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11.47 pm

Mrs. Fyfe : I do not want to let tonight go by without congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Audrey Wise). She spoke for real Labour, and party members and supporters throughout the country will be grateful for that and derive hope from it.

Scottish Members who were here before the general election may recall, as I do, a time when the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), came to Scotland to address a meeting of the Scottish Grand Committee on benefits and he was roasted; he was white and shaking after the ferocity of the attack on him by nationalist, Liberal Democrat and Labour Members, who all got stuck in.

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Well pardon me, but I assumed that that was a guarantee that we would not continue with the same policy and implement these cuts. Some hon. Members have said that none of this was in the manifesto. I remember that the manifesto said that we would cut the benefits bill, but I assumed that that meant that the bill would reduce as we got people back into work. I never thought for one moment that it meant that we would cut the bill by reducing the payments to lone parents. I am opposing the measure in the Lobby tonight because, in my innocence, I relayed my assumptions to my constituents and urged them to vote accordingly.

I would also complain that, while we are expected to have expertise in literary analysis to divine the innermost meanings of any words in the statements, there is a lack of numeracy in all this. The Government say that people will be £50 better off on average. That obviously means--this has not yet been pointed out in the debate so far--that some people will be far less than £50 better off if £50 is the average.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), I am sad that it has come to a vote against my own party tonight. I am proud of a great deal that the Government have done since the general election. I am glad to be a member of the Labour party, but I cheered tonight because I was glad that many Labour Members had refused to be won over by simple promises of a review. Ever since July, when we were first alerted to the issue, there have been opportunities to have a proper look at it, but they were not taken. The party conference wanted to discuss the issue and was not allowed to do so.

So I end simply with this appeal. The Bill has gone through tonight and the cut will be made, but at least the Government claim that they will review it. I hope that it will be an honest and thoroughgoing effort and not just warm words that mean nothing. I am sure that there are plenty of us here who will ensure that the review means something. We will not allow ourselves to be put off. The party agreed in October to have a new system of making decisions. So far, that has not come into effect--but tonight a lot of us have become determined that it will.

11.51 pm

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow): I know that many colleagues want to go home, so I shall be brief, but I want to say something about my position. As a result of the debate, I have taken decisions which will result in my losing my job as a parliamentary private secretary. I want to make it clear why I have done that. It is something that I very much regret having to do. I cannot in all conscience support one of the clauses of the Bill--the clause that cuts single-parent benefits, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said had been the main issue of debate today. I hope that the Government will look at what happened and how this problem arose.

The problem did not arise tonight. Much of the debate tonight has focused on some cuts that are not in the Bill. It has focused on cuts in income support and housing benefit which were contained in regulations that were never debated on the Floor of the House. I remind the House that the regulations were laid before the House on 30 July--the day before the summer recess. It was the last day on which there was any real business in the House. That is an old trick which we saw from the Tory

10 Dec 1997 : Column 1144

Government many times in the past few years. They often laid regulations on the last day of business. The result is that consultation and discussion within the parliamentary Labour party never took place in a genuine way on the regulations or the Bill. That is one of the reasons why anger has built up towards tonight. I hope that the Government will remember and learn from that when they seek to make changes in the future.

The defenders of the main changes in the Bill, and the one change that has been the great focus, have talked about work. The hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), who led for the Opposition on Third Reading, talked about that. I will accept no lectures from him or any other Conservative Member about Governments sticking to their promises. We have seen enough broken promises in the past 18 years to last us a lifetime. When Labour made promises and we all went out for the election on 1 May and talked about welfare to work, getting people back into work and the need to deliver child care, we meant what we said--every one of us meant it. Those are promises that we need to keep and I believe that we will keep them. The difficulty is that those are promises to put in place things that are not currently in place and will not be in place in April or June next year when the benefit reforms take effect.

I accept the need for reforms of the benefits system--we all know about the poverty trap--but we do not need this reform. What is going to happen to those who are trying to get work? We all want people to get work, but no one could believe that every lone parent who wants to get work, either now or on 1 April or 1 June next year, will be able to do that. It is simply inconceivable that the jobs will be there at the time, so what will happen to the people who do not manage to get work?

We have been told that only new claimants will be affected, although some people's status will change and they will become new claimants. I have one simple question and I cannot understand why I have not yet heard an answer to it: what will be so different about someone who is a new claimant on 5 April, compared with someone who is a new claimant on 6 April next year, when the income support regulations change? What will be the difference between a new claimant the day before the Bill comes into force and one the day after? Apparently, the answer is that one of those two people claiming on consecutive days will have to live on a few pounds less than the other. That is what Ministers are saying in making these changes.

Admittedly, in the beginning, new claimants will have a slight advantage in terms of the new deal and welfare to work, but by October next year every lone parent--including current claimants--will be in the same position. Are we saying that current claimants get too much? If not, how can we possibly say that a new claimant in exactly the same position next year will be able to manage on less? I have heard no explanation of that whatsoever, because no one could possibly pretend that there will not be new claimants next year who will be affected by the provisions in the Bill and by the new regulations made earlier this year. There are bound to be. I do not have a problem with welfare to work in terms of its aims, but I do have a problem in terms of the timing. Although I believe that we can achieve the child care, training and jobs that we want to be in place, that will not happen overnight and they will not be in place by the time the changes take effect.

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We have been presented with a false choice in the debate; that choice states that people can have either welfare to work or benefits--that is all that is available. Earlier today, at Prime Minister's Question Time, the Prime Minister talked about the changes that we have already made to Tory priorities. We are not bound and we never have been bound by Tory priorities--we did not inherit anything that is binding. I hope that in a few months' time the Secretary of State will not be having to explain to people who have reluctantly supported her today that there was money in the system, but that that money was not spent.

I perfectly understand that hard decisions have to be made by Governments and I accept that some of those decisions might result in some people being hurt and losing financially. That is the nature of hard decisions, but I cannot accept that the casualties of those decisions--even if they turn out to be few in number, as some believe--will be some of the poorest people in society. People outside will not understand that. Earlier this evening, hon. Members said that we should remember the big picture, but I am afraid that decisions such as the one before us tonight will start to cause cracks in that picture. Once that happens, if we are not careful, the big picture could fall apart.

I greatly regret the position in which I and many of my colleagues in the parliamentary Labour party find ourselves tonight.

11.58 pm

Mr. Simon Hughes: I will detain the House for two minutes.

First, I pay tribute to the former Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Chisholm), to the parliamentary private secretaries, and to those Labour Members who have been willing to vote according to their consciences and their beliefs. [Interruption.] Secondly, I represent the same borough as the Secretary of State for Social Security; my constituency is adjacent to hers.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order. The House must come to order. There are far too many private conversations going on in the Chamber. [Interruption.] Order.

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