Lone Parents

– in the House of Lords at 7:35 pm on 16th March 2000.

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Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Labour 7:35 pm, 16th March 2000

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what has been the impact of their policies since May 1997 on the prospects for lone parents.

My Lords, in opening this debate I thank my noble friend Lady Hollis of Heigham for her time, and that of other noble Lords who share an interest in this area of policy.

It is against the backdrop of the Government's commitment to the eradication of child poverty that this debate takes place. The policies to support lone parents must, in my view, be at the heart of that commitment. There are 2.8 million children living in lone-parent households and two-thirds of them are poor. Or, put another way, 43 per cent of all poor children live in one-parent families.

In preparing for this debate I am grateful to the Library and also to the National Council for One Parent Families and Business in the Community. Each provided me with valuable information, and each provided me with information which changed my perceptions.

As it is some time since this area of policy was debated in your Lordships' House, by way of introduction I should like to do a little myth exploding. Lone parents are not new. In the 19th century there were as many families headed by a lone parent as now. What is new is the reasons. Death was the major factor then. Now, three in five lone parents are "ex-married" (a new term)--divorced, separated or widowed. The fastest growing group is the never-married. But before we read too much into that, we should recognise that most of those--77 per cent--registered their children to two parents living at the same address. Only 15 per cent of lone parents have never married or lived with the child's father. Within that 15 per cent lies an important group of teenage mothers.

I do not underestimate the importance of teenage pregnancy. From the research I have done, it is clear that we need to do more to understand and tackle the relationship between teenage pregnancy and low expectations of young people, ignorance and the mixed message for some that somehow sex is compulsory but contraception illegal.

The average age of a lone mother is 34; a lone father is most likely to be in his 40s. There is no evidence of teenage lone parents having a child to obtain housing benefit. Most have no idea of the system; what information they do have almost invariably turns out to be wrong. Never-married lone parents tend to be younger and are more likely to be on benefit. But they also tend to have smaller families, take paid work and "re-partner"--my second new word of the night--sooner.

Eleven per cent of lone parents come from black or ethnic minority communities. Compared with 22 per cent of white families, 9 per cent of Indian, 17 per cent of Bangladeshi and 55 per cent of black families are headed by a lone parent. Finally, one quarter of all families with dependent children are headed by a lone parent, according to the last general household survey. That means that nearly half of all children may find themselves at some point or another living in a one-parent family.

I said at the beginning of this debate that two-thirds of the children living with lone parents are poor. I want to turn to the reasons for this poverty. I can say with feeling that children are expensive. Women are most likely to be the lone parent. They are most likely to earn significantly less than men; most likely to be in low paid work; and more likely to be employed in the non-standard or flexible economy. They have no independent source of income and are consequentially reliant on benefit. And of course they have no second earner.

There is no doubt that, where possible, the practical route out of poverty is through work--and I emphasise the word "possible". Indeed, 44 per cent of lone parents are in work, compared to 68 per cent of women in couples with dependent children. But 90 per cent of lone parents indicate that they would like to work, not necessarily immediately but when circumstances allow.

In my view, the New Deal for Lone Parents offers valuable support and encouragement. It has been criticised for low take-up rates--the last figures I saw were around 33,500--but I would argue that this is a classic case of a policy needing time to demonstrate its effectiveness. It should not become a victim of short-termism. This group of parents faces enormous barriers to work: attitudes of employers and the organisation of work; lack of transport; existing financial hardship and the constraints that it imposes; childcare needs; lack of skills; low pay, scarce and insecure jobs; concern about meeting housing costs; and the complexity of the benefit system.

The introduction of small but practical measures--such as the two-week run-on of income support for lone parents moving into work and the introduction of back-to-work grants for those who have been unemployed for a long time--have had an impact on the ability of lone parents to take up employment. I hope, too, that my noble friend the Minister will look at the help that might be given to those lone parents who own their own homes. Of course, the introduction of the working families' tax credit and the accompanying childcare tax credit are important, particularly the latter.

However, I also want to mention the importance of the role of employers in helping lone parents back to work. Noble Lords may recall that I have spent most of my working life involved in partnerships between the public, private and voluntary sectors to regenerate communities and develop new policies to support people into work, or back into work. Employers can, and should, play a role in supporting families of whatever kind, especially those who rely on one parent. I wish to draw the attention of the House to a few examples that I believe illustrate this, partly pour encourager les autres.

The Bank of Ireland has introduced flexible working options--98 per cent of those taking up the options are women. Moreover, to support take-up and compensate for any reduction of income through flexible working, the bank offers to reschedule employees' loans or mortgage repayments. The main benefits identified to the bank are increased morale, better retention rates, and improved productivity measured by cost savings and customer satisfaction.

BT has piloted projects involving home working, combinations of long and short days, full-time working over four days and "banking time" to take during the school holidays. These are now being considered for integration into mainstream policy. As a result, three employees have remained who would have left; an employee was able to support his disabled children more effectively, allowing his partner to take on part-time work; and line managers report improvements in productivity. Staff turnover has fallen to 5 per cent in the trial centre, compared to 15 per cent in equivalent centres. These are examples of how the best employment practice is also the best business practice.

