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Wright, Dr Tony

Young, David (Bolton SE)

Tellers for the Noes: Mr. John Owen Jones and Mr. John Cummings.

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Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

Order for Third Reading read .

6.37 pm

Miss Widdecombe: I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I dearly wish that, during the proceedings on the Bill, both in Committee and in the House, the shadow Chancellor had been present because, in their opposition to the Bill, Labour Members fell back on their usual recourse-- to promise, to oppose and to table amendments that would cost money. Let us consider what they asked us to do, and then ask them whether they would undertake to do it.

Labour Members wanted to change our rates of contribution, at a cost of £30 million. They wanted to reintroduce an age limit of 55, at a cost of £40 million. They wanted to carry back adult dependant increases, at a cost of £10 million. They wanted a disregard for earnings, at a cost of £15 million in jobseeker's allowance, £50 million in housing benefit and £10 million in council tax benefit--

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley): Rubbish.

Miss Widdecombe: It would have been rubbish if we had accepted the amendments.

Labour Members wanted to remove the waiting days for income-based JSA, at a cost of £40 million. They wanted to extend further education guided learning hours to 21 a week, at a cost of £40 million. They opposed savings of £180 million. That is the Labour party at its unreconstructed worst. Its answer to everything is, "Spend, spend, spend." When we ask whether the Labour party will do the spending, suddenly it has no policies. It opposes what we are doing, but has nothing to put in its place. At least the hon. Member for Rochdale (Ms Lynne) is honest. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse): Order. Will the House quieten down a bit? I remind the Minister that speeches must deal with the Bill.

Miss Widdecombe: Indeed, Mr. Deputy Speaker, all the provisions that we have introduced are in the Bill. The Labour party opposes them. The proposals that it would like to include would cost all those millions of pounds.

I was congratulating the hon. Member for Rochdale on her honesty. She made a pledge that an incoming Liberal Government would restore the contribution from six

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months to 12 months. She made other pledges to restore benefit for 16 to 17-year-olds. The only trouble is that there will never be a Liberal Government. Oh, the joys of irresponsibility, of being able to promise everything, and of knowing that one will never be called on to deliver a thing.

The Bill provides for many winners, whom we never heard about. We did not hear the Opposition congratulate us on providing for 150,000 winners through the back-to-work bonus, for 120,000 winners through the national insurance contribution holiday, for 2,000 winners through the employment on trial scheme, for 50,000 winners through the £10 couples disregard, for 10,000 winners through national insurance credits for all work under 16 hours, and for even more winners through the 24-hour work rule. No, no, no- -we heard nothing from Opposition Members about all those winners, but my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) welcomed them. The Bill provides a proper system whereby an agreement exists between the taxpayer and the person who takes benefits that the taxpayer pays for.

Mr. Alan Howarth Will my hon. Friend give way?

Miss Widdecombe: I had not realised that my hon. Friend was trying to intervene. There was so much racket coming from the Opposition.

Mr. Howarth: Of course I welcome the winners, as my hon. Friend describes them, and any advantages for unemployed people that emerge from the Bill. She catalogued a series of additional costs that might be incurred, which add up to some hundreds of millions of pounds. Will she confirm that, in consequence of the national insurance contributions increase that has been placed on employees, the Government will raise an extra £2.2 billion? Does she look forward to a world of benefit cuts and boot camps?

Miss Widdecombe: I have made no such proposals for such a dismal world. My hon. Friend refers to the amounts raised in national insurance contributions, but he knows that the fund must be kept in balance and that we spend today what we collect today. He knows that it is a "pay as you go" fund, and that any Government must keep the fund in balance. He should welcome the prudence of the Government, who actually keep it in balance.

I am looking forward not to a world, as my hon. Friend described it, of benefit cuts, but to a world of focused and targeted benefits for people in need. That is the sort of world we want to see, and that is proposed in the Bill. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for welcoming the winners, which is a jolly sight more than the Opposition have done. I urge the House to support this entirely prudent, just and caring measure.

6.42 pm

Mr. Keith Bradley (Manchester, Withington): Time is short, so I shall not indulge in the illogical rantings and ravings of the Minister. From the start, and throughout the passage of the Bill, the Labour party set out to scrutinise the legislation line by line. I should like to commend my hon. Friends on the diligence with which they have undertaken that operation.

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I thank all the organisations throughout the country--citizens advice bureaux, disability groups, the Church Action on Poverty group, trade union groups, unemployment groups, and low-pay groups- -that have expressed fear and concern about the measures. Without their help, we could not have scrutinised the Bill and represented people's needs as effectively as we did in Committee. It is sad, however, that, throughout our deliberations, the Government stubbornly refused to change any policy of substance, except to the detriment of the unemployed, especially the young unemployed. They will push the Bill through the House tonight.

