HL Deb 02 May 1996 vol 571 cc1750-2

3.32 p.m.

Earl Russell asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will resist proposals for cutbacks in child benefit.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

Yes, my Lords. Child benefit is the cornerstone of our policy for all families with children. We have a manifesto commitment to pay child benefit for all families in respect of all children, including 16 and 17 year-olds in non-advanced education. We have honoured that commitment.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I welcome that Answer. The Minister will know—he has told me so—that 25 per cent. of our children live in households which are on income support. Does he therefore agree that child benefit may be a vital part of the family budget? In particular, does he agree that it may be extremely important to a child's opportunity to stay on at school and that, however desirable improvements in education may be, funding them by raiding the social security budget may risk giving the appearance of starving Peter to teach Paul?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I agree with the noble Earl that for people on income support or with low wages child benefit is an important factor in the family income, especially as it goes directly to the mother. We have seen a considerable improvement in the past 15 years in the number of youngsters staying on at school, especially in the number of children from unskilled families who stay on in education after the age of 16. I believe that the proposal, which I gather the Opposition favour, of removing child benefit from 16 and 17 year-olds who stay on at school would damage the excellent progress that we have made since 1979.

Lord Clark of Kempston

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that that is really a reallocation of public expenditure? Should we not be told what further, if any, reallocation of public expenditure will occur in order to fulfil the many promises which the Labour Party has made? Does my noble friend agree that if there are not to be more reallocations of public expenditure, taxes and public sector borrowing must rise?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. Indeed, I have said from this Dispatch Box on many occasions that there is a direct link between public spending and tax reforms. If one wants to increase public spending, one must explain from where the extra taxes will come. In this case the most important point is that the money will be taken from youngsters who stay on at school—something I thought everyone in this country wanted to encourage—and used elsewhere in the public spending budget. I cannot put the point any better than the noble Earl did at the end of his supplementary question.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord did not intend to look at these Benches when he referred to the removal of child benefit from 16 to 18 year-olds because we have never collaborated in any way in that highly undesirable practice. While I am on my feet, and as the noble Lord clearly understands the importance of child benefit for youngsters aged 16 to 18, will he ask his right honourable and honourable friends at the Home Office to make sure that such benefit goes to the children whom we are considering under the Asylum and Immigration Bill?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, the latter part of that question is another matter to which I suspect that we shall return next week. I am thinking about children whose parents and families live in this country perfectly legally, have been here for many years, pay their taxes and so on. It seems unfair to remove child benefit from such youngsters just when they become extremely expensive. Your Lordships will recognise that a 16 year-old boy begins to look like a food-consuming machine on legs, if not on wheels. Just at the point when we hope that such families will keep their children on at school, if at all possible, it seems unfair to take away from them between £500 and £600 a year, which is exactly what the proposal of the party opposite would bring about.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, as the Minister is supportive of child benefit, will he explain why, since 1979, the Government have frozen the benefit for three years and raised it by less than inflation in a further five years? Does the Minister agree that that might explain why in 1979 one child in 10 in this country was in poverty whereas today the proportion is one child in three? Is it not deeply worrying that the person most likely to be poor in today's Britain is a child?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, we can congratulate the noble Baroness on her diversionary tactic. If she actually believes any of the things she has said, she ought to be ensuring that her party does not remove child benefit from 16 and 17 year-olds who stay on at school and that it does not endanger the considerable increase that we have seen during the term of office of this Government in the number of youngsters who remain at school, take advantage of further education, improve their qualifications and go on to university. All of those things have increased hugely since this Government took office in 1979.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, instead of blustering, will the Minister please answer my question?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I have answered the question, but, as the noble Baroness has brought me to my feet again, perhaps I should say that I have not heard an answer to the question of whether the party opposite is really going to remove child benefit from those youngsters.

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