HL Deb 04 November 1997 vol 582 cc1327-43

3.30 p.m.

Earl Russell rose to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Regulations (S.I. 1997/1790), laid before the House on 30th July, be annulled.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I look forward with eager anticipation to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Higgins. It is a challenging assignment to make a non-controversial maiden speech on this subject, but the noble Lord is an experienced parliamentarian even if as yet only in one House. We look forward to his continuing experience in this House. Whether it is impossible or not, I am sure that he will succeed.

The regulations against which I pray cut benefits for lone parents. Lone parents are easily stereotyped, as I am sure the Minister agrees; indeed, I have heard her say so. In thinking of that point, I was moved to remember a moment in my life which I would normally prefer to forget. It is of sitting through a very long afternoon in the wing of a maternity hospital waiting to find out whether I had become not merely a parent but a lone parent.

Fortunately, that period did not last long enough for me to need to take any decisions, but it did last long enough for me to contemplate some of the choices. They are not particularly easy. Had I decided that it was my duty to give up one responsible job in order to undertake another and become a full-time parent it would, of course, have been a wrench. Had I then been told that I was a scrounger, a sufferer from welfare dependency and an exploiter of taxpayers, I might well have replied, like the former President Nixon, in words from which the expletives would have had to be deleted. But as it is, now that the Conservative Party has had such a welcome conversion to the cause of compassion for single parents, I hope that I need not develop that point further.

The regulations abolish the single parent premium; that is, the extra payment for the specific expense of being a single parent. It was formerly paid with income support, housing benefit and council tax benefit. Because of the inclusion of housing benefit and council tax benefit, they apply to those in work as well as those out of work. The average loss for those in work ranges from l£10.40 a week to £6.05 a week. The loss for those on income support is £4.95 a week.

In the words of the Department of Social Security, the aim of the regulations is "more even-handed treatment" for couple parents and for single parents. The Social Security Advisory Committee stated that it ends the tradition of special support for single parents which goes back to the Finer Committee. The Social Security Advisory Committee has understated its case; it should have said that it ends a tradition that goes back to the book of Exodus.

I believe that the regulations will worsen hardship in an area where it is already particularly severe. They cause considerable concern to the Social Security Advisory Committee, which advised that they should not be proceeded with until there had been further research on the costs, income and expenditure of lone parents. The department dismissed that argument, saying that all evidence remained inconclusive.

The research for which the Social Security Advisory Committee asked appeared within a few days of its report. It was published by the Rowntree Trust and was entitled Small Fortunes by Sue Middleton and others. That established the interesting point that when we three debated that issue in the past we were all barking up the wrong tree. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, clearly remembers a good many exchanges about whether special costs are attached to being a single parent. I continue to believe that the answer to that question is yes. The problem of fox, goose and cabbage is an old one, but, because it depends on exceptional circumstances, it is in its nature difficult to prove.

The Small Fortunes Rowntree research has left that argument on one side. It shows that the child premium on income support is a good deal less than the cost of bringing up children. It states that on average the premium is about 70 per cent. of the cost. Therefore, all children need to be subsidised out of their parents' income support. Where there are two parents there are two to share the subsidy. Where there is only one parent inevitably in practice the parental subsidy is twice as big. Inevitably there will more poverty among lone parents than among couple parents.

Since then, two further pieces of research have appeared and both are worth mentioning. One is by Alex Bryson and others, published by the Policy Studies Institute. It found that income support appeared inadequate to maintain stable family living standards where the head of the household was a lone mother. That is a strong finding and it should have been known to the DSS since the research in which it was included was funded by the DSS.

The other piece of research was published by the Office for National Statistics and entitled Social Focus on Families. It found that between 1981 and 1991 the proportion of single parents at below half average income had increased from 13 per cent. to 52 per cent. That is a fourfold increase in 10 years. That finding does not suggest to me that if we lack a level playing field it is tilted in favour of single parents. Indeed, it suggests the reverse. It seems to me that there is considerable hardship among lone parents and if these regulations go ahead it will become significantly worse.

The Government's answer is set out in the Secretary of State's speech to NCH's "Action for Children" on 22nd October. That speech was as good as the Treasury allowed it to be. Lest that sounds like the 18th century tourist who said that Switzerland was a very nice country except for the mountains, I will say that since 1st May my opinion of the Secretary of State has consistently gone up and my opinion of the Chancellor of the Exchequer has consistently gone down. That is an unambiguous statement. The Secretary of State said: Work is the best form of welfare for people of working age and this Government have already taken action to get lone mothers off welfare and into work, where they want to be".

The Minister knows that I shall not argue about the conceptual framework of that argument. She has certainly heard me develop it many times before, most recently on 3rd June. But what the Secretary of State said needs qualification. She said that lone mothers should be, into work, where they want to be".

