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Ms Hewitt: As we have heard, the Government are reviewing the entire benefits system, constructing from the shambles that we inherited a system that will do what is needed in the 21st century. I am simply saying that I hope that they will consider, as part of that review, a radical reform of child benefit to enable significant new resources to go to all children in families with low and average incomes, be they lone-parent or two-parent families.

Even more important are the strategies needed to close the gulf between work-rich and work-poor families that opened up in the 18 years of the previous Administration. That means giving lone mothers, as our new deal will do, the same opportunities to enter part-time or full-time work that mothers in two-parent families now largely take for granted.

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Much of this debate casts lone mothers in the role of passive victims, rather than seeing them as they are, certainly in my experience, and not simply as a constituency representative--as women who want to change their lives and who welcome, as many have at my surgery and in my constituency generally, the fact that, at last, we have a Government who are saying that we want to help them, as we want to help other families, to combine earning a living with bringing up children. It is a shame that the constructive Opposition, as they like to dub themselves, are not interested in a strategy to close the gulf between work-poor and work-rich families.

The fact has been completely overlooked so far in the debate that the child may be living with only one parent, but, in most cases, there is a second parent: the non-resident father. Our new deal for unemployed people under 25--and, next year, for the long-term unemployed over 25--will bring into employment, often for the first time, many of the fathers of the children now living in lone-parent families. Combined with fundamental reform of the child support Acts and the Child Support Agency, which is also in train, that new deal will begin to bring into those families the kind of money that is needed to give children decent life chances.

By making work pay, by introducing as we did last week a Bill for a national statutory minimum wage--something which the previous Government destroyed--and by building on family credit, by introducing, as the Chancellor proposes, a working families tax credit, we will support further the children currently in work-poor families and enable parents to transform their own position and that of their children.

I have no doubt whatever that, by the end of the first term of the new Labour Government, children in the poorest families in the country, be they lone-parent or two-parent families, will have seen their life chances transformed. They will be better off after one term of the new Labour Government than they ever were in three terms of the previous Government. In that firm belief, I shall vote against the new clause. I urge my hon. Friends to do the same.

7 pm

Mrs. Jackie Ballard (Taunton): The speech of the hon. Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt) made me feel, not for the first time in this Chamber, that this was a little like Alice in Wonderland. In one breath she talked about the shambles of the benefits system inherited from the previous Government and said that it needed urgently reviewing and then in another breath she said that the Labour Government had to keep to that inheritance and implement a cut proposed by a Government whose shambles they so despised. No wonder people out there cannot understand half the things that go on in this place.

This afternoon, the Prime Minister spoke about putting lone parents to work. In the 1950s and 1960s, women fought for the right to work outside the home. They wanted to have choices in their lives. Now, the Secretary of State for Social Security and, apparently, the Prime Minister are saying that to choose to stay at home and bring up children is not a valid choice and that parenting is not work. Therefore, women and their children are to be further driven into poverty and debt, to force them to go to work outside the home.

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All hon. Members who are parents know that bringing up children is hard work, and those of us who are single parents know that having sole day-to-day responsibility for a child is even harder work, and is more expensive. There is not a partner to provide free child care or undertake jobs around the house. Millions of women thought on 1 May that not only the face but the heart of Parliament would be different, because more women had been elected. Those women cannot now believe that the person who is supposed to speak for them in the Cabinet is the same person who is defending this mean attack on lone parents and their children.

I wonder how many of the women's groups that the Secretary of State has consulted support her action. We know from my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) that of the 40 women's groups in Northern Ireland to which he spoke, none of them supported this action. I suspect--we heard from the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone)--that few Labour Members support this action either. Although some of them may vote for it, it must be with heavy hearts and a guilty conscience.

The Government talk repeatedly until we are all fed up about what they inherited from the previous Government. People voted on 1 May for what they hoped would be a change for the better, not for a Tory inheritance written in concrete. The inheritance is not written in concrete. The Tory Government are dead, or so we thought. The Labour Government can choose how to spend the inheritance. They have already chosen to change a number of Tory policies, and the Prime Minister spoke about them this afternoon. They have chosen to change some of the Tory spending priorities in the past seven months. Labour Back Benchers are now being seduced or bullied into the Lobby with promises of a review or a committee, but a review, a social exclusion unit, a Cabinet Committee or a departmental committee will not put shoes on the feet of children. I am sorry that the Secretary of State finds this funny.

To change one's mind is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength, a sign that the Government have listened and a sign to the public that democracy works and that this steamroller of Tory discipline has not been replaced by the Labour steamroller. I cannot believe, and I suspect that millions of other people cannot believe, that people in this place who earn more than £800 a week can vote with a clear conscience to take £5 a week away from the poorest people in our society and their children. There is no economic, moral or political justification for it.

Mr. Snape: Twenty-five years ago, when I was first elected as parliamentary candidate for West Bromwich, East, the area of the black country that I have had the honour to represent since then was regarded as a fairly affluent part of the United Kingdom. Unemployment was 3 or 4 per cent. and British manufacturing industry regarded the black country as its heartland. Before I come to the central point that we are debating, I want to say to some of my hon. Friends that none of them should underestimate the damage that 18 years of Toryism have done to the fundamental nature of British society and to pride and especially working-class pride in areas such as mine.

In the early 1970s, single parents had the option of working or staying at home. For too many of them, that option has not existed for many years. Especially in the

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early 1980s, the Tory party's economic policies virtually destroyed our manufacturing base. The work ethic is all too often missing in the various estates that I have the honour to represent, because whole generations have never had the opportunity to work. So anything that the Government can do to bring back the work ethic and working-class pride, I am prepared to support. Having said that, I must say to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that this issue has not been well handled.

For single parents to be penalised financially if they go into work and then, through no fault of their own, lose their job is not an outcome that was intended in our manifesto. That aspect of the proposals ought to be reconsidered. It is not fair to penalise those who lose their job through no fault of their own.

There are no benefits to getting old, as some of us can tell the House. One of the drawbacks is that we are apt to lecture our hon. Friends. I hope that I shall not be accused of doing that tonight. I urge caution when the time comes to vote this evening.

I have listened to the speeches of Opposition Members this evening. It is easy for the Liberal Democrats. They are always in favour of greater expenditure. They never have to pick up a bill. They have not been in government in my lifetime and, looking at them, pray heaven they never are. As for the Conservative party, let me say this after 23 years in the House. When the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman--what a lousy speech that was--praises my hon. Friends for their courage and consistency, my hon. Friends should dip their handkerchiefs in perfume, because there is a sharp stench of hypocrisy in the Chamber.

I put one point to those of my hon. Friends who are tempted to vote for the new clause, so ably supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Audrey Wise). If my hon. Friends vote for it, it will not be carried. The Conservatives will see to that. Tomorrow's newspapers will not concentrate on the fate of lone parents. We could write the lead stories in the Daily Express and the Daily Mail ourselves. They will say, "An ashen-faced Tony Blair was left contemplating the smoking wreckage of his party as the left took 40 or 50 Members into the Lobby." The stories will not be about lone-parent families.

Let me say this about the events of the past 18 years. When I knocked on doors in what was until May a marginal constituency, people said to me time after time, "I am not going to vote for you, Peter. I will not vote Labour because you are hopelessly divided." If we demonstrate that we are divided on issues such as this, we do not provide succour and hope to lone-parent families. We merely provide succour and hope to the Conservative party, which was so soundly rejected on 1 May.

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