3.45 pm

George Hollingbery (Meon Valley) (Con): I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Paul Uppal), who made a compelling speech. My contribution is likely to be more technocratic, but I pay tribute to his eloquence.

I pay tribute, too, to the Opposition, who have a real passion for this subject and, Government Members will all acknowledge, are more likely to represent constituents who are subject to the vagaries and whims of the benefits system. We must encourage them, however, to accept that our ministerial team cares equally deeply about this complex, difficult and challenging issue. It has introduced a broad skeleton of proposals on which to hang the detail. In my conversations with Ministers, it has been quite clear that they know that that detail is missing at this stage. Indeed, the Secretary of State has made it plain that there is more work to be done on particular areas, but change is certainly required.

There are more than 30 different benefits out there that can be claimed. There are 14 manuals in the Department for Work and Pensions, with 8,690 pages of instructions for officials. There is a separate set of four volumes for local government, with 1,200 pages covering housing and council tax benefits alone. That is an astonishingly byzantine system. One of my constituents, Nigel Oakland, wrote to me:

“Nobody at the Jobcentre Plus can explain if it is beneficial if I continue to sign on. The last advice I was given is that I should Google the question.”

In such a situation, where even the experts at Jobcentre Plus cannot answer the questions that arise, we are clearly in difficulty.

It is confusing for clients. There is a 30-page form for housing and council tax benefit, including three pages of declarations. Employment and support allowance requires a 52-page form; jobseeker’s allowance, 12 online sections, each of five to 10 pages long; and disability

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living allowance, a 60-page form. Is it any wonder that people become confused and fill in the forms incorrectly and make mistakes? The system is extraordinarily expensive to administer. The DWP spent £2 billion last year administering working-age benefits, and local authorities a further £l billion administering housing benefit and council tax benefit. Even the tiny citizens advice bureau in Bishop’s Waltham, a town of 5,000 people in a rural and relatively affluent part of Hampshire, processed 2,176 queries about benefits in 2009-10, advising people how to claim them.

As we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore), overpayments are rife, and I do not intend to rehearse the clear disincentives to finding work imposed by the benefits system, as that has been covered in some detail by the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr Evennett). There is absolutely no doubt that with some work having a marginal rate of tax of 95%, there are powerful disincentives that prevent people from going out to work. The taper in the universal credit of 65% at least allows some certainty, so that every time someone goes out to work they can be sure that they will earn a reasonable amount and get a reasonable amount in their pocket.

The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) discussed the difficulties for self-employed people in the new system. Only yesterday, I asked my right hon. Friend the Minister of State how that would be administered outside the PAYE system. He had a clear answer, and said that there would be mechanisms in place. In the present situation, my constituent Zehra Peermohamed wrote:

“For every £50 extra per week my new business may generate”—

a business that she started up herself—

“I would only gain an extra £4.81 of it to add to my overall income…It seems that there is little incentive for people in my situation who want to better themselves and not to rely on the benefit system.”

Whatever objections the shadow Secretary of State might have now, the existing situation is certainly no better.

Gemma Sword, a single mother with a child who has turned seven, says:

“In March…I started working part time 4 hours weekly over 3 days earning £96 monthly of which I was allowed to retain £80.”

From 15 November, she earned up to £150. Ms Sword continues:

“I was then transferred to Job Seekers allowance as my son turned 7 and was told that I can now only keep £20 of my monthly earnings”,

which did not even make it worth travelling to work. She was then told that she had to look for full-time employment but, to do so, had to leave her part-time employment. Those rules make no sense to anybody who looks at them carefully, and there is no doubt in my mind that there are powerful disincentives in the system to stop people going out and bettering themselves by finding work.

I do not want to spend a large amount of time examining the issue now, but we need sticks as well as carrots. There needs to be an understanding in the system that if someone does not perform as the system requires them to do in looking for work, they will pay a

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penalty in terms of the benefits to which they are entitled. Without that part of the mix, the new universal credit will not work.

I would love to examine in more detail the Work programme and its localisation, because the Communities and Local Government Committee has heard evidence that localisation will be peripheral. I would like to hear about the migration from disability living allowance to the personal independence payment, and in particular about the mobility component. I have talked to the Under-Secretary about that at some length and received considerable reassurances, for which I thank her. I would like more on the work capability assessment, the Harrington review of it and the ongoing review continually to refine that system and make it fairer and more equitable; and I also want to hear a little more at some stage and, particularly, in Committee about the appeals process and the proposed changes to it.

On the whole, however, this is a thorny, knotty problem, which the Government are grasping with some alacrity, and I for one will certainly vote for the Bill’s Second Reading.

3.51 pm

Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op): These debates about our welfare system or, as I should say, heeding the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Malcolm Wicks), our social security system—whether in the House, the media or the pubs and living rooms of our constituencies—often become a magnet for two opposing arguments. The first is that everyone on welfare is somehow undeserving and all the money is spent incorrectly; the second is that every penny spent is 100% effective and should be beyond question. We have heard those views today, but both are extreme and neither is true.

I will always support our welfare state, and I want to live in a country where we accept collective responsibility for the people who are most in need. We would all be much poorer if we did not enable the most vulnerable members of our society to live with dignity, and it would be a far more daunting society without the support that we currently offer to people who are searching for work. I admit, however, that our system is not without its shortcomings, and it could benefit from some reforms. Unfortunately, those are not the reforms suggested in this Bill.

Our welfare system can be daunting and is too complex, and universal credit could be a positive step forward if it simplifies the system, but simplicity and transparency, welcome objectives that they are, are not enough on their own; the welfare system must also be fair and effective and, above all, enable the transition from welfare to work. The proposals in the Bill fall short of those measures, and as a result, despite being a supporter in principle of welfare reform, I cannot support them today.

The Government need to realise that we can support the welfare system and make it stronger only if we are also willing to support the labour market. Helping the transition from welfare to work will be successful only if there is work to take up, yet the scale and pace of the cuts that we currently see threaten to send unemployment

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soaring, just as happened under the previous Conservative Government, when it topped 3 million on two separate occasions.

Government Members tell us that the welfare bill is expensive, but so is mass unemployment. I believe enormously in the power of work. Employment brings dignity, respect and decency to life, and getting more people into work should always be one of the prime objectives of the Government. In my constituency there are 16 people chasing every advertised job, and, with some of our major employers, such as the council and the police force, axing hundreds of jobs, that will only become worse. Residents are concerned about their jobs, and with youth unemployment at record levels they are worried that there will be no work for their children.

The Labour Government took deliberate and positive steps to reduce youth unemployment by introducing measures such as the future jobs fund. By September, almost 700 young people in my borough had completed placements funded by the scheme. The scheme was an opportunity for participants to learn new skills, to develop confidence, and to learn about the things that might be holding them back in the jobs market. Many of the people who completed it went on to further education or training. Where was the sense in axing such a scheme, which was already proving successful in stemming the increase in youth unemployment?

It seems to me that schemes such as the future jobs fund were cancelled not for economic reasons but for political ones. The Government appear intent on spinning the myth—

Stephen Lloyd: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Jonathan Reynolds: I will, because I believe that I could not give way to the hon. Gentleman on Second Reading of the Health and Social Care Bill, and I do not want to be discourteous a second time.

Stephen Lloyd: I thank the hon. Gentleman. On the future jobs fund, does he agree that the percentage of people who went into paid work afterwards was incredibly low? One of the reasons why the Government have decided to focus more on apprenticeships, where they have invested much more money, is that with apprenticeships the jobs that people get tend to stick.

Jonathan Reynolds: When I looked into this, anticipating such an intervention, I found that it is difficult to get precise figures on a constituency basis, but the information that my local authority could give me shows that two thirds of the people who were employed through the future jobs fund in my borough went on to paid employment or training. I appreciate that that is not quite the answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question, but it is the best one I can give him.

The Government seem to want to create a year zero and pretend that no reform went on over the past 13 years, in order to create a benchmark by which they can measure their own progress. However, it is a false benchmark because it fails to recognise the progress that was made. Returning people to employment was an integral part of the last Labour Government’s policy, and many advances were made. The Benefits Agency-Jobcentre Plus merger, which is always identified as best practice, allowed people to look for work at the same

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time as claiming as benefits. We launched the new deal, under which, for the first time, people were told that they could not refuse help to find work, and it was the Labour Government who toughened sanctions against those who could work but refused to do so. Some of the measures now being proposed dilute the sanctions imposed by the last Labour Government.

Mel Stride (Central Devon) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman explain what progress was made under the last Government, given that the numbers claiming incapacity benefits increased from 700,000 to over 2.5 million?

Jonathan Reynolds: The benefits changed, so I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is not comparing like with like. If he goes to the Library, he will see that the overwhelming rise in sickness benefits occurred in the 1980s, when take-up doubled. That is because when we went through the process of deindustrialisation the Conservative Government threw people on to the scrapheap, encouraged them to take that benefit until they retired, and did not care one bit about them. That is where he should look if he wants to find a reason behind these figures.

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that in Northern Ireland there is over £700 million in unclaimed benefit that people should be claiming and have not claimed? If that is the case in Northern Ireland, the same must be true across the rest of the United Kingdom.

Jonathan Reynolds: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point; I am pleased that he has been able to put it on the record.

I am proud of the Labour Government’s record on welfare reform, which stands in stark contrast to what occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, when there was no such reform at all until the end of the Conservative Government. Only now are the Conservatives coming back to it, but against the backdrop of public sector cuts and deficit reduction. The question that people will ask is whether the Bill is really aimed at getting people back into work or, once again, merely pursues the Government’s ideological goal of reducing the size of the state.

In principle, I welcome the move towards a single, simplified universal credit; few would not do so. That has the potential to ensure that people are clear about the income they will have if their circumstances change, and in principle I wish that we had done it. However, only through scrutiny of the detail of the Bill will we determine whether the reality of these reforms matches the promise, or whether they are really a cruel camouflage to hide savage cuts targeted at the most needy members of our communities. The measures in the Bill will penalise savers. Estimates suggest that nearly half a million families could lose all eligibility for financial support. Some reforms, such as the removal of the mobility element of DLA, are simply cruel and unfair. The Bill leaves many questions unanswered, such as how some benefits—crisis loans and council tax benefit, for example—will maintain any consistency if eligibility is decided locally.

Furthermore, we still know far too little about the Government’s plans for the most important area of all—child care. For all the good that any reform might

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do, unless the Government continue to provide support for childcare, we will not make anything like the progress that could be made.

I believe that the principles behind the Bill are right, but there is too much in the proposals that is ill thought through, and will be detrimental to many vulnerable people. The Bill is not ready in its present form, and the Government should recognise that. Welfare reform has a great many supporters in all parts of this House. The Government should have built on that consensus in creating the Bill, but they did not. That is why I will not support the Bill today, but will vote for the reasoned amendment moved by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne).

4 pm

Sajid Javid (Bromsgrove) (Con): I welcome the Bill, and the excellent and thoughtful contributions that we have heard from all parts of the House. This Bill is important for many reasons, and it goes to the heart of the kind of society that we want to be. Do we want to be an opportunity society that rewards people for hard work, believes in equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcome, and believes that we should have a welfare state that stands behind people to cushion them if they fall, not one that stands in front of people and stops them progressing and reaching their ambitions and aspirations? That is the essence of the Bill. If one believes in an opportunity society, one believes in this Bill.

Some 1.4 million people have claimed out-of-work benefits for nine of the last 10 years. In that time, 600,000 people have gone straight on to the welfare register on leaving school and have never worked since. In short, many people have come to see welfare as a career option. I have seen that as an MP when meeting my constituents. In particular, I met a local farmer some months ago who employs 52 people on the national minimum wage for unskilled work. Of those 52 people, 40 are foreign workers from eastern Europe. When I asked him why that was the case, he said that our young people lacked a work ethic. In many cases, he had interviewed people but when they had considered the job and checked the numbers, they realised that they would be worse off if they took the job as opposed to staying on welfare.

