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Mr. Hugh Bayley (City of York): 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"?

5.15 pm

Audrey Wise: 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."

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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.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford): 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

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benefit, to which two-parent families are not entitled. We are discussing tonight whether to cut child benefit for new claimants.

Ms Diane Abbott (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.

Mr. Burns: 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:

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:

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."

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    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.

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