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7.45 pm

Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West): I put my name to new clause 1 and to amendment No. 1 because I believe that the proposals that they outline will help to protect the living standards of single-parent families.

The Government's proposals will undoubtedly cut the living standards of some of the most deprived and disadvantaged children in our country. There is abundant evidence of the incidence of poverty among single-parent families. The average income of a single-parent family is only 37 per cent. of that of a two-parent family. Some 53 per cent. of children in one-parent families lack three or more of the basic necessities of life compared with only 24 per cent. of children in two-parent families. Single parents face additional costs in bringing up their children because they have no partner with whom to share child care and no one else to contribute to the family income.

The Government propose to cut benefits for single-parent families by up to £11 per week. I find that incomprehensible and unjustifiable, especially when we are apparently heading for a budget surplus and the economy is reported to be in reasonably good shape. The Government are proposing a measure that the previous Tory Government tried to introduce. We opposed it then and, to be consistent, we should oppose it now. No doubt the Secretary of State will tell us later that we are now in a different situation because the Labour Government propose to improve job opportunities for single parents. I applaud her for that: I give her credit for ensuring that there will be investment in new job opportunities and in childcare facilities to help those single parents who want to work to do so.

The fact of the matter is that, in many areas, the jobs and the childcare facilities do not exist yet--if they do, they are not adequate to deal with demand from single

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parents. Some single parents may choose to look after their children themselves rather than put them in the care of another person. If that is their decision--particularly when their children are very young--they should not be penalised for it.

I urge my right hon. Friend to rethink the issue, and I urge as many as possible of my hon. Friends to vote for amendment No. 1, which has cross-party support. I honestly believe that it reflects the mood of the country. A poll that appeared in yesterday's edition of The Guardian revealed that the majority of people--a ratio of three to one--believe that the Government have got it wrong.

Today, all Scottish Members received a letter that criticised the Government proposals to cut benefit for single-parent families. The signatories of the letter include Rev. Alexander McDonald, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Cardinal Thomas Winning, Richard Holloway, the Scottish Episcopalian Bishop of Edinburgh, the Young Women's Christian Association Scottish National Council, Save the Children, the Transport and General Workers Union (Scotland) and other organisations that have campaigned consistently for children's rights and the rights of single-parent families in particular.

May I say this to my hon. Friends who have been critical? I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt) is here. I saw her on the television not all that long ago, saying that the opposition to the Government proposals was a conspiracy organised by the Socialist Campaign Group. I am sure that Bishop Holloway, Cardinal Winning and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland will be surprised to find out that they have been recruited into the Socialist Campaign Group--the Church militant perhaps, but not the Campaign Group.

The letter specifically refers to a statement by the Prime Minister, saying:

Therefore, when I go into the Lobby tonight to vote against the Government proposals, I shall be not rebelling against the Prime Minister, but urging him to stand by his commitment and to protect the living standards of some of the poorest and most vulnerable children in our country.

Mr. Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale, East): As many hon. Members have said, this is not an easy issue. As a new Member, I am aware that this is the time for clear judgment and to be as honest and as truthful as we can be. I have noticed that truth and honesty seem to have disappeared in the media recently as they have dived down into their usual cynical attitudes.

Today, The Guardian insinuated that the benefits of every lone parent would be cut if the Government were successful in the Division Lobby tonight, as I am sure they will be. That was an absolute lie. It is an outrage to scare lone parents in that way because all lone parents who currently receive the benefit will be protected.

The truth is that I fought the election campaign on a manifesto and supported a programme that said that Labour would stay within its spending limits for the first two years of government. I defy the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) or any other hon. Member

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to find any leaflet, magazine or newspaper article that suggests otherwise. That was the platform on which I stood as a candidate.

On the doorsteps, amid many positive messages that I received, some constituents regularly said, "You will not do it. You will spend your way out of it." Standing as a candidate on that platform, my response was, "No, we will not." After 18 years of Tory rule, our approach is to review and to reprioritise our budgets. I also made it clear that it was important that, in reprioritising those budgets, the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our country should have the highest priority.

Mr. McDonnell: Can my hon. Friend produce any leaflet, any reference in the Labour manifesto or any leaflet in his constituency or elsewhere, in which we gave a pre-election commitment to cut lone-parent benefits? Can he produce any reference to that in the manifesto?

Mr. Goggins: Having studied these issues and followed them carefully over many years, but particularly in the run-up to the election, I was aware at that time that cuts were built into--

Mr. McDonnell: Can my hon. Friend produce a reference?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order. The House has been good natured up to now, so let us continue in that manner.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): It is a very good question.

Mr. Goggins: It may be a good question and I am attempting to answer it. I was aware that the proposal to cut benefit was built into Tory spending plans. Therefore, when I was campaigning, I knew that that cut was a possible consequence of the campaign. If I win an election on a platform that says that Labour will stay within spending limits, I have to face the question: if we restore this benefit cut what other benefits am I prepared to cut to make up the difference?

Mr. Frank Cook: Does my hon. Friend not realise that we are cutting the benefit? Those who protest against this are not asking for extra money. We seek simply to leave it as it is until the broad-ranging review is concluded. We are not asking for extra money, so we are staying within spending levels.

Mr. Goggins: I am sorry, but my hon. Friends cannot have it both ways. The simple fact is that there is a £400 million commitment here and, if that cut is restored, another cut elsewhere in the budget will have to be found. It is a painful fact for me and for many of my hon. Friends, but it is none the less a fact.

One of the things that has disturbed and sometimes appalled me is the way in which many people outside and in the House have sought to pitch the debate in a particular direction by saying, "You are either on the side of the poor or you are on the side of the Government." That is a false statement. Throughout the debate, we have heard of various initiatives, including the social exclusion unit and the new deal, which is aimed especially at lone

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parents, young unemployed people and unemployed people who are disabled, who also aspire to a place in the work force. We have heard about the cuts in value added tax on fuel, the additional payments to pensioners this winter and aspirations to raise educational standards in the poorest communities.

The Prime Minister has said that, if we have not delivered for the poorest, we will have failed. Hon. Members and the country will judge him on that pledge. It is important that we fulfil that pledge, but I am absolutely convinced that, to tackle poverty, we have to encourage employment opportunities, especially among those people who have been excluded over many years from the work force.

A third of all households in Britain that have no one in paid employment are single-parent households. It is not a question of compulsion. We know from research that the majority of lone parents want to work because they know that it will make their families better off, give them more independence and enable them to participate in society. The new deal will deliver on that aspiration.

The truth comes, of course, when hon. Members face their constituents. Many of us have met lone parents in recent weeks. One in particular taught me a great deal. She was very unhappy about the prospect of the cut, but two things emerged from the discussion, which hon. Members should realise. First, she thought that, as an existing claimant, her benefit was going to be cut. She was reassured when I told her that it was not going to be cut.

Secondly, that lone parent goes out to work for £110 a week. It is not a huge salary by any means. It is extremely modest, but she prefers to work rather than to be on benefit. Her problem is that, during school holidays, child care costs her £70 a week. That is her difficulty. We need to produce as soon as possible a child care programme to help her to keep her job, rather than an extra £5 or £6 a week in benefit after she has lost her job.

Many hon. Members have described this as a tough decision. It is the hardest decision that I have had to face in my time as an hon. Member, but it is certainly not the first time that Labour Ministers and a Labour Government have had to face a difficult decision. When lone-parent benefit was first introduced, the Labour Secretary of State for Social Services said:

Those words were spoken by Barbara Castle and they are as true today as they were in 1975.

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