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Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): I apologise for not being here for the opening speeches, but I shall in no way apologise if I repeat some of the themes that those on the Treasury Bench have outlined. Those themes are part of the celebration that we are having today. I wish to make two points in my short contribution. The first is to congratulate the Government, and to celebrate with them, on the achievement that the Bill symbolises. Secondly, as we are now into manifesto time, I want to suggest how some of the money might be even more effectively spent than it is currently.

To turn to the celebration, we need only cast our minds back to the last time a Labour Government introduced a child benefit Bill. They had revolts on their
 
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hands, faced chaos and withdrew the Bill. There was a major leak of Cabinet minutes and, under pressure, the then Government reintroduced the Bill and the introduction of child benefit followed. What a difference between then and today. There is now such agreement not only in the House but in the country on the importance of child benefit that, try as they may, even the Opposition do not have a case to make against the Government's proposals.

We therefore celebrate the transformation in parliamentary views on child benefit and the extension of child benefit to an older age group to reflect the important changes that are necessarily occurring in education and therefore its interrelationship with the labour market. We also celebrate the fact that, at long last, society is beginning to realise that raising children is a huge cost that is disproportionately borne by a small minority of the population at any one time. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Iain Wright) said, we all have a huge vested interest in making sure that parents do the very best possible job of raising the next generation and the people who will pay our pensions. If we cannot be interested for the right reasons, we can be interested out of self-interest.

Mr. Laws: The right hon. Gentleman will no doubt be aware of the paper that the Government issued last year that talks about a vision for supporting young people. It talks about support being dependent on household income and appears to suggest that there may be a shift from child benefit to a more means-tested system. Does he have any concerns about that?

Mr. Field: Indeed, I have concerns. The only rationale for the tax credit only side is to put it into place and then start dismantling the universal side of the welfare state. Clearly, one needs to be vigilant on this issue, but even though one must be concerned, that is not what is before us today. The Bill is about extending child benefit, so it is a day of celebration.

The hon. Gentleman is right to talk about what might be done in the future and what might be done about support for older children, but I want to consider younger children and our support for mothers. Today, we are also celebrating the influence that the most impressive Back-Bench Member of Parliament ever had on policy. I refer to the influence of Eleanor Rathbone, because when she rose to talk about child benefit, she did not receive a great deal of support from her colleagues. She talked about the importance of endowing motherhood and I fully understand, politically, why she let the campaign move from motherhood to family allowances and the transition to child benefit.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Byrne) made a significant point about the importance of antisocial behaviour in our constituencies. Antisocial behaviour cannot be divorced from the way in which young children are nurtured. Parenting skills have been lost in many families in our constituencies, which is why Sure Start is important and we must redouble our efforts on that front. We first introduced child benefit, or more importantly family allowances, in a world in which mothers did not work, certainly in the early years of a child's life. It is now clear
 
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that most mothers must work because of economic pressures, so I wonder whether we have the right balance between support for children in the first 19 years of their lives and that in the first two years.

When I examined the taxpayers' resources that are provided for children, I was surprised. If we add child benefit, the child tax allowances and the extension to 19 under the Bill, we are talking about a budget of £100,000 per child, which shows that a revolution has taken place in my lifetime from the support that existed. Given that we are in manifesto time and many, if not most, young mothers must go back to work, against their natural instincts, to keep their family finances together, might there not be a better way of spending some of that £100,000?

I hope to engage the services of the Clerks so that I can table an amendment on Report to provide that mothers could opt to take a quarter of that money tax-free during the first two years of their children's lives. That would mean that, if they did not want to work, they would not have to. Such a measure would be important for the welfare of our society because it would raise the financial position of mothers to a level that most women in my constituency could not command in the labour market. We would thus say that motherhood is financially more important than any other job that they could get, and I guess that they would opt for the payment. The scheme would not only interest women who have only the option of low-wage jobs, because it would allow women on higher pay to choose to return to the labour market later than at present. That might greatly influence increasing the importance of the nurturing of children, which is starting to be lost in our society.

Mr. Hopkins: Does my right hon. Friend have any statistics to show the number of women with young children who would wish to stay at home and look after them if they were financially able to do so?

Mr. Field: No, but given that the Government are rightly into choice, we would not have to worry about numbers. We would make the scheme an option and find out how many people went for a tax-free income of £25,000 during the first two years of their children's lives and how many were not interested and wanted to receive their child benefit and tax payments over the first 19 years of their children's lives. We are normally out of tune with what the voters want, so we might be surprised by the response.

