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Mr. Wigley: I congratulate the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) on a very thoughtful speech. I support new clause 1 and amendment No. 1. After our change of Government on 1 May, it is appalling that we are still saddled with such a measure. It was proposed by a Conservative Government, and many people thought that after the general election we would turn our backs on such policies.

The hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Murphy) said that he would vote for the whole package and emphasised job opportunities. I am sure that when he was searching for work he was not doing so as a lone parent. I can tell the House that the Government's proposals will make it less likely that lone parents will search for work because if they look for work, find work and then lose it, they will be worse off. The provision will be a positive disincentive to achieving the Government's stated aim.

In an earlier intervention, I mentioned the situation in areas such as mine, where employment is highly seasonal and where it may be possible for a lone parent or others who are unemployed for a good part of the year to succeed in getting work for a few weeks or, at most, a few months in summer. Surely that is something good, if they are able to do so. Now, however, the disincentive will operate. Those people know that, when they return to the unemployment queues, in the autumn or the winter, they will be worse off. That will be the effect of the changes.

Surely the basic problem that we face in considering such a package is the Government's adherence to the Tory spending programme, but if we believe in supporting the most vulnerable people in our society--among whom I include lone parents, and particularly the children of lone parents--we must believe in our wherewithal to raise the necessary taxes.

I should have thought that it would be much more acceptable to those who elected the Government if Ministers were examining ways of raising a little more tax--by higher income tax or national insurance payments--so that we had the revenue for a decent package for the most vulnerable. I should have thought that the House's priority would be to turn our thoughts to the needs of those children. Surely any single parent who is bringing up children on benefits must be in the most difficult financial position.

The strategy is not working and it is counter- productive. In addition, we are penalising some of the most vulnerable people in our community. I feel that that

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is an indicator of an approach to society. A few years ago, we had the right hon. Member for somewhere in the Thames valley--[Hon. Members: "Wokingham."] Of course, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood). How could I forget? The right hon. Gentleman was Secretary of State for Wales and we well remember when he came to Cardiff and pilloried single mums. That was an indication of his approach to life, his approach to politics and his values. God help us if a Government who kicked out that lot who misgoverned us for 18 years decide to pursue the same approach.

6 pm

This morning, sitting in the No. 44 bus on Battersea Park road, I was tapped on the shoulder by a lady sitting behind me on the top deck. She said, "You will be voting against the Government's proposals tonight, won't you, Mr. Wigley?" I hardly expected to be recognised on the bus, but I was. [Hon. Members: "She works here."] The lady does not work here. What she said was revealing. She said, "I didn't walk the streets canvassing in April to have policies that will take money away from the most vulnerable people in our community imposed by a Labour Government."

I appeal to all Labour Members who have a conscience to act on it tonight and to ensure that the needs of vulnerable people are protected.

Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush): This issue has caused considerable and understandable concern, and I know that it has not been an easy matter either for members of the Government or for Labour Back Benchers. I believe that lessons have been learnt from the way in which the problem emerged and from the way in which it has been handled. If I did not believe that, I would not be speaking as I am today.

I want to put the issue in a wider context. The cut was proposed by the previous Conservative Government to save money and in response to a moral panic attack in the Conservative party and some elements of the press about single parents. One might think that that was a bit odd as the Conservative party at that time had added to the sum total of single parents on one or two occasions. Considerable hypocrisy was involved.

It is true that the new Government face tough choices because of the situation that we have inherited, but there is a far more important issue involved. I refer to the Government's vision of rebuilding the welfare state in the context of a radically changed economy. It is a fundamental mistake to believe that the welfare state as constructed in 1945 by the then Labour Government has survived the past 18 years. It has not. The Tories ripped it apart and introduced gross inadequacies and contradictions into the system. We can either bail that system out or try to build a new welfare state which is relevant to the modern economy.

We should remember that the 1945 Labour Government, using the models proposed by Keynes and Beveridge--two Liberals--built a welfare state which assumed that there would be full employment for men and that women would stay at home for most if not all of their lives, washing up and looking after the kids. That economy has gone and I hope and believe that it has gone for good.

