HL Deb 11 October 1999 vol 605 cc152-69



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

(2) In considering the minimum level of income in subsection (I) 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.

(3) The Secretary of State shall commission annual independent research on the minimum level of income needed to maintain good health and cover essential needs in subsection (1) and shall publish the results of such research.

(4) The Secretary of State shall also have regard to the results of such research commissioned under subsection (3) above when setting levels of other benefits as may be prescribed.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move. There is a notable difference between this occasion and the debate on the issue addressed by my amendment in Committee on 20th July. I then confided to your Lordships that I had not volunteered to move the amendment: my clear and noble friend Lady Castle had, as it were, volunteered for me. It was at her suggestion that I was asked to propose the amendment and I was very glad to do so.

Sadly, my noble friend could not be here for that debate. But she is with us now, much to my delight, only days after celebrating her 89th birthday, on which I know the House as a whole most warmly congratulates her.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Lord Morris of Manchester

My Lords, I speak as a supporter of the Government's determination to eliminate poverty. It was unequivocally affirmed in their Green Paper on welfare reform in 1997, which included as one of its foremost success measures, a guarantee of a decent income for all". Recalling that guarantee in a recent letter of support for this amendment, Age Concern England told me: We welcome the intention of providing a decent income for all, but question how it can be taken forward without any attempt to establish what is meant by 'decent'". The National Children's Home (NCH) sees my amendment as providing the "missing link" in current social policy making: Many individuals and organisations are working hard to support and make a reality of the Government's efforts to tackle social exclusion and improve public health", they write, but to try to do so without tackling the fundamental issue addressed by your amendment is to have one hand tied behind our backs". The Reverend Paul Nicholson, of the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust, to whom I am deeply indebted for his unfailing help in preparing for this debate, entirely agrees. In a letter to my noble friend Lady Hollis dated 17th August, he wrote: I share, admire and will work for the success of the Government's ambitious approach to tackling poverty". But like countless others who have written to me since I raised the issue in Committee in July, he is concerned that the lack of fully researched minimum income standards makes any policy to eliminate poverty rudderless.

In a long and fortunate parliamentary life, I have had many warm responses to legislative changes that I initiated; but never before have I had so many for moving a single amendment. Age Concern England, the NCH, Barnardo's, the NSPCC, Church Action on Poverty, the Low Pay Unit, the Maternity Alliance, the Association of Directors of Social Services and the UK Public Health Association are just some of the scores of admirable organisations that see this amendment as essential to combating social exclusion and protecting human dignity. They are, all of them, organisations that work much closer to social realities than most of us here and to which the Government should listen with attention and respect.

What also unites them is a deep and genuine concern that policy-making is blind if we fail clearly to state, in legislation as important as this Bill, the criteria that should inform any meaningful definition of a minimum acceptable standard of living. They express that concern not in the expectation of eliminating poverty overnight, but simply to ensure that an inevitably gradual approach to doing so is both well-conceived and "joined-up" in the sense of having weighed the implications of policy decisions for departments all across Whitehall.

Agreement on a meaningful definition of a minimum acceptable standard of living is all the more necessary because it is so widely and wrongly assumed that, as societies become more prosperous and irrespective of whether any minimum standard is set, wealth inexorably trickles down and poverty is reduced. Ours is a strong and prosperous economy, as my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer told the Labour Party Conference at Bournemouth on 27th September. But my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said from the same rostrum the following day that we still have, on his estimate, 3 million children living in poverty. I rejoice in the Prime Minister's commitment to end that shaming comment on our strong and prosperous economy; and I am sure he will do so all the more quickly if we can now define what we mean in using such terms as "decent" in describing the "guaranteed income for all" to which we are pledged.

The myth that poverty disappears in prosperous societies, whether or not any minimum acceptable standard of living is set, is most graphically demonstrated by what has happened to Britain's poor since the link between social security benefits and the higher of average earnings or prices was broken by the then Conservative Government in 1980. From 1980 to 1998, average earnings in Britain increased by £115 a week at 1998 prices. Over the same period, the weekly income of a couple living on income support failed even to keep up with prices. Had it done so, their income support of £79 a week in 1998 would have been £5 higher. Thus while average annual earnings were £5,980 higher in 1998 than in 1980, the standard of living of couples on income support fell below even what it was in 1980.

