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8 pm

Mr. Frank Cook : This is a difficult debate, with nightmarish aspects. I shall try to introduce a degree of reality based on my experience as a constituency Member.

In implementing a measure to end entitlement to lone-parent benefit for next year's new claimants, and the preceding abolition of the lone-parent premium on income support, the Government are staking their moral authority on a simple question: can we guarantee real opportunities to all single parents who will be adversely affected by the two cuts?

The number and range of such opportunities is to be extended by the new deal for lone parents. I support that programme, and I do not doubt the Government's

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sincerity in promoting it; but, given that the best available figures suggest that the combined losses in entitlement will affect half a million benefit claims in 1998-99 alone, is it cynical to see a triumph of hope over expectation in any contention that every one of those half million will, by way of compensation, be offered a work or child care package?

If it is cynical to suggest that the official unemployment figures exclude a significant number of people who are in reality actively seeking work--heaven knows, the Deputy Prime Minister has made that claim many times, and I am sure he is right--and thus adding to competition for available vacancies, not only was that cynicism shared by nearly all my right hon. Friends in opposition; it is, or should be, shared by them in government, however expedient it might be now to retain the same figures. They would probably agree with me--I hope they would--that the official figure for those unemployed in the borough of Stockton-on-Tees in October this year, 8.5 per cent., understates the size of the task of providing employment opportunity for all who lack it, as does the numerical total of 4,181 for the Stockton, North constituency.

In October, the figure for the Stockton borough as a whole was 7,187, and 1,124 jobcentre vacancies were unfilled. It does not take an Einstein to work out that 6.4 people were chasing each vacancy. In neighbouring Middlesbrough, the situation was even worse: 14.4 people were chasing each registered vacancy. Those are two towns in a grouping of five. Across the old Cleveland boundaries, the figure is 10: across five towns, 10 people are chasing each vacancy. The Bill will increase that figure, but how are we to increase the number of vacancies? The whole proposal is premature and unjustified. We are running away with ourselves. Too much sloppy logic is being applied in an attempt to justify measures that are unwarranted, and, indeed, were previously condemned by senior members of the parliamentary Labour party.

I would not care to gamble on the possibility that, in the four years that the current Parliament has to run from April 1998 onwards, no single parent will approach me and say, "I have lost £5 a week from an extremely tight family budget because of the withdrawal of the lone-parent premium"--or £6 a week because of the withdrawal of lone-parent benefit--and your Government cannot offer me a job that I can do so that I can compensate for that by my own efforts." As I have said, there are 10 people seeking every job.

One must assume from their actions that the Government are prepared to take that gamble--to gamble on the flawless implementation of their new deal programme in all areas, and to gamble on there being no downturn in economic growth. I endorse the programme, and applaud such initiatives as the funding of after-school club places and the introduction of enhanced child care disregards into the family credit regime. However--even leaving aside, for the purposes of my argument, lone parents who quite honourably choose to remain at home with their children; for heaven's sake, some mothers believe that the first five years of their children's growth require the personal attention of at least one parent, lone or otherwise--my support of those programmes cannot blind me to the possibility that the Government's reach

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will exceed their grasp, and that I can expect to see far more than one victim of that relative failure at my constituency advice bureaux over the next four years.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt) said that potential claimants had come to her surgeries saying that they supported the broad thrust of the measure. I do not know where they get these surgeries from. I have been a Member of Parliament for nearly 15 years, and I can tell the House that it is no joke: my surgeries are bloody heartbreaking, and I do not want to add to that. My hon. Friend also claimed that we had inherited a shambles created by the Child Support Act 1991. Of course we did, but my hon. Friend failed to remind the House that the parliamentary Labour party trooped through the Lobby in order to enact it--and the person who led us through the Lobby was my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who is now asking us to trust her on the basis of a review that my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley), the chairman of the parliamentary Labour party, has told us will be continuous.

If we are to have a review, why can we not depend on the review team headed by the Minister for Welfare Reform, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field)? If we are to have a broad review, why can we not wait for the full package and see what we are going to buy? If we continue at this rate, we shall have to have a review of reviews, and probably another review after that.

