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8.7 pm

Mr. David Hanson (Delyn): You will have to excuse me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I refuse to take lessons from the hon. Members for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) and for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin) on Labour Governments in the 1960s and 1970s. I grew up under those Governments with job security in my father's household and in a house built by a Labour Government. I went to university without having to draw a student loan and I had job security when I left university. I want a return to those days for the people whom I represent. I do not want any lessons about Labour Governments from the hon. Member for Gravesham.

Mr. Jacques Arnold: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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Mr. Hanson: The hon. Gentleman can sit down because we are on a 10-minute limit today.

The Queen's Speech and the Chancellor's speech today are missed opportunities. The Chancellor is living under a delusion and the Government are masking their failures. The economy is not as the Government would like to think it is. The Gracious Speech mentions the need for economic growth, rising employment and low inflation. No Labour Member would disagree with that, but there is a need for the Opposition to look at whether the Government's achievements to date bear witness to what they are trying to achieve in the future. From where I sit, the Conservative party is living on another planet.

The Conservative party proclaims itself as the party dedicated to reducing the benefits bill. When my party left office, one in 12 people were dependent on benefit, but now it has risen to one in six. The Conservative party claims to be the party of low taxation, yet when my party left office average family taxation was 32.2 per cent. of gross income--now it is 35.6 per cent. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) said, since the last general election income tax rates have risen effectively by 7p. Only those earning more than £64,000 are better off as a result of the Conservatives coming to power.

The Conservative party claims to be the party of home owners, but between 1990 and 1995 some 295,000 people have had their homes repossessed. This very year, according to the Government's own statistics, provided in a recent parliamentary answer to me, 850,000 people are caught in the negative equity trap. The Conservative party claims to be the party of low taxation and home owners and states that it is dedicated to reducing the benefit bill, yet, when difficult choices must be made, it remains the party that hits the poorest people in our community. The poorest 10 per cent. in our community are now 17 per cent. worse off than they were under the Labour Government, while the richest 10 per cent. are now 62 per cent. better off than they were when my party left office. One in three children are now living in poverty, yet in 1979 the figure was one in 10.

Those figures show that the Conservative party's economic philosophy has not only failed but caused great economic and social damage to our community. As the years and months progress, the resulting tab is crippling our future economy. Unless a radically different approach is adopted, nothing will change.

We are failing to invest in our local community. We invest half as much as Japan in our local community. We invest £863 less per head than the United States. We invest £2,766 less per head than Switzerland. Even Portugal has a higher rate of investment per head than the United Kingdom.

The unemployment rate is double what it was when my party left office. Today, 800,000 people have been out of work for more than one year at a cost of £20 billion per year. What a drain on our economy. In my region, Wales, 106,000 people are currently out of work. Unlike the claims of various Conservative Members today, the unemployment rate in my constituency has risen by 36 per cent. between 1990 and 1995. Many of the jobs that are offered in my constituency are low-paid, part-time, insecure and available on short-term contracts. They are doing nothing to build a strong future economy. One in six people remain out of work in my constituency; 18 to 24-year-olds account for 650,000 of them.

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All that unemployment has been created in the pursuit of low inflation. I am sure that my colleagues on the Opposition Front Bench would share the objective of low inflation, but if it is the cause of so much misery and social division, while pushing up the Government's bills on wasteful expenditure, we need to look at that strategy urgently.

Just yesterday I received a press release from Touche Ross, which I doubt is particularly favourable to my party. Robert Ellis of the company's Cardiff office reported that the insolvency figures in Wales in October were the highest ever recorded. He said:

A study of the sectors in which receivership occurs reveals some dramatic figures. In the past 12 months, 52 businesses have failed in Wales; 45 failed in 1994. The miraculous pick-up in the economy has not hit my region.

The sector that has suffered most difficulties and experienced most receiverships in the past 12 months in Wales is construction. In the 12 months to October, 12 businesses failed compared with six in the previous 12 months.