Our welfare budgets have rocketed in such a way that today, 2 million children are growing up in households where no one works. Incredibly, the proportion of working-age adults living in poverty is the highest since records began. Worklessness and benefit dependency is costing our country a fortune. This entrenched poverty and worklessness throughout Britain is bad for benefit recipients and bad for society, and often leads to higher levels of debt, family breakdown, and alcohol and drug abuse.

At the heart of the problem is the lack of work incentives. We have a proliferation of benefits that makes the system so complex that people do not know whether they would be better off in work than out of work. I went to my local jobcentre a few months ago and asked the staff how long it would take them to tell somebody if they would be better off in work if they came in and said that they could get a part-time job tomorrow for 10 hours a week on the minimum wage. The answer was that it would take 90 minutes on average. They added that even when they give an answer

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and it happens to be yes—in many cases it is no—because it takes so long, many people have so little faith in the answer that they decide not to work in any case. That has to change.

We cannot address only the symptoms of poverty and worklessness; we have to address the causes, such as welfare dependency, educational failure, addiction, debt and family breakdown.

I will highlight three areas of the Bill that I believe represent the right way forward. The universal credit is the most important part of the Bill, because it will ensure that everyone is better off in work than out of work. The taper relief, at 65%, strikes a good balance between budgetary pressures and giving the right incentive to work. However, I hope that in the longer term, Ministers will look again at that rate with a view to reducing it. I caution that in implementing the universal credit, Ministers should look carefully at the IT systems, because they will have to work with other agencies, including Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Many previous Governments have bungled new IT systems in terms of time or cost. This therefore has to be considered carefully. So does the passporting of benefits, to ensure that the nature of the taper relief is maintained and there are no cliff edges.

I also wish to highlight the changes to housing benefit, which are welcome because for the first time, they will ensure that people on housing benefit cannot live in properties that ordinary working people would have no prospect of being able to afford. That was a commitment in the Labour party’s manifesto, and I hope that all Members wholeheartedly endorse it.

The change to the consumer prices index for the uprating of housing benefit is also welcome, partly because it will save £300 million a year and we have to find savings given the budgetary pressures. Also, as such a huge proportion of people in social housing receive housing benefit, it may lead to a change in the rents demanded. Finally, I wish to highlight the welfare cap, which will be £500 a week for couples, meaning that no family can earn more than £26,000 a year in benefits net, or £35,000 gross, which happens to be equal to the national average household wage.

In summary, the Bill is a huge step forward in creating an opportunity society. It restores the dignity of labour and ensures that the Government will be standing behind people in case they fall, to help cushion that fall, but will not be in front of them to prevent them from progressing and meeting their ambitions and aspirations.

4.6 pm

Yvonne Fovargue (Makerfield) (Lab): Like many other Members, I welcome the concept of simplicity in the welfare system—of which I have experience, having worked in it. I also welcome the aim of ensuring that work is a route out of poverty. However, I do not believe that the Bill demonstrates fully how that will be achieved. Among two groups in particular, it could actually increase the number of people falling into poverty and debt. Like others, I am seriously concerned that people who are ill or have an accident, and have to take prolonged time off work, will suddenly be negatively affected by the plans to replace disability living allowance with the

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personal independence payment and by the changes to employment and support allowance, and will get less help from the universal credit, particularly during the first six months of their illness or disability.

People in that situation are coping with significant stress and coming to terms with a fundamental change in circumstances, as well as a sudden and dramatic drop in income. I had worked out some examples, but I shall not have time to give them. Suffice it to say that in months three to six, a single person who has worked all their life but has had a stroke and can no longer work is likely to be more than £130 a week worse off unless the qualifying period for the personal independence payment is brought forward to three months.

The importance of the severe disability premium cannot be overstated. It is a source of extra help for people who do not have a carer and have higher costs because of that. If it is not included in the Bill, the drop in income for hard-working people who suffer a life-changing illness or disability will be catastrophic. If they have a mortgage, the position will be even worse. Almost 20% of the people who attended an advice desk run by the citizens advice bureau at the county court said that an illness was the major factor in their falling into mortgage arrears, putting them at risk of losing their home. No fewer than three measures in the Bill will substantially reduce the amount of financial support available to people in that situation.

I now turn to families, particularly those paying for formal child care. If, as has been suggested, only 70% of child care costs are covered, many second earners on a low income will not have a realistic option of returning to work until their children are older and need less care. In some cases it could cost people money to return to work, which was not the intention behind the Bill at all. In fact, somebody’s problems might start not when their baby is born, as is usual, but when statutory maternity pay or maternity allowance is paid, because it is unclear in the Bill whether that will be treated as “income other than earnings” and lost pound for pound.

Clarification is also needed on other issues, such as whether benefit will be paid to the household rather than to the main carer. That is a big issue for many families.

Ian Paisley: Does the hon. Lady accept that there is a huge policy contradiction? The Government claim that they want to eliminate child poverty, yet at the same time they want to cut the social security payments that go right to the heart of benefiting children from low-income households.

Yvonne Fovargue: I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I have evidence that some lone parents will not be able to work their way out of poverty.

To return to the question of to whom benefits are paid, I have seen mothers whose only source of stable, reliable income is child benefit, and many more mothers who do not know what their partners earn and who are given an allowance every week. That problem will be exacerbated if benefit is paid to main wage earner, which is usually the man.

Finally, if there is a query about one element of a claim there is often a delay, particularly when housing benefit and private landlords are involved. I can only hope that the other elements of the universal credit will

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be paid while such matters are investigated, and that the benefit is not so universal as to be “all or nothing” in such cases.

On sanctions, it is quite right that people refusing reasonable work should be penalised, as indeed they are under the current system. However, I urge the Government to ensure that great care is taken when sanctioning vulnerable claimants. For example, I dealt with a client who was sanctioned for not turning up for an interview to discuss his claim. Hon. Members might think that that is perfectly reasonable, but that client was in a secure institution—a secure mental health unit—and the letter requiring him to turn up for interview was sent there.

The £50 civil penalty for claimant error should be withdrawn. I am sure that, like me, many hon. Members deal almost daily with constituents who have been the victims of official error. The focus on claimant error is out of proportion. People who claim those benefits include the most vulnerable people in our society. They are the most likely to make errors, particularly with official forms, and the least likely to be able to afford the penalties. We should not simplify the benefit alone; the claiming process should also be simplified.

I hope that the amendment will be supported, because the Bill lacks clarity and detail. In fact, it will have the opposite effect of what is intended in terms of the Government’s stated broader goals and obligations, such as making work pay, reducing child poverty and protecting vulnerable groups.

4.12 pm

Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con): This is a profoundly important Bill. It is born out of the Secretary of State’s deep passion for helping people to get out of poverty—he has spent the last decade looking at that. There are few ways in which people who are born and grow up in poverty can find a way out. I can think of some, but winning the lottery does not happen very often and it is unlikely that someone will get a surprise inheritance from a relative whom they did not know existed. Marrying a top footballer is rare, and it would probably be quite hard work. The hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) spoke of work as “a” route out of poverty, but it is “the” route out. If Opposition Members have alternatives to work as a route out of poverty, I would be interested to hear of them.

The Bill removes the barriers that the welfare system puts in the way of people working their way out of poverty, which is important. We must recognise—this is why I am so disappointed that Opposition Members will not support Second Reading—that there are many barriers in the system’s construction that prevent people from getting the important message that they need to go out to find a job and to work, and that that is how they will improve their economic circumstances.

Ian Paisley: I appreciate what the hon. Lady says about people who are able-bodied and who can work working their way out of poverty, but how do people find their way out of poverty if their impoverishment is a result of disability?

Harriett Baldwin: As the hon. Gentleman knows, there are many provisions in our welfare system for exactly that sort of situation. I do not think that anyone

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is suggesting that people with no capacity for work should get out and work. We should have a generous safety net, as we do for people in those situations.

However, the system as currently constructed has many barriers that send the message that taking on full-time work is not worth while. With single parents facing a withdrawal rate of 96%, what kind of message does that send to people about the sense in going to work? We have all met people who work 16 hours a week. As we know, the way that working tax credits work gives people an incentive to find a job working 16 hours a week. At the moment, those working 15 or 17 hours a week find themselves financially worse off. That is why it is so important that the Bill tackles those cliff edges, ensuring a much smoother process and a linear relationship between the time that people work and the amount that they take home. At the end of the day, we all respond to the financial incentives that are inherent in the system.

As we heard earlier, the current benefits system also pays couples more to live apart than to stay together. I believe that I am right in saying that 2 million people in this country would identify themselves as being in a relationship but living apart. No one can deny that, in large part, that is down to the messages and the financial incentives sent through the welfare system, which will be reformed by this Bill.

I am sure that Opposition Members will welcome the fact that the distributional analysis of the universal credit shows that the vast proportion of additional money in the system will go to those in the lowest income deciles, with 85% going to those in the four lowest-paid deciles.

I should point out, however, to the Secretary of State that it was still a shock to realise that even under the changes that we are discussing today, the benefit withdrawal rates for those going into work will still be 65p in the pound. That is still a shockingly high marginal deduction rate, when our higher-rate taxpayers are on 51% or 52%. The Child Poverty Action Group, the Centre for Social Justice and Family Action have all argued for a withdrawal rate of 55%, with Save the Children arguing for a 50% withdrawal rate. I hope that everyone in the House will welcome the fact that the Bill gives the Chancellor in future the ability to stand at the Dispatch Box and say that he is making a change in the marginal withdrawal rate, because we would all like it to be reduced over time.

Naomi Long: I acknowledge what the hon. Lady says about the Bill giving the Chancellor the freedom to do that, but it does not require him to do it. Would it not provide people with more certainty if the Government indicated that that were the intention?

Harriett Baldwin: I think that we have heard the Secretary of State put that on the record on a number of occasions.

There are a few debating points that have arisen in this debate, particularly from the Opposition, that I would like to address in my few remaining minutes. On savers, we can have a debate about whether someone with £16,000 in savings ought to be in the benefits system, but we should all recognise that the welfare system should focus on those on the lowest incomes and with the lowest savings. That is one of the difficult decisions that it is worth tackling, and the Bill does that.

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Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab): That feature of the proposals will mean that, as a fine simply for having £16,000 in the bank, people will lose all their tax credits, which could amount to £5,000 a year. Surely that is not right.

Harriett Baldwin: The right hon. Gentleman probably also supports the proposition that I should continue to receive child benefit. We need to make these decisions, and they need to focus on certain levels of savings.

Passported benefits, on the other hand, are something that we will need to discuss in great detail. I hope that the Committee will do that, because things such as free school meals, which at the moment are passported in with other benefits, are also a trigger for early years payments for schools and the pupil premium. It will therefore be particularly important to have clarity about how free school meals are going to work in the future. Personally, I would favour putting that in with the universal credit, where it would be affected by the same withdrawal rates.

Another good point that has been raised in the debate was about entrepreneurs. We must ensure that people do not hear from the benefits system a message against entrepreneurial behaviour. The Committee needs to look closely at how the imputed income of new business start-ups will be treated for benefit purposes.

We have heard allegations that the Bill has been rushed. I disagree. We are talking today about changes that will not even come into effect until 2013. However, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Paul Uppal) that they cannot come soon enough, although I know that a major computer system needs to be changed. I welcome the measures in the Bill and I look forward to supporting its Second Reading.

4.21 pm

Mrs Anne McGuire (Stirling) (Lab): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin). In June last year, I made a contribution to a debate in the House on welfare reform, in which I congratulated the Secretary of State, then new to his post, on the sentiments that he had expressed on reforming the welfare system in this country. At that time, I said that he had used a broad brush, and that we had not yet seen any details. Frankly, we still find ourselves in that situation today.

