HL Deb 22 July 1991 vol 531 cc563-9

83C Line 40, leave out ("and for such period") and insert ("not exceeding 5 per cent of the amount specified for the time being in paragraph 1(1) (e) of Schedule 2 to the Income Support (General) Regulations 1987, and for such period not exceeding 13 weeks.")

Earl Russell

My Lords, I beg to move Amendment No. 83C.

Until we reached this new clause we had been discussing what were mainly beneficial amendments. The fact that I have not said so does not mean that I do not appreciate that fact. Today we have received a number of concessions that are to be warmly welcomed. We have received concessions about the welfare of the child. There has been an amendment to the words with regard to complying with any regulation, about which we argued in Committee. On Report in another place last Thursday a valuable concession was made on passported benefits. We have been told that the regulations are to be put before the Social Security Advisory Committee, which is extremely welcome. We have had an amendment about harm and undue distress, which I have mentioned briefly and which I welcome warmly.

In passing I wish to ask my noble kinsman a question about my understanding of that amendment. When we discussed the matter on Third Reading some of the evidence put before the House involved a threat of harm to other members of the family. In particular, threats were mentioned to the single parent's mother. She is not mentioned in the Government's wording, but I should like to be told that I am correct in my understanding that violence against the single parent's mother would be thought to be liable to cause undue distress to the single parent. I hope that my reading of the provision is correct.

I believe that one concession deserves another. I confess that throughout the proceedings on the Bill it had been my intention to try once again to remove the clause if another place had decided to reinsert it. I have not done so because compromise, as the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, once said of consultation, is a two-way street. Anyone who believes in a bicameral parliament must believe in the virtues of compromise. Compromise, like toleration, does not deserve the name until it hurts.

For that reason I have not moved the deletion of this clause. By my own test, that decision deserves the name of compromise. It does so for the reasons outlined by the noble Baroness, Lady Elles, with great eloquence and power. However, merely because it is the biggest concession that can be made means that it is not unreasonable to say that I regret that in order to put the compromise in balance we are, like Oliver Twist, legitimately entitled to ask for a little more.

My three objections to the clause were that it was wrong in principle, that it was not enforceable and that it took people below subsistence level. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor referred to single mothers "lightly choosing" not to comply. I ask him how he knows that they have lightly chosen. Knowing the secrets of other people's marriages is a great deal more difficult than the late Dr. Kinsey ever supposed. I do not believe that I can tell whether people lightly choose not to comply. If the clause stands I shall not know whether we are merely treading on corns or whether we are treading on broken bones.

The other issue was raised by the Secretary of State in Committee in another place. He asked whether it was acceptable for someone to say in effect, "I want the taxpayer to pick up the Bill because I want nothing to do with the other parent". Whether anything is acceptable raises the question: what is the alternative? From the beginning of our debates on the Bill I have recognised the interest of the taxpayer as being valid. However, I have never recognised it as being the only valid interest.

There are two other issues that I should put above the interest of the taxpayer. The first is the limits of the possible. I have already touched on the reasons why I believe the clause goes beyond the limits of the possible, and I shall not develop that argument. The second issue is that it appears to be a priority that we should keep the mother and child alive and adequately fed. That is the basic motive of the whole social security system. I do not find it believable that we can take 20 per cent. away from the mother's benefit without harming the child. I simply do not see how that can be done.

There is a danger to which the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, rightly drew attention. When women are reduced to the point where they cannot care for their children, they abandon them or put them into care. There have been hundreds of such cases in past centuries, going back to the bulrushes. If that is the effect of the Bill, it will cost a great deal more to the Exchequer than the present situation. That is one reason why it is vital to me that, although I agree with everything that the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, said about the need for discretion, there should nevertheless be a maximum deduction written into the Bill.

My noble kinsman and I have had many arguments about whether income support is a subsistence benefit. I shall not repeat anything we have said in those arguments, but I ask him to consider the duration of the deduction. Six months at 20 per cent. and a further year at 10 per cent. is so unusual that, if there is anything like it anywhere else in the social security system, I cannot think what it is. It seems to me already to underline the point that the level of penalty needed to secure compliance will rise above the level of the tolerable before it secures compliance.

It is also a point of substance raised in another place that it will put many people into a position where they live on a short income for too long to be able to repay the social fund loans. Thus again we shall have more people who are too poor to obtain money from the social fund. To put it no higher, that is a perturbing situation.

On the level of income support, I shall deal only with the major piece of evidence that has come out since my noble kinsman and I last debated the subject. It is the survey of which many of us know by the Nat oval Children's Home. It showed that 10 per cent. of children under five miss meals for lack of money; 20 per cent. of mothers go hungry regularly; and 44 per cent. have done so in the past year. The survey also showed that a healthy diet costs 17 per cent. more than an unhealthy diet. It found that, whereas for average families food takes 12.4 per cent. of the budget, for families on income support it takes 43 per cent. of the budget. That tends to show that for those on income support food is very tight indeed. It shows that on a deduction of 20 per cent. from present levels of income support, matters are likely to become impossible.