I repeat that this is a day for real celebrations, certainly on the Labour Benches and hopefully among Opposition Members. It marks a transformation of the way in which taxpayers are called upon to support the minority who care for and nurture our children. However, the Bill will rightly increase the sums involved by covering all those with children up to the age of 19. When I asked the House of Commons Library about our investment in children up to the age of 19, I did not believe that it would be anywhere near £100,000. The fact that we are now discussing big money—thank goodness—opens up options for the first time. Do we want everyone, in a ration-book way, to have to draw money equally over each year of their children's lives, or should we use the Bill to offer real consumer choice to people who wish to draw down some of the money in the earlier part of their children's lives so that they can stay
 
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at home during that time and go to work when their children are involved in Sure Start, at nurseries or safely at school? This is a moment for real celebration.

I end as I began. Consider the change in opinion over time. The last time a Labour Government introduced a child benefit Bill, a huge, rocketing political debate took place in the country about whether we could have it, whether we should have it and whether it was an awful Bill transferring money from men's pockets to women's purses. Under pressure, the Government withdrew the Bill for a while. Fortunately, once the Cabinet minutes were published, the Government got back their courage and we got child benefit. Back in 1976, who would have thought that we would have another Labour Government introducing another Child Benefit Bill? Child benefit is now so accepted in the country as a necessary part of family support that most hon. Members are hard put to find serious reasons to disagree with what the Government are doing.

4 pm

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): I am pleased to sum up for the Opposition after an interesting debate. It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) who, as the whole House acknowledges, always speaks with great authority on these matters. I am glad that he joined us in the debate today and look forward to referring in detail to his remarks.

I confess to a sense of déjà vu. Just before Christmas, my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) and I faced the same two Ministers across the Dispatch Box to debate Second Reading of the Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Bill. Here we are, just after the return from the recess, debating further Treasury legislation, this time on the subject of child benefit. Before I come to the details of the Bill, I shall say a few words about the contributions to the debate.

The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) spoke with his usual sense of humour and mentioned the history of some of the issues in his constituency. He advanced an argument about the problems of simplification and took as an example the Child Support Agency. I shall correct him gently, if I may. The problem with the change from CS1 to CS2 was not that the change was wrong in principle—it was right—but that the computer system purchased to deal with the change was deficient. The Government are trying to rectify the situation. An IT failure, rather than simplification itself, lay at the heart of the problem. He made a number of detailed suggestions for amendments to the Bill, which I saw the Whip on duty at the time noting feverishly. Knowing a little about how this place works, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on volunteering for the Committee next week.

The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), who spoke for the Liberal Democrats, supported the Bill in principle. He pointed out that it could affect 160,000 young people. He agreed with us about the lack of clarity in the Government's figures relating to the cost of the measure and how they will measure the benefits that it produces. As I said in an intervention in his speech, it is ironic that a Treasury Bill, of all things, lacks accuracy on financial matters. It used to be said in some quarters that the traditional spending Departments
 
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were often bursting to bring in spending Bills and the role of the Treasury was to attempt to restrain them. It now seems that the boot is somewhat on the other foot and that the Treasury often introduces spending Bills of its own. I simply ask as a rhetorical question who now guards the guards.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Byrne) made a thoughtful speech about his constituency, and spoke about skills—a common theme in the debate—particularly, in his case, in relation to science and technology. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) also stressed the importance of skills in a 21st-century economy and argued for clarity in the implementation of the new measures. He referred to his horizons being widened by participating in the debate, but I think that he helped to widen ours as well.

We then heard from the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Iain Wright), the newest addition to the House, who spoke mainly about his own constituency and how the Bill might affect it. It was the first time that I had heard him speak in the Chamber, but I hope that he will not mind me saying that, having heard him today, I now look forward to hearing him again.

We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley). He too stressed the importance of skills in a modern economy and particularly praised the valuable work under way in a number of schools and colleges in his constituency to help to foster that. I very much agreed with him that a key to all of this is to get the fundamentals of education in our schools right, because young people will be playing catch-up for the rest of their careers if they have not been adequately educated by the time that they leave school in the first place. I hope that there will be agreement on both sides of the House about the importance in principle of doing that, even if we disagree about the precise methods for implementing it.

I also very much agreed with the intervention of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead on tax credits. That is something that the Ministers here today have debated before, but he gave some relevant examples of where there are problems in the system. To be fair to the Paymaster General, I think that she acknowledged that from a sedentary position, so I hope that it will be possible to bring about changes in due course. The right hon. Gentleman also hinted at introducing an amendment on Report, which we all picked up on, and we should look forward to debating that in due course.


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