HL Deb 27 February 1991 vol 526 cc1065-94

8.55 p.m.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they agree with the findings of Child Poverty and Deprivation in the UK, a report by Professor Jonathan Bradshaw on behalf of the National Children's Bureau for the United Nations Children's Fund.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, for a number of years now UNICEF has produced an annual report: The State of the World's Children. It focuses on children's deprivation in the developing world. However, in recent years anxiety about children in industrialised countries has led UNICEF to decide to review the state of children in eight specified countries each with a different political, economic and social make-up. Those countries are: Hungary, Italy, Japan, Portugal, Sweden, the UK, the USA and the USSR. UNICEF will respond to the studies when they have all been completed. The UK study has been one of the first to appear and is the subject of our debate this evening.

The review was conducted according to an analytical framework set up by UNICEF to test whether children's welfare in the countries in question had been slowing down or even deteriorating. Professor Jonathan Bradshaw has examined the impact of poverty on many aspects of children's lives, including infant and childhood death, child development, homelessness, child abuse, educational attainment and juvenile crime. Many of the same lines of examination were taken by UNICEF in assessing for their annual report on the state of the world's children the situation of children in the developing world.

Before I outline some of the report's main findings, I want to quote what Professor Bradshaw says in his introduction. Wishing to explain some of the problems which he encountered, he comments: Perhaps an ominous reflection of the position in the UK is that it is difficult to answer the questions that UNICEF has posed. The essence of the problem is that while the UK has what constitutes an excellent national database on family or household living standards, social conditions and social attitudes, children have not been the primary focus of attention … UNICEF has quite rightly emphasised outputs and impacts rather than inputs. In considering children's well-being we should try to concentrate not on inputs such as the amounts of child benefit and other benefits or expenditure on services but on outputs such as the school enrolment rates or the availability of playgrounds and, more importantly, on impacts such as school performance, infant mortality or the heights and weights of children. There is … generally much better data on inputs than there is on outputs and impacts". In conclusion, he states: The final problem we face in responding to UNICEF's commission is that much of the evidence that might be available on the impact on children of changes in the last 10 to 15 years is not yet available. This is partly due to the fact that the data has not yet emerged". Professor Bradshaw thus sets out the parameters and the problems with which he was faced in making the review. In his survey he considers, first, child poverty in the 1980s, secondly, its causes and, thirdly, its impact upon children. Then he gives his conclusions. There is little doubt that his finding on child poverty is of great concern. I am sure that noble Lords who follow me this evening will agree. He found that the number of children living in poverty was estimated at 2 million, which means that the number has doubled during the 1980s.

Professor Bradshaw accepts that in Britain there is no generally accepted definition of poverty. There has been much discussion on that point. As a basis for his study, he considers the number of children living on or near income support. That is a government safety net. He also considers the number of children living in families which earn half the average national wage or less. We are talking about a couple with two children having to exist on about £85 a week.

We know that safety net levels have risen. That has accounted for the rise in the number of people on benefit. Surely, as a rich country, our minimum standards should be higher. As the Government have often told us, average incomes have risen. That is a good thing, but it is wrong that that benefit has not been shared with enough children. That has led to the increasing gap between high and low income families. The so-called trickle-down effect from the better off to the badly off has not materialised as the Government so often told us would be the case.

If one tries to imagine a family attempting to bring up two children adequately on £85 a week, one realises what an impossibility that is. Professor Bradshaw states that the lives of children brought up at that level of income are, marked by the unrelieved struggle to manage with dreary diets and drab clothing. They also suffer what amounts to cultural imprisonment in their homes in our society in which getting out with money to spend on recreation and leisure is normal at every other income level".

The report also describes some of the effects of poverty on children. It mentions increased health problems, lower birth weights and childhood morbidity. A particular effect of poverty is poor self-esteem and low expectations. Professor Bradshaw also refers to the nutritional status of British children. That nutritional status has deteriorated in the 1980s, largely because of the abolition of price support for school meals and reduced nutritional standards. I know that my noble friend Lord Rea will speak with greater authority on that subject than I can.

The report stresses that, in terms of total nutrients per day for children in families which receive benefit, diets are, grossly inadequate with serious deficiencies in intake of iron, vitamin C and other minerals'. One normally reads such comments about children in developing countries. It comes as a great shock to see such statistics about British children.

Another surprising revelation is that, despite our prosperity, immunisation levels in this country are not as high as they should be. Whooping cough immunisation among British children is at a lower level than in Botswana, Costa Rica or Egypt. I have often wondered why we do not ask parents to bring their children's immunisation certificates with them when they enroll their children in school. That sensible provision is used in many other European countries.

Professor Bradshaw describes the increase in homelessness which erupted as a result of the reduction in expenditure on housing. There has been a doubling in the number of children living in bed and breakfast accommodation and hostels. That has resulted in a subsequent deterioration in their diet and an increase in children reporting sickness.

Professor Bradshaw concludes that inequalities in children's lives have increased. He states in the report that, The lives of children in a two parent, two-career family, living in owner-occupied housing in the south of England have improved. In contrast, the lives of children in an unemployed or lone-parent family living in rented accommodation in the inner cities or North of England have got worse. Health, education and social services have deteriorated. Black children and families are particularly disadvantaged on many fronts". Professor Bradshaw is right to state that some indicators suggest that things have got better. Among the factors that have improved are educational attainment, teenage crime levels and smoking in childhood and adolescence. He also explains that some indicators show improvements taking place but at a slower rate than in previous periods, or at a slower rate than might be expected in comparison with other countries. One example of such an indicator is infant mortality.

I believe that the report is of immense value. I hope that the Government will accept its findings in the spirit in which they have been given—namely, as a constructive contribution towards policy making relating to children in this country. It is UNICEF's view, and the Government's view as endorsed by Mrs Thatcher when she attended the World Summit for Children last September, that countries should follow a "first call for children" principle. This report plainly indicates that through the 1980s, as our economic situation worsened, Britain failed to follow that principle and failed to protect children from recession, the effects of unemployment, cuts in the welfare state and the effects of child benefit falling behind prices. Britain also failed to protect children from a deterioration in school meals, housing shortages and other problems.

In looking forward to the 1990s we must not fail these children again. We are now aware of the effects of unemployment on children. There is every indication that unemployment will rise again. We know the effects that poverty has. Therefore we must ensure that children's benefits are targeted, either directly through child benefit, or indirectly through enabling lone parents to work by providing good day care provision for their children.

The report calls for child-centred social security and fiscal policies. The Government should consider those matters seriously. The report also states that there is a need to develop a better mechanism for monitoring the state of children in the United Kingdom. That has often been called for in this House by, among others, the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull. The Government have not done enough to develop such a mechanism.

Indeed, one of the first debates I ever opened in this House, as long ago as May 1982, was about how social and economic changes affect children. I hate to say "I told you so", but then too there was every indication that the poverty of children would increase, and that we would not have a sufficiently effective monitoring mechanism to reveal what was happening to them. We need to know what is happening to children and when it happens. Children cannot wait. They have only one chance to develop to their full physical, mental and emotional potential, and surely it is our responsibility to make sure that all Britain's children get that chance.