However, not all lone parents wish to, or can, take up employment. For some, educational opportunities are the way forward. Revising or learning new skills may provide the means to employment of a higher standard and greater income. Financing education can be difficult. For some, the loss of free school meals and the imposition of prescription charges, because student loans are regarded as income, may be problematic.

The ability to take on employment or education depends on adequate childcare. Research carried out some years ago indicated that between the hours of three and four o'clock in the afternoon the productivity of women changed as their thoughts turned to their children leaving school. For some children that would have been a journey to an empty home, for others a journey to childminders or elsewhere.

This is a classic joined-up thinking issue. I look forward to the days when we will be able to provide sufficient after-school provision for children. I have in mind sport, art, drama, homework clubs and fun. These are of benefit to both the children and the parents. Better use would also be made of school facilities. I commend the efforts of the New Opportunities Fund in funding and supporting a range of after-school facilities. Speaking from personal experience, I can say that after-school childcare is most difficult to find. We should embrace all the opportunities that we can. Again, employers can also help.

As an employer, the Benefits Agency has invested in child care champions to provide information on childcare, spread best practice and raise awareness. It has set up 12 new holiday schemes and plans up to 50 by next year. Some staff have already indicated that they are staying specifically because of the policies introduced.

Bishop Auckland College now operates a 100-place nursery for its students, staff and local community. Since its opening, staff turnover is close to zero and the percentage of women managers has risen by 20 per cent. The number of women accessing higher education has grown by 30 per cent. Some women who had children before they were 14 are now training at the college and the number of women returning to education has increased by 51 per cent.

It is because good childcare is important that I believe parents entitled to claim support for it should be freer to use it as they see fit. I am thinking especially of the army of grandmothers who regularly support their children by looking after the grandchildren. We should consider allowing parents greater flexibility to decide what works best for their children and, with safeguards, contribute to the income of those who do so.

For some lone parents the most important role that they can perform at this point in their and their children's lives is to be a full-time parent. Whether the children are young, the break-up traumatic, or for whatever reason, it may be best for the parent to be with the children as much as is possible. That may rule out paid work or education for the time being. I believe that we also need to recognise this and be cautious in our push for employment as the only solution for poverty in every case.

Finally, we will in this House debate many times the question of marriage and family. Let us be aware of the importance of the one-parent family and ensure that no child believes as a consequence of our action that somehow the love and care that he gets from his family is inferior to anyone else's. For some, being in a one-parent family marks freedom from physical or mental abuse; it means control of the finances for the benefit of the children; and it means the beginning of a new life. For some children a one-parent family is infinitely preferable to the alternative. Let us celebrate our successful one-parent families, cherish them and support them in every possible way.

Photo of Lord Brett Lord Brett Labour 7:46 pm, 16th March 2000

My Lords, I should like to begin by thanking my noble friend Lady Aston of Upholland for giving us what is really the first opportunity to debate and review the raft of policies that have been put in place by the new Labour Government to improve the lot of lone parents. I share with my noble friend the belief that much good has been done. However, like her, I also recognise that not all lone parents have benefited equally--or, indeed, at all--despite the Government's best intentions. It is a number of those anomalies that I should like to raise in my contribution this evening.

The cut in the lone parent rate of child benefit and the elimination of the lone parent premium in income support is the most obvious anomaly. This has significantly reduced income to a group of people who are demonstrably at the greatest risk of poverty. It is often the individual case that most graphically illustrates how unintended disbenefit can arise even with improved and, it is to be hoped, beneficial policies.

A particularly difficult case has come to my attention--that of a young lone parent mother who suffers from a debilitating disease, Crohn's disease. I trust that noble Lords are aware of the symptoms of this disease and its effect, because in the six minutes at my disposal tonight there is little time to describe it. It is a condition with no known cause and, therefore, no known cure. Treatment is by continuous use of medication or, where appropriate, surgery. While this young lady was on income support she qualified for free prescriptions and, indeed, free school meals for her child. However, courtesy of the efforts of the Child Support Agency, her income now exceeds--but only just--the moneys previously paid in income support. Of course, this has now been withdrawn, together with the entitlement to free prescriptions, which this young lady needs if she is to lead anything approaching a normal life.

Unfortunately, although Crohn's Disease is lifelong, it is not considered to be life threatening. Thus it does not qualify for inclusion in the list of those diseases which, in turn, qualify for free prescriptions. With medicines, dressings, and so on, this young lady's prescriptions could cost £25 to £30 a month, or perhaps more. Of course, all this far exceeds any additional income that she receives, courtesy of the CSA, over her previous income support. The only advice that she has received from those who can advise her in this respect is that she could consider purchasing a pre-payment certificate costing, I believe, around £70 a year. This would obviously be a better option than paying prescriptions at £5.90 or £6 a time. Although £70 per annum may not seem an enormous amount of money to a Member of this House, it is an enormous amount of money to a young women who is bringing up a child with absolutely no spare income.

