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11.31 pm

Mr. Alan Simpson: The Bill, which continues to include cuts in lone parent benefit entitlement, is shabby, vindictive, unprincipled and unsupportable. I know that that is right because those are the words that we used when the issue was first raised by the motley crew of the Conservative Government when they mooted the cuts in lone parent benefit entitlement.

If the House has any doubts about that, it had a timely reminder from the Opposition Front Bench spokesman when he repeated the taunts that we heard in Committee. For the Conservatives, this is the Peter Lilley Memorial Bill. The Government should have taken heed of the final warning when the Tories joined Labour in the Lobby in support of a Tory-designed measure designed only to make the poor poorer.

I will take up the four shabby myths that we on the Labour Benches tried to persuade ourselves represented the pretext on which the Bill should be supported. It was argued that somehow we had a mandate or an obligation to make the cuts. It was said that we had to make hard choices, including the cuts. It was said also that lone parents would not be affected by the cuts and, indeed, that they would be better off as a result of the introduction of welfare to work.

Labour has never had a mandate to make the poor poorer. It has never had a mandate to make the poorest of the poor, children in lone-parent households, poorer still. Labour fought the last election by attacking the Tory record, which was that one in three children lived in a poverty-stricken household. We knew that that was the legacy that we would inherit. We also knew that we did not have a mandate to perpetuate it. We certainly never had a mandate to make it worse.

That is not a hard choice. It is not a hard choice to pick on the weakest in the playground and kick buckets out of them. It is not a hard choice to pick on the most vulnerable and insecure. Hard choices are made when we are prepared to take on people bigger and tougher than we are who are doing despicable things. Those are the hard choices that people have to make in Parliament.

I want to put the whole thing into context. We are told that the saving is a £60 million necessity, perhaps rising to £400 million over four years. But in the week leading up to the debate we have made other choices, too--presumably still within the spending limits that we inherited.

We made a choice to sign a cheque for £1 billion to bail out those lone mothers the Korean bankers and speculators who were playing fast and loose on the streets of the casino economies in south-east Asia.

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We have also given a substantial handout to another group of welfare dependants. I am grateful to the Paymaster General for spelling that out in the Financial Times on Saturday, when he wrote:

Those, too, are welfare matters. They are part of another dependency culture, and we should question whether we have an obligation to foster, nurture and support that culture. It is highly questionable whether it is the role of a Labour Government to encourage that sort of welfare dependency.

Furthermore, we are putting through the £60 million of "necessary cuts" at a time when huge unexpected receipts are flowing into the Treasury. No sense of economic compulsion drives us to make this decision.

The key point in this debate was made in an intervention when my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt) asked my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) why, if he felt so strongly about the cut, he had not voted against it on 22 July. I caution other hon. Members tonight: when subsequent cuts are suggested, whether in housing benefit, disability benefits, the taxing of child benefit or industrial injury benefits, and they choose to say, "There is a principle that I want to make a stand on," the same question will be asked of them. Members will be asked, "How did you vote on 10 December? What point of principle have you discovered now that you could not find then?"

The reason why it has become so important for the Government to make a stand on a trivial amount of money is to break the spirit of principled opposition to the idea of Labour Members hitting the poor. Members on our side of the House will have to reflect carefully on that thought for a long time to come.

It is untrue to say that lone parents will not be affected by this cut. We have been trying to run with contradictory arguments. We say that welfare to work will be their salvation and encourage them to find work. Yet, as many hon. Members have pointed out, those who go through the new deal programme to find work will discover that there are more people chasing jobs than there are jobs.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) asked a telling question earlier: what will happen to women who believe us and go through the new deal programme only to find when they come out at the end that the "new deal" is no deal and there are no jobs for them? Will they go back to the same benefit level as they had before? The answer is no.

Even if people find jobs, what will happen when they are ill? When someone goes back, what will happen to the mortgage interest protection that she had before? It disappears. Who will then explain the repossessions that will follow when people have to go back onto benefits worse off than they were when they started?

Welfare to work will work only if we can deliver permanent, secure, well paid jobs. The question that we are refusing to answer, but which almost all our constituents are asking, is this: if this is to be a real opportunity to change people's lives and to make the difference between a cruel Tory Government and a Labour Government who will help people out of poverty,

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where is the work? Employment Service agencies will talk a lot about employability but not a lot about employment. Yet that is how we shall be judged.

