HL Deb 20 July 1999 vol 604 cc871-85

('" .—(1) When determining levels of social security benefits and pensions, the Secretary of State shall have regard to the minimum level of income necessary to maintain good health and cover essential needs.

(2) In considering the minimum level of income in subsection (1) above. the Secretary of State shall take into consideration the need to—

  1. (a) combat social exclusion,
  2. (b) maintain satisfactory standards of child development, and
  3. (c) ensure respect for human dignity.")

The noble Lord said: I tabled this amendment in consultation with the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust and perhaps I should explain very briefly how it came about. I did not volunteer to table the amendment they were seeking. It would be closer to the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth to say that my very dear and noble friend Lady Castle volunteered for me. She suggested that I should be asked to help and I am very glad she did so.

The Reverend Paul Nicolson, who chairs the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust, has been unfailingly helpful to me in preparing my submission on the amendment and I hope that he and his colleagues will feel that our debate this evening is worthy of their humane concern for the achievement of its purpose. With them I deeply regret that, sadly but unavoidably, the noble and most reverend Lord, Lord Runcie, as a patron of the trust, cannot be here for a debate which I know he most warmly welcomes. I was extremely sorry also to hear from my noble friend Lady Castle this morning that she, too, would be unable to join us this afternoon.

My amendment is about the importance of providing Britain's poorest people with the means to cover their essential needs and of urgent action by the Department of Social Security to set minimum income standards. The Commons Health Select Committee reported as long ago as 1992 that the DSS could not, comment with authority on the adequacy of income support rates in the absence of research to support their view". No dietician and nutritionist is involved when the department decides the level of pensions and benefits. Yet the British Medical Association reported on 1st July that poor families in Britain include some of the unhealthiest children in the developed world. Only Albania has a similar proportion of dangerously underweight babies. And the United Nations today sees Britain as one of the most unequal industrialised countries in the field of child health. The BMA report attributes this to poor nutrition, low educational standards and lack of priority for healthcare. Others will blame underspending on benefits for our most vulnerable citizens and point to Britain's unenviable place near the bottom of the league of the OECD's 21 member states for the proportion of GDP spent on health, education and social security.

In November last year the Independent Inquiry into Inequalities in Health, chaired by Sir Donald Acheson, reported that empirical evidence from research demonstrates that people whose incomes consist entirely of state benefits have, insufficient money to buy items and services necessary for good health". It reported also: The generally agreed 'healthy diet' in pregnancy may have long-term benefits in reducing the baby's later risk of cardiovascular disease … Mothers reliant on state benefits may not be able to afford a healthy diet, and may go short of food in order to feed their children".

The first clear implication is that, when a pregnant woman is unable to afford a healthy diet, the consequences can be disastrous for the child. The foetus is underfed, leading to sickness in childhood and low life expectancy. And the second implication of Sir Donald Acheson's report, just as clear, is that satisfactory standards of child development are impossible to achieve on current levels of benefit in the UK.

In the United States guaranteeing a minimum income to pregnant women has been shown to increase birth weight and life expectancy. But the UK is today equal 18th in the international league table for infant deaths. Japan, Germany, France, Spain and the Scandinavian countries, among many others, all have lower rates.

My noble friend Lady Hollis will recall that the Commission on Social Justice—chaired with such distinction by my noble friend Lord Botrie—showed that the poor in Britain were dying younger in 1991 than in 1981. The reasons given were stress, inadequate healthcare and malnutrition. But the rich are living longer. The British Medical Journal reported in February 1998 that professional workers could expect to live over five years longer than unskilled manual workers. Their life expectancy has fallen.

In February 1998, the Department of Health published a graph showing that the life expectancy of semi-skilled and unskilled workers began to diminish in the mid-eighties, while the life expectancy of everyone else continued to increase. Nick Davies writes in his book Dark Heart: Poverty kills with subtlety and skill. This is not the clumsy tyranny of the Third World dictator, leaving his subjects in pieces by the road side".