9.8 p.m.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, I have a particular reason for thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, for introducing this debate. She is the notable president of the United Nations Children's Fund, which used to be known as the United Nations International Emergency Fund. In this country UNICEF has a close relationship with the National Children's Bureau, of which I am president. In the past, UNICEF concentrated on the needs of children in third world countries. However, as the noble Baroness said, concern had been felt in the corridors of UNICEF that in the last few years the well-being of children was deteriorating in industrial countries.

Therefore, UNICEF, as the noble Baroness has told us, commissioned studies in 30 countries, concentrating on eight particular countries. Of those eight countries three have already published their papers: the United States of America from the University of Michigan; Italy from the University of Trento; and the United Kingdom. UNICEF commissioned the National Children's Bureau to carry out the study of child poverty and deprivation, and so, as the noble Baroness said, we have this book by Professor Jonathan Bradshaw. As the noble Baroness said, he is an expert on social policy at York University.

I shall not go into the details of all the tables in the book. The noble Baroness has already pointed to a number of points that the book brings out. From the point of view of deterioration in this country the work states that the number of children living in poverty has doubled, and that homelessness has doubled for various families. The number of children with long-standing illnesses has increased; nutritional standards have probably also deteriorated, compounded by the removal of standards for school dinners—I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Rea, will have something to say about that—there were more teenage conceptions; and deaths due to solvents have increased.

But, on the other hand, a balance must be maintained. The book states that in this country in the last 10 years infant mortality has continued to decrease; there are fewer children in care numerically and as a proportion of all children; juvenile crime and the experience of custody has decreased; and there is some growth in the availability of places in nursery school and some forms of child care. But, my Lords, only some growth—I think not enough. There have been some increases in educational attainment among some children; pocket money has increased; smoking has been reduced; drinking has not increased; and, strangely enough, your Lordships may be astonished to hear that there is less television viewing. Children's rights were enhanced to some degree; there is better dental care for children; and relatively fewer dental problems. Therefore, there is a balance to be struck.

It should be noted also—and this is important—that there is a group of children in this country whose well-being has improved. I refer to the children of a family where there are two parents, where there is an owner-occupied house and where both parents can work and in some cases do work. This is so in the south of England, but it has to be said that the report points put that the lives of children in an unemployed or lone-parent family living in rented accommodation, and mostly in the inner cities and north of England, have deteriorated.

The study points to three areas: the economic area; the policy area; and I would say that the third area is the ethos of society. Under the economic area, as the noble Baroness stated, unemployment has risen. This has led to deprivation physically, mentally, and emotionally for a number of children.

From the point of view of policies, public expenditure has been cut back. We understand the reason for that, which is to try to get inflation down. But, as the noble Baroness said, it has affected the lives of children, particularly in the field of housing, when families live in one-room flats and bedsitters, as well as having other very difficult housing problems.

I now come to the ethos of society. I do not think that the points I shall mention can be attributed to any one government; they are the responsibility of us all. The report shows that children of single parents, of divorced parents and of separated parents are greatly at risk. I speak from experience as a governor of two schools for disturbed children. The staff tell me that children are more emotionally disturbed now than they have been in the last 20 years. Some of the staff at the schools for which I am responsible, and in which I have a deep interest, have been there for 20 years so that they are able to judge. This is a very serious matter.

The state of a nation's children physically, educationally and emotionally, reflects the state of the nation. As the children grow to adulthood, the deprivation of assets manifest to the children in their youth shows itself in adult life. On an economic plane, we could save money in the long term, if in certain areas, this country cared more for its children. We could save money in the health service if we looked after the children's feeding and eating habits. Like other noble Lords, I refer to school dinners.

We could save money if children had proper nursery and creche facilities, so that mothers could work knowing that their children had an emotionally satisfying alternative. We could save money if we did not have the bed and breakfast situation. The present Minister of Housing is very well aware of this and is doing his best to remedy what has been a long standing problem.

We could save money if we had better services for our children on the penal side. Prisons are very expensive. I used to visit a prison, and when men were being discharged I spoke to them about how they should cope with their children when they went home after a term of imprisonment. After discussion, it always came back to the men saying, "If we had had a good child care service when we were young, and a stable family, we would not be here". I ask your Lordships to bear in mind that to keep a man in prison costs £330 a week.

I am quite sure that Professor Bradshaw—and I have talked to him about this—will agree with me that this book is valuable, but only as a signpost. It is not comprehensive, but it is a very good signpost.

I look back on the national child development study, which was carried out by the first director of the National Children's Bureau, a notable woman named Dr. Kellmer-Pringle. She and her research workers followed up until adulthood 98 per cent. of all children born between 3rd and 7th March 1958, and deductions were drawn based on that research. Those deductions were of immense value in formulating policies and in helping all those who work with children to know the difficulties and priorities where children were concerned.

Therefore I should like to recommend that the Government seriously consider setting up a second research project. It should differ in some ways from any other research project that has been carried out. We should ask the National Children's Bureau, with a government grant, to carry out the type of research which was done by Dr. Kellmer-Pringle, but with the added dimension that the cost of the recommendations should be put against the cost to the country if they were not carried out. I believe that that would be possible. I am not always looking at the fiscal side. But I believe that if research were to prove not only the needs of the children and where we are going wrong but also where we are losing out financially, we might have a great chance to improve the lot of the children in this country.

Therefore, I thank UNICEF; I pay tribute to the National Children's Bureau and to Professor Bradshaw for putting up this signpost; and I beg the Government to pursue a piece of in depth research of the kind that I have outlined.

9.20 p.m.

Lord Henderson of Brompton

My Lords, I wish to congratulate the president and the chairman of UNICEF UK for both bringing before us and speaking on Professor Bradshaw's excellent report, which provides invaluable data on many aspects of children's lives. I shall concentrate on one aspect and in that respect shall follow the lead of the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull.

I should like to adapt to apply to children the famous words of Sir Winston Churchill when he was Home Secretary in 1910. He said that the mood and temper of the public with regard to child poverty and deprivation—that is my adaptation—is one of the unfailing tests of civilisation in any country. Winston Churchill was speaking about crime and the treatment of criminals. However, I feel that his words apply equally to our treatment of poor and deprived children. I like to think that he would not object to my adaptation of his great words.

In the light of the Woolf and Tumim Reports or in the light of the Bradshaw Report on child poverty and deprivation, we cannot be very proud of our record on either crime and criminals or poor and deprived children. I propose to look at the Bradshaw Report from the point of view of juvenile crime. It is in that respect that I follow one part of the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull. I am happy to cite and enlist in support the Minister of State at the Home Office, Mr. John Patten, as recently reported in The Times of 13th February this year. The report says that: The government is to seek to identify as small children those who are likely to become criminals by their teens in the hope of preventing them from drifting from deprivation and under-performance into truancy and later juvenile crime". I applaud those words. On reading the Bradshaw Report, I find there invaluable information which would help Mr. Patten to identify, in his words: those children … that are at risk of turning into tomorrow's criminals". He will find that the number of such children is between the lower estimate of 2 million (those in poverty and living in families on half the average wage or less) and the higher estimate of 3 million (those living at about the average income support level). That is a lot of children. It means that more than a quarter of our children are living in poverty. Mr. Patten will find—I quote his own words: The associations between unhappy homes, health problems, failure to thrive, under-performance at school and truancy with later offending are all too clear". He will find that statement amply underpinned and reinforced in the report. He will also be encouraged to find that some of the remedies are clearly set out in the report.