A broader anomaly, which was referred to by my noble friend Lady Ashton, is that of lone parents who are, or who wish to be, full-time students. Such parents are now penalised by the removal from income support of an element equal to the student loan, whether or not such a loan is taken, together with the loss of free school meals and prescriptions. Is it possible that this can be sensible? Should we not consider disregarding the student loan when calculating income for the purpose of income support? After all, a loan has to be repaid; it is therefore a debt, and a debt is not income, however one looks at it.

In summary, lone-parent families, who represent 25 per cent of all families in Britain, have much for which to be grateful to the Government. I refer to the working families' tax credit, the National Childcare Strategy, real increases in child benefit, and increases in income support. That adds up to a good record and a good overall policy. However, can the Minister offer any encouragement that these lesser but important anomalies to which I have referred will receive the attention of her department with a view to making a good policy better by dealing with these anomalies, which I am sure are not intended? Will the department consider how those who slip through whatever net we create can be offered advice which is rather more sympathetic than that of, "Go away and spend money you do not have"?

Photo of Baroness Crawley Baroness Crawley Labour 7:50 pm, 16th March 2000

My Lords, I welcome the chance to take part in this important debate. I thank my noble friend Lady Ashton for giving us the opportunity to focus briefly on a group of people who have had more than their fair share of vilification over the years.

Most lone parents are mothers. Over the past couple of decades there has been an increase in lone mother families. According to the 2000 edition of Social Trends, in 1971 7 per cent of families with dependent children were lone mother families. By 1998 the figure had risen to 22 per cent; it had trebled. Before the mid-1980s much of the rise in lone parenthood was due to divorce; since then, single lone motherhood has grown at a faster rate.

As my noble friend Lady Ashton said, lone parenthood is not a recent phenomenon. There is evidence that lone parent families were just as numerous in the 16th and 17th centuries although they declined somewhat in the later 19th and early 20th centuries. Lone parents comprise young or older women with young, teenage or older children. They may be divorced, separated or widowed, or they may never have married. Their profile is far from the stereotypical description that was once guaranteed to earn a cheer at the Conservative annual conference.

Some lone parents have professional jobs; some are on benefits; some work full time; and some work part time. For many, childcare is a real problem; for others, it is more manageable. Many lone parents form part of the poorest group of people in this country. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, said recently in a debate in this House on poverty:

"Indeed, one-third of all children are poor. The face of poverty in this country is the face of a child".--[Official Report, 16/2/00; col. 1300.]

The number of children living in poverty has soared over the past 30 years, despite the fact that family size and the number of families with children has fallen. By 1995-96 over 4.3 million children--one-third of all children in Britain--were living in households below the poverty line, up from just one in 10 in 1968. Therefore it is imperative not only for the social inclusion of poorer lone parents themselves, but also for the future of their children, that the Government's commitment to halving child poverty by 2010 is realised. As my noble friend the Minister said in that recent debate, poverty is not a birthright.

Breaking the cycle of deprivation and low esteem and even lower expectations from parents to child so that children can get the best start in life has to be one of the driving motivations behind the Government's New Deal for lone parents. The New Deal is a major weapon in the Government's armoury of making work pay and tackling child poverty. It recognises that improving the income of lone parents is the surest way out of that cycle of deprivation. However, we know that it is not the only way. Access to good health, good education and good housing are also enormously important in finding sure routes out of poverty.

The Government's New Deal for lone parents deserves our support precisely because it is attempting to break down the barriers faced by all those lone parents who are presently locked out of the labour market. Obstacles such as little or no experience of work, demoralisation, demotivation, the need for reskilling, an abandonment of confidence in one's own social skills, as well as poor qualifications and, indeed, no qualifications, are all prevalent.

I believe that the New Deal is a practical, comprehensive package of back-to-work help designed to assist and encourage lone parents on income support to take up paid work. I quote the comments of some lone parents on the New Deal. Dawn from Weston-Super-Mare has three children between the ages of 18 and seven. She states of her introduction to the New Deal:

"At our first meeting I explained that whatever happened I could not afford to be any worse off financially. Nicky explained how the benefits would be affected by the increase in hours. She helped me by doing a calculation to show how much family credit and housing benefit I would receive working full time".

Nicky was Dawn's personal adviser.

Carrie from Burnham-on-Sea has a small child of three. She stated of her personal adviser:

"It was a two-way relationship; a real joint effort. Carol wanted to help me into a job and I wanted to work. The fact that the scheme is voluntary means you feel you've made a personal effort".

David from Kent had children for whom he had given up his teaching job. He stated:

"Initially I was very sceptical about the prospect of working again. However, I found that I was reassured when I was not put under pressure. It was always made clear that if I felt the kids weren't ready for me to go back to work, I wouldn't lose anything by backing out".

Those are some of the comments of lone parents on their experience of the New Deal.

