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Mr. Hilton Dawson (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?

5.30 pm

Mr. Burns: 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

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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:

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:

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.

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill): I hope that in reading the left-wing press the hon. Gentleman will learn

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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.

Mr. Burns: 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:

The Secretary of State for Social Security (Ms Harriet Harman): But--

Mr. Burns: I am afraid that the right hon. Lady is wrong: there is no but. The next sentence reads:

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.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Burns: 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.

Mr. Cook: Will the hon. Gentleman please give way?

Mr. Burns: No, I will not.

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Let us examine the reality behind the soundbite. The Yorkshire Post recently carried an interesting editorial on the subject. It stated:

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:

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

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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.

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