Mr. Patten rightly sees the need for, more participation by local communities, local churches and others working in a coalition with the police, health visitors, social services and the voluntary sector". However, the UNICEF report calls for, child-centred social security and fiscal policies". I am sure that the Government see their way towards child-centred social security policies. I believe that Mr. Patten's utterance indicates that. However, I am not so confident that they are finding their way towards child-centred fiscal policies, without which there cannot be progress on any other front.

There is a glimmer of hope in the report. I refer to the educational achievement which is said to be improving. A huge effort needs to be made on the evidence of the report, by fiscal means not least, to help the most impoverished and deprived of our children—they represent one quarter of the total—if we are to achieve the admirable aims of Mr. Patten: to identify and attack most crime at its root in child poverty and deprivation. It is a striking fact that one quarter of our children are impoverished and deprived; and roughly one quarter of all offenders in 1986 were juveniles.

In order to illustrate the value of the report, that statistic has a striking value. It should urge the Government to proceed on the social security and fiscal fronts. The report will have great value in this country. It will have an even greater force when we are able to compare our record with those of other countries in the industrialised world.

9.28 p.m.

Lord Blease

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking my noble friend Lady Ewart-Biggs for initiating the debate and drawing our attention to the excellent and challenging study and report by the National Children's Bureau.

The findings of the report demand the study and attention of all who are interested in the future for civilised living with happy children not only in the United Kingdom but throughout the world. My remarks will be brief because I consider the debate to be a necessary prefatory to the ongoing challenge to our values and principles, so compellingly argued in the report on child poverty and deprivation.

The report concerns action for children. It is about children's rights. However, it emphasises that rights without services are meaningless. That has been emphasised by my noble friend Lord Henderson. One of the parliamentary groups with which I am privileged to be associated is the all-party parliamentary group for children. The noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, is a dedicated and hardworking chairman of that group. It has undertaken much needed and valuable work in Parliament in the cause of children's rights and happiness. Those rights and happinesses transcend party political stances. I am privileged to participate in the discussions. The group values highly the close association with the National Children's Bureau and warmly appreciates and welcomes the practical help that it receives.

I wish to quote what I consider to be a statement of principle from the report. On page 3 the introduction states: In any society, the state of children should be of primary concern—their well-being is not only an indication of a society 's moral worth, they are human capital, the most important resource for its national future". Therefore we have an interest in making children happy and part of our community.

The report goes on to quote a speech given at the inaugural lecture of the George Thomas Society on 17th January 1990. It was stated: children must come first because children are our most sacred trust. They also hold the key to our future in a very practical sense. It will be their ideas and their resourcefulness which will help solve such problems as disease, famine and the threats to the environment and it is their ideas and their values which will shape the future character and culture of our nation. We need to do all we can to ensure that children enjoy their childhood against a background of secure and loving family life. That way, they can develop their full potential, grow up into responsible adults and become, in their turn, good parents. I firmly support the principles contained in the speech. It will come as no surprise to your Lordships to hear that the speech was made by the then Prime Minister, Mrs. Margaret Thatcher. It issues a challenge and points out that we need a child-centred social policy. Such a policy is enshrined in that statement.

However, a statement printed on the back cover of the report reads: Child poverty in the UK has more than doubled during the 1980s. In this book, Professor Jonathan Bradshaw examines the impact of poverty on many aspects of children's lives including infant and childhood death, child development, homelessness, child abuse, truancy, educational attainment and juvenile crime". How far removed is the practice from the precept? How far removed are the words from the reality of the situation that we face? That is a challenge that emerges from tie book.

Like all Members of this House, I too have the wider interests of all children in my heart. However, noble Lords will expect my direct interest to be with the welfare and happiness of all children in Northern Ireland. There can be no doubt that in view of the chronic high level of unemployment, the low level of family incomes and the preponderance of low-waged employment there are considerable degrees of child poverty and deprivation in the Province. In the absence of any up-to-date comparative study of the relevant facts, I am reluctant to make any assumptions about the degrees of poverty in Northern Ireland or indeed in other regions of the United Kingdom. The noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, dealt with that aspect. This is not a complete report but a welcome signpost that we should value.

I have had reasonable and reliable contacts with a number of statutory and voluntary bodies directly involved in child care and family matters in Northern Ireland. Over the past four decades—and I have gone back 10, 20, 30 and 40 years —there have been considerable improvements as regards the impact of child poverty in Northern Ireland. That is a relevant comparison but it does not meet the essence of the truth of the situation because one is dealing only with poverty levels.

However, if the definition of deprivation includes the physical, mental behavioural and social well-being of children, then I am firmly convinced that there is no room for complacency in Northern Ireland or indeed in any region of the United Kingdom.

In Northern Ireland we still have strong family bonds. They help to maintain some of the better features and values of child care and development. However, there is evidence that some of those family bonds are being seriously eroded. There is an urgent need for concerted action by statutory and voluntary organisations concerned with children and family matters in order to confront those problems boldly and methodically. That is set out clearly in the principles of this report.

Today there are confronting children many new hazards and difficulties which range far wider than merely being caught in the poverty trap. Children in all strata of society are at risk. I mean children on the poverty line; those who are poor; children of workers and professional people and the well-to-do. Perhaps I may use a phrase used in a debate earlier today, "from the dustman to the duke". All children are deserving of care. I have seen many happy homes where parents are unemployed and poverty stricken but the children were treated in a loving and caring way. On the other hand, I have seen homes of rich people where children were looked on as chattels and the car and the holiday were more important than the child, who was left with a baby sitter.

When one speaks of the United Kingdom, one must always define it. I am talking about England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. There are differences of culture and approach to child and family matters, and they must be looked at in that light.

The problems and hazards for children stem from the breakdown in family life. I am not saying that children from one-parent families suffer, because I have seen many happy children who belong to such families. On the other hand, I have seen tremendous feuding in families with more than one child where relations were not good.

Violence in our society has contributed greatly to the outlook of children. That manifests itself in many ways —football hooliganism, joy riding (that is, car theft), drug abuse, gangster mobs; and, sadly in the Northern Ireland context, paramilitarism and terrorism. Terrorism is growing throughout the United Kingdom and other countries. That has a tremendous impact on the outlook and happiness of children.

There is much to be done regarding educational arrangements. The noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, has already mentioned this matter. A child can glean much in relation to society from nursery schools, pre-school playgroups and primary schools if it is properly taught. More money is needed for schools for children in the early stages of development.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Blease, for giving way. When I visited Northern Ireland, I had the privilege of seeing the work done with children under five. I pay tribute to the very good work that is done in Northern Ireland for children under five.

Lord Blease

My Lords, I totally agree, and there are many examples of that. I am anxious that much more is required, as the noble Baroness has already said.

Turning to a serious side, in some of the work I do in Northern Ireland I have sadly had to cope with child abuse in both a physical and sexual context. I have been astonished and shaken that such things could exist within our society, and in Northern Ireland where religion dominates the whole ethos of society. There is widespread vicious and terrible depravity by parents, friends and by other relationships in that context. Sadly, children are caught up in that atmosphere. It is referred to in the book to which I have referred. It is not a subject I wish to extend and develop tonight. Unfortunately, the problem exists also in the United Kingdom.

New hazards and difficulties confronting many children today are far wider than simply being caught in the poverty trap. Children in all strata of our society are at risk from our society.

