HC Deb 27 April 1998 vol 311 cc9-10
6. Mr. Alan W. Williams (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr)

What initiatives her Department is taking to promote good parenting. [38484]

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

One of the key issues for parents, both mothers and fathers, is balancing work and family responsibilities, so family-friendly employment is a top priority for the Government. We are already taking action to provide high-quality child care for all families, and we shall ensure that parents can take time off from paid work to spend with their children.

Mr. Williams

The Government's rhetoric over the past few months has concerned lone parents who work, but does the Secretary of State accept that, in many couples with children, one parent, usually the mother, gives up work to look after them, and that those responsibilities fall doubly heavily when there is only one parent? Can she reassure me that the Government are fully supportive of couples in which one parent devotes the whole of her—it is usually her—time to looking after children and the family home?

Ms Harman

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that reassurance. We want to offer lone parents, and indeed all parents, more opportunities to work. One of the problems was that, although married women, who are not trapped in the benefits system, are able to return to work, particularly after the youngest child has started school, lone parents are often trapped into remaining on benefit, even though many have not been receiving any income from the father and have wanted to go back to work to increase the income for their children.

There is no question of our trying to compel women to do the best for their children by going out to work rather than staying at home. We want them to be able to decide what is best for their children, and we shall back them in whatever choice they make. In the past, they have not had sufficient choice.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

Is the Secretary of State saying that she has no plans to introduce any element of compulsion whatever? Is she aware that her ministerial colleague, the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley), said in a written answer on Friday that there were no figures for the control areas of the pilot scheme for lone parents? Is it sensible to proceed without having tested the figures, and on what basis do the Government plan to proceed in those circumstances?

Ms Harman

The hon. Lady raises two points. On the first, the new deal for lone parents is entirely voluntary. The previous Government simply said, "Stay on income support until your youngest child is 16. We don't assume that you've got any interest in going back to work and we're not going to give you any help." Our policy is to extend help to get lone parents into work and to provide child care so that, particularly once the youngest child is of school age, they can return to employment.

The second point concerns the evaluation of the new deal for lone parents. We have spent the best part of £1 million on an independent academic evaluation. The very choice of the eight areas in which we piloted the new deal was made so that we could match them with eight other areas where there was no new deal. The hon. Lady can look forward to the results of that academic evaluation later in May. We can measure the success of the new deal, and we have done so. I am sure that the results will be very encouraging for all those who are concerned that lone parents and their children should have a better standard of living.