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8.15 pm

Labour Members who go through the Government Lobby will be voting with some of the most right-wing Tories in the House who for years have supported the policy of cutting lone-parent benefit. Do those Labour Members think that their friends and families and the people who worked for them before the May election, the members of their party and the constituency committees want them to vote with people such as the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) to damage the interests of lone parents? Is that what people sent Labour Members here to do on 1 May? I challenge them to accept that almost all their constituency supporters support the amendment. They should accept that there are no arguments for voting against the amendment unless the sole intention is to enable the Secretary of State to save face.

Ms Harman: We have had a wide-ranging debate--

Dr. John Marek (Wrexham): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I seek your support and sustenance. As you know, many hon. Members wish to say why they intend to vote in favour of amendment No. 1 and against the legislation. If the Government move a motion that the Question be now put, I hope that you will take cognisance of the fact that many hon. Members wish to speak in the debate. I hope that your arm will not be twisted by the Chief Whip or by any other Government Whip.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The hon. Gentleman knows me better than that.

Ms Harman: We have had a wide-ranging debate covering many issues relating to lone parents, and I will take this opportunity to set out the background to our policy and priorities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley), in his thoughtful and important speech, reminded the House that our task is to rebuild the welfare state and to do that around family and work patterns that have greatly changed since the welfare state was founded. Anyone starting to devise a system of support for lone parents and their children would start not just with benefits--if they were concerned about the living standards of lone parents, they would start by devising opportunities for work, for training for work and for child care to support work. They would also look at the responsibility of fathers to continue to pay for their children even if they do not live in the same household.

A modern system of support should start with the opportunities that have been denied to thousands of lone parents because of the previous Government's neglect. It would start with the opportunities that this Government have decided are their priority for lone parents. Our aim is to give lone parents the opportunities that previously they have not had. Anyone starting out to devise a system of support for lone parents would make it a priority to provide them with the support that they need to take advantage of those opportunities. There would be support for lone parents in taking the opportunity to work, such

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as help with job search, and with finding and paying for the right child care. There would be support with training. Anyone devising such a system would start with measures that the Government are already implementing.

The new deal for lone parents, a national child care strategy, extra help with the cost of child care, and a national minimum wage will help lone parents get into work, and will help make work pay. The Government are addressing all the issues raised by the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb), who moved the amendment.

Mrs. Fyfe: I listened carefully to my right hon. Friend. Will she explain to me why it is her policy that a lone parent in work who loses her job should be treated as a new lone parent and should have a lesser benefit? What is the logic of that?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend raises the important issue of whether our proposals will be a disincentive to lone mothers to take work. I ask her to bear with me, because I shall answer that question. If I do not answer it satisfactorily, I will give way to her again.

Ms Abbott: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way, because I know that she wants to make progress. She has talked about the support that she wants to give lone mothers, especially those who go back to work. All hon. Members welcome that support, but what support will she give lone mothers who have to stay at home either because they feel that their children are too young to leave in the care of others, or because they cannot find a job?

Ms Harman: I shall address that point. The clause deals with the benefits for lone parents who are in work, not the benefits for those not in work.

In my view, in the Government's view and in the view of those who elected us, the failure to invest in opportunity in the past 18 years means that providing opportunities must be our first priority. We are delivering those opportunities. We are offering lone parents a new deal and providing them with what they want, which is the opportunity to work instead of a life devoid of any choice except dependence on benefits.

Most lone parents want to work. They know that that is the only way to improve the living standards of their families and to be able to afford all the things to which my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Audrey Wise) referred. Lone parents want those things for their children, and they know that they can get them by working. But work is about more than money.

Dr. Lynne Jones: My right hon. Friend talks about the desire of lone parents to work. Does she recall her own words in her book "The Century Gap", in which she wrote:

Does she now reject that argument?

Ms Harman: The hon. Lady will know--

Mr. Burns: Hon. Friend.

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend will know that in that book I also argued that it is important to extend choice so

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that lone mothers can have the financial independence that work affords. My hon. Friend will recognise that that theme runs strongly through my book.

Lone mothers say that work is about more than money, although that is important. Work for them means that they do not have to depend on benefits. They can show their children that income is about work rather than benefits. My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) referred to the work ethic. He said that we should be concerned about estates where people are growing up, generation after generation, never experiencing the world of work. Lone parents in my constituency tell me that they are concerned about their children. They want to work so that they can set an example for their children, and can bring them up to understand that life is about work and not just about claiming benefits. They want the Government to deliver those opportunities, so that they can set that example to their children, and that is what we shall do.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley): What would my right hon. Friend say to people in my constituency, where there are 1,500 lone parents and 200 jobs advertised at the jobcentre? Where are the jobs to come from?

Ms Harman: Even in areas where jobs are available and where there is a trend for married mothers to go into work, lone mothers get left behind and trapped on benefits. We are trying to ensure equality of opportunity for lone parents to be able to work. Our starting point and our priority for investment is to back them with opportunities to work, whether in part-time or full-time jobs.

Many hon. Members, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan), rightly reminded the House that lone parents are often poor. I have argued in the House for 15 years that lone parents are poor, but I have also argued that it is not lone parenthood of itself that makes them and their children poor: it is the absence of an opportunity to work. While married women have entered the labour market in ever greater numbers, lone mothers, who want to work and most need to work, have been left behind.

The Government are committed to tackling the causes of poverty, not just the symptoms. That means tackling the barriers that lone parents face when they want to get into work. That is what is done in other European countries, where lone mothers are twice as likely to be in work and only half as likely to be dependent on benefits as they are in this country. Lone mothers elsewhere in Europe are better off, because those countries tackle poverty among lone parents and their children by supporting them with opportunities to work and with child care, and that is what we should do, too.

Dr. Lynne Jones: What my right hon. Friend says about opportunities for lone parents in other European countries is undoubtedly true. Is it not also true that the benefits system and sex education in those countries are better? Should we not learn a lesson from that as well?

Ms Harman: I agree with my hon. Friend that sex education is important, but European countries which support lone parents with an impressive, high-quality

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child care infrastructure, and with support to get them into work and help them stay in work, do not necessarily have better benefit systems for lone parents who do not work.

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