I close by referring to what I consider to be the priorities of need. There is a greater need for a state register of family nurses who will be required to visit all new born children and keep records of their general progress and the conditions under which they are being nourished or nurtured. That is important because it is not being done in the widespread way that it should be. The early stages when mother and other family members form a relationship with the new child should be carefully monitored. That is not an intrusion into the home; it is a statement of care by society for that new member of society.

There is a need for more registered child minders—to which I have already referred in regard to pre-school children—under proper supervision. There is a need for social workers, doctors and the police to promote agreed procedures for working together with children and families. There is a need for more appropriate and up-to-date training at all levels dealing with children and families.

I conclude by quoting Jonathan Bradshaw in his book. He says, If we can identify way in which the well-being of children has failed to make progress then it gives us targets to aim at in the 1990s and beyond". Those are worthwhile objectives and targets presented to us by Jonathan Bradshaw.

9.43 p.m.

Lord Rea

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Ewart-Biggs for asking this unstarred Question. I also express my admiration for her stamina in initiating and participating in such a wide variety of debates on such a wide spectrum of crucially important topics. The subject before us is no exception.

I agree with other noble Lords that this is a balanced and useful report. I agree with the name given to it by the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, when she described it as a "signpost". I do not believe that Professor Bradshaw would object to that. It is not an exhaustive treatise. He usefully covers a wide field in a short report. As other noble Lords said, while it describes some trends which should give us grave concern, there are others which are more comforting. Some show improvement but at a slower rate than in a number of other countries.

I should like to consider one of the indicators—the infant mortality rate—in more detail and perhaps invite other noble Lords to consider the matter with me. At first sight it looks like a major success story in Britain. Between 1961 and 1985—over 24 years—the rate fell from 22 to 9.5 deaths per 1,000 live and still births. That is something which, if it had been viewed from the early 1960s, would have astonished some of us who were working in child health at that time. From 1985 the fall levelled off considerably. For the first time since the 1930s, in 1986 the infant mortality rate went up—by 0.1 per 1,000. It is interesting to note that that was the year when we had maximum unemployment.

At the moment the figures have resumed their downward trend, standing at 8.4 which seems quite amazing but during the past decade at least 10 other countries have caught up and passed us. The countries concerned include those which we would not normally have thought of as particularly advanced such as Spain, Italy and Eire. Among the Western industrialised countries only the USA has a rate which is higher than ours at 9.6. That is largely because of their large sections of black people in the South and Indian populations on reservations where there is a very much lower standard of life. Japan has achieved the extremely low rate of only five deaths per 1,000.

As I pointed out in the debate on the National Health Service about two weeks ago, this lag in Britain is because our average level is increased by the higher rate among disadvantaged families and some immigrant ethnic groups. The rate is higher in certain regions such as the North, the North-West and South Wales. I do not think that that situation applies in Northern Ireland despite my noble friend's statement that there is deprivation there. Other factors also operate there.

If our infant mortality rate in 1986 had been equal to that of Sweden, it has been calculated by the Department of Health and the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys that 2,247 children who died would not have done so. There are a number of ways in which this problem could be tackled. For example, as Professor Bradshaw points out, prematurity and low birth weight are two of the main causes of early infant deaths. They are directly related to the health, nutritional and smoking status of the mother. Some of those factors are within the power of health workers to influence. Intensive antenatal care can make a difference. That needs a greater concentration of preventive health workers in areas of deprivation. They need to be skilled, receptive and adaptable to the wishes, needs and the customs of the communities concerned. But beyond that first aid work, the economic, nutritional and educational status of the people in pockets of deprivation needs to be faced in order to permanently achieve good results.

I shall now look at child health in a wider aspect. First I wish to consider those who are handicapped. There are now fewer abortions for fetal abnormality because we have largely eliminated the rubella syndrome by immunising teenage girls. However, abortions for spina bifida and Down's syndrome have increased. That has led to a lower proportion of births with severe handicap. Paradoxically, a greater proportion of those born with handicaps survive into childhood and adult life because of better medical and surgical treatment. Therefore, there is an increased number of chronically handicapped children in the community suffering, for example, from cystic fibrosis, congenital heart disease, spina bifida, muscular dystrophy or cerebral palsy. These children are likely to be disadvantaged not simply because of their handicap but also because their families will be poorer—because of the increased costs in time and money devoted to caring for them. In particular, the mother, or possibly the father, may not be able to go out to work to bring in what may be a first income for a single parent or a second income which may be the key to a reasonable standard of life for many people.

Sadly, over the past 15 years, the number of children who attend general practitioners or who are hospital outpatients has steadily gone up instead of coming down, as we might have hoped. That is partly because of the increased number of handicapped survivors, and visits to health institutions are more onerous for poorer parents who are usually reliant on public transport.

I turn next to nutrition. There is still a difference in the height of young adults according to social class. This has not changed in recent years, suggesting that poorer nutrition or more illness—which can also lower nutritional status—or both, exist in those of lower social class. That all is not well in child nutrition was brought home by the Department of Health survey of schoolchildren's diets which was finally published in 1989, although the results were known for some years previously. Three-quarters of children have a higher than recommended fat intake. Higher consumption of chips occurs among children of lower social class and among those whose fathers are unemployed. Too many calories come from biscuits, cakes and fatty meat products—sausages, hamburgers and pies. Many diets are deficient in iron, zinc, folic acid and vitamin C. All of these have social class trends.

That does not mean to say, following my noble friend's statement, that everything in the garden in well off families is wonderful. Some people from all social classes have peculiar ideas about food. The commonly consumed diets, as found in the study, lead to obesity, especially since the physical activity of children is decreasing, and can lead to anaemia in girls who need more iron than boys. There is increasing evidence that nutrition in early childhood and even possibly before birth—in utero—is of crucial importance to the development of the cardio vascular system, the heart and circulation, and the central nervous system, which implies intellectual functioning.

Several studies, especially that of Professor Barker of Southampton, have shown that a relatively deprived childhood can lead to an increased risk of coronary heart disease in adult life. This may be one of the major reasons for the correlation of low social class with high coronary heart disease mortality. Those of us who are interested in the prevention of coronary heart disease, which is the number one killer of men before retirement and of women after retirement, are acutely aware of the importance of childhood nutrition in the genesis of what is a chronic, very slowly developing, condition. By middle age it may be too late to do anything about it; certainly it is too late to prevent it.

Equally, if not more important, is the effect of very early nutrition on brain development. Work by Professor Michael Crawford and Wendy Doyle of the Institute of Brain Chemistry, comparing the size and head circumference of babies born in Hampstead and Hackney, found that the Hackney babies included a significantly higher proportion weighing less than 2,500 grams, a level below which intellectual impairment starts to become measurable and more frequent.

Low birth weight is related to social and economic disadvantages, as I have mentioned. It is not surprising that we find that Hackney has the highest Jarman index of social deprivation. That is the index used to calculate payment to GPs to compensate for the extra workload in deprived areas. Hackney has the highest index of social deprivation in the country.

That shows that not all the deprived communities are in the north.

