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Mr. Swinney: Are we to assume from the hon. Gentleman's last remarks that the headlines are more important than the issues? Are we to assume that the Daily Express is more important to him than the lone parents? If that is the case, the Labour Government are in a sorry state.

Hon. Members: Hear, hear.

Mr. Snape: The hon. Gentleman may get cheap plaudits from his hon. Friends. They are used to giving

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cheap plaudits to their colleagues. They have rarely had quite so many hon. Friends to give them. The hon. Gentleman was obviously not listening. I said that the story would not be about lone parents and that they would not be helped by the vote tonight. The Government will have their way, whatever happens. What the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends wish to do, as the Liberal Democrat party always does, is to portray themselves as the friend of the oppressed, unless of course there is nothing especially controversial about the legislation. Then they have impeccable tactics. One third of them vote in one Lobby, one third vote in the other and one third stay in their places.

Mr. Swinney rose--

Mr. Snape: I will not give way again. I have heard enough nonsense from the Liberal Democrat party. In that way, Liberal Democrats can assure everyone that they are on their side, whatever the issue.

We have had not a word from the Liberal Democrats about the benefits budget as a whole. It has been claimed tonight that that this debate is a precursor of debates to come. Are we saying that the benefits budget cannot be touched in future years, but must increase year after year? Some of my hon. Friends shake their heads.

My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) has said that there would be a debate on disability living allowance. The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor), who has never been known for his compassion, talked about the disabled. Yet we all know full well that, in the last two or three years of the Conservative Administration, people were actively encouraged to apply for disability living allowance, so as to get them off the unemployment register. Are all those people to receive disability living allowance in future? Is it to be increased or index-linked, as some of my hon. Friends want? Those are the hard choices.

I have one or two words to say to those of my colleagues who came in at the general election and who are passionately and genuinely concerned about the future for lone parents.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): For benefit of the House, would the hon. Gentleman care to repeat and elaborate on his allegation that a significant number of disabled people claiming disability living allowance are not disabled, but are perfectly fit and able-bodied? Will he take this opportunity either to withdraw that allegation, or to confirm and justify it?

Mr. Snape: Many of those people had previously claimed incapacity benefit and were encouraged to switch to disability living allowance. Hon. Members who had any dealings with such people know full well that they were encouraged to do so, and we know why that was--it was so that the outgoing Prime Minister could boast about the falling unemployment figures. That is the simple fact and if the hon. Gentleman thinks that it is a dramatic revelation, he is even sillier than I thought he was when he was first elected.

All of us--including those of my hon. Friends whose names are on the alternatives to the Secretary of State's proposals--worked extremely hard during the election campaign to get a Labour Government elected. I have

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heard one or two of my colleagues say that we should never have pledged that we would abide by the outgoing Conservative Government's spending totals, but that is not what they said during the election campaign, and with good reason. Like me, in a marginal seat, they heaved a sigh of relief because they knew that the central weapon in the Conservatives' armoury, which they used to cheat their way to power in 1987 and 1992--saying that voting Labour would mean tax increases--had been neutralised by that single pledge.

Having made our bed, we shall have to sleep in it, especially because voting against the Government tonight will bring no change and no benefit to lone mothers. It will merely give enormous comfort to the Conservatives and to the Liberal Democrats, who have never been known to do anything other than opt out of a hard choice.

Mr. Howard Flight (Arundel and South Downs): First, I do not see that the financial arguments in favour of the measure before us tonight stand up. This afternoon, we heard the Prime Minister catalogue hundreds of millions of pounds of expenditure that the Government have introduced. Welfare to work and lone parents are related matters, and the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) was right to say that it is not enough simply to argue the case for staying within the pledged spending levels.

Secondly, the measure does not apply to people who at present receive the benefit, but applies only to future claimants. One is forced to conclude that there is an argument of principle as to why lone parents are to be denied the benefit. It is to put strong pressure on them to go to work and to take up the inducements to work that the Government are introducing.

There seem to be massive contradictions here. It is working parents who will be hit by the measure. If one is a non-working lone parent who is currently on income support, one will receive no benefit from the double child allowance. If one takes a job, but loses that job, one will receive reduced benefit under the new rules. Where is the consistency in saying that, on the one hand, we are taking this measure, which represents a stick to force lone mothers to go back to work, but on the other hand, we are introducing a fiscal structure that, for the great majority, will represent precisely the reverse incentive?

