Child Benefit for Lone Parents

Orders of the Day — Social Security Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:43 pm on 10th December 1997.

Alert me about debates like this

'(1) The Secretary of State shall prescribe a special rate of child benefit for the first, elder or eldest child in a lone parent family which shall be at least 60 per cent. greater than the standard rate of child benefit for a first, elder or eldest child.

(2) In this section "lone parent" means a parent who—

  1. (a) has no spouse or is not living with his spouse; and
  2. (b) is not living with any other person as his spouse.'.—[Mr. Webb.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 1, in clause 70, page 46, line 35, leave out from beginning to end of line 1 on page 47.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

The new clause has been tabled in my name and that of some of my hon. Friends and also in the name of Labour Members and nationalist Members, whose support we welcome. With it, we shall discuss amendment No. 1, which is also supported across the House.

I should like to take the House back to October 1992. This morning I read through a transcript of the Conservative party conference—something I often do—and I came across a speech by the former Secretary of State for Social Security, the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley). It is a rather famous speech. Shortly after referring to "new age travellers" and to being "sickened" by the sight of "spongers descending like locusts", the right hon. Gentleman said: I've got a little list

Of benefit offenders who I'll soon be rooting out

And who never would be missed…

And councillors who draw the dole

To run left-wing campaigns…

Young Ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing list…

And I haven't even mentioned

All those sponging socialists. Today, in clause 70 of the Bill, the right hon. Gentleman's wishes are fulfilled.

I looked at clause 70 and asked myself what possible justification there could be for cutting benefits for working lone parents. It is important that we get our terminology right at the start of the debate: all lone parents are working lone parents, but only some of them get paid for it. This is a cut from waged lone parents—lone parents on income support do not benefit from lone-parent benefit and they often do not claim it—so clause 70 cuts benefit from working lone parents. What possible justification could there be for doing that?

We heard one justification from the Prime Minister this afternoon: "We needed the cash. The Government were committed to spending plans, so we had to abolish the benefit." Does that claim stand up to scrutiny? Clause 70 will raise £5 million for the Government next year, but I calculated this morning that the Department of Social Security can spend £5 million in 25 minutes. That is the magnitude of the cut—it is a drop in the ocean to the Department of Social Security. Ministers cannot be talking about the Department needing £5 million when it has a budget of £100,000 million, so what are they talking about?

Perhaps Ministers they are talking about the sister measure as well, which cuts benefit for lone parents who are at home bringing up their children. If so, and together with the savings derived through clause 70, the saving next year would be £60 million, a worthwhile sum. However, let us consider where else that money might come from. When the Bill was published in July, there was no mention of what was to become in Committee new clause 2—a clause that closed a national insurance loophole. When I asked the Minister in Committee how much that would raise, the answer was "£60 million." The Bill as published in July and the explanatory and financial memorandum contained no mention of that measure. Since July, the Government have found £60 million by closing a loophole, which is the same sum as they will save next year through the benefit cuts. In other words, the Government do not need the money next year, because they have already found it.

What about the year after, when the Government will be taking £140 million from some of the poorest families in the land? Perhaps they need £140 million—but hang on a minute: last week's benefit uprating statement contained a small clause which, although cunningly concealed, was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) and which froze employer national insurance thresholds. I tabled a question asking what that would raise and the answer was £125 million every year. Add that to the £60 million I have just mentioned and the Government do not need to make the benefit cut in year two or year three. In other words, it is clear that, when the Government want to find money, there is money to be found.

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond Leader, Scottish National Party

The hon. Gentleman may have heard of the resignation this afternoon of the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Chisholm), over this issue. Does he share my suspicion that there are many others in the ministerial team who share the views of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith, but who have not yet found the courage to speak out?

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

The hon. Gentleman is quite right: we are all aware of hon. Members on both sides of the House who are highly dissatisfied with the proposals. I hope that, today, they will have the courage of their convictions and support either new clause 1, which offers a specific way of dealing with the problem, or amendment No. 1, which would enable all hon. Members who object to this part of the Bill to express their disapproval—provided that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, give us the opportunity to divide on the amendment. I shall argue the case for new clause 1, but I quite understand that it might not offer the right formulation for certain hon. Members, so I hope that we can unite on amendment No. 1.

Clause 70 is not about raising money—the money is there to be found. Why else has it been introduced? Perhaps it is because the Government are doing good things through the new deal. In other words, it is all right to cut benefits, because they are doing something good in respect of incentives—but what are the Government doing this afternoon? Her Majesty's Government are taking cash from working lone parents—waged lone parents.

Photo of Ms Helen Clark Ms Helen Clark Labour, Peterborough

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that lone parents in work are, on average, £50 a week better off?

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

If the hon. Lady will bear with me, I shall demonstrate why a lone parent who is currently unwaged cannot expect to be, on average, £50 a week better off.

Is the measure a good incentive to help lone parents move off welfare into work—the Government's stated objective? What does the measure do? A new lone parent who claims one-parent benefit next year will have £5.65 a week taken from her or him. Even a lone parent with a very young child would be £5.65 worse off.

It is worse if that lone parent has a low-paid job, because he or she will be nearly £10 a week worse off next year. How is that a good incentive? It gets worse, because the measure runs counter to the spirit of the new deal. Suppose one is a lone parent on income support and one does what the Government want. One gets the letter about the new deal and, next April, goes along to one's adviser. That parent may say, "Yes, of course I'll look at a job." Suppose such a person takes a job but it does not work out. We have all had experience of that. Perhaps the job does not work out because it is available only on a short-term contract, as so many jobs are for the unemployed, or perhaps the arrangements for child care break down. What happens then? The lone parent will go back on income support but, instead of receiving the £84 a week that she got before, she will receive £78 a week. She knows that now, so why would she take a job? That proves that the measure runs counter to the idea of welfare to work.

Photo of Mr Patrick Nicholls Mr Patrick Nicholls Conservative, Teignbridge

The hon. Gentleman is making a most persuasive case. He must be embarrassed even to be associated in any shape or form with such a measure. Will he have the courage of his convictions and urge the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) to come off the Cabinet Sub-Committee and make a real gesture against the measure?

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I am afraid that it is absurd of the hon. Gentleman to suggest that I am in any sense associated with the measure, given that I am one of the few hon. Members who has systematically voted against it, unlike the Conservative Members who abstained in Committee.

Photo of Mr Dafydd Wigley Mr Dafydd Wigley Leader and Party President, Plaid Cymru

I should like to return to the substantive point that the hon. Gentleman was making before that trivial intervention from the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls). Does he accept that, should the legislation be passed, an acute problem will arise in rural areas, often tourist areas, where work is available in the summer but not in the winter? If lone parents do not take the work available in the summer, they will be penalised, but if they then lose that work, they will receive a lower level of benefit. Is that not totally unacceptable?

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

The right hon. Gentleman has given a good example of the type of short-term, seasonal or contract work that, if taken by lone parents currently on benefits, will result in disincentives, should the Bill go through as it is.

We could be reassured about the incentives if we were guaranteed that the new deal will be a triumph and if hundreds of thousands of lone mothers and lone fathers who wanted to work were helped into it. My hon. Friends and I have looked at the pilot schemes on the new deal and I tabled two questions about them. First, I asked what proportion of lone parents on income support with school-age children came off benefit in a typical three-month period. The answer was just over 9 per cent. I then asked What proportion of lone parents on the new deal pilot scheme had come off income support in the first three months of its operation. The answer was just over 9 per cent.

It may be—I hope that it is—that, in the fulness of time, the measures are beneficial, but there is very little evidence so far to support that idea, and certainly not enough to publish a consultation document reporting the triumph of that scheme. It is clear that the measure has not been introduced because the Government need the money or because it offers incentives—clause 70 self-evidently fails to offer any incentives.

Perhaps we could get away with it by saying that the proposals will affect new claimants only. How does one get to be a new claimant? One gets divorced; becomes a widow; or has a baby. All of those changes in life are stressful and that is just the time when one does not want to be worrying about money. Next year, those people will get less money than they would receive this year. It is not just next year's claimants who will lose out; that is a myth. Every lone parent has suffered a real cut in benefit because the lone-parent premium and the one-parent benefit have been frozen year after year. In 1996–97, one-parent benefit was £6.30 a week. If it had been uprated in line with inflation it would now be £6.70, but it is £5.65. That is more than £1 less. Existing lone parents, and not just new claimants, are having their benefits cut.

On the "Today" programme this morning, the Secretary of State said that she did not want lone parents living in poverty on income support, but those who stay on income support will be pushed deeper into poverty.

It seems that lone parents do not need the money. Perhaps, as the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mrs. Brinton) said, working lone parents are £50 better off, so what is a fiver among friends? I asked a few question about that figure of £50. It is based on a sample of 375 lone parents receiving family credit. The statisticians said that if those families were to go out of work and on to income support, on average they would be £50 a week worse off.

5 pm

Fair enough, but those lone parents are not typical lone parents. For a start, they are working. One in three of them are getting maintenance—far more than among unwaged lone parents. Furthermore, 79 per cent. have zero child care costs. How many unwaged lone parents could get their children looked after free if they took a full-time job? Many of the women in the sample have a decent hourly wage. Their average age is 35, which is much higher than the typical age of lone parents on income support. Their typical travel-to-work costs are less than £1 a week, so clearly they are not going into central London. In other words, to find out what a currently unwaged lone parent could get in work, it is no guide to look at working lone parents if they stopped working. The figures do not stack up. The margin is much tighter, and £5 or £6 a week could make the difference.

Many working lone parents are on very low incomes. I received a written answer recently that stated that 200,000 working lone parents and their children are living below the poverty line—below half the national average income. They need the money. The Government do not need the money. The money involved has been found painlessly for years ahead. The cut will hit new claimants at a difficult time, and damage incentives. This afternoon and tonight in the Lobby, there is a choice between opposing an unnecessary cut, or joining the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden in fulfilling his dreams.

Photo of Ms Audrey Wise Ms Audrey Wise Labour, Preston

May I make it clear at the outset that, procedurally, my advice to my hon. Friends who share my views is that it would be sensible this evening to vote for the deletion of clause 70, and that can be accomplished by voting for amendment No. 1? That is the clear way to express what we want to express. It has the procedural disadvantage that that vote will be separated from the debate. Nevertheless, it is by far the best way for those who think like me to proceed. I gather from the silence from the Chair that it will be possible to do that, and that we will not find, when we reach amendment No. 1, that the Chair says that there will be no vote as there has already been one.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. Perhaps it would be helpful to the House if the Chair expressed a willingness now to accept a vote on amendment No. 1.

Photo of Ms Audrey Wise Ms Audrey Wise Labour, Preston

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Unfortunately, this debate must act as a proxy for a debate on a raft of cuts, some of which have never come before the House. We have never had, and we shall not have an opportunity to vote on them. I very much regret that procedure, because we are dealing with a package. We are facing the abolition of all lone-parent premiums: for those who are out of work, for those who are at work and—the biggest cut of all—for those who are at work on low pay.

I do not see that as a strategy for encouraging people to go to work. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was correct when she said that those were disincentives. In a sense, the strict matter on which we are voting today is the biggest disincentive of all, because it affects only those in work. For those out of work, their child benefit is deducted pound for pound from income support. There is no point in answering our criticisms by claiming that the Government want those parents to go to work, because they will still lose £6.05.

We are then told that existing claimants will be protected: they will keep their current rates. The measure applies only to new claimants. I have news for my right hon. Friend: new claimants are people, too. Who are those new claimants likely to be? A new claimant may be an unemployed lone parent who starts a job that subsequently folds. Perhaps child care ends or a child is ill and that mother must take a break from employment to care for her child. When she re-enters the work force, she will be classified as a new claimant and will be on a lower rate.

My right hon. Friend knows that the Social Security Advisory Committee advised that the measure was a disincentive and should not be proceeded with, but the Government rejected that advice. It will be a clear disincentive to people to start risky jobs that may subsequently fold. Lone parents are particularly prone to those sorts of jobs for all sorts of reasons that I need not spell out.

If a lone parent secures a job, she takes with her her full entitlement to child benefit, which has been deducted from her income support. When it springs into life, she will receive £6.05 more than a two-parent family. That acts as an encouragement for lone parents to take a job. My right hon. Friend claims that lone parents who enter the work force will be £50 a week better off than average. I agree entirely with the analysis by the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb). Even if that figure is correct and lone parents are £50 a week better off, is that such an enormous sum that it should be reduced to £44?

Let us examine that £50. A progress report for the first three months has been issued. It contains a table that suggests that lone parents are better off by £50, £59, £60 or even £95 a week. That is very encouraging information. However, there is an asterisk on that table and, if one refers to the very small print at the bottom of the document, one reads "Before in-work costs". In-work costs add up to quite a lot.

I refer to an analysis conducted by One Plus, a Scottish one-parent organisation, and to an example from Clyde valley. The official table claims that a woman from that area, who has a weekly wage of £102, is £52 a week better off. However, we should consider the facts. That woman has four kids and her in-work costs reduce her gain from full-time work from £52 to £16.01 during school term time. That is because she must pay full housing and council tax costs, she has no free school meals and she must meet travel and child-care costs.

That woman might also have to spend a little more on herself—perhaps she has to go to a job interview. Perhaps she does not want to feel as though she is wearing a label saying, "I'm a poor lone parent". The One Plus analysis does not take into account any expenditure on the parent. The cuts planned for next year would cut that lone parent's gain by up to £10.15. Even worse, during school holidays and in-service training days, when kids are off, her child care costs rocket to £42 a week. That makes her £25.99 a week worse off in work. When we look beyond the glib analysis and the £50 average, we find that sort of figure and that is not an isolated case.

To cap it all, that lady's job is not permanent. She receives no sick pay and could not pay rent if she were ill because she is not receiving housing benefit now. So she goes to work when she feels ill, which we all know is not a good idea. That is a little sketch of what lies behind those glib averages.

I asked the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley), who made the uprating statement, why child care is work when it is done by a stranger but not when it is done by the child's mother or father. Any reference to Hansard will show that I did not receive one syllable of an answer. It is a good question. I am a mother of two children. I remember their early years vividly and I would not have been agreeable to farming them out to a stranger. It was not my way. Some people may be able to find excellent child care and may have interesting jobs or jobs for which much has been invested in training. Even if they have a small child, it makes sense for them to go to work. I do not criticise that at all, but I do criticise the attitude that all parents of small children should be willing to work, leaving their children with someone else while they clean offices or fill shelves.

We are told that 50,000 young people will be trained in child care. I have asked a question about their training. There will be different routes. Some people may train through full-time education and have rather more training, but others will train one day a week for "up to" six months. I do not know what "up to" means—how long is a piece of string?—but I do know that that does not guarantee that a young person, who is probably reluctant anyway and does not necessarily have a great affinity with children, will be a good child carer. Why should a mother be willing to leave her children with a half-trained, reluctant young person? The arguments about child care training are not relevant and do not stand up.

It sounds so impressive—the child care disregard in family credit is being increased from £60 to £100. What does that mean? It means that a parent has to be able to spend £100 on child care. Can a woman with a wage of £100 or £110 spend £100 on child care so that it will be disregarded from her family credit? There is not much point anyway because she probably receives full family credit. The disregard increase does not mean a thing to her. I believe that it will benefit about three families per constituency. It is certainly a small number. I welcome such an increase; I am all for it. I am all for any advance, however tiny, but it should not be an excuse for cutting benefit and for not giving people a path out of poverty.

Lone parenthood results mostly from marriage breakdowns. Lone parents are not mostly young, reckless and feckless, but suppose that a mother is young, reckless and feckless: is she going to be a better mother if we make her poorer?

I was contacted by a foster mother who deals with young pregnant teenage girls and young mothers. Her task is to try to help them to bond with the baby and to found a family. The girl may be an emotionally damaged person who has not been accustomed to love, or she may fall pregnant after being deceived into thinking that she had found love. She can find it with her baby only if she can spend time with that baby. Who are we to say, "Go to work," or, "That is the only way in which a parent should be valued"?

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

I realise the enormous pressures on single parents. One in particular in my constituency came to me. She was a woman of the sort that my hon. Friend is talking about. She was under 18 and had had a baby. She wanted to go to technical college because she wanted to train and then to get a job and provide a decent standard of living for her child. Social security and education rules do not allow a 17-year-old mother to receive child care, so she was prevented from going to the college. Should we not consider the needs of lone parents who want to work by providing those child care opportunities, rather than saying to lone parents, "You have to spend your time on benefit for years to come"?

Photo of Ms Audrey Wise Ms Audrey Wise Labour, Preston 5:15 pm, 10th December 1997

Of course we should provide such opportunities. Is that an alternative to providing decent benefit? Actually, we do not have decent benefit. People keep talking about this as though we are asking for an increase. We have not asked for an extra penny. All we have said is, "Please, no Tory cuts." That is a modest demand.

Of course we should allow for educational opportunity and of course parents should be able to take different options according to their circumstances, the number of children they have and the age and health of their children, but not one of them should be made poorer by the loss of existing lone-parent benefit.

What about those who are lone parents because they have escaped from a violent marriage? Many children have been traumatised. Are we going to make special exemptions for them? No, and I should not like it if we did, because I do not believe in singling them out and stigmatising them. I believe in supplying sufficient money. The current benefit is not really sufficient to live on. That is another issue. I ask for a full evaluation of the impact of the cuts on the living standards of the children concerned.

A Christian religious foundation is doing a study of the amount of money that is needed to provide a reasonable standard of living for lone parents. It expects to report in April and has the services of eminent people and nutritionists. It will consider how much it costs to have a proper diet if a parent is pregnant or cares for a child, and how much it costs to feed the child. Why do we not wait until we find out whether there is surplus money in the pockets of lone parents? We are taking fat off them without finding out whether they are already anorexic, so there is no excuse for removing a penny from any lone-parent's benefit. There is no excuse for freezing the lone-parent uprating, never mind removing it.

I am pleased to say that lone parents have not been taken in by the thought that they are going to be all right. They have shown concern for new lone parents—the woman across the road or a sister who might be a lone parent next year after the cut. I have wondered whether I should put a notice in my local paper saying, "If you think that your husband is going to run off with someone across the road, make sure he does it before next June."

Many arguments can be made against the cuts. I have only scratched the surface and I am starting to think that I might be wearing out my welcome in the House because I know that many of my hon. Friends would like to make points. We are speaking for children who are already poor. This society already marginalises children. The Government's proposal not only lacks compassion but is dangerous because, of the children who will get ground down, some will go under, but some will take revenge.

If we want social inclusion—a term that will not be familiar to those about whom we are talking—we should make it possible for children to do what my grandchildren can do: go swimming, watch football and have piano lessons. Do hon. Members realise that it costs £20 for a child to enter for the first piano exam? I know, because my grandsons have just done it. It cost 40 quid for two boys. My little granddaughter performed in a concert. There was the cost of the dress and the dancing lessons, and then it cost the doting parents and grandparents 24 quid to go and watch the concert.