Like other Labour Members, I welcome some aspects of the Bill. The introduction of the universal credit and the moves towards simplification are certainly proposals that we can endorse. Most of us, and most of the organisations that we communicate with, welcome those developments, but there is still serious concern about significant aspects of the Bill. In the time available to me, I want to concentrate on just a couple of those aspects.

First, the Bill is skeletal in the extreme. The clauses have definitely been drafted with a broad brush, declaring an intent rather than giving details of what will happen. For example, what exactly does

“benefit rates for people not in work will generally be the same as under the current system”

mean? How will “generally” impact on the specific? How will individuals know, when deciding whether to support the Bill, what is actually going to happen if work is not a realistic option for them? I have rarely

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seen a Bill in which so much depends on regulations that “may” happen—




I do not know which hon. Gentleman is chuntering over there, but I can give the House an example from clause 4 on entitlement. Subsection (2) contains the words “Regulations may provide”, and subsection (3) states that “regulations may specify”. Subsection (7) states that “regulations may specify circumstances”. And so it goes on.

We are not being asked to deal with a major piece of welfare reform here; we are being asked to buy a pig in a poke. We do not know the details. The Secretary of State made great play of the fact that this will form a contract. Well, in all contracts, the devil is in the detail. I welcome the comment of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) today that he is not prepared to sign up to the Second Reading of the Bill until we have seen the details. We have so many unanswered questions. What will happen when council tax benefit is abolished? Is it going to be replaced by a grant? How will that be assessed? How is it going to be managed?

I must point out to Conservative Members that it is not only in Labour constituencies that the Bill will have an impact. It will do so in the constituencies of Members across the Floor of the House, and individuals in those constituencies are now worrying about whether they will be able to maintain themselves in their own homes. What will happen to those who fall off the edge when their employment and support allowance runs out? Surely it is the right of any disabled individual in a civilised society to be supported if they are unable to work. Frankly, the Secretary of State’s comment about reviewing people whose impairment will not change throughout their lifetime was absolutely astonishing, and I think it did him no great credit. I would not like to explain to the parent of a deaf-blind child that they needed to bring their child for a review every so often—just to make sure that the child was still deaf and still blind.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): Like my right hon. Friend, I have received representations from many constituents who have a similar concern. Does she agree that, regrettably, those parents who have heard the Secretary of State today are likely to be even more worried than they were at the start of the debate by his very refusal to rule out the type of continued reassessment about which we are so concerned?

Mrs McGuire: I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. I believe that this is one of the issues causing the greatest concern among individuals and families.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Miller) rose

Mrs McGuire: If the Minister is going to clarify what the Secretary of State said earlier, I would be delighted to give way to her.

Maria Miller: I just wanted to clarify that these measures do not affect children.

Mrs McGuire: In that case, we can take the age forward and talk about a deaf-blind adult. Our case about people whose impairments or disabilities will not

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change and who can be assessed as such is not at all diminished, as they will still have to go through this review.

The type of review is also an important issue. For a long time, disabled people in this country have fought hard to be recognised as part of a social model of disability. What we are seeing now is the introduction of an assessment by a medical professional. Is it any wonder that disabled people out there are beginning to think that all those things for which they fought so long and so hard—the achievements they have made over the last 15 years, with cross-party support—are going to be thrown on the scrapheap? That, I think, is the danger posed by this Bill, and I have highlighted the questions that disabled people are asking.

The Minister might well be thinking that all this is a matter of hyperbole. I do not think it is, and I know that many of my hon. Friends would agree, because we are hearing daily quite tragic stories about people who are terrified about what is going to happen. They are worried not necessarily because the Government have bad intent, but because the Government are not explaining exactly what is in the Bill. I do not think that the Minister has bad intent and I certainly do not think that the Secretary of State has, but given that they are embarking on something that will radically affect individual people and families, we must have a better Bill than the one before us.

The Secretary of State is often cited as saying that this Bill amounts to the greatest change in the welfare system since Beveridge. The reason why Beveridge worked and was sustained for so long was that it was about engagement with the whole of society. It was about a contract that people recognised, knowing that if they put something into society, they could occasionally get something back—not just a cushion, but something that gave them a participatory role in that social contract. What we have now is a deconstruction of those Beveridge proposals. What we have is a system that effectively tells people that they cannot have welfare unless they meet all the criteria, which are not even known, in a Bill that is far more skeletal than many of—indeed, any of—the welfare Bills brought before this House.

We should not give the Bill its Second Reading today. If the Minister can tell us in her summing up that all those issues will be dealt with in Committee, we might be able to give the Government the benefit of the doubt later in the process. I welcome, however, the view of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill, the shadow Secretary of State, that if the Bill is not radically changed and if its contents are not confirmed, we should not support it even on Third Reading.

4.29 pm

Mr John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): I am delighted to have the opportunity to contribute to this important debate on the future of the benefits system.

I think that the whole House would agree that the way in which a Government treat the most vulnerable will always be a good measure of whether they can claim to have been fair. When the last Labour Government failed to restore the link between pensions and earnings during their 13 years in power and introduced the infamously derisory 75p pension increase, people rightly saw that as unfair. Similarly, their cut in benefits for

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single parents—described by one former Labour Member of Parliament for Halifax as “punitive and cruel”—was vindictive and unfair.

If the coalition Government are to be able to make that claim of fairness, we must ensure that we protect the most vulnerable. We have made a good start by restoring the link between pensions and earnings with the triple lock and committing ourselves to raising the personal allowance to take hundreds of thousands of the most poorly paid out of tax altogether. However, changes in the benefits system present a real challenge. If the Bill is not amended during its passage, it will certainly not receive my support.

I want to concentrate on housing benefit and possible changes in disability living allowance. Let me begin with the positives. Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions have certainly been listening. I have had the opportunity to meet all of them to discuss the proposed changes and am pleased that the plans to restrict housing benefit to 90% of the full award after 12 months for claimants on jobseeker’s allowance have been abandoned. That terrible idea would have resulted in numerous people who were actively seeking work being worse off through no fault of their own. Many people and organisations inside and outside the House have worked hard to ensure that that does not happen, and I am glad that Ministers have recognised that it would have caused real hardship for many vulnerable people.

A great deal of attention has been paid to the proposal to remove the mobility component of disability living allowance from people in residential care. Last month, in an interview in The Guardian, the Minister sought to reassure disabled people in care homes and their families that the Government would not remove their ability to get out and about. I have no doubt that that is the Government’s intention and welcome their commitment to reconsider the proposal. Unfortunately, I do not share the Minister’s optimism that the mobility needs of those in care homes will be met if disability living allowance or its replacement is taken away, and I urge her to abandon any such plans.

The proposal has caused concern to organisations such as the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign, whose petition I submitted to Parliament only last night. The petition stated that the mobility component

“helps to meet the higher costs of accessible public transport”.

It also stated that

“without DLA mobility component, thousands of adults of all ages with severe disabilities who are supported by the state to live in residential care will be unable to retain voluntary employment or simply to visit family and friends”.

I urge the Minister to ensure that that does not happen.

Ian Paisley: I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman has said. Does he believe that linking benefits to the lower consumer prices index rather than the retail prices index is “punitive” and “unfair” to those who have to claim benefit?

Mr Leech: I was just coming to that. Yes, I do think it is unfair.

The Bill proposes that from April 2013 the local housing allowance should be uprated in line with the consumer prices index rather than real rent increases.

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I shall avoid the temptation to reopen the debate about whether RPI or CPI is a better measure to use. I merely point out that the Government do themselves no favours by picking and choosing which measure to use. If CPI is a better measure of inflation, we should not allow train operating companies to increase train fares in line with RPI, but that is a debate for another time. I recognise that the current arrangements do little to keep rents low, but there is a real danger that rents will increase at a much faster rate than CPI. The Government must be prepared to keep a watching brief on increases in rent and to take further action if the changes fail to keep housing benefit in line with rent increases.

I do not think that any Member has raised the issue of under-occupation so far. The decision to restrict housing benefit in social rented homes when tenants are under-occupying properties is ill thought out, and will cause significant hardship to many families who are existing tenants. I recognise that this is designed to bring housing benefit for social-rented property into line with the private-rented sector, but it does not take into consideration local circumstances. In Manchester, for example, under existing rules a family with one child is entitled to queue for a two or three-bedroom property. That is intended to allow for the possible growth of young families and reduce the need for future moves caused by overcrowding. Similarly, in low or no-demand areas where there are a lot of two-bedroom flats, property has been provided to single people or childless couples either to allow children who live elsewhere to visit, or simply to fill the vacancies in hard-to-let properties. As a result, a significant number of families on housing benefit could face a reduction in benefit through no fault of their own. We need to look at this again and recognise that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work. I suggest at the very least applying a gross under-occupation test whereby restrictions to housing benefit could be applied if more than two rooms were unoccupied.

Mark Lazarowicz: Another possible circumstance could arise where people who have been in work all their lives and have never had to claim any benefit suddenly find that after 20 or 30 years they have to apply for housing benefit and face the prospect of having to leave the house that they have lived in for decades. Would that not be extremely inhumane as well?

Mr Leech: Yes, that is true, and it might lead to people being forced to go into private rented accommodation and not having a protected tenancy.

I want to comment on the proposals to cap benefit at £500 a week for families and £350 for a single person with no children. I recognise that a cap on benefit is justifiable to make work pay, but the cap should exclude housing benefit costs, which can vary dramatically in different parts of the country. Given that the cap on housing benefit for four-bedroom houses will be £400 a week, large families might be expected to survive on as little as £100 per week if total benefit is capped at £500 a week. Under other proposed changes, homeless families will receive only one reasonable offer, which might be of a private rented property that could swallow up the vast majority of their total benefit entitlement. The answer to this problem is to calculate a maximum benefit

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excluding housing benefit to ensure that families in receipt of benefit have enough to live on, regardless of the cost of housing locally. That is the only way to guarantee that they will have enough to live on.

Finally, although this point is not directly related to the Bill’s contents, I suggest to Ministers that the best way to tackle escalating housing benefit would be to invest properly in affordable social housing and bring more empty homes back into use. That would not only massively boost the construction industry but help reduce rents in the private sector, which is holding tenants to ransom. There would be a short-term cost, but it would give a major boost to the economy and there would be a long-term reduction in housing benefit costs.

4.38 pm

Geraint Davies (Swansea West) (Lab/Co-op): This is a mean-minded, ill-thought-out Bill that is not designed to promote fairness or help people into work. Rather, its purpose is to punish the poor, the disabled, those with children, those trying to save and those starting a small business for the cost of the greed and recklessness of City bankers, who created our deficit. That is laid at the door of the poor, while those responsible indulge in sharing £8 billion of banker bonuses under a system propped up by the taxpayer, whereby if risks go wrong the public pay and if they go right the bankers profit.

Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con): I share the hon. Gentleman’s sense that the banking system is responsible for the greatest injustices in our society, which I fight often, but, as has been pointed out, these reforms long predate the banking crisis.

Geraint Davies: I shall come on to the reforms.

The deficit was the price paid to avoid a depression, and the Government had a clear choice: they could halve the deficit in four years by focusing on economic growth and making the bankers pay their fair share while also making savings over time that are fair and do not harm economic growth. The alternative, which the Government have chosen, was to cut the deficit at twice that pace, clearing it in half the time—in four years. That is a “formidable” challenge, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which says that the Government need a plan B.

