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Mr. Leigh: No one knows for sure whether my hon. Friend is correct, but every CBI survey suggests that up to a third of employees who claim family credit do so without their employers' knowledge. Many employers have no idea that their employees receive family credit, but all of them will know under the new system.

Mr. Collins: My hon. Friend is entirely right, once again displaying his knowledge and commitment on these matters.

There is every reason why the Government should grant the concession contained in the amendment to allow single parents the ability to choose.

Mr. Pickles: I am afraid that my hon. Friend misreported me a few moments ago. When he was a Whip, I thought of nominating him for the Rin Tin Tin award for the quality of his speeches. I did not suggest that continuous assessment was the only difference, but that it was the only difference as far as the employer would be concerned.

My hon. Friend has talked about bad or unscrupulous employers, but honest mistakes can happen regarding benefit. What tension will exist between employers and employees when the wrong amount of benefit is paid or where benefit is withheld? What kind of reaction--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman's intervention is too long.

Mr. Collins: Perhaps Rin Tin Tin might reply to my hon. Friend. My misquotation of his views was entirely unintentional and I appreciate that he was referring only to one of the many reasons why family credit is superior to the working families tax credit. My hon. Friend's point is a good one. Difficulties may arise from disclosure of information by an employer. Honest mistakes may be made, leading to wrong payment, underpayment or overpayment.

It is conceivable that the financial records or circumstances of a business or employer could be inadvertently disclosed to others. Often, a small and growing business, started by a husband and wife, will expand slowly, employing a few people--friends of the family perhaps. Even businesses that employ six to 10 people process financial information on the kitchen table belonging to the principal partner or director, and papers could easily be left lying around to be seen by people who, in a splendid multinational corporation, would not have access to such personal financial information.

The amendments would prevent the possibility--rare, but not impossible--of financial information being seen by someone who goes into the kitchen for a cup of tea or a bacon and egg sandwich at the end of the day. Having spilt his or her coffee over paper work, that person might find financial data that would enable him or her to work

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out the financial circumstances of someone who works for the company. The amendments would remove the anxiety that arises from the existence of such a possibility.

Mr. Willetts: My hon. Friend makes valid points about the effect of the Bill on the employer. However, single parents are also affected. A single parent may work for several employers on short-term contracts, and it would be reasonable for that person to ask for direct payment rather than face the hassle of payment through several employers.

Mr. Collins: I agree with my hon. Friend. The circumstances that he described, with a single parent working for several different employers, are precisely those in which single parents could be defensive and worried about having to tell Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all personal details about their private lives. That would be especially true if they all lived in the same village or small area. There is an important requirement for privacy. The matter may even be covered by the European convention on human rights.

Miss Kirkbride: My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. Could it be a criminal offence to pass on personal information about wages given to employees? It is true in this place, and in every place that I have worked, that some of the more entertaining conversations concern one's colleagues. Their pay and family circumstances might be interesting factors. Would it be improper, or even an offence, for a wife or husband to pass on such personal details?

Mr. Collins: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As a former Whip, I assure her that there has never been any tittle-tattle in this House. The very suggestion is outrageous. I see that the Government Front Benchers are nodding vigorously. One can only hope that that is noted outside. I am not a lawyer and so cannot tell her whether criminal offences might arise. Most of the single parents affected are unlikely to be lawyers and may not know the legal position. They will be confused and might prefer to have the option that we propose.

It is that option that leads me to my next point. Our society is moving into an era in which the Prime Minister and other senior Ministers have told us that the nature of our economy will mean that more and more things will depend on individuals being able to exercise more and more choice about their personal lives. If the Prime Minister means that, I welcome it. The Conservative party has always believed in choice and that individuals should be treated as adults.

I welcome what the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) said about the presumption that seems to lie behind the Government's intentions--that single parents should be treated as incapable of making correct choices about their lives. I prefer to think that this is an oversight by the Prime Minister, like many other things that he has not been able to notice recently, such as the European election campaign. As his attention returns to domestic policy, he will realise that the amendments would give him the opportunity to turn his rhetoric into reality and demonstrate that he is really committed to free choice and individual liberty.

The Paymaster General once again made a delightful contribution but there may be a Government reshuffle, so the Conservatives are seeking to rescue her from what

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might be a devastating personal mistake in going against the direction in which the Prime Minister says that he wants to lead his party and Government. She is seeking to close options and perhaps she should not be. I give her that free career advice for what it is worth.

6.15 pm

We should move on to discuss some of the other sadnesses reflected in this debate. One that has caused me particular pain is the fact that the Government did not give the minimum commitment that it seems reasonable to ask: that they will review the matter. It is conceivable, I put it no higher, that the Government may have the numbers tonight to prevail. I do not know. If they do, they are not sitting here. They may be elsewhere so when the Division bell rings, they will flood in to give the Government another narrow victory. In the earlier Division, barely 300 Labour Members bothered to turn up. More than 25 per cent. of Labour Members withheld their support for the Government's position. These things snowball. Their majority might slump even further.

Let us presume that the Government will prevail. Why have they not said that they would seek to review the matter after five or 10 years so that we could see whether our arguments or theirs had stood the test of time? It is possible--we should all admit this in politics--that we are wrong. I openly concede it. After 10 years, it is possible that the Government will prove to have been correct and single parents will dance happily around the streets.

Dawn Primarolo: I thank the hon. Gentleman for all his kind comments and advice, of which I take note. I am delighted that he expects the Government to be here for at least 10 years. I am sure that at the end of that time, we will be able to demonstrate that our policy is correct. I look forward to giving him some advice then.

Mr. Collins: That is very sweet of the hon. Lady, but perhaps 25 per cent. of her parliamentary colleagues were not here for the earlier vote because they are desperately going round the constituencies that they lost in the European election.

Mr. Pickles: It was more than 25 per cent.

Mr. Collins: It was, but before you admonish me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will not follow the hon. Lady down the seductive path of considering the thumping majority that my party will secure at the next general election. I shall return to the narrow points that we are discussing. If she is so confident about winning the next general election and letting her policies stand the test of time, why will she not say that she is prepared to review the matter?

Miss Kirkbride: I thank my hon. Friend for being so generous in giving way. Another reason why the Government might want to review the matter crossed my mind. The post office network may be in difficulty soon because of the cancellation of the main contract for paying benefits through a computerised system. We all know from representations from our sub-postmasters and others that they are concerned about their future business. The

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payment of family credit, when people choose to collect it from local post offices, is one way in which their business could be promoted.

Mr. Collins: My hon. Friend introduces an important dimension into the debate. She is right that if the legislation is passed, the post office network would suffer yet another blow from the Government on top of the many delivered to it since May 1997. As she rightly says, the introduction of the working families tax credit, which will be paid through the wage packet, to replace family credit, which is often paid through the post office, will hit the rural post office network in particular. I represent a very rural constituency in south Cumbria, and my constituents would deeply regret yet another withdrawal of rural services by a Government who, despite their rhetoric, have repeatedly demonstrated that they have little understanding and less sympathy for rural issues and areas.

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