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Women: Assistance in Pregnancy

Volume 725: debated on Tuesday 8 March 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what measures they are taking to assist pregnant women who no longer qualify for a maternity grant and a health in pregnancy grant.

My Lords, addressing the deficit presents difficult choices. We are focusing resources on those in greatest need. Pregnant women on low incomes will benefit from the increases to the child element of child tax credit above indexation by £180 in 2011-12 and £110 in 2012-13. All eligible women will still receive Healthy Start vouchers and will still qualify for a £500 maternity grant for their first child. We are also extending budgeting loans to include maternity needs.

I thank the Minister for his reply. What help will be given to women having a second child given that the grant will end in April and the new Social Fund amendments to allow them to claim for maternity items will not come into force until eight to 12 months’ time, so there will be a gap? What are those women supposed to do? The link has now been broken with the health in pregnancy grant, which ended in January, under which midwives and doctors gave advice to pregnant women on healthy pregnancy. How will the Minister ensure that those mothers receive good advice to make sure that they have a healthy pregnancy?

There are two areas of financial help. The first is the budgeting loans. As I said yesterday, we are encouraging people to look at budgeting loans in the widest possible way. The second area is community care grants. Again, we expect that many people in the most difficult circumstances will be able to take advantage of those. The noble Baroness’s second question concerned what we were doing to help pregnant women. The Department of Health and the Department for Children, Schools and Families are developing a project, Preparing for Pregnancy, Birth and Beyond, which is looking at a renewed model of universal antenatal education and preparation for parenthood.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that young women in care are two and a half times more likely to become pregnant than their peers and that a quarter of young women leaving care are either pregnant or have a child already? Will he consider asking his colleagues who talk with local authorities whether all best practice in the area of support for such young women is collated and being shared as it should be?

My Lords, I share the noble Earl’s great concern for children in care and take his point about the relatively much higher rate of pregnancy. I shall look closely at what we can do in that area.

My Lords, there will be a moment of time between the outgoing regulations and the incoming regulations in respect of budgeting loans to which the Minister has just referred. Given that most people will be looking for low-cost, low-interest loans to buy such things as a buggy, a pram or a cot, what advice is the Minister giving to his department on exercising flexibility in this regard to ensure that the current regulations may be as widely accessible as possible so that people are not disadvantaged during the short period between the old and the new regulations?

I thank my noble friend for reinforcing this important point. There will be a gap, probably of around nine months, before we can formally change the budgeting loans. We are making the very firm point—I made that firm point formally in the Chamber yesterday—that we are encouraging people to use the scheme to the utmost extent that they can and to apply it to slightly wider items than those around budgeting for the baby.

My Lords, the Minister has confirmed again, as he did in the debate yesterday, that families will eventually be able to access budgeting loans. However, is he aware that just last week the Minister for Pensions announced a further tightening of the screw on the availability of crisis loans from the Social Fund on the basis that this would enable the trickle of budgeting loans to continue? Is this not making the very poor pay for the poor?

My Lords, the trouble was that the crisis loans were being used in a non-crisis context to buy ordinary items of household expenditure, so we were in danger of running out of funding for the whole system because of the way it was being used. Our concern with controlling the crisis loan situation was to make sure that funding was left available for budgeting loans for exactly this kind of thing.

Is the noble Lord aware that there is a large and growing body of research which shows that the quality of parenting and parental care during the weeks before birth and the months after birth is absolutely crucial to the way in which the child’s brain develops? Surely any kind of penny-pinching at that stage of the child’s development is a false economy.

My Lords, we have to look at a holistic system of support for people who are the most disadvantaged in this country. Having bits and pieces of things that do not work is the wrong way to go. This was an example of support that was directed at the wrong point in maternity. If you want to really help in terms of what women eat, it is better to do it in the first trimester, not in the last. The structure of what we are doing with the universal credit involves a system that puts in coherent support for the most disadvantaged right the way through and, by definition, will catch people at the beginning of pregnancy, not at the end.

My Lords, the Minister has admitted rushing through these regulations, totally against time conventions, in order to deprive new mothers of claiming after 11 April. Does he realise that this conjures up a picture of Tory and Liberal hard-faced men sitting around a table in Westminster plotting to deprive the poorest people of some financial aid? Is he proud of that?

My Lords, I am not proud of a previous Government who threw bits and pieces of money around like an out-of-control farmyard muckspreader. We are making coherent provision for the most disadvantaged in a way that you could not.