There is an over-reliance on savage cuts, particularly to public sector jobs and the welfare benefits we are considering today. That will throw whole communities into poverty, with a third of a million public sector redundancies triggering a further 1 million private sector job losses, which will cost an extra £7 billion a year in benefit costs and lost tax. The benefits of those thrown on to the dole will be cut, forcing them, in the worst instances, into community projects like criminals when they cannot find work. Why is this happening? It is happening because the Government have thrown a bucket of water over the embers of economic growth that Labour had kindled.

Mr Heald: That is a nice soundbite, but the policy will cost the taxpayer money. The hon. Gentleman seems to think that it is not giving money to people at the bottom of the pile, but we are talking about £2.6 billion to help poor people into work.

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Geraint Davies: The Bill will cost around £4 billion to implement, and save some £18 billion by taking from the poorest families. The Government’s plans are incompetent, unfair and counter-productive. The fact is that the cuts are choking growth and VAT is stoking inflation, and both are pushing the deficit up, not down. In Germany the focus is on growth, not cuts, and growth continues apace. In Britain, of course, growth is negative—and it is not just the snow. Alongside the £4 billion cost of the Bill is the £4 billion cost of dismantling the health service and the £7 billion lost through the unemployment created by the job cuts, and so it goes on.

What is the impact on people in Swansea? Some 40% of its workers are employed in the public sector. We face the second highest level of job cuts and very large benefit cuts. Some 65% of people employed in the public sector are women, and the combination of cuts in jobs and welfare payments will impact on families in particular as they pay their share of the £18 billion in savings that will be made.

The Bill will hurt children, the disabled and enterprise. Let us consider a Swansea woman with children who works for the council and is made redundant. She has savings of £18,000 and, being an enterprising person, wants to start her own business. She will get no benefits, of course, because she has saved more than £16,000 in good faith. She will have no wage, but she will be assumed to be getting the minimum wage as she is starting a business. Her business will face various start-up costs, such as a computer, setting up a website and promotional literature. She will be penalised for being a worker, penalised for being a saver and penalised for being an entrepreneur.

Let us assume for a moment that the woman is successful, despite those barriers. She will be threatened with the loss of her council house if she earns too much—hardly an incentive for people on council estates to start their own businesses. Let us say that she is in her second marriage and she and her husband have five children. Her husband was also employed by the council—they met working there—and both were made redundant. They have five children, so they have nearly £500 of personal benefits in addition to £200 in housing benefit, which means they get £700 in total. The £500 cap is imposed on them, so they are forced to split up. They now live in separate council houses, each drawing £200 in housing benefit, with one parent looking after three children and the other looking after the other two. This is a recipe not just for destroying jobs and crushing entrepreneurial activity, but for splitting up homes and increasing the cost to the Exchequer to £900 when it was £700.

The Government’s approach in Swansea and elsewhere in Britain will make people jobless, make them poorer, break up families, crush enterprise, punish saving and harm children and the disabled. This is a Bill born not out of fair-mindedness and enlightenment, but an unnecessary and unwise economic strategy of cutting too far too fast and punishing the poor for the reckless greed of the bankers. It should be opposed so that we can go back to the drawing board and think again.

4.44 pm

Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): It is a privilege to speak in this debate, and I strongly suspect that our exchanges in the House are being replicated across our

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country, such is the importance of this matter. People rightly care passionately about Britain’s welfare system, as has been evident from hon. Members’ contributions, but I cannot quite agree with the most recent comments made by the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies).

A society’s willingness and ability to help its most vulnerable individuals is a measure of its compassion and its economic and social well-being. Ensuring that Britain has an efficient, fair and caring welfare system is key. We do not necessarily have that at the moment, which is why radical and bold change is badly required. I am delighted to support the Bill, as it is radical and bold.

To accept the need for such reform, we must wake up to the facts. Over the past 10 years the welfare budget has grown disproportionately, by more than £56 billion. Despite that huge increase, almost 1.5 million people have been on out-of-work benefits for nine of those 10 years. Despite years of economic growth, job creation and increases in the welfare budget, a whole group of people have never worked at all. It is therefore time to review this broken system. After all, the simple truth is that Britain’s welfare arteries are clogged up. Too little support is reaching those truly in need and too much is being lost in bureaucratic incompetence—even more worryingly, it is being lost on people who should not be in receipt of such support at all.

In essence, the whole culture of our welfare system is wrong; the cost of maintaining it is out of control and the decision-making processes within it are woefully inefficient. The Bill is therefore right to focus on incentivising pathways back to work by ensuring that employment always pays more than benefits. That is fundamental to the Bill and, as a simple Yorkshire man, I feel that it is basic common sense.

Chris Williamson (Derby North) (Lab): Would the hon. Gentleman care to comment on the fact that his Government are cutting 1 million jobs in our economy—500,000 in the public sector, with a further 500,000 to go in the private sector as a consequence? If he genuinely believes that work is a pathway out of poverty, why does he support measures that will cause greater unemployment rather than enable people to get back into work? He has expressed concern about people who have been out of work for a long time, but they would be more likely to get an opportunity of employment in the public sector if his Government were not forcing through so many cuts.

Julian Sturdy: I agree that this Bill offers an important pathway back to work. We have to get more jobs in the private sector and restore the balance between public and private sector jobs, which was skewed by the previous Government—certainly in my region and in the north especially. The measures that this Government are introducing—I hope we will see more of them in the Budget—will incentivise private sector growth and job creation which, alongside the Bill, will get more people back into work.

It is a sad but well-known fact that the current system discourages those in low-paid jobs from increasing their hours, as rates of tax and benefit reductions often leave them worse off. This ridiculous situation helps only to dampen aspiration while increasing dependency in the

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benefits system as a whole. In addition, hard-working, taxpaying families, who are feeling the squeeze in these difficult economic times, should not subsidise the small but still significant number of people in our society who see the welfare system as a career choice. That must stop. By annually capping benefits, withdrawing support from those who refuse to work and increasing the financial incentives for those who do work, the Bill includes specific measures that will make work pay.

Naomi Long: I agree with the hon. Gentleman on the need to change the system to ensure that people do not aspire to live on benefits, but is that not more about changing people’s aspirations and their pathways to opportunity, rather than simply setting caps and putting difficulties in the way of those claiming benefit when they are in difficulty?

Julian Sturdy: It is about changing aspiration, which is what the Bill does. As my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) said, it is about taking a carrot-and-stick approach. It is important to have certain caps on benefits, but we must also encourage aspiration to get people back into work. The current system did not do that. Instead, it dampened aspiration, which is why it is fundamentally important that we change the system. As many hon. Members have said, it is a case of now or never—we must grasp the nettle. The DWP estimates that the reforms could reduce the number of workless households by as many as 300,000 and that about 700,000 low-earning workers will be better off as they keep more of their earnings.

Administrative reform to our welfare system is long overdue; it is simply wrong that taxpayers’ money should be squandered recklessly as often happened under the previous Government. The creation of the universal credit, which will bring together various and often overlapping elements, such as jobseeker’s allowance, income support and housing benefit, and pay them in a single lump sum will cut administrative costs and reduce the risk of fraud. It is predicted that, as a result of the universal credit, just over 2.5 million households will receive higher entitlements, with more than 350,000 children and 500,000 working-age adults being lifted out of poverty altogether, as the shadow Secretary of State acknowledged earlier. That was the only thing he said that I agreed with, but it is important to mention that acknowledgement.

Lastly, and returning to my initial comments, the overriding objective of the Bill must be better to protect, equip and support the most vulnerable in our society. Too many of this country’s welfare resources have been diluted and too little has been directed at those in most need. To maintain the status quo would be to champion the cycle of dependency and despair that Britain’s welfare culture, as constructed by the Labour party, currently promotes. I know that many welfare claimants are apprehensive about the Government’s changes, but let the message go out loud and clear that those who are truly in need will receive more support, better targeted assistance and higher standards of care. I truly believe that is the motivation underlying the reforms and I strongly urge all Members to support this important Bill.

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4.52 pm

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I have sat through the debate and listened to the contributions and I will try to address some of the points raised. First, let me say that no one in the House doubts the integrity of the Secretary of State. I commend him for the work he did in opposition in setting up various working parties, touring around and meeting various agencies. He met a particularly influential person in Scotland, Bob Holman—a comrade of ours who knows a lot about poverty and who has expressed his disquiet about the proposals. Also, a number of us have been campaigners for the citizen’s income, which I think the universal credit is a step towards, so I do not doubt the Secretary of State’s good intentions.

However, as we have debated at length over the years, if the universal credit is to work, three conditions need to be met. First, it needs to be set at a level that will lift people out of poverty; otherwise it will inflict universal misery. Secondly, there have to be jobs to go into. Thirdly, those jobs must have decent pay. The problem with the Bill is that it does not ensure that any of those conditions will be met. In that respect, it discredits the whole concept of the universal credit, which I find worrying.

On the first condition, I am worried about the amount being taken out of the social security system. In the comprehensive spending review in October, and before that in the emergency Budget, the Chancellor identified £18 billion that was being taken out of the system. When the Prime Minister was challenged about that, he said:

“We face a choice—make cuts in welfare or cuts elsewhere”.

I believe that is happening—that we are witnessing cuts in welfare. When the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), was asked specifically about the disability living allowance cuts, we were told that the figure of £1 billion of cuts—or savings, depending on how one wants to describe them—had been set before any policy description had been laid out as to how they would be achieved. I think the Prime Minister and the Government did make that choice, because at the same time as the Government were taking £18 billion out of welfare they were reducing corporation taxes by £24 billion. Businesses are now taxed at the lowest level in 40 years, at the expense of the poor.

The debate then starts to degenerate, as it has in the House today, into attacking unemployed claimants as a justification for cuts. I remember the Deputy Prime Minister’s statements about alarm clock Britain, and today we have heard references to shirkers and so on. I have come to the view, and all the Government research under past Governments has demonstrated, that people are desperate to get back to work. Sanctions do exist already, and are implemented if people fail to comply.

Reference has been made to fraud. Let us get it on the record again: £1.5 billion of fraud, £16 billion of benefits unclaimed. Who is ripping off the system? It is not the poor. As was said earlier, £120 billion of tax has not been paid as a result of tax evasion and avoidance.

On the second condition—the existence of jobs to go to—with 2.5 million unemployed, including 1 million youngsters, even if we filled all the 500,000 vacancies, there would still be one in four chasing every vacancy,

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and it is going to be made worse, as was also said earlier. Another 1.2 million will be put on the dole queue as a result of the cuts.

On decent pay, I have asked others what is happening in their constituencies, but the jobs offered at the moment in my constituency are increasingly casual and increasingly low-paid, and large numbers of my constituents are now working on zero hours contracts, in which they are simply paid for the hours that they are brought in to do, on an irregular basis. According to the most recent survey, published only a month ago and based on Government figures, 1.7 million people are now in involuntary part-time and temporary work, and wages are so low that half the children living in poverty are in families that are in work. Even in the boom period, wages actually fell as a percentage of GDP. Last month, RPI was at 5.1% and wages were at 2.3%, and many in my constituency and elsewhere, especially in the public sector, are facing a pay freeze over the next two years. The reasons for the low pay are fairly straightforward. We now have less than a third of workers in this country covered by collective bargaining agreements, as a result of the weakening of trade union rights.

My fear is that, under these proposals, universal credit will fail, because none of the elements are in place to make it a success—a decent level of universal credit, the existence of jobs, or decent pay in those jobs. I think we will be left with the harsh residue of all the complaints and problems that have been described today: the sanctions—the loss of benefit for up to three years if a person refuses to co-operate in seeking work; cuts in housing benefit; the linkage of the housing allowance to CPI, which will inevitably result in cuts; the housing benefit caps; and the room unoccupied scheme, which I think is scandalous. All those factors will discredit a decent proposal, and that is why the Bill is not supportable today.

I want to use my last few seconds to say how appalled I am by the brutalisation of claimants by the privatised companies that have taken over the assessments and the administration of benefits. The brutal treatment of my constituents is a harshness that denigrates the entirety of the work of the House and the Government.

