My fellow MPs need to know what I have learned from working families

As a former obstetrician, the MP Dan Poulter thought he knew all about the struggles of young families. But visiting them has opened his eyes to new problems

Christine and Richard Rowley are an impressive young couple who want to do their very best for their family. They want to work and do not want to live on benefits. They are concerned that other people who aren't in employment appear much better off, and that seems unfair.

I have been surprised at some of the hurdles this couple have to overcome. Their experience underlines the need for us in Westminster to remember the acute needs of the working poor in the debates on welfare and work.

I became an MP in 2010 because, with a background as an obstetrician in the NHS, I believe that politics should be about real people and making a difference to their lives. But what my visits to Christine, Richard and their friends have confirmed for me is that decisions affecting the family made in parliament often seem remote and a long way from daily reality.

What else have I learned? First, the benefits system is too complex. That will be considerably improved with the arrival of a single universal credit to be rolled out in 2013. In the meantime, how can confusion be eased?

All of the young mums I met at the Seesaw Sure Start centre in Braintree said the benefits system was too complicated and confusing. For example, entitlement to benefits such as working tax credit meant that children are not entitled to free school meals. Christine and Richard also discovered that they no longer qualified for the government's Warm Front scheme for households in fuel poverty because Richard had found temporary employment. Unforeseen anomalies in the system such as this need to be addressed.

One mum at the Sure Start centre said to me: "It's given with one hand and taken away with the other." In my role as an MP, with a background of working alongside health visitors and social services as a doctor, you would expect me to have a good working knowledge of the benefits system. But I, too, don't always know the answers or how best to negotiate the system.

This goes to the heart of the problem and it impacts in particular on the working poor. We have a system that is over complicated, only comprehensible to experts, and we must simplify it.

I was also very concerned to hear from Christine and her friends about companies that target people on low incomes with offers of jobs paying commission-based salaries, no minimum wage, and hence with no guarantee of any earnings. I was given examples of how unscrupulous companies offer potentially exploitative high-cost consumer credit deals for double glazing and other home improvements to low-income households, with massive financial penalties for missed or late payments. I find this unacceptable. It is something else that I shall be taking back with me to Westminster.

Another need is for better support for young mothers after the birth of a child. One mother at Seesaw told me: "There's not a lot of support out there, unless you know where to find it." This confirmed the view I formed while working as an obstetric doctor. During pregnancy and childbirth, mothers and families receive a lot of support, but this ends abruptly after a baby's birth. Yet the emotional, financial and social pressures continue and can be immense.

Christine rightly believes that pregnancy and childbirth provide an excellent opportunity to engage with mothers and families on healthcare, but also to offer social support and financial advice within their community in the way that many children's centres do so well. I would like to see that expanded, supporting Iain Duncan Smith's early intervention strategy.

Two years ago I was working full time as a frontline NHS hospital doctor. I was inspired to become an MP in response to David Cameron's call for people with a record of public service to stand for parliament. As a doctor I always feel privileged when patients trust in me and share experiences from their own lives. That opportunity is not always available to constituency MPs. So I appreciate this experience of meeting Christine and Richard.

It's an exercise that I recommend more of my colleagues try. What I've learned will definitely inform my work in parliament.

Dan Poulter is the Tory MP for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich

Dan Poulter

The GuardianTramp

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