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Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park): I thank the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) for her speech in defence of the family and single parents. I have no wish to embarrass her, but her speech was a fine one. I also welcome back to the Chamber the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone). I trust that his injuries were due to natural causes.

I want to share with the House my years of experience as a doctor dealing with many young women who have become pregnant and raised families as single parents. They are not by any means a group typical of lone parents; I do not claim that, but they are frequently vilified.

I want to dispel the myth about those women--a myth perpetrated by the bunch of reprobates who call themselves Her Majesty's Opposition, who are all apparently now having £30 dinners, as they are not in their places. When they were in government, they promoted the myth that a reduction in benefits would discourage women from getting pregnant. The women's entitlement to housing has already been eroded; that did not work. Now their income is to be reduced, so why do they become pregnant? It has not been said very often tonight, but I know that in private that is often said.

Some women, in my experience, have never had a proper home or a family. They have never known the love or security of a decent home. I repeat that those women are not typical of lone parents, but they are a big group. Their lives have been spent in a series of unsatisfactory foster homes or residential care.

7.30 pm

I well remember one such patient of mine, who got pregnant at a very early age and, because of ill health,

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decided eventually to have a termination of pregnancy. Within a very few months, she was back, pregnant again, and she told me that time that she wanted to keep the baby, because above all she wanted someone to love and someone who would love her--something that she had never experienced, after a lifetime of rejection. Cuts in her benefit would not have deterred her.

Other, older women go on having babies because it gives them a brief respite from poverty and degradation. They may have a partner who abuses them; they may have many partners, but they have babies for the same reason--someone whom they can love and who will love them.

Pregnancy and childbirth give women attention. They may even get a bunch of flowers from the child's father before he disappears into the great blue yonder. I would be encouraged if the Government would hurry up and do something about the Child Support Agency, which has so little success in getting those men to support their partners.

Those mothers get a little attention. It does not last, but it provides a break. They have no concept of the difficulties and responsibilities of parenthood. Threats of a cut in benefit will not deter them; it is all that they have.

Many more of the women whom I saw got pregnant through ignorance and carelessness. Sex education in this country is patchy and woefully inadequate. I have seen many patients in family planning clinics whose first knowledge of how their reproductive system works is gained when they come to the clinic, and many are already pregnant by that time. Cuts will not deter that group, either.

Yes, by all means, let us encourage lone parents to work if they wish, and let us also give them a good education, especially a good sex education, some lessons in human biology and some teaching and experience in parenting. They also need good social services and good child care now, to prevent the same old cycle repeating itself in the next generation.

However, we must not at the same time wield the stick of benefit cuts for those women and children. It is cruel and senseless. I appeal to the Government to consider the quality of mercy for those people--if not for the single mothers, let it be for their children, who need a better standard of living, not a worse one. Only mercy and compassion, and benefits now, will stop those children becoming single parents in their turn, in a few years.

Mr. Gordon Prentice: I have been asking myself why we are doing what the Government propose. On the radio this morning, John Humphrys asked the Secretary of State whether we are doing it because we have to or because we want to. I was not satisfied with the Secretary of State's reply.

Having reflected deeply on the issue, I have come to the conclusion that there is no need to do what we are being asked to do. It has been turned into an insane loyalty test, in which my colleagues are being invited to support the Government, when they know in their hearts that what the Government are doing is wrong. That grieves me, because I want the Labour Government to succeed.

Every time that I hear the Minister try to persuade the world outside, it is as though we live in a parallel dimension in the House--as though we do not connect with what people outside are thinking. They think that we

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are wrong. The Labour Government think that we are right. We know that the Government are wrong. Nothing will happen. It is an incredible state of affairs. We are told that there are hard choices, but the hardest choice of all is to vote against the Government, even though we know that they are wrong.

I shall focus on just one aspect, as many of my colleagues want to speak. The Bill deals with lone parents in work. Many of the contributions have been about getting lone parents into work. That is not what the Bill does.

In my constituency of Pendle, in north-east Lancashire, we are not work poor--we are cash poor. North-east Lancashire is a low-pay black spot. The area is scarred by poverty pay. There are 3,100 one-parent families in my constituency, many of whom are working and many of whom are living in deep poverty.

The Minister says, and we are invited to believe this as a truth, that a lone parent in work will, on average, be £50 a week better off than one on income support. That assumes that the lone parent is getting family credit. Even the child care disregard, which my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Audrey Wise) mentioned, is predicated on the assumption that the lone parent in work, in a low-paid job, is getting family credit.

The reality is that in Lancashire, one third of all people who are entitled to family credit do not take it up, for whatever reason. They may be in isolated workplaces, or there may be a non-unionised work force. Thousands of people could be lifted out of poverty by claiming family credit, but they do not do so. They depend on the non-means-tested benefits--the child benefit for lone parents, which is being snatched away from them.