On the converse side of the question, and also of the world, there are studies which show that Japanese children have significantly better IQ scores than European or American children of the same age. Infant mortality in Japan is the lowest in the world and by implication fetal health is the highest. In the light of those findings I should like to echo the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, in asking the Minister seriously to consider reintroducing the nutritional standards for school meals which were abolished in 1982. There is also a strong case for reintroducing subsidised school meals, providing nutritionally well-balanced and attractive meals—I assure noble Lords that the two qualities are not incompatible—and to work out systems which give incentives to children to take those meals. Giving children money to spend on their lunch, either on or off school premises, with no incentive to eat nutritious rather than purely calorific food has proved disastrous, as the Department of Health study has shown. To do this will cost a little more—not much more—than giving families on family credit or income supplement extra money for school meals, as is now the case. I suggest that this whole area should be looked at again at a high level because of its crucial importance in improving the health and nutrition of current and future generations.

I have one final point. I concur with the last paragraph of Professor Bradshaw's book in which he specifically asks for better mechanisms for monitoring the state of children in the United Kingdom. I hope that the Government will take particular care to implement that section of the book.

9.57 p.m.

Lord Bridges

My Lords, like the noble Baroness whose Unstarred Question we are addressing this evening, I too am closely associated with the work of the United Nations Children's Fund. The noble Baroness is president of the national committee in this country and I am its chairman. We can therefore speak with some knowledge about the background to the report prepared by Professor Bradshaw. It is the international aspect of the report on which I should particularly like to speak since I believe that the relationship between the report and the wider work of UNICEF is important if its full significance is to be understood.

During the past two years there has been much activity in the field of international child welfare. In 1989 the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child which has now entered into force. This convention has been signed by our Government. As the Minister of Health informed the conference held jointly by UNICEF and the National Children's Bureau last month, the Government intend to ratify the convention as soon as possible. Six months after the convention was adopted by the General Assembly in New York, the annual meeting of the executive board of UNICEF which I attended in New York set a new series of targets for child survival and for the protection of children and their welfare. The targets are ambitious. For example, the global plan is to reduce the mortality rate of children under five by one-third, and the maternal mortality rate by one-half by the year 2000. But if those targets are ambitious they are also necessary, and are possible if the required effort, skill and resources are applied.

In September last the World Summit for Children made its uniquely authoritative contribution by endorsing and supporting both the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the goals agreed by the UNICEF executive board. The heads of state and government gave a firm commitment in their final declaration and plan of action. The latter document stated: Each country is encouraged to re-examine in the context of its national plans, programme and policies, how it might accord a higher priority to programmes for the well-being of children in general". That is the origin of Professor Bradshaw's report. The report is the first of a whole series of documents which examine the situation of children in eight industrialised countries. It was commissioned on behalf of UNICEF by the National Children's Bureau in order to provide the best possible survey of the evidence. The only purpose of the document is to help children: it is not intended as a criticism of any particular authority, rather it should be seen as an important step forward. It is a factual survey which forms part of a worldwide movement which is intended to improve the position of children; that is, their health, their education and their very survival in every country, including our own.

It is also worth noting that the particular organ of UNICEF which was responsible for the report is the Child Development Centre at Florence in Italy. Since its foundation the centre has devoted special attention to the difficulties experienced by children in the industrialised countries. Hitherto, UNICEF's work has been concentrated on helping children in the greatest need. So far, that has meant working mainly in the third world where the most formidable problems of disease and public health are to be found. But in recent years it has become clear that many industrialised countries are facing anew the problems they experienced in the past century; for example, problems of sanitation, disease, education and homelessness. We in Britain are by no means unique among the industrialised nations in that respect. Indeed, other countries are confronted with such problems and often for quite similar reasons; for example, rapid economic and social change, immigration, and so on.

I therefore suggest to your Lordships that the document to which this Question refers needs to be read with two aspects in mind: first, that it is part of a global survey; and, secondly, that it is related to UNICEF's growing awareness of the special difficulties facing children in the industrialised countries. I hope that we in this country will be able to take a further step later this year in accordance with another passage in the summit declaration of last September.

Paragraph 34 of the plan of action attached to the declaration urged all governments to prepare a national programme of action to implement the commitments undertaken at the meeting, country by country. It was with that object in view that the National Children's Bureau—I greatly acknowledge the very helpful role played by the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, in this respect—and UNICEF held a joint meeting on 30th January at which they presented the outline for such a programme in this country. At that meeting the Minister of Health made an admirable speech on behalf of the Government. However, I do not think that Mrs. Bottomley made any specific statement about the national plan. It would be helpful, therefore, if the noble Viscount could tell us a little more about the Government's attitude on the issue.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, mentioned an important point of detail concerning statistics. It is a curious feature of political debate in Britain at present that there is an argument about the quality and range of our national statistics. It will be noted that Professor Bradshaw made some remarks on the subject in his report. I do not want to venture into the more general controversy, but I suggest to the Government that we need a series of reliable, continuous and informative figures which give us a consistent factual basis so as to permit a careful formulation of policy. Here too we are not alone in our difficulties in the presenting of such difficulties and the plan of action approved by the summit last year included a paragraph—34(v)—on that subject, emphasising the need for regular and timely collection, analysis and publication of data required to monitor the situation of children. If, as I hope, the Government devote some further thought to that subject it might be worthwhile discussing the range and type of statistics needed with the UNICEF Innocenti Centre at Florence, to which I have just referred. It would be especially helpful to a have a statistical series which is common to all the major industrialised countries so as to permit comparisons and the opportunity to learn from the experience of others. UNICEF has considerable knowledge of those matters and the statistical tables published annually in its State of the World's Children report are the most authoritative data that we have.

There are few, if any, causes more worthy of support than this one. The human instinct to protect and help children is happily both strong and universal. As one who works for an organisation such as UNICEF—the world's leading international agency for child welfare—I am conscious of that fact. I am proud to know that UNICEF is at the moment able to help the children of Iraq at the time of their greatest need, despite the fighting going on there; indeed, in one way because of it. That cause—helping children—cuts across every frontier of nations, race or of religion. It is a cause which unites all who are engaged in it. Of course national governments still bear the heaviest responsibility, but in many instances governments are not themselves directly responsible for some of the most intractable problems which have arisen—for example, the extraordinary growth of international migration which has created a whole series of problems affecting children; especially disease, housing and education. Nor can governments be fairly taken to task for the widespread breakdown in the institution of marriage and for the growing number of lone parents, both of which can have a profound effect on children.

There are some terrifying statistics in Professor Bradshaw's report. For example, on page 22 he gives the estimate that by the year 2000 only half of all children born in this country will spend their childhood with their natural parents. The consequences of such tragedies seem inevitably to end up as part of the responsibility of governments, however much the international agencies and national charities try to help. That help is valuable, but it cannot suffice on its own.

I recently attended a meeting of the national committees of UNICEF in Geneva. There was widespread admiration for the work that we have done in this country in following up last year's summit meeting. It was said by some of those present that the British had shown the way for others to follow by publishing Professor Bradshaw's excellent report and by suggesting to our government the outline of a national plan. I hope that our authorities will now be able to build fully upon what we have done for children.

10.9 p.m.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, for introducing the debate and for inducing me to read Professor Bradshaw's excellent report, which I should have read a long time ago. I am glad to have done so now.

One conclusion that I draw from the report is that it should be recognised that children in this country are becoming a scarce resource. Since the 1970s, according to his statistics, the birth rate has been slightly below the replacement rate. As employers are now just beginning to realise, we have a shortage of young people in this country. It becomes more important when we cannot afford to waste the ones that we have.