At the beginning of Committee stage, I said that Opposition Members would show that the main purpose of the legislation was to cut public expenditure, through the Government's continuing reductions in the social security budget and through reducing the amount of money available to unemployed people. Our deliberations have cruelly exposed that purpose.

The Bill is part of an on-going process that the Government have undertaken, as we all know from the Social Security (Incapacity for Work) Act 1994. We know that one cannot take £1.5 billion out of the social security budget without inflicting harm and misery on sick and disabled people. That will be the result of that Act.

The Bill, which contains provisions on what is ironically called the jobseeker's allowance, does not create a single job. Instead, it inflicts further hardship on people without a job. Let us remember that the jobseeker's allowance is about undermining the contributory benefit system by cutting benefits from 12 to six months, and about forcing people on to means-tested benefit after a mere six months. As the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) rightly said, that is being done at a time when national insurance contributions have increased from 9 to 10 per cent., resulting in a reported extra £2.2 billion for the Treasury. That is what we have--pay more and get less from the Government. That means more means-testing. It will especially affect people with savings, people who have lost their jobs and have redundancy payments, and people who have lost their jobs and have personal or industrial injury payments. They will be forced to use those benefits six months earlier and to have means-tested benefits. They will be forced into the poverty trap. Those are the consequences of the legislation.

In our deliberations on the Bill, we made much of the plight of the disabled--we make no apology for that. I predict that the chaos and hardship that will arise from incapacity benefit when it is introduced on 13 April, and the interface that that will have with the Bill when it is enacted in 1996, will result in a major scandal. It will be similar to the Child Support Agency, scandal, but it will cause extra misery and hardship for sick and disabled people. Crucially, we have continually highlighted the fact that the Government expect people to take a job at whatever level of pay the Government believe is right. There is no lower level of pay. The Government are prepared to let people accept pay almost without an hourly rate. That is the real effect of the legislation. That is why we will continue to fight it in Parliament. That is why, after the next election, so many Conservative Members will be seeking jobs, and that is why we will vote against the Bill tonight.

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6.37 pm

Ms Lynne: The Bill widens inequality in society. It will debar some people from receiving benefit, reduce benefit for others, and do nothing to alleviate the poverty trap. In the worst case scenario, it could cause more homelessness, more poverty and more despair. Why have the Government introduced it? It is to save the Treasury money. I am not against that, but it should not be done at the expense of some of the most vulnerable people in society.

The unemployed are vulnerable. They feel that they are already at the bottom of the heap. They feel degraded and have low self-esteem. What do the Government do about that? They introduce the Jobseekers Bill and, more important, the jobseeker's agreement, supposedly to help people back into work. That builds on the restart scheme and on the humiliation that some people suffer when they go for restart interviews, especially older people who are interviewed by a young interviewer who ends up lecturing them about what they should do. Now we have the jobseeker's agreement. They can now lecture them about their appearance. I know that most of those interviewers will be good, but human nature dictates that some people will abuse that power. Whatever people have earned in the past, they will be forced to take a job after 13 weeks, no matter what pay is being offered. If they do not do so, they will end up with no money, which means more humiliation or even worse.

Surely the Government cannot want that, or perhaps they do not know what it is like to be unemployed. Perhaps no Conservative Member has ever been unemployed or realised the sense of failure that it causes. All people should be treated with dignity and respect, whatever their circumstances.

We need proper training for the staff who conduct the jobseekers' interviews. I asked on Second Reading and in a written question, how much money will be provided for training? We were told £71 million, but is that for overall training or just for disablement employment advisers? More money needs to be spent on training staff if the jobseeker's agreement is to work at all.

We have already debated the shortcomings of the new arrangements for the 16 to 18-year-olds, but what about the 18 to 25-year-olds? I have never seen any sense in 18 to 25-year-olds on income support getting less than anyone else. How can a married couple, both aged 24 and with children, be expected to live on less than someone aged 25? Some people in those circumstances will have paid national insurance contributions for eight years, from the ages of 16 to 24. They are entitled to something in return, but the Government are reducing their benefit to £36.15. I do not think that any Conservative or Opposition Member could manage on that sum. Extra hardship will be caused to all those 18 to 25-year-olds, regardless of whether they paid national insurance contributions. If they did pay, they are entitled to something in return.

The Government estimate that 250,000 people will be worse off and 90,000 will not qualify for means-tested benefit under the Bill, but what about the unemployed with savings? Those who have savings of more than £8,000 will receive nothing after six months, and those who have savings of between £3,000 and £8,000 will have their benefit reduced after six months. If someone is unemployed and has a working partner, that person will receive no jobseeker's allowance after six months.

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Women will be the hardest hit, because they are more likely to have a partner in work. The cut from 12 to six months' contributory benefit is an absolute disgrace, and should be reversed.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington): The hon. Lady should vote Labour.

Ms Lynne: No, because the Labour party has refused to say whether it would reverse the cut from 12 to six months.