"They" in fact means 80 per cent. of single parents. The other 20 per cent. are not insignificant because the right of a parent to remain at home with the children is fundamental. I do not wish to see that challenged or threatened.

Also, we must remember the finding of the Policy Studies Institute that those parents who suffer severe hardship while at home with their children are less likely to obtain work later on. That is a credible finding. Malnutrition is not an assistance to the exhausting task of actively seeking work.

There will also be a number who, although they want to work, will not succeed in doing so, some of them for transport reasons. The ONS research Social Focus on Families found that 51 per cent. of lone parents have no access to a car as against 10 per cent. of married couples who have no access to a car. In many areas, not all of them rural, no access to a car means no opportunity to work. In some cases, there will be no job and in some cases there will be no childcare. More generally, I believe that the Minister will agree that no policy brought into effect by any government, however competent, has ever been 100 per cent. effective.

Therefore, I am not happy with a policy which helps to get single mothers back to work, however good that objective may be, if that is done at the price of starving the remainder. If the Minister invokes, as I think she must and probably will, this Government's adherence to their predecessors' spending limits, I shall ask her to tell me and the whole House why the Government have decided to adhere to their predecessors' spending limits because, of course, that was a pledge that Mr. Kenneth Clarke, who is a prudent man on occasions, never gave. Why his successor felt the need to do so is something which I should like to have explained to me.

At this stage I say nothing about the arguments for and against voting on the Motion. I do not like to take final decisions on a vote before I have heard the Minister's reply. For the moment, I shall mention only the Resolution of this House on 20th October 1994 that this House affirms its unfettered freedom to vote on subordinate legislation.

I shall leave the House with one or two statistics from the Rowntree Report. First, 63 per cent. of the income support allowance for children of single parents goes on food. That research measured poverty by a list of indicators and classed as severely poor those who were without five of them. The department argues that the use of indicators measures tastes and not needs. But many of those indicators, such as meals, a warm coat or single use of a bed, I do not count to be a matter of taste; I would regard them as a matter of need. I do not think that there will be much disagreement about that.

It was found that 13 per cent. of children over the age of 10 share a bedroom with a sibling of the opposite sex. Children of single parents who are not working are 7½times more likely to lack five of those basic necessities than children with two parents who are both not working. That is a remarkably precise quantification of the extra hardship in single parent families. All of those who lacked all three food items were in single parent families and of those who were without one of the three food items, 24 per cent. were in families of single parents with no work and 25 per cent.—the larger number—in families of single parents who had part-time work.

Work is not by itself a wholly adequate answer, however welcome it may be. I shall leave the House with a quotation from the Prime Minister's party conference speech. The Prime Minister said: Children should not have to go hungry to school". We agree with the Prime Minister's aspiration, and therefore we do not agree with these regulations. I beg to move.

Moved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Regulations (S.I. 1997/1790), laid before the House on 30th July, be annulled—.(Earl Russell.)

3.46 p.m.

Lord Higgins

My Lords, the Guinness Book of Records has no reference to the fastest time taken for a Member of your Lordships' House to proceed from being introduced to making a maiden speech on the Opposition Front Bench. But since it is barely 24 hours since I had the great privilege of entering your Lordships' House, noble Lords will understand that I feel a little intimidated this afternoon, even though I find opposite me at least two faces I have encountered on more Finance Bills than any of us would probably wish to recall.

I trust that the House will be kind and indulge me as a maiden speaker. I have always taken the view that it is right that a maiden speaker should seek to be uncontroversial and brief. Having said that, I thought it appropriate to carry out some research before engaging in today's debate. One thing emerges very clearly; namely, that the noble Earl, Lord Russell, is assiduous in proposing Motions of this kind regarding statutory instruments and is immensely expert in the area we are discussing. I am most grateful to the noble Earl for the extremely generous remarks with which he began his speech.

The fact is that, more and more in legislation, the details and even large chunks of the proposal are embodied in statutory instruments but less and less is given adequate scrutiny either in this House or the other place. Therefore, it is entirely appropriate that we should have this opportunity and I am grateful to the noble Earl for providing it.

The quick research I was able to carry out also reveals that the regulations which we are discussing appear to be, so far as I can ascertain, in every respect similar to those which the previous government were likely to introduce. Therefore, I do not recommend my noble friends—although it seems presumptuous of me at this stage—to vote against the regulations. The arguments previously put forward remain valid and appropriate, although I shall comment in a few moments about the point made by the noble Earl as regards the influence of the Treasury.

