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Sir Teddy Taylor: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that although I have always attacked Labour policies I have great respect for people who, in all sincerity, say what they believe and fight for it. As he well knows, I have also had a few problems with my own party. I am not trying to score points against Labour--or the Conservatives. I hope that hon. Members will appreciate that if Labour Members vote for something that they promised the people they would not do, and thereby impose hardship on individuals, the Labour party may suffer a little but the integrity of politics, Parliament and democracy will suffer far more. I would say the same to any Government. If they promise before an election not to do something and then do it two or three months later when there has been no fundamental change in the economy, they will simply lose respect for our democracy.

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I shall not take up much more time as I appreciate that there is more to be said on both sides of the argument, but if a political party makes a promise to people who trust that party, and within three months of coming to office the new Government break that promise, that will simply undermine faith in the Government and the democratic system.

I hope that the Government will not provoke a big political row tonight, with people shouting at each other, but will simply take the matter back for the famous review that the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush--who meets all the important people--said would happen. If there is to be a review, the Government should withdraw the proposals and think again. What bothers me is that tonight will be not a victory for the Conservatives--it will certainly not be a victory for single mothers--but simply a defeat for the democracy and integrity that all parties should support.

Mr. Livingstone: I listened with interest to the chairman of the parliamentary Labour party, my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) and I heard nothing to persuade me to change my mind. I shall vote against the proposal.

I have no doubt that thousands of the votes that I received were from single parents who, given the ferocity of our attacks on the previous Government's proposals, can have been in no doubt that they would be safe in voting for a Labour Government. It sounds too much like a used-car salesman drawing attention to the small print to continue making generalisations about inheriting the Tories' spending limits. Certainly none of the single parents in my constituency would have paid £5 for the Labour manifesto and read the small print and the get-out clauses.

I also have to say to the chairman of the parliamentary Labour party that when the new rules of conduct for Labour Members, which forbade us to vote against the Government in any circumstances, were introduced, we were told that it was part of a package deal and that we would be involved in drawing up policy and be consulted at all stages. We were told that we were turning our backs on the past when one opened the papers and read about a new policy and that we would therefore avoid the damaging splits of the past. What nonsense that has been shown to be. If the leadership are not prepared to honour their side of the deal about honest and open consultation before decisions are made, I do not have the slightest intention of honouring their rules that I should not vote against them.

No Labour Member can be in favour of the policy. When I went with other hon. Members to see my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, she made it absolutely clear that she was not in favour of it. We are doing it not because we think that it would be good for lone parents or because it will advance our policies, but because we are bound by the outgoing Government's spending limits. No one is absolutely in favour of it.

Rather than turning on single parents, when will the Labour Government start taking on people who are bigger and more powerful than themselves? Why is it that whenever we have to make difficult decisions, they always involve cutting somebody else's standard of

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living? The students are next in line. Why are we not prepared to stand up to the hard-faced men and women who have done very well out of the past 18 years and have gone from being well off to being millionaires?

The Guardian poll revealed that rather than the new Labour Government being in tune with the people, they are in a small minority, and the overwhelming majority of the British people are opposed to what they propose tonight. We have the vast majority of the public with us. Most people believe that it is time that those who have done so well out of the past 18 years should pay a bit more towards the running and rebuilding of Britain and not let that burden fall on the poorest children in the poorest families.

The argument is all about money. We are talking about £62 million or £65 million out of a Government budget of £300 billion. What nonsense it is. We should be able to cope with this. I accept that the leadership have set their face firmly against any increase in the top rate or the standard rate of tax, but that does not prevent us from asking why higher earners pay no national insurance contributions on their earnings over £50,000 a year. Changing that would enable us to find the money. Why are we putting the burden on the poorest children in the poorest families in Britain?

Many of my colleagues have been seduced by the silken fantasies that have been woven by our Chancellor--the idea that we will be restrained in the first two years, but that in the run-up to the next election when we have more money we shall start spending here, there and everywhere. I must remind the House that all the economic prognoses are now moving towards a difficult mid-term for the Government, and I am not certain that there will be a lot of money available to make life easier in the second half of this Parliament.

We can already see the signs. How are single parents to find jobs when firms throughout Britain are starting to lay off workers because the high interest rate policies that the Chancellor is following make it more and more difficult to export goods? As those policies begin to bite in a year's time, we shall face the real prospect of unemployment figures beginning to turn up again in response to the Government's high interest rate policies.

I see no basis for introducing the changes, and I cannot in any conscience vote for them.

Ms Patricia Hewitt (Leicester, West): Will my hon. Friend share with some of his colleagues his reasons for voting with the Government on precisely this issue, on an amendment tabled by the Liberal Democrat party, on 22 July? At that stage, when the decision was being made, why did he not share his concern either with his colleagues or with Ministers, who were making what by every account was a difficult decision?

Mr. Livingstone: If my hon. Friend is inviting me to undertake daily trench warfare against the Labour Government, I would be prepared to do it. I was working on the assumption that I would be reluctant to join Opposition parties in any Lobby. We are forced to do that tonight because, despite the fact that we were promised an open consultative Government, all the representations that we have made in private letters to members of the Cabinet, and all our private delegations, have achieved not one jot or tittle of change in the policy. We have been talking to a brick wall.

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Today, the spin doctors have been running round the Lobbies and the Lobby correspondents are going on television to say that the Government realise that they have made a great mistake. We are assured that they know that they have made a mistake, but apparently they cannot be seen to give in. Is that what we have come down to? It cannot be a matter of finance, when we are talking about £62 million out of a budget of £300 billion.

