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9.24 pm

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): The Secretary of State said that the debate was about changing lives, and he was absolutely right. It is about changing the lives of real people.

I want to talk about my experience in the real world—the real world in which in 1969, as a young man, I worked for the National Coal Board. No one was ever put out of work because they were ill. There were men who had lost limbs, had lost eyes, or had chests full of coal dust, but the paternalistic attitude of the Coal Board was, “If these people want to work, let them carry on working.” Let us contrast that with the position 20 years later, in 1989, when the National Coal Board in the guise of the Conservative Government’s policies was sacking men aged 20, 30 and 40. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown) said, men of 40 or 50 never worked again after being thrown out of work. They had no self-esteem, and did not know how to go forward.

We are talking about changing the lives of real people. I had the terrible experience in the 1990s, when I was a trade union representative in a local authority, of going through an ill-health retirement programme with literally hundreds of home care workers, women in their mid-50s who had worked for 25 or 30 years and literally devoted their lives to the people in their care. Those women were worn out and could not carry on doing the job. In reality, they should have had the sort of things we have been talking about today: personalised help to move into other work. What we did instead—I am not proud of this—was to encourage these people to take ill-health retirement. That covered up the fact that job cuts were being made, but those people were burnt out through hard work.

We also need to realise that in the workplace today there are many people who are stressed out. Again I am talking about real experiences. I represented people among the middle managers who did not realise how ill they were until they collapsed at work. The fear of having to go back into that environment absolutely paralysed them. It is not funny to see grown men cry,
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but that was my experience with some very tough and hard-nosed management negotiators who fell into that trap. We are talking about people in vulnerable situations.

For the rest of my short speech, I want to talk about disabled people. I am privileged and proud to be the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on muscular dystrophy. A month ago we set up an inquiry into why people in different parts of the country get different services for muscular dystrophy and have different life outcomes. Last week we met a number of people who are living with the disease, are carers for those with the disease or have just contracted the disease. Across the country 50 per cent. of people with muscular diseases are not in employment. Three quarters of families living with people with this disease are suffering real financial hardship and, as we have heard, 43 per cent. of disabled people are in work compared with 74 per cent. of the general population.

Last week we heard from the people individually, and they said that one of their biggest worries is that, under the new proposals, the people who assess whether or not they are fit to go to work, like many GPs, will not have real knowledge of a rare disease, will assess them wrongly and will put them into a situation where they are supposed to undertake work-related activity that they will not be able to do. If that is the case, they will fall out of the benefits system altogether and will be in even worse straits than they are now.

I want to read out some comments from some of the people who were with us last week. Phillippa Farrant, whose son Daniel is 17 and living with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, said:

Although Daniel is past 16 and could claim incapacity benefit, it is better for the family if he does not. For other families, it is the other way round.

Andy Findlay, who is 65, told us that it took 18 months to get disability living allowance. When a social security doctor came to assess him, he did not know what the strain of muscular dystrophy was:

For Andy Findlay’s strain of muscular dystrophy, there is no cure or medication and no way he could recover.

Laura Merry, a very bright young girl of 19 who is struggling to go to university, said:

I want to ask the Secretary of State and his Ministers some specific questions. Will they agree to meet people from the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign, so that they hear the experiences of those at the cutting edge—not the professionals, but the real people? I ask them to meet those people to take this forward. Will they also make sure that the specific experiences of people living with long-term progressive muscular diseases are understood by those who will be doing the assessments? If they do
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not understand them, they will not be able to diagnose correctly and they will give the wrong advice. Will they ensure that we take forward the following from today’s debate: that the Minister will come in an official capacity to the inquiry and give evidence to it, and that we will put together an all-party parliamentary group of this House so Members can discuss in detail what to do?

Before I sit down, I want to say one last thing. The welfare reforms are right and proper—

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Jonathan Shaw): My hon. Friend asked three questions, and the answer to all three is yes.

Mr. Anderson: Thank you very much—and don’t worry, because there’s plenty more to come.

This issue is not just about reform of the welfare state as that affects the Department for Work and Pensions, because unless we take this across Government, it will not work. Housing, health, transport and education are vital to the people I am talking about. The DWP can do its bit right, but if the other Departments do not, these people will not be able to access work.

I will close with one example. Daniel, who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, goes to a school where every week he gets hydrotherapy, which is vital in helping him to breathe; it is much better than all the medication he is on. The only problem is that when the school is on holiday, he does not get it. Can we imagine somebody on life-saving drugs being told, “The chemist’s going on holiday for the next six weeks; don’t come back”? That is what we are talking about. I am very pleased the Minister said yes, and I hope he keeps on saying yes.

Let me share one last thought. We talk about people being on benefits, but we do not mean that—what we mean is people who are on payments. We should talk about benefits, however. The dictionary definition of “benefit” is:

If we use that terminology for benefits, this country will be a much better place to live in.