4.58 pm

Jackie Doyle-Price (Thurrock) (Con): I am very proud of the measures before us. The Bill is one of the most important pieces of legislation that the Government have brought forward to date. It has the opportunity to have a revolutionary impact, not only on the welfare system but on society more generally. It will contribute to building a fairer society—fairer for the millions of taxpayers, many of them on modest incomes, whose taxes are inflated by having to support the current welfare system, and fairer to claimants. It is fair that we target support to those most in need and fair that we give those who are fit and able to work every encouragement to do so.

I shall focus most of my comments on the universal credit and the impact that it will have on incentives to work. There are too many people in our society for whom work does not pay. In those circumstances, who can blame them for choosing not to work? It is a rational economic choice. If they can get as much income from sitting at home as they would from doing a day’s work, where is the incentive?

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We must all have seen examples of that in our surgeries—the lone parent who wants to provide for herself and her family, but finds that the cost of child care and the loss of housing benefit make it more costly to go to work than to stay at home; someone who finds a job, then discovers that the rate at which they lose their housing benefit makes work punitive; someone on incapacity benefit trying to work part time around their disability, who finds their benefits withdrawn or clawed back, so that they are better off doing nothing; someone who has had a substantial career, finds they are no longer able to do that and wants to retrain, but who has their benefits withdrawn as they are judged not to be seeking work. All that must stop, and the Work programme will give incentives to those who want to get back into work, and the support and opportunity to do so.

We must repair decades of damage. It is easy for us on the Government Benches to blame the Opposition, but the problem goes back decades. The system has grown incrementally and the damage is there for all to see. In some households, generation after generation have failed to engage in the world of work. This has encouraged ongoing low aspiration and poor lifestyle choices. Some of my hon. Friends gave examples of that. My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Paul Uppal) described how, when he was at school, there were two distinct camps—those who aspired to better themselves, and those who aspired just to live on benefits. I see the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) in his place. As someone who grew up on a council estate in his constituency, I had that experience too. We need to build aspiration, and we have policies in place to achieve that. The reform to welfare is crucial to getting our society working again. The reforms will set people free from dependency and set them free to take advantage of the opportunities that we will give them.

I want to say something about an end to the complex system of tax credits. I appreciate that the introduction of tax credits was well intentioned as a way of alleviating poverty for people in work, but they have had the opposite effect. That is because the system is retrospective, so people apply for tax credits in good faith, only to be faced with a whopping tax bill the following year because of a slight change in circumstances. That problem will be eradicated by the universal credit because it will be assessed on a pay-as-you-go basis, and for that reason must be welcomed.

I firmly endorse the benefit cap. Far too many of my constituents work hard and pay taxes, only to see their near neighbours enjoy a comfortable lifestyle living on benefits. I also welcome the obligations placed on claimants. As a condition of receiving benefit, people should surely do everything they reasonably can to find work. For many people that will be empowering. For someone who has been in the same job for many years and suddenly finds themselves workless, the loss of confidence can be considerable. The support that they will get from the Work programme to gain new skills will help them and give them the confidence to go back into the world of work. That will be empowering.

That is equally true of incapacity benefit claimants. Because a claimant is no longer able to do the job that they were doing before does not mean that they cannot

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retrain and do a different job. The support they will get from the Work programme will enable them to do that, and it will be empowering.

The Bill is radical. It is brave, and it is necessary if we are to tackle the endemic culture of benefit dependency that exists in our country. It has become more and more entrenched over the years, at the expense of the workless and the taxpayer. I am pleased to support the Bill.

5.4 pm

Naomi Long (Belfast East) (Alliance): I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate, because this issue will have profound implications for the welfare and benefit system, and will impact on all our constituents.

Time is limited, and the scope of the Bill is extensive, so I shall focus on a few key issues, the first of which is the proposed changes to disability living allowance, particularly the work capability assessment. The Government appear to place more emphasis on the independence of those who judge someone’s fitness for work, rather than on their expertise, which is of concern to many people, particularly those who suffer from hidden, complex and often poorly understood conditions with variable symptoms, including autistic spectrum disorders, mental health issues and multiple sclerosis.

A medically qualified assessor may be independent, but not necessarily an expert in a particular condition. The single point assessment is unlikely to give a comprehensive view of an individual’s fitness to work that is more reliable than that provided by an expert in the field who has treated and monitored the patient over a long period. The clinician will also follow professional ethics in making judgments about a patient, which provides a safeguard for the Government. If expert written evidence is available, it should be used and should carry more weight than the opinion of a benefits assessor, who may not have detailed expertise in dealing with those matters.

Dr Whiteford: As someone who represents a constituency that was part of the work capability assessment pilot, one of the biggest concerns was that the evidence of I know that someone’s GP or consultant was not taken seriously by the medical assessors. Will the hon. Lady comment on that?

Naomi Long: That is a fundamental concern. One of my constituents recently came to Parliament, on behalf of the mental health charities Rethink and MindWise, to give evidence to the Select Committee on Work and Pensions about the impact of the assessment proposals on people with mental health problems. Members who met her at the round-table session would agree that she presented her evidence in a professional, competent and effective manner, as one would expect of someone with a medical degree. However, her evidence carried weight not because of her degree, but because she receives disability living allowance. She is not fit for work, and is not permitted to practise as a GP as a result of serious mental health issues, which developed in her final year of study.

If a benefits assessor, even a medically qualified one, witnessed her performance in Committee, they would doubtless assume that she was fully fit to work. However, her condition is unstable, and in periods of ill health,

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she is unable to leave her home or interact with people at all. Even when well, she is reluctant to take on additional stressful responsibilities because of her history of instability.

Chris Grayling: It is important, as people are listening to this debate, that the actual situation is placed on the record. Will the hon. Lady confirm that the system that she is describing is the one that we inherited from the Labour Government, which we have taken steps to change through the Harrington review? In cases where we have made changes to the assessment, the work was done by the previous Government, whose recommendations we accepted. Finally, does she accept that, at the end of all this, there is a collective desire to make sure that the system works as well as possible and that there is a commitment to continue to improve it where possible?

Naomi Long: I would like to confirm, on the first issue, that I am not making these points as a member of the Labour party or of the previous Government but as a member of the Alliance party, reflecting the concerns of my constituents. Furthermore, I would hope that there is a collective will to ensure that people are dealt with fairly in the system. However, the doubts that I am expressing to the Minister have been expressed to me by my constituents.

A problem with single point assessment needs to be taken into consideration, and I urge the Minister to look carefully at the issue. The young lady in question, for example, had a dual point assessment by the British Medical Association on her fitness to practise. One doctor said that she was fit to practise, and the other said that she was not, because of the complex nature of her condition. Neither of them was wrong when they dealt with the person in front of them, but her complex mental health condition prevented them from seeing the same individual in the same way.

I do not believe that the problem arises solely with mental health issues, but with many other conditions. People can have good days and bad days, and they may need additional support. As the Bill progresses through the House, it is hugely important that we address that issue.

Much has been said about the removal of the mobility component of the disability living allowance for those in residential care, so I will not rehearse the arguments, but I have corresponded at length on it with the Under-Secretary, and from her most recent correspondence I am aware that there is a valid concern about the inconsistent way in which the needs of some of the most vulnerable people in society are being met.

There is ambiguity and considerable variation in the way in which local authorities take the DLA mobility component into account when making financial assessments, and organisations such as Disability Alliance acknowledge that point, but having identified the problem it is incumbent on the Government to ensure that the solution does not end up disadvantaging the benefit’s recipient, who did not create the difficulty in the first place. Independent mobility is crucial to well-being and to social cohesion, and it must be protected more clearly than it is in the current proposals.

Finally on DLA, I am concerned about the change to the qualifying period, and its move from six months to three months, which could have profound consequences

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for those who develop sudden onset conditions, such as stroke, or experience the debilitating effects of treatment for an illness, such as cancer. It could also affect those who give birth to a child with a severe disability.

At a time when people are genuinely in need, when their energy rightly needs to be focused elsewhere on coping with diagnosis, treatment and recovery, and when additional stress should be avoided, the financial pressure of dramatically increased outgoings to cover expenses, such as travel to hospital and so on, could push them into poverty if that issue is not adequately addressed. I urge the Government to look again at that unintended consequence of reform, and to take action to ensure that the personal independence payment is available to support people at a time of genuine need.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s assurance on employment and support allowance for those taking oral chemotherapy. I trust, however, that he will also consider those who receive radiotherapy, which, although not as debilitating as chemotherapy, can nevertheless be exhausting and preclude people from holding down work.

Another concern that I want to touch on briefly is the abolition of some discretionary aspects of the social fund. Often, families who are trying to make ends meet on a day-to-day basis find themselves pushed into financial stress or even crisis by significant, unexpected and unavoidable expenditure. The replacement of a heating boiler, a cooker or a fridge, or the need to purchase a school uniform, for example, will often leave low-income families in a situation where only those discretionary elements of the social fund, such as interest-free crisis loans, stand between them and being forced to engage with alternative high-interest and often unscrupulous money lenders. There is an ongoing consultation on that and I urge Ministers to await its conclusion before proceeding to legislate to remove those discretionary elements.

In conclusion, and as I said at the outset, these are far-reaching reforms with far-reaching consequences. The Bill is arguably the biggest change to the welfare state since its inception, and it warrants careful and detailed parliamentary scrutiny. Despite that imperative, much of what is intended remains poorly defined and will be ultimately defined not in this Bill or in any subordinate legislation, but in regulations that the Minister will lay, which in turn will reduce the parliamentary scrutiny of their effects. That extensive reliance on unpublished regulations will make it incredibly difficult for people to make a detailed assessment of the cumulative impact of these broad and sweeping changes. The Secretary of State was clearly frustrated, too, because he felt that at times people had misunderstood the thrust of his proposals. Were there more substance to the Bill, that would be less likely.

Furthermore, the inclusion of clauses relating to child maintenance, when that matter is still the subject of public consultation, and the as yet undefined provisions on child care costs, creates uncertainty in an area—the employability of lone parents and second earners in households—that strikes at the very heart of the Government’s objective to make work pay.

One of the most remarkable yet disappointing things that struck me on reading through the briefings that Members received in the run-up to the debate is that, almost without exception, those organisations that actively

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support and lobby in this area support the principle of the Bill. Disappointingly, however, we have not had the detail that would give people the confidence to commit to the Bill itself.

5.14 pm

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): I welcome not only the Bill but the fact that the coalition Government have recognised the importance of dealing with the huge financial and social failures of the current welfare system. Within 10 months of being in government, we are introducing a Bill that Labour Members and the previous Government shirked for 13 years. Because of the Opposition’s lack of will, we have the lamentable situation whereby welfare spending, which was £64 billion in 1997, is projected to be £109 billion this year, and 1.5 million people have spent most of the past decade on out-of-work benefits.

I have to say that I agree with the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who stated in 1997:

“We have reached the limits of the public’s willingness simply to fund an unreformed welfare system through ever higher taxes”.

If that was true in 1997, with the golden economic legacy that the previous Labour Government were bequeathed but went on to squander, one can only surmise that, 13 years later, we are well over the limit of the public’s acceptance of welfare spending. We all know what, or rather who, were the roadblocks to reform: the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), together with his protégés, the current leader of the Labour party and the current shadow Chancellor. How do we know this? Again, Mr Blair provides the answer in his memoirs when he states, with regard to welfare reform:

“I kept saying to Gordon, quite apart from the fact that both sets of proposals are manifestly right in themselves, if we don't do them, a future Tory government will”.