But the effect of poverty on health in Britain can be stated without subtlety: it is the same in total as a plane crashing and killing 115 passengers every day of the year.

The National Consumer Council reported in 1992 that it is primarily lack of money that causes families to go without food or to have to depend on an inadequate diet in Britain. In 1995 the council urged the Government to sponsor or undertake budget studies to find out what standard of living is implicit in social security benefit levels. But shamefully the DSS replied that it could not, contribute to deliberations on the practical aspects of living on a low income".

In answer to a recent Parliamentary Question tabled in another place, asking what assessment had been made of the ability of families and individuals living on income support to afford a healthy diet, the Minister replied: A wide range of foodstuffs is available at affordable prices and a healthy diet is obtainable within the means of anyone receiving income support".

Yet the report of the low income project team of the Government's nutrition task force makes it plain that a healthy diet is beyond the means of a great many people.

There is no published research by the DSS to disprove the widespread evidence of malnutrition in Britain. For its research into living standards it relies mostly on expenditure data, but this does not convince the low income projects team that people on low incomes can afford a healthy diet. Expenditure by the poor is no guide to human need. They have to live with the reality that food, heating, clothing, transport and poverty-related debt must compete with one another for a share of inadequate benefits and low earnings.

One and a half million people in Britain have no access to normal financial services. A further four million have no more than very limited access. They often have to rely on door-to-door moneylenders who charge exorbitant interest rates. Their participation in normal social life is minimal with very serious consequences for their communities and British society as a whole.

An important distinction has to be made between poverty and social exclusion. While poverty is caused by lack of money, social exclusion also has to do with way of life and the environment in which people live. For example, poorer children are more prone to accident and injury. This is because they often have nowhere to play but the street. They live on estates where there is broken glass, used needles and other dangerous objects. Between 1981 and 1991 death by fire among affluent children dropped by 28 per cent. Among poor children it rose by 39 per cent. These statistics shout the case for this amendment.

Lack of money can lead to children being excluded from school outings and holidays and to going without adequate clothing, Christmas and birthday presents and many other things which are generally considered normal, not extravagant, by other children. Adam Smith wrote: by necessaries I understand not only the commodities which are indispensably necessary for the support of life, but whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people even of the lowest order to be without".

Britain is one of the few developed countries which has made no effort to set governmental minimum income standards as distinct from relying on contestable academic measures of expenditure. We still fail to implement the European Commission's recommendation to member states of 24th June 1992, to combat social exclusion [by] fixing the amount of resources considered sufficient to cover essential needs with regard to human dignity".

This year public expenditure on income maintenance will cost approximately £150 billion, of which some £100 billion will go on social security benefits, student grants, training allowances and other transfer payments and the balance on income tax allowances and income tax reliefs. This spending dominates the national budget, yet it is made without any scientifically based estimates of the needs and living costs either of claimants or taxpayers. As the Guardian argued in a leading article yesterday: Labour needs to set out the most fundamental welfare principle of all: what is an adequate income. This is not a technical but a political issue. No British government has ever set out a minimum acceptable standard of living, but six western nations have already done so in the last decade. The inadequacy of our current benefits can no longer be ducked".

As of now, while it is aimed to eliminate poverty in 20 years, there is no estimate available of the minimum incomes required for essential needs and to promote good health among pregnant women, children, disabled people, unskilled manual workers or frail elderly pensioners living alone. The 20-year time scale understates both the urgency and seriousness of the problem. But the methodology to provide the DSS with the information needed for it to set standards is available. It was pioneered by the Family Budget Unit at the Department of Dietetics and Nutrition at King's College London.

Nor has there been any estimate of how much it would save the Exchequer to be rid of poverty-related crime, court and prison costs, preventable ill-health, violence, stress, low educational achievement, divorce and other poverty-related costs. Yet the BMA estimates that every £1 spent on improving a child's health ultimately saves £8 in health care.