9.32 pm

Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): Given the time constraints we are under, I will try not to repeat anything that has already been said, but I want to support my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) in her campaign in respect of people with sight disabilities.

I shall focus my remarks on the difficulties that mothers in particular face in getting into work, particularly in relation to child care. I have thought long and hard about the requirement on mothers to take part in work-related activity. This brings us back again to the difficulty of balancing work and caring responsibilities. Although much has been done in introducing family-friendly policies and extending child care, there is still a long way to go.

In considering these matters, we need only look at the experiences of mothers already in the work force. It is a myth that women staying at home was the norm: working-class women have always worked, through financial necessity. lf it was difficult to sustain a household on one wage in the past, it is even more difficult today. There have been massive changes, which need to be
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taken into account—not only the rising numbers of children brought up in lone-parent families, but the necessity of young mothers to work nowadays in order to pay mortgages, service debts and provide a reasonable standard of living in line with today’s consumer society.

Historically, women have been encouraged to work, not for their own good but because the economy needed them. What little child care there has been was withdrawn when there were fewer jobs available, when men were regarded as having first call on the work which was available so as to provide the family wage. We are already hearing concerns that in this economic downturn women will be disproportionately affected, so it is doubly important that child care is expanded and not contracted, and that long-term help is provided to enable mothers to join the work force. Of course, in addition to all that, there has been a very strong desire by women themselves to work for their own personal development, and to do so on equal terms with men and for equal pay. Again, we still have a very long way to go on that.

I wonder how many Members of this House have ever brought up children while living on benefit. I do not mean living on benefit for a week for a TV documentary—I mean for real. It is a stressful, demoralising experience and it is certainly not to be recommended as a long-term situation. That prompts the question of what someone needs to get into work and what can make a difference. As I say, I have thought long and hard, and not only about the principle of working. I think it is useful to consider how things have changed since my time as a young mother in the 1970s and the experience of my daughters and their generation today.

There are four things that I wish to suggest, the first of which relates to confidence. I was brought up with a strong work ethic and there was a very obvious stigma attached to those who did not work—and, for that matter, to lone parents. Many mothers today who have been brought up in poverty themselves, especially if they are on their own, do not have the confidence or family experience to engender confidence, and they need very extensive support to have a chance. I spoke recently to a local organisation that supports parents, and I have found that in many cases, it can take four months of regular engagement before these mothers will even go over the door to join a group, far less look for work. A build-up of support is required and how that is approached is crucial. Where are the resources coming from to develop this level of support in relation to Jobcentre Plus?

Secondly, the support of the extended family is needed, but it is not always available in the way that it has been in the past—many grandparents are working themselves and cannot afford to babysit free of charge. That should be recognised, as many mothers would prefer to have care provided by their relatives, if only they could access child care tax credits or some other means. I welcome the early-day motion tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South that seeks to credit in national insurance the unpaid contribution of grandparents, who save society a fortune by providing free child care—that would be a good starting point.

The third thing that is crucial is the availability of affordable child care. Back in the ’70s, I was in a very fortunate position: we had a Labour Government, and I was able to secure a state nursery place at a nominal cost to allow me to go to college. By the time I had my second child, 10 years later, people could not get a
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nursery place in Ayr for love nor money, unless they had a social worker. The introduction of universal nursery provision has helped a great deal, but some areas do not have wraparound care, so full-time care comes solely from the private sector. My own daughter has just had a baby and she will be back at work by the time her daughter is six months old. Obviously, I am not one of the grannies who is available to offer child care, even if she could afford me. The going rate for child care is £35 per day and she reckons that she will be paying more than £1,000 per month for her two children—it would be a lot more if she had more than one child under five.

When I look around, I see that the majority of mothers do go back to work when their children are relatively young, as has always been the case; it has always been only the minority who could afford to choose to stay at home. So there is no inherent reason why people on benefits should not work. Many wish to do so, but, crucially, they need the right type of support to make child care affordable. Any conditionality must take that into account, and I seek assurances from the Secretary of State that no one will be regarded as breaching the rules because they cannot get access to child care.

In Scotland, the statutory duty on local authorities to secure sufficient child care for parents who work does not apply. The Wise Group has reported that in Glasgow there is a lack of suitable places for parents wanting to work. It is probably harder today than it has ever been to raise children, and I believe that all parents could benefit from some parenting support at some time. At the moment, this is, in the main, down to voluntary organisations, many of which are strapped for cash. Certainly in Scotland there are widespread financial difficulties as councils cut back on funding, and that is affecting organisations that provide support to parents.

In conclusion, I wish briefly to mention women who have suffered domestic violence. I am very concerned that they will be asked to take part in work-related activity as soon as they leave a violent partner, and I ask the Secretary of State to ensure that that does not happen.