I conclude by asking the Minister whether she will take up the point that my noble friend Lady Ashton made as regards how relatives--my noble friend gave the example of grandparents--can be assisted financially and in other ways to take on some childcare responsibilities.

Photo of Lord Warner Lord Warner Labour 7:57 pm, 16th March 2000

My Lords, I too am grateful to my noble friend for giving us the opportunity to discuss the subject of lone parents this evening. I want to place lone parents in the broader context of family policy. In doing so, I draw the House's attention to the Government's consultative document, Supporting Families, which focuses on the care, welfare and upbringing of children.

The document recognises that families come in all shapes and sizes and that it is not for the Government to preach to people. Instead the policy emphasis of the Government--rightly, in my view--has been to provide practical help to parents rather than harangue them about the nature of their adult relationships.

Too often in the past lone parents have been regarded as though they had single-handedly sought their status. There has been too little recognition that large numbers of single mothers have demonstrated huge resilience and have brought up their children successfully despite difficult circumstances. I am glad that this Government have seen lone parents as a group who should be able to benefit from broader improvements in family policy as well as having some targeted help that relates to their particular circumstances.

The real disgrace of the family policy that this Government inherited is the huge increase in child poverty that took place in the 1980s and 1990s, to which my noble friend Lady Crawley drew attention. The previous government liked to describe themselves as concerned with the family but they allowed this increase in child poverty to take place through their failure to provide adequate financial support to millions of families with children. The benefit and tax measures introduced by this Government will now start to remove children from poverty in both one- and two-parent families. The huge increases in child benefit, the working families' tax credit and the childcare tax credit will all help lone parents and will take hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty during the lifetime of this Parliament.

The new childcare places will also benefit 1 million children by 2003, many from lone parent households. The Sure Start programmes, with expenditure of about £0.5 billion, will provide more integrated services in early years for many parents in areas where incomes are low. Guaranteed nursery places for every four year-old and improved maternity leave, pay and grants are all measures of a general kind that will help and benefit lone parents.

On top of this, the New Deal has provided targeted help specifically for lone parents on income support. This does help to overcome the barriers to work for many low income lone parents. Despite a perhaps slow start, these new arrangements have helped several thousand lone parents into work in the pilot areas. I am sure my noble friend Lady Ashton is right to argue for patience in letting this new policy initiative take root.

I believe lone parents will also benefit from the greater help that is being made available to parents generally. There is increased funding for Parentline so that parents who are struggling, have difficulties or have problems can telephone for help. There has been expanded funding for local parenting groups that provide information and mutual support. That is again something that will help some lone parents. Much greater funding has been given to voluntary organisations such as HomeStart, with its befriending services. Again, that will help socially isolated mothers with young children, among whom are many lone parents. These are the kinds of practical projects that will help lone parents as well as families with two parents.

I draw attention finally to an area where the Minister has been very active. This is the work that she has done on reforming the shambles of the Child Support Agency. Producing more realistic and practical arrangements for ensuring that non-resident parents support their children will be a major help for many lone parents. My noble friend the Minister deserves great credit for the reforms that she has driven through in this very difficult area.

In conclusion, in developing an inclusive, coherent and non-judgmental family policy, this Government have helped all parents, whether they are single parents or in households with two parents.

Photo of Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws Labour 8:02 pm, 16th March 2000

My Lords, I too wish to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, for introducing this debate. Child poverty and the position of lone parents have long been two of my own preoccupations. Indeed, I remember very well that one of my first speeches in this House two-and-a-half years ago was with regard to my worry about the effect of benefit cuts on lone parents. I am happy to say that, since then, the Government have shown that they are committed to lone parents and have introduced many policy changes to address their special needs.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, has said, there is nothing new about the lone parent, particularly lone mothers. Ninety per cent of lone parents are women. Women have often been forced by circumstances to bring up children alone. Indeed, many people in this House were brought up in that way. As the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, described, the circumstances themselves may have changed. Less lone parenthood may be brought about by effects of war or by death and more as a result of relationship breakdown. However, as my noble friend Lady Crawley described, there is a great deal of mythology--mythology about lone parents selecting their status and doing so to secure housing and other state benefits. All this is a travesty of the truth.

I, too, wish to congratulate the Government on the New Deal initiatives. Working is invariably the way out of the poverty trap. The best way for women to find self-esteem and to recover their confidence is to take that step back to work, especially as often they are recovering from the demoralisation of rejection and the failure of a relationship. However, I am concerned that, in asserting, as the Government properly do, the importance of parents being able to stay at home when their children are very young, we also recognise that, immediately after breakdown, particularly in circumstances where there has been domestic violence and a woman has left because of abuse, there has to be a serious period of time before she is encouraged into work. The children of such families are so emotionally needy as regards the parent who remains.

My main area of interest and concern is the route into work through education. As many noble Lords will know, I have been involved in the field of further education and have produced a report on the subject. One concern we still have in the further education field relates to the difficulties encountered by mothers seeking to acquire an education--often because it was not readily available to them when they were younger--have in affording childcare, even where it is available within the colleges. Often, childcare facilities are available in the college but they are still too costly for a lone parent.