This is why the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust is calling for clear undertakings from my noble friend the Minister this evening to, implement the European Commission's recommendation of 24 June 1992 on combating social exclusion; secondly, to assess all policies, old and new—not, in the words of the White Paper, only 'major new policies'— for their impact on health; thirdly, to commission independent research into the weekly costs of essential needs for the appropriate categories of people; and, fourthly, to publish the reasons, and all the supporting evidence, on which the levels of minimum incomes for the appropriate categories of people have been determined".

This is a necessary amendment to the Bill, which has the backing of Age Concern England, Barnardos, the Low Pay Unit, the Maternity Alliance, NCH Action for Children and the UK Public Health Association, among many other admirable organisations to which the Government should listen not just with attention but the utmost respect. Acceptance of the amendment would require government to arm itself with information essential to combating social exclusion and promoting both respect for human dignity and the building of a just society. I beg to move.

Earl Russell

I am happy to support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, to which I have put my name. I was not volunteered for this amendment and the Minister will know that I have spoken on roughly similar themes for as long as she has been in the House and, I think, rather longer. I shall say exactly what the effect of the amendment would be. It demands that the Government have regard to the minimum level of income necessary to maintain good health and cover essential needs.

It has always been the Government's position hitherto that, at least inside the Department of Social Security, they did not know what the amount necessary to maintain good health was. They said that it was a matter for choice and that they were not concerned with how people spent their benefits. I have had many exchanges with my noble kinsman Lord Henley who said that it is not a matter on which the department possesses any information.

I understand why the Government may resist the amendment. If I may borrow words used in another context by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goff of Chieveley, caution—otherwise known as the Treasury—would never allow it. But caution takes more than one form and, as the BMA continually reminds us, ill-health caused by lack of adequate income may cause other costs of many different sorts whose size may be great enough to interfere with the Treasury's calculations.

I shall mention briefly some of the work that has been done on the issue. For example, NCH Action for Children surveyed a sample of people in which one in five parents turned out to have gone hungry in the preceding month and one in 10 children under five had gone without food in the same period. No parent or child was eating a healthy diet.

I should also mention the National Consumer Council survey Your Food: Whose Choice? It makes the vital point that all survey information is based on the standard supermarket price. If you live, say, in rural Wales, or if you are unable to get to the supermarket because like many people on benefit you cannot afford to run a car, you may well end up paying 20 per cent over the standard price. That means that in many areas of the country all the survey information is understating the problem by up to 20 per cent.

The issue has been put fairly and squarely back on the agenda by the Acheson Report. It states, bluntly, that income from benefits is insufficient to maintain good health. That is a stark and striking finding and it must call for action. I am sure that all of us have Treasury teams which tell us that we cannot solve the problem instantly. However, we can set out to move in the right direction. If we are not doing so, we are storing up greater problems for the future.

I also have with me extracts from the newly-published book by the BMA, Growing Up in Britain. The BMA reports that children in social class B5 have more than twice the rate of long-standing illness, are smaller at birth, shorter in height and have a markedly poor diet. It also reports that we have become a country of rapidly increasing inequality, which means that the extent of these problems is likely to spread.

The effect extends into health. The Minister will be familiar with the work of the Medical Research Council on low birth weight. It also makes the point that the effect of low birth weight is to diminish apparent intelligence and therefore to diminish educational performance. It states: Inadequate nutrition can impair cognitive development and is associated with educational failure among impoverished children Nutrition early in life has a big impact on the development of the brain.". Therefore, a small increase in benefit levels might do more to improve educational performance than 10,000 Woodheads; if, indeed, 10,000 Woodheads would do anything to improve educational performance! I pass over that because it is wide of our present purpose.

The document illustrates that the costs of not providing an adequate level of benefit may be far more various and manifold that anyone has taken into account. The effect of the amendment is extremely modest. It does not call for any immediate spending; it simply calls on the Department of Social Security to try to discover the size of the problem. In any political decision we take, we must count costs. In any decision about spending money, we must also count the costs of not spending it. That need has become urgent and if we do not address it we cannot claim that we are doing anything serious to try to fight poverty. I am most happy to support the amendment.

7 p.m.

