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8.36 pm

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham): I welcome the Bill, which is also warmly welcomed in my constituency, certainly among the poorest members of the community. It builds on the work done since 1997 and underlines the key themes of our Government: to support families, to make work pay and get people into work and, vitally for communities such as mine, to tackle the scourge of child poverty.

The Bill builds on measures that have already been outlined at length by my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Phil Hope). It includes measures that were opposed by the Conservative party and will bring in measures that will be welcome to many in my constituency. I refer to the children's tax credit, which we introduced in April this year, and the higher baby tax credit, which will be introduced in April 2002. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is looking forward to receiving the benefits of that particular credit.

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The Bill builds on measures that have been put in place by the Government since 1997. I know that they are making a real difference because people come up and say that they have more money in their pockets. This June, the people of North Durham realised the benefits of having had a Labour Government since 1997, and, with good and wise counsel, elected me as their Member of Parliament. More than 11,000 families in my constituency have been helped by the working families tax credit, the children's tax credit and the record rises in child benefit since 1997.

Constituencies such as mine went through very rough times in the 1980s and 1990s as the local pits, steel works and factories were closed. The despair of unemployment in those communities was real, and the hardest part was the scourge of child poverty in many of the former pit villages in North Durham. Unemployment has put serious pressure on those communities, and the pit villages in my constituency have been resourceful and resilient in resisting those pressures.

Tackling unemployment and aiming to benefit the poorest in our community has to be the right approach. Those in South Stanley and Pelton in my constituency will welcome the Bill; it will provide the support that those communities need, and help them in their regeneration. The Bill is all about helping to regenerate communities and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Corby said, helping people to get on the ladder of opportunity.

My hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford) eloquently explained what the Bill is about. It is about giving people their dignity back. We are all used to turning up to work every morning, talking to people and knowing our place in the world. The first question that most people ask when they meet someone for the first time is, "What do you do for a living?" Many people in my community and in other constituencies have not had that dignity, but they will certainly be given that dignity under the Bill.

The Bill will also help to rebuild communities. It will certainly help to put the hope back into those in parts of my constituency. It will tackle some of the scourges, such as crime, that go with poverty in many constituencies and give youngsters a fair start in life, which is vital and something in which I believe passionately. Hon. Members have referred to despair. My hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham) talked about the cycle of despair that involves a lack of opportunities not just in work, but in education. The Bill must be about giving those people a fair start in life.

The Bill will benefit single parents, and I am pleased that the National Council for One Parent Families has publicly welcomed it and recognised that it will make real progress in tackling poverty among one-parent families. The Government have rightly set a target of ending child poverty in 20 years, and the range of measures outlined already since 1997, which the Bill builds on, will help to tackle the scourge not just of child poverty, but poverty among the children of single parents.

Progress has been made already. Since 1997, more than 1 million children—520,000 of whom are in one-parent families—have been lifted out of poverty by the Government's measures. That has got to be good news. Another good news story since 1997 is that the proportion

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of one-parent families in work has increased from 44 to 51 per cent. That will make a real difference to a lot of families who are struggling. Clearly, one-parent families are at greatest risk of poverty in the United Kingdom, and the measures outlined today in the Bill will make a real difference to many of them.

I should like, however, to draw the Minister's attention to a couple of concerns that I have about the Bill, one of which is take-up, which has already been mentioned eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck). Take-up has been a problem, especially with the working families tax credit, and I hope that the Minister will give some thought in his reply to how to ensure the maximum take-up.

I cannot understand why we have not previously linked take-up with, for example, free school meals. Schools have a register of children who receive free school meals, and we could use it to try to target their parents. We should involve local communities when we roll out the child tax credit. Local citizens advice bureaux and community groups should be encouraged to get involved in promoting the new credit, and the citizens advice bureau in my constituency would welcome that. Like my hon. Friend, I know that there is sometimes frightening ignorance about such proposals in certain parts of my constituency, and we need to put extra effort into dealing with it.

My hon. Friend referred to the problem of charging for child care, but another problem is the number of available child care places and carers. Alongside the Bill, we need to do a lot to encourage people to enter child care as a career, so that we ensure that child carers are in place to assist parents.

Child care in rural areas is also a problem, because people have to travel long distances. We need to ensure that child care facilities are available in some of the smaller villages and rural communities for those working parents who wish to take up offers of work and the assistance that the new tax credit will provide.

David Taylor: Does my hon. Friend agree that in areas such as ours, which have lost many jobs in one industry over a short period, there is a risk that the working tax credit might perpetuate relatively low wages into the medium term? That might be economically and socially bad, so might not the preferred alternative be to attract more high-paid, high-skill and high-tech jobs into former mining areas such as North Durham and North-West Leicestershire?

Mr. Jones: I accept my hon. Friend's point, but the two approaches should go side by side. We need to get people out of a spiral. In some villages in my constituency, people's hope has gone and, even if high-tech jobs came to the area, they would not be ready for them. They do not have the skills and they have lost the culture of work. The important point about the Bill is that it will get people back into work.

My hon. Friend the Member for Workington eloquently pointed to the need to get people into education and to raise their expectations and aspirations. We must do that not just for the people who receive benefit, but for their children. That is how we can tackle the problems in such communities. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) about

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getting the jobs that he described back to our constituencies, but we need to raise expectations. The Bill will do that, because it is not just about the financial aspects of the problem but about providing people with dignity at work and in their communities.

Mention has already been made of the approach that Conservative Members have taken towards the Bill. The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) said that it was all motherhood and apple pie but, when I challenged him to provide an alternative, nothing came forward. When the Conservative party was in power, my constituents were given not motherhood and apple pie but poverty and gruel. The same applies to many constituencies across this great nation of ours.

I note that one Conservative Back Bencher is present, but it is disturbing that Conservative Members have not taken part in a debate that is important to all our constituencies. I also note the absence of Liberal Democrat Back Benchers. Their Benches were full the other night when they made anodyne points against the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill, but when it comes to tackling poverty in our communities, not a single Liberal Democrat Back Bencher has spoken. That fact should be noted. They are more interested in headlines in The Guardian than in dealing with the issues that interest our constituents.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) on being in his place now, but the Conservative Members who have spoken have reverted to the same old adages that they used in last week's debate on the Employment Bill. The Conservative party makes great play of its claim that it is the party of the family but, when measures are introduced to help the family, we hear the old chestnuts about how they will affect business. We heard that when they said that the Employment Bill's provisions to help people with families would affect business. There is a recurring theme and my hon. Friend the Paymaster General dealt with it eloquently.

The new tax credits will be popular in constituencies such as mine. The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs said that it was designed to buy votes, but it will obtain the support of our constituents. It will not only benefit people directly, but rebuild communities in my constituency. That is the most important point, and that is why I shall support the Bill.

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