What am I to say to the constituents who come to my surgeries? Am I to say that my faith in the Government's generally good intentions towards lone parents meant that I was prepared to support measures that resulted in their impoverishment? Can I justify such a stance? I am afraid that I cannot. I am a simple individual. That does not mean that I am stupid; it means that I am not convinced by some of the arguments that we have heard this evening.

Other right hon. and hon. Members will face the choice that I must face unless they can guarantee the universal success of the new deal for lone parents--and, in the real world, how can they? In that context, new Labour's rhetoric about hard choices is oddly reminiscent of the old left slogan, "You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs." George Orwell had the best answer to that: he said, "So, show me the omelette." We should look at the omelette.

I do not want to delay the House, although I could continue for another 10 minutes. What we need to do can be summed up in two words--"precisely nothing", at least for the moment. I cannot vote for the new clause, because it suggests a change in the regulations, and I think that we must have time to take stock. We should pause, and take a breath. For that reason, I shall vote for amendment No. 1.

Mr. Rendel: I am grateful for this opportunity to take part in the debate, which is one of the best that we have had for a long time. Perhaps that is not surprising because there is some cross-party agreement and such debates usually draw the best from hon. Members. Two arguments need some further review. My hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) comprehensively demolished most of the Government's arguments. Since then the issue of the review, about which a couple of Labour Members spoke, has been introduced. Given the importance that

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they attach to the review and that, as far as I am aware, no Opposition Member had heard a whisper of such a review until it was mentioned in the debate, I hope that in the new spirit of freedom of information the Government will be prepared to put the paper describing the review, which has apparently just been circulated to Labour Members, in the Library so that we may all see exactly what the Secretary of State proposes. If the document is such an important part of the argument, it should surely be available to all hon. Members.

The second main Government argument is that there is in some sense a choice between welfare to work and lone-parent benefit. I do not accept that, and I do not think that many Labour Members accept it. We have shown that there is money in the budget to reverse the benefit cuts. In addition, we have shown that while welfare to work is welcome--we have consistently welcomed it--even on the Government's figures no more than 50 per cent. of lone parents are expected to get back into long-term work as a result of the welfare-to-work programme. That means that at least 50 per cent. of lone parents will gain nothing from welfare to work but will have all the disadvantages of the lone-parent benefit cut. The two cannot be seen as the two sides of the argument. Lone parents who will gain nothing from welfare to work should be allowed to retain at least the benefits that they currently receive.

I shall not try to demolish the Government's arguments because they have already been comprehensively scattered to the winds. I shall give three positive reasons for Labour Members choosing to vote for amendment No. 1. They have rightly made great play of the importance of keeping their promises. I have already said that we are debating two promises. The first is the Government's promise to stick to the budget that they inherited. They will do that whatever the outcome of the vote. Thanks to the unexpectedly fast fall in unemployment and the measures in the Bill to block loopholes in national insurance, there is enough money in the social security budget to do more than cover the cost of reversing the benefit cut. The Government will keep that promise, so there is no point in using an argument about breaking it to persuade people to retain the cut.

Labour made another promise before the election. It is on record, perhaps not in its manifesto, but it was made by no less a person than the Secretary of State. That promise was to reverse the benefit cut. If the Government want to keep their promises, that is the one that they should consider and I urge them to do that. Hon. Members have spoken about disincentives to work. The Government rightly say that they want to remove such disincentives and give people every opportunity to find work. We support that, but it is quite clear that a benefit cut for new claimants must be a disincentive to work for those who are currently on the higher benefit level. If they get temporary jobs and are later thrown out of work, they will receive lower benefit, and that is clearly a disincentive to finding a job. That is a positive reason for Labour Members who wish to remove such disincentives to vote for amendment No. 1.

We support the Government's emphasis on dealing with social exclusion. They have set up a social exclusion unit. Good for them. They claim that they are trying to reduce the gap between the richest and the poorest which under the Tories grew so big. We support that, but how can they reduce that gap by making some of the very poorest even poorer? The Government cannot expect us

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to believe that they are intent on reducing social exclusion if they carry out their threat to make some of our poorest people even poorer.


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