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Good Parenting

6. Mr. Alan W. Williams (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr): What initiatives her Department is taking to promote good parenting. [38484]

The Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women (Ms Harriet Harman): One of the key issues for parents, both mothers and fathers, is balancing work and family responsibilities, so family-friendly employment is a top priority for the Government. We are already taking action to provide high-quality child care for all families, and we shall ensure that parents can take time off from paid work to spend with their children.

Mr. Williams: The Government's rhetoric over the past few months has concerned lone parents who work, but does the Secretary of State accept that, in many couples with children, one parent, usually the mother, gives up work to look after them, and that those responsibilities fall doubly heavily when there is only one parent? Can she reassure me that the Government are fully supportive of couples in which one parent devotes the whole of her--it is usually her--time to looking after children and the family home?

Ms Harman: I can certainly give my hon. Friend that reassurance. We want to offer lone parents, and indeed all parents, more opportunities to work. One of the problems was that, although married women, who are not trapped in the benefits system, are able to return to work, particularly after the youngest child has started school,

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lone parents are often trapped into remaining on benefit, even though many have not been receiving any income from the father and have wanted to go back to work to increase the income for their children.

There is no question of our trying to compel women to do the best for their children by going out to work rather than staying at home. We want them to be able to decide what is best for their children, and we shall back them in whatever choice they make. In the past, they have not had sufficient choice.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Is the Secretary of State saying that she has no plans to introduce any element of compulsion whatever? Is she aware that her ministerial colleague, the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley), said in a written answer on Friday that there were no figures for the control areas of the pilot scheme for lone parents? Is it sensible to proceed without having tested the figures, and on what basis do the Government plan to proceed in those circumstances?

Ms Harman: The hon. Lady raises two points. On the first, the new deal for lone parents is entirely voluntary. The previous Government simply said, "Stay on income support until your youngest child is 16. We don't assume that you've got any interest in going back to work and we're not going to give you any help." Our policy is to extend help to get lone parents into work and to provide child care so that, particularly once the youngest child is of school age, they can return to employment.

The second point concerns the evaluation of the new deal for lone parents. We have spent the best part of£1 million on an independent academic evaluation. The very choice of the eight areas in which we piloted the new deal was made so that we could match them with eight other areas where there was no new deal. The hon. Lady can look forward to the results of that academic evaluation later in May. We can measure the success of the new deal, and we have done so. I am sure that the results will be very encouraging for all those who are concerned that lone parents and their children should have a better standard of living.

Unemployed Home Buyers

7. Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon): What is her Department's long-term policy on the involvement of the state in funding the mortgage costs of unemployed home buyers. [38485]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Keith Bradley): We made it clear in the Green Paper on welfare reform that we are working with the industry to provide better protection for all home buyers, including the unemployed. We aim to develop a sustainable policy, in line with the eight principles underpinning the Government's approach to welfare reform. We shall consider state involvement in the provision of help with mortgage costs as work on reforms proceeds.

Mr. Webb: Is the Minister aware that the Minister for Welfare Reform said to me a month ago that the best form of protection for all home buyers is private insurance? Does he agree that that is a mistaken view, that there are many people for whom private insurance is not

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appropriate and whom private insurers would not touch with a barge pole, and that there needs to be a continuing role for the state?

Mr. Bradley: There is an awful lot of quoting, or rather misquoting, going on today, which we shall examine carefully. Let me make it absolutely clear that we are working with the industry to ensure that products that are appropriate to meet the needs of people to protect their homes, and to protect themselves in their home ownership, will continue. We shall introduce proposals in line with that work as our welfare reform programme unfolds.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): Does my hon. Friend accept that, in the short term, people still have problems under the present system, which often does not provide the correct range of interest because of standardisation and the fact that the standardisation update follows some time after a mortgage rate increase? Another problem which still exists is that we pay the benefit four-weekly, whereas most mortgage interest is paid on a monthly basis, making it difficult to calculate whether the correct payments are received.

Mr. Bradley: I understand the concerns of my hon. Friend and many others. The difficulty is in managing the complex administrative procedures and ensuring that people get help and support with mortgage housing costs. I am pleased to be able to tell my hon. Friend that the standard interest rate will increase from 7.97 to 8.34 per cent. from 24 May.

Social Security Tribunals

8. Helen Jones (Warrington, North): What plans she has to reform the system of social security tribunals. [38486]

The Minister for Welfare Reform (Mr. Frank Field): Our plans are detailed in the Social Security Bill.

Helen Jones: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that the present system imposes totally unacceptable delays on people? I shall give two examples from my constituency. One constituent lodged an appeal on 20 January and is still waiting to hear something. In an even worse case, an appeal was lodged on 8 July last year and was not even acknowledged as accepted by the Independent Tribunal Service until8 January this year. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in those cases, justice delayed is justice denied? As well as considering reform for the future, will he urge the ITS to do something to clear that backlog of cases, which is imposing a terrible burden on some of the poorest people?

Mr. Field: The answer to the first question is yes, as is the answer to the second question. Our proposals in the Social Security Bill are aimed at drastically speeding up the length of time that people have to wait between lodging an appeal and its being heard.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon): Does the Minister recall a case which I discussed with him and about which I wrote to the Secretary of State--that of a constituent who, sadly, died earlier this month having been waiting

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18 months for an appeal to be heard about a disability benefit for a disability from which he died? Is it not an absolute disgrace that the resources that should have been available to that person while he was alive were denied? What will the right hon. Gentleman do urgently to get that sorted out?

Mr. Field: The right hon. Gentleman makes the case for reform more effectively than I could.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford): Has the right hon. Gentleman had an opportunity in the past few months to read the Hansard Standing Committee reports on the Social Security Bill from last autumn? What change between then and now has led his Department in another place to accept amendments tabled by the Conservative Opposition in Committee, which the Government refused to accept then, concerning having someone with legal representation as a member of a tribunal? In the spirit of constructive opposition and government, are the Government now also prepared to accept the important principle which we put forward in amendments--that we should not have one-member tribunals, in the interests of natural justice?

Mr. Field: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for illustrating to the House what a listening Government we have. I should have thought that he would congratulate the Government, rather than trying to carp.

Mr. Burns: What has changed?

Mr. Field: I will give the answer for a second time: this is a listening Government.

Landlord Fraud

9. Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): What action she has taken to tackle organised landlord fraud since1 May 1997. [38487]

The Minister for Welfare Reform (Mr. Frank Field): We made it clear in our election manifesto that rooting out fraud is an essential part of our reform of welfare. We have already introduced regulations that give local authorities tough new powers to tackle fraudulent landlords and tightened the rules on paying benefit direct to landlords. That is another election pledge being fulfilled.

Dr. Iddon: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. In Bolton, up to 80 per cent. of rents paid to private landlords are paid directly by cheque, and I suspect that the figures are similar in other towns and cities. That creates the problem that tenants often leave premises without informing the local authority and the landlord does not inform the authority, for convenience or for other reasons. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need tighter inspections of such premises to ensure compliance?

Mr. Field: I do. My hon. Friend's local authority concentrated its £20,000 challenge money on landlord fraud and has doubled its weekly benefits savings.I congratulate it on that.

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