However, I have discovered that the arguments put forward by the opposition previously seem somewhat inconsistent, if I may say so, with the regulations now before us. The Library, to which I am very grateful, provided me with a large number of quotations from the noble Baroness who is to reply to the debate. It would be inappropriate, in a non-controversial speech, to refer to them extensively. Perhaps, on Second Reading of another Bill, there may be that opportunity.

The essence of the noble Baroness's argument, which she has put consistently, was that the benefits we are discussing today, which the Government are—I was going to say proposing to reduce but, more accurately—proposing to eliminate, are extremely valuable in as much as the recipients find that they are not means-tested and therefore, if moving from welfare to work, retain them. I believe that that was the essence of the Minister's argument, repeated in a number of speeches. As the essence of the Government's case now is to have a system which operates from welfare to work it would seem entirely appropriate that the noble Baroness should have pursued those arguments rather than do what appears to be a clear "U" turn. It is possible that I have misunderstood the point, but it seems to me to be one of very considerable importance.

Similarly, so far as concerns the noble Earl's point, it is true that the Government have said that they will remain within the limits of public expenditure specified by the previous government. However, if I am correct—and I believe that I am—the noble Baroness objected to the measure that she now proposes when she was well aware that that restraint had already been put forward by the present Chancellor of the Exchequer when he was in opposition.

I should like to pose a few specific questions for the Minister. On the back of the regulations that she has signed an "Explanatory Note", says: These Regulations do not impose a charge on business". However, it is surprising that there is no mention of the likely effect on public expenditure. Can the Minister clarify for the benefit of the House and myself what the effect of the measure is likely to be as regards public expenditure? I well understand that that will require an estimate. The regulations are not retrospective; indeed, they are concerned with the situation in the future. However, it would seem that the effect of the regulations, together with the related clause in the new Social Security Bill in another place, will be well over £250 million. That is not a small amount of money. Therefore, can the Minister say what the Government's estimate is of the actual savings in public money which will result from the measure? In particular, can the Minister say whether or not that is greater than the amount of money—I believe some £200 million—which it is said she has obtained from the Treasury as a result of the windfall tax? I believe that noble Lords would be interested to know.

I have a further point to make. It relates to the extremely helpful report from the Social Security Advisory Committee which was commissioned by the previous Secretary of State for Social Security. He received a reply; the election intervened; and the Government have now published the report together with their comments. As the noble Earl pointed out, the committee made some remarkably modest proposals both with regard to the provision of greater data upon which we could base decisions in such matters and a very modest proposal to help with transitional arrangements. However, both proposals have been rejected by the Government. Indeed, they reject both proposals, then thank the committee for its advice. Therefore, despite the fact that something like 60 organisations and individuals were consulted, the Government have not felt able to accept these reasonably modest proposals. No doubt the Minister will be able to tell us why.

I should like to make one final and perhaps rather broader point. The Government are engaged in a great many studies concerning the welfare state. I must confess that I have somewhat lost count of them. I believe that there are between seven and 11 of them, depending on whether one is concerned with those of the Department of Social Security or those which also involve the Treasury. I am sure that we all look forward with great interest to studying all of them, not least one which I see is related to a tax credit scheme which, had we not lost the election in 1974, we would have introduced. Alas, the incoming Labour government did not implement it.

From my personal point of view, and as I am conscious of the responsibilities which fall upon me in my new role, perhaps I may point out that many years ago I had the privilege of studying economics at Cambridge and of working in the Marshall Library. Marshall was, I suppose, one of the greatest economists who ever lived. I am glad to see that at least I carry the noble Baroness with me in that respect. It is said that Marshall used to work in the library with a portrait of a poor man in front of him so that, however mathematical his calculations, he would, at the same time, have in the forefront of his mind the effect that they might have in benefiting those who were impoverished, be they lone parents or whatever. That is something I learnt at that time.

I know that the noble Earl and the Minister are very concerned with the analytical side of such matters. It is tremendously important that we should go in great depth into what are at times very complex matters to ensure that we get the right answers. As the results of reviews come back to us and we consider them, I hope that I shall be able to play some small role in analysing such problems so that the whole House will manage to improve the lot of those whom we seek to help.

I am grateful to noble Lords for their patience and kindness in hearing me this afternoon. As I said, we are discussing a difficult issue and one which we clearly need to return to when we come to discuss the Social Security Bill on its arrival from another place. However, on this occasion, perhaps I may express the hope that we are able to improve matters. I look forward very much to hearing the answers that I hope I will receive from the Minister.