I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, that there are good features in the report. Some of the statistics which relate to all children are quite encouraging. However, the overall pattern also shows the picture that the noble Lord, Lord Rea, demonstrated in the infant mortality figures. There are pockets of deprivation—pockets so large that one wonders whether the word is quite the correct one to use.

This is not an occasion on which to enter into a long, semantic discussion of precisely what constitutes poverty. The evidence on which I rely most as indicating that a high proportion of our children live at a lower level than they should is the income support figures. In the reign of Elizabeth I, when our first social security system—if I may so call it—was being put together, a consensus rapidly emerged between the parish and municipal authorities. It was that the maximum proportion of the population which could be supported on relief was in the region of 5 per cent.

I admit that with a larger gross national product we can aim at a rather higher figure. However, how much higher a figure? The figures that we have now are considerably higher. On Professor Bradshaw's figures, one in seven of our population is now on income support. I make that 14.3 per cent., including 1 million children out of 11.5 million children under 16. That is in the region of 9 per cent.—a very much higher figure than it ought to be.

There are pockets in the British Isles, some of them again very large indeed, where the figures are much higher than that. According to a Written Answer given in another place at col. 578 of Hansard by Mrs. Shephard on 31st October 1990, the proportion of children in Scotland dependent on income support is 22 per cent. That compares with a proportion dependent on supplementary benefit in 1979 of 8 per cent. and falling. That is a dramatic change. It is perhaps something for which one government can be held responsible.

I also entirely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, that there are other factors in the picture, notably the problem of single parents. These are much wider social trends than any for which we should blame one single government. However, on the economic front there are some things which must rest at the door of one government. There are also particular bad points which need thought. The problem of children in bed and breakfast accommodation is one which we debated during the passage of the social security Bills of 1989 and 1990. We heard considerable evidence of malnutrition. I was delighted with the hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, held out to us that something may happen about that. I shall be very pleased when it does.

We also need to think about schools. For a long time schools have represented an avenue of escape from deprivation, a means of social mobility to which I have heard many noble Lords in this House pay tribute with a personal gratitude. That depends on it being possible in any area of the country to find a school which can get a pupil through to university and beyond. I am not sure whether that is still the case.

There is the problem of the numerous areas where there is no teacher. There is also the problem of school books; children having to take A-levels without the books is even worse than them having to do without teachers. On Professor Bradshaw's figures, spending on books and equipment for secondary school children has fallen by 24.2 per cent. since 1979. To take an example of what that fall might mean, I must tell noble Lords that when I came back from the United States in 1984 I considered buying a house in Clapham. It occurred to me to ask what was going on in the local schools. In what seemed to be regarded as the best school, I discovered that in an intake of 170, one single A-level pass had been scored in one subject. If I had sent my children to that school, I would have written them off academically for life. That is a case of an avenue of social mobility which is being closed off and is thus making deprivation lasting.

Rather than continuing to point out that there is a problem —that seems to me to be clear enough—it is worth thinking about the causes and about some possible remedies. That stretches far beyond the areas of anything that can be identified simply as child poverty. It stretches far beyond the areas for which the Department of Social Security can be held responsible. It seems that by far the most important factor in this problem is unemployment.

I have clearly in the past done the Government an injustice. I thought they were responsible for only 19 changes in the method of calculating the unemployment figures. However, I have discovered from Professor Bradshaw that the figure is 27 changes. I was interested to note that Professor Bradshaw, using the old method of calculation, produced a figure for unemployment in May 1990 which came to 2.5 million. The income support figures seem to me to make that figure credible. Unemployment is very expensive for the Government as well as being socially destructive.

We should also think about the problem of part-time work. In that context I wish to express my regret that I was prevented from taking part in the debate initiated yesterday by the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood. In the little part of that debate that I was able to attend, I heard that about 25 per cent. of our workforce is now working part-time, and that nearly 90 per cent. of those working part-time are women. A great many of those women are responsible for children and a fair proportion of them are solely responsible for children. The pay of part-time workers in this country is often extremely low. I know that a case can be argued in favour of that in terms of keeping down industrial costs, and on the grounds that the job might not exist if the costs were not kept down. However, I believe this is a case where one must say that there is no such thing as a free lunch. If employers employ employees on a wage that is not a living wage, they are simply asking the Department of Social Security to subsidise the job.

There may be cases where a job should be subsidised for a recognised and useful motive. However, used simply as a blanket subsidy, I am not sure that that is a useful way of spending money. Employers should pay the economic cost of a job. We should think a great deal more about the pay, national insurance and social security benefits of part-time workers. The European Community has been quite right to draw our attention to that problem. The same goes for the problem of low wages. I shall not elaborate on that, as I believe the points that need to be made are much the same as those I have just made.

I agree entirely with what the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, said about child care. That is absolutely vital to the relief of child poverty, which is something that cannot be achieved except by enormous public expenditure or by giving the mother an opportunity to earn an adequate wage knowing that her child is cared for. A regard for child care is vital to doing anything about the whole problem.

I shall not elaborate on the argument about child benefit. We have heard most of the points before. I remember our discussions on board and lodging in bed and breakfast accommodation in the 1989 and 1990 Social Security Acts. Those discussions showed up very clearly the vital part that child benefit plays in most mothers' incomes, particularly if they have large numbers of children. That is something that must not be lost sight of. If it is lost sight of, the medical and other costs resulting from deprivation may, in the end, wipe out a considerable part of the saving.

There is another point on the quality of life theme that the noble Lord, Lord Blease, introduced. We should think about the effect of the motor car on children. There was research reported about a couple of weeks ago, I think by Dr. Adams at University College. This pointed out that in terms of mobility most children are more restricted now than their predecessors were 20 years ago. This is largely the result of the spread of the motor car and the danger of traffic.

I remember the shock of discovering when I lived in the United States that once I went off to work and took the car my children were not able to go anywhere at all. If you consider the problem of bad behaviour by children in the United States which exists, a great deal of it is the result of boredom because they cannot come and go and take an interest in anything. Therefore, we should think about keeping available public transport on which certainly older children can travel, do something interesting, and occupy themselves in a constructive way.

There is of course also the problem of single parents. I am not going to anticipate any of the debates on the Child Support Bill. We are going to hear enough about that before the Bill is completed. But I will say that it would be a mistake to regard that Bill as a complete solution to the problem of poverty among single parents. Especially where we have two families, a first family and a step family, we may be simply shifting money from one to the other; relieving poverty in one only at the price of creating it in another.

We shall not do anything about this until we have a much higher proportion of parents in regular employment and properly paid, and we shall not be able to do anything about raising benefit levels in any constructive way until we have rather fewer people on those benefits. The root evil of all this, in my opinion, is unemployment, and I believe the Treasury, quite as much as mothers, has an interest in making sure that it comes down.

10.23 p.m.

Lord Carter

My Lords, like other noble Lords I should like to thank my noble friend Lady Ewart-Biggs for giving the House the chance to discuss this vitally important topic and the excellent report produced for UNICEF. I think we can all agree that one of the best tests of the quality of life in a society is the way in which it looks after its children. They, of all people, have no say and no choice about the circumstances in which they are reared.