Mr. Bayley: If the measure is such a bad idea, why did the hon. Gentleman's party support it before the election?

Mr. Flight: The position of the Conservative party has been made clear. We do not in principle agree with there being differential rates of benefit as between married people and single people. How to tackle poverty and lone-parent poverty in particular is a broader issue, and there are other ways of doing this. It is a question of principle, not one relating to the drafting of the Bill.

In addition, as the hon. Gentleman knows, Conservative Members will vote with the Government on the new clause, because it would be hypocritical for us to do otherwise, having proposed the principle. I am only pointing out that the way in which the principle has been

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set down in the Government's Bill--the Bill before us is not the one that we drafted--does not achieve the Government's stated objective, which is to put strong pressure on new lone mothers to go out to work. As he will also be aware, the arrangements will reduce coverage of people's travel-to-work costs, which is another disincentive, especially for those who live in areas where there is no work close by.

7.15 pm

Mr. Hayes: Does my hon. Friend concede that the principle at stake is one that does not stigmatise individuals in specific categories, but looks at poverty in terms of income rather than in terms of broad and bland categories? That is the difference between the Conservative approach and the Labour approach: it is not that we do not care about the poor, but we want to identify the right people to whom we should pay benefits.

Mr. Flight: I thank my hon. Friend for pulling out further the point that I was making. I would add that one also has to see things from the point of view of married couples who are on low incomes. There was great resentment about the way child benefit applied: people saw lone parents receiving what they thought was an unfair benefit. There is a different view of how we deal with the problem of poverty.

My point is that there is massive inconsistency as to the stated objectives and as to the way in which the Bill will work. I trust that the Government will address those inconsistencies in the promised review, otherwise they will not even meet their objective of driving lone mothers back into work.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): May I first through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, appeal to the Opposition not to pay me a compliment tonight? I can get into quite enough trouble with the Whips without any help from anyone else.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Audrey Wise) on her excellent speech. I am, very sadly, making a hard choice tonight, because I shall not be supporting the Government. I shall support the family. I believe in the family as an institution, whether it is a single-parent family or a two-parent family. The family gives us our values--it is our rock and the place where we all go for comfort. Throughout my life, I have greatly appreciated the fact that I have a good family, and it is therefore incumbent on me to support the family tonight.

The effects of the Bill, if it goes through tonight, coupled with the cuts that went through in November, mean that hard choices will be imposed on some of the poorest people in the country and their children, all because that is what a Labour Government--the first Labour Government in 18 years--have decided will happen. These are the most disadvantaged families and children in our extremely affluent society. We should not kid ourselves about how those people are managing now--they are living on the margins of society, only just surviving. I am sure that someone will correct me if I am wrong, but I think that it was R. H. Tawney who described poverty as "someone standing up to their neck in water and a slight wave could drown them". The cuts represent a tidal wave for lone parents.

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I should also like to repeat what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said when she was shadow Secretary of State, when the decision to cut benefits was taken last year. She spoke for us all when she said:


She also accepted that the majority of those who became lone parents were subsequently worse off, not better off. I must ask her what has happened to make her change her mind. How is it that she could argue with such passion and certainty 12 months ago about something that she now denies?

We are told that the cuts are about saving money--about £400 million. It has also been argued that we said in our manifesto that we would stick to the Tories' spending plans. I do not remember taking part in any debate in which we said that we would do that. I do remember reading about it one morning in a newspaper and thinking, "Oh my God. What have we done now?" If we are to be so meticulous about the manifesto and look at every word in it, where did it say that we would cut benefits to lone parents? How many Labour Members can put their hand on their heart and say that when they knocked on any door, addressed any meeting, or appeared on radio or on television, they said, "By the way, the lone parents will be the first to be attacked"? We did not do so, because not in a million years did any of us expect that we would be faced with the choice confronting us now.

In common with my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt), I support the new deal to get those lone parents who want to back into work, because I have survived on benefits as a lone parent. I was also the child of a lone parent, because my father was away in the second world war.

