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Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): You are the Government.

Mr. Hutton: That is strangely perceptive of the hon. Gentleman. We are the Government, and we have won three successive general elections partly on the basis of our manifesto in this area, but more widely too.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman suffers from one significant problem, which was clear to all of us on the Labour Benches: not only has he no policy—let us leave that on one side; that is a big enough impediment for him—but I am afraid that no one believes a word that he has to say about welfare reform. The public are right not to do so. We remember his record and that of his right hon. and hon. Friends in government for 18 years. He said virtually nothing about that record during his speech. I intend to refresh his memory and that of all my hon. Friends.

I pay tribute to my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), and I appreciate what the right hon. and learned Gentleman had to say about him. I hope that Members on both sides of the House will join me in recognising my right hon. Friend's passionate commitment to tackling inequality and to helping some of the most disadvantaged members of our community. I am sure that he will continue to make a major contribution to our debates on these and other issues both in the House and outside it.

There are without doubt a number of very demanding challenges that face me as a new Secretary of State, but defending this Government's record on welfare reform from criticism by Conservative Members is not one of them. The right hon. and learned Gentleman's main criticism today is that our approach to welfare reform is incoherent. I totally disagree with that analysis. Since 1997, we have taken forward a programme of radical reform of our welfare state. First and foremost, we have provided much more effective help for people looking for work through the new deal. We have taken action to ensure that work pays. The national minimum wage and tax credits have helped to make the transition from welfare to work possible for hundreds of thousands of
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our fellow citizens. We have made genuine inroads into the scandalous levels of poverty among pensioners and young families that we inherited when we came to office.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Is it not a fact that almost from the moment that the Government came into existence eight years ago, the winter fuel allowance was introduced? It is now £200, as my right hon. Friend knows, and £300 for the over-80s. During the 18 years of Conservative government, despite constant demands from pensioners, Labour MPs and others, no such scheme was introduced. The only scheme that was in operation was one that offered payment if the temperature was below freezing for seven consecutive days, and people on income support received £7 or £8. Is that not one of the great differences between the present Opposition and Government?

Mr. Hutton: I am grateful to my hon. Friend and, if he will allow me, I would like to develop that theme in a minute.

We have taken action to improve the quality and efficiency of the services that we provide in the Department for Work and Pensions by establishing, for example, Jobcentre Plus and the new Pension Service. That adds up to a record of substantial achievement, and it stands in stark and plain contrast to the period in which the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea was in office. As I said, he singularly failed to refer to that record at any point, which was probably a wise decision on his part. However, I would like to refresh his memory of one or two matters.

When the Opposition were in power their policies meant that unemployment reached 3 million and there was a 300 per cent. increase in the number of people claiming incapacity benefit. Between 1979 and 1997, the number of people on incapacity benefit trebled from 700,000 to 2.6 million—the equivalent of 2,000 extra claimants every single week. The Conservatives' dismal record of incompetence and failure wrecked families and communities the length and breadth of the country. They managed the extraordinary feat of creating 3 million unemployed not once but twice during their period of office—a unique achievement in 20th-century history—not that they cared very much about it. The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), whose own contribution was to add 1 million to the unemployment figures as Employment Secretary was quoted as saying that "unemployment never matters". He will soon have the opportunity to reflect on the accuracy of his observation.

The Conservatives were not content with raising the number of people claiming out-of-work benefits. Child poverty doubled, leaving Britain with the worst child poverty record in Europe. What did they make of that? The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) told the House that

Last month, 51 Opposition Members voted for the hon. Gentleman to be their next parliamentary leader.

By 1997, one in five families had no one in work, and one in three children were growing up in poverty. No one can claim that opportunity and security were more
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widely distributed during the Tory years. They were not—the reverse was true. The words of the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea this afternoon bear no resemblance whatever to the record of his party in government. Indeed, if there is any incoherence in the House today, it concerns the difference between his words and the actions of his party in government.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has a unique record, because he was a Minister for the entire period between 1979 and 1997. He cannot claim, as many of his hon. Friends have done in the past few years, that the record of the previous Government had nothing whatever to do with him. His problem is that it has everything to do with him. It is on his record that he and his hon. Friends will always be judged, not on their words. Even if he wants to airbrush the record and forget his party's contribution, we will not do so.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: At the beginning of his remarks, the right hon. Gentleman seemed to be justifying the Government's failures on the basis that his party had been re-elected to power on three occasions. The Government in which I was proud to serve were re-elected on four occasions.

Mr. Hutton: Well, we shall wait and see how many times the present Government are re-elected. The right hon. and learned Gentleman may have the opportunity to resurrect his own leadership election campaign after the next election. He made a very good appeal for last-minute support this afternoon.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman said that he was deeply disturbed that the welfare reform Green Paper is to be published in January. I have difficulty reconciling the words of his motion and what he said today with the comments of the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron)—briefly the right hon. and learned Gentleman's rival and soon to be his new boss. The hon. Member for Witney said on 8 November in his speech to the Centre for Policy Studies:

that is something of an oxymoron, of course—

So there we have it. We will be publishing our proposals for welfare reform within months of being returned to office, and we are accused of incoherence. The hon. Gentleman's proposals will not see the light of day for years, and we are invited to take the view that his party has a better alternative. What complete and utter rubbish.

We take a very different view of these matters. The difference between our approach and the approach of the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea could not be clearer. We believe in a modern, active, welfare state, able to help extend opportunities to people so that they can help themselves and their families, and we have put this new approach into practice in the face of opposition from both Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members in the House. His approach, by contrast, such as we are able to discern it, is all about limiting the support and help that is on offer.
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Kali Mountford (Colne Valley) (Lab): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for reminding the House why we should not take lessons from Opposition Members on how to tinker with welfare reform. The policy that they seemed to outline today did not deal at all with the aspirations of people who need to get off benefit but do not have the necessary support. Simply extending the hours that a person can work while on benefit would not do it. Will my right hon. Friend make a commitment to ensure that people on incapacity benefit who wish to work—there are many of them—are fully supported in that transition?

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