3.55 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Baroness Hollis of Heigham)

My Lords, my first pleasure is to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, to the Opposition Front Bench. He brings to the task of official Opposition spokesperson for social security his vast experience in the Treasury as a Minister and then of course as chairman of the Select Committee on the Treasury and on the Civil Service. That experience will not only enrich proceedings but will, I am sure, continue to stretch the acumen and experience of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and certainly myself on this Front Bench, as the experience of his predecessor the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, always did. So the House is indeed enriched. I believe the evidence for that is to be found in the contribution that the noble Lord made this afternoon. I think that the noble Lord was perhaps helped in being less controversial than he might otherwise have felt the need to be given the fact that, as he noticed himself, this is a hangover measure. Therefore, to that extent, it took the noble Lord away from that embarrassment, although he would like to think that it has now shifted to me. Perhaps I may address that point at a later stage.

I should like to respond to this Prayer against the regulations by first putting the measures in context. The Government's objectives for the social security system are clear. We believe—and I doubt whether there is any dissent in the House—that work is the best and most independent form of welfare. It raises the living standards of families and is the best route out of a dependency on benefit. In addition, a working parent provides a positive role model for future generations as their children see that work brings not only financial benefits but satisfaction, fulfilment and self-respect.

More than that, a recent research study suggests that children of working lone mothers are more likely to get a job; that their daughters are more likely to do well at school; and that the daughters are themselves less likely to become lone mothers. In other words, work breaks some of that inheritance of deprivation. The Government believe that a life on benefit, at whatever level, cannot satisfy the aspirations of lone mothers to provide the best possible life for their children; nor can the example of that way of life be a healthy one for children. We know—and I am sure that no one disputes this fact—that lone parents themselves want to achieve independence and to regain personal control over their lives. Our policies are on the side of what they themselves wish and want to do as they tell us.

For too long the welfare state has excluded lone parents from the rest of society, writing them off to a life of dependence on benefit and ignoring both their aspirations and responsibilities. We start with a policy of social inclusion because we believe that lone parents should have the same opportunities as everyone else to take up work or training and to improve their standard of living. Independent research suggests that the average additional income for lone parents who are in work and supported by family credit is over £50 a week above the estimate of their out-of-work incomes. Promoting social inclusion benefits all of society.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness, but I wish to seek a point of clarification. As regards the figure of £50 a week better off, is that before or after childcare?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, that is before childcare, and that is precisely why in the previous Budget and the statements of the Chancellor we have always supported the childcare disregard which ensures that the cost of childcare does not negate family credit.

As I say, we know that lone parents want to be included in society. We know that promoting social inclusion benefits the whole of society. The Government inherited a society which over the past 18 years has seen dramatic increases in the gap between rich and poor. Some 20 per cent. of households of families of working age have no one in work; a quarter of all children in Britain now live in families where no one has a job; 1 million out-of-work lone mothers bring up 2 million children on income support; and expenditure on lone parents on income support costs £8 billion a year. Although 20 per cent. of families are headed by a lone parent, and 90 per cent. of lone parents want to work, up until now there has been no recognition that the best way to improve the living standards of those families is through work and there has been little on offer to help them.

Our priority for lone parents is to help them achieve what they themselves want; namely, an increased standard of living for their families and increased personal independence through work. We are turning those words into action. The key to helping lone parents into work and improving their income is practical help with job search, with finding the right childcare, with building confidence and motivation and with developing skills. We are already addressing those issues. The first phase of the New Deal for Lone Parents was launched in July this year. This is a joint initiative by the Benefits Agency and the Employment Service to provide support for lone parents in moving from welfare to work. It offers the option of using an individual caseworker to provide advice and guidance, and a package of help, including job search, training and after-school childcare.

We are seeking innovative solutions to the problems lone parents face. For example, in Cambridge and Peterborough kiosks are available that allow touch screen access to update information about jobs, childcare and training via the Internet. I have attended interviews between caseworkers and lone parents. I have seen the change of mindset that occurs as the interview progresses, as the options become open and possible and as the active support of that caseworker is available to help the lone parent with the interview, with finding childcare while the interview is in progress and with obtaining the information that the lone parent needs. I have seen that process transform people's lives. We shall extend that facility to 20 more of the first phase offices by early 1998. Early results from the New Deal are encouraging, although there is as yet insufficient data to draw firm conclusions. A report of the first three months of the programme was published on 23rd October. This showed that over 2,000 lone parents have already had an initial interview, four in five are taking part in the programme and are working with their advisers to find employment and a quarter have already found work.

One crucial area—which was referred to earlier—where lone parents need support is in ensuring that childcare is available and affordable. Access to high quality, affordable and accessible childcare is essential to help families, and above all lone parents, to balance the demands of family and working life. The National Childcare Strategy, which we promised in our manifesto and which we are delivering, will ensure that provision of childcare is planned to meet the needs of parents. The Government will announce the details shortly but we have already made a number of commitments. We are committed to providing a nursery place for every four year-old in Britain. Midweek lottery money is available for homework centres, with up to half the places containing an element of childcare. We have already announced improvements to the childcare disregard. From June 1998 we shall extend help with childcare charges in family credit, disability working allowance, housing benefit and council tax benefit to ensure that greater financial help is available for families with more than one child. We shall also extend help to families with older children. As a result, families will be able to receive help up to a maximum of £95.50 a week towards the cost of childcare.