I understand that the Government are bringing in bursaries in higher education to help with the cost of childcare. I ask the Government to consider whether similar provision can be made available in further education. So often, that will be the starting point for single mothers in acquiring education they failed to get the first time round.

A complaint that is often made regarding the problems in further education is that because women with children who are trying to study have so much pressure upon them, the lecturer in the college becomes the counsellor and supporter. We need to see a development of access funds to include more money for childcare. At the moment, access funds for further education are being used by lone parents for childcare rather than for buying books, computers or other items that they really do need.

Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced in a pre-Budget report that £50 million will go into further education in September. It is welcome that this money is going to this area of education, which has always been neglected. I would be very grateful if it were possible for the Government to give a steer by saying that a significant part of that money should go towards childcare, an area which will be most beneficial for women.

Those are the matters that I wish to raise in this debate. I want to thank again those who have participated in the debate and the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, for introducing it. In addition, the Minister has played a great role in seeking to promote and improve the position of lone parents. I know that she shares my view that one of the routes off welfare and into work for many women is education. I should be grateful if she could give an indication as to how that might be shaped up in the months and years to come. I am happy that the message coming from this House tonight is that families come in many shapes and sizes and that it is not helpful if there is moralising about people who are left to bring up children on their own.

Photo of Earl Russell Earl Russell Liberal Democrat 8:08 pm, 16th March 2000

My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton of Upholland, for introducing this debate. In particular, I welcome her remarks about the importance of childcare, in which I hope the Minister will assume that she has spoken for us all.

I should also, I am afraid slightly backhandedly, like to welcome the introduction of this Unstarred Question because it has freed me from a self-denying ordinance. The Minister may have noticed that in the debate on 16th February I mentioned neither single parent benefits nor incapacity benefit. I thought the House knew what I thought about those things. I do not want my silence to be taken for consent, and this debate gives me an occasion to say that we on these Benches are by no means reconciled to those changes.

I should also like to say to the noble Lord, Lord Brett, that he may be pleased to know that when the Child Support Act was brought forward in 1991, the noble Lord, Lord Carter, divided the House on precisely the point about passported benefits which he has now made. He did so with my enthusiastic support. The noble Lord, Lord Brett, raises it tonight also with my enthusiastic support.

I know that since the 1997 cuts the Government have introduced a number of welcome measures which, in the words of the National Council for One Parent Families, have gone some way to restoring the losses of lone parents. But since the working families' tax credit, by definition, applies to those in work, those who are not in work have gone less far than others towards recovering the lost ground. The argument the Minister and I had about whether separate costs are attached to being a single parent was inconclusive, interesting and of a high level. I was interested to note that the Acheson report agreed with me on that. It does not, of course, make me right, but it does suggest that the view is one which can be seriously entertained.

However, the biggest problem obviously is poverty. I am interested to notice that research shows that in lone parent families which do not suffer from poverty, the children do no less well than they do in any other family. That is a point to which we might return on 23rd March when we discuss guidelines. I shall throw the Minister a statistic for a present in a debate in which I am not generally being entirely kind to her. At present, 62 per cent of lone parents have an income which is below half the average income. In 1979, the figure was 19 per cent. I imagine that the Minister may want to repeat that figure on occasion.

The Government have only one answer here. It is work. It is a good answer for many people. Work is a right. I believe in helping people to uphold their rights. But where one has young children to care for, not working, equally, is a right. We on these Benches believe in upholding both those rights. The Government tilt the scales a little. Tomorrow we have the work-focused interviews which single parents are being required to attend for the first time. We have single parents suffering a good deal of fear where disentitlement to benefit is concerned, afraid of the stigma to which many speakers have referred, afraid of the threat of losing benefit before appeal, suffering problems with childcare and transport, of which we have heard. On 16th February the Minister expressed surprise at transport coming into a debate on poverty. It will not be the last time.

Above all, this is an issue of human rights, an issue of subsidiarity--the state does not know what is going on in a family--and an issue of the state's competence, therefore, to assess what is happening. I have not forgotten the speech on this subject of the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Parkside, when the cuts in single parent benefit were before the House. I have also been spending a good deal of today reading the DSS research report 110, The Evaluation of the New Deal for Lone Parents. In the light of that, I wonder whether the Government's faith in that is entirely justified. If one wants to calculate the effect of the New Deal, one has to calculate two things: dead weight--that is, those who would have found jobs anyway; and substitution--that is, how many of those off the programme who find jobs thereby displace other people who would have found those jobs if the others had not. The report makes a great effort to calculate additionality. The researchers calculate that, out of 8,107 people on the programme, 3,393 found jobs, and 645 would not have found them without the programme.

