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Lord Wedderburn of Charlton: My Lords, before my noble friend finally sits down, given her latest intervention and the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, it is a pity that this debate has developed in this way. There is also a convention that Ministers do not intervene too quickly in order to shut out debate in effect, but never mind. Let us deal with the matter by way of questions, as we now have to. My noble friend made a most important statement which for me has cleared the air. She has found a small group who will suffer: new applicants. However many they may be--perhaps not as many as the noble Earl suggests--my noble friend said candidly that that small group exists. I cannot understand why a government of the intelligence and ability of the one formed by our party is unable to find a way out of that difficulty. The Budget just will not do. Surely, my noble friend accepts that it is open to the Chancellor to introduce measures at different dates, whether they be taxes or allowances. There is no golden rule about October 1999. Is my noble friend finally saying that as to that small group whom she identified--I do not deal with the other groups because I accept and understand her analysis--she cannot find a way?
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I have tried to be as helpful to the House as I can. This is not Committee stage but Report stage. I resist the suggestion of my noble friend that I have tried to shut out debate. I do not believe that that is an acceptable comment. When the noble Earl sat down I looked round the House. I looked at the Tory Benches and hesitated to see whether there were any other contributions. No one spoke, and then I did. At that point I had every reason to believe that the intentions of the House had been expressed and that the debate was closed. I followed the procedure.
I respect the position of my noble friend Lord Ashley. He made a significant contribution at Committee stage and I did not wish to preclude him because of any possible communication problem from intervening in the normal way should he wish to do so. He made his contribution as short as possible. But I believe that it would be improper to become involved in an extended Committee stage debate at this stage of the proceedings of your Lordships' House and at this time of night.
Lord Wedderburn of Charlton: My Lords, I did not suggest that my noble friend intended to cut down the debate. I believe that Hansard will confirm that; if not, I regret it. I said that at Report stage it was always a problem and the Minister should not come in too early because sometimes a debate had to take the form of questions. I thought that we had moved away from that.
Earl Russell: My Lords, I entirely and totally acquit the Minister of any intention to curtail debate. I observed her to look around with care. There was no one standing. I also thought that no one intended to rise. She gave way with great generosity to her noble friend Lord Ashley of Stoke whose remarks I was very glad to hear. I agree entirely with what he said. We have here a straightforward issue. I do not believe that we need to muddy the waters with any complaint about procedure. We simply disagree about this matter.
The Minister has not denied the existence of the gap. In effect, she says that the Government cannot help it. I shall try to meet her arguments as they go. First, she invoked an argument of principle. One must always take care when "principle" and "the Treasury" appear in the same sentence. She said that it was a matter of principle that the Government wished to equalise benefits between single parents and couples. So it is. But to say that that is the principle of the Government does not say when the Government should put that principle into force. The Government could have said, in good Augustinian style, that they wanted to make the benefits equal but not yet, in which case they would have been open to a great deal less criticism. I believe that the Government are wrong about that principle, but I shall save that for Amendment No. 59 either tonight or perhaps on Third Reading if the time gets late.
Secondly, the Minister invoked the spending limits. She did not give me any reason why the Government had adopted those spending limits. She appeared to be saying that the Government did it because they did it because they did it. Maybe they did, but I do not find that very persuasive.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I believe that I answered that question, because the noble Lord intervened. I said that it was a manifesto commitment that we would observe the spending plans of the previous administration. I also said that the Government intended to carry out any such promises were we to be elected.
Earl Russell: My Lords, I heard the Minister say that but she did not say why it was a manifesto commitment. I cannot help but have a certain curiosity about the point. I am also rather surprised to hear a member of this Government talk about the Government having inherited a policy. I thought that this Government did not believe in inherited power. It looks an entail. I accept what the Government have said about trying to make it easier for single parents to return to work. Many of the measures I welcome, some warmly. The Minister and I have argued for some of these measures for a very long time. However, these measures do very little for those who do not work. We on these Benches believe that just as it is a right for single parents to work so it is a right for them not to. Therefore, we are concerned about both groups. My noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby will say more about that when speaking to the next group of amendments.
When we come to gains, the picture is not quite as rosy as the Minister suggested. I have a few figures to hand. In June 1998 a lone parent on income support with one child under 11 and one over 11 would be £4.70 worse off compared with new claimants. In November 1998 the lone parent would be £2.20 worse off. The lone parent catches up by just 30p in April 1999. The figures for those in work are a little better but no one really catches up until October 1999, which is the point of the debate on this amendment.
The Minister invokes cost. Of course she does. I know that she is familiar with the report of the Policy Studies Institute published last week entitled What happens to lone Parents. The institute finds that 29 per cent. of lone parents have a long-standing illness and that there is more than an even chance that within four years in a lone parent family one member will acquire a serious illness. That is expensive. I entirely understand the argument about administrative confusion, but if there is a shipwreck in the middle of the night the duty rosters must be upset. That cannot be helped. I should like to ask the opinion of the House.
Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.