9.40 pm

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): This has been a very good debate, with some powerful personal accounts, including the last two contributions. I do not have time to mention all the speeches made, but I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill), who made a powerful speech on behalf of people with sight impairment, which followed an intervention by the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) and was supported by many hon. Members on both sides of the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) made an excellent speech, making a link between work and well-being—the benefits of work. My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) also made an excellent speech that raised some very important points about the welfare of people in his constituency and the issue of unemployment there.
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We heard an authoritative speech from the Chairman of the Work and Pensions Committee, who made several important points about giving people skills, preparing people for work, job retention and the point at which people get help. We also heard a very powerful speech from the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who was right to remind us of the setting for this debate and the fact that many of our constituents who are out of work are not used to that experience, and we need to bear that in mind. We heard an authoritative speech from the right hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire) and a considered speech from the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt) about the social fund, which will bear careful analysis later.

We had an important contribution from the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) and from hon. Members who happen to represent some of the poorest parts of the country. Although I did not agree with everything that they said, it was good to hear their voices. The hon. Member for Glasgow, East (John Mason) made the point about the need to give people incentives to work and the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies), representing another very poor part of the country, gave some striking figures about the present state of employment and benefit receipt in his constituency. He told the House that some 2,600 people were receiving jobseeker’s allowance, 6,500 were stranded on incapacity benefit and there were only 218 vacancies. That was a sombre reminder of the problems we face today.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) broadly welcomed the Bill. We want to see the contracting, Freud-style reform of our welfare system, and we look forward to exploring the Bill in detail to see just how far it goes in fulfilling that vision.

I make a specific plea to Ministers that was made by many hon. Members on both sides of the House. Much of the Bill is devoted to regulation-making powers. As has been said, regulations are mentioned 387 times in 114 pages. I hope that the Minister, when he winds up, will give us an assurance that the draft regulations will be published in time for the Committee stage, so that hon. Members can do their job and scrutinise the Bill in detail. We may give the Bill a broad welcome, but there are several issues that we want to examine in detail.

For example, we need further details about what will be required of lone parents with children under seven. It is right to remind the House of the background to this issue, because the momentum for reform on the issue of lone parents moving from income support to work came from the Opposition, and I pay tribute to the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) in that regard. As I recall, it was not until June 2007 that the Government came round to the same way of thinking—after the proposal had been made by the Conservatives. Up to that point, lone parents of children up to the age of 16 had been allowed to remain on income support without extra requirements on them, but at that point a line was drawn at the age of seven. Not only have the Government now agreed with the proposals made by my right hon. Friend and taken the age limit down to seven, but they want to go further still, which was not in our proposals.

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We need to look very carefully at just what the Government will require, and we will have a debate on that. It is clear in the White Paper—I hope that the Secretary of State knows what is in his own White Paper—what he is requiring of the parents of children between the ages of three and six as well as those of children from the age of one. I know that the Secretary of State made his name as a babysitter, but we want to prevent his being remembered as a baby-snatcher. We want to look at those matters in some detail. We also want to look at the issue of budgeting loans.

Lynne Jones: The hon. Gentleman is making important points about lone parents. Does he share my concerns that it is important that we as a society should value the work that parents do in bringing up their children, particularly young children, but also, in certain circumstances, older children?

Mr. Clappison: I agree with the hon. Lady. We too think that it is good for lone parents to work, and the evidence is that work is beneficial to them and to their children. However, there is a balance to be struck between the care of young children and the work of parents. We will examine that matter in Committee, which is the right place to do that.

We will also examine the strange question of the social fund, about which there seems to be a mystery. The Secretary of State seemed to be unaware of the Government’s proposals in their consultation document to charge interest on social fund loans— [ Interruption. ] Ministers are shaking their heads, but the proposal is in their own consultation document. In case it has escaped the Secretary of State’s attention, he wrote the foreword to that document only last November. I imagine that he does not sign documents without having read them, and that it was not the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) brought the proposal to public attention that prompted a sudden reversal in Government policy. We look forward to going through those issues in detail.

Our focus throughout will be on getting people back into work and bringing help to those who need it, even in these dark times. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead talked about a hurricane, and time and again we have come back to the setting of the reforms. For many people, it is striking that the Government have delayed for so long in undertaking those reforms and have waited for this moment to do so.

We have had so much talk and so many promises. Since 1997, we have had seven Green or White Papers on welfare reform. The Bill is the 13th piece of legislation dealing with welfare reform; it will be the third Act to be called the Welfare Reform Act and the second such Act in three years. The Secretary of State talked about the difference between active and passive welfare systems, but the Government have been talking about that, and claiming that they have brought about an active system, since 1997.

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