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Lone Parents: Benefit Costs

Volume 570: debated on Thursday 14 March 1996

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Further to Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish's Written Answer (9th January, WA14), what were the cost implications for the Department of Health identified in considering the proposals for lone parents announced in the social security uprating Statement and why they have assessed these costs as negligible.

My Lords, the most likely cost implication for the Department of Health could be on the NHS low income scheme covering free prescriptions, optical and dental charges. However, as the benefit changes announced would have virtually no effect on the numbers eligible for the low income scheme, we have assessed those costs as negligible.

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House how great are the costs he regards as negligible?

My Lords, that is a good question. I suppose that the answer is that negligible costs are regarded as negligible. When it is difficult to see what numbers could be affected, as in this case, the costs must be considered negligible.

My Lords, given that the Rowntree study indicates that the level of nutrition of families in poverty—specifically, one-fifth of all single-parent families—is so low that they incur a much higher incidence of illness, especially cancer and ailments associated with the bone and with the bodily development of children, can the Minister say whether that factor has been taken into account?

My Lords, we do not believe that there is any reason why people on income support should not be able to follow a normal, healthy diet.

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that lone parents and their children are the poorest group in our society but that the Government's latest social security uprating froze the lone-parent benefit and premium to align it with the two-parent benefit? Given that lone parents are much worse off, do the Government really believe that to make marriage stronger they have to make the children of those parents poorer?

My Lords, I do not agree with the noble Baroness in her broad-brush assessment that all lone parents are somehow the poorest in society. We are trying to ensure that the benefit system does not work in the perverse way that it can work, which is to make a married couple with a child worse off than a lone parent with a child. We believe that that is wrong and that they should be placed on an all-square basis. We also believe that the way to help lone parents is to encourage them into work and to improve the position so that the father—there always is a father—pays his due maintenance. As I said, we want to treat lone parents equally with married couples.

My Lords, on the Government's definition of what they consider to be negligible expenditure, and in an endeavour to assist the Minister when replying to the noble Earl, Lord Russell, may I ask the noble Lord whether he is aware that from time to time, when the circumstances suit them, the Government regard the expenditure of £2.5 billion in Europe as negligible?

My Lords, I would never regard expenditure of £2.5 billion—or even of £2.5 million—in Europe or anywhere else as negligible.

My Lords, can the Minister say whether the all-party Health Committee's recommendations in 1992 that what was then the Department of Health and Social Security should undertake research into the food-buying patterns of pregnant women—a matter which is important not only for the mother, but for the beginning of life—have been implemented because, as far as I am aware, they have not?

My Lords, talking about particular research projects is a little wide of the Question, but people tend to eat different diets whatever their income. Some quite well-off people eat inadequate diets. Plenty of food is available at reasonable cost and people can thus maintain a reasonable and sensible diet. Although we believe that that is the case, I shall certainly look into the research project which the noble Baroness suggests.

My Lords, it was suggested by the all-party Health Committee in 1992.

My Lords, when the Department of Social Security assessed the costs of cuttling lone-parent benefit, did it take into account the survey by the National Children's Home and the Maternity Alliance which showed that 66 per cent. of babies born to parents on income support had a low birth weight? Did it take into account the research carried out by the Medical Research Council on the ongoing costs of low birth weight in the next generation?

My Lords, we attempt, with other departments, to take all factors into account. I suggest that the noble Earl looks at the research which shows clearly that one of the main reasons for low birth weight is the mother smoking during pregnancy.

My Lords, as I said, we take all matters into account in our discussions with the Department of Health. I am afraid that I cannot answer a specific question about whether that particular research project was taken into account by the Department of Health. There are many research projects. The point I made remains important. Other than in very premature births, the principal cause of low birth weight is smoking in pregnancy.