So here we are, as a Conservative-led coalition Government announcing the biggest and most overdue shake-up of the welfare system since the 1940s. We are replacing the previous Prime Minister’s micro-managed, command, dirigiste benefits system, which has created a benefits culture that is expensive, inefficient and bureaucratic—and, perversely, provides a major disincentive to work—with a system that will ensure that work pays and no one is better off remaining on benefits when offered a job. The universal credit will provide a more logical, efficient, secure and fair benefits system that will demonstrate and reinforce the value of being in work. All Members, and our constituents, should be aware that because of the transitional arrangements no one on benefits will be worse off as a result of the introduction of the universal credit.

Having supported the aims of the Bill, let me move on to the some of the specifics. I have been contacted by a number of constituents regarding the replacement of the mobility aspect of the disability living allowance with the personal independence payment. I am reassured by the Secretary of State’s remarks on this part of the Bill, when he said that DLA and its mobility component will continue and will be reviewed at a future time. However, the Government need to do as much as possible to reassure those who are severely disabled and unable to work that they will be protected and not lose their entitlement. I have had constituents saying that they

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fear they will lose their social interaction and effectively become prisoners in their own home. Those genuinely disabled people must be informed that these changes will be to their advantage.

Mark Lazarowicz: The fact that such an obviously ultra-loyal Government Member has been getting such messages from his constituents suggests that things are not all right on the Government Benches. Does he agree that that is another reason why a bit more consultation and time to consider the proposals would be better than the rushed way in which they are being brought forward?

Andrew Bridgen: The Labour party had 13 years to do something. Thirteen years ago, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) was asked to think the unthinkable; he did so, and then was promptly removed from office. That shows Labour’s commitment to welfare reform. There will be plenty of time for consultation, and I can promise that plenty of Government Members will be fighting for the rights of these vulnerable constituents.

The detection of fraudulent claimants is key to the success of this Bill. It is inexcusable that the current system is costing the taxpayer in excess of £5.2 billion a year because of welfare error and welfare fraud. There could be a role for credit rating firms in helping to identify households where there is reasonable evidence that a fraudulent claim is perhaps being made. This can be achieved with greater data sharing across Government Departments, and with the credit rating agencies, to ensure that the widest possible range of data are available. We also need to ensure that fraud is indentified at the earliest point of the process; again, the credit rating agencies can play a role. I welcome the development of the single investigation service and the three-strike rule in the Bill. We will see a reduction in fraud only if false claimants have a serious fear of being caught, and of facing a penalty if they are caught.

In conclusion, the Bill gives our country the chance to reverse a benefits culture that has become a huge black hole sucking in large numbers of people and huge amounts of taxpayers’ money. The Bill will release millions of people from the misery of welfare dependency and break the intergenerational cycle of worklessness, which costs this country so much not only financially but socially. The Secretary of State deserves great credit for his relentless work over many years on this issue. The successful passage of the Bill will make welfare a floor on which people can build, rather than a ceiling that it is impossible for them to break through.

5.20 pm

Mr David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough) (Lab): This has been an interesting and instructive four and a half hours. There have been some excellent contributions, including from some Government Members, although not from the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen), who has just spoken.

I say to the hon. Members for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr Evennett) and for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) that we should not reinvent history but learn from it. Having been the Secretary of State for Education and Employment for four years and later briefly the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, I think that

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there are real lessons to be learned from our efforts to change the system. Unless those lessons are learned, we will reinvent the wheel all over again and there will be disappointment for those who believe that this Bill is the bee’s knees. Unfortunately, it is not. In 1998, when we set about reducing the unemployment claimant count to under 1 million for the first time in a quarter of a century and the labour force survey figures to below 1.5 million for the first time in 30 years, we did so not just because the economy was expanding and there was growth, but because we were helping people from welfare into work.

Work is the best form of welfare; making work pay is the right thing to do; promoting independence is sensible and logical; encouraging people to be self-reliant, including through thrift and savings, really does make a difference; and honesty in the benefits system is something that we should all aim at. The only problem is that the Bill does not achieve those things. If it did, I would be wholeheartedly in favour of it. I ask Ministers to take another look at the Centre for Social Justice report and to compare it with what is on offer this afternoon in this Bill.

I will use the example of disability living allowance, purely because I know more about issues relating to sight loss than about most other aspects of disability and welfare, despite my ministerial experience. Both with the universal credit and DLA, we are in danger of moving in the opposite direction from that which the Government say is their policy. The introduction of the personal independence payment removes automatic entitlement for certain defined groups with specific challenges, including blind people. I do not speak about these issues very often in the House, but if we remove the care component we also remove the mobility component, which is about to be expanded in April, as was agreed to by Members in all parts of the House and hard fought for by those responsible over a considerable period. To do that will have a perverse effect, and the opposite effect to that which was intended. Instead of promoting a can-do approach that makes it possible for people to get out of a position of dependence, the proposal will trap people in that position.

The perversity is best demonstrated on page 16 of “Disability Living Allowance reform”, which was published in December. It gives examples of what the system will mean and talks about testing whether someone is capable of

“planning and making a journey, and understanding and communicating with others.”

However, the whole purpose of disability living allowance was that because they received it people were able to do those things, not that it trapped people by doing those things for them. Whereas the work capability assessment is about what someone can do, the new test for disability living allowance, under its new title, will be about what they cannot do. That leads to dishonesty, with people presenting what they cannot do in their worst circumstances, not in their best. With the new universal credit, people will be encouraged to save but then penalised when they do.

Every step in the Bill that will have a positive outcome is trumped by an administrative complexity that will make the situation worse. We are all in favour of simplicity, but the problem is that simplicity does not usually lead to equity. That is why we have ended up with the complex system that Members have described this

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afternoon. If we could have produced a simpler system quickly and easily, we would already have it. We laid out principles in September 2005 that I believe have stood the test of time, but unless the Government listen, and unless they review and understand what has happened in the past, we will go through the same problems all over again.

5.26 pm

Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): Thank you for calling me to speak this afternoon, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is a great pleasure and honour to follow the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett), who spoke so well from his own experience, as did my hon. Friends the Members for Wolverhampton South West (Paul Uppal) and for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price). The debate has been enlightening.

Those of us who have worked as either paid employees or volunteers on behalf of people who come into contact with the benefit system know that reform is overdue. The overhaul enabled by the Bill, and by other actions that the coalition is taking to integrate and localise services, is most welcome for people in our society who need help. The daily battles of trying to claim benefits, appeal against decisions and fight through expensive bureaucracy are draining on the human spirit, let alone the taxpayer’s purse.

The practical improvements and efficiency savings that will come with benefit simplification are important. However, I believe that the importance of the Bill goes well beyond that vital endeavour. The contract between people in our society is expressed, in part, in our provision of welfare. That is part of our expression of the responsibility that we have for each other. I like the conditionality in the Bill, which underscores the principle of the contract that people in our society have. It is built on the clear and settled view that as British people, we are all responsible for ourselves and our families. Just as importantly, it is also our responsibility to care for our neighbours and our communities to the extent that we can. We are each responsible for doing all we can to provide for our own needs and those of our family and community.

Our social contract is also built on an understanding that not all people are able to look after themselves at all times throughout their lives. Sometimes individuals and their families need emotional and practical support to meet their needs, including financial support.

That contract has made us a progressive society. However, over the course of my lifetime, as overall standards of living have risen considerably, I have seen well-intentioned but unwelcome consequences of the development of that fundamental social contract into a welfare state. For too many people it has created a culture of dependency and robbed them of a sense of worth, well-being and good health. It has also brought into question the fundamental principle of fairness that is so characteristic of Britishness.

Dame Anne Begg: Does the hon. Lady believe that anyone who receives any welfare benefit is by definition welfare-dependent?

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Sarah Newton: I am very grateful for that question, and the answer is absolutely not at all. A great number of people in our country absolutely deserve support. In fact, I shall argue later that I believe they deserve more support.

Let me explain what I mean by giving some examples. Can it be fair to encourage a couple who would otherwise want to live together and raise a family to live apart because single parents have a better chance of securing social housing, or to encourage someone who wants to work more hours to work fewer for fear of losing benefits? Can it be fair to abandon people who have lost their jobs and need help to retrain and build their self-confidence to a life of poverty without support? None of those things are fair. The intention of the Bill is re-establish the contract between all in society, and to give a clear message that if people are able to work and to play their part in society, we will help them to do so and it will be worth their while, and that if people have a problem that prevents them from looking after themselves and their family, we will be there for them.

Many people would like more rather than less help for our elderly citizens and our disabled citizens who are unable to work, and for carers who do the incredibly important job of caring for their loved ones. I hope we can provide such help by taking the tough decisions now to establish a sustainable economy with less public and private debt and a more sustainable level of public expenditure, and by growing more sustainable enterprise that will enable people to earn a living wage and to look after themselves better.

I am a Conservative MP because I want to create a fair compassionate society, in which people of all backgrounds have the opportunity and hope to reach their potential. “Jack’s as good as his master” is a great Cornish expression. It is ingrained in me to value and treat all people equally. Any civilised society should be judged by how it takes care of its weakest members. By that measure the previous Government failed, despite years of increased public expenditure and huge national debt.

I am sure that not every word in the Bill is perfect, but there will plenty of opportunity to make improvements as the Bill passes through the House and we learn the lessons of the consultations currently being undertaken. I am proud to serve in a Parliament that will deliver the fundamental reform that our country needs. The measures in the Bill will be introduced over a number of years, even stretching into the next Parliament, so I believe that we will look back on today as the start of a fundamental process that rebuilds the contract between people in our society. I am delighted to support the Bill today.

5.32 pm

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): Like many hon. Members on both sides of the House, many of my constituents and many organisations have contacted me about their concerns about the Bill. Given that many other hon. Members want to speak, I shall highlight only a few of those.

The changes in housing benefit will in due course feed into the housing element of the universal credit. Without going into all the details, there is no doubt that many people in my constituency will be seriously disadvantaged by those proposals. People will be driven

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into poverty, and in some cases, driven out of their current housing. The fact is that for all the press stories we read—they are sometimes repeated by Government Members—about people living in luxury housing benefit accommodation, any such cases are few and far between, if the ones we read about are genuine, which is doubtful. We should not allow the debate to be distorted by a few extreme examples that, if genuine, need to be tackled.

Hon. Members will recall that in his Budget statement last year, the Chancellor of the Exchequer referred to

“families receiving £104,000 a year in housing benefit.”—[Official Report, 22 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 174.]

I pursued that with a number of written questions. I have still not had the exact figure from the DWP, which I suspect is because only a handful of families are in that situation. If we are to have a serious debate, we should talk about the realities on the ground, not fake figures that are designed to scare people and distort the real debate that we need to have.

There are precious few areas in which forcing down housing benefit costs will affect market rent. In most cases, the market rent will become further diverged from housing benefit. As I said, as a result, people will be driven out of their housing, and perhaps forced to leave their communities or forced to go to areas where they do not get support from family and friends either in or out of work.

It may be the case, as the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid) said, that the Government’s changes will affect the market in cases where housing benefit tenants form a large proportion of the rented market. However, in constituencies such as mine, there are lots of student properties, holiday lets and those whom one might describe as young professionals. They are a major element in the rented housing sector, and they are certainly not going to go away, meaning that those on housing benefit will no longer be able to afford their existing housing. That is certainly a concern that has been expressed to me by housing associations in my constituency.

Stephen Lloyd: Does the hon. Gentleman see nothing untoward about more than 5,000 families in the UK receiving more than £25,000 a year in housing benefit, which is equivalent to earning a salary of £80,000 to £90,000 a year?

Mark Lazarowicz: In each case, we have to look at the circumstances of the individuals concerned. However, the idea put forward by the Government that at the top end of the scale there are large numbers of people receiving £104,000 a year illustrates the distortions that some people want to introduce into this debate.