I have a horrible feeling that all this is about demonstrating to the international markets that we can be as brutal to the poor as the Government we replaced. I see no other justification for the measure. There has been no convincing argument that it will advance the situation.

6.30 pm

When my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Murphy) declined to let me pop in and help him to develop his argument, he was telling us about his time on benefit and his search for a job. Is he seriously telling us that he would have found a job more quickly if his benefit had been cut by 10 quid a week? I would be prepared to give way to him now if he would like to expand on that illuminating view.

I shall vote against the cut, and I am prepared to take the consequences. What worries me most is the fact that the people who will really bear the consequences are the people who voted for us in good faith. When we speak to them in the Central Lobby and the place where they are meeting in the House today, we realise that they feel betrayed by the Government. I feel ashamed of what we are doing.

Mr. Swinney: We need to be clear about the basis of the issue that we were talking about. It has been well established for many years that, compared with couples, lone parents face differential costs in bringing up a family. The evidence from the family budget unit, the Policy Studies Unit and the Social Security Advisory Committee all points in that direction.

Until the previous Government reached their agreed protocol, successive Governments had respected that advice. In one of the pieces of information provided by the Library for Members to use in the debate there is a quotation from a publication issued by the National Council for One Parent Families, which illustrates the point:


That information is in the public domain.

The Policy Studies Unit says:


The Social Security Advisory Committee, in its advice to the Government, says that there are


    "insufficient grounds for concluding that a Lone Parent on Income Support is overcompensated financially compared with a couple with children".

In the face of all that evidence, it is bewildering that the Government propose to take the route before the House.

Much of the argument hinges on whether the Government are making the move as an incentive to get people into employment, or as a compulsion. I am sure that

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when the Secretary of State speaks, we shall hear all manner of justification for the additional support being put in place to compensate for the draconian cut. We shall hear about welfare to work, child care and the other measures.

None the less, nobody can hide from the fact that there is the strongest hint of compulsion. The Labour Government are accepting some of the rather unpleasant arguments of the previous Administration to the effect that people must be dragooned into employment whatever the cost.

The hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) snatched what I thought would be my best line of the evening when he quoted the song that the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) delivered to the Conservative party conference in 1992. If ever there were a set of unpleasant words, it was that litany of abuse of people, some of whom probably are scrounging from the system--we hear complaints about that from our constituents--but among whom we have obscured the genuine cases of hardship experienced by many people, including lone parents, who live in a benefit climate.

I intervened on the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Murphy) to comment on the central argument advanced by the Government, of which I am sure we shall hear more tonight. The hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) also challenged that argument, which is that the Government inherited from the previous Administration spending targets that are somehow sacrosanct.

A week ago, the Secretary of State for Scotland berated me in the Scottish Grand Committee for not being sufficiently enthusiastic about the increases in spending that he was delivering in Scotland as a result of the settlement agreed by the Chancellor. In his pre-Budget statement on 25 November, the Chancellor also talked about additional resources being available.

If we boil the figures down to the sum of money that we were talking about, we see that it is a tiny proportion of the budget at the Government's disposal. Yet the argument is that this Government, alone of all the Governments of the past, will stick to the spending targets of their predecessors in a way that the Conservatives never stuck to the targets of previous Administrations of their own party. Moreover, the idea that the Government have a legitimate argument for adhering to the previous Administration's spending targets has been comprehensively discredited by the Chancellor's statement about the current condition of public finances.

During Prime Minister's questions today, I could hardly hear the exchanges because of Conservative Members behind me shouting, "Trust me, Tony." Much has been made of the issue of trust, and one reason for the demise of the Conservative Administration on 1 May was the public's failure to believe anything that they ever said. The public must now be agonising about what on earth they can believe from the Labour party, as a result of the events that we are witnessing.

The Labour manifesto made bold commitments to people in our society. There was a strong commitment that Labour would not undertake the measure that we are debating now. Let me share with the House some words said before the election by the Secretary of State:


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    On 19 February this year, just a handful of weeks before the election, the right hon. Lady said:


    "Our approach will not be to cut the social security budget by making the poorest poorer."---[Official Report, 19 February 1997; Vol. 290, c. 944.]

When people went to the polling stations on 1 May in what are now the constituencies of Labour Members--this applies to Eastwood, too--they believed that they would no longer be subject to the harassment to which they had been subjected by the Conservative Government.

During the run-up to the election, there was an important conversion on the road to Damascus. The current Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Howarth), left the Conservative Benches to join the Labour party. On 19 February 1997--an auspicious day--he said:


He also told us:


    "The freezing of lone-parent benefits is a triumph of harsh moralism over humanity . . . and . . . dogma."--[Official Report, 9 February 1997; Vol. 290, c. 978-79.]

I absolutely agree with him. However, he has managed to leave the Conservative party when it was in office, go to the Labour party and get back into office an awful lot quicker than any of his former colleagues--and he has not had to change his views or actions. Tonight, when the Under-Secretary votes for the Bill and against the new clauses and amendments, he will rub shoulders with all his former colleagues--as many Labour Members will do--to support the policies of the previous Administration. Surely that cannot be correct.

Earlier today, we heard of the resignation from the Government of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Chisholm), who has earned respect among Scottish Members of Parliament as an individual who carried out his ministerial duties with diligence and integrity. He has demonstrated that integrity by confronting the difficult situation with which he was faced--having to support a policy which, fundamentally, he did not believe he was elected on at the general election.


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