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Mr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde): Work is exceedingly difficult to find in my constituency for people of all ages and of both sexes. If my right hon. Friend must make tough decisions, why does she not recommend the taxing of child benefit paid to those earning in excess of £40,000 per annum?

Ms Harman: I will deal with the issue of choices in spending later in my speech, but I should like now to deal with the specific measures that hon. Members will vote on today.

Clause 70 of the Bill provides power to equalise rates of child benefit for lone parents and couple families. The provision will therefore affect the income only of lone parents who are in work and will not affect the income of lone parents who are not in work. The House has already had opportunities to debate the benefits of lone mothers out of work, and those benefits have been introduced through separate regulations. The lone mothers who are the subject of today's vote are those who are in work or who are considering work.

8.30 pm

Two substantive questions have been asked in this debate, and I should like to answer them. The first is whether lone parents have extra costs in work beyond those faced by couple families. The second question--which my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) asked--is whether the measure will discourage lone parents from taking work. Many hon. Members have asked those questions today.

The answer to the first question is yes, lone parents face extra costs in work beyond those faced by couple families. However, the Government are dealing with those extra costs, because they are child care costs. Access to high-quality affordable child care is crucial if lone parents are to have the same opportunities to work as other families. That is why the we said in our manifesto that we would develop a national child care strategy to help parents balance work and family life. We are making that a reality.

Our national child care strategy will have three parts: meeting parents' demands for accessible, high-quality and affordable child care.

First, on accessibility, the Government have made the biggest ever investment in child care. There will be £300 million from the national lottery and the Exchequer to extend out-of-school child care. The additional 30,000 out-of-school projects represent a 10-fold increase on current provision, and they mean that there will be places for almost a million children. Child care will therefore be available for those children before school if necessary, after school if necessary, and in the school holidays. Moreover, there will be help for the under-fives.

Every parent will have access in their community to out-of-school care for their child. I feel very proud of that achievement, which has come so early in the life of the Government. In 1983, I tabled my first parliamentary question, asking the then Prime Minister, now Baroness Thatcher, whether she would consider concerns about

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a complete lack of after-school clubs preventing parents from being able to balance work and home responsibilities. She wrote that off as rubbish, as did a subsequent Tory Prime Minister. This Labour Government, however, are now delivering on that commitment. We are delivering after-school care in addition to the other measures to which we are committed in helping to improve access to child care.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): I do not think that there is a Labour Member in the Chamber who would not and does not welcome the national child care strategy, but will my right hon. Friend explain why we cannot deliver the national child care strategy before pulling away the safety net of benefit support? If we were to do that, our proposals would be coherent in a way in which they currently are not.

Ms Harman: As I shall explain in a moment, help with child care costs and extra child care provision will come on stream at the same time as the benefit changes for lone parents who are in work.

Our action on after-school clubs is in addition to our other measures to help improve access to child care. We will provide a nursery place for every four-year-old in Britain, and we will promote an integrated approach to education, child care and family services in our early excellence centres.

The second strand of the national child care strategy is quality. We have always said that child care should not be about numbers and that the quality of care is vital. We will therefore invest £100 million extra in training nursery and play staff.

The third element is affordability. Clause 70 is about the flat-rate additional allowance of about £6 a week in child benefit. A £6 flat rate does not make sufficient difference for many parents who have to pay the high costs of child care. We have therefore announced extra help with child care costs through the child care disregard for in-work benefits. The disregard will be introduced on the same day as the measure that we are now debating.

The extra help will mean that a lone parent with one or two children can receive up to £95.50 per week towards the cost of child care--almost £40 per week more than is currently available.

Audrey Wise: Does not the disregard mean that to qualify for a £100 disregard a parent must be able to spend £100 on child care? Is it not true that as most of those parents receive maximum family credit, the extra disregard will not make a ha'p'orth of a difference?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend has welcomed the extra help through the child care disregard, but says that it does not go far enough--[Hon. Members: "No!"] She says that of itself the disregard--although it is an extra contribution to child care costs--is not enough. I agree with her. It is only the first step. The Chancellor has announced that there will be more help with child care costs through the working families tax credit.

The measures focus help where it is needed--on lone parents' child care costs. The measures mean that some lone parents will receive more benefit help in work than they currently receive, and that some lone parents who could never before have contemplated work will now be

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able to do so because they will be able to afford child care. Together, our measures amount to a major new child care programme, demonstrating that our priority is to invest in opportunity by giving lone parents the same opportunity to participate fully in society and to support their families through work. It is the best way forward.

Again, my answer to the question whether lone parents have extra costs in work beyond those experienced by couple families is yes, but they are child care costs and we are helping to meet them.

The second question that many hon. Members have raised is whether the measure will discourage lone parents from taking up work. My answer to that is no. [Hon. Members: "Why?"] Hon. Members ask why, so I will explain. First, lone parents want to work because they are better off in work than they can be on benefit. Research suggests that the average additional income for lone parents already in work and on family credit is more than £50 a week above the estimate of their out-of-work income.

Dr. Marek: May I draw the Secretary of State's attention to a House of Commons Library research paper which disproves the argument that such people will be £50 a week better off? The paper says that they will be £10 better off when child care and travel costs are taken into account. A footnote to the paper says:

Will the right hon. Lady please not use the £50 figure? It is inaccurate and she must get her officials to look into the matter and find the right figures.

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman--[Hon. Members: "Hon. Friend."] My hon. Friend rightly reminds the House that the Policy Studies Institute research takes account of the income that lone mothers get in work without taking account of their child care costs. I have pointed out that that research also does not take account of the extra help with child care costs that the Government are giving and will continue to give.

Mrs. Fyfe: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Ms Harman: I have given way about nine times. I am confident that I am about to answer the question that my hon. Friend has not asked.

Will the measure discourage lone parents from taking up work? The answer is no. First, lone parents want to work because they know that even if they have part-time work, with family credit they are better off than they can be on benefit. Secondly, lone parents will not be discouraged from taking up work because many lone parents want to work, not just for financial reasons, but because they do not want to be dependent on benefit. The lone mothers in my constituency say to me, "We want to work--we do not want to be dependent on benefit because we want to set an example to our children."

Mrs. Fyfe: Will my right hon. Friend give way on that point?

Ms Abbott: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Ms Harman: Lone parents want their children to know that work is better than benefit dependency. They want to

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provide a positive role so that their children can see that work brings independence and self-esteem. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), to whom I will give way, agrees that lone mothers are keen to work and to have opportunities.

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