Schemes for Distribution etc. of Welfare Foods

Orders of the Day — Social Security Bill – in the House of Commons at 7:30 pm on 13th January 1988.

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Photo of Margaret Beckett Margaret Beckett Shadow Minister (Social Security) 7:30 pm, 13th January 1988

I beg to move amendment No. 18, in page 8, line 3, after 'food' insert 'including the provision of such food to persons whose income is below a prescribed level'. This amendment deals with welfare foods. The Bill enables the Government to withdraw some of the welfare foods that are now available to pregnant women and young children in low-income families. In this amendment we seek to ensure that some of those people are protected because we believe that the availability of such food is important to them. The effect of the amendment will be to include families who are not eligible for family credit because they are expecting their first child. That is particularly important because the argument that the Government have tended to put in order to justify the withdrawal of that right is that there will be compensation in the rates of family credit. By definition, that compensation will not be available to women expecting their first child, although they will lose their right to free milk. That is particularly worrying for young mothers and others.

It is generally recognised that the quality of nutrition in pregnancy is of considerable importance. It is a retrograde step for the Government to withdraw the entitlement to welfare foods in any case, but especially for families for whom there is no question of the Government's argument about compensation through family credit having any value. That can also be the case for a family where there are already one or two children but where there is another pregnancy. Even if one accepts that the family credit rates include compensation for the loss of welfare foods, it will include compensation only for the loss of the welfare food available to the child and not for the loss of milk available to the pregnant mother. As I have said, that is a particularly undesirable time for such a benefit to be withdrawn.

Apart from that, a substantial number of low-income families would be entitled to family credit on income grounds, but not even the Government expect them to claim it or it to be awarded to them. The best estimate that the Government have offered—it is based more on hope than on evidence — is that about 60 per cent. of the families entitled to family credit on income grounds will draw it. That still leaves, even on their assumptions, which are not shared by most of those who have studied the matter, some 40 per cent. of low income families who, because they will not draw family credit, for whatever reason, will not receive even the element of compensation that the Government have included, and will simply face the loss of the benefit.

It has been suggested to the Opposition that at present some 7,000 pregnant women and some 77,000 children are entitled to and receive welfare milk without being on supplementary benefit or family income supplement. Those are some of the people who will lose if the Government use the enabling power, as it has been suggested that they will. We move the amendment to ensure that such low-income families retain that entitlement.

Photo of Mr Michael Portillo Mr Michael Portillo , Enfield, Southgate 8:30 pm, 13th January 1988

The hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) is right in most of what she says about the Government's intention to end the low-income scheme, but she has not presented the case as fully as she might have done. I should like to set out how we see the arrangements working in future.

For those on income support there is, of course, no change from the present situation. They will qualify for free milk and vitamins in the future in the same way as they do now. I should like to make one point perfectly clear in case there is any doubt about it. An expectant mother who lives in an income support household will qualify for welfare foods during her pregnancy, because the assessment of the household allows for welfare food to be given to a pregnant girl or any pregnant woman in the household irrespective of whether she is the main claimant or the main claimant's daughter. That point caused some concern in Committee, and I wanted to make it clear.

Another point that came up in Committee related to young girls under 16 who might be in local authority care. I should like to point out to the House, particularly to those who served on the Committee, that section 21 of the Child Care Act 1980 imposes a duty on local authorities to ensure that children in care are provided with accommodation and that they are well maintained. The duty on a local authority can best be summed up by saying that it is expected to act as a good parent towards the children in its care.

The hon. Member for Derby, South drew attention to the position of expectant mothers and family credit. With regard to family credit in general, the amount of money that is being built into family credit for welfare foods is £2·;55. That sum has been calculated on the basis of what school meals cost over the year. With regard to children who are under school age, the sum is considerably more generous than the sum that the family will need to find to provide the milk, which we estimate to cost £1·82. The £2·55 that the family receives in family credit is intended to replace the free milk and vitamins, and it does so adequately.

It is true that a pregnant woman will not be able to qualify for family credit if it is her first pregnancy, but, after all, that derives from the nature of the scheme. Family credit is a benefit for families with children. Our proposal that family credit should be assessed on a six-monthly basis means that there will be more frequent adjustments to take account of any new arrivals in the family. Extra sums of £2·55 will be payable in respect of those extra babies as they arrive. I emphasise to the House that we see the proposal leading to many more, rather than fewer, people being helped.

The hon. Member for Derby, South was concerned about the take-up of family income supplement. I am concerned about that, too; but I emphasise that the take-up of the low-income scheme has been much lower than the take-up of family income supplement. It has been running at about 7 per cent. I reiterate the hon. Lady's estimate that only about 6,800 expectant mothers take up entitlement of free milk under the low-income scheme. We think that most of them are women who are pregnant for the first time; and most will probably have been in work recently and are likely now to be eligible for the new statutory maternity pay. They will be outside the scope of the scheme based on low income.

We believe that the cash provision that we propose will go to many more children than currently receive welfare foods. About 124,000 children are presently passported through family income supplement to free milk and a further 77,000 receive free supplies under the low-income scheme, whereas we estimate that 300,000 children under the age of five in family credit families will receive the £2·55. The new arrangements will help around 100,001) more children. As I emphasised, the take-up of the low-income scheme has been low and disappointing so far.

For all those reasons, while I recognise that a small group of women will not be eligible for welfare foods, as they have been under the low-income scheme, I am pleased to be able to tell the House that a much larger number of children will benefit in future. The vast majority of expectant mothers who are on low incomes will continue to be looked after under income support, and that will be so whether the woman is the main claimant in the income support household, or perhaps the daughter of the claimant. In either case, the woman will be given welfare foods during the period of her pregnancy and afterwards when the child is born.

Photo of Margaret Beckett Margaret Beckett Shadow Minister (Social Security)

I have listened with care and interest to what the Minister said. I wonder why it always seems to be impossible for the Government to say that they will give a little more in family credit to 300,000 children without deciding that as a consequence they have to withdraw benefit from some other people who are equally badly off and in low-income families. I note that the Minister did not contest the figures that we gave—the 7,000 pregnant women and about 76,000 to 77,000 children in low-income families who are now likely to lose their entitlement to welfare foods. No reason has been given for why that is necessary. It is simply suggested that, because a greater number of pregnant women or children may gain to some extent, that makes it all right.

The Minister did not answer my point about a pregnant woman in a family where family credit is payable and where compensation might be paid for the loss of welfare foods for the children in the family but not for the loss of welfare foods for the pregnant mother.

The Minister referred to the low take-up of the scheme and said that it was all right to abolish it, as the take-up of family credit will be higher. I should be more impressed by that argument if I did not recall that, not in the Bill but as part of the pattern of changes of which this is one, the Government are making sure that low-income families in a different context will not be entitled to free school meals any more. Some 250,000 children are losing by that, although the take-up of that scheme is substantially higher than the take-up of family credit. The Government are on fairly weak ground in that element of change.

I am aware of the fact that we are under substantial pressure of time. For that reason, and for that reason only, I do not advise my hon. Friends to vote on the amendment, but I hope very much that what has been said in the House and in Committee will be noted in another place and that a little more time will be available for noble Lords to discuss the issue.

Therefore, with considerable reluctance, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.