Lord Murray of Epping Forest

The aim of the amendment is to begin the process of putting flesh on the bones of the Prime Minister's determination to end within a generation the scandal and tragedy of child poverty. He has declared his interest, which will be shared throughout the Chamber. I, too, declare an interest as vice-chairman of one of the charities referred to by my noble friend—NCH Action for Children. He powerfully described the relationship between poverty and ill health. As the noble Earl said, the situation is deteriorating.

The report issued today by the Institute of Fiscal Studies demonstrates that the number of children in households with incomes below half the national average climbed from 1.4 million—one in 10 children—in 1968 to 4.3 million—one in three children—in 1995–96. Half today's poor children live in households where no one works. Of course the Government are right to work towards providing work for those who do not have it. I share their aim. Indeed, the idea of work for maintenance was written on the banners of the trade union movement in the 19th century. However successful the Government's policy may be, some will not be able to work and will need support if their families are to be maintained in anything like decent living circumstances and children maintained in decent health.

It is not inconsistent enthusiastically to support the Government's efforts to tackle social exclusion and to draw attention to the need to provide a reasonable safety net to the people who continue to need it. That is the only and laudable purpose of the amendment.

Lord Goodhart

The amendment raises not only issues of domestic law, raised by my noble friend Lord Russell and introduced most effectively and powerfully by the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, but issues of international human rights law. There are twin United Nations conventions to which the United Kingdom is a party. The first is the international covenant on civil and political rights, which is very well known to lawyers. The second, much less well known than it should be, is the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights.

Economic and social rights under the covenant include rights to, for example, education, healthcare, housing and social security. In the past, it was assumed that those rights in the covenant were mere statements of intention and in no way legally binding. But there is an increasing recognition among organisations and individuals concerned with human rights that economic and social rights should be legally enforceable rights. Those rights and their enforcement must be subject to a government's ability to meet them. We cannot expect poor countries to provide a level of education, social security or health equivalent to that appropriate to a richer country. But countries should do what they can and should aim to improve what they do as they grow richer. For example, the Republic of South Africa, a poor country, recognises a number of economic and social rights in its constitution and makes them justiciable within the limits of its ability to afford them. If South Africa can do that, surely a rich country like the United Kingdom can do the same. That is what the amendment does and that is an additional reason why I support it.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford

I warmly support the amendment. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Morris, for moving it and I thank other Members of the Committee for supporting it. We have just heard a contribution from a lawyer and it is important that a voice is heard from these Benches in support of the amendment.

It raises profound moral issues. The noble Lord, Lord Morris, said that this is not a technical matter; it is a political matter. It is technical and political, but above all it is moral. The unequal distribution of wealth, the need for social justice, are matters on which we ought all to be deeply concerned. It is imperative to comment on issues of social justice in the light of the Christian tradition to work for a society which is more socially inclusive and less unjust. Our ideas of social justice are all derived from the teachings of the Judaeo/Christian tradition and to permit or collude with the exclusion of the poor, to accept that in a wealthy society some, and in particular children, should have to go without the necessities of healthy living, is to be guilty before one another and before God. That was the message of the prophets of Israel, the message of Jesus and of Christian teachers and reformers across the centuries: Thomas Aquinas, John Wesley, William Wilberforce, Josephine Butler, R.H. Tawney and William Temple.

My postgraduate research was concerned with social thought and action of the Churches in the 1920s and 1930s. I carried out the work in the early 1960s at a time of relative prosperity, of high levels of employment, of hope and of confidence. I was hardly able to believe how the caring society in the 1920s and 1930s had tolerated such gross inequalities of wealth and poverty and such appalling conditions of housing and unemployment as accompanied the Jarrow marches and so on.