Who can afford to do those things on benefit or low pay with only one income? I challenged my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary who made the uprating statement, to tell me whether, when the Government said that all children should be supported by their working parents, that was what he intended. As it stands, "work" must mean full-time work, because there is no way in which one part-time wage will support a family. I was given not a syllable of clarification.

I think we are entitled to say that these measures are not in accord with Labour values. They are not economically necessary, they will not lead to good economic results and they are disastrous as instruments of social policy. I believe that we should vote for the deletion of clause 70.

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Social Security)

This is a debate that the Government would clearly prefer not to have. I know that the Government Whips have been extremely busy in the past few days; I only hope that it is not because of their activities that the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) has had to come into the Chamber on crutches this afternoon. The Government would prefer not to have the debate because it shows up what they really are: guilty of the utmost hypocrisy. That is not a word that I use lightly, but it is the only word that can be used to describe the Labour party's action, and the Government's opposition to the new clause and amendment No. 1.

For reasons that I shall explain later, the official Opposition do not support the new clause, but it is worth setting out the history of the proposal in order to put the debate in its proper context and to show the utter hypocrisy of the Government's position. As Secretary of State for Social Security, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) set about removing positive discrimination in favour of lone parents because the benefit system treated them more favourably than married couples with children. Lone parents are currently eligible for extra child benefit and extra help—the lone-parent premium, which will be abolished on 6 April next year—through income support, the jobseeker's allowance, housing benefit and council tax benefit, to which two-parent families are not entitled. We are discussing tonight whether to cut child benefit for new claimants.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

The hon. Gentleman spoke of lone parents' being treated more favourably than two-parent households. Does he or does he not accept that lone parents incur more costs than two-parent households? The premium that he mentioned is not to give them an advantage, but simply to raise them to the same economic level as two-parent households.

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Social Security)

I believe that problems in the benefit system should be dealt with by means of income-related benefits rather than a blanket benefit that is provided regardless of the financial position of the group concerned.

We do not support the new clause because we have long been in favour of redressing the balance so that the benefit system does not discriminate against two-parent families. I doubt whether Ministers agree with the measure in principle, and—as we have observed in recent hours—they certainly cannot say that it commands the full support of their parliamentary colleagues.

However, I have considerable respect—although I do not agree with their view—for the Labour Back Benchers who have had the courage, consistency and decency to stick by their principles both in opposition and, now, in government. I pay sincere tribute to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Chisholm), to the parliamentary private secretaries who have put their consciences before their careers and taken the only honourable course, and to all the other Labour Members who feel that it would not be consistent with their position to support their party tonight.

It is notable that the Secretary of State, for so long the self-appointed champion of single mothers, had, before taking office, established a record of supporting increases in benefits for lone parents. I remind hon. Members that, in 1990, she co-wrote a paper for the Institute of Public Policy Research, entitled "The Family Way", in which she urged: A more efficient means for raising the living standards of parents and children on welfare is a substantial increase in the lone parents' premium". That is exactly the opposite of what she now proposes. It is interesting to note that the first thing that the author of those words proposes when in office is to cut the very benefit that she believes should be increased to improve the quality of life for lone-parent families.

The right hon. Lady's attachment to her views had not receded six years later, when she was confronted with plans to equalise lone-parent and two-parent benefits. That simple and overdue change to the system was fiercely attacked by her when it was proposed by her predecessor. On 28 November last year, she told the House in unequivocal terms that the measure would impoverish lone parents. She said: The Secretary of State"— my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden— says that he is cutting benefits to lone mothers because they are at an advantage compared with married couples. The truth is that they are at a disadvantage. Perhaps he does not realise that when people move from being in a couple to being a lone mother, they become worse, not better, off. Those were the words of the current Secretary of State just over 12 months ago.

The right hon. Lady told the House then that the measure that was being introduced would have a negative impact on the family. She said: it is not fair to the families of women who bring up children on their own. They will be worse off. Her rhetoric against cutting child benefit was unequivocal. She also said that the proposals to cut help to lone parents would make hundreds of thousands of the poorest children worse off."— [Official Report, 28 November 1996; Vol. 286, c. 501.] The new clause, which the Secretary of State will oppose today, is designed to stop the very cuts that she said would increase poverty.

Does the Secretary of State now believe differently? Does she think that the measure is pro-family and anti-poverty, or does she, in her heart of hearts, hold the view that she took in opposition when she was seeking votes for the Labour party from as many people as possible, and said that the measure was anti-family and pro-poverty? I fear that we already know the answer, for the soundbite that the Secretary of State uses to justify the measure seems never to have wavered since 1 May. It involves repeating the commitment to keep to the last Government's tight public spending limits. That is the reason cited; but will the Secretary of State tell us unequivocally whether the policy will be reversed when the two-year commitment to prudent public spending ceases? Surely the logic of her arguments leads to the conclusion that the measure will be overturned when those two years are over. Will she give a commitment now to reverse the decision in two years' time? I am more than happy to sit down and allow her to intervene. Will the right hon. Lady intervene? I am afraid that the answer is no. She sits there like a stone. Clearly, the decision will not be reversed when the spending ceiling is reviewed in two years' time. If it is not, the right hon. Lady's repeated arguments are and were bogus.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that one of the main reasons for the resounding defeat of the Conservatives at the polls on 1 May was the scandalous level of child poverty which was brought about by the policies of the previous Government?

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Social Security) 5:30 pm, 10th December 1997

The hon. Gentleman repeats the argument that was made throughout the country by the right hon. Lady before the election that a cut in lone-parent benefit would continue or increase the poverty of children and lone parents. If that is true, why has the right hon. Lady reversed her argument?

This sorry tale takes another twist that is embarrassing for the Government and a damning indictment of the Labour party which, before the general election, promised anything to anyone to win power. The Secretary of State attacked the measure when it was introduced and promised to reverse it if Labour was elected. On 22 January in an interview with Polly Toynbee of The Independent the right hon. Lady said categorically that she would not implement the cuts that were proposed by the Conservative Government. That interview contained a black and white, categorical commitment not to introduce those changes, but the Secretary of State has broken that commitment by asking her hon. Friends to vote against the new clause and amendment No. 1.

It would be wrong to single out the Secretary of State for Social Security and not mention her right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I assure the House that his hands are not altogether clean on this issue either. As Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Gentleman was just as guilty of raising the electorate's expectations. There is no point in the Prime Minister trying to justify his behaviour on the policy with speeches such as the one that he gave on Monday at Stockwell Park school, where he limply said: We are accused of breaking promises we never made, often by opponents who introduced the very measures they now criticise us for not reversing. But the right hon. Gentleman did make a promise to lone parents. He went on to say: Do not let anyone fall for the nonsense that Labour priorities are Tory ones or that we have done just the same as them. The Prime Minister has done the same as us over lone parents, and he cannot escape from the mess as easily as that because he made the commitment to lone parents that he would not force through the changes. When asked on "The World at One" on BBC Radio 4 in January whether he would stick to the plans to equalise benefit payments, he replied: No…we believe we can avoid that situation within the existing budgets. I repeat that he said "within the existing budgets." The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Social Security have both given personal pledges that the cuts would not be introduced. Both are guilty of breaking personal pledges and are condemned by that breach of faith.

Recently I read an extremely interesting article in the Morning Star.[Interruption.] I confess that it is not my usual reading, but I am glad that I read it on that occasion. The article was an extraordinarily honest and straightforward piece by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe), in which she wrote about the cuts in child benefit. Apart from the hon. Lady's frank, honest comments, my notice was particularly caught by the last paragraph because it summed up the Government's hypocrisy on the issue. The hon. Lady wrote: People voted Labour because they believed that there were alternatives. Lone parents took heart from our stance when these matters were debated during last November's budget". She is speaking about the proposed cuts in lone-parent benefit. She went on: Labour members spoke passionately against these cuts, aided by a very useful briefing issued by our shadow social security team". I think that I am right in saying that that team included the Secretary of State, and I must assume that at that time she agreed with the briefing. According to the hon. Member for Maryhill, the briefing stated: Since One Parent Benefit is not taxed, it helps to bridge the gap between welfare and work. Its abolition will make working lone mothers worse off and will discourage work amongst this group. Lone Parent Premium recognises that lone parents face additional costs in bringing up their children. They do not have a partner's time or income to help with children. That was Labour's briefing before the election, but it has all been forgotten by the Government who have done a U-turn.

Photo of Mrs Maria Fyfe Mrs Maria Fyfe Labour, Glasgow Maryhill

I hope that in reading the left-wing press the hon. Gentleman will learn something. I want no congratulations from any Tory because the Tory party spent 18 years fostering a climate of opinion that blamed lone parents for all society's ills and it created an attitude in society that greed was good. He should not say such things to me.

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Social Security)

I appreciate the hon. Lady's comments. I was not seeking, in the nicest possible sense, to congratulate her. I simply respect the consistency, honesty and bravery of the hon. Lady and her hon. Friends.

The hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) in another left-wing publication, Tribune, last week wrote: When the Tories first proposed lone parent benefit cuts last year, Labour described them as 'particularly spiteful' and argued that the way to get lone mothers out of poverty and cut spending on benefits to them is not by cutting the amount on which they have to live year by year and further plunging them into poverty.

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Social Security)

I am afraid that the right hon. Lady is wrong: there is no but. The next sentence reads: That argument was absolutely right then and is absolutely right now. That is the end of the quotation, and there are no buts or ifs. The hon. Member for Preston (Audrey Wise) made an extremely eloquent speech. Also writing in Tribune, she described the Government's U-turn in terms of a family whose children go shoeless while we pay for a trip to the Bahamas for a rich uncle … impoverishing children is no way toward a fairer Britain". Those are the views of true Labour rather than new Labour. New Labour made trust the key issue for five weeks during the general election campaign. It spent months before the election telling every special interest group that if its members voted for Labour candidates they would reverse the Conservative Government's policies on lone parents. Many people voted for Labour candidates in good faith because they believed those comments. However, as soon as Labour came to power it U-turned and the expectations that were raised among those electors were cruelly dashed. That trust has been broken. The current rhetoric of Social Security Ministers seeks to avoid this thorny issue and to talk around it. They talk about the "new deal" for lone parents.

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Social Security)

No, I will not.

Ministers are never shy of reminding the House that that project has been awarded more than £2 million from the Treasury. However, by equalising benefits for lone-parent and two-parent families, the Treasury will save about £400 million. The Government will reject the new clause and the Secretary of State will repeat yet again her mantra that her new policy is to help lone mothers to get into work.

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Labour, Stockton North

Will the hon. Gentleman please give way?

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Social Security)

No, I will not.

Let us examine the reality behind the soundbite. The Yorkshire Post recently carried an interesting editorial on the subject. It stated: It was all too easy for Labour in Opposition to ridicule Tory attempts to curb benefits for single mothers…However, if the Labour leadership did not realise the vacuity of this argument then, it does now. The editorial continued: It would, of course, be asking too much of the Social Security Secretary to present her own policies with any kind of coherence, but her insistence that there is a pent-up demand for work among single parents is not borne out by statistics. Although most single parents do admit to a desire to work, the vast majority say that they do not want to work immediately. This is reflected in the American experience, where the provision of child care has not resulted in a large number of lone parents taking jobs. Also, there appears to be no firm foundation for offering more help to single mothers than to poor married couples. Let us consider the only real evidence so far available to see whether the Secretary of State's platitudes live up to reality. Eight weeks ago she was busy telling everyone that the results of the pilot schemes for lone parents were very promising. The soundbite was soon exposed for the sham that it was.

The right hon. Lady argued that a promising start had been made, because out of a total of 8,651 lone parents contacted by benefits agencies, 433 had found work. It is arguable that at least 50 per cent. of those 433 people would have found work regardless of whether they had been contacted. She failed to say that the figures showed that, of the 8,651 people contacted, almost 75 per cent.— about 6,500—failed to respond to the letter. Of just over 2,000 who responded, about 1,600 agreed to participate, and 433 found jobs, which is a mere 5 per cent. of the total as opposed to one in five. The right hon. Lady tried to convince the country that one in five lone parents had found work.

A month previously, on the very same day in September on which I was visiting a pilot scheme in Sheffield, the Secretary of State issued what I can only describe as a premature press release, which stated: Early information on the New Deal for Lone Parents has been very encouraging". I am not sure how the right hon. Lady defines the phrase "very encouraging", or how she can reach that conclusion coherently.

During the summer, my right hon. Friends and I visited those pilot schemes—courtesy, I gratefully acknowledge, of the right hon. Lady's private office. To my amazement, in Sheffield I was given the data on performance and achievements to date. The information was broken down in great detail. Of a total target population of 2,870, 13 people in the area had found work, which shows that performance and achievement did not live up to the Secretary of State's claims about lone parents in her premature press release that morning, or to the soundbite.

I also find it extraordinary that a point will soon be reached at which we will have to sort out whether there will be compulsion, as there will be for young people and others under the welfare-to-work scheme. Will there be compulsion for lone mothers? The Secretary of State and civil servants in her Department have been in touch with officials from Wisconsin about the Wisconsin project, the success of which is based on compulsion. It would be interesting to know whether Ministers will categorically rule out compulsion. Whenever the right hon. Lady and the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley), have been asked point blank whether they will make the scheme compulsory at a later stage, they have always side-stepped the question by saying that compulsion is not an issue. That is not an answer to the straightforward question, "Will the right hon. Lady, yes or no, in the next two or three years, bring in compulsion for lone mothers"? If she wants to give us a yes or no answer to that question, I will be more than happy to give way to her. Will the right hon. Lady intervene? No, she will not. She disappoints me.

Hon. Members:

Give way.

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Labour, Stockton North

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene briefly. I would not question the hon. Gentleman's sincerity in the Chamber, but if he truly despises these measures, as he has said, why does he intend to vote for them?

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Social Security)

I am awfully sorry, but the hon. Gentleman seems to be under a misunderstanding. I shall explain towards the end of my speech why he has misunderstood. [Interruption.] I have almost come to the end of my speech, and I shall answer the hon. Gentleman's question then.

5.45 pm

Ironically, the Government's proposal will provide a major disincentive. In recent weeks, we have seen exposed in the raw the sheer hypocrisy of a Government who were prepared, during the six months leading up to the general election, to go round the country briefing journalists that the previous Government's proposal was totally wrong and that they would not implement it. Once elected, the very same people, including the right hon. Lady and her right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, abandoned their promises, broke their faith with the people to whom they had made those promises, and in a matter of weeks reintroduced the proposals of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden.

In answer to the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook), we have remained consistent, which is why we shall vote against the new clause. Like those of his hon. Friends who will also not support the Government, we are being consistent. In fairness to the Liberal Democrats, they, too, in their own way, have remained consistent, because they have always opposed the policy. Some of the Secretary of State's hon. Friends have remained true to their principles and beliefs, and are not prepared, despite the arm twisting, to compromise their consciences.

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Social Security)

No, because I am about to conclude my remarks.

I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie) listening to the debate. I gather that he is an expert on this subject, and that his views and comments are widely respected in the Chamber and in his party.

Long after this debate, when the arguing and the soundbites are over, unlike the Government, those hon. Members who have been consistent and remained true to their beliefs will be able to say that they at least have kept the faith.

Photo of Jim Murphy Jim Murphy Labour, East Renfrewshire

I listened with some interest to the comments of the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns). It takes much more than one speech in opposition to make up for Conservative policies during 18 years in government. All we have heard from the Opposition thus far are hollow words and empty rhetoric. That should come as no surprise. However, I shall also refer in some detail to comments made by Labour Members.

I wonder whether Conservative Members will intervene during my speech or at any time during the debate to refer to their current or previous record on the issue of lone parents. Like many hon. Members, I carried out research before the debate. I had not previously read the Conservative manifestos of 1987 and 1992, or the 1997 manifesto entitled, "You can only be sure with the Conservatives". As far as I could ascertain, those documents did not refer to "lone parents" or "work" in the same sentence or in the same section. Conservative Members may be able to refer to a relevant occasion during the previous three or four general election campaigns when they identified a plan to improve the welfare and opportunities of lone parents, but the issue was not mentioned once in their manifestos.

The 1997 manifesto was entitled, "You can only be sure with the Conservatives". Lone parents have been sure for many years that with the Conservatives opportunities will be lost and futures will be frustrated. The electorate took the opportunity to remove the Conservatives from office, denying them the opportunity—which they would have taken with some enjoyment—to reduce benefit levels for lone parents.

The new Labour Government inherited the previous Administration's spending plans—which may not make all Labour Members happy—but we have absolutely disowned their strategy, moving towards job and child care opportunities.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party, North Tayside

The hon. Gentleman said that the Government have inherited the previous Administration's spending targets; we have heard that often enough. Why is it that the Secretary of State for Scotland, at a meeting of the Scottish Grand Committee that the hon. Gentleman and I attended last week, boasted of having greater expenditure to hand—the Chancellor has done the same—whereas the Secretary of State for Social Security is not prepared to move on her proposals? Why does she hold that position when more money is available?

Photo of Jim Murphy Jim Murphy Labour, East Renfrewshire

It would be better to ask my ministerial colleagues directly. As the hon. Gentleman said, we both attended that Scottish Grand Committee meeting, at which it was pointed out that there is a new opportunity, and that the Government are trying to redress the previous imbalance. As I said, although we have inherited the spending limits, we have disowned the strategy.

The hon. Gentleman, who is a member of the Scottish National party, sits on the same Benches as the Liberal Democrats, which brings me to the speech of the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb). It was a very thought-provoking speech, and I am sure that my ministerial colleagues and other hon. Members will have listened carefully to some of the points that he raised. Nevertheless, on the issues of opportunity and equality, it is uncomfortable for me to be lectured, patronised and condescended to by Liberal Democrats. They voted against the windfall levy, and, rather than provide financial opportunities for young and long-term unemployed people, they wanted to protect the profits of the privatised utilities. That was an absolute shame.

Other hon. Members have spoken of their own experiences, and I will attempt to do the same. Before being elected to the House, for more than two years, I was on benefit. Those two years were among the most depressing in my life. I was not seeking a benefit increase; I needed a job. Fortunately, I got that job opportunity. I went on to further education college and university, and then to beat the Conservative candidate in what had formerly been the safest Tory seat in Scotland. Is that not a great example of welfare into work as practised in Scotland?

In supporting the Government's strategy, I want to speak not only about the benefits reductions but about the overall package. We have inherited the previous Government's spending limits, but we have moved on and created a package that is based on job opportunities and child care support. The new deal on job opportunities is based on skills and motivation.