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We have to be very conscious of the fact that we must rebuild a welfare state that is relevant for the modern economy. That means, among other things, getting people back into work; that is crucial. The employment option must be our first priority. That does not mean that there will not be problems, because moving from the position in 1945-50 or the position in 1979, when the Labour party was last in government, to where we would like to be in five or 10 years' time will not be easy.

I accept that this policy issue should not have arisen as it has, but I believe that it is important to see it in the context of the aim to create more employment opportunities and a fairer society.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): I am grateful to my hon. Friend, for whom I have the greatest respect. Is he aware that one reason why I cannot support the Government today is that I believe, as do a number of colleagues, that the cut is a wrong, Tory policy? I also fear that other cuts in areas such as disability allowance may be introduced. Tonight should be a warning to the Government, and particularly to the Treasury, that disability benefit should not be taxed or means-tested. Those who are disabled have enough difficulties, even those who receive the upper limit of disability allowance. I believe that, in those circumstances, the Government should take note of our concerns.

Mr. Soley: I believe that the Government have already taken note of that point and I do not think that they need messages in the Lobby tonight. I understand, however, why people feel as they do and I will address that point in due course.

Welfare to work is an idea that has universal support within the Labour party and the labour movement because it is a move back to some form of full employment, but one that recognises the importance of women to the economy. When I hear Liberal Democrats or Conservatives talk about benefit cuts, I feel that they have not addressed the real issue. The issue is not whether this cut is good, bad or indifferent, but how we get from the mess we inherited from the previous Government to where we want to be without in the process hurting people who do not deserve to be hurt. That is the difficult issue.

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that in the speeches that my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) and I made in Committee and on Second Reading, we consistently supported welfare to work as being an excellent attempt to give opportunities to young women and others who are lone parents so that they can get back into work? That is entirely consistent with our manifesto, which was fully costed. We would have provided the money for a very similar programme. What we are debating tonight, however, is not welfare to work--on which we all agree--but benefit cuts for those who do not go back to work. On the Government's own figures, that will mean half of all lone parents.

Mr. Soley: I listened carefully to the speech of the hon. Gentleman's colleague, the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb). It became a wish list for more spending on everything; yet the Liberal Democrats complained about

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the windfall tax--the biggest way in which we have raised money. Where else were we to get £3 billion? Were the Liberal Democrats going to print the money for us?

Mr. Webb: The hon. Gentleman will recognise that only a tiny fraction of the windfall tax goes to lone parents and that most of the money for lone parents is coming from the lottery. By no stretch of the imagination is that a hard choice.

Mr. Soley: That is precisely the problem that the hon. Gentleman does not understand. The movement away from the disaster of the past 18 years into a new and better system requires a range of expenditure to be looked at. A figure of £5 million can be multiplied 10 times, 20 times or 30 times. It would have been more honest if the hon. Gentleman had said that in his speech and then said, "Yes, we want to raise taxes to a greater extent than the Liberal Democrats proposed at the previous election." That at least would have had the virtue of consistency and openness.

If we all accept that welfare to work is a good policy, it is important to see it in the context of what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor have done in recent weeks. There have been significant moves, not least bringing forward the welfare-to-work package from October to April as a result of the recognition that there was a mismatch in the dates on which the two issues came into play. I look forward to seeing that in action.

I also recognise that there is an important additional factor. I ask my hon. Friends to listen. The Government have accepted the strength of feeling on the issue and the concerns that there could be losers. That is why they have undertaken to keep it under review. In my judgment, there will be potential losers under the current proposals. I fear that they will include those with very young children, those who take the package and then lose their job and go on to welfare and also the more difficult group--identified by my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Audrey Wise) in an important and effective speech--containing those who want to be full-time parents and do not want to work in the early years of their children's lives.

We know of those potential losers. However, before anyone, particularly any Opposition Member, says that the Government do not care about families, they should bear it in mind that we now have the first Government not just to set up a social exclusion unit but, more importantly--perhaps this has been undervalued so far--to set up a Cabinet Committee on the needs of the family. The needs of the family cannot be considered without taking into account the needs of children in lone-parent families and others.


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