While the support is available to all families who meet the qualifying conditions, I am sure that we all recognise, as the noble Earl has stressed, the particular benefit these measures will have in supporting lone parent families, given their particular needs. The receipt of regular child maintenance is also a key part of our strategy for helping lone mothers into work. Maintenance is a portable income which lone mothers keep when they start work and they need to know that the Child Support Agency will take every action to ensure that it is paid. We are therefore reviewing all aspects of the operations of the CSA to ensure that it provides a fair, efficient and effective service. I am taking part in that review. We are determined to ensure that cases are processed faster, backlogs are cleared, non-resident fathers who pay irregularly are helped to pay regularly and non-resident fathers who avoid paying altogether are chased. We have also allocated an additional £15 million to the agency from April 1998 to be used specifically to get more non-resident fathers to pay the maintenance they owe. They must recognise that they have a responsibility for that maintenance. Lone mothers, and the children they care for, have a right to receive that money which can help them get back into work, to become more independent and to improve their standard of living.

Why are we implementing this measure? I have taken some time to set out our priorities for lone parents. We are promoting work as the best means of supporting family life. We are also promoting policies of social inclusion to fulfil the aspirations of lone parents who for too long have been marginalised and have been excluded from prosperity, from work and from the wider personal and social benefits that independence, an improved standard of living and increased self-esteem can bring. We are delivering the practical support which lone parents need to overcome the real barriers they can face in re-entering the world of work. The measure we are debating today is one of a number of measures we inherited from the previous government which had not been implemented but were already included in our expenditure plans. We are committed to live within those expenditure plans, but staying within expenditure limits involves tough decisions. That is the context in which these measures must be viewed.

We have set out our priorities which we believe constitute the only way to offer lone families genuine and sustainable improvements in their standard of living and their standard of life. As I have said, we have a commitment to live with expenditure limits. It was against that background that the decisions to carry forward these measures—already scored by the previous government—were made. I should make it clear, before addressing the points raised by the two speakers in this debate, that all existing lone parents in receipt of the higher rate of premium will continue to receive it as long as they continue to satisfy the entitlement conditions. No lone parent will suffer a cash loss at the point of change.

In the course of his opening speech the noble Earl, Lord Russell, made, I believe, two main points. If I have overlooked any others I shall, of course, write to him. The first point he made was that in the past I, like him, have resisted the stereotyping of lone parents. I go further and say that, like him, I resisted the stigmatising of lone parents. I do not think that anyone in this House would disagree that the most worthwhile job that any parents can do—whether they are lone parents or are part of a couple—is to bring up their children well and successfully. However, to do that—this was the point of my rather long introduction—most lone parents will want also to work. They will wish to do so for the money certainly and certainly for the benefit of the children, but also to fulfil their own sense of gregariousness, sociability and self-esteem. That is what they tell us they want and that is what we want to offer them.

The second point made by the noble Earl—I do not think that he and I disagree on it—was the reliance on research and the suggestion by the Social Security Advisory Committee that further research should be conducted to see whether a definitive answer can be reached on whether lone parents should receive only the same financial support as couples, which is the effect of the proposal. I have looked at a lot of the research. I find that it is not all that easy to draw firm conclusions from it. Given the difficulties that all researchers face, there is research that supports the retention of a premium for lone parents, as the noble Earl mentioned. Work by Middleton, Ashworth and Braithwaite, referred to in Small Fortunes, suggests that lone parent families are more deprived than couple families. Yet against that, research by Oldfield and Yu, contained in The Cost of a Child, and by Bradshaw, in Household Budgets and Living Standards, found that lone parent families were relatively less disadvantaged on income support than couple families.

Other research is open to different interpretations. Work by Dickens, Fry and Pashardes, The Costs of Children and the Welfare State, last year shows that lone parents are under-compensated by the benefit welfare system in relation to some family types but over-compensated in relation to others. I have read the research to assure myself of what I am saying.

What is clear is that the research does not produce the conclusive evidence that a lone parent family requires greater financial support than a couple family, partly, I suspect, because, as the noble Earl said and as I have argued, to some extent we seek to compare qualitative and quantitative issues. What lone parents do not have is the qualitative support and shared time and labour of a second adult in the household. In some senses one seeks to set that against the quantitative, somewhat lower overall levels of benefit arising from income support which supports one adult rather than two. I think that the jury is out. However, from the work that I have seen, I am not sure that further research can give us a clear-cut answer.

