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11.3 pm

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): It has been a long evening, and I do not intend to detain the House for longer than necessary. Labour Members will be pleased about that. It has certainly been a long evening for the Secretary of State, but I am intrigued to see that not a single other member of the Cabinet is present to support her after what has clearly been a difficult time for her. When her right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spoke of tough decisions, I did not think that he meant this sort of decision.

On Second Reading, I dubbed the Bill the Peter Lilley memorial Bill. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) is sitting beside me to re-emphasise that. I am also glad to see that Labour Members are pleased that they are driving through a measure that they opposed throughout their time in opposition.

The Bill clearly reflects the last Government's desire to streamline the benefit system and make it more efficient. That is why, when we were in government, we launched the change programme. Despite that, the Opposition have never offered the Government unconditional support for the Bill. We said that it contained elements that we had not introduced when in government. I shall shortly mention some of those.

Clause 2 provides for some decisions to be made by computer. In Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) spoke about that. The Secretary of State and her team should think carefully about that issue and, as the Bill goes through the other place, they might consider how some of those decisions will be made. In Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset said that clause 2, while apparently innocuous in

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many ways, would begin to drive a wedge between the concepts of decision and responsibility. He said that while a computer could in an extended sense make a decision, it could not be held responsible in any ordinary or important philosophical or legal sense. The Law Society has also expressed concern. The clause has not been amended, but the Government should think carefully about the words of my hon. Friend and Labour Members should think about how some decisions will be made under the Bill.

Clause 1 proposes the abolition of the independent tribunal service which makes decisions, and we are concerned about that. However, two topics have detained hon. Members, and one of them is the backdating of new benefits, in relation to which we moved a new schedule. Labour Back Benchers did not seem to be especially concerned or pay much attention when we debated that. The Government have said that they are a caring Government, but this measure will adversely affect many vulnerable people. That is made obvious by such groups as Age Concern, the National Council for One Parent Families and the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux.

Before the election the Labour party said that it would make a difference and would form a caring Government, but that same Government have added the backdating measure to the Bill that we left behind. It is a mean addition that we did not think was necessary. Our amendment would have helped to change that, but the Government rejected it. Despite what the Secretary of State said about our new schedule and about the amendment tabled by the Liberal Democrats, I urge her to think again. Before the general election, many Labour Members prided themselves on speaking up for widows and war widows. Many such people will be directly affected by the reduction to one month of the time for backdating claims. We should like to have an amendment to the Bill in another place to remove that provision.

The most controversial debate was on new clause 1 and amendment No.1, which sought to correct the breaking by the Secretary of State of every pledge during her time in opposition. When we were in government the Labour Opposition said that they did not believe in what we were doing, that they would not do it, and that it was a principle not worth having. Labour Members told pressure groups and single parents all over the country that they would champion their cause when in government. All that needed to be done was to get Labour into government and it would certainly not impose such legislation. Labour said that if such legislation were already imposed, it would strike it out.

Over the past six or seven months the Government have had many opportunities to stand by the Secretary of State's pre-election pledges, but they have not done so. Even now they do not offer the excuse of principle. They do not say that they believe in the legislation as a means of levelling married couples and lone parents. They say that somehow they were left with a budget problem, but we know that the Prime Minister made it clear just before the election that the existing budgets would have allowed them to drop the legislation and still survive the two-year constraint. They could still do that, but they have decided not to. The fiscal excuse is absolute nonsense, rubbish. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State goes on about it,

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but, on her principles, she had every reason to drop the proposals and chose not to do so. That is why she has had a Back-Bench rebellion that is sizeable enough to remind her of the pledges and commitments that she made before the election.

I do not want to dwell too much on family problems, but I suspect that tonight's rebellion is just the beginning. Questions will be asked about why a Government who came to power on a set of promises, turned round and broke every single one of them.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Dr. Kim Howells): Dream on.

Mr. Duncan Smith: It is Labour Members who should dream on, for they will have many nightmares in the next few weeks and months. Even today's editorial in The Times said--[Interruption.] Isn't it wonderful? In opposition and government Labour courts Mr. Murdoch and his friends, but when it is accused of being inconsistent, it does not like it. The Times said:

The Government promised great welfare reforms, but so far they have delivered absolutely nothing. The lauded Green Paper and the important welfare proposals have been non-existent. On Monday, we heard from the Treasury through a planted leak in The Times that it was to make a series of cuts. Treasury-driven cuts: that is the Government's big welfare reform. The Minister of State is completely ruled out and the Secretary of State does not even have any comment to make. No one from the Treasury or from the Cabinet is present tonight.

In conclusion--[Hon. Members: "Hooray."] I know that pain hurts, so I shall not prolong it too long. [Hon. Members: "More."] I do not want to detain Labour Members for too long, because they are in serious pain, and it is better for them to receive medication quickly. The Government have reneged not just on this promise, but on a number of pledges that they made. What we have seen tonight is some of the Labour party waking up to the fact that whatever it promised, whatever it said and whatever it pretended en route to government, it has a bad habit of biting back when it gets into government. This is not a fit Government; it is not even fit to man the Treasury Bench, and I hope that very shortly the public will realise that.

11.11 pm

Mr. McNamara: I shall not speak for long, because I had a good opportunity to express my views earlier.

Some of my hon. Friends cheered when they heard the size of the vote for the amendment. I did not cheer, because it is sad that so many of my colleagues felt it necessary to vote against the Government. It is never a happy experience to vote against one's party, particularly when it is in government. I have done so in the past, but it is never an easy decision. We had put so much faith and hope in our Government, but, despite all the splendid measures that have been introduced, we felt let down on this issue. Contrary to all our traditions, we have hit the poorest of the poor. It was not a happy occasion.

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Earlier this year, my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Mr. Austin) tabled an early-day motion to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Abortion Act 1967. I tabled an amendment to it, which said that I expected Governments, of whatever party, to ensure that women who become pregnant do not feel that the only solution is to have an abortion. I believe that these cuts will put pressure on women, especially women who already have children, to have an abortion. I regret that, because it is appalling. I could have abstained, but I am glad that I voted against this proposal.

I had other reasons for voting against the cut. When I listened to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State--she was then the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson--attacking the then Government on the issue, she convinced me of her case. During the general election campaign, I went round and told my constituents, "I am convinced that we will not implement such a cut, and, regardless of whether the Tories win, I will not vote for it. Whatever happens, I will not vote for it. I will vote against it." Today, I have kept my word to my constituents.

Labour Members have been told that we have an inheritance of cash limits from the Tory party. We did not discuss the limits but were told that we have inherited them. It was not an inheritance, though, because the body was not dead when we seized the limits and said that we would implement them. I believed then, as I believe now, that we would come to rue that decision. We are ruing it today. If ever there were a hostage to fortune, which has caused our problems in this debate, it was our decision that we could out-Tory the Tories.

The decision was not a matter of financial prudence. There is scope within the social fund, by making the necessary adjustments, to obtain the money. Further surplus money has been raised in taxation, because unemployment has been falling--but we could have found the money regardless.

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