The finding of a most helpful study by the Library of the House of Lords of the sums accruing to the Exchequer from breaking the link between earnings and social security benefits shows that they totalled £119.3 billion in the years from 1980–81 to 1996–97. That far exceeds Britain's total spending on social security benefits in the current year and represents a brutal switch of resources from the poor in our society to other and more fortunate people. Increased wealth from 1980 to 1997 in Britain created not a trickle but a flood; and its direction was up, not down.

Speaking in the House on 17th June, my noble friend Lady Hollis told your Lordships: Under the previous Administration the rate of growth of the social security budget was 4 per cent over the previous Parliament. Under this Administration the rate of growth is 2 per cent".—[Official Report, 17/6/99; col. 416.] Even the 2 per cent. growth is due primarily to the number of elderly people living longer and to bringing people who were unemployed back into work. And to put it mildly, the challenge of creating the socially just society to which we are committed is unlikely to be met by progressively cutting the rate of growth of social security spending achieved by an Administration who transferred to taxpayers £119.3 billion from people on social security.

Some 750,000 people now have social fund loans from the Benefits Agency. The average weekly repayment is £7, but repayments of £ 12 per week are not uncommon. They require the unemployed to fund emergencies out of inadequate incomes, thus forcing them into more unpayable debt. The stress that causes is bad for families and bad for society. The suicide rate among the poor is four times that of professional workers. The divorce rate is also four times higher and life expectancy is five years lower.

In March 1999, the Treasury showed that 4 million children were living in poverty in 1995—three times the number 20 years ago—and that two out of every five children are born poor. The British Medical Association reports that poor families in the UK now include some of the unhealthiest children in the developed world. Only Albania has a higher proportion of dangerously underweight babies than Britain.

A survey by the European Anti-Poverty Network showed that the UK had 32 per cent of children living in poor households in 1993 when defining poverty as half the average income—the worst in Europe. Nations which set minimum income standards recorded half or less than half that rate: among them the Netherlands with 16 per cent, Belgium 15 per cent and France 12 per cent. Denmark was the lowest at 5 per cent.

When people apply for income support the Benefits Agency undertakes a means inquiry and then notifies applicants whether or not they are entitled to it. If they are entitled the Agency's letter tells them: …how much money the law says you need to live on each week". If they are not entitled the letter says: You have more money coming in than the law says you need to live on". Yet there is no list, quantification or costing by Government of need. The law "says" but the law does not "know" because need is not defined. It is a remarkably misleading letter in the absence of any official and empirical research into essential needs to enable the setting of minimum income standards.

We are sadly behind international practice in not setting minimum income standards. Among other countries, they are set in Australia, Finland, Germany, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and the United States. A range of methods are used which differ in their attention to specific measures of need. In Finland, Germany, Norway and Sweden, one use of minimum income standards is to set an income floor below which courts cannot enforce debt repayments, fines and attachment of earnings. They reschedule them. But in England and Wales there is no income floor below which the poor cannot be imprisoned to keep up with local taxes or child maintenance imposed on fathers by the CSA.

Charles Dickens wrote: Annual income £20, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income £20. annual expenditure £20 and sixpence, result misery". More visibly now than then the misery is shared by us all in highly expensive poverty-related ill health, crime, debt and educational under-achievement. While no estimates are available of poverty-related costs to public funds, they are clearly enormous and need urgently to be addressed and reduced. For therein lies the answer to those who fear that minimum living standards cost more. In fact the absence of such standards already costs far, far more than public accounts ever disclose.

It clearly is irrational that, while aiming to eliminate child poverty in 20 years, we have no official estimate of the minimum incomes required for essential needs and to promote good health among pregnant women and children. Yet the methodology to provide us with the information needed to set standards is available. It was pioneered by the Family Budget Unit at King's College, London.

This is a hugely supported and necessary amendment to the Bill. If my noble friend feels that its drafting could be improved, I shall be content to discuss this with her between now and Third Reading; and indeed, to respond positively to any suggestion she may have for accepting at least the principle of what is proposed in an amendment which its supporters see as supportive of the Government's own objectives: indeed essential to their achievement. What possible objection can there be to discussing the principle of my amendment with, among other trustees and advisers of the Family Budget Unit, Chris Pond MP, Archy Kirkwood MP, Jim Lester and Professors Jonathan Bradshaw and David Piachaud? I beg to move.


