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Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole): My hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) was making a point about choice. He expressed the strong concern that people might be coerced into certain actions and wished to be assured that they would be able to choose. In fact, Liberal Democrats welcome many schemes around the country in which young people are supported.

Miss Begg: We take a slightly different view of the case. If people are vulnerable and in need, we should not leave them to their own devices. This case concerns lone parents under 18, which in England and Wales means that they are under the legal age at which they can get married. In Scotland, young people can marry at 16 without their parents' consent. However, we could be talking about children as young as 14 or even younger. The earliest age at which young girls get pregnant is about 14, and some are no longer able to live in the family home—as the Chancellor said yesterday. We do not think that such vulnerable young people—some of them are still children—should be left alone in a council house. They should be in supported accommodation. It is not a matter of choice—children should not live alone.

Mr. Connarty: I remind my hon. Friend of the landmark case in my home town of Monklands. A 16-year-old obtained a legal judgment to the effect that she should be allocated housing on her own. She was allocated housing in a flatted block, but she was violently and sexually assaulted in her flat within a few months. It was an unprotected and unsupported environment, and we think that we should do better for those young people.

Miss Begg: I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend. I detected nothing in what the Chancellor or the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions have said that would suggest that any coercion will be used to make lone parents under 18 live in accommodation that is not suitable for the purpose.

I commend what the Budget will do to encourage people into work, to make work pay and to bring children out of poverty, and I shall concentrate my remarks on those aspects. Not long after the introduction of the working families tax credit and the minimum wage, I received an irate letter from a constituent who complained that everything was being done for children but nothing was being done for those of working age who were in work but on low incomes. He claimed that he would be better off on benefit than he was in work. I asked the Library to do some calculations, and he was right. Because of the way in which housing benefit, jobseeker's allowance and other benefits worked, some people in full-time work would have been better off not working, so they had no incentive to work. Those people felt left out and unable to share in the growing prosperity.

One answer to the problem is to raise the minimum wage and I am glad to see that it is increasing, albeit not as fast as I would like. I accept the arguments about the need not to destabilise the economy and we do not want unemployment to start increasing, as the Opposition

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claimed would happen when the minimum wage was introduced. Unemployment did not increase, and I still think that the minimum wage should be increased further.

I welcome the new employment tax credit introduced in the Budget. It will ensure that people such as my constituent, who are just above any kind of minimum income but paying high housing costs—as often happens in Aberdeen—will have an incentive to work. The figures for the employment tax credit cited by the Chancellor yesterday show that a single-earner couple will have a guaranteed income of £183 a week, while a family with one child will have an income of £237 a week.

The integration of the employment credit and the working families tax credit to form the new working tax credit will make it absolutely certain that in all cases work pays. I know many hon. Members find it difficult to persuade constituents who are looking for work in the low-wage end of the economy to take such work unless in every circumstance their constituents will be better off. The working tax credit will ensure that.

I also welcome the extension of the new deal. I remember many people in Aberdeen asking why we needed the new deal—unemployment in Aberdeen is extremely low: 1.5 or 1.8 per cent.—when anybody who was any good would get a job anyway. Therefore, it was argued, the only people who were not in jobs, particularly young people, were those whom nobody would employ. In fact, the opposite proved the case. Youth unemployment in my constituency has dropped by about 80 per cent. because there are jobs if people of working age are ready for them.

It is interesting that a fairly affluent constituency such as mine has benefited from many of the Government's policies, such as the minimum wage and the working families tax credit, and that is because most of my constituents are in work but often in low-paid jobs. There are many highly paid jobs in Aberdeen—we have a fairly buoyant economy—and because of the oil industry, there are also many service industry jobs. There is a need for cleaners and there is a lot of bar work available in the local hostelries. Very often, those involved are paid low wages, so they obviously benefit from the minimum wage and the working families tax credit. Well over 1,000 families—2,000 in the case of the minimum wage—have benefited from the working families tax credit in my constituency alone.

Any extension of the new deal to those over the age of 25 who have gone in and out of work—a pattern we see in Aberdeen—is welcome. I have seen constituents who have been out of work for just over six months but do not yet fit into any of the new deal categories. They have felt left out—that somehow, Government policies have not catered for them—so I am glad that they no longer do.

I undoubtedly welcome the increases in the working families tax credit and the disabled persons tax credit. It is very important that disabled people share this country's increasing prosperity, and one of the best ways of doing so is by entering the labour market. In Aberdeen, there are jobs available if such people are given support to get them.

Perhaps the biggest barrier to getting back to work, particularly for lone parents and other working parents, is the issue of child care. The problem is not just affording

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child care—the Government have gone some way to solving that problem by introducing the child tax credit—but finding appropriate child care. That problem is faced by those who work shifts. There is much shift work in Aberdeen, and there is a lack of child care. Any help that the Government can give to encourage more people into the child care business would be welcome. If people are going back to work, why should they not become child minders? That would certainly ease difficulties in Aberdeen. There is certainly a need for high-quality child care.

I particularly welcome the move toward integrating the tax and benefit systems. Until those systems come together, there will always be poverty traps and always some who lose out. I hope that there will be a seamless system. If everybody has to declare their income, eventually those who do not receive enough will get money back, and those who receive too much will pay tax. We will therefore remove the stigma of means testing and ensure that any help is well targeted.

I also commend the Government's work on bringing children out of poverty. I know that there was huge controversy last week over the Government's figures, but by any measure, 500,000 children is a lot. That was not an accident; it did not happen because the economy improved or it just so happened that parents went back to work. It was specifically because this Government were the first in history to introduce measures aimed directly at tackling child poverty. As a result, 1.4 million children have been lifted out of absolute poverty, and 500,000 out of any relative poverty.

I have not had time to read it, but I welcome the Government's consultation document on measuring child poverty because it is time we had a proper measure that everybody can trust and understand. There is more to poverty than just income.

By any measure, the Government have done well in reducing childhood poverty. I was surprised at the amnesia displayed by the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts). The reason so many children were living in poverty when we were elected was that when the previous Government were in office, from 1979 to 1997, the number had multiplied by a factor of three. If the then Government had made a promise to take 1 million children out of poverty in 1979 and had done it, there would be no children in poverty now. It is important to have a clear definition of poverty and that the Government continue to pursue these measures.

With those comments, I commend the Budget to the House. There is no doubt that its proposals mean that more and more families will move up the income scale and be able to share in the country's prosperity.

5.5 pm

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): I am grateful to be called to speak in the debate. I remind the House of the declarations of my business interests that are properly put into the Register of Members' Interests.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) on a characteristically good speech about her constituency. I sympathise with some of her observations about the child tax credit and child care. I congratulate the Government on responding to representations that I and many others have made on helping parents who work irregular hours to have child care provided in their own

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home. That will be of particular benefit to those working in the care and nursing home business. They have to work antisocial hours, and this will mean a great deal for them.

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