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One-Parent Families

Volume 175: debated on Wednesday 27 June 1990

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3.38 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law in order to give local authorities greater discretion in providing accommodation for certain categories of one-parent families.
According to the Department of Employment's quarterly returns, 44 per cent. of people accepted by councils as homeless are in that category because their families, or in some cases their friends, have evicted them. That is a much more common cause of homelessness than divorce and the break-up of common law arrangements. My particular concern is with one category of homeless persons—girls and young women who are pregnant or who have recently produced babies.

Such girls account for 13 per cent. of homelessness cases—an increase of half the number 10 years ago. Recent statistics from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, "Child Abuse in England and Wales 1983–87", reveal that children in one-parent families are twice as likely to be sexually abused and six times as likely to fail to thrive as their counterparts in a normal two-parent arrangement. That is not meant as a criticism of the many lone parents—widows, divorcees, abandoned women, and in some cases abandoned men—who struggle bravely to bring up their children under difficult circumstances. Rather it is a sad reflection of the fact that a child in the early stages of its life often needs more support than a lone parent can provide.

I want to address two specific issues. The first is the eviction of pregnant young women by their parents—something that we now seem to accept as a matter of course. The other is the way that local authorities should cope with those who undoubtedly need rehousing. The Association of District Councils is concerned at the large number of young people becoming homeless, and recently recommended:
"Where inquiries reveal that the person was within twelve months prior to applying to them as homeless or threatened with homelessness living with his parents or parent, guardian or guardians, he should be required to show to the satisfaction of the authority that the homelessness or threatened homelessness is genuine."
Under that male language is concealed the vital category of pregnant young women.

The statistic of 13 per cent. covers pregnant women only. It does not include the substantial number who have recently produced babies and have then been thrown out by their parents. I encountered an example of that a few weeks ago that I should like to share with the House.

A young woman in local-authority-supported accommodation came to my surgery with a number of problems with which I did my best to assist. She was 21, and during the course of the conversation it transpired that her parents were living just a couple of miles from her in an extremely comfortable house on their own. Her father had a regular job, but her parents had completely washed their hands of her. She had been away from home for more than 12 months, and I would not seek to change the law in her case, but the position would have been exactly the same legally if she had been living at home until the pregnancy.

As it stands, the law allows the parent to throw out any daughter aged over 16. That action has a double effect. First, other families who badly need accommodation are pushed down the housing waiting list. Secondly, the child born to the lone parent is at a great risk, often from predatory boyfriends. As the statistics I have already cited show, the child of a lone parent is twice as likely to be sexually abused and six times as likely to fail to thrive as a child in a two-parent family. But those statistics understate the depth of the problem because they are based on one-parent families as a single category. That category includes several groups in which there is little extra risk to the child—for example, those lone parents who are widows, divorced women and abandoned wives. The risk to their children is very much lower than that faced by the child of a young single girl.

We must ask ourselves whether we believe that all parental obligations to daughters living at home end the moment they become adult. Let us remember that for the purposes of the present law a girl becomes an adult at 16, not even at 18. I believe that those obligations should not end. Sadly, as so often happens, custom and practice have followed just a few years behind the law. Because the House passed the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977, which is aimed at a small category of genuine, difficult cases, it has now become a matter of course for many parents—one could almost say most—to wash their hands of their daughter and throw her out once she becomes pregnant.

At a time when the Government are rightly chasing fathers and stressing their financial obligations, it is also right that we should consider two other categories of obligation and duty. I propose two specific measures. First, it should become a civil law offence for parents to evict a pregnant daughter under 25 years of age who is living at home or has lived continuously at home in the previous 12 months when those parents have adequate accommodation. Councils would then be allowed to bring civil actions against such parents.

Secondly, there will always be young pregnant women looking for accommodation—perhaps there is no parental home or the girl has been living away from it for a long time. Young girls may also leave home because of overcrowding or a risk of violence. In such cases I believe that councils should have a right and a duty to consider placing younger girls in warden-assisted accommodation where proper supervision is provided to ensure that the child born is not at risk.

From my constituency case load I know of a woman who gave birth to her first child when she was extremely young. To begin with she lived alone. Social services told me that she produced a total of six children. They believe that each one came from a different father. During that time her transient boyfriends have abused the first five children—the fifth child was only two and a half years of age at the time. In such a case it would have been much better if, initially, that woman had been placed in some type of supervised warden-assisted accommodation.