I have as much confidence in those figures as the researchers, which is to say that I cannot think of any better ones, but I do not know whether they are right. On the question of substitution, they say that they have made an assumption that for each person off the programme who found a job, one other person remained one month longer on benefit. They say, "This is a bold assumption". Yes, it is, especially with no evidence in favour of it. It seems to me that where the programmes have created no additional jobs, there is a rebuttable presumption that dead weight plus substitution add up to 100 per cent. If the Minister can rebut that presumption, I shall be very interested indeed to hear her do so.

Photo of Baroness Buscombe Baroness Buscombe Conservative 8:15 pm, 16th March 2000

My Lords, I should first like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton of Upholland, for providing us with the opportunity to speak on this important subject, although it is impossible to do it justice in six minutes.

It is important to focus upon the 1.7 million people who are single parents bringing up our next generation-- nearly 3 million children. There is no doubt that we need policies which provide positive, sensible, realistic and workable support systems for lone parenting, not just for the sake of the children, but also for the parents, most of whom do not choose to be single parents.

Lone parenting carries with it a huge burden of responsibility. As a working mother with three young children, while I have an extremely supportive husband and reliable help with childcare, I nevertheless sometimes find it tough to juggle and tough to cope. I frankly admire all those men and women often struggling but managing to bring up children on their own.

We have heard much this evening about what the Government have been doing to help lone parents since 1997. I am bound to say that I do not agree that they have had much success. The fact is that the Government are evading the key question: what is the right balance between tough and responsible unpaid work looking after a child and breadwinning paid work to avoid dependency on benefit?

While this is a dilemma that most partnered mothers face, it is much more acute for single parents where all the responsibilities of breadwinning and carer come together. For new Labour, the focus is entirely upon paid work. By talking in terms of only valuing the role of bringing up children if you leave them to go out to work and pay someone else to look after them, the Government have caused huge offence. In addition, they have introduced programmes such as the New Deal for Lone Parents and the ONE programme. It is all rather confusing. Both schemes are supposed to get single parents into work. The ONE programme entails all single parents turning up for an interview, but after that nothing is required of them.

As for the New Deal, figures from the Government show the initiative to have been an expensive failure. A £190 million scheme has secured jobs for only 4.5 per cent of the lone parents invited to join. This percentage means that fewer than 20,590 people out of a total of 454,920 are now in work. Eighty-six per cent of the single parents invited to join the scheme have not even attended an interview with an adviser. This figure is unlikely to improve as the monthly participation rate is now falling fast. In October 1999, 5,760 of those invited to join the scheme attended an initial interview. The latest figures show that less than half that number did so in December.

Ministers have often claimed that the New Deal for Lone Parents is a success. However, they have, so far, neglected to admit that the published figures are distorted as they add in the single parents with children younger than five who were not invited to meet a jobs adviser but who found work anyway. This is not right because only those in the target group are invited or expected to join.

It is my hope that the Minister will give us the true figures and also respond to articles such as that by Alasdair Palmer in this week's Sunday Telegraph, entitled "The Deceit of Brown's War on Benefit Fraud". Alasdair Palmer states that research carried out by the Department of Social Security which involved comparing an area in which the New Deal for lone parents operated with one in which it did not produced a surprising discovery. It showed that while the two areas chosen were as alike as possible in every respect, more lone parents found jobs in the area where there was no New Deal than in the other. That tells us that lone parents do better when the deal is not offered to them. With a budget of nearly £200 million, I believe that it is right now seriously to question whether the scheme is worth it.

We question the drive to push lone parents of young children into work. We do not believe it is in the best interests of the children, particularly when childcare options and facilities remain woefully inadequate. The evidence is that children, especially when they are very young, derive significant long-term advantages through having a parent stay at home and look after them. However, when children get older, the position is reversed, especially for daughters. Let me quickly offer some statistics about the chances of the child of parents in different circumstances securing either no academic qualification or an advanced academic qualification.

For sons brought up in a two-parent family, there is a 50 per cent chance of achieving an advanced education qualification, regardless of whether their mother worked or did not work during their teens. In contrast, if they are brought up by a lone parent they have only a 29 per cent chance of achieving an advanced qualification if their mother worked during their teens and a 30 per cent chance if their mother did not. Interestingly, for daughters the picture is rather different. Brought up in a two-parent family, their chances of achieving an advanced educational qualification is 38 per cent whether the mother worked or not. However, a daughter brought up by a lone parent has a depressingly low chance--7 per cent--of achieving an advanced educational qualification if that lone parent does not work while the daughter is in her teens. The figure rises to 24 per cent for the daughter of a working lone parent--still too far behind a daughter from a two-parent family but much better than in the case of a non-working lone parent. That tells us that the daughter's chances of achieving good results, and therefore real opportunities and a chance to succeed in a life away from dependency, away from poverty, are much greater if her lone parent works during her teens.

One reason is, of course, economic since a boost in income will help. However, there is no doubt that children, once they reach their teens, benefit from the experience and role model of a parent going out to work. That is why we on these Benches believe it right to expect lone parents actively to seek work when their children reach secondary school age.