Two out of three people who do not claim family credit but are entitled to it would get at least £10 a week. The average amount unclaimed is £21.80. Such ignorance is expensive. Nationally, 80,000 one-parent families in severe hardship are not claiming family credit.

What is needed is a national minimum wage to help people in work. The tragedy is that this excellent proposal--the National Minimum Wage Bill has now been published--will not kick in until the spring of 1999 at the earliest. We are proposing cuts that will kick in next June, so the cart has been put before the horse.

I am sad about what has happened. I consider myself not as one of the usual suspects, but as someone who desperately wants the Government to succeed. For many of those in the Chamber and outside, this is a defining moment. If people believe that what we are doing is wrong, they should join us in the Lobby and vote against the Government's proposal.

Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale): This is an understandably emotional issue. My constituency of Rochdale has one of the highest levels of teenage pregnancy in Europe, so the issue has evoked much emotion not just within the constituency party but among my constituents.

My contribution will be brief. There have been some heated speeches this evening. As one of the younger new Members of Parliament and a woman, I feel that, on my head and on the heads of my female colleagues, has been heaped a lot of responsibility for addressing the position of women in society and what the Labour party has or has not achieved in that regard during six months in government.

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I remind the House and the world outside it that those hon. Members who pass through the Government Lobby tonight will do so not because we are naive and unaware of the problems, but because we can only hope and trust that the Government are looking to the bigger picture. That is the reason why my colleagues and I stood as Labour candidates in the general election and supported the election of a Labour Government. Let us be honest: whether we agreed with the decision from the outset or, as one of my colleagues said, woke up and read in The Guardian that Labour Members would have to accept spending pledges that were not our own, we knew that there would be hard choices. We also knew that somebody would have to pay for those choices, perhaps in the form of cuts.

Many of my colleagues have introduced cuts at local government level--albeit with a heavy heart. People like me will pass through the Government Lobby tonight, because we believe that this is a short-term measure that will reap long-term gain by creating a modern economy and liberating from poverty all the children and single parents whom I represent. That outcome will be possible only when constituencies such as Rochdale achieve economic prosperity.

Although £5 on benefit will buy things for the family, in the long term it will not alleviate the poverty trap in which many of my constituents are caught. Two, three and sometimes four generations of single parents live on council estates in my constituency and they are looking for some bold action by the Government. They are waiting for the national child care strategy to kick in. They are looking for success from the new deal for lone parents and for a national minimum wage.

Some of the bravest people who represent the Labour party in local government are single parents. Rochdale has taken the bold step of appointing a poverty committee, which brings together a cross-section of local council representatives to address that problem. The committee is discussing the issue tonight. The committee chair, who is one of the bravest people I know, is a lone parent with eight children. Tonight, she will answer an allegedly awkward question from the Liberal Democrats--who do nothing but ask awkward questions and offer no solutions.

That councillor intends to back the Government because she is aware of the bigger picture and she knows that we must change the way things work. She worked for the Labour party during the general election campaign not because she thought it would be easy--she had her doubts about the spending pledges to which Labour was committed--but because she understood that a Labour Government would acknowledge her existence and her contribution to society. That is a positive, not a negative, point.

That Labour councillor is concentrating on the Government's positive measures, whether it is the family unit, the social exclusion unit or our work on poverty. She knows that those measures represent light at the end of the tunnel; it will not be all continuous grind and poverty. She trusts us to have her best interests, and those of the people whom she represents, at heart. She believes that the Government will change the economic destiny of the majority of people on the Newbold council estate whom she represents.

I shall pass through the Government Lobby tonight not because I do not recognise that there are problems with the revolving door of seasonal work or problems for

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young families with children under five--I am not that naive. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley), the chair of the parliamentary Labour party, I hope that the Government will continually review the measure when it is in place. I hope that they are serious about that pledge. I hope that the Government will do something if the penalties kick in for those in seasonal employment and if there are problems for families with children under five.

If the Government do not stand by their word, many people will find it harder to look to the long term when they are forced to address other difficult issues. It has been difficult to make this speech tonight as a new Member of Parliament when so many eminent colleagues have made wonderful contributions. I ask Ministers to bear it in mind that we are putting a lot of trust in the Government because we believe that they have the nation's long-term agenda at heart. We knew that there would be hard choices, but I hope that we shall learn some lessons from this exercise. We have fallen into this problem and the way in which we have dealt with it has done no one any favours. We must ensure that we are the Government whom my friend the councillor will defend tonight; her trust in us must be well placed. I hope also that the faith that new Members like me will place in the Government when we pass through the Lobby tonight is not misplaced.


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