I turn to the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, in an immaculate, polished, informed and incisive maiden speech. He made two points. The second was a series of questions about the effect on public expenditure. The first was whether on these Benches we have done a U-turn. If I may, I shall take them in reverse order.

I refer to the effects on public expenditure and savings. The scored savings for the withdrawal of lone parent premium for new lone parents is £55 million the first year, £125 million the second and £170 million the third. If in addition one adds in—the noble Lord referred to this benefit; it is not the subject of these regulations but will come up through the social security Bill—one-parent benefit, there are additional savings of £5 million, then £15 million, then £25 million. In total over three years we expect to see £400 million in savings from reducing lone parent benefits to the level of that enjoyed by couples. Two hundred million pounds of expenditure funded from the windfall tax will go into the new deal. That is the balance of the equation.

The noble Lord's second point was that in Opposition we opposed these and similar cuts in benefit. In Opposition we certainly opposed any situation which worsened the position of lone parents and where there was no way for lone parents to take their path out of poverty. The difference between being in Opposition and in Government is that we have had the opportunity, as I sought to spell out earlier, of developing a new deal for lone parents, a childcare strategy for lone parents and, in due course, a minimum wage for lone parents. Those three developments were not proposed or supported by the party opposite. Members opposite fought fiercely the minimum wage. All those developments will directly benefit lone parents as they move into work.

It is within the context of a new deal, of a childcare strategy and in due course of a minimum wage that we feel that this is the right way forward for the future. Had Members opposite when in Government produced those proposals, we should have been able to explore them on their merits. They chose not to do so. We now have the opportunity to promote them and put them forward.

Finally, before I finish, I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to another issue which is perhaps even more important than the measures that I have outlined; that is, the constitutional implications if the House votes on these regulations this afternoon. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, said that he was not sure whether he proposed to push the matter to a vote. However, I wish to remind the House of this. It is essential that we accept the convention of this House—it has been long observed—that we do not vote against statutory instruments.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My Lords, if the noble Baroness will allow me to intervene, there was an express resolution of this House negativing the proposition that the noble Baroness has just enunciated.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, the House made a distinction between the unfettered paper right, if I may so put it, of this House to exercise its powers in the same way as the elected House: that an unelected, largely hereditary House has the right on paper to overturn an elected House. But we also said that we thought it wise that this House should respect a self-denying ordinance, which it has respected over the past 15 years, and should not exercise that right to thwart the will of an elected House.

We made a distinction between the conventions that this House observes, by which this House runs, which we ask the House to continue to accept, and its theoretical rights, which are wisely in abeyance.

Perhaps I may wind up. We believe that if the issue were pressed to the vote and your Lordships were minded to reject the measure, it would mean that whatever the elected House did would be irrelevant because the instrument could not proceed. Unlike an amendment to a Bill, the Commons could not reject and overturn a decision by your Lordships' House. In the colloquial phrase, there could be no ping-pong. I accept that on paper we may have the unfettered right, but if we did so we should create a situation where the view of this unelected and largely hereditary Chamber would prevail over the elected Chamber. Whatever the elected Chamber wished to do, it could not because we had thwarted it. The effect would be to force the withdrawal of the regulations.

The House of Commons will not debate the regulations until 12th November. We do not believe that it is right to deny the other House the right to determine the outcome of these regulations. This reflects our consistent position in Opposition when we always abstained on such matters.

As far as I understand, the last time the House of Lords annulled regulations was in the late 1970s—naturally it was against a Labour Government—on issues of town planning and national parks. On several occasions since then I have been in this House when the noble Earl, Lord Russell, has led the Liberal Democrats, or the Cross-Benchers have been moved, to annul regulations. Often I have supported their policies but never felt it right to seek to veto the Commons.

Your Lordships will recall that on local government reform in Cleveland in January 1995, or in Berkshire in July 1996, we on these Benches made it clear that, although we were deeply hostile to the Government's handling of some of those issues, we would not vote to overturn a regulation. Even when we debated housing benefit changes in May 1996 we made it clear that we would not vote against a statutory instrument. Similarly in July 1996, when the noble Earl brought forward a Prayer to annul the child benefit regulations, we on these Benches refused to overturn the convention, the self-denying ordinance of this House, by joining him in the Lobby. We amend, we revise, we debate but, I suggest to your Lordships, we do not thwart irrevocably. It is a long established self-denying ordinance which I ask the House to respect tonight. Therefore I ask the House to agree these regulations.

4.19 p.m.