Earl Russell

My Lords, earlier this afternoon I was thinking about the underlying issues behind this amendment. I remembered a school physics lesson. The teacher was asking us to define a yard, and immediately batted back all the definitions such as "three feet" on the grounds that they were simply tautological and circular. He was just about to launch into his extremely technical definition in terms of energy when an historian at the back of the room put up his hand and said. "Sir, wasn't it the length of King Henry II's arm?"

I am reminded of that story when I think of how benefit levels have come to be what they are. They have come to be what they are by a process of historical accident followed by regular uprating strictly in line with prices or earnings, as the case may be.

There is no reason, over a period of this length, why the elements in an essential budget necessary to maintain good health should remain in exactly the same proportion. Indeed, to take one obvious example, bus fares have gone up far out of line with all the rest of inflation. That is why, when the National Consumer Council considered the cost of shopping for food in rural Wales, it found that it came in 20 per cent above the figures indicated by the RPI. That is one of the reasons why rural poverty in Britain today is a serious problem.

I was talking to someone at our party conference from Somerset—not exactly one of the dark corners of the land—who had to pay £6 in bus fares for her and her child every time she went to sign on. The Acheson report drew attention to food deserts. They are areas where prices are extremely relevant to the cost of an adequate diet. So it would make sense, at this distance of time, to conduct research which reassesses the provisions necessary to the maintenance of good health and works out whether the purely historic or accidental way in which benefit levels have been set is right.

This is a modest amendment. It does not call for a return to the earnings link; it does not call for the expenditure off £119 million; it does not even call for any immediate increase in benefit. It calls on the Secretary of State to commission annual independent research on the minimum level of income needed to maintain good health. It then calls on him to have regard to that research in setting benefit levels in future. It would allow a good deal for phasing were it to be found that the benefit levels were too low.

Since the early 1990s there has been a growing chorus of research indicating that benefit levels are too low. There was the National Children's Home research of 1993; the National Consumer Council's survey, Your Food: Whose Choice?; the Medical Research Council's research on low birth rate.

Low birth rate is clearly correlated to diet. The Minister will undoubtedly say that it is also correlated to smoking, and I shall anticipate her in that. But if she argues that that is not an answer to what I am saying now, I would point out that those things can both be true independently of each other and to be concerned about one is no reason for saying that one should not be concerned about the other. Low birth rate is also correlated to reduced intelligence in the child. So the disadvantages are passed on from generation to generation.

That sharply underlines the point being made by the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, about the costs of poverty. The costs to public funds may be considerable. I was glad also that he touched on the point of the number of other countries which have found it necessary and practical to fix a minimum level. I never understand why all sorts of elementary social provisions are perfectly possible for large numbers of other countries whose civil services are not conspicuously better than ours, but as soon as we come within these shores the technical difficulties become overwhelming. It is high time something was done to address that problem.

Clearly in Committee we did not strike a sympathetic chord when we introduced this issue. I do not have the quotation here. My recollection is that the Minister accused us of "poverty of aspiration". If that is a misquotation I shall apologise. But I hold a letter that the Minister wrote to the Reverend Paul Nicholson in reply to his letter of 22nd July. She said: the Government's approach to tackling poverty is much more ambitious than simply to raise benefit rates". That sounds a little like Winnie the Pooh when he was asked whether he wanted honey or condensed milk on his bread. He said, "Both please"; but in order not to seem greedy he added, "But don't bother about the bread".

I fully accept that raising benefit levels alone is not a solution to the problem of poverty: that needs jobs and wages. I believe that that is common ground between us. I am arguing that it is very difficult, even if you create the jobs, to take serious steps to alleviate poverty. The Acheson Report found that if benefit levels are low enough they can be incompatible with good health because people not in good health—we shall deal with that on Wednesday when we discuss incapacity benefit—are not very good at getting jobs and not always very good at keeping jobs when they have them. Therefore, if benefit levels are actually harming our health, they are seriously harming the attempt to get more people into work.