Another concern that housing associations in my constituency have raised with me is about the over-accommodation rules, which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech). Those rules will have many consequences that will be detrimental to both housing providers and individual tenants. One of the housing associations in my area has made the point that it may have a perfectly reasonable policy of providing people with an extra room, so as to allow access visits by children from a relationship, but those people would then no longer be entitled to housing benefit to reflect that extra room.

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Parents and carers for adults with autism have also raised concerns with me, although other hon. Members have also discussed those concerns today, so I shall not repeat them. There have also been concerns about child maintenance charges being imposed on those still required to use the child maintenance system.

I want briefly to refer to concerns about the changes to DLA. When I intervened on my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire), I mentioned the concerns raised with me by a number of parents of children with disabilities in my constituency. Of course I recognise that the children concerned will not be subject to regular reassessments while they remain children. However, those parents have raised with me their concerns that in years to come their children may no longer have their support and assistance in submitting applications for DLA or its successor. Those children will find themselves in a vulnerable position if they are forced to undergo regular reassessments for conditions that will quite patently not change.

Those parents are right to be concerned—indeed, it is not surprising that they are—given that the backdrop to the Government’s policies is a 20% cut in the DLA budget. The Government may say that some of the fears that have been expressed are unfounded. However, if that is the case, they have brought it on themselves by rushing the consultation on DLA, which closed only nine days before the Bill was published, and because so many of today’s measures depend on further regulations being introduced at a later stage. Unsurprisingly, that has led to suspicions on the part of those who are likely to be affected by the changes.

Perhaps the underlying reason for those concerns is that we know that today’s changes are being driven in two ways: by a wish to reform the system—I accept the Government’s good intentions in that—but also by a wish to cut spending. The fact is that the Government’s prime concern is cutting the budget as soon as possible—that is the driver for today’s proposals—not, I am afraid, reforming the welfare system, which is something on which we should all able to agree across the House, if we had the time to discuss and debate it, and if we had the time to consider the views of outside organisations that have real concerns about it.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. Just before I call the next speaker, may I point out that 14 Members are trying to catch the Chair’s eye? I want to get everyone in, so if Members can take as little time as possible, that would be helpful.

5.39 pm

Brandon Lewis (Great Yarmouth) (Con): I should like to thank the Secretary of State for the assurances that he gave to cancer sufferers and their friends and families. Will the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) also assure us that he will examine how we can deal with the inequality that exists between cancer sufferers who have intravenous treatment and those who have oral treatment? There is an unfair disparity between them at the moment. Science and medicine have moved forward, but our system has not kept up with that progress. It would be good if we could do something for those sufferers.

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I represent an area with above-average unemployment. That is one of the legacies of the Labour Government, who forgot about the problems experienced by some of the coastal towns and about their regeneration. They took away public sector workers, and disincentivised people from working and businesses from investing and from employing people, through their heavy regulatory system. There are people in my constituency who are second and even third generation unemployed. That presents a problem that has two sides. On the one side, we have residents who work hard and who air their frustration at what they perceive to be the injustice of people who do not work and who stay at home having a lifestyle that is similar to that of the people who work all those hours. We need a system that will change that. The Bill is courageous in introducing some great changes, and it could start to change that as well, so that people who work hard would realise that they are not simply subsidising people who do not want to work.

On the flipside of that coin are the people who want to work but who cannot find a job or who are not properly trained for work. I have constituents who are crying out for the right kind of support and training to enable them to apply for the jobs that are out there. There are jobs beyond those that they might hear about in the jobcentre. The local press and organisations such as Jobcentre Plus do a great job in advertising the wide variety of jobs available, and this can enable people in areas such as Great Yarmouth to understand that they could be well trained enough to have the option to find work, not only in Great Yarmouth but in the wider community, perhaps in Norwich or even beyond, where jobs exist that they could reasonably commute to.

What I applaud most about the Bill is that it will introduce a move to a simpler system, and the evidence presented to the Select Committee shows that that is universally what people want. They want a system that they can understand. Too many people have come to my surgeries who simply do not understand the system and cannot get the support that they need because of that. Even some of the experts working in the system do not understand it.

A single mother with two children came to see me recently. She had a job which paid her £15,000 a year for working three days a week. She wanted to work five days a week, and her company wanted her to do that as well. She phoned the tax office to ask what the implications of that would be, so that she could work out whether she could afford to do it. It is crazy that we live in a society in which someone has to make a phone call to see whether they can afford to take a job that will pay £25,000 a year.

The most worrying aspect of the story, however, was the fact that the tax office could not answer her question. There are 30 different kinds of benefit, and a tax system that is set out over thousands of pages, so it is no wonder that, when someone is offered a well-paid job, they cannot work out—even with the help of experts—whether they can afford to accept it. I congratulate that person, because she decided to take the job even though the experts told her that the tax calculation would be done in arrears and it would be a year before they could tell her what sums would be involved, and whether they would need to claw any money back. She took quite a

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risk, and I applaud her for doing it. That is the kind of spirit that the new system will help to encourage. It will also provide support through the use of the taper.

Labour clearly does not understand the disincentive to work that exists at the moment. In some cases, there is a 96% marginal deduction, and that is simply not sustainable if we want to encourage people to work. I applaud the Bill, because it could really help to motivate and support people in my constituency, and help them to get back into work. That is what matters: people getting back to work and employers wanting to employ them. That is what this entire package can give us, and that is why I applaud the Bill.

5.44 pm

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): Unfortunately, unlike the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), I am not in a position to applaud the Bill, simply because there are not enough provisions in it to tell us whether it will provide a working model for a benefit system that will achieve what the Government say they want to achieve—namely, a simplified benefit system with improved incentives to work. We could all agree with those principles, but our problem on Second Reading is that the Bill lacks significant content to show how many of the detailed provisions will work in practice. We are told that the details of various schemes and measures will be provided later—as the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) said, it will be by way of regulation. That makes it unreasonable, on the basis of so little detail, to expect Members lightly to endorse such a Bill, which is so pregnant with implications for so many people in our society.

If Governments are to be encouraged to support evidence-based policy, this House should deal only with substance-based legislation. I often hear the Government saying that they agree with the principle and stated objectives of a private Member’s Bill, but because they see serious difficulties in how it might work in practice and because many of the details have not been worked out, they do not accept it and vote the Bill down. Frankly, that is exactly how I feel about this Government Bill. Although many of us endorse the objectives and recognise the problems in the existing system, we are worried about the direction in which the Government will end up travelling.

Members have already referred to the change from disability living allowance to the personal independence payment. Some of us participated in a Westminster Hall debate about that this morning. One important point is that we do not yet know from the Government what the implications of those provisions will be for carers. They have told us that they want to create a new deal for carers, but they have not given us any estimate of how many carers will be affected as a result of the changeover to personal independence payments. The Government have a lot more to tell us; only after they have told us would some of us be in a position to accept their assurances.

The universal credit is proposed to replace quite a number of existing benefits: working tax credit, child tax credit, housing benefit, council tax benefit, income-based jobseeker’s allowance and income-related employment and support allowance. We know about the existing complexities and difficulties with many of those benefits,

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so we cannot just take it on assumption that there will be no problems bringing them all together. We cannot take it on assumption that there will not be any serious transitional difficulties; neither, on the basis of past experience, can we take it for granted that the administration system, the infrastructure for delivery and the information technology used for the new system will not have any problems.

We know the stated intentions for tax credits, but we also know about all the problems that resulted. We know the stated intentions for employment and support allowance, but we also know about the many difficulties surrounding its delivery. It would therefore be naive if the House simply said to the Government, “Carry on regardless; we like your stated intentions; we are not going to frisk you for any further details or caution you against any possible risks to our constituents.”

Issues in the Bill might have complicated effects in the context of Northern Ireland. When it comes to universal credit, the Bill makes presumptions about child care provision, but Northern Ireland, of course, is not covered by the Childcare Act 2006 and it does not have the same infrastructure for child care as elsewhere. That poses serious challenges about how the scenario painted by the Government will work out for Northern Ireland.

Further issues stem from the fact that Northern Ireland does not have council tax, which affects rate relief. We will have to see how that will be administered from Whitehall and what degree of discretion the Whitehall Government will allow the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive to have in respect of delivering locally for Northern Ireland the framework created by the Bill.

As I have pointed out before, many people in Northern Ireland live and work on a cross-border basis. Many people on benefit who want to get jobs might find one across the border. The issue of providing tax credits for cross-border workers is fraught with all sorts of difficulties and frustrations. We do not yet know how the replacement scheme is going to work. There is a danger that cross-border workers—those who live and work on either side of the border—could find themselves in serious difficulties.

That is why many of us are not just suspicious about some of the Government’s intentions, which we fear may result in punitive measures for many people on benefits, but sceptical about whether enough work has been done in terms of the detail of the Bill and how it will affect our constituents. That is why many of us do not feel able to support the Bill’s Second Reading, and if others are prepared to oppose it, I am prepared to join them.

5.50 pm

Stephen Lloyd (Eastbourne) (LD): Given the breadth of the Bill, I intend to focus on the work aspects.

The right hon. Member for Croydon North (Malcolm Wicks) is no longer in the Chamber, but I trust that he will not mind if I, too, quote Beveridge, who famously said:

“Want is one only of five giants on the road of reconstruction; the others are Disease, Ignorance, Squalor, and Idleness.”

As we all know, those words were written at a time of real poverty for many people in the United Kingdom. How do they apply today, in the 21st century? Indeed,

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do they apply today? My supposition is that they do. Today, 10.4 million people of working age in the United Kingdom are not working, 5.9 million are claiming out-of-work benefits, and more than 2 million children live in households in which no one is working. It was the great Nye Bevan who said:

“There is no test for progress other than its impact on the individual.”

Yet, today 3.9 million children still live below the poverty line. Some progress! Surely it is time to do something different.

I support the Bill’s Second Reading because I believe that, in the main, it approaches this intransigent issue intelligently and constructively. The nation has got stuck, and it has got stuck because of the system. I do not think that anyone in the Government is particularly at fault, because the problem has built up over the past 40 years. A key part of breaking the system, which I believe the Bill is doing, is making work pay—a concept that the Secretary of State has championed for some time—and that means changing the tax and benefit system.

I will not go into all the details, because I am sure that everyone in the Chamber is well aware of them, but, as some Members have already pointed out, more often than not there is no point in people coming off benefit and going into work because they will be worse off as a result. A constituent of mine, a single mum with three kids who is on housing benefit and the rest, has not worked for 15 years. The rational option for her is to stay on benefit, and if I were her that is what I would do. It would be insane for her to come off benefit: she would probably lose out under the system that we have had for years, and what would happen if she lost her job in a few months’ time? The system is insane, and the Bill attempts to transform it.

Naomi Long: Another potential benefit of removing the limit on the number of hours that can be worked by claimants—currently about 16—is that employers would be more likely to take on people part-time, such as lone parents, because they would have more flexibility.

Stephen Lloyd: I agree with every word that the hon. Lady said.

How are we to help people back into work when they have been receiving incapacity benefit, jobseeker’s allowance or a similar benefit? As I said when I intervened on the right hon. Member for Croydon North, the Bill will provide much more money for training providers to give them an incentive to focus on people who have been on benefit for a long time, and make it worth their while to spend extra time and resources helping those people back into work. The right hon. Gentleman said that the Bill copies measures taken by the previous Government in that regard. That is true to an extent, but it does a great deal more than that.

In the past 24 hours, I have been in touch with the National Audit Office, according to which the average payment from the DWP to training providers for pathways to work was £1,003 per job. Under the current proposals, providers will be paid a minimum of £3,800 and a maximum of £13,700. What lies behind the Bill is our recognition of the fact that people have been “parked” for years, which is outrageous. Whichever side of the Chamber we are on, we know that if the many people

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who have been out of work for a long time are to be helped, they will need that extra effort, extra mentoring and extra time. The only way in which we shall persuade training providers to do that is by stuffing their mouths with gold, as Bevan said in the ’50s in respect of the British Medical Association. The Bill attempts to achieve that by making training providers feel it is worth their while expending the extra effort to get people back into work, which is tremendous.