Photo of Baroness Amos Baroness Amos Government Whip

My Lords, I hesitate to interrupt the noble Baroness but she has been speaking for eight minutes. That means that the Minister will not have sufficient time to reply.

Photo of Baroness Buscombe Baroness Buscombe Conservative

I apologise, my Lords. I shall bring my speech to a close.

There is no doubt that reforms to the job market implemented when we were in government mean that the British economy has a wealth of opportunities for part-time jobs which help single parents in fulfilling their role as carers. We need practical, workable measures, not bureaucracy, interviews and more initiatives and programmes that sound good but cost the taxpayer more and which, more importantly, do not deliver real help to lone parent families.

Photo of Baroness Hollis of Heigham Baroness Hollis of Heigham Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Social Security 8:23 pm, 16th March 2000

My Lords, first, as other noble Lords have done, I should like to thank my noble friend Lady Ashton for so eloquently introducing the debate. Both she and my noble friend Lady Crawley have emphasised that the poor in this country are children and, indeed, that one-third of all children are poor.

The number of lone parents has grown--up 50 per cent in 10 years--so that now one family in four is headed by a lone parent. They are bringing up 3 million children. One million of those lone parents are on income support. They are poor. Half of all lone parents are in the bottom income quintile whereas only one-fifth of couples are. Even more importantly, lone parents and their children are also more likely to be persistently poor than other people, remaining in the bottom quintile for years--and, if moving up, falling back again within a couple of years. It is this persistent poverty that scars.

There are many children in low income couple families, but their low income is less likely to be persistent. It is the children of lone parents, where the child's family is not only workless but fractured, that the poverty scars. We know that their poverty is accompanied by poor health, poor education, poor life chances. That is the problem that the Government's cross-ministry Sure Start programme seeks to tackle.

So how are we seeking to help lone parents and their children? The Government do not underestimate the need for direct financial support. The combined effect of the financial measures introduced in the Budgets of 1998 and 1999 will raise the incomes of the poorest fifth of families with children by £1,000 a year--that is £1,000 in two years; some £6 billion extra spent on children by 2001. That is a significant achievement by any standards. For example, for children under 11 in workless families the value of their income support has risen in two years by 50 per cent.

None the less, as your Lordships have acknowledged, we believe that the only reliable path out of poverty is for the parent to move into work. Lone parents share that culture. They tell us that they want to work, and most of them want to work now or in the near future. As your Lordships have recognised, it is harder for them than if they were in a couple. Married women are far more likely to work because they have the childcare within their family. They are more likely to be older and better educated--51 per cent of all lone parents have no educational qualifications at all--and they can share childcare with their family.

That is why your Lordships were right to dwell on the New Deal, which is the second part of our strategy. Financial support, yes, but also help into work. I am grateful for the remarks made by my noble friends on this matter. We are spending £190 million on the programme and personal advisers, who support lone parents through training, job search, childcare arrangements, better-buy calculations and benefit roll-on.

This programme is already a success, even though it is in its early days. More than 120,000 lone parents have voluntarily joined the New Deal; that represents 90 per cent of those who came to an interview. Some 41,000 of them have found jobs and more than 14,000 are in training since the programme began in July 1997. For many it has turned their lives around.

Both the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, criticised the New Deal. I wonder whether they have read the three evaluation reports. Have they read, for example, the calculation of the cost effectiveness of the programme, which shows that the average cost for a lone parent on the New Deal is £640 and that 20 per cent of them have made a clear gain? The lone parents themselves say that it is 28 per cent, but the researchers have taken 20 per cent as the figure. At 23 per cent--which is lower than the figures given by lone parents--that programme breaks even.

If there is no substitution--and the report suggests that there is no evidence of substitution--that programme makes a profit for the community and is a rich resource for the lone parents.

Photo of Earl Russell Earl Russell Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I rise only to say that the report--

Photo of Baroness Hollis of Heigham Baroness Hollis of Heigham Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Social Security

My Lords, I do not wish to give way. I have only 12 minutes to speak and I am trying to answer many of the points made by noble Lords. I very happy to take up points in correspondence with the noble Earl.

If there is no substitution, unless there is additionally a wage premium--the research shows that one of 6 per cent almost certainly exists--then again that programme is in profit. It is already clear that the total gain of people coming off benefit is exceeding the cost of the programme when these other factors, substitution and wage premium, are put into effect. If we strip out the differing labour markets of the comparator areas, it is already clear that the New Deal is having a significant and valuable effect. It is early days but the programme is a success for those who are reaching it. Given those assumptions, it is already breaking even.

The problem--a legitimate problem--lies with those lone parents we are not reaching--almost three-quarters--who, despite letters, are not coming to a New Deal interview. That is the problem. They are often those who have been lone parents for many years. Half of those tell us that they would have come on to the New Deal with further encouragement. It is clear that we must work with that group. None the less, we face a problem in regard to those parents who inherit many years off work, who may have poor health, whose children may have poor health, who have low skills and qualifications, and who live on run-down estates. It will take time to build up their skills and confidence, but we must reach them--and we are determined to do so.

