Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Webb: The hon. Gentleman is quite right: we are all aware of hon. Members on both sides of the House

10 Dec 1997 : Column 1035

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.

Mrs. Helen Brinton (Peterborough): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that lone parents in work are, on average, £50 a week better off?

Mr. Webb: 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.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (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?

Mr. Webb: 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

10 Dec 1997 : Column 1036

few hon. Members who has systematically voted against it, unlike the Conservative Members who abstained in Committee.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon): 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?

Mr. Webb: 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

10 Dec 1997 : Column 1037

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.

Audrey Wise (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.

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

Audrey Wise: 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:

10 Dec 1997 : Column 1038

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.

10 Dec 1997 : Column 1039

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

10 Dec 1997 : Column 1040

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"?

Next Section

IndexHome Page