As I read Professor Bradshaw's report and the many other documents I have received in connection with this debate, I could not help wondering about all those involved from all parties with the creation of the post-war welfare state based on that old fashioned word "consensus"—and I speak here of people like Rab Butler, Harold Macmillan and Iain Macleod, as well as Clem Attlee and Nye Bevan. Would they have believed that it would be remotely possible that 45 years after the end of the Second World War, and after a decade in which the real income of the working population has increased by about a fifth and in which living standards for the majority have substantially increased, that an independent report in response to an agency of the United Nations would conclude, and I quote from page 51 of the report: During the 1980s children have borne the brunt of the changes that have occurred in the economic conditions, demographic structure and social policies of the United Kingdom. More children have been living in low income families and the number of children living in poverty has doubled. Inequalities have also become wider. There is no evidence that improvements in the living standards of the better off have 'trickled down' to low income families with children? Therefore, we have to ask ourselves what has gone so badly wrong with our social policies to bring about this state of affairs. I have to say that I found the response to the report by Mr. Tony Newton, the Secretary of State for Social Security, rather depressing. I fear that there is a combination of complacency and arcane argument about the definition of poverty in his letter of 16th January this year to the secretary of the National Children's Bureau.

I do not propose to go into great detail on the various statistical arguments. However we define poverty, we can all surely agree that, as a matter of simple observation, there is more poverty in our society. I ask your Lordships to think back only 12 years. We just did not have the numbers of beggars, homeless, lone parents and families living in squalor and bed and breakfast accommodation and the other aspects of poverty which now disfigure our society.

I do not apportion blame here. The 1980s has been a decade in which, for the first time since the war and perhaps even further back than that, the rich have become relatively richer and the poor relatively poorer. This shift in wealth has not been accidental. It is a result of deliberate government policy.

The total burden of taxation—income tax, national insurance contributions, indirect taxes, the poll tax and the rest—has slightly increased as a percentage of GDP. But the proportion of direct taxation, income tax, has gone down, while per contra the proportion of indirect taxation has gone up. That can only mean that the rich must get proportionately richer, and they have. Reductions in income tax have been worth a cumulative £27 billion.

If we take the tax and social security changes since 1979, the bottom 50 per cent. have lost nearly £8.50 a week, while the top 10 per cent. have gained £40 a week. Fifty-seven per cent. of families have lost out, while 40 per cent. of families in the top income brackets have gained. It seems that far from a "trickle down" the Government have achieved a geographical impossibility of a "flood upwards".

What has all this to do with child poverty?—simply this. As a direct result—not an accidental result—of the Government's combination of taxation and social policy, the relevant social security benefits have fallen from 37 per cent. of net disposable income to 30 per cent. At the same time, as my noble friend has pointed out, the number of children in families receiving those benefits has doubled with over 2 million children now dependent on income support.

But what the statistics do not reveal at all adequately is the situation of families which are just above the poverty line—those not really picked up all that well in the statistics. They have been hit hardest by the decision since 1987 to freeze child benefit. Nothing encapsulates better the Government's social policy than the recent decision to increase child benefit by £1 per week for the first child, so that the rich family with one child receives exactly the same increase in weekly income as the poor family with three or four children.

There is one point that has not been mentioned in the debate. There is a tendency to think about the general problem of poverty, and particularly child poverty, as a problem of the urban and the inner city areas. That is incorrect. The report to the Department of the Environment in 1985 which was quoted in Faith in the Countryside—the report of the Archbishop's commission on rural areas—indicated that about 25 per cent. of households in rural areas were living in or on the margins of poverty. There is indeed much child poverty in rural areas and I shall quote two examples to substantiate that point.

Action for Communities in Rural England recently completed a housing study for the Rural Development Commission which showed that there are 376,000 cases of housing need in rural areas, with all that means for child poverty. A district council that I know well in a rural area in the South West had a budget for bed and breakfast in the mid-1980s of the order of £6,000 per annum. By the end of the decade, the budget was £90,000. That is the situation in one small district council in a rural area.

The lack of affordable homes to rent or buy, with all that means for child poverty, is undoubtedly the biggest social problem in the countryside. I often surprise the farming audiences to which I speak when I say that the biggest social problem in the countryside is not the state of farm incomes but the lack of affordable homes to rent or buy.

We can all agree that child poverty is truly a national problem, which obviously requires a national policy implemented through the right combination of taxation and social policy. I make no apology from this Dispatch Box for outlining the next Labour government's policies to deal with child poverty. After all, if we have attacked the Government for their record in this matter, and that attack is supported by this report, I think that it is only fair to put forward our proposals to deal with the problem.

We shall restore the real value of child benefit. That will do more to help reduce poverty among children than almost anything else that we could do. I repeat: we shall restore the real value of child benefit. We shall give back to local authorities their key role as both providers and enablers in increasing the supply of affordable homes. We shall provide a nursery place for all three and four year-olds whose parents wish it. We shall provide affordable child care in the community. We shall introduce a national legal hourly minimum wage - a point in relation to the wages problem that was touched upon by the noble Earl, Lord Russell -and we shall require strict enforcement of the equal pay laws.

Indeed, we have described our policies as a charter for children. It will certainly not all happen overnight, other than the increase in child benefit; it will happen over time and as resources allow. I fear that a decade of neglect cannot be put right overnight just by waving a magic wand. But I am certain that a decade of a Labour government will not result in a report which shows conclusively that the burden of the Government's taxation and social policy has sadly been borne by those least able to bear it: our children.

10.32 p.m.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I am sure that we are all very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, for giving us the opportunity to discuss this report tonight. I listened with great interest to the speeches made by noble Lords with their wealth of experience in these matters. As noble Lords will be aware, the Minister, my noble friend Lord Henley, would normally reply. But I am delighted to be able to say that he is not here tonight because from now on he will be collecting an extra child benefit for a new daughter. I am sure that we all wish them well.

I turn back to the report. If I may say so, the report demonstrates the difficulty of trying to define a simple "poverty line" with poor people on one side and those who are not poor on the other. It is precisely for that reason that no government in this country, irrespective of political persuasion, have ever accepted that a single or simple "poverty line" can be drawn. A line fixed at, or around, the benefit level has the paradoxical effect of increasing the number of poor people whenever the benefits are increased. If we were to fix such a line the logical conclusion is that you could reduce the numbers living in poverty by simply cutting benefit.

We were therefore rather surprised to see the author dismiss one poverty line on the grounds that it is "intuitively wrong" in favour of another equally arbitrary one at 110 per cent. of the supplementary benefit level. Can that be any less "intuitively wrong"?

The report also states that there were more children living below 110 per cent. of the supplementary benefit level between 1979 and 1985 but that "only" 45 per cent. are accounted for by real increases in benefits. Looked at another way, the report is confirming precisely what we have always argued—that almost half the increase is attributable to real increases in the level of benefits.

During the period covered by the report unemployment was increasing before it reached a peak in 1986. Clearly that unemployment played a part in increasing the numbers living at benefit levels. Another growth area was the large increase in numbers of lone parents. The numbers dependent on supplementary benefit grew from 318,000 in 1979 to 603,000 in 1986. Approximately two thirds of all lone parents now claim income support compared with around 40 per cent. claiming supplementary benefit in 1979.