We debated on Report how disabled people will be disadvantaged. When the 220,000 people have come off incapacity benefit, they will go to the employment exchange or to the Employment Service, which will find it extremely difficult to cope. The Minister did not give a satisfactory reply to my questions yesterday on that subject. Even after our debates, no one is convinced by the Government's arguments.

The Bill is a step in the wrong direction. We need proper back-to-work packages, proper training, proper incentives and, above all, proper jobs. We do not need this draconian measure, which is designed not to help the unemployed but to penalise them, even though the majority are unemployed through no fault of their own. 6.52 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Roger Evans): The objectives of the Bill, which I commend to the House, are to improve the operations of the labour market, to create jobs, to promote enterprise, to introduce a modern, streamlined system for delivering benefits, and to target revenues better.

Mr. McCartney: And to save money.

Mr. Evans: Yes, and to save money. The Opposition have talked about nothing but savage cuts, but the Bill should be considered in context as part of the Government's wider programme of job promotion. [Laughter.] Yes, the savings under the Bill when it is up and running will be £270 million a year, but the Budget package of £700 million-worth of incentives is the other side of the coin. I shall not weary the House at this hour with details of the gainers under this bundle of measures, which my hon. Friend the Minister of State has clearly-- [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The House must settle down.

Mr. McCartney: On a point of Order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Did the Minister say a "bundle" of measures or a "bungle" of measures?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: That is not a point of order for the Chair, as the hon. Gentleman knows full well.

Mr. Evans: I remind the hon. Gentleman of the back-to-work bonus of 150,000 gainers, the housing benefit run-on which will help people back into work, and the introduction of the child care disregard in family credit, but I end with this point: the national insurance contributions holiday, which will benefit 120,000 people. The national insurance contributions holiday was the one proposal that members of Labour's Front Bench welcomed. They not only accepted the principle but tabled amendments Nos. 3 and 4 to clause 23 to increase the number of beneficiaries from about 120,000 to about

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500,000. They had no doubt that that would be the effect of their proposals. They had no need of empirical studies as to the effect of that course on the labour market, but were satisfied by their own theoretical analysis, which happens to be right.

If one lowers the cost to employers of employing labour, there is an incentive to employ more people but the converse of that principle, which inexorably follows in logic, is that, if one increases the cost to employers of employing labour, they can afford to employ fewer people.

Mr. Alan Howarth: Will my hon. Friend acknowledge that there is an extremely important distinction to be made between reducing the overhead costs of employing labour and cutting pay?

Mr. Evans: For the purposes of work incentives, there is no distinction whatsoever--it comes out of the bottom line. If one has the same amount to spend on one's work force and is made to give them more of it, one can afford to employ fewer people.

There is therefore a bizarre contradiction at the heart of Labour's objections to the Bill. The Labour party supports the national insurance contributions holiday but, at the same time, promotes the minimum wage. We heard that the minimum wage is, in effect, going to be the minimum prescribed sum for which anyone is allowed to work. We shall see the abolition of family credit, in effect, but Labour will not tell us what the minimum wage will be.

Labour's critique of this part of the Bill, rather like its critique of the whole Bill, has been nothing but empty rhetoric and deception, a morally and intellectually bankrupt analysis with no coherence. Let us be clear that the Labour party's approach will simply create more unemployment.

I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put , That the Bill be now read the Third time:-- The House divided: Ayes 269, Noes 239.

Division No. 114] [6.58 pm


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Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey)

Aitken, Rt Hon Jonathan

Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby)

Allason, Rupert (Torbay)

Amess, David

Arbuthnot, James

Arnold, Sir Thomas (Hazel Grv)

Atkinson, David (Bour'mouth E)

Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)

Baker, Nicholas (North Dorset)

Banks, Matthew (Southport)

Banks, Robert (Harrogate)

Batiste, Spencer

Bellingham, Henry

Bendall, Vivian

Beresford, Sir Paul

Booth, Hartley

Boswell, Tim

Bottomley, Peter (Eltham)

Bowden, Sir Andrew

Bowis, John

Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes

Brandreth, Gyles

Brazier, Julian

Bright, Sir Graham

Brooke, Rt Hon Peter

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Brown, M (Brigg & Cl'thorpes)

Browning, Mrs Angela

Bruce, Ian (Dorset)

Budgen, Nicholas

Burns, Simon

Burt, Alistair

Butler, Peter

Carlisle, John (Luton North)

Carlisle, Sir Kenneth (Lincoln)

Carrington, Matthew

Carttiss, Michael

Cash, William

Channon, Rt Hon Paul

Churchill, Mr

Clappison, James

Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)

Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ru'clif)

Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey

Coe, Sebastian

Congdon, David

Conway, Derek

Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st)

Coombs, Simon (Swindon)

Cope, Rt Hon Sir John

Cormack, Sir Patrick

Couchman, James

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