Motivation, however, is a matter not merely of the stick or of the carrot but of the work ethic—which must be imbued not only into those who are unemployed, as I was, but into the Government. The Government must hold a work ethic that entails creating job opportunities and programmes to enhance work and enrich the individual. The work ethic will be supported by opportunities for child care and the kids club network. In Scotland alone, £28 million will be spent on those opportunities.

I say again that we inherited the previous Government's spending plans. I do not take joy in voting for an income reduction for future lone parents.

Photo of Ken Livingstone Ken Livingstone Labour, Brent East

Will my hon. Friend give way on that point?

Photo of Jim Murphy Jim Murphy Labour, East Renfrewshire

I shall not give way, because I am just concluding my speech. I am on my last sentence. I have also read what you think, and, in recent weeks, I have watched you on television. Therefore, I am well aware of your comments.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

The hon. Gentleman must resume his seat when I am on my feet. I wish to correct him by reminding him that he is addressing the Chair, even in a heated debate.

Photo of Jim Murphy Jim Murphy Labour, East Renfrewshire

I have already said no. I am sure that you will have an opportunity to participate in the debate.

Photo of Jim Murphy Jim Murphy Labour, East Renfrewshire

My hon. Friend says, "No, he will not", but my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) has been participating in it for some weeks.

I support the Government's policy, but, unfortunately, because of our inheritance from the previous Government, there will be an income reduction for some future single parents. However, I support the overall package, which provides opportunities that, some years ago, many of my peers in my further education college and university would have welcomed.

Photo of Mr Dafydd Wigley Mr Dafydd Wigley Leader and Party President, Plaid Cymru

I congratulate the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) on a very thoughtful speech. I support new clause 1 and amendment No. 1. After our change of Government on 1 May, it is appalling that we are still saddled with such a measure. It was proposed by a Conservative Government, and many people thought that after the general election we would turn our backs on such policies.

The hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Murphy) said that he would vote for the whole package and emphasised job opportunities. I am sure that when he was searching for work he was not doing so as a lone parent. I can tell the House that the Government's proposals will make it less likely that lone parents will search for work because if they look for work, find work and then lose it, they will be worse off. The provision will be a positive disincentive to achieving the Government's stated aim.

In an earlier intervention, I mentioned the situation in areas such as mine, where employment is highly seasonal and where it may be possible for a lone parent or others who are unemployed for a good part of the year to succeed in getting work for a few weeks or, at most, a few months in summer. Surely that is something good, if they are able to do so. Now, however, the disincentive will operate. Those people know that, when they return to the unemployment queues, in the autumn or the winter, they will be worse off. That will be the effect of the changes.

Surely the basic problem that we face in considering such a package is the Government's adherence to the Tory spending programme, but if we believe in supporting the most vulnerable people in our society—among whom I include lone parents, and particularly the children of lone parents—we must believe in our wherewithal to raise the necessary taxes.

I should have thought that it would be much more acceptable to those who elected the Government if Ministers were examining ways of raising a little more tax—by higher income tax or national insurance payments—so that we had the revenue for a decent package for the most vulnerable. I should have thought that the House's priority would be to turn our thoughts to the needs of those children. Surely any single parent who is bringing up children on benefits must be in the most difficult financial position.

The strategy is not working and it is counter-productive. In addition, we are penalising some of the most vulnerable people in our community. I feel that that is an indicator of an approach to society. A few years ago, we had the right hon. Member for somewhere in the Thames valley—[HON. MEMBERS: "Wokingham."] Of course, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood). How could I forget? The right hon. Gentleman was Secretary of State for Wales and we well remember when he came to Cardiff and pilloried single mums. That was an indication of his approach to life, his approach to politics and his values. God help us if a Government who kicked out that lot who misgoverned us for 18 years decide to pursue the same approach.

6 pm

This morning, sitting in the No. 44 bus on Battersea Park road, I was tapped on the shoulder by a lady sitting behind me on the top deck. She said, "You will be voting against the Government's proposals tonight, won't you, Mr. Wigley?" I hardly expected to be recognised on the bus, but I was. [HON. MEMBERS: "She works here."] The lady does not work here. What she said was revealing. She said, "I didn't walk the streets canvassing in April to have policies that will take money away from the most vulnerable people in our community imposed by a Labour Government."

I appeal to all Labour Members who have a conscience to act on it tonight and to ensure that the needs of vulnerable people are protected.

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley Chair, Parliamentary Labour Party

This issue has caused considerable and understandable concern, and I know that it has not been an easy matter either for members of the Government or for Labour Back Benchers. I believe that lessons have been learnt from the way in which the problem emerged and from the way in which it has been handled. If I did not believe that, I would not be speaking as I am today.

I want to put the issue in a wider context. The cut was proposed by the previous Conservative Government to save money and in response to a moral panic attack in the Conservative party and some elements of the press about single parents. One might think that that was a bit odd as the Conservative party at that time had added to the sum total of single parents on one or two occasions. Considerable hypocrisy was involved.

It is true that the new Government face tough choices because of the situation that we have inherited, but there is a far more important issue involved. I refer to the Government's vision of rebuilding the welfare state in the context of a radically changed economy. It is a fundamental mistake to believe that the welfare state as constructed in 1945 by the then Labour Government has survived the past 18 years. It has not. The Tories ripped it apart and introduced gross inadequacies and contradictions into the system. We can either bail that system out or try to build a new welfare state which is relevant to the modern economy.

We should remember that the 1945 Labour Government, using the models proposed by Keynes and Beveridge—two Liberals—built a welfare state which assumed that there would be full employment for men and that women would stay at home for most if not all of their lives, washing up and looking after the kids. That economy has gone and I hope and believe that it has gone for good.

We have to be very conscious of the fact that we must rebuild a welfare state that is relevant for the modern economy. That means, among other things, getting people back into work; that is crucial. The employment option must be our first priority. That does not mean that there will not be problems, because moving from the position in 1945–50 or the position in 1979, when the Labour party was last in government, to where we would like to be in five or 10 years' time will not be easy.

I accept that this policy issue should not have arisen as it has, but I believe that it is important to see it in the context of the aim to create more employment opportunities and a fairer society.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, for whom I have the greatest respect. Is he aware that one reason why I cannot support the Government today is that I believe, as do a number of colleagues, that the cut is a wrong, Tory policy? I also fear that other cuts in areas such as disability allowance may be introduced. Tonight should be a warning to the Government, and particularly to the Treasury, that disability benefit should not be taxed or means-tested. Those who are disabled have enough difficulties, even those who receive the upper limit of disability allowance. I believe that, in those circumstances, the Government should take note of our concerns.

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley Chair, Parliamentary Labour Party

I believe that the Government have already taken note of that point and I do not think that they need messages in the Lobby tonight. I understand, however, why people feel as they do and I will address that point in due course.

Welfare to work is an idea that has universal support within the Labour party and the labour movement because it is a move back to some form of full employment, but one that recognises the importance of women to the economy. When I hear Liberal Democrats or Conservatives talk about benefit cuts, I feel that they have not addressed the real issue. The issue is not whether this cut is good, bad or indifferent, but how we get from the mess we inherited from the previous Government to where we want to be without in the process hurting people who do not deserve to be hurt. That is the difficult issue.

Photo of Mr David Rendel Mr David Rendel Liberal Democrat, Newbury

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that in the speeches that my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) and I made in Committee and on Second Reading, we consistently supported welfare to work as being an excellent attempt to give opportunities to young women and others who are lone parents so that they can get back into work? That is entirely consistent with our manifesto, which was fully costed. We would have provided the money for a very similar programme. What we are debating tonight, however, is not welfare to work—on which we all agree—but benefit cuts for those who do not go back to work. On the Government's own figures, that will mean half of all lone parents.

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley Chair, Parliamentary Labour Party

I listened carefully to the speech of the hon. Gentleman's colleague, the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb). It became a wish list for more spending on everything; yet the Liberal Democrats complained about the windfall tax—the biggest way in which we have raised money. Where else were we to get £3 billion? Were the Liberal Democrats going to print the money for us?

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

The hon. Gentleman will recognise that only a tiny fraction of the windfall tax goes to lone parents and that most of the money for lone parents is coming from the lottery. By no stretch of the imagination is that a hard choice.

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley Chair, Parliamentary Labour Party

That is precisely the problem that the hon. Gentleman does not understand. The movement away from the disaster of the past 18 years into a new and better system requires a range of expenditure to be looked at. A figure of £5 million can be multiplied 10 times, 20 times or 30 times. It would have been more honest if the hon. Gentleman had said that in his speech and then said, "Yes, we want to raise taxes to a greater extent than the Liberal Democrats proposed at the previous election." That at least would have had the virtue of consistency and openness.

If we all accept that welfare to work is a good policy, it is important to see it in the context of what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor have done in recent weeks. There have been significant moves, not least bringing forward the welfare-to-work package from October to April as a result of the recognition that there was a mismatch in the dates on which the two issues came into play. I look forward to seeing that in action.

I also recognise that there is an important additional factor. I ask my hon. Friends to listen. The Government have accepted the strength of feeling on the issue and the concerns that there could be losers. That is why they have undertaken to keep it under review. In my judgment, there will be potential losers under the current proposals. I fear that they will include those with very young children, those who take the package and then lose their job and go on to welfare and also the more difficult group—identified by my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Audrey Wise) in an important and effective speech—containing those who want to be full-time parents and do not want to work in the early years of their children's lives.

We know of those potential losers. However, before anyone, particularly any Opposition Member, says that the Government do not care about families, they should bear it in mind that we now have the first Government not just to set up a social exclusion unit but, more importantly—perhaps this has been undervalued so far—to set up a Cabinet Committee on the needs of the family. The needs of the family cannot be considered without taking into account the needs of children in lone-parent families and others.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

In view of my hon. Friend's assurances that the Government will keep the issue monitored and in the light of the concerns that he has expressed, may I suggest that he uses his good offices as chairman of the parliamentary Labour party to meet those on the Government Front Bench during the debate and agree on a free vote?

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley Chair, Parliamentary Labour Party

I have been using my good offices for some time. The idea that the only way to get out of a difficult situation is to reverse it is a fundamental mistake. That is the mistake that the Liberal Democrats are making. I had the advantage of warning about this when I was in opposition. When a difficulty emerges, it has to be addressed in a number of different ways if it is to be dealt with effectively without knock-on effects.

Photo of Mr Kevin McNamara Mr Kevin McNamara Labour, Kingston upon Hull North

I am concerned about the Government keeping the matter under review. Governments keep enormous matters under review from time to time. We are concerned about the families that will be disadvantaged, as my hon. Friend has eloquently told the House. We want an undertaking that they will not be disadvantaged in cash terms.

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley Chair, Parliamentary Labour Party

My hon. Friend needs to listen carefully to what I am saying. I am not speaking for the Government. The entire parliamentary Labour party has seen the note that has been sent round saying that the matter will be kept under review. I am not saying anything new on that.

Photo of Lynne Jones Lynne Jones Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

My hon. Friend raises an interesting prospect. Will he have discussions with the Government? It would be nice to have an assurance that none of the cuts will be implemented pending the review and that the results of the review will be brought back to the House so that we can have a vote on the matter.

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley Chair, Parliamentary Labour Party

I cannot give that assurance—not least because I am not in a position to do so. However, I am not sure that what my hon. Friend suggests would be the best route, although it is an option that could be considered.

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Labour, Stockton North

What my hon. Friend has said is reassuring to an extent. I believe that a broad review of the whole benefit system is already taking place. It would be common sense to wait for the conclusions of the broad review before introducing any measures. Then we would know more about the package that we were buying.

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley Chair, Parliamentary Labour Party

My hon. Friend is not listening to what I am saying. A note has already been circulated to every member of the parliamentary Labour party that the issue will be kept under review. My judgment is that we can move forward because some of the initial concerns have been partly met by bringing forward the welfare-to-work packages. Other concerns still need to be addressed. As I have said, in my judgment there will be some potential losers. I call them potential losers because I am told that the measure may work better than people think. That may be true.

6.15 pm

The review is important. Conservative Members may have been used to reviews that were merely cynical, but we have a different Government now. As we examine the issue over the coming months, we must try to identify the potential losers and find out whether any of them are genuine losers after the measures come into effect in April. If they are, I hope that we shall remain true to our long-term aim of creating greater fairness and ensuring that families and children are given the necessary help to succeed. In many ways, not doing that would run counter to our family policy and our social exclusion policy.

We should all learn the importance in government—we have not been in government for 18 years—of identifying difficult policy decisions well in advance and alerting the parliamentary party and Ministers to those difficulties. That is not an easy lesson, because there are bound to be areas of difficulty when we have been in government for only a short time.

No one should doubt that the pressure brought to bear on the issue has been strongly felt and recorded. That pressure should not cloud our judgment on the long-term aims, objectives and principles that continue to determine the Government's policy. We must keep the issue in the context of the long-term aim of ensuring that the majority of lone parents have the opportunity of paid employment, to build a new welfare state based on a modern economy in which women are truly equal to men and in which parenting by men or women is seen as a vital role in creating a stable and contented society in which children are not damned by poverty. That is the Government's long-term aim. We are not interested in short-term quick fixes or ways of getting out of difficulty that will derail the project.

I believe that the Government have learnt from recent problems and are prepared to review the needs of parents who fall through the net of welfare to work. They should be supported in the Lobby tonight. My hon. Friends should not lose sight of the Government's long-term aims. They should not make the mistake of casting doubt on the Government's intentions and turning an immediate issue into a longer-term problem. We are at the beginning of a project that will be radical and long remembered—a genuine attempt to rebuild a new welfare state fit for an economy that recognises the importance of women. That has always been part of the socialist vision. My message to Labour Members is, "Do not forget that. Do not lose sight of the long-term aim. Keep your heads and be sensible tonight and on every other occasion.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

The hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) speaks with great authority and meets more important people than I am used to meeting. Having heard the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Murphy), I wonder whether it is wise for anyone to listen to me; the hon. Gentleman will obviously go very far, very quickly, whereas I have been here for 33 years and have got nowhere.

The problem is not so complex as some hon. Members think. If the Labour party does not support the new clause, the standing of Parliament and democracy will go down even further. I was proud to come here 33 years ago. Sadly, the standing of Parliament has gone down a great deal since then. I appreciate that Governments have made a mess of many things. The previous Government displayed a lack of understanding of the special problems facing single parents. On the other hand, when the previous Secretary of State for Social Security made the same proposals very sincerely, he did so specifically and clearly. The current Secretary of State said that there was no question whatsoever of the same proposals being implemented by a Labour Government.

In the past few weeks, only five single parents have come to see me about the problem and to express their opinions. I told them in all fairness that the idea was first put forward by the Conservative party and they felt extremely let down. Many of them had voted Labour because they believed that the Labour party had a totally different attitude from that adopted by my party and that its dogma was based on understanding and good will. They felt that they had been given a clear and specific assurance that a Labour Government would not adopt the same policies as the Conservatives.

In the past week I have received seven phone calls from disabled people. I could give the Ministers their names, addresses and phone numbers. I know that at least five of them voted for the Labour party because they thought that it sincerely cared and was concerned about disabled people. They, too, would probably feel very let down if there were a change of policy which affected them.

In the past five weeks, I have had the pleasure of speaking at three universities. I have not seen such anger among students for a long time. Students believe that they were blatantly and completely misled about student finance. All new students could end up with a debt of about £10,000 at the end of their studies. I predict that there will be a collapse in the number of students at university and some universities may be threatened. [Interruption.] However, that is an issue of policy and, as the Secretary of State rightly says, we are not discussing it tonight. We should be discussing not issues of policy, but the public regard for the House of Commons and political parties.

As hon. Members know, I have had plenty of problems with my own party, but having come from Glasgow and lived in Southend for 17 years, I have a high regard for the integrity, devotion and commitment of the Labour party. As hon. Members are well aware—even if they live in Eastwood, which is a rather more affluent part of Glasgow—although I have fundamental disagreements with the Labour party, it is represented by people of integrity who are respected for being straight and honest. [Interruption.] It is not a laughing matter—I believe that it is true.

Photo of Mr Peter Snape Mr Peter Snape Labour, West Bromwich East

It is safe to praise them now that they are all dead.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

I hope that they are not all dead. If they were, I would be very sad indeed.

Photo of Mr Peter Snape Mr Peter Snape Labour, West Bromwich East

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in such a serious debate the last thing that Labour Members wish to hear is praise for the Labour party as it used to be from someone who has spent all his political life attacking it?

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that although I have always attacked Labour policies I have great respect for people who, in all sincerity, say what they believe and fight for it. As he well knows, I have also had a few problems with my own party. I am not trying to score points against Labour—or the Conservatives. I hope that hon. Members will appreciate that if Labour Members vote for something that they promised the people they would not do, and thereby impose hardship on individuals, the Labour party may suffer a little but the integrity of politics, Parliament and democracy will suffer far more. I would say the same to any Government. If they promise before an election not to do something and then do it two or three months later when there has been no fundamental change in the economy, they will simply lose respect for our democracy.

I shall not take up much more time as I appreciate that there is more to be said on both sides of the argument, but if a political party makes a promise to people who trust that party, and within three months of coming to office the new Government break that promise, that will simply undermine faith in the Government and the democratic system.

I hope that the Government will not provoke a big political row tonight, with people shouting at each other, but will simply take the matter back for the famous review that the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush—who meets all the important people—said would happen. If there is to be a review, the Government should withdraw the proposals and think again. What bothers me is that tonight will be not a victory for the Conservatives—it will certainly not be a victory for single mothers—but simply a defeat for the democracy and integrity that all parties should support.

Photo of Ken Livingstone Ken Livingstone Labour, Brent East

I listened with interest to the chairman of the parliamentary Labour party, my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) and I heard nothing to persuade me to change my mind. I shall vote against the proposal.

I have no doubt that thousands of the votes that I received were from single parents who, given the ferocity of our attacks on the previous Government's proposals, can have been in no doubt that they would be safe in voting for a Labour Government. It sounds too much like a used-car salesman drawing attention to the small print to continue making generalisations about inheriting the Tories' spending limits. Certainly none of the single parents in my constituency would have paid £5 for the Labour manifesto and read the small print and the get-out clauses.

I also have to say to the chairman of the parliamentary Labour party that when the new rules of conduct for Labour Members, which forbade us to vote against the Government in any circumstances, were introduced, we were told that it was part of a package deal and that we would be involved in drawing up policy and be consulted at all stages. We were told that we were turning our backs on the past when one opened the papers and read about a new policy and that we would therefore avoid the damaging splits of the past. What nonsense that has been shown to be. If the leadership are not prepared to honour their side of the deal about honest and open consultation before decisions are made, I do not have the slightest intention of honouring their rules that I should not vote against them.

