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Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) for convincing me in his formidable speech that occasionally a permissive society is to be preferred. I also have sympathy for the Minister, who has been given an impossible case to argue by her masters. A good Minister can argue such a case, and the hon. Lady has done her best. It is an impossible task, however, as all we are arguing for is a degree of choice.

There has been much debate about the alleged element of stigma. I need not repeat the cogent arguments that have been made but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) said, Martin Taylor, one the scheme's architects, was unable to produce any evidence to the Select Committee on Social Security that stigma was a factor militating against the take-up of child benefit. He told the Committee that hard-and-fast evidence in non-financial and psychological matters such as stigma was difficult to come by.

That is a very honest statement and cannot be bettered. No one knows how much stigma is involved in take-up of family credit. However, we know that those who are entitled to take it up are not put off by considerations of stigma.

The Minister has said that desperate people have no choice but to take up the benefit as it is currently paid, but my hon. Friend the Member for Havant responded that they should have a choice, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove said that the market should decide. The reality is that the Government are imposing this method of take-up as part of a wider political agenda. They want to move towards some type of negative income tax system, in which no one receives benefits.

The stigma does not apply to people who take up benefits under the current system, but to the Government. They are stigmatised by political observers, who see that an ever-increasing proportion of the population receives benefits. The Government's response to that undoubted social and economic problem is to say, "We will ensure that people receive the same money, but not as a benefit. It will now be paid as a tax credit. We have solved the problem of poverty. We have ensured that the many millions of people who have come off the unemployment or poverty registers have been encouraged to take low-paid or part-time work and receive their benefit through the pay packet."

I understand why that is good for the Government's reputation, but I am not convinced that it is good for the people receiving the benefit, who include some of the most vulnerable in society. As we know, 79 per cent. of lone parents take up family credit.

My secondary point has not been addressed by the Government, and has to do with the position of very small employers. The measure will present no problem for large companies, but many lone parents' work is part time or variable. Their circumstances change and they often work for very small employers. I understand the Government's argument that people in regular employment whose circumstances do not change--or people working for a large employer who knows nothing about their circumstances--present a problem for employers, in that it

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may be impossible to work out the details of their life styles from the tax code. However, people's circumstances often change, and very small employers may be very familiar with aspects of their employees' lives.

I once stood behind a clerk handing out family credit in a social security office. We know that people, in order to receive family credit, already underclaim deliberately or pretend to be getting less money than is in fact the case. The worry is that there will be more collusion between employees and employers.

That collusion is evident in the rag trade in the east midlands. A case with which I am familiar provides a good example. A person with a large number of children filled in a benefit application form. Although that person worked 40 or 50 hours a week, the figure given for earnings seemed absurdly low. Such collusion already goes on to a large extent, but it would be made worse if lone parents are to be enmeshed ever tighter in the grip of employers.

So it is not a question merely of the stigma or unfairness suffered by the employee, but of the society that the Government want to create. There is one way out of the impossible position in which they have placed themselves--they should accept the amendments.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): I welcome the chance to contribute to what has been an excellent debate. One of the most pleasant features has been the gentle way in which the Minister has sought to engage in the argument and to respond to points made in interventions. I pay tribute to her and look forward to what she has to say later. If her response is made in the same spirit as her earlier contributions, I hope that we shall get a more genuine reply than has been the case with other Ministers and other debates that I have witnessed in the past year or so.

However, I very much regret three things about this debate. The first is that we are having it at all, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) noted. The amendment is quite justified, and the Government should have accepted that it represented an opportunity to think again and to accept that the revising Chamber had improved the Bill. There would then have been no need for this debate.

The second cause for regret is that there has been no contribution from Government Back-Bench Members, even though the Government have said consistently that this was a flagship Bill. It was announced last autumn, and was said to be the centrepiece of the Queen's Speech and the Budget. As I speak, there are four times as many hon. Members on the Conservative Back Benches than there are on the Government Back Benches. That is an odd way to launch a flagship. Perhaps the Mary Rose was launched in that way, but the Paymaster General will recall what happened to that vessel. I hope that archaeologists 500 years in the future will not be salvaging the record of this flagship.

Miss Kirkbride: Given what he has just said, my hon. Friend may be interested to know that, although the Whip ensured that Labour Members physically attended the Committee deliberations, their audible presence was non-existent. I do not recall any of them contributing to our deliberations.

Mr. Collins: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, whose contribution to the Committee's proceedings was as

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distinguished as her contribution this afternoon. I was the Whip on that Committee. I employed the gentle, laissez-faire touch that is typical of the Conservative party and its Whips Office, and it is with great pleasure that I can confirm that it was not necessary to gag any Conservative Member. The Government Whip seemed to gag Labour Members, but they may simply have had nothing to say in support of the Bill.

My third regret about the debate is that I find myself in the uncomfortable and unusual position of having to disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles). That is very sad, and deserves a rapid explanation. I disagree with my hon. Friend because he said that the only real difference between family credit and the working families tax credit was continuous assessment and its affect on stigma. In fact, the principal difference is that family credit is a benefit, which pretends to be nothing else, while the working families tax credit is a benefit pretending to be a tax cut, which it patently is not.

6 pm

WFTC should be administered by the Department of Social Security. We have been graced by the presence of the Paymaster General, to whom I pay tribute, but she should not be here. A Social Security Minister should answer for the Government.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The amendment is more narrow than the hon. Gentleman's point as it relates to whether the credit should be paid through the wage packet or in some other way. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would talk about that.

Mr. Collins: I am most grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and shall do as you say.

The Paymaster General said that the amendment should be rejected because employers would not exploit or abuse employees. She engaged seriously in the argument about stigma, but said emphatically that it did not hold water and that there was no likelihood of employers using information gained from the working families tax credit against single parents or other employees.

Dawn Primarolo: I said that the majority of employers were law abiding and would discharge their duties under the Bill. However, the Bill includes provisions to deal with any who do not.

Mr. Collins: I am delighted by that clarification, which gives me yet another opportunity to agree with the Paymaster General. The vast majority of employers are wholly law abiding. Good employers recognise that their prospects are much enhanced if employees are treated well, even if it is odd to hear that said by a member of a Government who are imposing a raft of requirements on employers, such as the minimum wage and the social chapter.

The Financial Times--not exactly the in-house journal of the anti-capitalist league and hardly renowned for its anti-employer sentiments--has opined that the Bill poses the risk that some employers will use information about their employees unscrupulously. I go no further than to

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say that there is a possibility that that will happen. It follows that some single parents fear that it will, and it would be sensible to give them the option of relieving their fear. Information can never be used against them if it never comes to the attention of their employers.

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