The previous Government introduced the black box concept, and I am glad that we are building on that to start using subcontractors’ imaginative ideas. That is all good and very rational, and it is a simple solution, too. Members on both sides of the House know that, where possible, work is the best route out of poverty.

There are downsides, however. The economy is challenged—that is the best word I can use. I spoke to a senior disability spokesperson the day before yesterday. I said, “Well, it’s obviously very hard for us to get all these extra people into jobs when we’re faced with such a difficult economic situation.” She replied, “Stephen, you’re absolutely right, but at least if we start doing the spadework now it is just possible that when the economy turns in a couple of years the foundations will have been laid and a lot of people who might have seen themselves as never working again could, through the mentoring, be in a position to be able to be swept along with the upswing in the economy.” I certainly hope so, because it is very difficult to achieve such radical reforms now when we face an economic crisis.

I want to give a message to the Minister, and I am sorry that all his colleagues are not present, as this applies to the entire ministerial team. The Bill is tremendous; it is a glass-half-full Bill and it recognises that we have to spend money, which is why I appreciate the Secretary of State getting the £2.5 billion from the Treasury. We have to pour money into this problem to transform the situation, but we must change the language if we are to get people who for years have been on IB or other benefits back into work.

The Bill is clearly designed to do that, which is why it approaches the issue in such a constructive way. I was in Burnley with the Work and Pensions Committee a couple of days ago. A training provider who is very successful in getting people into work said, “If there’s one message to give to the Government it is this: respect. Use the right words, and treat people who have been on IB and on benefits for a long time with respect.” I therefore say that we must use the right words.

The Bill is fit for purpose. I think it will transform the situation, and I will support it on Second Reading.

5.57 pm

Mr William Bain (Glasgow North East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to be called to speak in this debate.

With more than 2.5 million people unemployed, youth unemployment soaring to 20% and persistent levels of intergenerational unemployment, it is clear that the status quo is not working. The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) cited Beveridge, but Beveridge and the Labour Government of 1945 envisaged the welfare state as a system that would redistribute not just wealth but power and opportunity. It was a welfare state built on reciprocity, but we cannot characterise the package of reforms in the Bill as being built on sufficient reciprocity.

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This is a Government who are introducing a Work programme that will help 250,000 fewer people than the programmes it replaces.

Chris Grayling: It is very important to deal with this point head on. That is absolutely not the case: every single person on JSA or ESA who needs and wants support through the Work programme will get it, and the total numbers will be higher than under the previous Government.

Mr Bain: If Members look at the details of what is being spent on the Work programme, they will see it does not match up to the initiatives of the previous Government.

We also foresee huge problems for the losers under these reforms. Labour supports a simplification of the universal credit system, but it must be a fair simplification. Yes, about 1 million households will benefit, but it is absurd that that is being paid for by 1.7 million households with incomes of between £16,000 and £24,000 losing out. The squeezed middle will not only be defined; they will be heard loud and clear in respect of the money they will lose as a result of this Government’s policies.

The Government have shown a bizarre lack of clarity regarding whether self-employed people hoping to start a new business will be eligible for the universal credit. The transition for individuals to the universal credit lacks detail and could create disincentives. The credit does not deal with transport costs to and from work, and the cash protection for individuals’ incomes will apply only until their circumstances change, which could be only a few weeks after taking up a job if their hours of work are altered. Changes to crisis loan alignment payments are also likely to affect many claimants. No work has been done to identify the costs of transferring delivery to local authorities, or to identify the most affected groups.

Labour Members know that one of the best means of reducing child poverty is to encourage more second earners to take on part-time work around their family or care commitments. It is extraordinary that the proposals in the Bill will reduce the work incentives for up to 330,000 second earners. This is not a strategy that will reduce child poverty in the short or medium term. Despite the Secretary of State’s statement today, there is a shocking lack of clarity about the provision of child care, the cost of which presents a huge barrier, particularly for women returning to the labour market. Council tax benefit is being devolved to local authorities in a completely unspecified way that lacks clarity and threatens to create new disincentives to work.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has concluded that, overall, under the universal credit the incentive to work for low earners will be stronger for single people and for those in couples where one partner does not work, but that it will weaken incentives for couples to have both partners in work, owing to a higher withdrawal rate than the current tax credit system. It has also concluded that lone parents will lose out in the long term.

This week, the Social Market Foundation established that 400,000 families with children that currently receive tax credits will lose their entire eligibility for financial support under the universal credit if they have savings of more than £16,000, and that a further 200,000 families

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with savings of between £6,000 and £16,000 will lose some of their entitlements. As Ian Mulheim, the director of the foundation, said,

“The Universal Credit will punish working families trying to save for the future, such as those trying to get a foot on the property ladder.”

We urge the Government to reconsider the shambolic way in which they have designed the credit, and to introduce a more adequate Bill that is fit for purpose.

On housing benefit, the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech) mentioned the incredibly harmful effects of the proposal to extend the shared-room rate from people aged under 25 to those up to the age of 35. Some 88,000 people across the country will lose out, with an average loss of £47 a week. In Glasgow, my home city, the impact will be to move people from the social rented sector into the private rented sector, with a resulting increase in rents.

The Secretary of State has not been able to give the House sufficient assurances on the disability living allowance. Yes, we hear of a review, but he has not taken back, nor has he had permission from the Treasury to recoup, the amount he proposed to save by withdrawing the mobility component. His own Social Security Advisory Committee has referred to the terrible impact of the loss of independence that people who lose the mobility component will experience. We therefore urge the Government not just to review these proposals but to withdraw them.

On the move to personal independence payments, we think it unacceptable to require a disabled person to wait six months—double the length of time under the present system—before coming eligible. Richard Hamer, director of external affairs at Capability Scotland, has said:

“The welfare benefits system is the UK Government’s strongest tool to promote equality for disabled people. The changes announced in the Welfare Reform Bill will instead push disabled people and those who care for them further into poverty.”

I encourage Members throughout the House to seek a better Bill than the one the Government have proposed today. I urge Members to vote for the amendment and to seek a better Bill than the shoddy and shambolic effort the Government have proposed today.

6.4 pm

Damian Hinds (East Hampshire) (Con): As some hon. Members are still waiting to speak, I shall strive for brevity. We are, of course, debating the principle of the Bill, which I am very proud to support, and we will vote on whether we get the chance to discuss in Committee many of the important issues that hon. Members on both sides of the House have rightly raised. We will also vote on whether to progress with the Bill’s central reform: the universal credit, which is ambitious, bold and compassionate.

I am sure that we have all had discussions with our constituents in which they say, “Why can’t we just have a benefits system that means that you are always better off in work than out of work? Why can’t we have a system where everybody who can work does work and where we provide proper support to those who can’t? Why can’t we just simplify the whole system so that

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people understand it and we do not spend so much money on bureaucracy?” This Government answer those questions by saying, “Actually, we can.”

This welfare package contains many elements. Hon. Members have focused on different ones, but I wish to focus briefly on the social fund. It contains many diverse elements but, as the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) identified, it is the crisis loans that have been growing most recently. In the past year, there were 2.7 million loans to 1.1 million people. Although the number of people taking crisis loans has grown rapidly—it has doubled over four years—the number of individual loans has grown even faster. That, in itself, has driven a big increase in the administration costs of the scheme, which have risen from £70 million in 2007 to £120 million last year. Of course it is right that we provide extra support for people in times of personal crisis, but it is also right to question those rates of growth.

There are many other problems with the social fund: a lack of awareness, particularly about community care grants; the long processing times that sometimes occur; and, on occasion, perverse incentives. One such incentive results in families applying for loans for cookers and beds because they are “priority items”, even if they are not actually the things that are most needed at the time.

It is right to devolve these programmes to a local level, where the authorities know their areas more and are better able to put families in touch with other local services that can help them. Work can be done with, for example, citizens advice bureaux on referrals, and with food banks and furniture recycling programmes, such as Furniture Helpline, in Bordon, in my constituency. Credit unions can also play an enhanced role, although we must recognise the limits to that, both in terms of geographical coverage and the client groups they are geared up to serve. I wish to thank the Department for Work and Pensions for another announcement last week on support for credit unions. An extra £73 million is being provided for capitalisation and for the development of something that many hon. Members on both sides of the House have requested for a long time: a robust back-office system that will enable credit unions to work more closely with post offices. That, combined with the imminent legislative reform order, which will allow credit unions to grow more, will mean that they will be able to fulfil an even more important role in providing responsible, affordable financial services to some of the poorest people in this country.

The reforms to the social fund are just one part of a large and radical package of measures. Some issues still need extra attention, as Ministers acknowledged today. The position of cancer sufferers is one such issue, as is the mobility component of disability living allowance, but I suspect that, deep in their hearts, many Opposition Members support the principles behind this ambitious, bold and compassionate Bill, and I urge them to vote with us to move forward on those central themes.

6.8 pm

Mr David Lammy (Tottenham) (Lab): I approached this debate hoping that all of us in this House recognise the importance of the dignity of work for our population and recognise the dignity of living in a society where we are concerned for the welfare of people who fall on hard times. That is the basis of our social security system and we are judged on how we deal with the most

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vulnerable. So the remarks that have been made about people living with disabilities are particularly pertinent to the kind of society we want to live in. We have heard remarks from Members on both sides of the House that cut to the heart of that kind of society.

I am not able to vote with the Government on the Bill. I say that coming from a working-class background in which my parents, both of whom are dead now, would literally run out of the door to work because they valued work so much. We survived on income support. For us, child benefit meant being able to buy school uniforms and books, and there was a period when I experienced free school meals. Speaking in this debate, I am thinking about the many people outside the Chamber who rely on the welfare state and social security who will be very anxious about what has been said at the Dispatch Box.

The first reason why I cannot vote for the Bill concerns worklessness. One has to acknowledge the progress of moving to a universal credit system, but the reforms are being made against a backdrop of huge worklessness in communities such as mine, and we have a residual memory of the past. When Labour came to office in 1997, unemployment in Tottenham was at 28%; it is currently the highest in London. We remember a similar programme to the workfare programme called the youth training scheme. We remember the Manpower Services Commission and the 58% of people on YTS who did not finish it and who certainly did not leave it with any qualifications or job opportunities, so we scrutinise what this workfare programme will mean, and it seems lacking when we look at what is replacing the current system. We know there will be less money in the kitty than there is now and we cannot understand how the Government can move to the new system while withdrawing £6.2 billion from the current credit schemes. That is £6.2 billion that will not be available to some of the poorest families in the country. The Bill will need a lot of scrutiny in Committee in the context of worklessness, particularly the situation facing the young, and I hope to play a role in that.

The second reason why I cannot vote for the Bill is because of where it will leave women and families. Much has been said about the situation regarding the second earner when there are two earners in the home. The Bill will hurt both families and marriage, and I am surprised to see the coalition Government, who say they value marriage, doing something that will clearly hurt families by taking this punitive approach to the second income.

Also, many of us are dealing with local authorities that are withdrawing support for services in our communities, such as after-school clubs. I agree with the single mothers in my constituency who say to me, “Listen, those activities that our children take part in when school finishes at 3.30 pm are not a luxury but a necessity because we go out to work and work finishes at about 5.30 pm, and then we have to get home and pick them up.” That money is being cut against the backdrop of the proposal in the Bill massively to reduce child care allowances. How can we do that to women up and down the country whom we encourage, and want, to work? That is another reason why we should not vote for the Bill.