No Labour Member can be in favour of the policy. When I went with other hon. Members to see my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, she made it absolutely clear that she was not in favour of it. We are doing it not because we think that it would be good for lone parents or because it will advance our policies, but because we are bound by the outgoing Government's spending limits. No one is absolutely in favour of it.

Rather than turning on single parents, when will the Labour Government start taking on people who are bigger and more powerful than themselves? Why is it that whenever we have to make difficult decisions, they always involve cutting somebody else's standard of living? The students are next in line. Why are we not prepared to stand up to the hard-faced men and women who have done very well out of the past 18 years and have gone from being well off to being millionaires?

The Guardian poll revealed that rather than the new Labour Government being in tune with the people; they are in a small minority, and the overwhelming majority of the British people are opposed to what they propose tonight. We have the vast majority of the public with us. Most people believe that it is time that those who have done so well out of the past 18 years should pay a bit more towards the running and rebuilding of Britain and not let that burden fall on the poorest children in the poorest families.

The argument is all about money. We are talking about £62 million or £65 million out of a Government budget of £300 billion. What nonsense it is. We should be able to cope with this. I accept that the leadership have set their face firmly against any increase in the top rate or the standard rate of tax, but that does not prevent us from asking why higher earners pay no national insurance contributions on their earnings over £50,000 a year. Changing that would enable us to find the money. Why are we putting the burden on the poorest children in the poorest families in Britain?

Many of my colleagues have been seduced by the silken fantasies that have been woven by our Chancellor—the idea that we will be restrained in the first two years, but that in the run-up to the next election when we have more money we shall start spending here, there and everywhere. I must remind the House that all the economic prognoses are now moving towards a difficult mid-term for the Government, and I am not certain that there will be a lot of money available to make life easier in the second half of this Parliament.

We can already see the signs. How are single parents to find jobs when firms throughout Britain are starting to lay off workers because the high interest rate policies that the Chancellor is following make it more and more difficult to export goods? As those policies begin to bite in a year's time, we shall face the real prospect of unemployment figures beginning to turn up again in response to the Government's high interest rate policies.

I see no basis for introducing the changes, and I cannot in any conscience vote for them.

Photo of Patricia Hewitt Patricia Hewitt Labour, Leicester West

Will my hon. Friend share with some of his colleagues his reasons for voting with the Government on precisely this issue, on an amendment tabled by the Liberal Democrat party, on 22 July? At that stage, when the decision was being made, why did he not share his concern either with his colleagues or with Ministers, who were making what by every account was a difficult decision?

Photo of Ken Livingstone Ken Livingstone Labour, Brent East

If my hon. Friend is inviting me to undertake daily trench warfare against the Labour Government, I would be prepared to do it. I was working on the assumption that I would be reluctant to join Opposition parties in any Lobby. We are forced to do that tonight because, despite the fact that we were promised an open consultative Government, all the representations that we have made in private letters to members of the Cabinet, and all our private delegations, have achieved not one jot or tittle of change in the policy. We have been talking to a brick wall.

Today, the spin doctors have been running round the Lobbies and the Lobby correspondents are going on television to say that the Government realise that they have made a great mistake. We are assured that they know that they have made a mistake, but apparently they cannot be seen to give in. Is that what we have come down to? It cannot be a matter of finance, when we are talking about £62 million out of a budget of £300 billion.

I have a horrible feeling that all this is about demonstrating to the international markets that we can be as brutal to the poor as the Government we replaced. I see no other justification for the measure. There has been no convincing argument that it will advance the situation.

6.30 pm

When my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Murphy) declined to let me pop in and help him to develop his argument, he was telling us about his time on benefit and his search for a job. Is he seriously telling us that he would have found a job more quickly if his benefit had been cut by 10 quid a week? I would be prepared to give way to him now if he would like to expand on that illuminating view.

I shall vote against the cut, and I am prepared to take the consequences. What worries me most is the fact that the people who will really bear the consequences are the people who voted for us in good faith. When we speak to them in the Central Lobby and the place where they are meeting in the House today, we realise that they feel betrayed by the Government. I feel ashamed of what we are doing.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party, North Tayside

We need to be clear about the basis of the issue that we were talking about. It has been well established for many years that, compared with couples, lone parents face differential costs in bringing up a family. The evidence from the family budget unit, the Policy Studies Unit and the Social Security Advisory Committee all points in that direction.

Until the previous Government reached their agreed protocol, successive Governments had respected that advice. In one of the pieces of information provided by the Library for Members to use in the debate there is a quotation from a publication issued by the National Council for One Parent Families, which illustrates the point: There is a good rationale for designing a benefit structure for one parent families which takes account of the now quite well established fact that the removal of one adult from the household does not reduce all normal costs proportionately and may add costs which are specifically related to one parenthood". That information is in the public domain.

The Policy Studies Unit says: One of the outcomes of this analysis is that the needs of lone parents appear to be at least as great as, or more than, those of couples with children. The Social Security Advisory Committee, in its advice to the Government, says that there are insufficient grounds for concluding that a Lone Parent on Income Support is overcompensated financially compared with a couple with children". In the face of all that evidence, it is bewildering that the Government propose to take the route before the House.

Much of the argument hinges on whether the Government are making the move as an incentive to get people into employment, or as a compulsion. I am sure that when the Secretary of State speaks, we shall hear all manner of justification for the additional support being put in place to compensate for the draconian cut. We shall hear about welfare to work, child care and the other measures.

None the less, nobody can hide from the fact that there is the strongest hint of compulsion. The Labour Government are accepting some of the rather unpleasant arguments of the previous Administration to the effect that people must be dragooned into employment whatever the cost.

The hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) snatched what I thought would be my best line of the evening when he quoted the song that the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) delivered to the Conservative party conference in 1992. If ever there were a set of unpleasant words, it was that litany of abuse of people, some of whom probably are scrounging from the system—we hear complaints about that from our constituents—but among whom we have obscured the genuine cases of hardship experienced by many people, including lone parents, who live in a benefit climate.

I intervened on the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Murphy) to comment on the central argument advanced by the Government, of which I am sure we shall hear more tonight. The hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) also challenged that argument, which is that the Government inherited from the previous Administration spending targets that are somehow sacrosanct.

A week ago, the Secretary of State for Scotland berated me in the Scottish Grand Committee for not being sufficiently enthusiastic about the increases in spending that he was delivering in Scotland as a result of the settlement agreed by the Chancellor. In his pre-Budget statement on 25 November, the Chancellor also talked about additional resources being available.

If we boil the figures down to the sum of money that we were talking about, we see that it is a tiny proportion of the budget at the Government's disposal. Yet the argument is that this Government, alone of all the Governments of the past, will stick to the spending targets of their predecessors in a way that the Conservatives never stuck to the targets of previous Administrations of their own party. Moreover, the idea that the Government have a legitimate argument for adhering to the previous Administration's spending targets has been comprehensively discredited by the Chancellor's statement about the current condition of public finances.

During Prime Minister's questions today, I could hardly hear the exchanges because of Conservative Members behind me shouting, "Trust me, Tony." Much has been made of the issue of trust, and one reason for the demise of the Conservative Administration on 1 May was the public's failure to believe anything that they ever said. The public must now be agonising about what on earth they can believe from the Labour party, as a result of the events that we are witnessing.

The Labour manifesto made bold commitments to people in our society. There was a strong commitment that Labour would not undertake the measure that we are debating now. Let me share with the House some words said before the election by the Secretary of State: The way to get lone mothers out of poverty and cut spending on benefits for them is not by cutting the amount on which they have to live year by year and plunging them further into poverty."— [Official Report, 28 November 1996; Vol. 286, c. 500.] On 19 February this year, just a handful of weeks before the election, the right hon. Lady said: Our approach will not be to cut the social security budget by making the poorest poorer."—[Official Report, 19 February 1997; Vol. 290, c. 944.] When people went to the polling stations on 1 May in what are now the constituencies of Labour Members—this applies to Eastwood, too—they believed that they would no longer be subject to the harassment to which they had been subjected by the Conservative Government.

During the run-up to the election, there was an important conversion on the road to Damascus. The current Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Howarth), left the Conservative Benches to join the Labour party. On 19 February 1997—an auspicious day—he said: Reducing one-parent benefit will again reduce incentives to work. He also told us: The freezing of lone-parent benefits is a triumph of harsh moralism over humanity … and … dogma."—[Official Report, 9 February 1997; Vol. 290, c. 978–79.] I absolutely agree with him. However, he has managed to leave the Conservative party when it was in office, go to the Labour party and get back into office an awful lot quicker than any of his former colleagues—and he has not had to change his views or actions. Tonight, when the Under-Secretary votes for the Bill and against the new clauses and amendments, he will rub shoulders with all his former colleagues—as many Labour Members will do—to support the policies of the previous Administration. Surely that cannot be correct.

Earlier today, we heard of the resignation from the Government of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Chisholm), who has earned respect among Scottish Members of Parliament as an individual who carried out his ministerial duties with diligence and integrity. He has demonstrated that integrity by confronting the difficult situation with which he was faced—having to support a policy which, fundamentally, he did not believe he was elected on at the general election.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Conservative, Stone

Does the hon. Gentleman, who is making an interesting and fascinating speech, accept that the root problem with this matter is that the proposals are Treasury driven? Why are they Treasury driven? Is it not because Government Members know perfectly well that the Maastricht criteria—[Interruption.] Yes! The Maastricht criteria are the reasons why the Government cannot escape the continuing cascade of public expenditure cuts to comply with the policies set out by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the single currency issue. Therefore, they stand condemned for going along with the Maastricht criteria, and they know it.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party, North Tayside

You will appreciate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I am a new hon. Member. I do not know whether any prizes are available to new hon. Members, but to manage to engage the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) in a debate on the Maastricht criteria during a debate on lone-parent benefit is a triumph.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. It would not have been a very long debate.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party, North Tayside

Thank you for your helpful advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I will not try that one again.

I was advancing the argument that many Labour Members must be debating with their souls. We heard a curious explanation from the chairman of the parliamentary Labour party as to why they should be loyal tonight. It did not sound to me to have a lot of substance; we then heard the speech from the hon. Member for Brent, East.

Tonight is a night when the views of the people who voted Labour on 1 May should be taken into account. On 1 May—semantics aside—the people voted for political change. They are not getting political change tonight—they are getting a continuation of the priorities of the previous Government.

I have commented on the Government's response, which has been to talk about child care and welfare to work. Part of their justification has also been that they are to take the Child Support Agency by the scruff of the neck to solve every problem. As a constituency Member dealing with various cases from the CSA, I have absolutely no confidence that the Government will be able to do anything with that agency to make a meaningful impact on this problem.

The hon. Members for Northavon and for Preston (Audrey Wise) have questioned the substance of the Government's argument, "You will be £50 better off under Labour." If any opinion pollster came forward with an opinion sample of 395, predicting enormous benefits for everybody from that sample, he would be laughed out of court. The Government's explanation on that point begs as many questions as it attempts to answer.

Tonight is about the way in which people voted on 1 May. They voted for change and, so far tonight, they are not getting it. I urge all honourable Labour Members who are concerned about this issue to support new clause 1 and amendment No. 1, as we are presiding over a great injustice in the House of Commons.

Photo of Patricia Hewitt Patricia Hewitt Labour, Leicester West 6:45 pm, 10th December 1997

Seven months ago—like every one of my right hon. and hon. Friends—I was elected on the basis of the new Labour manifesto. In that manifesto, we promised to give priority to health and education, and that is what the Government are doing. We promised to provide extra help to the poorest elderly people, and that is what we are doing. We promised to reform the shambles of the social security system to enable people to move from welfare to work, and that is what we are doing.

We did not promise to reverse the cut that the previous Government made in lone-parent benefit. [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes, you did."] Opposition Members should consult our manifesto. We did not promise to reverse all the cuts that the Conservatives made; for instance, the cuts in the living standards of millions of elderly people in this country.

We did not make those promises for the simple reason that we knew that, in government—and inheriting the deficit and the public sector debt from the incompetent Administration we defeated on 1 May—we would not be able to afford to reverse all those cuts. We knew that we would not be able to put right in a matter of months, or even years, everything that needs to be put right in this country. It is nonsense to suggest that millions of people voted for us in the belief that we would wave a magic wand to solve all these problems overnight.

I have no doubt that many of my constituents, and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends, would have liked us to promise more than we did. It was only at the beginning of this year that we were being criticised for not making more promises. We were criticised for not promising to spend billions or to reverse every cut. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone), who is leaving the Chamber, stood and was elected on the same manifesto as every other Labour Member.

Photo of Lynne Jones Lynne Jones Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

Does my hon. Friend recall that we were elected with the slogans "New Labour, New Britain" and "Things can only get better"? We were not elected on the slogan, "Things can only get better, except for lone parents". I accept that we may not be able to put everything right overnight, but surely we should not penalise the very poorest in society before we make things better for them.

Photo of Patricia Hewitt Patricia Hewitt Labour, Leicester West

I agree with my hon. Friend's underlying point—that this debate is fundamentally about children growing up in this country with their life chances blighted. The worst aspect of the Britain that we inherited on 1 May is that, in the 18 years of Conservative Administration, the numbers of children in Britain growing up in poverty more than doubled.

We know that children growing up living with only one of their parents are more likely to be poor, for the obvious rerason that, in almost every case, there is no father at home contributing to their maintenance, and only one in three of fathers not living with their children pay maintenance under that other shambles that we inherited from the Conservatives—the Child Support Act 1991.

It is also the case that children in lone-parent families are more likely to be poor because their mothers are so much less likely than those in two-parent families to be in part-time or full-time work. Much as I should like to accept the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Audrey Wise) that the lone parent premium is an effective work incentive, the reality is that we have fewer lone mothers in work than any other country in the European Union.

As I said, children of lone-parent families are more likely to be poor, but, among the totality of children growing up poor in Britain today, there are even more growing up poor with both parents at home than there are with only one parent at home. The Government and the country need a strategy to transform children's life chances, be they in one-parent or in two-parent families. When my hon. Friend spoke of the opportunities denied to children in poor families—the chance to participate in sport, music and social activities and to have the same kind of clothes as the majority of children—she seemed to imply that by reversing the cut that we inherited from the previous Government we could solve the problem.

It is absurd to pretend that any improvement that we can make in the benefits system alone will include those poorest children—I represent many of their families—in the wider opportunities in society in which we want to include them.

Photo of Mr Llew Smith Mr Llew Smith Labour, Blaenau Gwent

Does my hon. Friend accept that we have not inherited those policies but have chosen to carry them on, and that, because there is an element of choice, we can say no tonight?

Photo of Patricia Hewitt Patricia Hewitt Labour, Leicester West

The manifesto on which my hon. Friend and I were both elected set out our priorities and said that we would stick to the departmental budget totals that we inherited, and that is precisely what the Government are doing.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

Why is it not possible for the Government to tax child benefit—a universal, non-means-tested benefit that goes to both the poorest and the richest in the land—at the top rate, and use the money to avoid penalising the very poorest who are in single-parent families?

Photo of Patricia Hewitt Patricia Hewitt Labour, Leicester West

My hon. Friend anticipates a point that I intended to make in a couple of minutes, so I shall make it now. The benefits system by itself cannot close the gap between children in the poorest families, whether lone-parent or two-parent, and those in the majority of families. The Government are creating a strategy that uses every possible weapon to transform children's life chances.

One of the policy options recommended by the Commission on Social Justice, of which I was deputy chair—I hope that it is under consideration in the benefits review now taking place—is precisely to tax child benefit for the best-off families, such as the one to which I belong, in which the mother pays top-rate tax on her earnings, so as to free resources to give to the majority of families on average and below-average incomes. I hope that the Government will consider that policy, but it cannot be introduced without a change in legislation.

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond Leader, Scottish National Party

The hon. Lady has just proposed a change in Government policy. That may be welcome throughout the House, but if it is possible for her to contemplate a policy—taxing child benefit—that is not mentioned in the manifesto, why is it not possible to have a change in policy in order not to penalise the poorest people in the country?

Photo of Patricia Hewitt Patricia Hewitt Labour, Leicester West

As we have heard, the Government are reviewing the entire benefits system, constructing from the shambles that we inherited a system that will do what is needed in the 21st century. I am simply saying that I hope that they will consider, as part of that review, a radical reform of child benefit to enable significant new resources to go to all children in families with low and average incomes, be they lone-parent or two-parent families.

Even more important are the strategies needed to close the gulf between work-rich and work-poor families that opened up in the 18 years of the previous Administration. That means giving lone mothers, as our new deal will do, the same opportunities to enter part-time or full-time work that mothers in two-parent families now largely take for granted.

Much of this debate casts lone mothers in the role of passive victims, rather than seeing them as they are, certainly in my experience, and not simply as a constituency representative—as women who want to change their lives and who welcome, as many have at my surgery and in my constituency generally, the fact that, at last, we have a Government who are saying that we want to help them, as we want to help other families, to combine earning a living with bringing up children. It is a shame that the constructive Opposition, as they like to dub themselves, are not interested in a strategy to close the gulf between work-poor and work-rich families.

The fact has been completely overlooked so far in the debate that the child may be living with only one parent, but, in most cases, there is a second parent: the non-resident father. Our new deal for unemployed people under 25—and, next year, for the long-term unemployed over 25—will bring into employment, often for the first time, many of the fathers of the children now living in lone-parent families. Combined with fundamental reform of the child support Acts and the Child Support Agency, which is also in train, that new deal will begin to bring into those families the kind of money that is needed to give children decent life chances.

By making work pay, by introducing as we did last week a Bill for a national statutory minimum wage— something which the previous Government destroyed— and by building on family credit, by introducing, as the Chancellor proposes, a working families tax credit, we will support further the children currently in work-poor families and enable parents to transform their own position and that of their children.

I have no doubt whatever that, by the end of the first term of the new Labour Government, children in the poorest families in the country, be they lone-parent or two-parent families, will have seen their life chances transformed. They will be better off after one term of the new Labour Government than they ever were in three terms of the previous Government. In that firm belief, I shall vote against the new clause. I urge my hon. Friends to do the same.

7 pm

Photo of Mrs Jackie Ballard Mrs Jackie Ballard Liberal Democrat, Taunton

The speech of the hon. Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt) made me feel, not for the first time in this Chamber, that this was a little like Alice in Wonderland. In one breath she talked about the shambles of the benefits system inherited from the previous Government and said that it needed urgently reviewing and then in another breath she said that the Labour Government had to keep to that inheritance and implement a cut proposed by a Government whose shambles they so despised. No wonder people out there cannot understand half the things that go on in this place.

