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Mr. Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to. Resolved,

7 Jul 1998 : Column 964

    nothing should be done to prejudice the conduct of that inquiry by premature public disclosure of parts of the evidence; and notes that the Foreign Secretary remains ready to make available to the Foreign Affairs Committee, on a confidential basis, the telegrams it has requested.

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When a Minister makes an allegation about a fellow Member, particularly when it is entirely without substance, is it not a convention to allow the Member concerned to have some redress or to make some comment, especially if the Minister is responsible for open government?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I can inform the right hon. Lady that regardless of whether there is an allegation, if an hon. Member is mentioned by any hon. Member, whether it be a Minister or a Back Bencher, it is the convention that the hon. Member who made the allegation gives way. However, it is not an enforceable convention. The Chair cannot enforce it. I know that the incident to which the right hon. Lady is referring happened shortly before the vote. Perhaps it would have been helpful, when I suggested that the right hon. Lady be seated while I was standing, if she had resumed her place. We might then have been able to sort out the matter.

Mr. Kilfoyle: Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley) looks at the record tomorrow, she will see that when she was having an altercation with the Chair, I had not finished the point that I was trying to make. It became academic once she had left the Chamber.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Perhaps we can move on to the next business.

Sir Patrick Cormack: Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Would it not be in conformity with the courtesies that most of us like to expect if the Minister gave an apology?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: That is not a point of order and it is not a matter for me. [Interruption.] Order. The House must settle down. We have further Opposition business.

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Social Security Regulations (Lone Parents)

10.15 pm

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford): I beg to move,

I am pleased that we are having this debate tonight on the regulations--[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order. I appeal to hon. Members to leave the Chamber quietly.

Mr. Burns: I am pleased that we are having this debate on the regulations because they are a direct consequence of the rebellion last December when 47 Labour Members came off-message and voted against their Government on the decision to equalise the benefit system with regard to lone parents and married couples. If that rebellion had not taken place, I can assure the House that we should not be having this debate tonight.

It is worth looking further behind the wider issue before questioning some of the details of the regulations. Perhaps the area of our greatest domestic failure is in the system of welfare. There is a deep sense of dissatisfaction among recipients and Government alike about what welfare has become during the past 30 years and where it seems to be going. The rebellion on the lone parents policy last December typifies the tensions and conflicts that arise in any attempt to reform the system.

Welfare is many things to many people. To the recipient, it may be the difference between living and surviving. To the taxpayer, facing rising inflation and mortgage payments, it may be an unwarranted imposition on an already overburdened tax bill. The unchallengeable fact is that the bill is rising further every day. With this enormous public expenditure, it might be expected that the recipients would be satisfied, but they are not hence the problems last autumn when the Government proposed those changes to lone-parents payments.

Lone parents and other recipients of social security are as dissatisfied with the social security system as everyone else in Britain. To some, that may be considered gross ingratitude, or is it more a sign of how the welfare system has failed? What are we to make of a system that seems to satisfy neither the giver--in this case the taxpayer--nor the recipient, and which embitters all those who come in contact with it? More basically, welfare has done much to divide our people; to alienate us from one another. That is why, however tortuous their journey, I welcome the Government's conversion on the road to Damascus on the question of lone parents.

The root problem is in the fact of dependency and the feeling of uselessness and the despair of unemployment. No one would argue that the answer to the problem, and what would help lone parents, is work, jobs and self-sufficiency rather than--

Audrey Wise (Preston): Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House what his Government were doing for 18 years if the welfare system is the shambles and disgrace that he describes?

Mr. Burns: The problem with the welfare system--over those 18 years and before that--is that its cost has

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risen inexorably. Although more people are being given help, some of whom had previously been unable to get assistance, the system is still inefficient, riddled with fraud and not targeted properly. That causes the tensions between taxpayers and the recipients of welfare, who all too often think that they should get a better deal from the system. [Interruption.] I shall return to discussing the system; the Minister for Welfare Reform, who is good at intervening from a sedentary position, should listen for a moment.

The Minister for Welfare Reform (Mr. Frank Field): Will the hon. Gentleman answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Audrey Wise)?

Mr. Burns: I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman was listening. I said to the hon. Member for Preston (Audrey Wise) that the problem with the welfare system is that its cost has risen inexorably--year after year, and during those 18 years and before that. Recipients of welfare, many of whom have been brought into the system by the Government expanding the basis--[Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman should listen; he may not want to intervene again. Many recipients are not happy with what they are receiving, because it is not properly targeted, and the taxpayer is similarly unhappy, as are the Government, because of the ever-increasing bills.

Mr. Field: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Burns: No, I will not; I have answered the point.

It is a myth that all the problems of poverty and lone parents can be solved simply by an ultimate extension of the welfare system to guarantee everyone a certain income paid for by the Government. That cannot provide lone parents with a sense of self-sufficiency, self-respect anda job. To many people, work is a mundane and unglamourous word, but it is, in a real sense, the meaning of what we are all about. We need work as individuals, as a society and as a community, so we must ask whether the regulations will help to achieve that for lone parents.

Whatever the regulations achieve, it will not be as a result of a coherent and consistent approach to welfare reform by the Government. The regulations prescribe the circumstances in which lone parents will benefit from the family premium in council tax benefit, housing benefit, income support and jobseeker's allowance. Additionally, they introduce the concept of a 12-week eligibility criterion for maintaining the higher-rate premium in income support and JSA if a lone parent works for less than that period and then returns to the benefits system.

The Government are simply and cynically attempting to buy back some of the support that they lost among their Back Benchers and among the special interest groups that were misled and supported the Government at the previous general election. That led to the fiasco in December when, for the first time in this Parliament, some Labour Members had the guts to stick up for what they believe in, come off-message and go into the Lobby to vote against their Government.

Labour Members have been to-ing and fro-ing on this whole issue since my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) announced the policy

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of equalisation of benefits back in November 1996. The Government's flip-flop has been justified by various members of the Government, including the Prime Minister, as simply implementing a policy that they inherited, or as a policy to save money because of the constraints on public spending. If they really believe the latter, how much will the U-turn in the regulations cost, and what is the net gain to the Treasury from this exercise? I say it every time we have a debate, but perhaps in the run-up to a reshuffle, the Minister will change the habit of a lifetime and answer the questions tonight.

Similarly, do the Government appreciate the irony that, given their cost implications, the regulations completely undermine the initial savings that would have been made from the policy that was voted through the House in December, and totally destroy the argument that the Government made to their Back Benchers to try to justify their policy and stop them voting against the Government?

The Government justify their actions by claiming that the regulations will create an incentive to work. Do they not understand that, far from being an incentive to work, the regulations will be a disincentive for some lone parents? They encourage those with entitlement to the lone parent premium benefit to keep that benefit if they get a job, but work for less than 12 weeks. I suspect that a number of them will simply not bother to go down that route because of the hassle and bureaucracy that they will have to put up with. When they come out of the job after such a relatively short period, they will have to return to the Benefits Agency to reapply for their original benefit. I should be grateful to the Minister if he would explain what plans the Government have to minimise that bureaucracy and to counter the view that will be abroad with some lone parents that it will simply not be worth the candle.

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