My Bill seeks to shift the debate on this vital issue of such vulnerable children away from a discussion of rights towards a discussion of duties and obligations. The Bill deals with two sets of duties: first, the duties which parents should continue to have to their offspring which should not end when the child reaches the age of 16; and, secondly, the duties of local councils. Of course they should have a duty to unmarried mothers with a vital need for accommodation, but their first duty must be to the rights of the child. I urge the House to support my Bill.

3.44 pm

Yes, Mr. Speaker.

The Bill is more concerned with the discretion to refuse single parents housing. Its attitudes are rooted in the worst bigoted Victorian values. I suspect that it is aimed at a small number of people, but it will have wide and sweeping effects. It seeks partially to excuse the Government's disgraceful record on housing.

There is a crisis in housing and a great deal of homelessness, and single parents are particularly vulnerable, but the housing crisis is the Government's fault. The Bill goes much deeper than that, as it seeks to remove the civil rights of any single pregnant mother under 25. It seeks to punish them as it states that such a woman, who the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) perceives to be a problem, has no right to a home of her own and should be herded into warden-assisted accommodation as if single mothers were somehow deviants. That is an outrageous suggestion which is probably entirely in keeping with the hon. Gentleman's and the Prime Minister's view of single parents. The Bill is in line with the Government's attempt to find a new scapegoat in single parents.

The chairman of the Tory party, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, set the scene for handling single parents in that way when he told the London conference on crime culture that
"single parent families and illegitimacy were to blame for rising crime and unemployment in inner cities."
Not only are those claims hurtful and insulting to single parents, but they are entirely untrue. A Home Office research study conducted in 1985 rebutted any link between single parents and crime.

The hon. Gentleman also sought to convince us that the children of single parents are more vulnerable to sexual abuse, although he tried to exclude certain categories. His remarks would be greatly resented by any single parent. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not have sufficient evidence to support them. If he is serious about helping young pregnant women, perhaps he should explain why the other night he voted against them having the right to early abortions and why, no doubt, he will be voting for a Bill that will lead to the closure of even more family planning clinics.

Single-parent families are not problem families but families with special problems, such as low incomes, poor housing and less access to employment. They are more affected by the Government's abysmal record on child care.

I challenge the Government's claim that there was ever some golden age of the family. If it existed in the 1960s, as the Prime Minister likes to tell us, why did the children of the 1960s reject it? A real family is what people define as real—what works for them. It is not something that the Prime Minister dreams up as she climbs another mountain of bigotry. Why is divorce bad for us when it was perfectly good for her and many members of the Cabinet?

The Government are seeking some new scapegoats and new victims. It is no coincidence that, on the same day as the Prime Minister told us that the increase in single parents was a threat to our whole way of life, the Secretary of State for Social Security briefed journalists on his plans for pursuing absent fathers whom he said contributed only £155 million to the upkeep of their children while the Department of Social Security contributed £1.8 billion. The Secretary of State wants to cut benefits and excuse the poverty caused by his previous cuts of £79 billion from the benefits system since 1979.

The Opposition believe that parents should, of course, be responsible for their children, but when a young woman faces lone parenthood the last thing she wants is to be treated as a deviant and supervised in warden accommodation. That is a Dickensian solution to neanderthal thinking.

The Government have created massive poverty over the past decade. The changes in benefits in 1986 and 1987 created more problems for single parents. If the hon. Gentleman wants to help, he should seek to convince the Government that parenthood, not marriage, is the fundamental principle on which to base benefits for families with children. Many people have enormous problems that could be solved far more easily if they had a decent home. That is at the root of many of their problems.

The Bill is a disgrace. I shall vote against it, as I hope the House will.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 19 ( Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business):—

The House divided: Ayes 84, Noes 144.

[Division No. 266]

[3.50 pm


Alexander, RichardHolt, Richard
Alison, Rt Hon MichaelHowell, Ralph (North Norfolk)
Ashby, DavidHunter, Andrew
Bellingham, HenryIrvine, Michael
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
Blackburn, Dr John G.Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Body, Sir RichardKellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine
Bonsor, Sir NicholasKilfedder, James
Boswell, TimLloyd, Sir Ian (Havant)
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)Macfarlane, Sir Neil
Braine, Rt Hon Sir BernardMarland, Paul
Brazier, JulianMaxwell-Hyslop, Robin
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Buck, Sir AntonyMoate, Roger
Burns, SimonMonro, Sir Hector
Butcher, JohnMontgomery, Sir Fergus
Butler, ChrisMorrison, Sir Charles
Carlisle, John, (Luton N)Nicholson, David (Taunton)
Channon, Rt Hon PaulNicholson, Emma (Devon West)
Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)Onslow, Rt Hon Cranley
Coombs, Simon (Swindon)Pawsey, James
Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)Porter, David (Waveney)
Day, StephenRaison, Rt Hon Timothy
Devlin, TimShaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)
Dover, DenShelton, Sir William
Evans, David (Welwyn Hatf'd)Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)
Fox, Sir MarcusSims, Roger
French, DouglasSkeet, Sir Trevor
Gale, RogerSmith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)
Gill, ChristopherSoames, Hon Nicholas
Glyn, Dr Sir AlanStewart, Allan (Eastwood)
Goodhart, Sir PhilipStokes, Sir John
Gow, IanStradling Thomas, Sir John
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)Temple-Morris, Peter
Greenway, John (Ryedale)Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)
Hague, WilliamThompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Hargreaves, A. (B'ham H'll Gr')Trotter, Neville
Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn)Walker, Bill (T'side North)
Hayes, JerryWarren, Kenneth
Hayward, RobertWiddecombe, Ann
Hicks, Mrs Maureen (Wolv' NE)Wilshire, David