This afternoon, the Prime Minister spoke about putting lone parents to work. In the 1950s and 1960s, women fought for the right to work outside the home. They wanted to have choices in their lives. Now, the Secretary of State for Social Security and, apparently, the Prime Minister are saying that to choose to stay at home and bring up children is not a valid choice and that parenting is not work. Therefore, women and their children are to be further driven into poverty and debt, to force them to go to work outside the home.

All hon. Members who are parents know that bringing up children is hard work, and those of us who are single parents know that having sole day-to-day responsibility for a child is even harder work, and is more expensive. There is not a partner to provide free child care or undertake jobs around the house. Millions of women thought on 1 May that not only the face but the heart of Parliament would be different, because more women had been elected. Those women cannot now believe that the person who is supposed to speak for them in the Cabinet is the same person who is defending this mean attack on lone parents and their children.

I wonder how many of the women's groups that the Secretary of State has consulted support her action. We know from my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) that of the 40 women's groups in Northern Ireland to which he spoke, none of them supported this action. I suspect—we heard from the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone)—that few Labour Members support this action either. Although some of them may vote for it, it must be with heavy hearts and a guilty conscience.

The Government talk repeatedly until we are all fed up about what they inherited from the previous Government. People voted on 1 May for what they hoped would be a change for the better, not for a Tory inheritance written in concrete. The inheritance is not written in concrete. The Tory Government are dead, or so we thought. The Labour Government can choose how to spend the inheritance. They have already chosen to change a number of Tory policies, and the Prime Minister spoke about them this afternoon. They have chosen to change some of the Tory spending priorities in the past seven months. Labour Back Benchers are now being seduced or bullied into the Lobby with promises of a review or a committee, but a review, a social exclusion unit, a Cabinet Committee or a departmental committee will not put shoes on the feet of children. I am sorry that the Secretary of State finds this funny.

To change one's mind is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength, a sign that the Government have listened and a sign to the public that democracy works and that this steamroller of Tory discipline has not been replaced by the Labour steamroller. I cannot believe, and I suspect that millions of other people cannot believe, that people in this place who earn more than £800 a week can vote with a clear conscience to take £5 a week away from the poorest people in our society and their children. There is no economic, moral or political justification for it.

Photo of Mr Peter Snape Mr Peter Snape Labour, West Bromwich East

Twenty-five years ago, when I was first elected as parliamentary candidate for West Bromwich, East, the area of the black country that I have had the honour to represent since then was regarded as a fairly affluent part of the United Kingdom. Unemployment was 3 or 4 per cent. and British manufacturing industry regarded the black country as its heartland. Before I come to the central point that we are debating, I want to say to some of my hon. Friends that none of them should underestimate the damage that 18 years of Toryism have done to the fundamental nature of British society and to pride and especially working-class pride in areas such as mine.

In the early 1970s, single parents had the option of working or staying at home. For too many of them, that option has not existed for many years. Especially in the early 1980s, the Tory party's economic policies virtually destroyed our manufacturing base. The work ethic is all too often missing in the various estates that I have the honour to represent, because whole generations have never had the opportunity to work. So anything that the Government can do to bring back the work ethic and working-class pride, I am prepared to support. Having said that, I must say to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that this issue has not been well handled.

For single parents to be penalised financially if they go into work and then, through no fault of their own, lose their job is not an outcome that was intended in our manifesto. That aspect of the proposals ought to be reconsidered. It is not fair to penalise those who lose their job through no fault of their own.

There are no benefits to getting old, as some of us can tell the House. One of the drawbacks is that we are apt to lecture our hon. Friends. I hope that I shall not be accused of doing that tonight. I urge caution when the time comes to vote this evening.

I have listened to the speeches of Opposition Members this evening. It is easy for the Liberal Democrats. They are always in favour of greater expenditure. They never have to pick up a bill. They have not been in government in my lifetime and, looking at them, pray heaven they never are. As for the Conservative party, let me say this after 23 years in the House. When the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman—what a lousy speech that was—praises my hon. Friends for their courage and consistency, my hon. Friends should dip their handkerchiefs in perfume, because there is a sharp stench of hypocrisy in the Chamber.

I put one point to those of my hon. Friends who are tempted to vote for the new clause, so ably supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Audrey Wise). If my hon. Friends vote for it, it will not be carried. The Conservatives will see to that. Tomorrow's newspapers will not concentrate on the fate of lone parents. We could write the lead stories in the Daily Express and the Daily Mail ourselves. They will say, "An ashen-faced Tony Blair was left contemplating the smoking wreckage of his party as the left took 40 or 50 Members into the Lobby." The stories will not be about lone-parent families.

Let me say this about the events of the past 18 years. When I knocked on doors in what was until May a marginal constituency, people said to me time after time, "I am not going to vote for you, Peter. I will not vote Labour because you are hopelessly divided." If we demonstrate that we are divided on issues such as this, we do not provide succour and hope to lone-parent families. We merely provide succour and hope to the Conservative party, which was so soundly rejected on 1 May.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party, North Tayside

Are we to assume from the hon. Gentleman's last remarks that the headlines are more important than the issues? Are we to assume that the Daily Express is more important to him than the lone parents? If that is the case, the Labour Government are in a sorry state.

Hon. Members:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Mr Peter Snape Mr Peter Snape Labour, West Bromwich East

The hon. Gentleman may get cheap plaudits from his hon. Friends. They are used to giving cheap plaudits to their colleagues. They have rarely had quite so many hon. Friends to give them. The hon. Gentleman was obviously not listening. I said that the story would not be about lone parents and that they would not be helped by the vote tonight. The Government will have their way, whatever happens. What the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends wish to do, as the Liberal Democrat party always does, is to portray themselves as the friend of the oppressed, unless of course there is nothing especially controversial about the legislation. Then they have impeccable tactics. One third of them vote in one Lobby, one third vote in the other and one third stay in their places.

Photo of Mr Peter Snape Mr Peter Snape Labour, West Bromwich East

I will not give way again. I have heard enough nonsense from the Liberal Democrat party. In that way, Liberal Democrats can assure everyone that they are on their side, whatever the issue.

We have had not a word from the Liberal Democrats about the benefits budget as a whole. It has been claimed tonight that that this debate is a precursor of debates to come. Are we saying that the benefits budget cannot be touched in future years, but must increase year after year? Some of my hon. Friends shake their heads.

My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) has said that there would be a debate on disability living allowance. The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor), who has never been known for his compassion, talked about the disabled. Yet we all know full well that, in the last two or three years of the Conservative Administration, people were actively encouraged to apply for disability living allowance, so as to get them off the unemployment register. Are all those people to receive disability living allowance in future? Is it to be increased or index-linked, as some of my hon. Friends want? Those are the hard choices.

I have one or two words to say to those of my colleagues who came in at the general election and who are passionately and genuinely concerned about the future for lone parents.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings

For benefit of the House, would the hon. Gentleman care to repeat and elaborate on his allegation that a significant number of disabled people claiming disability living allowance are not disabled, but are perfectly fit and able-bodied? Will he take this opportunity either to withdraw that allegation, or to confirm and justify it?

Photo of Mr Peter Snape Mr Peter Snape Labour, West Bromwich East

Many of those people had previously claimed incapacity benefit and were encouraged to switch to disability living allowance. Hon. Members who had any dealings with such people know full well that they were encouraged to do so, and we know why that was— it was so that the outgoing Prime Minister could boast about the falling unemployment figures. That is the simple fact and if the hon. Gentleman thinks that it is a dramatic revelation, he is even sillier than I thought he was when he was first elected.

All of us—including those of my hon. Friends whose names are on the alternatives to the Secretary of State's proposals—worked extremely hard during the election campaign to get a Labour Government elected. I have heard one or two of my colleagues say that we should never have pledged that we would abide by the outgoing Conservative Government's spending totals, but that is not what they said during the election campaign, and with good reason. Like me, in a marginal seat, they heaved a sigh of relief because they knew that the central weapon in the Conservatives' armoury, which they used to cheat their way to power in 1987 and 1992—saying that voting Labour would mean tax increases—had been neutralised by that single pledge.

Having made our bed, we shall have to sleep in it, especially because voting against the Government tonight will bring no change and no benefit to lone mothers. It will merely give enormous comfort to the Conservatives and to the Liberal Democrats, who have never been known to do anything other than opt out of a hard choice.

Photo of Mr Howard Flight Mr Howard Flight Conservative, Arundel and South Downs

First, I do not see that the financial arguments in favour of the measure before us tonight stand up. This afternoon, we heard the Prime Minister catalogue hundreds of millions of pounds of expenditure that the Government have introduced. Welfare to work and lone parents are related matters, and the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) was right to say that it is not enough simply to argue the case for staying within the pledged spending levels.

Secondly, the measure does not apply to people who at present receive the benefit, but applies only to future claimants. One is forced to conclude that there is an argument of principle as to why lone parents are to be denied the benefit. It is to put strong pressure on them to go to work and to take up the inducements to work that the Government are introducing.

There seem to be massive contradictions here. It is working parents who will be hit by the measure. If one is a non-working lone parent who is currently on income support, one will receive no benefit from the double child allowance. If one takes a job, but loses that job, one will receive reduced benefit under the new rules. Where is the consistency in saying that, on the one hand, we are taking this measure, which represents a stick to force lone mothers to go back to work, but on the other hand, we are introducing a fiscal structure that, for the great majority, will represent precisely the reverse incentive?

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

If the measure is such a bad idea, why did the hon. Gentleman's party support it before the election?

Photo of Mr Howard Flight Mr Howard Flight Conservative, Arundel and South Downs

The position of the Conservative party has been made clear. We do not in principle agree with there being differential rates of benefit as between married people and single people. How to tackle poverty and lone-parent poverty in particular is a broader issue, and there are other ways of doing this. It is a question of principle, not one relating to the drafting of the Bill.

In addition, as the hon. Gentleman knows, Conservative Members will vote with the Government on the new clause, because it would be hypocritical for us to do otherwise, having proposed the principle. I am only pointing out that the way in which the principle has been set down in the Government's Bill—the Bill before us is not the one that we drafted—does not achieve the Government's stated objective, which is to put strong pressure on new lone mothers to go out to work. As he will also be aware, the arrangements will reduce coverage of people's travel-to-work costs, which is another disincentive, especially for those who live in areas where there is no work close by.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings 7:15 pm, 10th December 1997

Does my hon. Friend concede that the principle at stake is one that does not stigmatise individuals in specific categories, but looks at poverty in terms of income rather than in terms of broad and bland categories? That is the difference between the Conservative approach and the Labour approach: it is not that we do not care about the poor, but we want to identify the right people to whom we should pay benefits.

Photo of Mr Howard Flight Mr Howard Flight Conservative, Arundel and South Downs

I thank my hon. Friend for pulling out further the point that I was making. I would add that one also has to see things from the point of view of married couples who are on low incomes. There was great resentment about the way child benefit applied: people saw lone parents receiving what they thought was an unfair benefit. There is a different view of how we deal with the problem of poverty.

My point is that there is massive inconsistency as to the stated objectives and as to the way in which the Bill will work. I trust that the Government will address those inconsistencies in the promised review, otherwise they will not even meet their objective of driving lone mothers back into work.

Photo of Mrs Alice Mahon Mrs Alice Mahon Labour, Halifax

May I first through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, appeal to the Opposition not to pay me a compliment tonight? I can get into quite enough trouble with the Whips without any help from anyone else.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Audrey Wise) on her excellent speech. I am, very sadly, making a hard choice tonight, because I shall not be supporting the Government. I shall support the family. I believe in the family as an institution, whether it is a single-parent family or a two-parent family. The family gives us our values—it is our rock and the place where we all go for comfort. Throughout my life, I have greatly appreciated the fact that I have a good family, and it is therefore incumbent on me to support the family tonight.

The effects of the Bill, if it goes through tonight, coupled with the cuts that went through in November, mean that hard choices will be imposed on some of the poorest people in the country and their children, all because that is what a Labour Government—the first Labour Government in 18 years—have decided will happen. These are the most disadvantaged families and children in our extremely affluent society. We should not kid ourselves about how those people are managing now—they are living on the margins of society, only just surviving. I am sure that someone will correct me if I am wrong, but I think that it was R. H. Tawney who described poverty as "someone standing up to their neck in water and a slight wave could drown them". The cuts represent a tidal wave for lone parents.

I should also like to repeat what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said when she was shadow Secretary of State, when the decision to cut benefits was taken last year. She spoke for us all when she said: The way to get lone mothers out of poverty and cut spending on benefits for them is not by cutting the amount on which they have to live year by year and plunging them further into poverty."— [Official Report, 28 November 1996; Vol. 286, c. 500.] She also accepted that the majority of those who became lone parents were subsequently worse off, not better off. I must ask her what has happened to make her change her mind. How is it that she could argue with such passion and certainty 12 months ago about something that she now denies?

We are told that the cuts are about saving money— about £400 million. It has also been argued that we said in our manifesto that we would stick to the Tories' spending plans. I do not remember taking part in any debate in which we said that we would do that. I do remember reading about it one morning in a newspaper and thinking, "Oh my God. What have we done now?" If we are to be so meticulous about the manifesto and look at every word in it, where did it say that we would cut benefits to lone parents? How many Labour Members can put their hand on their heart and say that when they knocked on any door, addressed any meeting, or appeared on radio or on television, they said, "By the way, the lone parents will be the first to be attacked"? We did not do so, because not in a million years did any of us expect that we would be faced with the choice confronting us now.

In common with my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt), I support the new deal to get those lone parents who want to back into work, because I have survived on benefits as a lone parent. I was also the child of a lone parent, because my father was away in the second world war.

I should like to ask the Secretary of State an important question. It is one that neither she nor her Ministers have answered. I should appreciate a straight answer and not the usual mantra, "This is not an issue at this time," because that simply will not do. Will the new deal eventually become compulsory? If so, it is a piece of social engineering of which Stalin would have been proud. If the new deal becomes compulsory and a woman is unfortunate enough to become widowed, divorced, abandoned, a battered wife, or is a young girl literally left holding the baby, she will not have the choice to look after her children. Those who are wealthy and enjoy a different life style, however, can stay at home with their children. I stayed at home with my children.

The disincentive inherent in the scheme has already been well aired, so I will skip over it, because I know that many hon. Members want to speak. We must have an answer about the element of compulsion. It is all very well if women want to go back to work. That is fine, and it is excellent if affordable child care can be provided. Women must be given the choice. I received a letter that particularly moved me, and I think that that lone parent should speak to the House tonight through me. She wrote: Whilst I fully appreciate the current moves to assist those parents who wish to return to work, there are also those of us who feel unable to do this because we feel that if the only adult presence in the home is forced into work, many children will be deprived of their only source of stability and security. This can only cause more problems than it will solve.A parent who has to leave home before the children do each morning cannot also ensure that they will leave for school at the required time or get there at all. A parent who does not get in at night until after children have gone out to meet friends cannot ensure that they have done homework, know where their children are … Children do not need curfews—they need a parent with the time and the energy to do his or her job of parenting properly.Lone parents and their children are already one of the most deprived groups in society, having to function in an economy which is often inflated by two parents working. Moreover, a lone parent is already trying to do a job; the work of two people. Many people, like myself, did not bear children 'out of wedlock' but simply escaped from abusive situations, or indeed, were widowed. As a result, many of us are already suffering from stress, are over-stretched, and struggling. A doctor once informed me that the new generation of anti-depressant drugs … are very expensive … £1 per tablet". Look at the number of lone parents who end up in psychiatric units because of breakdowns and those who simply give up when the poverty gets too much and their children end up in care.

The Bill, which could make people increasingly impoverished, could create a great burden for the NHS, the social services and the police. The social exclusion unit will have an even more difficult job to do.

I understand that people have different life styles. A woman may have been fortunate enough to have had a good education and professional parents. She may have married a good, supportive husband and, having had children, she may have afforded a nanny or cleaner while pursuing an interesting career. Such a woman, who has never had to worry about money, may simply not understand what other women or single parents have to go through. I do not believe that ignorance should dictate Labour party policy.

Labour Members, especially women Labour Members, have always felt a special responsibility and duty to make the lives of those who are poorer better. "Things can only get better" we all sang on I May, but I must have missed the verse that ran, "excluding lone parents". It defies common sense and decency to support the cuts. I simply do not know why we are making them. I do not know what I am missing. There must be another agenda at work, because I am now receiving letters from people who are fearful about losing disability benefit. We are now reading about the benefits integrity project. It appears to be a hit squad, whose remit is to harass claimants and put them off claiming disability benefit. But disabled people and lone parents voted for us in their thousands on 1 May.

I have been supportive of a number of the Government's initiatives, and I want to mention a few of the good things. We are tackling the mess in which our schools were left. As the Prime Minister said today, there is a lot of good news. I particularly welcomed the White Paper launched by the Secretary of State for Health. We all did a little dance when we heard about our support for the ban on land mines. We have also banned handguns. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has promoted many exciting projects that will come on stream in the future.

I cannot support the Government tonight and I know that many of my colleagues will do so with a heavy heart. Since the summer, I and many others have sought to reverse the proposed cuts. My hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) has spoken about quiet diplomacy. That may have been the practice on her part, but I have gone through every route possible from the parliamentary Labour party to Ministers, and I even discussed my concerns with the Whips. I even removed my name from a critical early-day motion, and I must tell the House that I did so with great difficulty.

Our pleas have not been heard. We have won the argument time and again, but we have been ignored. We have been told over and over again that lone parents in work, on average, will be £50 better off. Today I learnt from the House of Commons Library, not a place known for left-wing rebels, that that £50 gain is based on lone parents currently in work. It states that once travel and child costs are taken into account, lone parents seeking employment will find that the net gain of gaining a job will be reduced to £10. The Government's claims do not add up. The money is available to avoid the cuts.

The Government have lost the argument, but they seem determined to carry on. On 1 May, I said that the people voted for a change because they were sick to the stomach of the sleaze and arrogance displayed by the previous Government. In particular, they were sickened by the stigmatisation and scapegoating of lone parents. There is something rather punitive and cruel about the cuts, and something rather arrogant. Of course they will be approved with the support of the Tories, but they will not go through with mine.

Photo of Dr Jenny Tonge Dr Jenny Tonge Liberal Democrat, Richmond Park

I thank the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) for her speech in defence of the family and single parents. I have no wish to embarrass her, but her speech was a fine one. I also welcome back to the Chamber the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone). I trust that his injuries were due to natural causes.

I want to share with the House my years of experience as a doctor dealing with many young women who have become pregnant and raised families as single parents. They are not by any means a group typical of lone parents; I do not claim that, but they are frequently vilified.

I want to dispel the myth about those women—a myth perpetrated by the bunch of reprobates who call themselves Her Majesty's Opposition, who are all apparently now having £30 dinners, as they are not in their places. When they were in government, they promoted the myth that a reduction in benefits would discourage women from getting pregnant. The women's entitlement to housing has already been eroded; that did not work. Now their income is to be reduced, so why do they become pregnant? It has not been said very often tonight, but I know that in private that is often said.