Therefore, whatever the Minister may say about the Government's ambitions being higher, if those ambitions do not include the problem of benefit levels they will not succeed. The Minister may say—in fact, I strongly suspect that she will; although I think that she will be a little cautious in how she words it—that I am being alarmist about the problem of benefit levels at present. That is perhaps so. However, if it is, the independent research will show that it is indeed so. I should have thought that the Treasury would be rather relieved to find that out.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford

My Lords, I know that in this House tonight we are united on a number of issues. First, there is the fact that, sadly, the poor suffer more illness and die younger. There is also their disadvantage when it comes to education and jobs. The figures behind these assertions have been set out in a number of detailed reports which have been referred to in the course of the proceedings on the Bill. I shall certainly not repeat them. We know that these sad statistics, which tragically reflect unfulfilled and foreshortened lives, are all too true.

Secondly, we are united in wanting the disadvantaged—some 1 million people—to take their proper place in our increasingly prosperous society. We want to include the excluded and improve the life prospects of the most marginalised. I also believe that the Government are sincere in trying to do this and that there have been a number of most welcome developments over the past two years. However, we know from previous discussions on the issue that a basic disagreement is focused in the amendment.

The amendment calls on the Government to have regard to the, minimum level of income necessary to maintain good health and cover essential needs". Those of us who believe that there could and should be agreed minimum levels are not talking simply about the level of benefits. We certainly do not want to encourage dependence and passivity. We want everyone who can work to work and we recognise that incentives are an inescapable aspect of a free-market system. But, even with the working families' tax credit, many families will not have an adequate income as assessed by the Family Budget Unit at King's College, London. Let us take, for example, the net income before housing costs and council tax of a single earning couple with two children under the age of 11 who were on £144 per week. With the working families' tax credit, the government figure would bring their weekly income up to £175 a week. However, the Family Budget Unit assessment of what is really necessary is £204 a week, so there is a shortfall of nearly £29 as regards what is really needed.

On previous occasions the Minister has said that the Government like to take into account a range of research. Of course that is so. However, the validity of the Family Budget Unit research has not been refuted. If there is research which shows that it is possible for families to survive on less than the Family Budget Unit figures it is important to see that research and to assess it. In 1992 the European Commission recommended that the resources considered sufficient to cover essential needs with regard to human dignity should be fixed. A similar plea was made in the Churches' 1985 report Faith in the City. As we have already heard this evening, a number of countries have already agreed such levels.

People have different tastes and different standards of living. We like to spend our money on different things. However, if half a dozen of us got together after this debate for two hours at the bar we could agree on the minimum on which we could survive which is reasonably compatible with our health. This amendment does not ask for anything extraordinary, simply an agreed minimum level. I believe that most of us would judge the carefully researched Family Budget Unit figures as a reasonable guide to that minimum. If this is disputed, let us commission some annual independent research, as the amendment suggests, and let that minimum level be used as a benchmark for all benefit claims.

This is an important amendment which the Churches care about desperately, as is indicated by the number of right reverend prelates present this evening. I very much hope that the Minister will at least be able to accept the general principle contained in the amendment.

12.15 a.m.

Lord Rea

My Lords, I had not intended to speak to this amendment. In fact I had not intended to be here at this time of night at all. However, I have been much moved by the speech of my noble friend Lord Morris; also by that of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, opposite and that of the right reverend Prelate. I remind my noble friend that the recommendations in this sensible and modest amendment are precisely in line with the recommendations of the report which was commissioned by the Government, the Acheson Report on inequalities in health. As my noble friend Lord Morris said, it follows the recommendations of a good recent British Medical Association book on child health problems in Britain today.

While I hope that my noble friend can accept this amendment—there are perhaps reasons why she cannot—I also hope very much that in what she says she will recognise the important arguments that have been put forward. We cannot solve the problems of poverty in this country only by increasing the proportion of our people in work. There will be a number of people who are unable to work, and there are even those who are in work to whom some of the measures in this amendment will apply.

Viscount Brentford

My Lords, I confess that I have always detested defining poverty as something like half the average income in the country, not only because that always seems to me to be a rough and ready judgment but also because either poverty or average income can move up or down without necessarily affecting the other. What I like about the amendment is that it contains a definition which would be updated every year that would tell us where the line ought to be drawn.

As has already been mentioned, research has suggested that the minimum practical cost of heating, lighting, food, clothes and other essential needs exceeds the current benefit levels. I fully accept what the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, rightly pointed out in Committee; namely, that the Government aim to produce a range of measures to ease poverty. We hope that that will be successful. However, this amendment deals with just one aspect of that.