The concern for adequate and therefore just provision for the poor has been taken up in more recent years by the Christian Churches. I refer to the work of the Church of England in calling for the Government to commission independent research which could lead to publicly recognised, minimum income standards based on need. That was a message of the Archbishop of Canterbury's Commission on Urban Priority Areas. In 1985, Archbishop Runcie, as he then was, in the report entitled Faith in The City, called for, an assessment of need rather than what can be afforded". The report continued: The basic question 'what are benefits supposed to cover?' has not been answered since the system was introduced in 1948". Benefits have been uprated a little most years, but even in 1948 the levels were based on figures constructed by Beveridge 10 years earlier and insufficiently uprated. Since 1948 no attempt has been made to set the rates according to an agreed standard of what they could and should cover. The rates for children have never been costed. For that reason I welcome the report which asks for that work to be carried out.

The report of the Council of Churches of Britain and Ireland inquiry into unemployment and the future of work, published two years ago, focused on the debilitating effects of unemployment and the human need for good work. The report was based on a mass of research carried out by people who lived with and talked to people living in the poorest areas of this country. It was not simply Civil Service statistics; it was the real experience of people who discovered what life was actually like for such people.

The report highlights the role to be played by the state in combating unemployment, especially long-term unemployment, and the role of the Churches in supporting good work for all. Since then the Government have taken impressive steps in the direction of combating long-term unemployment. We believe that the transfer of the Benefits Agency into what is fairly described as a user-friendly unemployment advisory service is welcome indeed.

Many people, despite the best efforts of government and employers, remain in long-term unemployment and I fear many will continue to do so. The CCBI report comments that levels of income from benefits were never intended to support those in long-term unemployment. So there are particular difficulties for such people who live on benefits today. The report makes it abundantly clear that income support levels are too low to maintain a minimum standard of living as commonly understood in Britain today.

My support for the amendment is framed within the concept of justice, derived from an understanding of the Hebrew scriptures, the New Testament and the Christian tradition of reflection on these vital issues. Perhaps there is no better text than the famous words from the prophet Micah: What does the Lord require of you? To do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God". That tradition sees wealth enjoyed by humans as ultimately the gift of God in creation. It affirms that wealth is to be used for the meeting of human need, according to the will of God, which is a will for justice. The amendment intends to bring about the commissioning by the Government of proper independent research into the weekly cost of essential needs, good health, social inclusion, the maintenance of satisfactory standards of child development and the setting of minimum income standards which will meet those needs in an economical, low cost, but acceptable manner.

I am delighted that the Minister has in her possession at this moment the report which sets out the case so cogently. I look forward to hearing her positive and enthusiastic response to the amendment.

Lord Patel

I support the amendment put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester. Research carried out by my colleagues and I has clearly demonstrated the strong link between low birth weight and the low socio-economic group of the mother.

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists presented evidence of the association of poor nutrition of the mother with low birth weight to Sir Donald Acheson's committee. The work of Professor Eva Alberman, a renowned epidemiologist, has clearly demonstrated the reduction in childhood mortality and morbidity that would result from improvements in birth weight of babies born at less than 2,503 grams through improved nutrition of the mother. The relationship between low birth weight and adult diseases such as hypertension, heart disease and diabetes has already been referred to as evidence produced by the Medical Research Council in its research.

Many gains are to be had by improving the nutrition of pregnant women through improving income support of women in poverty. I support the amendment.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Higgins

The amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, raises both emotional and important analytical issues. The debate has reflected the personal experience of the kind of problems that he outlined and reference has been made to various academic studies.

The noble Lord began by referring to the work of Adam Smith. Welfare economics has moved on since his time. Perhaps my experience of lecturing on the subject at Yale University where most of my students had names like Rockefeller III and Henry Ford IV may have been in a rather strange environment.

The research is important and it is right to refer to it. One distinction which economists tend to make and which is also crucial to the issue is the distinction between fundamental poverty and comparative poverty and secondary poverty. In a country like Chad, there is a level of absolute poverty which to those in this country is quite horrifying, and to a large extent the situation here is one of comparative poverty. Even since the time of Beveridge, the standard of living in this country generally has risen so much that our view of what is comparative poverty now is rather different from what it would have been in 1948.

The question of comparative poverty is important. I refer to the subject with great diffidence. The noble Lord, Lord Murray, with his experience in charitable work, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford, no doubt with his own experience, speak with far greater authority.