Some women, in my experience, have never had a proper home or a family. They have never known the love or security of a decent home. I repeat that those women are not typical of lone parents, but they are a big group. Their lives have been spent in a series of unsatisfactory foster homes or residential care.

7.30 pm

I well remember one such patient of mine, who got pregnant at a very early age and, because of ill health, decided eventually to have a termination of pregnancy. Within a very few months, she was back, pregnant again, and she told me that time that she wanted to keep the baby, because above all she wanted someone to love and someone who would love her—something that she had never experienced, after a lifetime of rejection. Cuts in her benefit would not have deterred her.

Other, older women go on having babies because it gives them a brief respite from poverty and degradation. They may have a partner who abuses them; they may have many partners, but they have babies for the same reason— someone whom they can love and who will love them.

Pregnancy and childbirth give women attention. They may even get a bunch of flowers from the child's father before he disappears into the great blue yonder. I would be encouraged if the Government would hurry up and do something about the Child Support Agency, which has so little success in getting those men to support their partners.

Those mothers get a little attention. It does not last, but it provides a break. They have no concept of the difficulties and responsibilities of parenthood. Threats of a cut in benefit will not deter them; it is all that they have.

Many more of the women whom I saw got pregnant through ignorance and carelessness. Sex education in this country is patchy and woefully inadequate. I have seen many patients in family planning clinics whose first knowledge of how their reproductive system works is gained when they come to the clinic, and many are already pregnant by that time. Cuts will not deter that group, either.

Yes, by all means, let us encourage lone parents to work if they wish, and let us also give them a good education, especially a good sex education, some lessons in human biology and some teaching and experience in parenting. They also need good social services and good child care now, to prevent the same old cycle repeating itself in the next generation.

However, we must not at the same time wield the stick of benefit cuts for those women and children. It is cruel and senseless. I appeal to the Government to consider the quality of mercy for those people—if not for the single mothers, let it be for their children, who need a better standard of living, not a worse one. Only mercy and compassion, and benefits now, will stop those children becoming single parents in their turn, in a few years.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

I have been asking myself why we are doing what the Government propose. On the radio this morning, John Humphrys asked the Secretary of State whether we are doing it because we have to or because we want to. I was not satisfied with the Secretary of State's reply.

Having reflected deeply on the issue, I have come to the conclusion that there is no need to do what we are being asked to do. It has been turned into an insane loyalty test, in which my colleagues are being invited to support the Government, when they know in their hearts that what the Government are doing is wrong. That grieves me, because I want the Labour Government to succeed.

Every time that I hear the Minister try to persuade the world outside, it is as though we live in a parallel dimension in the House—as though we do not connect with what people outside are thinking. They think that we are wrong. The Labour Government think that we are right. We know that the Government are wrong. Nothing will happen. It is an incredible state of affairs. We are told that there are hard choices, but the hardest choice of all is to vote against the Government, even though we know that they are wrong.

I shall focus on just one aspect, as many of my colleagues want to speak. The Bill deals with lone parents in work. Many of the contributions have been about getting lone parents into work. That is not what the Bill does.

In my constituency of Pendle, in north-east Lancashire, we are not work poor—we are cash poor. North-east Lancashire is a low-pay black spot. The area is scarred by poverty pay. There are 3,100 one-parent families in my constituency, many of whom are working and many of whom are living in deep poverty.

The Minister says, and we are invited to believe this as a truth, that a lone parent in work will, on average, be £50 a week better off than one on income support. That assumes that the lone parent is getting family credit. Even the child care disregard, which my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Audrey Wise) mentioned, is predicated on the assumption that the lone parent in work, in a low-paid job, is getting family credit.

The reality is that in Lancashire, one third of all people who are entitled to family credit do not take it up, for whatever reason. They may be in isolated workplaces, or there may be a non-unionised work force. Thousands of people could be lifted out of poverty by claiming family credit, but they do not do so. They depend on the non-means-tested benefits—the child benefit for lone parents, which is being snatched away from them.

Two out of three people who do not claim family credit but are entitled to it would get at least £10 a week. The average amount unclaimed is £21.80. Such ignorance is expensive. Nationally, 80,000 one-parent families in severe hardship are not claiming family credit.

What is needed is a national minimum wage to help people in work. The tragedy is that this excellent proposal—the National Minimum Wage Bill has now been published—will not kick in until the spring of 1999 at the earliest. We are proposing cuts that will kick in next June, so the cart has been put before the horse.

I am sad about what has happened. I consider myself not as one of the usual suspects, but as someone who desperately wants the Government to succeed. For many of those in the Chamber and outside, this is a defining moment. If people believe that what we are doing is wrong, they should join us in the Lobby and vote against the Government's proposal.

Photo of Ms Lorna Fitzsimons Ms Lorna Fitzsimons Labour, Rochdale

This is an understandably emotional issue. My constituency of Rochdale has one of the highest levels of teenage pregnancy in Europe, so the issue has evoked much emotion not just within the constituency party but among my constituents.

My contribution will be brief. There have been some heated speeches this evening. As one of the younger new Members of Parliament and a woman, I feel that, on my head and on the heads of my female colleagues, has been heaped a lot of responsibility for addressing the position of women in society and what the Labour party has or has not achieved in that regard during six months in government.

I remind the House and the world outside it that those hon. Members who pass through the Government Lobby tonight will do so not because we are naive and unaware of the problems, but because we can only hope and trust that the Government are looking to the bigger picture. That is the reason why my colleagues and I stood as Labour candidates in the general election and supported the election of a Labour Government. Let us be honest: whether we agreed with the decision from the outset or, as one of my colleagues said, woke up and read in The Guardian that Labour Members would have to accept spending pledges that were not our own, we knew that there would be hard choices. We also knew that somebody would have to pay for those choices, perhaps in the form of cuts.

Many of my colleagues have introduced cuts at local government level—albeit with a heavy heart. People like me will pass through the Government Lobby tonight, because we believe that this is a short-term measure that will reap long-term gain by creating a modern economy and liberating from poverty all the children and single parents whom I represent. That outcome will be possible only when constituencies such as Rochdale achieve economic prosperity.

Although £5 on benefit will buy things for the family, in the long term it will not alleviate the poverty trap in which many of my constituents are caught. Two, three and sometimes four generations of single parents live on council estates in my constituency and they are looking for some bold action by the Government. They are waiting for the national child care strategy to kick in. They are looking for success from the new deal for lone parents and for a national minimum wage.

Some of the bravest people who represent the Labour party in local government are single parents. Rochdale has taken the bold step of appointing a poverty committee, which brings together a cross-section of local council representatives to address that problem. The committee is discussing the issue tonight. The committee chair, who is one of the bravest people I know, is a lone parent with eight children. Tonight, she will answer an allegedly awkward question from the Liberal Democrats—who do nothing but ask awkward questions and offer no solutions.

That councillor intends to back the Government because she is aware of the bigger picture and she knows that we must change the way things work. She worked for the Labour party during the general election campaign not because she thought it would be easy—she had her doubts about the spending pledges to which Labour was committed—but because she understood that a Labour Government would acknowledge her existence and her contribution to society. That is a positive, not a negative, point.

That Labour councillor is concentrating on the Government's positive measures, whether it is the family unit, the social exclusion unit or our work on poverty. She knows that those measures represent light at the end of the tunnel; it will not be all continuous grind and poverty. She trusts us to have her best interests, and those of the people whom she represents, at heart. She believes that the Government will change the economic destiny of the majority of people on the Newbold council estate whom she represents.

I shall pass through the Government Lobby tonight not because I do not recognise that there are problems with the revolving door of seasonal work or problems for young families with children under five—I am not that naive. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley), the chair of the parliamentary Labour party, I hope that the Government will continually review the measure when it is in place. I hope that they are serious about that pledge. I hope that the Government will do something if the penalties kick in for those in seasonal employment and if there are problems for families with children under five.

If the Government do not stand by their word, many people will find it harder to look to the long term when they are forced to address other difficult issues. It has been difficult to make this speech tonight as a new Member of Parliament when so many eminent colleagues have made wonderful contributions. I ask Ministers to bear it in mind that we are putting a lot of trust in the Government because we believe that they have the nation's long-term agenda at heart. We knew that there would be hard choices, but I hope that we shall learn some lessons from this exercise. We have fallen into this problem and the way in which we have dealt with it has done no one any favours. We must ensure that we are the Government whom my friend the councillor will defend tonight; her trust in us must be well placed. I hope also that the faith that new Members like me will place in the Government when we pass through the Lobby tonight is not misplaced.

Photo of Dennis Canavan Dennis Canavan Labour, Falkirk West 7:45 pm, 10th December 1997

I put my name to new clause 1 and to amendment No. 1 because I believe that the proposals that they outline will help to protect the living standards of single-parent families.

The Government's proposals will undoubtedly cut the living standards of some of the most deprived and disadvantaged children in our country. There is abundant evidence of the incidence of poverty among single-parent families. The average income of a single-parent family is only 37 per cent. of that of a two-parent family. Some 53 per cent. of children in one-parent families lack three or more of the basic necessities of life compared with only 24 per cent. of children in two-parent families. Single parents face additional costs in bringing up their children because they have no partner with whom to share child care and no one else to contribute to the family income.

The Government propose to cut benefits for single-parent families by up to £11 per week. I find that incomprehensible and unjustifiable, especially when we are apparently heading for a budget surplus and the economy is reported to be in reasonably good shape. The Government are proposing a measure that the previous Tory Government tried to introduce. We opposed it then and, to be consistent, we should oppose it now. No doubt the Secretary of State will tell us later that we are now in a different situation because the Labour Government propose to improve job opportunities for single parents. I applaud her for that: I give her credit for ensuring that there will be investment in new job opportunities and in childcare facilities to help those single parents who want to work to do so.

The fact of the matter is that, in many areas, the jobs and the childcare facilities do not exist yet—if they do, they are not adequate to deal with demand from single parents. Some single parents may choose to look after their children themselves rather than put them in the care of another person. If that is their decision—particularly when their children are very young—they should not be penalised for it.

I urge my right hon. Friend to rethink the issue, and I urge as many as possible of my hon. Friends to vote for amendment No. 1, which has cross-party support. I honestly believe that it reflects the mood of the country. A poll that appeared in yesterday's edition of The Guardian revealed that the majority of people—a ratio of three to one—believe that the Government have got it wrong.

Today, all Scottish Members received a letter that criticised the Government proposals to cut benefit for single-parent families. The signatories of the letter include Rev. Alexander McDonald, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Cardinal Thomas Winning, Richard Holloway, the Scottish Episcopalian Bishop of Edinburgh, the Young Women's Christian Association Scottish National Council, Save the Children, the Transport and General Workers Union (Scotland) and other organisations that have campaigned consistently for children's rights and the rights of single-parent families in particular.

May I say this to my hon. Friends who have been critical? I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt) is here. I saw her on the television not all that long ago, saying that the opposition to the Government proposals was a conspiracy organised by the Socialist Campaign Group. I am sure that Bishop Holloway, Cardinal Winning and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland will be surprised to find out that they have been recruited into the Socialist Campaign Group—the Church militant perhaps, but not the Campaign Group.

The letter specifically refers to a statement by the Prime Minister, saying: if the Labour Government has not raised the living standards of the poorest by the end of its time in office it will have failed. Therefore, when I go into the Lobby tonight to vote against the Government proposals, I shall be not rebelling against the Prime Minister, but urging him to stand by his commitment and to protect the living standards of some of the poorest and most vulnerable children in our country.

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Labour, Wythenshawe and Sale East

As many hon. Members have said, this is not an easy issue. As a new Member, I am aware that this is the time for clear judgment and to be as honest and as truthful as we can be. I have noticed that truth and honesty seem to have disappeared in the media recently as they have dived down into their usual cynical attitudes.

Today, The Guardian insinuated that the benefits of every lone parent would be cut if the Government were successful in the Division Lobby tonight, as I am sure they will be. That was an absolute lie. It is an outrage to scare lone parents in that way because all lone parents who currently receive the benefit will be protected.

The truth is that I fought the election campaign on a manifesto and supported a programme that said that Labour would stay within its spending limits for the first two years of government. I defy the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) or any other hon. Member to find any leaflet, magazine or newspaper article that suggests otherwise. That was the platform on which I stood as a candidate.

On the doorsteps, amid many positive messages that I received, some constituents regularly said, "You will not do it. You will spend your way out of it." Standing as a candidate on that platform, my response was, "No, we will not." After 18 years of Tory rule, our approach is to review and to reprioritise our budgets. I also made it clear that it was important that, in reprioritising those budgets, the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our country should have the highest priority.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

Can my hon. Friend produce any leaflet, any reference in the Labour manifesto or any leaflet in his constituency or elsewhere, in which we gave a pre-election commitment to cut lone-parent benefits? Can he produce any reference to that in the manifesto?

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Labour, Wythenshawe and Sale East

Having studied these issues and followed them carefully over many years, but particularly in the run-up to the election, I was aware at that time that cuts were built into—

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

Can my hon. Friend produce a reference?

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. The House has been good natured up to now, so let us continue in that manner.

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Labour, Wythenshawe and Sale East

It may be a good question and I am attempting to answer it. I was aware that the proposal to cut benefit was built into Tory spending plans. Therefore, when I was campaigning, I knew that that cut was a possible consequence of the campaign. If I win an election on a platform that says that Labour will stay within spending limits, I have to face the question: if we restore this benefit cut what other benefits am I prepared to cut to make up the difference?

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Labour, Stockton North

Does my hon. Friend not realise that we are cutting the benefit? Those who protest against this are not asking for extra money. We seek simply to leave it as it is until the broad-ranging review is concluded. We are not asking for extra money, so we are staying within spending levels.

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Labour, Wythenshawe and Sale East

I am sorry, but my hon. Friends cannot have it both ways. The simple fact is that there is a £400 million commitment here and, if that cut is restored, another cut elsewhere in the budget will have to be found. It is a painful fact for me and for many of my hon. Friends, but it is none the less a fact.

One of the things that has disturbed and sometimes appalled me is the way in which many people outside and in the House have sought to pitch the debate in a particular direction by saying, "You are either on the side of the poor or you are on the side of the Government." That is a false statement. Throughout the debate, we have heard of various initiatives, including the social exclusion unit and the new deal, which is aimed especially at lone parents, young unemployed people and unemployed people who are disabled, who also aspire to a place in the work force. We have heard about the cuts in value added tax on fuel, the additional payments to pensioners this winter and aspirations to raise educational standards in the poorest communities.

The Prime Minister has said that, if we have not delivered for the poorest, we will have failed. Hon. Members and the country will judge him on that pledge. It is important that we fulfil that pledge, but I am absolutely convinced that, to tackle poverty, we have to encourage employment opportunities, especially among those people who have been excluded over many years from the work force.

A third of all households in Britain that have no one in paid employment are single-parent households. It is not a question of compulsion. We know from research that the majority of lone parents want to work because they know that it will make their families better off, give them more independence and enable them to participate in society. The new deal will deliver on that aspiration.

The truth comes, of course, when hon. Members face their constituents. Many of us have met lone parents in recent weeks. One in particular taught me a great deal. She was very unhappy about the prospect of the cut, but two things emerged from the discussion, which hon. Members should realise. First, she thought that, as an existing claimant, her benefit was going to be cut. She was reassured when I told her that it was not going to be cut.

Secondly, that lone parent goes out to work for £110 a week. It is not a huge salary by any means. It is extremely modest, but she prefers to work rather than to be on benefit. Her problem is that, during school holidays, child care costs her £70 a week. That is her difficulty. We need to produce as soon as possible a child care programme to help her to keep her job, rather than an extra £5 or £6 a week in benefit after she has lost her job.

Many hon. Members have described this as a tough decision. It is the hardest decision that I have had to face in my time as an hon. Member, but it is certainly not the first time that Labour Ministers and a Labour Government have had to face a difficult decision. When lone-parent benefit was first introduced, the Labour Secretary of State for Social Services said: As in many other areas of our social policy, we have got to face facts and achieve the maximum we can within the resources available."—[Official Report, 20 October 1975; Vol. 898, c. 67.] Those words were spoken by Barbara Castle and they are as true today as they were in 1975.

8 pm

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Labour, Stockton North

This is a difficult debate, with nightmarish aspects. I shall try to introduce a degree of reality based on my experience as a constituency Member.

In implementing a measure to end entitlement to lone-parent benefit for next year's new claimants, and the preceding abolition of the lone-parent premium on income support, the Government are staking their moral authority on a simple question: can we guarantee real opportunities to all single parents who will be adversely affected by the two cuts?

The number and range of such opportunities is to be extended by the new deal for lone parents. I support that programme, and I do not doubt the Government's sincerity in promoting it; but, given that the best available figures suggest that the combined losses in entitlement will affect half a million benefit claims in 1998–99 alone, is it cynical to see a triumph of hope over expectation in any contention that every one of those half million will, by way of compensation, be offered a work or child care package?

If it is cynical to suggest that the official unemployment figures exclude a significant number of people who are in reality actively seeking work—heaven knows, the Deputy Prime Minister has made that claim many times, and I am sure he is right—and thus adding to competition for available vacancies, not only was that cynicism shared by nearly all my right hon. Friends in opposition; it is, or should be, shared by them in government, however expedient it might be now to retain the same figures. They would probably agree with me—I hope they would—that the official figure for those unemployed in the borough of Stockton-on-Tees in October this year, 8.5 per cent., understates the size of the task of providing employment opportunity for all who lack it, as does the numerical total of 4,181 for the Stockton, North constituency.

In October, the figure for the Stockton borough as a whole was 7,187, and 1,124 jobcentre vacancies were unfilled. It does not take an Einstein to work out that 6.4 people were chasing each vacancy. In neighbouring Middlesbrough, the situation was even worse: 14.4 people were chasing each registered vacancy. Those are two towns in a grouping of five. Across the old Cleveland boundaries, the figure is 10: across five towns, 10 people are chasing each vacancy. The Bill will increase that figure, but how are we to increase the number of vacancies? The whole proposal is premature and unjustified. We are running away with ourselves. Too much sloppy logic is being applied in an attempt to justify measures that are unwarranted, and, indeed, were previously condemned by senior members of the parliamentary Labour party.

I would not care to gamble on the possibility that, in the four years that the current Parliament has to run from April 1998 onwards, no single parent will approach me and say, "I have lost £5 a week from an extremely tight family budget because of the withdrawal of the lone-parent premium"—or £6 a week because of the withdrawal of lone-parent benefit—and your Government cannot offer me a job that I can do so that I can compensate for that by my own efforts." As I have said, there are 10 people seeking every job.