The figure of lone parents being £50 a week better off in work which was produced by the Secretary of State was Arthur Daley off-the-back-of-a-lorry statistics. Many Members have already gone into detail on this, but in any statistical appraisal one cannot include all women to define an average. The example that I would offer is Nicola Horlick. If she happened to be between her million-pound-a-year jobs, saw the new deal as a great opportunity and wanted to be at the front of the queue for six months of canal dredging to improve her employability, I suspect that at the end of it she would not be looking for outwork or piecework at 10p or 20p an hour of the kind that women in our communities still face. To include the economically powerful in an average is dishonest to the economically powerless, yet these are the vast majority of the women whom we shall be seeking to draw into the new deal proposals.

We also cannot assume that there are minimal child care costs, or ignore the loss of passported benefits. We cannot bank on pay levels that are non-existent for most of the women who will be affected by this measure. I was grateful to receive a copy of a letter from the managing director of a firm in Nottingham to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. The director wanted to re-employ a woman who had worked for him some years before. He said:

He then went on to work through the financial consequences of employing her, and said that what horrified him was that she would be worse off by £17.57 and

    "what is most alarming to me, potentially even more worse off if she was off work to look after her child".

This is someone who wants to take a lone parent back into work but in doing so could only make her poorer.

I did some work with a group called Home-start which works with and supports lone-parent families in Nottingham. It calculated the break-even point for women moving from benefits to work. The figures in terms of replacement costs ranged from an average of £114 a week for a woman on benefits to a need to earn £239.50 when they are not. That was to break even--£6 an hour after tax. I would dearly love to see the offers of jobs that they might receive. When I asked the women what prospects they thought they had of receiving that amount, they laughed--they thought it was like Alice in Wonderland.

One woman said to me that if anyone there said they were receiving that money, they would know what work they were doing and what the game was--they would be on the game. The reality is that, for many women, a job providing a wage on which they could survive is not one that they could do legitimately. [Interruption.] Those who say that that is despicable should look at the path to "Wisconsin welfare" and ask how easy it has been for Wisconsin to drive women off the benefits system, where they could draw benefits after 12 weeks.

The one statistic that people involved in Wisconsin do not want to acknowledge is the 20 per cent. increase in arrests on charges of prostitution. The House may not like

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it, but there are people on both sides of the Chamber who, if that happened here, would be screaming blue murder about the quality of parenting.

This is the issue which has fallen off the agenda in this debate. Where does parenting fit in? Where do the rights of children fit into the sense of a civilised society, in which child welfare is part of the process of nurturing and valuing the generations yet to follow us into adulthood?

I am told that we live in an age in which politics is also the personal, and I want to make a personal statement. I am the eldest of seven children. I felt privileged in my childhood, because although we did not have much money we had a lot of love and support from a large extended family. At different times of our lives, however four of the seven children have been lone parents, whether as a result of death, divorce or the breakdown of a relationship. In each of those circumstances, the most important consideration was this--how do you minimise the damage to the children. That was all that mattered. All the rallying round was to try to put the children first.

Now we are faced with a set of proposals which suggest that the only way to confer dignity on parents is to send the lone parent out to work, forgetting the trauma and disorientation and everything else that their children have to work through. The House is saying that this will be the parents' salvation, but in years to come children will not thank us for this measure--they will brutally condemn us for the cynicism and cowardice that underpins it.

During the last week the press have been going around asking what the numbers will be. They saw a rebellion in the offing and a conspiracy in progress. Members have not been able to answer, because it has not unfolded in that way: people have been driven not by conspiracy but by conscience.

We are told that this is a great time for naming and shaming. Those of us who have voted against the cut in lone-parent benefits will have our names recorded in Hansard, but the reasons behind this will not be registered. For the record, I was driven to vote against the cuts because I am ashamed that a Labour Government should invite us to go down a path that was always cruel, mean-minded, vindictive and utterly unnecessary.

This Bill, the Peter Lilley Memorial Bill, should have been put in the dustbin when it was first mooted by the Tories. It should have been consigned to the dustbin of history tonight when the Tories trailed their poisoned prejudices into the Lobby to support the Government. That, more than anything else, should have told us that we were wrong. Even at that stage we should have had the courage not to betray our children and our consciences but to get out of the Lobby that the Tories had gone into.

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