Winterton, Mrs Ann

Tellers for the Ayes:

Woodcock, Dr. Mike

Mr. David Shaw and

Mr. Roger Knapman.


Allen, GrahamHughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Alton, DavidIllsley, Eric
Anderson, DonaldIngram, Adam
Armstrong, HilaryJohnston, Sir Russell
Ashdown, Rt Hon PaddyJones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Ashley, Rt Hon JackJones, Ieuan (Ynys Môn)
Ashton, JoeJones, Martyn (Clwyd S W)
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)Kennedy, Charles
Barnes, Mrs Rosie (Greenwich)Kirkwood, Archy
Barron, KevinLambie, David
Bell, StuartLeighton, Ron
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)Lewis, Terry
Bradley, KeithLitherland, Robert
Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)Livingstone, Ken
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Buchan, NormanLoyden, Eddie
Buckley, George J.McAvoy, Thomas
Caborn, RichardMcCartney, Ian
Callaghan, JimMcNamara, Kevin
Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)Madden, Max
Campbell-Savours, D. N.Marek, Dr John
Canavan, DennisMarshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Carlile, Alex (Mont'g)Martin, Michael J. (Springburn)
Carr, MichaelMartlew, Eric
Clark, Dr David (S Shields)Maxton, John
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)Meale, Alan
Clay, BobMichael, Alun
Cohen, HarryMichie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Cook, Frank (Stockton N)Michie, Mrs Ray (Arg'l & Bute)
Cook, Robin (Livingston)Morgan, Rhodri
Corbett, RobinMorris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)
Cousins, JimMowlam, Marjorie
Cox, TomMullin, Chris
Crowther, StanNellist, Dave
Cryer, BobOakes, Rt Hon Gordon
Cummings, JohnO'Brien, William
Dalyell, TamOrme, Rt Hon Stanley
Darling, AlistairParry, Robert
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)Pendry, Tom
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'l)Pike, Peter L.
Dixon, DonPowell, Ray (Ogmore)
Doran, FrankRedmond, Martin
Dunnachie, JimmyRees, Rt Hon Merlyn
Eastham, KenReid, Dr John
Ewing, Harry (Falkirk E)Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Moray)Ruddock, Joan
Fatchett, DerekSkinner, Dennis
Fearn, RonaldSmith, C. (Isl'ton & F'bury)
Field, Frank (Birkenhead)Smith, Rt Hon J. (Monk'ds E)
Fields, Terry (L'pool B G'n)Spearing, Nigel
Fisher, MarkSteel, Rt Hon Sir David
Flannery, MartinSteinberg, Gerry
Flynn, PaulStott, Roger
Foot, Rt Hon MichaelStrang, Gavin
Foster, DerekTaylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Garrett, Ted (Wallsend)Thomas, Dr Dafydd Elis
Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr JohnThompson, Jack (Wansbeck)
Godman, Dr Norman A.Turner, Dennis
Golding, Mrs LlinVaz, Keith
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)Wallace, James
Grocott, BruceWalley, Joan
Hardy, PeterWatson, Mike (Glasgow, C)
Harman, Ms HarrietWelsh, Andrew (Angus E)
Haynes, FrankWelsh, Michael (Doncaster N)
Hinchliffe, DavidWigley, Dafydd
Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)Williams, Rt Hon Alan
Hood, JimmyWilliams, Alan W. (Carm'then)
Howarth, George (Knowsley N)Winnick, David
Howell, Rt Hon D. (S'heath)Wise, Mrs Audrey
Howells, Geraint
Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd)

Tellers for the Noes:

Hoyle, Doug

Mrs. Alice Mahon and

Hughes, John (Coventry NE)

Ms. Dawn Primarolo.

Question accordingly negatived.