One must assume from their actions that the Government are prepared to take that gamble—to gamble on the flawless implementation of their new deal programme in all areas, and to gamble on there being no downturn in economic growth. I endorse the programme, and applaud such initiatives as the funding of after-school club places and the introduction of enhanced child care disregards into the family credit regime. However—even leaving aside, for the purposes of my argument, lone parents who quite honourably choose to remain at home with their children; for heaven's sake, some mothers believe that the first five years of their children's growth require the personal attention of at least one parent, lone or otherwise—my support of those programmes cannot blind me to the possibility that the Government's reach will exceed their grasp, and that I can expect to see far more than one victim of that relative failure at my constituency advice bureaux over the next four years.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt) said that potential claimants had come to her surgeries saying that they supported the broad thrust of the measure. I do not know where they get these surgeries from. I have been a Member of Parliament for nearly 15 years, and I can tell the House that it is no joke: my surgeries are bloody heartbreaking, and I do not want to add to that. My hon. Friend also claimed that we had inherited a shambles created by the Child Support Act 1991. Of course we did, but my hon. Friend failed to remind the House that the parliamentary Labour party trooped through the Lobby in order to enact it—and the person who led us through the Lobby was my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who is now asking us to trust her on the basis of a review that my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley), the chairman of the parliamentary Labour party, has told us will be continuous.

If we are to have a review, why can we not depend on the review team headed by the Minister for Welfare Reform, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field)? If we are to have a broad review, why can we not wait for the full package and see what we are going to buy? If we continue at this rate, we shall have to have a review of reviews, and probably another review after that.

What am I to say to the constituents who come to my surgeries? Am Ito say that my faith in the Government's generally good intentions towards lone parents meant that I was prepared to support measures that resulted in their impoverishment? Can I justify such a stance? I am afraid that I cannot. I am a simple individual. That does not mean that I am stupid; it means that I am not convinced by some of the arguments that we have heard this evening.

Other right hon. and hon. Members will face the choice that I must face unless they can guarantee the universal success of the new deal for lone parents—and, in the real world, how can they? In that context, new Labour's rhetoric about hard choices is oddly reminiscent of the old left slogan, "You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs." George Orwell had the best answer to that: he said, "So, show me the omelette." We should look at the omelette.

I do not want to delay the House, although I could continue for another 10 minutes. What we need to do can be summed up in two words—"precisely nothing", at least for the moment. I cannot vote for the new clause, because it suggests a change in the regulations, and I think that we must have time to take stock. We should pause, and take a breath. For that reason, I shall vote for amendment No. 1.

Photo of Mr David Rendel Mr David Rendel Liberal Democrat, Newbury

I am grateful for this opportunity to take part in the debate, which is one of the best that we have had for a long time. Perhaps that is not surprising because there is some cross-party agreement and such debates usually draw the best from hon. Members. Two arguments need some further review. My hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) comprehensively demolished most of the Government's arguments. Since then the issue of the review, about which a couple of Labour Members spoke, has been introduced. Given the importance that they attach to the review and that, as far as I am aware, no Opposition Member had heard a whisper of such a review until it was mentioned in the debate, I hope that in the new spirit of freedom of information the Government will be prepared to put the paper describing the review, which has apparently just been circulated to Labour Members, in the Library so that we may all see exactly what the Secretary of State proposes. If the document is such an important part of the argument, it should surely be available to all hon. Members.

The second main Government argument is that there is in some sense a choice between welfare to work and lone-parent benefit. I do not accept that, and I do not think that many Labour Members accept it. We have shown that there is money in the budget to reverse the benefit cuts. In addition, we have shown that while welfare to work is welcome—we have consistently welcomed it—even on the Government's figures no more than 50 per cent. of lone parents are expected to get back into long-term work as a result of the welfare-to-work programme. That means that at least 50 per cent. of lone parents will gain nothing from welfare to work but will have all the disadvantages of the lone-parent benefit cut. The two cannot be seen as the two sides of the argument. Lone parents who will gain nothing from welfare to work should be allowed to retain at least the benefits that they currently receive.

I shall not try to demolish the Government's arguments because they have already been comprehensively scattered to the winds. I shall give three positive reasons for Labour Members choosing to vote for amendment No. 1. They have rightly made great play of the importance of keeping their promises. I have already said that we are debating two promises. The first is the Government's promise to stick to the budget that they inherited. They will do that whatever the outcome of the vote. Thanks to the unexpectedly fast fall in unemployment and the measures in the Bill to block loopholes in national insurance, there is enough money in the social security budget to do more than cover the cost of reversing the benefit cut. The Government will keep that promise, so there is no point in using an argument about breaking it to persuade people to retain the cut.

Labour made another promise before the election. It is on record, perhaps not in its manifesto, but it was made by no less a person than the Secretary of State. That promise was to reverse the benefit cut. If the Government want to keep their promises, that is the one that they should consider and I urge them to do that. Hon. Members have spoken about disincentives to work. The Government rightly say that they want to remove such disincentives and give people every opportunity to find work. We support that, but it is quite clear that a benefit cut for new claimants must be a disincentive to work for those who are currently on the higher benefit level. If they get temporary jobs and are later thrown out of work, they will receive lower benefit, and that is clearly a disincentive to finding a job. That is a positive reason for Labour Members who wish to remove such disincentives to vote for amendment No. 1.

We support the Government's emphasis on dealing with social exclusion. They have set up a social exclusion unit. Good for them. They claim that they are trying to reduce the gap between the richest and the poorest which under the Tories grew so big. We support that, but how can they reduce that gap by making some of the very poorest even poorer? The Government cannot expect us to believe that they are intent on reducing social exclusion if they carry out their threat to make some of our poorest people even poorer.

8.15 pm

Labour Members who go through the Government Lobby will be voting with some of the most right-wing Tories in the House who for years have supported the policy of cutting lone-parent benefit. Do those Labour Members think that their friends and families and the people who worked for them before the May election, the members of their party and the constituency committees want them to vote with people such as the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) to damage the interests of lone parents? Is that what people sent Labour Members here to do on 1 May? I challenge them to accept that almost all their constituency supporters support the amendment. They should accept that there are no arguments for voting against the amendment unless the sole intention is to enable the Secretary of State to save face.

Photo of Dr John Marek Dr John Marek Labour, Wrexham

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I seek your support and sustenance. As you know, many hon. Members wish to say why they intend to vote in favour of amendment No. 1 and against the legislation. If the Government move a motion that the Question be now put, I hope that you will take cognisance of the fact that many hon. Members wish to speak in the debate. I hope that your arm will not be twisted by the Chief Whip or by any other Government Whip.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

We have had a wide-ranging debate covering many issues relating to lone parents, and I will take this opportunity to set out the background to our policy and priorities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley), in his thoughtful and important speech, reminded the House that our task is to rebuild the welfare state and to do that around family and work patterns that have greatly changed since the welfare state was founded. Anyone starting to devise a system of support for lone parents and their children would start not just with benefits—if they were concerned about the living standards of lone parents, they would start by devising opportunities for work, for training for work and for child care to support work. They would also look at the responsibility of fathers to continue to pay for their children even if they do not live in the same household.

A modern system of support should start with the opportunities that have been denied to thousands of lone parents because of the previous Government's neglect. It would start with the opportunities that this Government have decided are their priority for lone parents. Our aim is to give lone parents the opportunities that previously they have not had. Anyone starting out to devise a system of support for lone parents would make it a priority to provide them with the support that they need to take advantage of those opportunities. There would be support for lone parents in taking the opportunity to work, such as help with job search, and with finding and paying for the right child care. There would be support with training. Anyone devising such a system would start with measures that the Government are already implementing.

The new deal for lone parents, a national child care strategy, extra help with the cost of child care, and a national minimum wage will help lone parents get into work, and will help make work pay. The Government are addressing all the issues raised by the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb), who moved the amendment.

Photo of Mrs Maria Fyfe Mrs Maria Fyfe Labour, Glasgow Maryhill

I listened carefully to my right hon. Friend. Will she explain to me why it is her policy that a lone parent in work who loses her job should be treated as a new lone parent and should have a lesser benefit? What is the logic of that?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

My hon. Friend raises the important issue of whether our proposals will be a disincentive to lone mothers to take work. I ask her to bear with me, because I shall answer that question. If I do not answer it satisfactorily, I will give way to her again.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way, because I know that she wants to make progress. She has talked about the support that she wants to give lone mothers, especially those who go back to work. All hon. Members welcome that support, but what support will she give lone mothers who have to stay at home either because they feel that their children are too young to leave in the care of others, or because they cannot find a job?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I shall address that point. The clause deals with the benefits for lone parents who are in work, not the benefits for those not in work.

In my view, in the Government's view and in the view of those who elected us, the failure to invest in opportunity in the past 18 years means that providing opportunities must be our first priority. We are delivering those opportunities. We are offering lone parents a new deal and providing them with what they want, which is the opportunity to work instead of a life devoid of any choice except dependence on benefits.

Most lone parents want to work. They know that that is the only way to improve the living standards of their families and to be able to afford all the things to which my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Audrey Wise) referred. Lone parents want those things for their children, and they know that they can get them by working. But work is about more than money.

Photo of Lynne Jones Lynne Jones Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

My right hon. Friend talks about the desire of lone parents to work. Does she recall her own words in her book "The Century Gap", in which she wrote: As the century gap narrows, it is to be hoped that taking time out of paid employment to care for small children will come to be considered as valuable an occupation as any other in society"? Does she now reject that argument?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

My hon. Friend will know that in that book I also argued that it is important to extend choice so that lone mothers can have the financial independence that work affords. My hon. Friend will recognise that that theme runs strongly through my book.

Lone mothers say that work is about more than money, although that is important. Work for them means that they do not have to depend on benefits. They can show their children that income is about work rather than benefits. My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) referred to the work ethic. He said that we should be concerned about estates where people are growing up, generation after generation, never experiencing the world of work. Lone parents in my constituency tell me that they are concerned about their children. They want to work so that they can set an example for their children, and can bring them up to understand that life is about work and not just about claiming benefits. They want the Government to deliver those opportunities, so that they can set that example to their children, and that is what we shall do.

Photo of Ann Clwyd Ann Clwyd Labour, Cynon Valley

What would my right hon. Friend say to people in my constituency, where there are 1,500 lone parents and 200 jobs advertised at the jobcentre? Where are the jobs to come from?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Even in areas where jobs are available and where there is a trend for married mothers to go into work, lone mothers get left behind and trapped on benefits. We are trying to ensure equality of opportunity for lone parents to be able to work. Our starting point and our priority for investment is to back them with opportunities to work, whether in part-time or full-time jobs.

Many hon. Members, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan), rightly reminded the House that lone parents are often poor. I have argued in the House for 15 years that lone parents are poor, but I have also argued that it is not lone parenthood of itself that makes them and their children poor: it is the absence of an opportunity to work. While married women have entered the labour market in ever greater numbers, lone mothers, who want to work and most need to work, have been left behind.

The Government are committed to tackling the causes of poverty, not just the symptoms. That means tackling the barriers that lone parents face when they want to get into work. That is what is done in other European countries, where lone mothers are twice as likely to be in work and only half as likely to be dependent on benefits as they are in this country. Lone mothers elsewhere in Europe are better off, because those countries tackle poverty among lone parents and their children by supporting them with opportunities to work and with child care, and that is what we should do, too.

Photo of Lynne Jones Lynne Jones Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

What my right hon. Friend says about opportunities for lone parents in other European countries is undoubtedly true. Is it not also true that the benefits system and sex education in those countries are better? Should we not learn a lesson from that as well?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I agree with my hon. Friend that sex education is important, but European countries which support lone parents with an impressive, high-quality Child care infrastructure, and with support to get them into work and help them stay in work, do not necessarily have better benefit systems for lone parents who do not work.

Photo of Dr Norman Godman Dr Norman Godman Labour, Greenock and Inverclyde

Work is exceedingly difficult to find in my constituency for people of all ages and of both sexes. If my right hon. Friend must make tough decisions, why does she not recommend the taxing of child benefit paid to those earning in excess of £40,000 per annum?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I will deal with the issue of choices in spending later in my speech, but I should like now to deal with the specific measures that hon. Members will vote on today.

Clause 70 of the Bill provides power to equalise rates of child benefit for lone parents and couple families. The provision will therefore affect the income only of lone parents who are in work and will not affect the income of lone parents who are not in work. The House has already had opportunities to debate the benefits of lone mothers out of work, and those benefits have been introduced through separate regulations. The lone mothers who are the subject of today's vote are those who are in work or who are considering work.

8.30 pm

Two substantive questions have been asked in this debate, and I should like to answer them. The first is whether lone parents have extra costs in work beyond those faced by couple families. The second question—which my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) asked—is whether the measure will discourage lone parents from taking work. Many hon. Members have asked those questions today.

The answer to the first question is yes, lone parents face extra costs in work beyond those faced by couple families. However, the Government are dealing with those extra costs, because they are child care costs. Access to high-quality affordable child care is crucial if lone parents are to have the same opportunities to work as other families. That is why the we said in our manifesto that we would develop a national child care strategy to help parents balance work and family life. We are making that a reality.

Our national child care strategy will have three parts: meeting parents' demands for accessible, high-quality and affordable child care.

First, on accessibility, the Government have made the biggest ever investment in child care. There will be £300 million from the national lottery and the Exchequer to extend out-of-school child care. The additional 30,000 out-of-school projects represent a 10-fold increase on current provision, and they mean that there will be places for almost a million children. Child care will therefore be available for those children before school if necessary, after school if necessary, and in the school holidays. Moreover, there will be help for the under-fives.

Every parent will have access in their community to out-of-school care for their child. I feel very proud of that achievement, which has come so early in the life of the Government. In 1983, I tabled my first parliamentary question, asking the then Prime Minister, now Baroness Thatcher, whether she would consider concerns about a complete lack of after-school clubs preventing parents from being able to balance work and home responsibilities. She wrote that off as rubbish, as did a subsequent Tory Prime Minister. This Labour Government, however, are now delivering on that commitment. We are delivering after-school care in addition to the other measures to which we are committed in helping to improve access to child care.

Photo of Alan Simpson Alan Simpson Labour, Nottingham South

I do not think that there is a Labour Member in the Chamber who would not and does not welcome the national child care strategy, but will my right hon. Friend explain why we cannot deliver the national child care strategy before pulling away the safety net of benefit support? If we were to do that, our proposals would be coherent in a way in which they currently are not.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

As I shall explain in a moment, help with child care costs and extra child care provision will come on stream at the same time as the benefit changes for lone parents who are in work.

Our action on after-school clubs is in addition to our other measures to help improve access to child care. We will provide a nursery place for every four-year-old in Britain, and we will promote an integrated approach to education, child care and family services in our early excellence centres.

The second strand of the national child care strategy is quality. We have always said that child care should not be about numbers and that the quality of care is vital. We will therefore invest £100 million extra in training nursery and play staff.

The third element is affordability. Clause 70 is about the flat-rate additional allowance of about £6 a week in child benefit. A £6 flat rate does not make sufficient difference for many parents who have to pay the high costs of child care. We have therefore announced extra help with child care costs through the child care disregard for in-work benefits. The disregard will be introduced on the same day as the measure that we are now debating.

The extra help will mean that a lone parent with one or two children can receive up to £95.50 per week towards the cost of child care—almost £40 per week more than is currently available.

Photo of Ms Audrey Wise Ms Audrey Wise Labour, Preston

Does not the disregard mean that to qualify for a £100 disregard a parent must be able to spend £100 on child care? Is it not true that as most of those parents receive maximum family credit, the extra disregard will not make a ha'p'orth of a difference?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

My hon. Friend has welcomed the extra help through the child care disregard, but says that it does not go far enough—[HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] She says that of itself the disregard—although it is an extra contribution to child care costs—is not enough. I agree with her. It is only the first step. The Chancellor has announced that there will be more help with child care costs through the working families tax credit.

The measures focus help where it is needed—on lone parents' child care costs. The measures mean that some lone parents will receive more benefit help in work than they currently receive, and that some lone parents who could never before have contemplated work will now be able to do so because they will be able to afford child care. Together, our measures amount to a major new child care programme, demonstrating that our priority is to invest in opportunity by giving lone parents the same opportunity to participate fully in society and to support their families through work. It is the best way forward.

Again, my answer to the question whether lone parents have extra costs in work beyond those experienced by couple families is yes, but they are child care costs and we are helping to meet them.

The second question that many hon. Members have raised is whether the measure will discourage lone parents from taking up work. My answer to that is no. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] Hon. Members ask why, so I will explain. First, lone parents want to work because they are better off in work than they can be on benefit. Research suggests that the average additional income for lone parents already in work and on family credit is more than £50 a week above the estimate of their out-of-work income.

Photo of Dr John Marek Dr John Marek Labour, Wrexham

May I draw the Secretary of State's attention to a House of Commons Library research paper which disproves the argument that such people will be £50 a week better off? The paper says that they will be £10 better off when child care and travel costs are taken into account. A footnote to the paper says: Indeed, they would be better off if they stayed on income support and managed to earn £10–£15 per week from a part-time job which did not necessitate child care costs. Will the right hon. Lady please not use the £50 figure? It is inaccurate and she must get her officials to look into the matter and find the right figures.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

The hon. Gentleman—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hon. Friend."] My hon. Friend rightly reminds the House that the Policy Studies Institute research takes account of the income that lone mothers get in work without taking account of their child care costs. I have pointed out that that research also does not take account of the extra help with child care costs that the Government are giving and will continue to give.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I have given way about nine times. I am confident that I am about to answer the question that my hon. Friend has not asked.

Will the measure discourage lone parents from taking up work? The answer is no. First, lone parents want to work because they know that even if they have part-time work, with family credit they are better off than they can be on benefit. Secondly, lone parents will not be discouraged from taking up work because many lone parents want to work, not just for financial reasons, but because they do not want to be dependent on benefit. The lone mothers in my constituency say to me, "We want to work—we do not want to be dependent on benefit because we want to set an example to our children."

Photo of Mrs Maria Fyfe Mrs Maria Fyfe Labour, Glasgow Maryhill

Will my right hon. Friend give way on that point?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Lone parents want their children to know that work is better than benefit dependency. They want to provide a positive role so that their children can see that work brings independence and self-esteem. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), to whom I will give way, agrees that lone mothers are keen to work and to have opportunities.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who has been extremely generous in giving way. She argues that the cuts in child benefit will not be a disincentive to lone mothers to work. I draw to her attention the Joseph Rowntree Foundation study, "Making Work Pay", which states: If lone mothers are pushed into hardship, for example through changes in benefit entitlements … their chances of getting into paid work may be drastically reduced.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

That study was researched before we introduced our proposals. We will implement them. That research does not take account of the extra help we shall give lone mothers with the extra costs of child care.