That is why, through the new ONE pilot schemes, we seek to interview all lone parents when they first come on to benefit so that they do not join the stock of those lone parents who have remained socially isolated and beyond our reach. Following the interview, they are not, of course, required to go into work or take training if they do not wish to. But I believe that a lone parent is the best person to judge what is in the best interests of herself and her child. I am sure, also, that that lone parent needs to be empowered to make that judgment. If she does not know about the options, which will be explained to her in the setting of a supportive ONE interview, she cannot take up the opportunities. If she does not know the choices, she cannot choose.

So I repeat: the New Deal is already a success. It is turning around the lives not just of one generation, but of two. But we need to ensure that when people become lone parents they are fully aware of all the opportunities available to them so that, when they judge that the time is right, they too will be able to make that springboard leap into work which alone will guarantee them relative prosperity.

But we need to do more than provide financial support; we need to offer more than the New Deal. We need also to adapt the benefits system in order to ensure that work pays. Understandably, lone parents will not take jobs that do not pay. The new WFTC and its generous childcare tax allowance will improve incentives to work. As a result, the financial benefit for someone with two children moving into work and receiving a typical entry wage has increased from £30 a week to a £54 a week gain. Half of those claiming WFTC are lone parents; half the rest are in families where women are the main wage earner. WFTC is a woman worker's benefit. It will raise women's wages and will help those working in traditionally female, low-paid sectors such as catering and retailing.

But, in turn, the WFTC must be underpinned by a minimum wage, so that WFTC does not subsidise the exploitative employer. That point has not been mentioned in the debate. Beneficiaries of the minimum wage too are women, young people, part-time and casual workers and, above all, lone parents. One effect which again was not mentioned during the debate and is little noticed, but in which I take a great deal of pleasure, is that the minimum wage takes a further one-quarter of a million women over the lower earnings limit, allowing them to build up contributory benefits, including incapacity benefit and stakeholder pensions, in their own right.

Research suggests that, put together, the lower rate of tax, the national insurance changes, the minimum wage, and the WFTC mean that a quarter of a million extra people will enter the labour market and relative prosperity; and that, overwhelmingly, the beneficiaries will be women, among them lone parents.

If the perception of low and insecure wages has been one major barrier to re-entering the labour market, the cost and availability of decent childcare has been a second. It was mentioned by several speakers. The more generous childcare credit, which unlike the arrangements under family credit actually aids the poorest, will fund up to £70 of a £100 weekly childcare bill for one child, and up to £105 of £150 for two or more. And we are improving the supply of childcare: we are investing nearly £500 million in England alone.

A number of my noble friends, including my noble friend Lady Crawley, asked whether there should be a role for grandparents. We know that informal care by grandparents is the childcare choice of many lone parents. It is obviously an issue on which the Government must reflect.

The third problem that lone parents tell us they encounter is surviving the transition from income support to work, surviving that first month without money--and hence the housing benefit roll-on and the income support roll-on. I am glad that those have been welcomed by my noble friends.

A final problem, mentioned by my noble friends Lord Brett and Lady Kennedy, has been the question of support for lone parents when they enter further and higher education. Those who enter HE come within the student support system, but they remain eligible for income support and housing benefit if their income permits them to claim it. As for lone parents entering FE, I am sure that my noble friend will be aware that the ring-fenced budget for childcare access funds will be increased to £25 million in the year 2001--nearly three times the amount in 1999-2000. That will help some 37,000 students, particularly those on low incomes and including, above all, lone parents.

If one reason that a child is poor is because her parent with care is not in work, the other reason is that the non-resident parent is failing to support her. Children of lone parents are doubly disadvantaged. Too often, they are in a workless family; invariably they are in a fractured family. So I am grateful for the kind words of my noble friend Lord Warner welcoming our child support measures.

We inherited a CSA in which 70 per cent of mothers and 70 per cent of fathers failed to co-operate with the CSA and, as a result, some 1 million children were denied the maintenance that they should have received. We hope that as the result of our reforms he will co-operate under a simple system and that she will help us, because she will stand to gain £5 if he is on benefit, £10 a week if he is in work and she is on benefit; and if she is on working families' tax credit, the lone parent will keep every penny of the maintenance that she will receive. Her children will not only gain from the extra cash; they will see their father contributing to their keep and will, I hope, learn how decent dads behave.

Finally, we shall seek to introduce the integrated child credit: a sort of basic citizen's income for children which will move seamlessly from out-of-work benefits to in-work provision, thus ensuring the well-being of children.

We value all families, but we know that lone parent families are not only poor, but persistently poor and find it very hard to spring the trap of that poverty. That is why, together, our financial support for those lone parents who remain on income support, our New Deal, the minimum wage, the WFTC, the national childcare strategy, and our work for supporting families and children have shown such significant progress over the past two to three years. We have more to do, but we are getting there. If we succeed, we shall not only springboard one generation, but two, into a secure and prosperous life.