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Miss Melanie Johnson: Let me begin by responding to the closing remarks of the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey). I think it useful for our policies to be based on evidence; indeed, work continues in the Treasury in an attempt to ensure that they reflect the real needs of society, in terms of child poverty, as much as is possible at any one time.

The hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) did not take into account the Government's introduction of a number of measures reflecting the extra costs incurred by the parent of a child under five. One way of

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structuring such measures is to take account of the cost of children over a lifetime--which has been done, in that there is £5 more child benefit for the first child, throughout its lifetime, than there is for second and subsequent children.

7.15 pm

Mr. Ottaway: Does the Minister think that she is doing enough? Does she not think that more could be done for the under-fives?

Miss Johnson: I intend to deal with that in much more detail. Let me say initially, however, that we have reduced the number of children in poverty by 1.2 million during the life of the current Parliament. That includes many children under five, as it includes many over five, and it represents a substantial improvement.

The increase in maternity pay from £60.20 to £100, the extension of paid maternity leave from 18 to 26 weeks and the introduction of two weeks' paternity leave in 2003 will help the parents of under-fives. As the ex-parent, as it were, of three under-fives, including twins, I speak with personal experience of the substantial needs of those with young children in the house, in terms of both income and time.

Mr. Davey: The Minister--who, I am sure, is not an ex-parent--mentioned maternity and paternity leave. Have the Government considered parental leave? Some countries give parents leave that they can take later in their children's lives, which is often limited to the first five years. That provides greater flexibility: it can be used, for example, when a child is ill.

Miss Johnson: The idea has been suggested in a number of quarters, and is being discussed. Consultation is taking place. As I said at the outset, we are keen to give the best possible support to families with children in general, but to those with children under five in particular.

The Opposition seem to want to increase children's tax credit by £200. Lest, by any quirk of fate, the Opposition might be in charge of a Finance Bill after a general election--unlikely as that may seem now--I should point out that, as drafted, the new clause would reduce it by £20. As the sum in question is 10 per cent. of an allowance, the figure should be £2,000.

The Government will, in fact, increase children's tax credit by a further £520 in the year of the child's birth, and will do so from 2002 rather than 2003--which is what I understand the hon. Gentleman to propose, assuming that he is thinking in terms of £200 rather than £20. What we are already doing is far better than what the Opposition suggest. It is more, it is earlier, and it focuses resources on the time when parents are most in need.

Mr. Ottaway: The Minister is right: we intend the amount to be increased by £200. We have taken into account the increases in the pipeline, and this is over and above those increases.

Miss Johnson: Is it over and above the introduction of babies credit?

Mr. Ottaway: Yes.

Miss Johnson: That is interesting. I thank the hon. Gentleman. I will come to the £16 billion later.

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The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton has urged other courses on me, but I cannot resist returning to some of the slightly wider political issues, on which we have been much tempted by the hon. Member for Croydon, South. First, I turn to the married couples allowance, on which he spent considerable time.

The so-called reintroduction of the married couples allowance is probably a complete misnomer. For the Conservatives to say that the new clause would reintroduce the married couples allowance involves considerable spin. It would do nothing of the sort. It is a proposal for married couples to transfer their personal allowance between themselves. It does not benefit many married couples, or indeed many families with children. Eight out of 10 married couples would gain absolutely nothing from the proposal; eight out of 10 families with children would gain nothing from it. For example, single parents and married couples who were both in work would gain nothing, despite the fact that the hon. Gentleman claimed he supported marriage and that the proposal was partly about that. Married couples with secondary school-aged children would gain nothing from it because of the cut-off at the age 11. I do not know what Conservative party policy is on helping children and families out of poverty where the children are aged over 11, because the new clause does not address their needs.

This Government have been committed to helping families with children and have introduced the working families tax credit and the children's tax credit, and those policies will lift 1.2 million children out of poverty.

Mr. Bennett: Does my hon. Friend accept that Conservative Members have never explained why they did nothing about this matter throughout all their years in government? The House debated the cost of children in 1976, when Baroness Castle introduced the child benefit legislation. The then Conservative Opposition said that they would like to do more for children in families, yet they did nothing for 18 years.

Miss Johnson: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's recollection of a time when I was not an hon. Member, but I do remember that nothing was done. In proposing the new clause, the hon. Member for Croydon, South did nothing to answer questions that my hon. Friend, I and other Labour Members put to him about why these issues, by which he apparently sets so much store now, were not addressed over those 18 years, when there was ample opportunity to do so.

Mr. Flight: May I make two points? First, the proposal for married couples is additional to existing provision, so it is not a debate about taking something back, or whether to have A or B. Secondly, it is specifically targeted at married couples with children under 11, partly to offset some of the bias against mothers, or fathers for that matter, who wish to stay at home to look after children. In particular, it is designed to give mothers a little more flexibility. We can debate what was done in the past, but the Minister is wrong to seek to cast the proposal in a negative light. She may disagree with it, but it is specifically tailored to meet the needs of a group of people who wish to stay at home a little longer to look after their children while they are younger.

Miss Johnson: Yes, but that is exactly why I said that calling it a reintroduction of the married couples

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allowance was a very spun description. The hon. Gentleman accepts that it is a targeted measure and that it does not help many who are married, or, indeed, many who have children. As I said, eight out of 10 married couples and eight out of 10 families with children will gain nothing. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Croydon, South is burbling some further remark from a sedentary position. I did not catch exactly what it was and he may want to intervene again, but may I remind him that it is this Government who have increased child benefit to £15.50 a week for the first child and £10.35 a week for subsequent children? That is a 26 per cent. real-terms increase over the life of this Parliament.

People will have to judge for themselves--they are getting the opportunity not only to make that judgment, but to act upon it--whether our record of increasing child benefit by record amounts stands up against the record of the Conservative Government, who promised tax cuts and hiked tax up, who promised to help people but put 3 million on the dole and who froze child benefit; they did not increase child benefit in line even with inflation at various periods. I am proud to stand in support of what the Government have done. Our record speaks for itself.

Mr. Ottaway: I presume that the Minister is advancing an argument against the new clause. She has to say why she does not believe that more can be done for families, and why £200 a year, or £4 a week, would not help children, rather than going on about the past.

Miss Johnson: I have already said why I believe that it is better to take the action that we are taking through the various measures that we have introduced, which support families, and why increasing support for children in their first year of life, which we have just introduced, is a valuable support.

Mr. Hendrick: Given that the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) has accepted that no such comparable measures were introduced in 18 years of Conservative government and that we should look forward to "a new Conservative Government", will my hon. Friend be willing to invite him to intervene in order for him to apologise for that omission over 18 years?

Miss Johnson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his suggestion. I would be happy to take him up on it, but I appreciate, as he will, that the hon. Member for Croydon, South is well aware of the invitation that has just been extended to him and is not leaping to his feet. I think that we will all draw our own conclusions from that.

The introduction of a new children's tax credit at £10 per week from April is worth £520 a year--more than twice the value of the married couples allowance that it replaces. From next April, the children's tax credit will be raised to £20 a week in the year of a child's birth, which will in effect double the allowance in the first year of a child's life.

I was much amused by the remarks of the hon. Member for Croydon, South on the form that is required. It is easy to allege that forms are complicated, but that was an absolute load of nonsense. The form was thoroughly tested with the help of 1,000 volunteer taxpayers--indeed, I am told that the forms that the Inland Revenue has received have been completed to a very high standard--

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and it asks for the most basic information, such as the name, the date of birth of the child and the partner's national insurance number. It does not ask claimants to detail their income or to provide complicated details.

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