Photo of Mrs Maria Fyfe Mrs Maria Fyfe Labour, Glasgow Maryhill

I thank my right hon. Friend for her generosity. I am sure that we all agree that most lone parents do want to work if the situation allows them to do so. My right hon. Friend's comments assume, however, that every employer is a nice, kind, generous one who will understand a mother's family problems and will not sack her unreasonably. For the first two years of any employment, people cannot take a case to an industrial tribunal. I know that some of my party colleagues are somewhat distanced from the trade unions these days, but they should realise that not all employers are good ones.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Lone mothers are well aware, as is everyone else, that the first job one gets does not necessarily prove to be permanent or a job for life. I believe that lone mothers want to work because they are better off and because they want to set an example to their children. They have said clearly that many of them cannot work because they need help and support to find it. They need practical help with finding a job and with finding accessible, affordable child care. The Government will deliver that through the new deal for lone parents and the national child care strategy.

Photo of Ann Clwyd Ann Clwyd Labour, Cynon Valley

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I will press on with my comments because this has been a long debate. I may give way later.

8.45 pm

In consultation with lone parent organisations, we have developed a radical new programme that offers lone parents throughout Britain the opportunity to find work. Lone parents welcome that programme and employers have been offering jobs to lone parents, some of whom have been on benefit for five, 10 or even 20 years. The new deal for lone parents is real welfare reform in action. It is a completely new service which extends opportunities where they never were before.

Photo of Ann Clwyd Ann Clwyd Labour, Cynon Valley

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. Will she confirm that if a lone parent loses their job or has to leave it because their child becomes ill, they will get a cut in benefit when they return to that benefit?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

If a lone parent loses her job and goes back to income support, she will get the same rate of benefit for her child as a married couple on the same income.

I have already announced that from next April all lone parents newly claiming income support will be able to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the new deal. We are not excluding those with young children from those opportunities. As my hon. Friends have asked today, we shall keep all the issues under review. We are investing the best part of £1 million in evaluating the effectiveness of our new deal.

The Liberal Democrats have backed our welfare-to-work proposals, but they opposed the windfall levy which finances them and they oppose any cuts to pay for them. We do not have the luxury that they afford themselves. I remind the House that existing lone parents will continue to receive the higher rate of child benefit.

Photo of Ken Livingstone Ken Livingstone Labour, Brent East

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have just had a message on my pager which says, "A vote is expected in the next few minutes." May we have an assurance that you will allow the debate to continue? A large number of hon. Members have sat here throughout the debate. I was lucky to be called, but there are many more who wish to speak. May we have an undertaking—

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. That is not a point of order. I do not possess a pager, so I do not know what the hon. Gentleman is talking about.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I remind the House that existing lone parents will continue to receive the higher rate of child benefit. We have built in additional protection for lone parents currently on income support. They will continue to be entitled to claim the lone-parent rate of child benefit when they move into work.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I will not give way to the hon. Member for North Tayside (Mr. Swinney) because I am about to conclude my comments. [Interruption.]

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I have seen the hon. Gentleman. The right hon. Lady is not giving way.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

On the contrary, I certainly had seen my hon. Friend.

Lone parents have told us that they need help to find work and that they need help with child care in work. The Government are providing that. That is why the answer to the second question is that we do not believe that the benefit changes will deter lone parents from moving into work. Our programme will extend opportunities to lone mothers, who will be better off in work than they could ever have been on any rate of benefit.

Photo of Mrs Alice Mahon Mrs Alice Mahon Labour, Halifax

The Secretary of State has been good enough to give way many times and she has answered a couple of questions, but she has not answered mine. If a lone parent chooses not to take part in the new deal because they feel that they need to stay at home with their family, will they be allowed that choice or will the new deal become compulsory?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

There is no intention that the new deal should drive lone mothers with young children out to work. We are doing what we said that we would do in our manifesto, which is to offer opportunities for lone mothers who previously did not have them.

Many Labour Members have raised the issue of what people voted the Government in to do. My hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Mr. Goggins) reminded the House in his thoughtful speech that when we asked people to vote for us earlier this year, we told them that we would tackle poverty and social exclusion. We told them how we would do so, which was by promoting opportunity. We told them also that we believed that work was the best form of welfare for people of working age. We said that we would invest in helping people to move from benefits to work. We said also that we would offer a hand-up, not merely a handout.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) urges us to abandon our manifesto. I say to him that we should not do so. The public clearly want an active approach to welfare so that everyone works for his or her living if that is possible, and that is what we have promised to do.

Under the previous Government there were no substantive measures to help lone parents into work. I criticised the previous Administration for merely proposing benefit cuts and providing no opportunities for lone parents to be better off in work. Without the recent general election and without a Labour Government in office, that would have been the end of the story, but it is not. Our approach is different from that of the previous Government.

Work and opportunity are at the heart of the Government's approach, and that extends to lone parents, who for many years have been invisible in the House except when it came to the opportunity for criticising them. Our manifesto promised to provide help for lone parents in moving into work, and that is what is expected of us. Indeed, that is what we are delivering.

I explained at the outset that the measure on which the House is to vote is about lone parents who are in work or who are considering work. It is not about benefit levels for lone mothers who are out of work. I have addressed the substantive issues and explained the Government's approach in the light of our manifesto promises. I ask the House to reject the amendment and the new clause.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

After more than four hours of debate, I have no desire to detain the House from dividing. We have heard the Secretary of State's response and my colleagues and I feel that it did not take up the key question: what is the point of clause 70? The money is not needed; the Government do not need the money, but lone parents do.

The Secretary of State mentioned her challenge to Baroness Thatcher—then Mrs. Thatcher—on first entering the House. It occurred to us on the Liberal Democrat Benches that if the then Mrs. Thatcher been here tonight, it is clear which Lobby she would have passed through.

We have laid before the House two ways of objecting to an objectionable part of the Bill. We have offered new clause 1, which is the positive approach that the Liberal Democrats would take. We have heard from Labour Members that although they disagree with the clause they would have difficulty in supporting new clause 1, and we respect that position.

We shall pursue new clause 1 to a Division, having had an assurance from the Chair that there will be a separate Division on amendment No. 1. That assurance came from the Chair earlier in the day, and we are grateful for it. I understand that a Division will take place on the new clause and that there will then be a discussion on backdating. That having taken place, I understand that there will be a debate on amendment No. 1, which will take place in the normal way. That is my understanding.

We have not heard a convincing response. It is time that we stood up for lone parents.

Photo of Nick Brown Nick Brown Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury (Chief Whip)

rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Question, That the Question be now put,put and agreed to.

Question put accordingly, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 62, Noes 458.

Division No. 112][8.55 pm
AYES
Ashdown, Rt Hon PaddyHarris, Dr Evan
Baker, NormanHeath, David (Somerton & Frome)
Ballard, Mrs JackieHughes, Simon (Southwark N)
Beggs, RoyJones, Ieuan Wyn (Ynys MÔn)
Beith, Rt Hon A JJones, Nigel (Cheltenham)
Brake, TomKeetch, Paul
Brand, Dr PeterKennedy, Charles (Ross Skye)
Breed, ColinKirkwood, Archy
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)Livsey, Richard
Burnett, JohnLlwyd, Elfyn
Burstow, PaulMcCartney, Robert (N Down)
Cable, Dr VincentMcGrady, Eddie
Campbell, Menzies (NE Fife)Maclennan, Rt Hon Robert
Canavan, DennisMichie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)
Chidgey, DavidMoore, Michael
Cotter, BrianMorgan, Alasdair (Galloway)
Cunningham, Ms Roseanna (Perth)Oaten, Mark
Öpik, Lembit
Dafis, CynogPaisley, Rev Ian
Davey, Edward (Kingston)Rendel, David
Donaldson, JeffreyRoss, William (E Lond'y)
Ewing, Mrs MargaretRussell, Bob (Colchester)
Fearn, RonnieSanders, Adrian
Forsythe, CliffordSmith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
Foster, Don (Bath)Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)
George, Andrew (St Ives)Stunell, Andrew
Swinney, JohnWebb, Steve
Taylor, Matthew (Truro)Welsh, Andrew
Thompson, WilliamWigley, Rt Hon Dafydd
Willis, Phil
Tonge, Dr Jenny
Trimble, DavidTellers for the Ayes:
Tyler, PaulMr. Alex Salmond and
Wallace, JamesMr. Donald Gorrie.
NOES
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N)Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth)
Ainger, NickCampbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey)Campbell-Savours, Dale
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)Cann, Jamie
Alexander, DouglasCaplin, Ivor
Allen, GrahamCasale, Roger
Amess, DavidCash, William
Ancram, Rt Hon MichaelCawsey, Ian
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale)Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet)
Arbuthnot, James
Armstrong, Ms HilaryChope, Christopher
Ashton, JoeChurch, Ms Judith
Atherton, Ms CandyClappison, James
Atkins, CharlotteClark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)
Atkinson, David (Bour'mth E)Clark, Dr Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands)
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)
Baldry, TonyClark, Dr Michael (Rayleigh)
Banks, TonyClark, Paul (Gillingham)
Barron, KevinClarke, Charles (Norwich S)
Battle, JohnClarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Rushcliffe)
Bayley, Hugh
Beard, NigelClarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge)
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs MargaretClarke, Tony (Northampton S)
Begg, Miss AnneClelland, David
Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough)Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey
Benton, JoeCoaker, Vernon
Bercow, JohnCoffey, Ms Ann
Beresford, Sir PaulCollins, Tim
Bermingham, GeraldColman, Tony
Betts, CliveColvin, Michael
Blackman, LizConnarty, Michael
Blair, Rt Hon TonyCooper, Yvette
Blears, Ms HazelCorbett, Robin
Blizzard, BobCormack, Sir Patrick
Blunkett, Rt Hon DavidCorston, Ms Jean
Blunt, CrispinCran, James
Boateng, PaulCranston, Ross
Body, Sir RichardCrausby, David
Borrow, DavidCummings, John
Boswell, TimDalyell, Tam
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W)Darling, Rt Hon Alistair
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs VirginiaDarvill, Keith
Bradley, Keith (Withington)Davidson, Ian
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin)Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)
Bradshaw, BenDavies, Quentin (Grantham)
Brady, GrahamDavies, Rt Hon Ron (Caerphilly)
Brazier, JulianDavis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice)
Brinton, Mrs HelenDay, Stephen
Brooke, Rt Hon PeterDenham, John
Brown, Rt Hon Gordon (Dunfermline E)Dewar, Rt Hon Donald
Dismore, Andrew
Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E)Dobson, Rt Hon Frank
Brown, Russell (Dumfries)Doran, Frank
Browne, DesmondDorrell, Rt Hon Stephen
Browning, Mrs AngelaDrew, David
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)Duncan, Alan
Buck, Ms KarenDuncan Smith, Iain
Burden, RichardEagle, Angela (Wallasey)
Burgon, ColinEagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)
Burns, SimonEdwards, Huw
Butler, Mrs ChristineEfford, Clive
Butterfill, JohnEllman, Mrs Louise
Byers, StephenEnnis, Jeff
Caborn, RichardEvans, Nigel
Faber, DavidHoyle, Lindsay
Fabricant, MichaelHughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford)
Fallon, MichaelHughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Fatchett, DerekHumble, Mrs Joan
Field, Rt Hon FrankHunter, Andrew
Fisher, MarkHurst, Alan
Fitzpatrick, JimHutton, John
Fitzsimons, LornaIllsley, Eric
Flight, HowardIngram, Adam
Flint, CarolineJack, Rt Hon Michael
Follett, BarbaraJackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead)
Forth, Rt Hon EricJackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
Foster, Rt Hon DerekJenkin, Bernard
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings)Jenkins, Brian
Foster, Michael J (Worcester)Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle)
Foulkes, GeorgeJohnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman
Fox, Dr LiamJohnson Smith, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Fraser, Christopher
Galbraith, SamJones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Gapes, MikeJones, Mrs Fiona (Newark)
Gardiner, BarryJones, Helen (Warrington N)
Garnier, EdwardJones, Ms Jenny (Wolverh'ton SW)
George, Bruce (Walsall S)
Gibb, NickJones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Gill, ChristopherJones, Martyn (Clwyd S)
Gillan, Mrs CherylJowell, Ms Tessa
Gilroy, Mrs LindaKaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Godsiff, RogerKeeble, Ms Sally
Goggins, PaulKeen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)
Golding, Mrs LlinKelly, Ms Ruth
Gorman, Mrs TeresaKemp, Fraser
Gray, JamesKennedy, Jane (Wavertree)
Green, DamianKey, Robert
Greenway, JohnKhabra, Piara S
Grieve, DominicKidney, David
Griffiths, Jane (Reading E)Kilfoyle, Peter
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth)
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)
Grocott, BruceKirkbride, Miss Julie
Grogan, JohnKumar, Dr Ashok
Gunnell, JohnLadyman, Dr Stephen
Hague, Rt Hon WilliamLaing, Mrs Eleanor
Hain, PeterLait, Mrs Jacqui
Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)Lansley, Andrew
Hall, Patrick (Bedford)Lawrence, Ms Jackie
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir ArchieLaxton, Bob
Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)Leigh, Edward
Hammond, PhilipLepper, David
Hanson, DavidLeslie, Christopher
Harman, Rt Hon Ms HarrietLetwin, Oliver
Hawkins, NickLevitt, Tom
Hayes, JohnLewis, Ivan (Bury S)
Heal, Mrs SylviaLewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E)
Heald, OliverLiddell, Mrs Helen
Healey, JohnLidington, David
Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon DavidLilley, Rt Hon Peter
Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N)Linton, Martin
Henderson, Ivan (Harwich)Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)
Hepburn, StephenLloyd, Tony (Manchester C)
Heppell, JohnLock, David
Hesford, StephenLoughton, Tim
Hewitt, Ms PatriciaLove, Andrew
Hill, KeithLuff, Peter
Hodge, Ms MargaretLyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Hoey, KateMcAvoy, Thomas
Home Robertson, JohnMcCabe, Steve
Hood, JimmyMcCartney, Ian (Makerfield)
Hoon, GeoffreyMcDonagh, Siobhain
Hope, PhilMacdonald, Calum
Horam, JohnMcFall, John
Howard, Rt Hon MichaelMacGregor, Rt Hon John
Howarth, Alan (Newport E)McGuire, Mrs Anne
Howarth, George (Knowsley N)McIntosh, Miss Anne
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)McIsaac, Shona
Howells, Dr KimMacKay, Andrew
McKenna, Mrs RosemaryRobathan, Andrew
Maclean, Rt Hon DavidRobertson, Rt Hon George (Hamilton S)
McLeish, Henry
McLoughlin, PatrickRobertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)
McNulty, TonyRobinson, Geoffrey (Cov'try NW)
MacShane, DenisRoche, Mrs Barbara
Mactaggart, FionaRoe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
McWilliam, JohnRogers, Allan
Madel, Sir DavidRooker, Jeff
Major, Rt Hon JohnRooney, Terry
Malins, HumfreyRoss, Ernie (Dundee W)
Mallaber, JudyRowe, Andrew (Faversham)
Mandelson, PeterRoy, Frank
Maples, JohnRuane, Chris
Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)Ruddock, Ms Joan
Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury)Ruffley, David
Marshall, David (Shettleston)Russell, Ms Christine (Chester)
Martlew, EricRyan, Ms Joan
Maude, Rt Hon FrancisSt Aubyn, Nick
Mawhinney, Rt Hon Sir BrianSavidge, Malcolm
Maxton, JohnSawford, Phil
May, Mrs TheresaSayeed, Jonathan
Meale, AlanSheerman, Barry
Merron, GillianSheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Michael, AlunShephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian
Milburn, AlanShepherd, Richard
Miller, AndrewShipley, Ms Debra
Moffatt, LauraShort, Rt Hon Clare
Moonie, Dr LewisSimpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)
Moran, Ms MargaretSingh, Marsha
Morley, ElliotSmith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)
Morris, Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)Smith, Angela (Basildon)
Morris, Rt Hon John (Aberavon)Smith, Rt Hon Chris (Islington S)
Moss, MalcolmSmith, Miss Geraldine (Morecambe & Lunesdale)
Mowlam, Rt Hon Marjorie
Mudie, GeorgeSmith, Jacqui (Redditch)
Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)Smith, John (Glamorgan)
Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)Snape, Peter
Murphy, Paul (Torfaen)Soames, Nicholas
Nicholls, PatrickSoley, Clive
Norman, ArchieSouthworth, Ms Helen
Norris, DanSpellar, John
O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)Spelman, Mrs Caroline
O'Brien, Mike (N Warks)Spicer, Sir Michael
Olner, BillSpring, Richard
O'Neill, MartinSquire, Ms Rachel
Osborne, Ms SandraStarkey, Dr Phyllis
Ottaway, RichardSteen, Anthony
Page, RichardStevenson, George
Paice, JamesStewart, David (Inverness E)
Palmer, Dr NickStinchcombe, Paul
Paterson, OwenStoate, Dr Howard
Pearson, IanStott, Roger
Pendry, TomStrang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin
Perham, Ms LindaStreeter, Gary
Pickles, EricStringer, Graham
Pickthall, ColinStuart, Ms Gisela
Pike, Peter LSutcliffe, Gerry
Plaskitt, JamesSwayne, Desmond
Pond, ChrisSyms, Robert
Pope, GregTapsell, Sir Peter
Pound, StephenTaylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Powell, Sir Raymond
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Primarolo, DawnTaylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
Prior, DavidTaylor, John M (Solihull)
Purchase, KenTaylor, Sir Teddy
Quin, Ms JoyceTemple-Morris, Peter
Quinn, LawrieThomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Radice, GilesThomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Randall, JohnTimms, Stephen
Rapson, SydTipping, Paddy
Raynstord, NickTouhig, Don
Redwood, Rt Hon JohnTownend, John
Reed, Andrew (Loughborough)Tredinnick, David
Reid, Dr John (Hamilton N)Trend, Michael
Trickett, JonWicks, Malcolm
Truswell, PaulWiddecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)Wilkinson, John
Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)Willetts, David
Twigg, Derek (Halton)Wills, Michael
Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)Wilson, Brian
Tyrie, AndrewWinterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Vaz, KeithWinterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Viggers, PeterWinterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Vis, Dr RudiWoodward, Shaun
Walter, RobertWoolas, Phil
Wardle, CharlesWorthington, Tony
Waterson, NigelWright, Dr Tony (Cannock)
Watts, DavidYeo, Tim
Wells, BowenYoung, Rt Hon Sir George
White, Brian
Whitehead, Dr AlanTellers for the Noes:
Whitney, Sir RaymondMr. David Jamieson and
Whittingdale, JohnMr. Jim Dowd.

Question accordingly negatived.