Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Steve McCabe.]
I am delighted to open this important and timely debate. Social exclusion is a tragedy of wasted potential. It represents the failure of society to engage with people’s aspirations and of individuals to fulfil their potential. For the individuals concerned it can mean a lifetime of poverty and social harm, with the end result that they are unable to create and share the opportunities that most of us take for granted. A real danger is that these patterns of low aspiration and achievement will persist and be passed on from one generation to the next. The implications of persistent social exclusion can be just as catastrophic for the rest of society. The economic costs of dealing with the effects of social exclusion are considerable, and are compounded by the loss to society of individuals who should and could be making a meaningful contribution. In a competitive global economy, we cannot afford to have sections of our society unable to play a part in the nation’s economic and social life.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will let me get a little further, and then of course I will.
Nor should communities be expected to bear the brunt of problems that result from social exclusion: crime, antisocial behaviour, poverty and the fracture in our communities. Britain was scarred by that type of exclusion on a huge scale when we entered government in 1997. For a generation, more than 3 million people were denied the opportunity to work. As unemployment doubled, income inequality surged in the 1980s and 1990s. In the decade before 1997, incomes for the top 50 per cent. of earners grew by 2 to 3 per cent., but the incomes of the bottom 50 per cent. grew by just 1 per cent. Public services were starved of investment, crime doubled, community and family breakdown reached unprecedented proportions, homelessness and rough sleeping were almost endemic, and the wealth of our country was shared increasingly disproportionately to favour the well-off. This Government faced those most extreme challenges in 1997. To quote John Hills and Kitty Stewart in their book, “A More Equal Society”, published in 2005:
“The Labour Government that took office in 1997 inherited levels of poverty and inequality unprecedented in post-war history.”
Is the Minister not concerned about welfare dependency? For example, there are now 20 times more people claiming incapacity benefit for five years or more than there were in 1997. What representations has she made to the Department for Work and Pensions to tackle welfare dependency?
I almost feel that this is a continuation of business questions. It beggars belief that the hon. Gentleman can talk about that matter today without recognising the enormous strides that we have made in tackling welfare to work and making sure that many more people are back in work. I hope that he will vigorously support the measures to get many more people off incapacity benefit and into work, and that he will begin to try to persuade Members on his Front Bench to support the new deal and some of the matters that we are raising, so that a real opportunity is developed. I thank him for that intervention.
In 1997, we launched a direct attack on poverty. Our priority was to save Britain’s universal public services through investment and reform, and to implement a range of policies to make work pay for the less well-off at last: tax credits for the low paid, welfare to work, and the minimum wage. All that was underpinned by a stable and growing economy that finally brought an end to the years of boom and bust. We all know that it is the poorest who suffer most when the economy moves up and down as it did in the Thatcher and Major years. [Interruption.] I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman is nodding at that.
The Minister talks about work paying. The Government have certainly saved substantial sums in benefits and other payments, but she is probably aware that the figures for the working age population show that although there has been a shift into work, the proportion in poverty has remained the same. That suggests that because much of that work is low-paid or part-time, the Government have pushed people into jobs that have not helped those people, although doing so has saved the Government money.
Again, I am bit surprised at the hon. Gentleman. I am delighted that he is here, but I think that he has believed the propaganda from Opposition Front Benchers. I am more than happy to come on to that issue and deal with what he has to say about poverty.
Is my right hon. Friend as astounded as I am by the sheer audacity of the last two interventions? Will she confirm her commitment to policies such as more tax credits, improving the minimum wage, the pension credit and the new deal, which, if I remember correctly, were all opposed by the Opposition parties?
They were indeed. My hon. Friend draws attention to the fact that we have raised many people out of poverty, including children and pensioners who had no hope and no opportunity in the past. The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) put out a report in which he acknowledged relative poverty, and we welcome that conversion. The only problem is that many of his colleagues subsequently went on to deny that there was such a thing as relative poverty, but never mind.
I am not going to refer to Polly Toynbee—I will leave that to my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark). On a more serious level, what would the Minister say about the report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies? It shows that Labour has had little impact on the slight upward trend in inequality that has been experienced over its term in government. In other words, rather than seeing a halt to the rise in inequality of incomes, things have got slightly worse under Labour.
I will deal with that in some detail later, but the hon. Gentleman is being extremely partial about what the Institute for Fiscal Studies said. It calls Labour’s record “a remarkable achievement” and states:
“child poverty has fallen by 700,000 since 1998/99…and it is now at its lowest level since the late 1980s. The trend of rapidly rising child poverty that began in the 1980s has been halted and clearly reversed.”
Clearly, he is not interested in the fact that we have reversed the trends that his Government established. The Institute for Fiscal Studies says:
“This is a remarkable achievement, all the more so since median income has been growing relatively strongly since 1996/97”.
But the right hon. Lady has not answered the point, which is about inequality of incomes. On child poverty, she cannot be that complacent when 1.2 million children in London alone live below the poverty line. On inequality of incomes, will she not accept what the experts say, which is that things have got slightly worse under Labour?
The report that the hon. Gentleman cited states:
“the net effect of eight years of Labour government has been to leave inequality effectively unchanged.”