The noble Lord, Lord Morris, referred to the work of the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust. I have studied with interest the points made in that study. In particular it refers to the consequences of inadequate income in ill health which leads to diminishing life expectancy. One set of figures was produced with regard to the fact that life expectancy of semi-skilled and unskilled workers began to decline in the 1980s, which I find somewhat puzzling. The study does not suggest why that should be so.

The study also refers to people of an earlier period The noble Lord, Lord Morris, referred to the life expectancy and the nutritional situation with regard to the mother. One has to go back some years before one sees that reflected in the statistics for life expectancy at: the end of the generation rather than at the beginning of it. It is undoubtedly true that the nutrition level is important in that context. Reference has been made to the Acheson report and to various other BMA reports., all of which are important.

I turn to the point I made a moment ago about secondary poverty. When I was governor of the then Institute for Policy Studies a report was produced on that subject particularly concerning smoking. It is not just a question of establishing the income level. The amendment suggests that the Government should introduce a level of income which will produce sufficient nutritional value.

But there is still a high degree of choice for those receiving that level of income. One aspect that I found utterly horrifying was the extent to which people on income support who, presumably, are living at the lowest level of income which is acceptable, spend a very high percentage of their income on cigarettes. Indeed, the amount of money returned to the Treasury from the tax on cigarettes was quite a high percentage of the total amount being received on average by this particular group on the lowest acceptable level of income.

As regards the complaint made by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, about the use of standard supermarket prices in assessing the minimum level of income, if there are people in this group who are unable to get to a supermarket, it may well be that they gain rather than lose because some studies seem to support the view concerning secondary poverty that people in that lowest income group tend to spend a great deal of money on convenience and junk food which may be even more expensive—for example, if one is buying frozen sprouts—than buying fresh sprouts and so forth.

These are not simple issues. One has to consider very carefully whether the establishment of a level of income which will produce the degree of nutritional benefit we should all like to see can be defined in such simple terms. Having said that, both from personal experience and the various reports that have been referred to, they provide important yardsticks against which we can judge the amendment, which has given rise to an extremely interesting and valuable debate.

Lord Haskel

I do not believe that anyone can disagree with the amendment tabled by my noble friend. No one can disagree that we want to combat social exclusion or that we want to maintain satisfactory standards of child development. No one can disagree that we need information on these matters and that we need to ensure respect for human dignity.

However, I believe that in this debate speakers have been a little unfair to the Treasury. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, said that the Treasury would not allow the proposed measures. I believe he has been a little unfair. The Treasury has taken the initiative in trying to eliminate poverty and with the working family tax credit in order to try to get people out of dependency. Surely, the key to improving nutrition is to get people away from dependency. The Treasury is to be congratulated on taking these initiatives. It has committed itself to removing nearly 1 million children from poverty. It has produced the highest ever rise in child benefit. We are promised a new children's tax credit.

It seems to me that we are moving in the right direction. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, said that perhaps we would just like to hear that the Government are moving in the right direction. I believe that the Government are doing so with the actions that I have mentioned. In addition, the work that they are doing to provide skills which are necessary to facilitate employment is a very important aspect of the programme. I say this because it adds a little balance to the debate.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

As the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, said, we have had a very interesting debate. In a way I wish it had been in the form of an Unstarred Question drawing attention to this issue rather than it arising at this rather late hour in the passage of the Bill. But I welcome the opportunity provided to describe the Government's approach to the fundamental and crucial issues raised this afternoon.

Our commitment is to create a fairer Britain. Our reform of the welfare state is an integral part of that. Perhaps I may explain why we believe that our strategy is the best way to achieve that aim and why this amendment is not necessary.

It seeks to address the problems of poverty and social exclusion through social security benefits. Certainly, benefits have a role to play and when setting the rates for benefits and pensions we bear in mind the whole range of research that looks at adequacy. For example, we recently raised the income support rates for families with younger children and our decision was influenced by the recent research report Small Fortunes, which has been quoted by noble Lords in the past.

