HC Deb 30 June 1997 vol 297 cc3-4
2. Mr. Lansley

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if she will make a statement on her policy on benefits for lone parents. [4335]

The Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women (Ms Harriet Harman)

The Government believe that work is the best form of welfare for people of working age, and we are committed to a package of measures that will help lone mothers to move off benefits and into work so that they and their children can be better off.

Decisions on benefits for lone parents will be announced at the time of the Budget.

Mr. Lansley

Does the right hon. Lady agree with her right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who said: Tax and benefit policy was squeezed to help single parents"—

Madam Speaker

Order. Hon. Members do not quote at Question Time. Paraphrase, please.

Mr. Lansley

Thank you, Madam Speaker. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead made it clear that he felt that a policy of differential benefits for lone parents should be abolished. Will the right hon. Lady now say that she will provide the same benefits for two-parent families as are provided for lone parents?

Ms Harman

What we are concerned about is the differential in opportunities between married or cohabiting women and lone mothers. When her youngest child reaches the age of five, the married or cohabiting woman will often start to look for work. When she is able to go out to work and contribute to her family budget, the family is better off. However, lone mothers remain trapped on benefit and after 18 years of Conservative Government policies, about 1 million lone mothers are on income support and bringing up 2.2 million children on the breadline. We want to ensure that lone mothers have opportunities to work so that, like lone mothers in the rest of Europe, they do not have to bring up their children on benefits.

Mr. McAllion

Like my right hon. Friend, I accept that the best policy on benefits for lone parents is to help them to get off benefit and back into work. Bearing that in mind, will my right hon. Friend reflect on the predicament of the Whitfield sitter service and Whitfield community nursery in my constituency, both of which provide affordable, quality child care to lone parents to enable them to get back into work? Because their urban programme funding runs out this year, both those organisations face closure later this year.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be wholly counterproductive to allow such excellent organisations to close because of a lack of public funding when their closure will inevitably force lone parents out of work and back on to welfare, leading to an increase in public expenditure, which I am sure neither my right hon. Friend nor the Chancellor wish to see?

Ms Harman

I thank my hon. Friend for raising the issue of Whitfield community nursery in his constituency. He is right to say that child care is essential to underpin the opportunities for lone mothers to go to work. That is why the Government consider the national child care strategy to be of central importance. It will ensure a choice of affordable, high-quality accessible child care so that lone mothers can be sure that, when they go to work, their children are playing and learning safely with other adults. Together with my ministerial colleagues, I shall look into the issue of the nursery in his constituency.

Mr. Duncan Smith

May I take this opportunity to welcome the Secretary of State and her Ministers to their places and wish them the best of luck? We shall try to be constructive in opposition and shall look at each of the Government's proposals on its merits. However, we shall also judge them against the high level of expectation that they raised in the run-up to the general election.

Many times in the run-up to the election, the right hon. Lady, made it quite clear that she did not believe in equal benefits for single and two-parent families. She has made it clear that she would reverse the Conservative Government's proposals. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) has said, on 28 November the Minister of State made it quite clear that he took a different view.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the right hon. Lady is unlikely to have her way in the Department in this case. Is she absolutely determined to stand by her commitments to reverse what we instigated and, if she does not get her way, what will she do?

Ms Harman

I welcome the hon. Gentleman and his shadow colleague to their new positions. I also welcome his statement that he will make constructive proposals and engage in constructive debate. If the hon. Gentleman considers what I said in the run-up to the general election and looks at Labour party documents from that time, he will see that our approach was made absolutely clear. We want what lone mothers want for themselves and their children, which is to be better off in work than on benefit.

The Policy Studies Institute recently completed research which shows that a lone mother with two children moving off income support and into work on in-work benefits are likely to be £50 a week better off. At the heart of the Government's approach is a welfare-to-work strategy with the opportunities that lone parents seek for themselves. The Government will back them to ensure that they get those opportunities.

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