Earl Russell

My Lords, before I say anything else, it is my great pleasure to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, on a distinguished and extremely skilful maiden speech. I should also like to congratulate the noble Lord on proving me right, not once, but twice. I said that his task was impossible, and that he would pull it off. He did, and I am lost in admiration at the skill with which the job was done. I look forward to hearing the noble Lord in this House many times in future, and to hearing that skill deployed with a much greater freedom than he was able to enjoy today. It will be a pleasure for us all

. To turn immediately to the noble Baroness's remarks about constitutional conventions, first, the practice of voting on Prayers is not in abeyance. It was done twice during the previous Session: first, by my noble friend Lord Avebury on the regulations on the Port of Ipswich Authority; and secondly, by myself, again on the subject of benefits for single parents. So it has been done twice, and the roof has not fallen in.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, if the noble Earl will give way, that was because, on his Motion he did not carry many Members of this House with him.

Earl Russell

My Lords, the noble Baroness challenges me to take on the part of Gideon and say that it is yet too many. However, she might consider what happened next. It might not be quite as she wishes.

As to the point that there is a convention, as the noble Baroness says, I have in front of me the words of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, speaking without any thought of advantage to any party, for he has no party and that is one of his glories in this Chamber. The noble and learned Lord said: I can find no evidence of its acceptance by your Lordships … Nor is it recognised by any of the authorities that I have been able to find. I have looked at Shell on the House of Lords, at Erskine May, at Griffiths and Ryle on Parliament, which had the participation of one of the Clerks of your Lordships' House. None of them mentions any such convention; nor does the leading authority on constitutional conventions—Marshall on Constitutional Conventions—mention it. On the contrary, they all mention the instances on which your Lordships' House did vote against subordinate legislation";—[Official Report, 20/10/94; cols. 357–358.] I also have in front of me the speech made on that occasion by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, speaking for the Opposition as they then were. Speaking on a Motion that the House had an unfettered right to vote on subordinate legislation, the noble Lord said: This House must continue to preserve the unfettered right. However, the use of that unfettered right must be a last resort".—[Official Report, 20/10/94; col. 367.] I do not disagree with that conclusion. I do not believe that I am doing anything against it. What has been happening in the field of regulation is that the convention outlined by the Donoughmore Committee in 1932 that regulation is kept for minor matters has, because of the increasing press of business, altogether broken down.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, speaking on 20th October 1994, drew attention to that point and prayed in aid a letter from the late Mr. Bob Cryer, chairman of the Joint Select Committee on Statutory Instruments, as the noble and learned Lord said, complaining that subordinate legislation was now going well beyond what he, in his homely phrase, called the 'nuts and bolts' of legislation".—[Official Report, 20/10/94; col. 358.] That means that the right of this House to express any effective opinion if it cannot vote is rendered nugatory. The power of another place to check what is done by the Executive is being very much diminished. This Parliament does not represent the great age of the Government Back-Bencher in another place. So, if this House does not retain a residual power, to be used rarely and only in relation to points of great importance, then the Executive's will is law. I find that a more unacceptable conclusion than any that the noble Baroness describes.

I accept what the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, also said on that occasion; namely, that there is a party imbalance in this House. It is right that anybody who seeks to win a Division in this House should be forced to persuade those to whom they talk. One should not be able to win a Division simply by the deploying of a party majority. But in my position, the parallel of Gideon is a good deal more acceptable than the parallel of an overwhelming party majority. We on these Benches do not win Divisions unless we succeed in persuading other people—and that is what I have tried to do.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, is the noble Earl saying that his party does not have a Whip on this issue?

Earl Russell

No, my Lords, I am saying that my party by itself does not command a majority in this Chamber. That is a proposition which I do not believe the noble Lord disputes. We win Divisions only when we persuade people outside our own party.

To turn to the noble Baroness's argument, I congratulate her on the skill with which it was done. She was in a position that I would not have been put in for £1 million, and she discharged that position with consummate skill. What she gave us amounted only to what New Labour calls "warm words"—so warm, indeed, that I wondered whether they should be liable to VAT! But they were extremely skilfully deployed. They concentrated particularly on the theoretical background of our attitude to lone parents, on which, as the noble Baroness knows, there is very little, if anything, between us. On that framework, upon which she wisely concentrated, I agree with her remarks. The question is: how much does it add up to?

Most of the noble Baroness's remarks came under two headings: either pilot schemes—and while I do not object to pilot schemes, they do not as yet have any great substance; or the childcare disregard, which I have in the past welcomed. But my honourable friend Mr. Webb in another place has since done more work on the exclusion conditions of those disregards. They apply only to the use of registered childminders. There is a cut-off edge, a cut-off amount which means, according to Mr. Webb's calculations—which have not been disputed by the Government—that under the exclusion conditions only 2,000 single parents in the country are eligible to benefit. This does not yet amount to colossal new policy. I repeat what I said about the Secretary of State: she is as good as the Chancellor of the Exchequer allows her to be. I do not find that good enough.