However, as Members of the Committee will appreciate, the question as to which level of income is adequate for all types of family has no simple answer. Different research methods provide different answers. We shall continue to review all the research, but setting a single minimum level of income would not do justice to the range and complexity of the work in that area.

As I am sure Members of the Committee will agree—this is the important matter—the problems of poverty and social exclusion go much wider than benefits. If we are to wage a serious assault on poverty and social exclusion in Britain we need to tackle the causes. They are multi-faceted. The Committee concentrated in particular on children. One child in three in this country is poor; one in five children lives in a family where the parents do not work; thousands leave school without even basic skills; 3 million people have been out of work and dependent on benefits for over two years.

As the Secretary of State, Alistair Darling, said, children are born in poverty, live in poverty and die in poverty, especially if they come from a workless and fractured family where the mother does not work and the father does not support the child. In that case they are doubly disadvantaged.

The face of poverty in this country is not the face of a pensioner, a widow or a disabled person, it is the face of a child. We know that disadvantage passes from generation to generation. We are determined that that cycle should not continue. That is why the Prime Minister made his historic pledge that we aim to eradicate child poverty within a generation. That is an outstandingly bold pledge.

How do we propose to do that? We are investing in our children's future by tackling the causes of poverty and by raising standards in health and education. Why do people come to live on benefits rather than the level of benefits it is necessary for them to have? Subsection (2) of the new clause would require to have taken into account child development needs in setting benefit levels. I agree that providing children with opportunities to develop and flourish are essential. We are introducing a range of measures, first, in tackling health inequalities raised by the Acheson report. We are including £320 million to cut waiting lists; £49 million for health action zones; £266 million to improve primary health care. We have just published our health White Paper Saving Lives which sets out tough and challenging targets to reduce mortality rates in key areas with the potential to save over 300,000 lives over the next 10 years with all the implications for the low birth rate which the noble Lord, Lord Patel, mentioned.

We are also seeking to introduce a range of measures to increase the incomes of families with children including the improvement of nearly £5 per week on the rate of income support and the working families tax credit from October this year. There will be an additional £1,000 per year also for disabled children in low WFTC families. There will be a further record increase in child benefit from April next year. There will be a new children's tax credit of £426 per year from April 2001.

As my noble friend said, the passion of this Chancellor is to tackle child poverty. So far every Budget has been shaped above all with that end in view. I cannot believe that Members of the Committee do not accept that everything he has done with the WFTC, child benefit and all the other changes in income support and the rest, are designed to help families with children and motivate him in holding that office.

As a result of the last two Budgets and the national minimum wage, the poorest fifth of families with children will be over £1,000 a year better off; and, if they have a disabled child, £2,000 a year better off. But providing financial help is not enough. We need to be much more ambitious. One of my complaints is the poverty of the horizons of tonight's debate, which assumes that the issue is about increasing the benefit levels of people who, even if we increased them by £20, would not lead the generosity of life that everyone in this Chamber believes necessary for social inclusion.

Earl Russell

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Does she accept that if poverty leads to ill health, that makes it much harder to get off benefit into a more rewarding form of life?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Of course. Poverty creates ill health; ill health creates poverty. I entirely accept that. I do not want to sound like a previous Minister, but the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, in quoting some of the research on poverty, health and smoking by Richard Dorset and Alan Marsh, referred to the need for a welfare into health programme as well as a welfare into work programme. That shows that real problems exist. Around one child in four of lone parents has some form of illness or disability; 75 per cent of that is related to respiratory problems and associated with the mother smoking. So I absolutely accept that there is a problem which we must redress through access to therapies. I believe that people do not have the energy to cope with those sorts of problems. Unless we can help them acquire that energy through offering them opportunities, we will not get the virtuous cycle we all wish to see.