Certainly in the UK poverty is not the same thing as I and many other noble Lords have seen in other countries, where there is a far greater absolute poverty than anybody in receipt of any social security benefits here experiences. We have a duty here to ensure that people have the power not to live in poverty. We need a definition like this to achieve that. My biggest concern is for the health and welfare of the children who are suffering in deprived families. If this small amendment, which will help to ease that, can be accepted, I shall be very pleased.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, this is a subject upon which I would normally never dare to speak. I rise to say something very simple. We are always being told about joined-up writing. It seems to me that if ever there was a case of a need for joined-up writing, this is it. As has been said by several people,

including the noble Lord, one of the problems that beset poor people is stress and ill health—particularly stress, which is becoming a bigger and bigger problem. I feel that the departments dealing with the money we spend on our health have everything to gain by seeing a regular annual review of this kind. We could well be saving money by spending money in this way. If one is ever to justify the idea of trying to make all departments work together rather than proceeding separately, this is an excellent example. It is very much strengthened by the proposal that it should be a regular, annual, independent review.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford

My Lords, I spoke very warmly in support of a similar amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Morris, in July. Some of the points I wanted to make have already been made and it is very late.

In supporting this new amendment, I am encouraged by the enormous range of support which has been expressed by Church leaders. Some of your Lordships may have seen the letter in The Times this morning. There were six signatories printed but I believe that in the final count 112 Church leaders signed that letter. They were from the African and Caribbean Baptist, Methodist, Orthodox, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic and United Reform Churches, together with 42 bishops of the Church of England. That is an extraordinary degree of unanimity and support from the Churches of this country. We signed it because we are in touch with the misery of poverty in the United Kingdom. Our clergy and our ministers see its consequences in their daily ministry in the inner cities, in the bleak outer estates and in the rural areas, as the noble Earl, Lord Russell, pointed out. It is an extraordinary list of Church leaders and, together with the evidence which the noble Lord, Lord Morris, mentioned from many voluntary, specialist organisations, I believe it puts together a voice for the poor, to which I hope the Government will listen and take action with some urgency.

We are asking the Government to endorse the dignity of human life for the poorest people in the nation; that they may have enough to eat; that they may keep warm and clothed; that they may afford bus fares in order to find shopping which is not the most expensive; that they can feel included as part of society. Yes, we want to see people in properly paid work; it is much the best way for them to feel included and valued citizens. Yes, we support health action zones and anti-smoking programmes; all this is desirable. But the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, in replying to the debate in July said: The face of poverty in this country … is the face of a child".—[Official Report, 20/7/99; col. 884.] She also said: We are a government prepared to be judged by results".—[Official Report, 20/7/99; col. 887.] and she criticised the "poverty of aspiration" behind the debate of 20th July. I do not believe there is any poverty of aspiration in our desire to see healthy children developing well. There is indignation, there is shame, but in so many parts of the United Kingdom this is not so. However well intentioned, the results of the Government's policies so far, as we have heard, are to leave in this country more underweight and malnourished babies than almost anywhere else in the developed world. That means under-weight babies borne by ill-fed, pregnant mothers; more problems in terms of childhood illness, mental retardation, behavioural disorder and, in later years, unemployability and greater vulnerability to being sucked into a life of drugs and crime.

One of the letters sent in support of this amendment came from the NSPCC. It was, I believe, a very powerful and moving letter saying that, The pressures involved in coping with inadequate income cause stress, which exacerbates the health problems experienced because of poor diet, inadequate heating and poor housing and increases the likelihood of family tension and breakdown". The letter continued: Child abuse occurs across all classes and the actual causes arc complex. Nevertheless, most children on child protection registers are from low income families and the most commonly identified stress factors in all registered cases of child abuse are unemployment and debt". The connection between inadequate income, debt and child abuse is serious and convincing evidence of the need for this amendment.

There is a group of Christians walking from St. Columba's Holy Island of Iona to London. They are coming to see the Chancellor of the Exchequer on Monday next week. They are marching to support the principles behind this amendment, to establish minimum income standards, to make it possible for people to enjoy good health and live in dignity, and to set benefit levels which in each case enable those needs to be met.

This amendment does not ask for a flat-rate increase in benefits. It is asking for the information that will allow the benefits to be targeted where real need still exists. I hope that the Minister can assure us that those Christian pilgrims will be able to receive good news from the Chancellor next week.