I wonder whether it is in the public interest to make that situation worse. I shall not dwell on the argument of common humanity. I shall dwell on the argument of National Health Service costs. Malnutrition tends to produce ill health, both mental and physical, which tends to be expensive. I also believe that a deduction on that level is an invitation to crime. It is an invitation that we should be unwise to give. I beg to move.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, I support the amendment. Like the noble Earl, Lord Russell, I do not so on humanitarian grounds at this stage but purely on economic grounds. If one does not look after these women and children it will cost the country a great deal. They will not be costly for the Treasury but for the local authorities, which do not have the money they require to run their services. As I said in an earlier debate, the local authority social services department will be put into a terrible dilemma. Suppose the parents cannot look after their children and ask for them to be accepted into care. If the children are weighed and measured and found to be underweight through lack of food, what does the local authority do? I should be grateful if the noble and learned Lord could expound on the dilemma that could be faced by the local authorities.

I support the amendment on economic and also humanitarian grounds. In addition, there is the terrible dilemma of the social services departments, which must meet the needs of children in their area under Part II of the Children Act 1989.

Lord Renton

My Lords, although frankly I have reservations about Commons Amendment No. 83, I did not support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon. However, I warmly support the amendment of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, for the reasons he has given. I stress that it seems to be necessary to have something on these lines so as to ensure that the reduction of benefit does not cause misery.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, 1 could not have said what I feel from these Benches any better than has the noble Lord, Lord Renton, in his last sentence.

9.15 p.m.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, we propose that the regulations, which are subject to affirmative resolution, would fix the deduction, and I have already indicated what we have in mind.

So far as I am concerned, the situation is that it is right for the deduction to be fixed, and it is right to fix it at a level which is likely to be effective for its purpose. I am grateful for the degree of compromise which the noble Earl, Lord Russell, has signalled in his speech, and nothing I say is intended in any way to undervalue that, but the circumstances that we are seeking to deal with are those in which there has been a deliberate refusal without good cause—because that is the purpose of it—to give the information which is necessary for the Secretary of State to effect the obligations against the person who really has them, namely the absent father.

That is the background. We say that this must be fixed on a basis that will make it work. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, says that there will be a temptation to push it higher and higher. We have undertaken that what we shall propose in the regulations is the amount that I have said for the period that I have said; that is, 20 per cent. for six months and 10 per cent. for a further 12 months, making 18 months in all. The intention is—although there is some question about this in a later amendment—that that would be in respect of a given liability, once only.

Your Lordships are concerned about the woman in question. We believe that a deduction of this kind, while it would be testing, would not have the effect that the children would be so deprived that they would have to be taken into care. That is the answer I gave before to my noble friend Lady Faithfull. We believe that to be right—that the deduction is one that would not have the effect of putting the children at risk of going into care.

The situation that has to be kept in mind is the possibility of buying off this responsibility. If one fixes the obligation at a low level such as is proposed in the amendment, it would be very low indeed at 5 per cent. of the amount in respect of income support, and only for 13 weeks. The total amount involved is so small that it would pay the father many times over to give the woman that amount in order to free himself of the liability.

Lord Renton

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble and learned friend for giving way. He regards a total amount of 5 per cent. as so small as not to fit in with his ideas, but I think many of us would consider his suggestion of 30 per cent. to be too big. Also, it is not to be written into the statute; it is to be left to administrative practice, and what he says would not be binding in law on this point.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, if I have misheard my noble friend he will correct me. I am saying 20 per cent. for the first six months and 10 per cent. for the following 12 months, making 18 months in all. These figures do not add up to 30 per cent. because they are applied at different times.

However, the point I am making is an important one. One has to look at the very real likelihood that the person with the real responsibility, the person on whom we are trying effectively to lay the responsibility, would think it easy to buy off his responsibility at that stage, with the consequent deprivation of the child or children for the rest of their lives of dependency. Therefore, I submit to your Lordships that the figure of 5 per cent. is much too small. According to my calculations, and I am subject to correction, it would make a total for the 13 weeks of £26.

A noble Lords

Too much!

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, it is much too small—I have to interpolate on the intervention from a sedentary position—to be effective.

There is no point in having that procedure unless it is effective. Therefore, the correct procedure is not for it to be fixed by administrative means but to be fixed by regulation under the statutory powers, subject to affirmative resolution of both Houses of Parliament. In that situation your Lordships will be able to see exactly what the circumstances are and, if necessary, be able to change the provision. However, if your Lordships accept the amendment it will be impossible to raise it above £26–5 per cent. for 13 weeks, making a total of £26. I await the noble Earl's calculation in a moment.

