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Mr. Hope: I urge the House to support the Government amendment, because to do otherwise would be to hurt the low-paid and future pensioners. The Bill is a key part of modernising the welfare state and the social security system, a task which the Conservatives signally failed to perform in their 18 years in office. Far from supporting the Government in their endeavours to make the system fairer and more efficient, Conservative Members are seeking to undermine the measures and hurt those least able to defend themselves.

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If the Government amendments are not made, 1 million low-paid people, many of them women, will be taken out of the reach of contributory benefits and will suffer, as they cease to build up their rights to benefits such as jobseeker's allowance, incapacity benefit and maternity allowances. The value of state earnings-related benefits would reduce if we went down that route. The amount paid in contracted-out pensions for millions of people would be reduced, and about £1.5 billion less would come to the Treasury in national insurance contributions.

The Lords amendments are designed not to expose the Government but to be vindictive and wrecking. Their effects would be unacceptable, indecent and simply wrong. They are irresponsible and border on hypocrisy.

The Government have said that future reforms will raise to the level of the single person's tax allowance the point at which employers start to pay national insurance, but that that will not happen until measures are in place to protect the benefit rights of those earning between £64 and £81 a week, who will no longer pay contributions.

It is not and never has been the Government's intention to make the change from April 1999. I am sure that the record will show that to be the case. The Government want to introduce the measures on both sides of the equation in due course. Labour Members find it impossible to take Conservative Members seriously when they say that they would support measures that, quite frankly, they would never have introduced had they been in government.

Mr. Swayne: The problem was that we thought that those measures had been introduced. The Daily Telegraph and the Financial Times thought that they had been introduced. What was so galling was to have the feast swept from under our noses.

Mr. Hope: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, although it would be helpful if he knew what he was talking about. What he said is untrue. The Opposition's amendments are not resulting in a serious debate on reform of the social security system but in rank opportunism, utter insincerity and complete humbug. When the Government introduce measures on both sides of the equation to ensure that the lowest-paid people benefit, it will be interesting to see how the Opposition vote. Many other amendments affect national insurance contributions, housing benefit and measures to help disabled people who want to work, which form part of the Bill.

Mr. Swayne: As the hon. Gentleman shows considerable interest in how we might vote when the Government introduce those measures, can he hazard an estimate on when that might be, so that we can consider how long we have to work on it?

Mr. Hope: We shall introduce the measures when the time is right. What we are debating, and what Opposition Members deliberately avoid discussing, is the measures that we are putting in place to restructure national insurance contributions. Employees will no longer have to pay a 2 per cent. entry fee as soon as their wages reach

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the lower earnings limit. They will pay national insurance contributions only on the portion of earnings that exceeds the lower earnings limit and is below the upper earnings limit. That will save them £1.28 a week, which the previous Government signally failed to do. Indeed, they had no intention of helping the low paid.

Mr. Swayne: The hon. Gentleman is concerned about our inability and unwillingness to debate the proposals. Would it not have been better if the Government had dealt with the proposals properly instead of tagging them on to this Bill, halfway through its progress through the Lords, so that they could have received the proper attention that he desires?

Mr. Hope: Those measures are included in the Bill to give businesses the necessary time to revise their payroll arrangements, and so that we can allow people to benefit from the measures as quickly as possible. Does the hon. Gentleman suggest that we should not have put the measures in place, thereby delaying some of the benefits that they will bring? Perhaps that is exactly what the Opposition believe.

Ms Patricia Hewitt (Leicester, West): Does my hon. Friend agree that if Conservative Members had not spent so much time debating a measure that we do not propose to make in this Bill, they would have had ample time to debate the measures that we are including in the Bill and will bring into effect from April next year?

Mr. Hope: I could not have said it better myself. I hope that Conservative Members are listening to the points being made in this debate, because they are doing themselves no favours, in the eyes of the House or the public, by proposing spurious amendments designed to wreck a Bill which will benefit those most in need and bring about a system that genuinely helps those who need it.

I suspect that when people see the crocodile tears that Conservative Members are shedding, they will know whom to trust when they consider their choices in the future. It is a shame that Conservative Members have chosen to pursue amendments that would not only damage people's lives, but have not been costed and demonstrate what I can only describe as a shallowness and lack of genuine concern to build a modern, efficient and fair welfare state.

It is a pity that, rather than offering constructive and supportive contributions on the changes that are needed, the Opposition are treating the income of millions of people as a political football with which to score cheap political points across the Chamber.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I can hardly believe what I am hearing. Is the hon. Gentleman defending a change in the national insurance system that is so mean minded that someone earning under £81 a week faces a tax reduction of about £1.10 a week? If he is defending that in terms of the low-paid, I shudder to think how they and the disadvantaged will fare under the Government in future years.

Mr. Hope: It is strange to hear Conservative Members telling Labour Members about defending the low-paid, when the Tories signally, deliberately and purposefully

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opposed a national minimum wage, root and branch--and kept us up all night to do so. No one will take lessons from the Opposition on supporting the low-paid. As a result of the Bill, the low-paid will be £1.28 a week better off, not worse off.

Miss Kirkbride: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that one of the greatest achievements of the Conservative Government was to bring down the marginal rate of tax, which considerably improved the take-home pay of the low-paid? The measure that we support goes even further in that direction.

Mr. Hope: We inherited a shambolic welfare state. The people in most need were not receiving the benefits, support and security that they should have received. For example, 1 million pensioners were not claiming income support to which they were entitled, and were abandoned by the Conservative Government. Having inherited a shambolic welfare state, the Government have embarked on a radical set of reforms and the Bill is paving the way for their introduction. They will bring back support and work for those who can work and security and dignity for those who cannot.

We inherited a welfare state in which people were trapped on benefits and not receiving the resources that they needed--the public did not support it--and a social security system that treated its customers as a burden rather than as people who needed help. The Bill paves the way for ending that.

The Government amendments are essential to the success of our reforms of the welfare state. We shall propose further measures as our programme of reform is implemented. It will be an exciting three or four years as, year on year, we table proposals for change that will dramatically increase the quality of people's lives, especially those of the poorest in our community. We shall not be swayed from that task, that vision and that commitment by an Opposition who not only lack vision and commitment, but prefer to play dangerous games with people's lives.

Miss Kirkbride: The Bill will not achieve any of the great reforms to the welfare state that the hon. Member for Corby (Mr. Hope) thinks that it will. It will introduce an appeals procedure that will truncate the rights of his constituents to gain the benefits to which he thinks they are entitled. He cannot claim that the Bill represents great reforming zeal and that it will transform people's lives, as he would have us believe.

The hon. Gentleman accused Conservative Members of seeking to wreck the Bill through the Lords amendments. We are trying to improve the Bill, and improve it considerably, for precisely the people he claims to want to protect and whose living conditions he wants to enhance. I support my hon. Friends, who spoke eloquently to the Lords amendments and against the Government's arguments. The Government have shamefully misled the general public and the newspapers about their intentions for the lower-paid.

The whole argument rests on the difference between "future" and "further". I can only claim to have been a Member of Parliament since May 1997, when I had the great good fortune of winning for the Conservative party in Bromsgrove; however, before that, I had considerable

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experience of the ways of the House as a Lobby correspondent and from working in the House in various capacities. It is only too clear to me what Ministers mean when they choose to say either "future" or "further".


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