I must emphasise that it need not be like that. The Gracious Speech could have contained measures that won the support of my party, which were designed to boost the economy, meet social need and provide reasonable and decent levels of service in the future. [Hon. Members: "What are they?"] Money could be allocated to local authorities from their capital receipts to build local council housing for rent. That would mean that the 2,000 homeless in my constituency would be housed; employment would be offered to building workers; and the local economy would be boosted.

In my borough council area, this year alone £800,000 capital receipts have been taken and not one penny of them can be spent on local authority housing. That has happened at a time when construction workers are out of work. I know that it has been said before and it sounds old hat, but the basic kernel of truth is that people are unemployed and in social need while money is available that could be spent on social housing.

Mr. Stephen Day (Cheadle): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hanson: No. Time does not permit me to do so.

One in 12 homes in the United Kingdom remain unfit for habitation. Wales has the greatest proportion of such homes. Money is available that could be spent on boosting the economy, creating jobs and meeting social need.

Further action could be taken. The Labour party has called for more investment in the information super-highway in partnership with the private sector. That directed partnership could provide key investment to create jobs, put people back to work and meet the needs of our society. We support the establishment of regional development agencies, which would create stronger economies in areas such as Wales by allowing them to draw on venture capital funds. We should invest in public transport, the infrastructure and the environment. Many public expenditure programmes could be introduced to create a competitive society that puts people back to work rather than a society in which money is wasted on huge dole queues.

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There is much work that we could do, but we must look at the Government's taxation and social policies. My constituents are poorer because of the Government's policies. We need to ensure that taxation is fair. It should not be increased, but it should be fair. The Government will shortly have to choose whether to reduce the capital gains tax and the inheritance tax. They must decide whether to allow £4.6 billion to be cut from those taxes by 1999 or whether to introduce fair taxation, and use that money for productive good. I urge the Government not to cut those two taxes but to consider ways in which we can make tax fairer. For example, we have proposed cuts in the VAT on fuel, which would assist people in my constituency. We have advocated proposals to make taxation fairer.

If there is £4.6 billion to be given away, the Opposition could list community projects on which that money could be spent, and which would create employment opportunities and improve social conditions. In doing so, we would be able to reduce the Government's overall spending on unemployment benefit and other wasteful expenditure.

I want to see fair taxation, a fair programme of investment and--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Time is up.

8.17 pm

Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam): I warmly welcome the proposals in the Gracious Speech and the Government's commitment to firm financial policies. The Government have shown great courage in standing up against the national tide calling for easy options.

The truth is that our policies have worked. We are witnessing a continual, sustainable growth in the economy. The unemployment rate is coming down steadily. In my constituency it is now down to 7 per cent. and is declining month by month. I have seen new businesses coming on stream--it is interesting to note that many of them are successfully led by women--while established ones are pressing ahead with ever greater confidence than before.

There is, however, an area which in recent years has been an unexpected drain on national resources in both financial and social terms. I refer to the growing breakdown of the family and the consequent costs to the nation--a factor which can only concern my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor very much. Total spending on lone parents has leapt from £1.7 billion in 1979 to £9.1 billion for the year 1995-96. That, I should add, is 41 per cent. of our entire defence budget, which has the responsibility of looking after the security of the whole nation.

So not only are broken families creating a disproportionate cost in financial terms, but the cost in human terms is greater. Hence the importance of considering seriously ways to boost the family. We should be doing everything possible to keep families together instead of tearing them apart at top speed, as proposed by the family law Bill.

It would seem that we have reached a watershed in our society. What respect do we have for the institution of marriage? What role does it play in our community? Is it as relevant as before?

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The family law Bill is forcing us to have a serious rethink of the type of society that we want. The Bill also poses the question: should Parliament reflect society, or should Parliament shape society? Indeed, should Parliament have a vision for society for us to aspire to?

Parliament has had no difficulty in other aspects in trying to set standards and build up a moral base. How, otherwise, does one bring a country to fight a war? If Churchill had not set the right tone in 1939, who knows how the debate about rapprochement with Hitler, the difficulties with rationing, or body bags coming home, would have ended.

What is for certain is that Churchill recognised that there was no easy option and firmly announced his intention--we had to fight. We added that the going would be tough, with

Similarly, we need to have a vision for our society today, and that means a vision for the family. Nurturing the family also means blood, toil, tears and sweat.