The amendment would undermine the purpose of the benefit deduction. Unless the benefit deduction can be effective there is no point whatever in having it. Therefore, while I understand the argument, I suggest that the figure proposed in the amendment is much too small to make it an effective sanction to deal with a deliberate refusal to co-operate in enabling the Secretary of State properly and effectively to calculate the support for the children who ought to be supported.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, perhaps I may say a brief word, if the noble and learned Lord will allow me. Three times he has said that it is necessary to fix the deduction at a level which is likely to be effective. Effective to do what? If we assume that a woman has withheld the information for what she believes to be good reasons, does the noble and learned Lord mean that it will be effective in making her change her mind and decide that she does not have good reasons?

The Lord Chancellor

No, my Lords. The point of the procedure which we have been discussing is to ascertain whether she has good reason. If she has good reason no deduction is applied. The purpose of the deduction is to deter people from wilfully and deliberately refusing to give the information when they have it. That is the paradigm case which the provision is designed to deal with. The appeal provision and decision-making are intended to differentiate the one from the other. One cannot argue about the size of the deduction on the basis that the decision to apply the deduction is itself a wrong one.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, I beg the noble and learned Lord's pardon, but is it not a fact that the woman herself has decided that she has good reason and someone else has decided that she does not have good reason? To be effective the deduction must persuade her that she was wrong and did not have good reason.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, there must be a limit to this. It is not right for the noble Lord to speak after I have spoken, but that will be the last time so far as I am concerned. The noble Lord is confusing the two cases. There may well be people who know perfectly well that they have no good reason but refuse to comply; the sanction has to deal with those cases.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble and learned Lord for the care and courtesy of his reply. I do not think that he expected to convince me. I shall not answer him at length. I might risk repeating what I have already said, but he has made two miscalculations. He has underestimated the amount of sanction necessary to secure compliance. In the past women have been whipped until their backs were bloody to secure compliance with that requirement. It was not enough.

I do not think that the noble and learned Lord proposes to go that far, but it will not be effective even if he does. He has altogether underestimated the severity of the deprivation. He talks about £26 over 13 weeks. I have not checked the figure, but I think it is in the target area. If that is a sacrifice of 26 meals over 13 weeks to people who already are not in the position to have one square meal a day, that is significant. I commend the amendment to the House.

9.25 p.m.

On Question, Whether Amendment No. 83C, as an amendment to Commons Amendment No. 83, shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents: 39; Not-Contents, 48.

Division No. 2
Avebury, L. Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, B.
Beaumont of Whitley, L. Macaulay of Bragar, L.
Birk, B. Mackie of Benshie, L.
Butterfield, L. Mallalieu, B.
Carmichael of Kelvingrove, L. Masham of Ilton, B.
Clinton-Davis, L. Mishcon, L.
Cocks of Hartcliffe, L. Monkswell, L.
David. B. Morris of Castle Morris, L.
Desai, L. Peston, L.
Donoughue, L. Prys-Davies, L.
Dormand of Easington, L. Rea, L.
Faithfull, B. Renton, L.
Flowers, L. Rochester, L.
Graham of Edmonton, L. [Teller.] Russell, E. [Teller.]
Simon of Glaisdale, L.
Grey, E. Stoddart of Swindon, L.
Halsbury, E. Tordoff, L.
Hollis of Heigham, B. Turner of Camden, B.
John-Mackie, L. Williams of Elvel, L.
Kirkwood, L. Winstanley, L.
Arran, E. Hooper, B.
Ashbourne, L. Howe, E.
Astor, V. Huntly, M.
Auck and, L. Johnston of Rockport, L.
Belofl, L. Long, V.
Belstead, L. Mackay of Ardbrechnish, L.
Blatch, B. Mackay of Clashfern, L.
Blyth, L. Montgomery of Alamein, V.
Boardman, L. Mottistone, L.
Brabazon of Tara, L. Oxfuird, V.
Carnock, L. Palmer, L.
Cavendish of Furness, L. Pearson of Rannoch, L.
Cochrane of Cults, L. Quinton, L.
Craigmyle, L. Rankeillour, L.
Davidson, V. [Teller.] Reay, L.
Denton of Wakefield, B. Romney, E.
Elliot of Morpeth, L. Seccombe, B.
Ferrers, E. Strathmore and Kinghorne, E.
Flather, B. Thomas of Gwydir. L.
Gainsborough, E. Trumpington, B.
Glenarthur, L. Ullswater, V.
Gray of Contin, L. Waddington, L.
Henley, L. Wade of Chorlton, L.
Hesketh, L. [Teller.] Young, B.

Resolved in the negative, and Amendment No. 83C disagreed to accordingly.

9.32 p.m.