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Mr. Ruffley rose--

Mr. Davies: I will give way in a moment.

The most important way to do that would be to provide the economic well-being and independence that would keep couples together. Break-ups are often motivated by economic despair. The Government have brought 1

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million children out of poverty and away from the legacy of despair and family destruction inherited from the rag bag opposite--talking of which, I will now take the hon. Gentleman's intervention.

Mr. Ruffley: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way in his typically graceless way. He said earlier that stable couples who were not married but had children received the married couples allowance. Would he like to correct himself? He should know that the additional personal allowance is what non-married stable couples with children receive.

Mr. Davies: The hon. Gentleman's hearing seems to have failed him. He may check Hansard to find that I said that people in stable relationships with children are not eligible for the married couples allowance. That was one reason why we got rid of it. To be fair, however, I should make it clear that it was being gradually phased out by the Tories--which merely exposes their opportunist cynicism tonight. They are offering an off-the-cuff, uncosted proposal that does not mention the corollary of the abolition of the children's tax allowance. The policy is entirely un-thought-out and intended merely to provide an electoral opportunity, as the hon. Member for Croydon, South revealed at the end of his speech.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davies: Not for a moment.

We appear to be talking about electoral bribery. That is extremely unfortunate. The Tory measure would cost £1.4 billion in 2000-01 and £1.85 billion the next year, and the cost would continue to rise. It is another example of the kind of expenditure cuts that we would face under a Conservative Administration. We have had a wider debate this afternoon, and the £2 billion or £3 billion that they propose to spend over two years would be taken away from the health service, the education system or other vital services for people in need. The money would be taken away from children to pay for tax cuts for the most well off--couples without children in which both partners earn. That would be quite wrong.

The married couples allowance was being phased out by the previous Administration, but the Tories have suggested that we should reintroduce it. Those who hear our debate will realise that the Labour Administration have lifted 1 million children out of poverty, have put 1 million more people in work and have provided a record increase in child benefit. I urge all hon. Members to resist this stupid new clause.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Davies) who put his case very fairly, even if on odd occasions he indulged in rather vicious comments about what my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) seeks to do for the Opposition.

I endorse what my hon. Friend said in his excellent presentation. His case would have been stronger, however, if he had apologised to the House and to the people of this country for the fact that the Conservative party began this process when we were in government. At the time, a number of us criticised reduction of the

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married couples allowance. Like my hon. Friend, I have no doubt that the marriage of a man and a woman committed to each other in a ceremony that all people take seriously can create the most stable environment for children to grow up in. Problems for society arising from such a registered union are likely to be less than those arising from the situation of single parents.

The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) also made a thoughtful speech, but I was surprised to hear him suggest that these matters should be debated and decided in the House of Lords. I should have thought that all matters relating to the amount of taxation levied on an individual or family--I still think that allowances have something to do with taxation--should be decided by the elected Chamber.

Like the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton, I am not sure whether the proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South should be decided by statutory instrument--secondary legislation. It is too important for that; it is a matter of serious philosophy. Should we encourage the formal presence of marriage, and because of the benefits that it brings society, should marriage be recognised through the allowance and tax system? I believe so.

I am saddened that the previous Government started the reduction in the married couples allowance. With respect, my hon. Friend's case would have been stronger if he had apologised for that and said that in the light of experience, we realised that we made a mistake. I believe that the people out there whom we represent in this House are prepared to forgive a party when it shows that it realises that it has made a mistake.

I accept the advice of the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton about children--their interests are absolutely vital. That does not mean, however, that this is an either/or situation. I believe that we could have both options. We could, where necessary, provide additional assistance for families and single parents with financial difficulties, while also recognising the estate of marriage as making a valuable contribution to the environment in which children grow up. The cost to the state when children do wrong and appear before the courts is likely to be less when children are brought up in a stable marriage.

I share the views of my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), who believes that marriage is very precious. I do not believe that marriage is often entered into lightly. The benefits to a civilised, stable society that emanate from marriage are very great indeed.

Mr. David Taylor: I am sure that many people in the House would agree with the hon. Gentleman--not least the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton). However, some £190 a year is not a strong incentive for an unmarried couple to troop along to the nearest church or registry office. Does the hon. Gentleman really think that many hundreds of thousands of people will change their status because of that tax incentive? I fear not.

Mr. Winterton: My views differ from those of the hon. Gentleman. I believe that the country benefits from children being brought up within a stable married relationship, and that the cost to Government and society is likely to be much less when that is the case. I regret that the previous Government started the reduction in the

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married couples allowance. I would have preferred the allowance to have been much higher than it was. However, I accept that there might be a contrary view.

7.45 pm

As the hon. Gentleman said, I am married to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton). She carries my name, so our outlook on these matters is very traditional, and there is nothing wrong in that. She shares my view that in a married family relationship, whether the husband and wife are married in a registry office or in a church--although I prefer the church service, as it is more solemn--the saving to society is greater than the total cost to the Exchequer of the married couples allowance, even at its original level before the previous Conservative and Unionist Government reduced it.

I regret that the present Government have gone the whole hog and abolished the allowance. What they have replaced it with is less beneficial, although I appreciate that they have sought to target assistance on those whom they perceive as having the greatest need. However, I think that the principle spelled out by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South is sound. I am delighted that we have learned from our mistakes in our previous period in office. The allowance means a great deal to people, and has a significance far greater than its cost to the Exchequer. Therefore, I strongly support the new clause.

Mr. Ruffley: I am delighted to support the new clause. I do so for one simple reason--I believe that the family is an important part of the fabric of civil society, and needs to be supported and recognised in the British tax system.

I was interested to hear the contributions from Labour Members. The one word that they did not use was "extremist". This is obviously an example of a U-turn, because on 16 April the Chief Secretary to the Treasury described Conservative proposals for recognising marriage in the tax system as "extremist". What folly that turned out to be.

It was no accident, in my view, that in the leaked memorandum this week, of which we have heard so much, the Prime Minister described his policy on the family as weak. He was worried that the Government were looking weak on the family, and were hopeless at developing sensible policies to support the family.

The new clause would go some way towards helping the Prime Minister out. Were the Government to adopt it, the Prime Minister would be able to demonstrate beyond peradventure that he believes that the family is worth supporting. He would be able to use the simple and direct mechanism described in the new clause.

Mr. Christopher Leslie (Shipley): Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), who has a high regard for parliamentary and legislative procedures, that it would be incorrect to introduce these measures through statutory instruments and orders? Can he justify why, under new clause 6, such changes would be made by order rather than in primary legislation?


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