could make payments much earlier than we do, although FIS (family income supplement) does not take at the most more than four weeks to deal with in the initial stages. But so much more could be done if we could increase the number of civil servants. On one side we are told that we have to do this, and on the other we are told that we have to cut down. This is the situation we are facing at the present time. It is all the more essential that we should take a close look at the background against which any responsible consideration of the Finer Report must take place. That is one of the reasons why I welcome today's debate, because I think this has to be a continuing debate. The noble and learned Lord quite rightly made a comment about the Law Commission's Working Party on Family Courts and wanted to know why, I think the noble and learned Lord said, the Government terminated it. I may be wrong about this.
§ Lord WELLS-PESTELL
My Lords, I am looking at the Law Commission's Ninth Annual Report for 1973–74, and I see that they say:The report of the Committee on one-parent families contains detailed recommendations for the establishment of a family court. No useful purpose would be served by our own Working Party going over the ground already traversed in the Finer Report. We"—that is, the Law Commission—have therefore decided not to dissolve the Working Party but to suspend its operation indefinitely.I take the noble and learned Lord's point of view, because I think that this matter has to be looked at very carefully. I can remember juvenile courts being set up, and they left a lot to be desired. I 129 think we have to go into this very carefully. But it is a matter for the Law Commission to look at again to see why it cannot be resuscitated, because I am sure—notwithstanding the fact that the Finer Committee went into it very carefully—there are perhaps other considerations which the Working Party could look at. However, with respect I suggest that this is a matter for the Law Commission.
The Finer Committee report involved six different Government Departments, and in my own Department no fewer than six separate divisions. Governments never work fast at the best of times, as we all know, and when you have six Government Departments all inquiring into their own sphere of responsibility you have endless discussions. It is part of our way of life. It takes a long time to get round to decisions, and perhaps in view of the complexity of the whole business it is a good thing.
I hope that my noble and learned friend Lord Gardiner will not feel that I am trying to duck his question. The matter he raised of a supplementary benefit appeal tribunal is of considerable importance. A large number of people feel concerned about this. A large number of people in your Lordships' House are concerned about it, and it would take me a long time to deal with this matter in the way that the noble and learned Lord wants me to deal with it. With the greatest respect, could I persuade him to put down a Question either for oral Answer, if he feels that there is sufficient time at Question Time, or a Question for Written Answer? I will undertake, if it is for written reply, to try to see that it is as long as possible. If it is in Hansard, a far greater number of people would be present if it was an oral Question, or a far greater number of Members of your Lordships' House would read it if it was for written reply.
I have not time to deal with a great deal, but perhaps I ought to say something about the guaranteed maintenance allowance. The Government have not felt able to accept this proposal. First we feel that it is very expensive. Even with the limitations Finer proposed it would cost something like £250 million to introduce, as the noble Lord, Lord Banks, said. There is not the money available for such a benefit. Secondly, it would require the establishment of several thousand extra 130 civil servants to administer the allowance and the related system of administrative orders for the recovery of maintenance from liable relatives, usually the man. Thirdly, all the guaranteed maintenance allowance would do for about 300,000 one-parent families is to transfer them from one form of means tested benefit—namely, supplementary benefit—to another. We do not feel that there is really anything to be gained by it.
I wish the noble Baroness, Lady Faithful, had developed it more when she reminded your Lordships that it is possible for the Supplementary Benefits Commission to come to an arrangement with a husband to pay, and so we pay the wife and we recover the money from him. If he is in default then the Supplementary Benefits Commission could take him to the court and get an order, and if he defaults then they can apply under certain powers for an attachment of earnings.
I asked for this information because I thought it might be interesting: we recovered a considerable amount of money last year, something like £40 million, from husbands. We have taken several hundred of them to court when they have defaulted, and we have got a large number of orders. In fact, the number of cases in which the Commission took criminal proceedings because the liable relative failed to maintain was 624, and the number of cases in which the Commission took civil proceedings to obtain orders was 305. There were attachment orders but, as I say, the total amount recovered from persons liable for maintenance amounted to something like £40 million.
I did not want to deal with the matter of tax credits which the noble Baroness, Lady Young, raised, but I think I am right in saying that the Conservative Party estimate that it would cost about £5,000 million. I would ask her to look at their literature because it is an enormous sum and, if that were the case, one can understand why we regard it as being unrealistic at the present time. The fact that short-term benefits, such as sickness and unemployment benefits, are not taxed—again, as I think Baroness Young knows—is due to administrative difficulties, though we are still looking at the subject because there are many people on all sides who know only too well that there is a very strong argument here.
131 As to reducing the 30 hours a week to something like 20, which I think Finer recommended—
§ Lord WELLS-PESTELL
Perhaps it was 24, my Lords—the Government have said that while they sympathise with the objective, this proposal must be considered in the context of the limited resources available and the need for critical examination of any demands for additional expenditure. However, we have not shut our minds against it.
I am sorry about the inadequacy of my replies, but this is a very big subject and in the time given to me I have not been able adequately to cover it. Perhaps we may return to it one of these days and deal with certain factors and situations which demand more careful discussion.
§ 8.2 p.m.
§ Lord SIMON of GLAISDALE
My Lords, it only remains for me at this hour to express my gratitude to all noble Lords, from whom I do not exclude even the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, for the contributions they have made today. Considering the short time we have had, noble Lords have covered an amazingly wide area of ground. The debate has shown that there is a large body of opinion which has been aroused, a great deal of thought concentrated and many consciences are sensitive to the issues we have been discussing. My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.
§ Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.