I should like to ask the Secretary of State an important question. It is one that neither she nor her Ministers have answered. I should appreciate a straight answer and not the usual mantra, "This is not an issue at this time," because that simply will not do. Will the new deal eventually become compulsory? If so, it is a piece of social engineering of which Stalin would have been proud. If the new deal becomes compulsory and a woman is unfortunate enough to become widowed, divorced, abandoned, a battered wife, or is a young girl literally left holding the baby, she will not have the choice to look after her children. Those who are wealthy and enjoy a different life style, however, can stay at home with their children. I stayed at home with my children.

The disincentive inherent in the scheme has already been well aired, so I will skip over it, because I know that many hon. Members want to speak. We must have an answer about the element of compulsion. It is all very well if women want to go back to work. That is fine, and it is excellent if affordable child care can be provided. Women must be given the choice. I received a letter that particularly moved me, and I think that that lone parent should speak to the House tonight through me. She wrote:


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    A parent who has to leave home before the children do each morning cannot also ensure that they will leave for school at the required time"

or get there at all.


    "A parent who does not get in at night until after children have gone out to meet friends cannot ensure that they have done homework, know where their children are . . . Children do not need curfews--they need a parent with the time and the energy to do his or her job of parenting properly.


    Lone parents and their children are already one of the most deprived groups in society, having to function in an economy which is often inflated by two parents working. Moreover, a lone parent is already trying to do a job; the work of two people. Many people, like myself, did not bear children 'out of wedlock' but simply escaped from abusive situations, or indeed, were widowed. As a result, many of us are already suffering from stress, are over-stretched, and struggling. A doctor once informed me that the new generation of anti-depressant drugs . . . are very expensive . . . £1 per tablet".

Look at the number of lone parents who end up in psychiatric units because of breakdowns and those who simply give up when the poverty gets too much and their children end up in care.

The Bill, which could make people increasingly impoverished, could create a great burden for the NHS, the social services and the police. The social exclusion unit will have an even more difficult job to do.

I understand that people have different life styles. A woman may have been fortunate enough to have had a good education and professional parents. She may have married a good, supportive husband and, having had children, she may have afforded a nanny or cleaner while pursuing an interesting career. Such a woman, who has never had to worry about money, may simply not understand what other women or single parents have to go through. I do not believe that ignorance should dictate Labour party policy.

Labour Members, especially women Labour Members, have always felt a special responsibility and duty to make the lives of those who are poorer better. "Things can only get better" we all sang on 1 May, but I must have missed the verse that ran, "excluding lone parents". It defies common sense and decency to support the cuts. I simply do not know why we are making them. I do not know what I am missing. There must be another agenda at work, because I am now receiving letters from people who are fearful about losing disability benefit. We are now reading about the benefits integrity project. It appears to be a hit squad, whose remit is to harass claimants and put them off claiming disability benefit. But disabled people and lone parents voted for us in their thousands on 1 May.

I have been supportive of a number of the Government's initiatives, and I want to mention a few of the good things. We are tackling the mess in which our schools were left. As the Prime Minister said today, there is a lot of good news. I particularly welcomed the White Paper launched by the Secretary of State for Health. We all did a little dance when we heard about our support for the ban on land mines. We have also banned handguns. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has promoted many exciting projects that will come on stream in the future.

I cannot support the Government tonight and I know that many of my colleagues will do so with a heavy heart. Since the summer, I and many others have sought to reverse the proposed cuts. My hon. Friend the Member

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for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) has spoken about quiet diplomacy. That may have been the practice on her part, but I have gone through every route possible from the parliamentary Labour party to Ministers, and I even discussed my concerns with the Whips. I even removed my name from a critical early-day motion, and I must tell the House that I did so with great difficulty.

Our pleas have not been heard. We have won the argument time and again, but we have been ignored. We have been told over and over again that lone parents in work, on average, will be £50 better off. Today I learnt from the House of Commons Library, not a place known for left-wing rebels, that that £50 gain is based on lone parents currently in work. It states that once travel and child costs are taken into account, lone parents seeking employment will find that the net gain of gaining a job will be reduced to £10. The Government's claims do not add up. The money is available to avoid the cuts.

The Government have lost the argument, but they seem determined to carry on. On 1 May, I said that the people voted for a change because they were sick to the stomach of the sleaze and arrogance displayed by the previous Government. In particular, they were sickened by the stigmatisation and scapegoating of lone parents. There is something rather punitive and cruel about the cuts, and something rather arrogant. Of course they will be approved with the support of the Tories, but they will not go through with mine.


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