No one can deny the urgency of taking a close look at the family today. This nation has bred a growing disembodied family at the rate of 150,000 couples divorcing a year--the highest rate in Europe. Add to that the 1.5 million "never married" single parents with 2.5 million children and we become aware of the scale of what is before us.

Are we really content to create more legislation to hasten the process even further? Have we really taken into account the fact that the costs of even more broken families will only be an increasing burden on the state and therefore the economy? History has shown us that divorce has become easier with every piece of legislation that is passed, so more broken families have been thrust into society.

At whose behest is the family law Bill being introduced? Have there been mass demonstrations in Hyde park calling for it? Where are the vociferous lobbies calling for swifter, easier divorce? Have the children, the neglected VIPs in those scenarios, been crying out for yet more rapid break-ups of their homes? The answer is that the Law Commission, in its infinite wisdom, has decided that it would be humane to end marriages swiftly and painlessly and to

That is an escape clause for guilt-ridden parents. The trauma for the children is the break-up of the family home. The legal process is immaterial.

The real issue is the value that we place on marriage in today's society. Only when we come to terms with that can we think clearly about how and when it should end. If we decide that marriage is a short-term arrangement of mutual convenience to two people--with children as an option--then for the secular-minded it is plain logic that, when it falls apart, it should be ended as expeditiously and seamlessly as possible.

However, there is another opinion. Marriage is the foundation stone of society and it carries with it responsibility. Stable families bringing up children in emotional security can only be of benefit to society as a whole.

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Marriage is not merely a contract between two people. It is a contract witnessed by society on behalf of the community at large. We are not farmyard animals. We do not approve of people living by an amoral code. We govern our lives according to an accepted framework, which seems to work pretty well. Breaking the law is an offence. We pay our taxes. We drive on the correct side of the road and so on.

Marriage, however, which is the bedrock of our society, seems to have no such boundaries. When it breaks down, it is a misfortune for the couple concerned. The reasoning, "Why keep a dead marriage alive?" means a hasty divorce, which, under the new proposals, will move from speedy to complete overdrive.

What really disturbs me is that, while the debate has raged in the past few weeks, I have heard scant concern expressed about the children's well-being. The oft-repeated phrase, "They are very understanding and adult" does not wash. It reflects self-absorbed people seeking to gloss over an inconvenience.

In truth, the children pay a heavy price. If one asks any teacher about the problems of dealing with distressed children whose parents have split up, one will hear of children, if small, becoming clingy and attention-seeking. In any case, they lose confidence, cry easily, lose concentration and fall back in class. Later, some never settle down. They fall out of the social swim and turn to crime, drugs, early pregnancies and so on.

Study after study has demonstrated the ill effects of divorce on children. So prevalent is the break-up of the family that another nightmare falls on children, as emphasised by Ruth Deech, principal of St. Anne's college, Oxford and a specialist in divorce and family law. In a paper on Lord Mackay's proposals, she drew our attention to a MORI survey for Reader's Digest last month, showing the fear held by many children that their parents will separate, and the years of longing on the part of those children whose parents have parted that they will be reunited.

Medical Research Council studies carried out over decades have shown that children whose parents divorce have less good life chances--poorer health, fewer jobs, more children born out of wedlock. They are less likely to finish school and have more broken marriages in the next generation, with all the resulting social security costs borne by the taxpayer.

Under the proposed new law, marriage will be ended with less formality than the hiring of a car: if you do not like the spouse after all, send her home. That bedrock of our society, marriage, from which everything flows in a civilised world, will be irretrievably damaged if we surge ahead at break-neck speed to end in a single year a commitment that had been made for life.

If nothing else will move liberal-minded thinkers, I beg them to consider the hapless victims--the children who have no say in the matter. They suffer, and in the end so do we all.

I urge the Chancellor to give very careful consideration to the growing costs of increasing broken families, and make his own representations to the Lord Chancellor, whose Bill will do so much to undermine his own excellent work in securing a firm financial base for the country.

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