As I say, financial help is not enough. We need to be much more ambitious than saying, "Can we raise the benefit here by a little and raise it there by a little?" And we are. We are investing £540 million in the new Sure Start scheme, which will ensure that children who are potentially the most deprived and damaged no longer vote with their feet and fall behind children of their age group the day they join school. We are investing £19 billion to drive up standards in education so that we invest in human capital for the future. And of course children's chances are largely shaped by their parents' opportunities. That is why we are taking steps to help more people into work and why we need to reform the Child Support Agency—something dear to my heart—so that women on income support receive the first £10 of maintenance and if they are on working families' tax credit, will keep every penny of maintenance, thus allowing them a possible extra £30 a week.

So we are doing all of that. But above all, a child in a poor family will only no longer wear that badge of poverty if he is living in a family where someone is in work and where, therefore, either maintenance is being paid or his parent is helping to support him in that way. Helping people into work is at the heart of our welfare agenda. We cannot live a comfortable life on benefit; I know of no country in Europe where that is possible. We need to improve the skills and training of cur workforce and to reconnect people who have become detached from the labour market.

That is why I was concerned about the "poverty of aspiration" behind so much of today's debate; the assumption of the passivity of those on benefit; that all that is required is slightly to increase their benefit cheque. That will not do. That is why we are launching our New Deals and the new "one" service. As well as helping people into work, we need to make sure that work pays. That is why we embarked on a radical overhaul of the tax and benefits system.

For the majority, work is the best way of avoiding poverty and we know that lone parents who go on to the New Deal springboard into being £50 or more better off. If we can get their maintenance flowing, they receive another £30 on top of that. An £80 increase on a benefit level of £80 is worth having and really transforms a child's life, as opposed to the piecemeal incremental addition to benefits.

For the majority, work is the best way of avoiding poverty and social exclusion. But we recognise that for some people that is not a realistic option and we need to provide them with the support they need so that they have the opportunity to enjoy active and fulfilling lives. We are taking steps to make that a reality. So for disabled people we are tackling discrimination. We are making sure people have access to high quality services—the health service, education and the law. And for those who are unable to generate a living income themselves through work, we are providing help through a modernised and effective social security system.

We are investing £195 million in the New Deal for disabled people. We are introducing the disabled person's tax credit; doubling the child premium and working families' tax credit for a disabled child: creating the new disability income guarantee, worth at least £128 a week for the most severely disabled people under 60 in receipt of income support.

Through this Bill we are providing a secure income for disabled people who have never had the opportunity to work and therefore they will gain by almost £30 a week. We are modernising incapacity benefit to ensure that it reflects modern society and to restore the original purpose of the benefit. The Bill also takes forward our agenda to help tomorrow's pensions. The new stakeholder pensions and the provisions for pension sharing on divorce; our proposals for the state second pension and the promise of a new minimum income guarantee which will be uprooted by earnings; in all those ways we are saying that the best way to help children out of poverty is to ensure that they are members of a family where there is a parent in work. But if that is not possible—if the parent is severely disabled or alternatively they are a pensioner without an adequate occupational pension, then that is where we target our help.

I recognise the concern in this Chamber that all citizens should have the opportunity to share in the prosperity of the nation; it is a concern that I share. I hope that I have persuaded my noble friend Lord Morris who moved the amendment so movingly, that the actions we are taking to tackle poverty and social exclusion are the best way to achieve that end, and that we intend to take account of the whole range of available research.

However, I do not believe that we need this clause. We are a government prepared to be judged by results. That is why we will publish and are publishing an annual report which will include a range of indicators against which we chart our progress in tackling poverty. The annual report will examine our success in tackling poverty and social exclusion across the board, measured by indicators. It will provide a reliable and comprehensive guide to our performance and will, I hope, encourage my noble friend Lord Morris to withdraw his amendment tonight.

Lord Morris of Manchester

With many others here and beyond this Chamber I shall be studying the reply of my noble friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary with due care and all my customary charity. At this stage I shall not press the amendment, but strongly urge her to reflect again on the case for achieving its humane and important purpose. Meanwhile, I am grateful to all noble Lords who took part in the debate. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

I beg to move that the House be now resumed. In moving this Motion, I suggest that the Committee stage on this Bill be resumed not before 8.37 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.