I support what my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley) has said. Lone parents with care represent the majority of those on income support, and nothing in the Bill will give immediate help to that group of parents.
All the organisations that support lone parents—those that have attacked the Bill as well as those that feel that the Child Support Agency can do something—are united in asking for a disregard. As has been said, lone parents on income support are often deeply in debt, with rent arrears, debts for utilities and debts for the repayment of social fund loans. They need help now to stop them going under.
Organisations that support lone parents report that they are unable to give their children adequate diets, and that mothers in particular often go hungry, damaging their health and that of their children. Those parents may never be able to return to work successfully, even when their children are of school age, because they will have got into such difficulties. If they are not helped now, the Bill will postpone long-term solutions, not provide them.
The maintenance bonus, which will take some years to accrue fully, could be paid in addition to a disregard. I see no contradiction. The immediate need to alleviate child poverty remains. The Government argue that the way to get lone parents off income support is to make them all go out to work, usually in low-paid jobs—but no paid work is available in many areas.
Employers are often prejudiced against mothers with small children, thinking that their home responsibilities will prevent them from giving full attention to their job. Women often have multiple responsibilities, such as caring for aged or disabled parents, relatives or neighbours. Mothers often do not want to leave children under five years of age. The Government always claim to favour choice, so they should give women the choice whether to leave their children under five to do low-paid jobs or to look after their children themselves.
I have always advocated a nursery place for every child that can benefit from one, but not every child will do so. When I collected my own son from a nursery all day for the first time, I asked him whether he liked it. He said, "It was very nice, but I don't want to go every day." I respected the fact that he was not ready, at the age of three, to leave his mother, be dragged out come rain or shine, and be left with strangers all day.
When my son reached school age, I left secondary teaching to teach in a primary school. It always worried me, when the new intake arrived, to hear some children screaming for weeks on end, making themselves sick. When teachers said that such children had settled down, I often felt that they had given up in despair, and that really they were not ready to be separated from their mothers if they were to grow up as secure, stable individuals. It is wrong to drive all mothers out to work and not give them the chance to enjoy decent living standards while looking after their young children at home.
One third of our children live in households having less than half the average income. If the Child Support Act 1991 and the Bill are to have any effect, they must address, and do something positive to alleviate, child poverty. If the Government ensured that, the public would not think that they were totally uncaring, and huge crowds of angry people would not come to see us, write to us and attend meetings throughout the country because they feel that they are being conned and that the Government do not care about child welfare.
Improving the legislation would have a positive effect on the non-resident fathers, who we want to provide support for their children. Although there may be a few rascals, most fathers care about their children. If they knew that the mothers would enjoy some benefit and be able to raise their income above the level of income support, they would be more eager to pay. For all those reasons, I ask the Government to think again, and to include in the Bill a disregard for parents with care on income support.