Lord Higgins

My Lords, one must speak with great diffidence in a debate of this kind in your Lordships' House as a number of noble Lords, including the right reverend Prelate who has just spoken, have firsthand experience of the kind of problems that we are discussing. It is extremely helpful to have debates of this kind. However, it is unfortunate that it should have to take place so late at night.

There has been considerable representation on the issue from a number of outside bodies, including the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust. It is important that we should examine their research. However, it is also important that we should be rigorous in determining precisely what it is that we are talking about. As I suggested in Committee, it is important to draw a distinction between the level of absolute poverty of a kind that might be experienced in South America or Africa (where clearly the vast mass of the population are much worse off than anyone in this country) and that encountered here. In a sense we are talking about comparative poverty, and again one can run into difficult problems of definition.

One definition of poverty includes anyone living on less than half the national average income. Of course, if that is so, it is a constantly moving target in the sense that, as incomes generally go up, so people who are said to be living in poverty will be living at a different level. However, what has worried me about some of the arguments we have heard this evening is that if we were to determine absolute levels for nutrition and so on—and presumably the Minister would take them into account—such factors would be constant and would not go up in terms of social security benefits or with changes in the prosperity of the country as a whole.

I do not wish to burden the House for long, but I should like to repeat the point I made in Committee about secondary poverty. Whatever level of income one sets, there will be some at or near the poverty line who will then not use the resources provided to alleviate their poverty. I give again the example of smoking. Studies carried out by the Policy Studies Institute have shown that the Revenue received back by Customs and Excise on tobacco and so forth have suggested that some—not all of course—of the problems referred to this evening arise as a result of that secondary poverty and the inter-relationship between the poverty itself and other problems.

However, what is important is that there should be adequate research into these matters. There is a whole range of research like the Acheson report, which has been referred to, that certainly the Government ought to take into account.

However, I think it is an appropriate response of the Government to say that they of course study all the research and take it into account. Indeed, I would be astonished if it were not the case that in reaching his decisions on these difficult matters the Secretary of State did not do so. My only doubt about it is the extent to which it is sensible to include the provisions in legislation. I say that because many of the items specified are not clearly and closely defined—certainly not in quantitative terms. Therefore, I believe that the appropriate way to proceed is by having on as many occasions as possible the kind of debate we are having today. However, whether one should incorporate the provisions in legislation as such, I have some doubts.

12.30 a.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Morris very warmly for his inspired and informative speech. Indeed, if I may be so impertinent, I thank the House for the eloquent and moving speeches which have been made in support of my noble friend. I am also grateful to have the opportunity to say what the Government are proposing to do in the light of these and other issues and to say what the Government are going to do about tackling poverty and social exclusion.

As noble Lords will know, we debated a similar amendment in Committee and I hope I made it clear during that debate that the Government were determined to create a fair and more socially just society. Since then my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Social Security has launched the Government's first annual report on their strategy for tackling poverty and social exclusion—Opportunity for all. I am sure that your Lordships have been reading the report, with its 160 or 170 pages, in advance of today's discussion.

The report sets out the steps that the Government are taking to realise their belief in a fairer society. It confronts the poverty of opportunity that denies many individuals and their families opportunities to learn, to work and to live healthy and fulfilling lives. The report has come out since the Committee stage discussions in your Lordships' House. It is one of the bravest and boldest documents that this Government, or any government in my recent experience, have published on the subject. It makes clear what the problems are as the Government judge them, what the Government believe they need to do to address those problems and what the indicators are—the measures of success or otherwise—by which the Government will be judged. Furthermore, the report will be reviewed annually and will be informed, as the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, suggested, by the research that is continuously coming out each and every year.

Perhaps I may take just one aspect—the issues associated with lone parents: their opportunities, benefits, strategies for dealing with poverty, moves into work and so on. By my reckoning there have probably been two dozen major pieces of research over the past two years. I have read them all and I am fairly sure that the noble Earl, Lord Russell, has read them all. This type of research continually and regularly informs the Government's work and will certainly be informing the review of the poverty audit which we will be conducting each and every year and by which the Government may be held to account.

Our strategy includes help to those on low incomes, but goes further, seeking to tackle the causes of poverty. Those causes, as my noble friend so rightly said, and as was said also by the right reverend Prelates the Bishops of Oxford and of Hereford, are multifaceted. One in five children lives in a family where no parent works; I million children live in fractured families where they do not get the maintenance they should and therefore they are unnecessarily poor; thousands of children leave school without even basic skills; and 3 million people have been out of work and dependent on benefits for more than two years. We know that it is persistent poverty—longevity on benefits, not benefit levels as such—that scars and may do so in a way that goes through from generation to generation.