Nor do I believe that the Minister has given enough weight to the finding of the Policy Studies Institute that people who suffer severe financial deprivation find it much harder to get work than those who do not. That is a research finding; I believe it also to be a finding of common sense. It is entirely intelligible to me. So, for all the noble Baroness says about her dislike of social exclusion—and I was glad to hear her say it—by going ahead with these regulations she is considerably worsening the social exclusion of some of the most under-privileged people in the whole country. If that is not a major policy issue, I do not know what is. I commend the Motion to the House.

4.29 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said Motion shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: contents, 48; Not-Contents, 100.

Division No. 1
Addington, L. [Teller.] McNair, L.
Alderdice, L. McNally, L.
Alton of Liverpool, L. Meston, L.
Annan, L. Razzall, L.
Beaumont of Whitley, L. Renton, L.
Boyd-Carpenter, L. Ritchie of Dundee, L.
Broadbridge, L. Robson of Kiddington, B.
Brookes, L. Rochester, L.
Caldecote, V. Rodgers of Quarry Bank, L.
Calverley, L. Russell, E. [Teller.]
Carlisle, E. Sainsbury, L.
Clancarty, E. Saint Oswald, L.
Dahrendorf, L. Sandwich, E.
Exmouth, V. Simon of Glaisdale, L.
Falkland, V. Stodart of Leaston, L.
Geraint, L. Strafford, E.
Grey, E. Taverne, L.
Hampton, L. Thomas of Gresford, L.
Harris of Greenwich, L. Thomas of Walliswood, B.
Holme of Cheltenham, L. Thomson of Monifieth, L.
Hooson, L. Tope, L.
Jenkins of Hillhead, L. Tordoff, L.
Ludford, B. Wallace of Saltaire, L.
Mackie of Benshie, L. Wigoder, L.
Acton, L. Falconer of Thoroton, L.
Ailesbury, M. Farrington of Ribbleton, B.
Ashley of Stoke, L. Gallacher, L.
Barnett, L. Gilbert, L.
Berkeley, L. Gladwin of Clee, L.
Blease, L. Glenamara, L.
Borrie, L. Gordon of Strathblane, L.
Brooke of Alverthorpe, L. Gould of Potternewton, B.
Brooks of Tremorfa, L. Gregson, L.
Burlison, L. Hardie, L.
Callaghan of Cardiff, L. Hardy of Wath, L.
Carmichael of Kelvingrove, L. Haskel, L.
Carter, L. [Teller.] Hayman, B.
Castle of Blackburn, B. Hilton of Eggardon, B.
Chandos, V. Hogg of Cumbernauld, L.
Chorley, L. Hollis of Heigham, B.
Cledwyn of Penrhos, L. Howie of Troon, L.
Clinton-Davis, L. Hoyle, L.
Cooke of Thorndon, L. Hughes, L.
Craig of Radley, L. Hughes of Woodside, L.
Darcy de Knayth, B. Irvine of Lairg, L. [Lord
Davies of Coity, L. Chancellor.]
Davies of Oldham, L. Janner of Braunstone, L.
Dean of Beswick, L. Jay of Paddington, B.
Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, B. Jeger, B.
Dixon, L. Jenkins of Putney, L.
Donoughue, L. Kilbracken, L.
Dormand of Easington, L. Kirkhill, L.
Eatwell, L. Lockwood, B.
Elis-Thomas, L. McCarthy, L.
Evans of Parkside, L. McIntosh of Haringey, L.
Ewing of Kirkford, L. [Teller.]
Mallalieu, B. Richard, L. [Lord Privy Seal.]
Marsh, L. Rogers of Riverside, L.
Mason of Barnsley, L. St Davids, V.
Merlyn-Rees, L. Sewel, L.
Milner of Leeds, L. Shepherd, L.
Molloy, L. Simon, V.
Monkswell, L. Simon of Highbury, L.
Morris of Castle Morris, L. Smith of Gilmorehill, B.
Morris of Manchester, L, Strabolgi, L.
Murray of Epping Forest, L. Symons of Vernham Dean, B.
Nicol, B. Taylor of Gryfe, L.
Northfield, L. Turner of Camden, B.
Orme, L. Varley, L.
Paul, L. Walker of Doncaster, L.
Pitkeathley, B. Wedderburn of Charlton, L.
Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L. Wharton, B.
Prys-Davies, L. Whitty, L.
Ramsay of Cartvale, B. Williams of Elvel, L.
Randall of St. Budeaux, L. Williams of Mostyn, L.

Resolved in the negative, and Motion disagreed to accordingly.