It is a great pleasure to be able to support in the House a new non-means-tested social security benefit. It is a long time since the House has seen the introduction of such a benefit. Credit should be paid to the work that has been done in its introduction.
I was delighted to hear the stream of invective against the bureaucracy, the uncertainty and the inefficiency of means-tested benefits that came from the Opposition Front Bench. I hope that in future the House will be united on this issue and that we shall no longer see the introduction of benefits of that very unuseful kind.
I was very taken with the idea of the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) that husbands should be informed of what their wives were getting in family allowances. That is absolutely right in these days of equality, and I completely agree with him. But I hoped that he would make it clear that he supports the corollary—that when any wife picks up her family allowances she should be told what her husband is earning. It is, after all, slightly more than the family allowances.
Coming to the Bill, I welcome heartily the precision that has been slipped into Clause 18—if I may put it thus—dealing with the abolition of the wage-stop. Many of us have felt very strongly about this for a long time. It has caused great and unnecessary hardship to many poor families. We are very glad to see the end of it. I can only say to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that I wish that she had slipped in two abolitions in the Bill and that we could have seen the abolition of the cohabitation rule at the same time. Had those two rules gone we could all have been happier with the resultant workings of the Supplementary Benefits Commission.
The Bill's main provisions—the introduction of family allowance for the first child and the phasing out of tax allowances—are a very significant departure from a philosophy that has dogged us for years in fighting for increases in family allowances and for allowances for the first child. These provisions are a recognition that economic circumstances have changed drastically since the days of Beveridge, and that the assumption on which the whole family allowances scheme was built, that a husband's earnings would support himself, a wife and one child, is absolutely a part of the history books. It is no longer a part of the economic reality for families in Britain.
As has been pointed out, very often it is the birth of the first child that is the crisis point in economic terms for many young families. Until the birth of that child the pattern in most families is for there to be two wage earners, two wages coming in and two mouths to feed. It is with the birth of the first child that suddenly there is only one wage coming into the family and three mouths to feed, and no help coming from the social security system. Therefore, the introduction of a benefit for the first child is an enormous step forward.
I should not have thought, however, that it was such an enormous step forward, because it seems a very logical thing to do. However, knowing of the fight that people in this House have had about introducing it, I see it as an enormous step.
Of course, I am disappointed at the timing of the introduction. My right hon. Friend will not think that she has a critic on the benches behind her if I voice that disappointment. It is only right that when a measure of this sort is introduced, those of us who care and who welcome it should also say where we think it is deficient and where it should go further, and we should be prepared to fight for it to go further. We must be disappointed at the date of the introduction.
I recognise the serious and very practical difficulties that face the Department in this respect. However, one looks at the experience of other countries. Furthermore, what always comes to my mind is the speed and efficiency of identification that we managed when petrol rationing was in everyone's mind and the speed with which the different coupons for all the cars were distributed. Cars were identified and their owners were identified, and the coupons were issued through post offices. It is not only a matter of resources, not only a matter of staff, not only a matter of buildings; it is also a matter of political will, and it is the political will nationally, it is the political will of this House, apart from the handful of hon. Members who are here tonight, that it is necessary to mobilise if we are to see the benefit brought in earlier, as I hope we shall.
Turning to Clause 5, may I say how glad I was to hear the Secretary of State refer to the possibility of grading the new child benefit according to age. It could be a most significant step, when we are introducing a new benefit, when we are completely revamping the scheme of family support, to look at the problems that relate to different ages of children. Of course it is enormously difficult to do, and with the present administrative machine I would think almost impossible, but there is no reason why, when we have the proper computer facilities, we should not be able to grade allowances according to age. Everyone who has ever thought about it for a minute knows that it is much cheaper to feed and clothe an 18-month-old baby than it is to feed and clothe a 15-year-old teenager. It is necessary that we make this sort of distinction and that we recognise that arbitrary lines will have to be drawn here and age distinctions made, but it will be invaluable and make a much more sensitive benefit if we are able to age-grade it.
The interim benefit for one-parent families must be welcomed by all of us who have worked for this group and in this field—welcomed not only for the practical help that it will give to the one-parent families involved but also for the recognition that it gives to the special needs of that group. I often feel that lone parents and their children suffer not only the practical problems—and God knows they suffer those—of poverty, bad housing and lack of day care and resources, but also from being ignored or brushed under the carpet or not being seen as a group that deserve support for the job they are doing in bringing up their children single-handed. That is why, although I have argued before about the specific measures which the Chancellor introduced, I think it was a tremendous boost for lone parents and their children when he singled them out as the group most in need.
But I am concerned at the lack of help that this interim benefit will bring for the 250,000 lone parents and their children who are depending on supplementary benefit. Although they will pick up their child benefit at the post office, they will lose it when they go round to the DHSS; it will be knocked off their supplementary benefit. I think that we must look again at whether this particular benefit—and it is an interim benefit, it is an emergency aid, it is only a one-year scheme—could be discounted for the purpose of assessing supplementary benefit.
I know all the problems which are entailed when one starts doing this with a non-means-tested benefit and when one starts bringing more people into eligibility for supplementary benefit. But there are two arguments. One is that we are dealing with a unique situation, an interim, a stop-gap measure. The other, of course, is that many of us would like to see the real solution to the financial problems of one-parent families in a non-means-tested benefit as of right for them quite separate from supplementary benefit. We know that supplementary benefit is inadequate. It is a wrongly-devised system to cope with the long-term needs of families in poverty. It is designed to give emergency, short-term help. It should not be the system whereby we support parents and children over years—and that is the reality for many one-parent families in this country.
Finally, we shall have to fight both on the size of this benefit and on its timing. We shall have to fight very hard. I should like to see written into the Bill regular upgradings of family allowances or benefits. That is the voice of not long but bitter experience of having to fight each time round when we wanted a rise in family allowances, against the fears that are always expressed from all quarters that it will be unpopular, that it will not be on, that it will have to be argued out with the Treasury. Rightly, we do not have this sort of argument over pensions. We should not have such arguments over child benefit either. It should be written into the statute that this benefit will be regularly reviewed and regularly upgraded, and with the current situation I do not think once a year is sufficiently regular.
Ultimately this House, the Government and we as a society will be judged on our treatment of children and on the attack we make on family poverty. We shall be judged not on the number of tears shed when the occasional terrible tragedy occurs but on the action we take in the less glamorous, less dramatic field: the unpopular, unfashionable worlds of prevention. We shall be judged not on the tears shed after the event, tragic and terrible, but on the money that is spent on support—not only direct financial support but social work and nursery support and support in terms of good housing and adequate facilities.
We shall be judged after the event not by how many of us gather to shed our tears and beat our breasts but on the amount of money that even at a time of national crisis, when we are doing all we can to cut down public expenditure, we are willing to give to protect those most vulnerable in our society.