We are committed to making a difference to people's lives. Too many people are denied opportunities because they do not have appropriate skills and they face difficulties sustaining jobs. Too many feel unsafe, too many do not have access to good-quality public services. All those factors condemn people to a life of poverty and social exclusion. Together, they interlock to create a cycle of disadvantage in which, as noble Lords have said, deprivation is layered on disadvantage through the generations in the fields of health, education, income, access to work and family stability that is passed on as a dowry to children who then remain edgy observers of other people's prosperity.

Our strategy aims to break that cycle and to halt the transmission of low expectations, low aspirations and low outcomes from parent to child. We are committed to providing that opportunity. That is why we are: tackling the causes of social exclusion, not just alleviating the symptoms, although that is necessary too; creating a fairer society in which everyone has the opportunity to achieve his or her full potential; and investing in individuals and communities to help them take control of their lives.

We know that the benefit system has an active role to play. It is there to protect, support and sustain the vulnerable in their time of greatest need. Noble Lords are no doubt aware that two key groups among the most disadvantaged are lone parent families and elderly pensioners. Those are the two groups that most face poverty in Britain today, and this is particularly the case, therefore, with the children of those lone parents. We have already done much to help those two groups, spending over £4 billion in this Parliament on pensioners alone and, for lone parents, ensuring record increases in child benefit; help for the first time in finding work; and better arrangements for child support, which I hope to have the pride and pleasure of introducing in the next Queen's Speech if legislative time permits. We are also beginning work on a child tax credit which could eventually lead to a basic citizen's income for children. I agree with the quotation given by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford that the face of poverty in this country is the face of a child. The way to tackle that is, as far as possible, to build an income for children that is portable from benefit status into work and thus ensure that that child has a decent springboard for life.

This amendment focuses on benefit rates. In setting these, we examined findings from a wide range of research on adequacy. Those findings disagree. That struck me when the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and I exchanged arguments over the future removal of lone parents' additional benefit over that of families. There is research to indicate that in some cases two-parent families where neither parent is in work are at a greater disadvantage than lone parents; other studies indicate that lone parents are at a greater disadvantage. What was clear was the finding on longevity on benefit. The finding was also clear in relation to lone parents with the same level of income—tested by sophisticated studies of indicators of acute hardship: for example, did the lone parent have more than three out of 10 of the following: did he or she lack a pair of winter shoes; was he or she unable to afford a roast dinner; was he or she unable to afford seven days' holiday in the UK in a modest setting such as a caravan? It was shown that, income for income, some lone parents suffered that hardship, and some did not. The general explanation was the length of time that they spent on benefit rather than the income level itself. In turn, the length of time they spent on benefit was almost entirely correlated with, on the one hand, how close they were to the labour market, how recently they had been in work and how adequately skilled they were, and on the other how much child support they received in order to return to work. Those findings taught me that benefit levels alone are just part of the issue, even for lone parents who are among the poorest of the poor.

Subsection (2) of the amendment requires that we take into consideration the need to maintain satisfactory standards of child development. I absolutely agree. We are putting children at the heart of our strategy. The Prime Minister has made it our objective to eradicate child poverty within 20 years. That is, again, a commitment of dazzling bravery on his part in terms of the standards by which we must be judged.

Four of the 30 indicators that we have set out in the report cover the issues by which we shall be judged: an increase in the proportion of 19 year-olds with at least five GCSEs or equivalent. That is worth emphasising because it is clear that the lone parents who go back to work and whose children do well are those with GCSEs. It is the education qualification of the parents even more than the income or benefit level of parents and even more than the longevity on benefits that predicts the outcome for children. The research reported in the past fortnight shows that the GCSE test is the best possible predictor for a lone parent of what her child will go on to do.

Another indicator is the reduction in the proportion of children living in workless households of a given size, over the economic cycle. We have already seen that beginning to happen and we must do more. Another indicator is a reduction in the proportion of children in households with relatively low incomes and a reduction in the proportion of children living in poor housing. We have already put in place a range of policies to achieve that.

