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Mr. William Cash (Stone): Does the hon. Gentleman, who is making an interesting and fascinating speech, accept that the root problem with this matter is that the proposals are Treasury driven? Why are they Treasury driven? Is it not because Government Members know perfectly well that the Maastricht criteria--[Interruption.] Yes! The Maastricht criteria are the reasons why the Government cannot escape the continuing cascade of public expenditure cuts to comply with the policies set out by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the single currency issue. Therefore, they stand condemned for going along with the Maastricht criteria, and they know it.

Mr. Swinney: You will appreciate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I am a new hon. Member. I do not know whether any prizes are available to new hon. Members,

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but to manage to engage the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) in a debate on the Maastricht criteria during a debate on lone-parent benefit is a triumph.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. It would not have been a very long debate.

Mr. Swinney: Thank you for your helpful advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I will not try that one again.

I was advancing the argument that many Labour Members must be debating with their souls. We heard a curious explanation from the chairman of the parliamentary Labour party as to why they should be loyal tonight. It did not sound to me to have a lot of substance; we then heard the speech from the hon. Member for Brent, East.

Tonight is a night when the views of the people who voted Labour on 1 May should be taken into account. On 1 May--semantics aside--the people voted for political change. They are not getting political change tonight--they are getting a continuation of the priorities of the previous Government.

I have commented on the Government's response, which has been to talk about child care and welfare to work. Part of their justification has also been that they are to take the Child Support Agency by the scruff of the neck to solve every problem. As a constituency Member dealing with various cases from the CSA, I have absolutely no confidence that the Government will be able to do anything with that agency to make a meaningful impact on this problem.

The hon. Members for Northavon and for Preston (Audrey Wise) have questioned the substance of the Government's argument, "You will be £50 better off under Labour." If any opinion pollster came forward with an opinion sample of 395, predicting enormous benefits for everybody from that sample, he would be laughed out of court. The Government's explanation on that point begs as many questions as it attempts to answer.

Tonight is about the way in which people voted on 1 May. They voted for change and, so far tonight, they are not getting it. I urge all honourable Labour Members who are concerned about this issue to support new clause 1 and amendment No. 1, as we are presiding over a great injustice in the House of Commons.

6.45 pm

Ms Hewitt: Seven months ago--like every one of my right hon. and hon. Friends--I was elected on the basis of the new Labour manifesto. In that manifesto, we promised to give priority to health and education, and that is what the Government are doing. We promised to provide extra help to the poorest elderly people, and that is what we are doing. We promised to reform the shambles of the social security system to enable people to move from welfare to work, and that is what we are doing.

We did not promise to reverse the cut that the previous Government made in lone-parent benefit. [Hon. Members: "Yes, you did."] Opposition Members should consult our manifesto. We did not promise to reverse all the cuts that the Conservatives made; for instance, the cuts in the living standards of millions of elderly people in this country.

We did not make those promises for the simple reason that we knew that, in government--and inheriting the deficit and the public sector debt from the incompetent

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Administration we defeated on 1 May--we would not be able to afford to reverse all those cuts. We knew that we would not be able to put right in a matter of months, or even years, everything that needs to be put right in this country. It is nonsense to suggest that millions of people voted for us in the belief that we would wave a magic wand to solve all these problems overnight.

I have no doubt that many of my constituents, and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends, would have liked us to promise more than we did. It was only at the beginning of this year that we were being criticised for not making more promises. We were criticised for not promising to spend billions or to reverse every cut. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone), who is leaving the Chamber, stood and was elected on the same manifesto as every other Labour Member.

Dr. Lynne Jones: Does my hon. Friend recall that we were elected with the slogans "New Labour, New Britain" and "Things can only get better"? We were not elected on the slogan, "Things can only get better, except for lone parents". I accept that we may not be able to put everything right overnight, but surely we should not penalise the very poorest in society before we make things better for them.

Ms Hewitt: I agree with my hon. Friend's underlying point--that this debate is fundamentally about children growing up in this country with their life chances blighted. The worst aspect of the Britain that we inherited on 1 May is that, in the 18 years of Conservative Administration, the numbers of children in Britain growing up in poverty more than doubled.

We know that children growing up living with only one of their parents are more likely to be poor, for the obvious rerason that, in almost every case, there is no father at home contributing to their maintenance, and only one in three of fathers not living with their children pay maintenance under that other shambles that we inherited from the Conservatives--the Child Support Act 1991.

It is also the case that children in lone-parent families are more likely to be poor because their mothers are so much less likely than those in two-parent families to be in part-time or full-time work. Much as I should like to accept the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Audrey Wise) that the lone parent premium is an effective work incentive, the reality is that we have fewer lone mothers in work than any other country in the European Union.

As I said, children of lone-parent families are more likely to be poor, but, among the totality of children growing up poor in Britain today, there are even more growing up poor with both parents at home than there are with only one parent at home. The Government and the country need a strategy to transform children's life chances, be they in one-parent or in two-parent families. When my hon. Friend spoke of the opportunities denied to children in poor families--the chance to participate in sport, music and social activities and to have the same kind of clothes as the majority of children--she seemed to imply that by reversing the cut that we inherited from the previous Government we could solve the problem.

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It is absurd to pretend that any improvement that we can make in the benefits system alone will include those poorest children--I represent many of their families--in the wider opportunities in society in which we want to include them.

Mr. Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent): Does my hon. Friend accept that we have not inherited those policies but have chosen to carry them on, and that, because there is an element of choice, we can say no tonight?

Ms Hewitt: The manifesto on which my hon. Friend and I were both elected set out our priorities and said that we would stick to the departmental budget totals that we inherited, and that is precisely what the Government are doing.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): Why is it not possible for the Government to tax child benefit--a universal, non-means-tested benefit that goes to both the poorest and the richest in the land--at the top rate, and use the money to avoid penalising the very poorest who are in single-parent families?

Ms Hewitt: My hon. Friend anticipates a point that I intended to make in a couple of minutes, so I shall make it now. The benefits system by itself cannot close the gap between children in the poorest families, whether lone-parent or two-parent, and those in the majority of families. The Government are creating a strategy that uses every possible weapon to transform children's life chances.

One of the policy options recommended by the Commission on Social Justice, of which I was deputy chair--I hope that it is under consideration in the benefits review now taking place--is precisely to tax child benefit for the best-off families, such as the one to which I belong, in which the mother pays top-rate tax on her earnings, so as to free resources to give to the majority of families on average and below-average incomes. I hope that the Government will consider that policy, but it cannot be introduced without a change in legislation.

Mr. Salmond: The hon. Lady has just proposed a change in Government policy. That may be welcome throughout the House, but if it is possible for her to contemplate a policy--taxing child benefit--that is not mentioned in the manifesto, why is it not possible to have a change in policy in order not to penalise the poorest people in the country?


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