My noble friend raised the issue of the children of lone parents. We share that concern. It is because of our concern for the children in lone parent families that we have developed a comprehensive strategy, including proposals for enforcement and collection of maintenance, benefit improvements for lone parents and better work incentives. Their overall effect should be to make it easier for lone parents to work if they want to and thus be better off.

The report also comments on the growth in numbers of children living in households with incomes below the average or below half the average, but ignores the very significant growth in average income itself. Any statement about the numbers living on incomes below a proportion of the average is simply incomplete without any reference to that overall growth.

Another way to look at that is to compare the numbers of dependent children living in households below half average income (before housing costs) held constant in real terms. In 1979 there were 1.31 million children in households below half average income. By 1987 the number below the real value of half 1979 income had fallen to 780,000.

Since the main years referred to in the report the Government have made a number of improvements. The social security reforms in 1988 were born of a recognition that social security had lost its way and our understanding of what the system should be seeking to achieve had become obscured. The reforms meant that a simpler system could enable resources to be focused on those who most needed them.

The introduction of family credit in 1988 enabled significant progress to be made in directing resources to families with children. Family credit now provides a substantial tax free weekly cash payment to boost the incomes of around 325,000 working families. The average weekly award now stands at over £30 a week, with awards of £40 and £50 by no means uncommon. Planned expenditure for 1991–92 on family credit amounts to some £543 million compared with £180 million spent on its predecessor, family income supplement, in 1987–88.

Since the reforms we have been able to improve benefits for families with children even further. In April 1989 all of the children's rates in the income-related benefits were increased by 50p over and above the normal uprating. In April 1990 there were further real increases of 50p in the family premium for income support, housing benefit and community charge benefit and £1 in the adult rate of family credit. The lone parent premium in housing benefit and community charge benefit were also increased in real terms as were the disability premiums.

Overall extra help through income-related benefits is now worth around £400 million a year more in real terms compared with the position before the 1988 social security reforms. That is real extra help to those who most need it.

We also provide help through social security to all families with children. Child benefit continues to provide a worthwhile contribution for all families towards the cost of bringing up children. We have made it clear that child benefit is and will remain a strong element in our policies for family support. From April this year, we are increasing the rate of child benefit for the eldest eligible child in each family by £1 to £8.25 a week. This increase recognises that at all income levels families with children incur additional expenditure which those without children do not face. This increase will go to nearly 7 million families at a gross cost of around £360 million a year.

Turning now to health aspects, the report acknowledges that the reductions in infant and perinatal mortality that have taken place over the past decade are impressive. However, this improvement does not give grounds for complacency. The Government have asked regional health authorities to give particular attention to maternity and neonatal services and to set targets for improvement over the coming year.

The report from the Chief Medical Officer's Committee on Medical Aspects of Food Policy, The Diets of British Schoolchildren, published in 1989, showed that children in all social classes were well nourished, being on average both taller and heavier than ever before and with adequate or more than adequate intakes of nutrients. This report gave cause for concern in relation to the consumption of too much fat by more than three-quarters of schoolchildren and the need for certain groups, notably 14 to 15 year-old schoolgirls, to increase their intakes of iron, calcium and vitamin B2.

Many local education authorities are already modifying their guidelines on the provision of school meals—a subject raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rea—to meet the Department of Health's standards on healthy eating. Our monitoring of schoolchildren shows that on average they are receiving adequate levels of nutrients. Of course we shall consider carefully the points raised by the noble Lord.

We fully recognise the relationship between nutrition and health, and continue to encourage increasing consumer education and awareness of the benefits to be gained from eating a healthy, balanced diet. We focus particularly on schoolchildren because sensible eating habits need to be started early in life. This is not something just for government. Most of us, as parents or grandparents, have a role to play too.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, raised the question of immunisation certificates being presented at schools. I cannot answer her question tonight but I shall look into the matter and write to her.

We do, of course, agree with the conclusion of the report that educational attainment is one of the indicators that suggests that things have improved. The report quite rightly says that expenditure on education has risen in real terms; that class sizes have fallen; and that public examination results and staying-on rates have improved. The Government's substantial programme of education reforms will ensure that the position will further improve. But the statement in the report that thousands of children in poorer inner city areas are unable to go to school is simply untrue.

As regards the points raised by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, about education, I must point out that spending per pupil in primary and secondary schools rose from £515 in 1979–80 to £1,360 in 1988–89. That is a real-term increase of more than 40 per cent. The noble Earl mentioned—

Earl Russell

My Lords, I am sorry to intervene. Are those real terms in relation to the retail prices index or to the rising price of books?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, if the noble Earl would allow me to finish he might have the answer. He mentioned books in particular. Spending on books and equipment in primary and secondary schools rose from £20 per pupil in 1979–80 to nearly £50 in 1988–89. That is a real-term increase of nearly 30 per cent.

The Government provide help with day care through the funding of many organisations in the voluntary sector. That point was made by my noble friend Lady Faithfull. The Government have also commissioned research on the need for day-care facilities in order to develop our knowledge and understanding, so we are by no means complacent in this matter.

The report concludes by suggesting that new information should be collected to monitor the lives of children. I should like to reassure the House that the Government continue to look for the best ways to monitor the impact of their policies.

A key development in monitoring the health of the population has been the appointment of directors of public health. Each district health authority has appointed its own director of public health with responsibility for assessing the health needs of the local population. Services are being provided to meet these needs and to be more responsive to patients requirements.

We publish various statistics and statistical analyses such as Households Below Average Income. These figures do have limitations because they are snapshots, or perhaps signposts, as my noble friend Lady Faithfull said. They show what is happening to people at one particular time but they cannot show how those same people fare over a longer period of time. That is why we are putting financial support into the British household panel study carried out at the University of Essex. That will provide income and other data for a group of people over time. It will mean that their circumstances, whether on or off benefit, and what happens to their children, will be available. We are also commissioning work to look at the feasibility of using Department of Social Security administrative and other records to provide information about changes in income over time. I know that many noble Lords have made that point this evening.

The noble Lord, Lord Bridges, asked me to add to the speech made by my honourable friend the Minister for Health. I am not in a position to do that, but I shall ensure that what has been said this evening is drawn to her attention.

My noble friend Lady Faithfull made an interesting point about future research. I hope that what I have said will convince her of our serious approach to monitoring the effects of our policies. I shall ensure that her comments on the national child development study and how it might be carried forward are considered fully.

The Government believe that this is a useful and interesting report which encourages everyone to think about children and the family. We are not complacent, but I hope that your Lordships will agree that our record, which I have just outlined, demonstrates our commitment to the family and our recognition of the importance of ensuring that children have the right start in life.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, before the noble Viscount sits down, he has painted a rosy picture of the past 10 years. Can he assure me that the Government take on board the relentless rise in the number of beggars, homeless people, families in bed and breakfast accommodation, criminals (including juveniles) and single-parent families? Has that reached government thinking?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the noble Lord raises some points which are not covered in this evening's debate or the report. However, we shall consider many of the points raised by the noble Lord.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, before the noble Viscount sits down, will he assure me that what he said does not mean that the Government reject all Professor Bradshaw's criticisms as untrue and all the report's proposals as unnecessary?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, we do not reject all the criticisms. However, we do not agree with some aspects of the report. I said that we believe that it is a useful and interesting report. We shall look carefully at all the matters that it raises.

House adjourned twelve minutes before eleven o'clock.