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House of Commons

Monday 17 July 2000

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Lone Parents

1. Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South): How many lone parents have obtained jobs through the new deal for lone parents. [129319]

10. Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South): How many lone parents have used the new deal to date. [129330]

The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Darling): Since the start of the new deal for lone parents, 154,731 lone parents have taken part. Of those, 16,294 have entered education or training and 54,241 have obtained jobs--more than one in three of those participating.

Ms Taylor: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Will he comment on the report by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research which says that the new deal has made the employment market very much more

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efficient because it has actually trained hundreds of thousands of young people? It also states that the new deal is value for money. Will my right hon. Friend comment on the belief that the new deal could be extended with flexible use of the benefits system? Will he also refute the comment from the Opposition that the new deal is an extravagant waste of money? It most certainly is not.

Mr. Darling: The fact that the new deal for lone parents has seen into work nearly one in three of those participating seems to me to speak for itself. It is also worth bearing in mind that in 1979, there were 300,000 lone parents on income support. By 1997, that number had grown to more than 1 million. Many of those people had been out of work for a long time, and leaving it to the market to do nothing would have meant that they--and their children, many of whom live in poverty--would not have been helped. My hon. Friend is right to say that the report produced last week by the national institute has pointed to the fact that all the new deals are changing the culture in this country. By providing help, we are ensuring that work pays and, as a result, we have more than 1 million people more in employment and we are beginning to reduce child poverty--something that the Opposition would never do anything about.

Mr. Chapman: Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the new deal was abolished, as suggested by the Opposition, those thousands of lone parents who have been helped into training or work would find themselves without that help in the future and would, in effect, be abandoned? Is not that the key difference between the parties?

Mr. Darling: The big difference is that we recognise that if we are to get people who have been out of work for many years back into work, extra help is necessary. That means not just the new deal, which the Conservatives would abolish, but the working families tax credit, which they would also abolish. Much of the training and education that is also essential to getting people back to

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work would be cut, because the Conservatives are now pledged to finding £16 billion of cuts in public expenditure. That is a false economy which would result in more people being out of work, bigger benefit bills, lower tax receipts and a return to the days of the 1980s and 1990s when a whole generation of people and their children were written off.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire): I acknowledge the success that the new deal for lone parents has been, although there is a danger that Ministers claim too much for it. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the only specific help available to lone parents is access to a personal adviser? As he knows, the Government plan to extend personal advisers to everyone, when the working age agency comes into being. Will the Secretary of State look again at what additional help can be provided--for example, in terms of subsidised employment or access to full-time education--for lone parents?

Mr. Darling: The hon. Gentleman is right. It is not only the new deal, but the tax and benefit reforms we have made--including the WFTC and help with child care, which never existed in the past and would be chopped as a result of what the Conservatives propose--which have made a big difference to individuals. The fundamental difference, when one considers all the measures that the Government have introduced, is that the culture has changed. We believe that people have a right to benefit when they are out of work, but that they also have a clear responsibility to help themselves. They also have a right to expect that the Government will help them to get back into work. All our measures would be at risk if the Conservatives were ever to get back, and the result would be more unemployment and more child poverty. In answer to the hon. Gentleman's specific question, we will continue to look at ways in which we can improve all the new deals and other measures to get people into work.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant): Will the Secretary of State confirm that back in March, the target group for the new deal was lone parents with a child over five, that in May, that became a lone parent with a child over three and that in June, the target became all lone parents on income support? The Government have redefined the target group to include any lone parent who calls at a jobcentre looking for work. In fact, every time he misses the target, the Secretary of State just makes it bigger so that it is easier to hit.

The Government have changed the target group so often that they claim credit for every lone parent who ever gets a job. Is not it typical of the Government that, when they are failing, they fiddle the figures? Should not the Secretary of State admit that, as all the evidence shows, the new deal for lone parents is an expensive failure?

Mr. Darling: As ever, the hon. Gentleman is trying to be too clever by half. The new deal has been a success, as independent evaluation has shown. In the pilot projects, nearly one in three participants went into work at an average cost of £1,300. That shows that the project is well worth the cost.

The Tories were in power for 18 years, and the hon. Gentleman was a Minister for some of that time. What he cannot face up to is the fact that at the end of their time in

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office, more than 1 million lone parents were on income support. They were out of work and written off. By contrast, this Government have introduced measures to ensure that lone parents get into work. Moreover, nearly 50 per cent. of children living in poverty are the children of lone parents. It is crucial that we get those children out of poverty. That makes good social sense, and good economic sense. No doubt that is why the Conservatives cannot see the sense of it.

2. Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): What plans he has to help lone parents to obtain the training they need to return to work. [129320]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Angela Eagle): New deal for lone parents advisers currently help lone parents into work-related training courses and pay for child care during attendance at the course. So far, the scheme has helped 16,000 lone parents to take up training or education. Personal advisers can also offer back-to-work training through Employment Service programmes. From April 2001, we will be introducing a £15 per week training premium for lone parents taking up training through the new deal.

Mr. Miller: My hon. Friend will be aware of the phenomenal success of the Cheshire Oaks and Coliseum estates in my constituency, which is close to her own. The Benefits Agency and the jobcentre have worked with the local authority and local employers to help create jobs and to target them on people from the most impoverished part of my constituency. Does she believe that the announcement that she has just made will further assist women who are finding it difficult to bridge the skills gap, as many modern employers require?

Angela Eagle: We are doing our best, by means of other refinements to the new deal, to make work pay for lone parents, many of whom have been out of the labour market for a long time. Getting lone parents into work ensures that their children do not grow up with nothing to look forward to but a lifetime on benefit. The help with training that we are offering lone parents is part of the support that they need to get back into work.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): Will the Minister confirm that, at the current rate, the new deal for lone parents will take 26 years to get the newly defined target group back into work?

Angela Eagle: It took 20 years to get 1 million lone parents existing on benefits. What is the Tory legacy? Between 1992 and 1997, there was a 14 per cent. increase in the number of lone parents on income support, compared with a 10 per cent. decrease between 1997 and today. A total of 100,000 lone parents have got off benefit and gone back into work. We aim to continue to help those who still have not managed to make the transition--and we will do so.

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