We are investing £540 million in Sure Start schemes across the UK. I have the privilege of being the Minister in the Lords responsible for the Sure Start programme. Sure Start programmes are set in the most disadvantaged areas and we have so far named 68 trailblazers and we have another tranche coming through. They will bring together, with the joined-up thinking for which noble Lords have called, early education, health provision, family support and nurturing of all families with children under four and in the period before birth. They will support those parents where the parenting is less than adequate, where the parent herself may have been damaged in her upbringing. She may have to re-learn how to parent. Sure Start will come in with her support and goodwill and it will ensure that the children do not suffer the deprivation she had as a child.

In that way, we will ensure that children are ready for school, ready to learn and acquire education skills, GCSEs and are free to spring forward.

As I have already mentioned, we are investing £19 billion to drive up standards in education. We are already seeing improvements in educational attainment for 11 year-olds in literacy and so on. We have also taken on some of the research findings. We are introducing a range of measures to increase the income of families with children. There are increases of nearly £5 a week on the rate of income support and the working families tax credit from last week. There is a record increase in child benefit from last April and there will be an above inflation increase next year. There will be a new children's tax credit worth £416 a year from April 2001.

The combined effects of the last two Budgets and the national minimum wage will give the poorest one-fifth of families with children an extra £1,000 a year. That is an extra £20 a week. For the majority, work is the best and surest route out of poverty and social exclusion, but, as the amendment makes clear, as the Government acknowledge and as Opportunity for all states, for some people work is not possible, that route out of poverty is not available to them.

Subsection 2(b) proposes that we should consider the minimum level of income in order to combat social exclusion. We recognise our responsibility to those living on the edges and margins, the twilights and shadows of our society. I hardly need to remind the House that it was this Government who had the courage to set up in the Cabinet Office the Social Exclusion Unit so that we could tackle issues neglected for too long. Even a quick look at the 30 indicators we have set out shows that we are prepared to be judged on our progress. Your Lordships will be derelict in your duty if you do not judge us on our progress in that respect. The indicators include a reduction in the number of people sleeping rough; a reduction in cocaine and heroin use by young people and a reduction in the death rate from suicide and undetermined injury. Those are all issues on which your Lordships have spoken movingly tonight.

We all agree that economic prosperity and social justice depend on people being able to achieve their potential. But for too long too many have been denied the opportunities to do so. We are determined to restore the opportunities for all our society.

The amendment is part of that approach, but I hope that I have shown today that we still believe that it is too narrow. The amendment sets out three factors to be taken into account and we have set out 30 measures in the document. We have made it clear that we are prepared to be judged on them each and every year. If there are other issues to be taken into account, we are prepared to listen. I am happy to agree to the suggestion of my noble friend Lord Morris that I should meet trustees of the Family Budget Unit, and pass on their views to the Secretary of State. Since the Bill was introduced last autumn, DSS Ministers, including myself, have met representatives of almost all the major organisations which represent the interests of children, families, the disabled and older people ranging from CPAG to Age Concern, Gingerbread, the Poverty Alliance, the Disability Alliance and so on. I am more than willing to meet, listen to and learn from the trustees of the Family Budget Unit and take their concerns on board.

In the light of our broader policy to produce opportunity for all and bring people out of the shadows of social exclusion and into the mainstream of life and society, in the light of the fact that since Committee stage we have published our poverty audit and standards by which we shall be judged and also in the light of our willingness to meet those representatives to whom my noble friend Lord Morris has referred, I hope that my noble friend will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

12.45 a.m.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, can she give an assurance that Parliament will have the opportunity annually to debate the Government's annual poverty audit?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, it is open to any noble Lord to seek to discuss this at any time, and I would be delighted to do so.

Lord Morris of Manchester

My Lords, I listened carefully to my noble friend's reply. She clearly appreciates the strength of feeling behind the amendment, and the support for it is remarkably wide ranging by any standard. My noble friend's willingness to enter into discussion about what we are seeking is encouraging, and I most strongly urge her and the Secretary of State to move as quickly as possible in doing so. In the hope that we shall now be entering into meaningful dialogue about the way forward to the more rational approach to social policy that we envisage I shall not press the amendment at this stage—for it was not victory that we sought tonight but a sensible agreement on an issue that is primarily about humanity and common sense. I hope that that is what can now be achieved. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Castle of Blackburn moved Amendment No. 53: After Clause 18, insert the following new clause—