[Interruption.] It is not worse. The report says that we have reduced child poverty and pensioner poverty. Despite the bogus figures that the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells gave, the IFS validates what we said, and I will come on to deal with that matter.
We have been able to lift more than 700,000 children and 2 million pensioners out of relative poverty. There are record numbers of people in work and we have public services fit for the 21st century. It is only having achieved all that that we can turn to, and prioritise, supporting people with extremely complex needs who are hard to reach effectively with traditional universal services. In 1997, we inherited exclusion on a huge scale, with millions of people excluded from the economic activity of the nation. Today, we have narrowed that down to those who will be helped only by intensive, individualised and tailored support. It is precisely because we recognise that—which, in many senses, is due to our success in tackling widespread poverty—that we can focus on the needs of socially excluded groups in our society. It has always been a priority of Labour Members to tackle exclusion. It is central to the Government’s ambitious pursuit of social justice.
A lot has been done to tackle deep-seated exclusion, too. I simply point to the shift in the way in which rough sleepers are dealt with and worked with. We have reduced the number of rough sleepers on the streets by more than two thirds—indeed, I think that that proportion is now more than three quarters. So we have been carrying out such work. However, it took time to begin to get the investment and the reform in public services working so that, for example, many more children could have the opportunity of a decent education and a decent start in life. Given the chaos in this country before 1997, and the ravaging of it that took place before then, 10 years is seen by many people as a fairly limited time in which to have made such progress. I hope that the hon. Gentleman recognises that we have made more progress in these areas than almost any other comparable country. However, no one is saying that there are not extremely complex and serious problems that trap a group of people and prevent them from fulfilling any ambition, largely because they have ended up with very little ambition.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I intend to come back to that and to talk about an aspect of parenting on which we will be moving forward in the near future.
Today, we know that we need to narrow our intervention to those who will be helped only by intensive, individualised and tailored support, while at the same time retaining our broad determination to enable opportunities to be available to everyone by continuing to work towards having the best public services in the world. However, in a sense, it is because of our success that some problems have been more widely exposed. We adopt our approach because we do not take the traditional ideological views of poverty and exclusion. Too many people have said that those things are only a matter of income, and too many people on the other side of the House have said that they are a result of fecklessness and the fault of the people who are poor. The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells might not have heard that being said from his side of the House in this Parliament, but I assure him that I have heard it said time and again by Conservative Members during my time in the House.
We believe in the potential of everyone, and we are determined to acknowledge that through the way in which we develop policies. Yes, levels of material income matter, which is why we have done so much to address that, but for the minority of families and individuals who have not been able to take advantage of what is available, we must come in with new ideas and new ways of working. The more such people are disengaged from the opportunities that exist, especially those offered by education, the more likely they will be to drift into deeper and deeper problems. We cannot neglect the issue of being able to engage with those people, because it is at the heart of how we can reach out to the socially excluded and work with them to help to turn their lives round.
Many more people have gone into work and have begun to believe that they can improve their prospects and those of their families. As people begin to take advantage of Sure Start, extended school activities and tax credits, and as they raise their aspirations, those who are not doing so are left further behind. We know that—we acknowledge it in the action plan—and I think that that is the issue that the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells is addressing. There is a small minority of people whom we have not been able to engage in the new deal and other mainstream programmes. Those people have drifted further, and while general prosperity has risen, they have been left behind.
Many of us are very aware of that in our constituencies. These people are the family that will be seen as the problem in the street. The parents will probably be second or third-generation workless. They might have addiction problems. They get angry when confronted with officialdom. The children truant and are experienced by neighbours as running wild. They get involved in low-level crime and antisocial behaviour. The daughter will get pregnant while she is still a young teenager, and perhaps the children will be in and out of the care system. We, the public, spend a fortune trying to deal with the crises and the problems. The problems become deeply intractable and the most socially excluded become the hardest to reach. Their problems are multiple and entrenched and are often passed down through the generations. It was the understanding of the group that led the Prime Minister to look for a new focus on those who are most entrenched and excluded.
I was appointed last May, along with the Parliamentary Secretaries to the Cabinet Office, my hon. Friends the Members for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. McFadden) and for Doncaster, North (Edward Miliband). In September we brought out “Reaching Out: An Action Plan on Social Exclusion”. We set out the challenge that faces us: even in the context of an encouraging national prosperity, a hard core of about one in 40 of our fellow citizens still struggle to access the health, education and employment opportunities that benefit the vast majority.
I am sure that the right hon. Lady and the Government are right to highlight that group of people. She will probably be aware that Save the Children and others have highlighted the fact that about a million children are still in what they term severe poverty—with an income less than 40 per cent. of median income. They are very much the kind of people whom she has described. However, the Government have been unwilling to monitor this most excluded and hard-up of groups and to publish numbers. Does she agree that it would be worth monitoring those in the severest poverty and ultimately setting targets?
The issue was considered in some detail by the Department for Work and Pensions. I am sorry to tell the hon. Gentleman that the problem is that the figures for those in the below 40 per cent. group are totally unreliable, because people move in and out of it very quickly, and it changes very quickly. It has proved impossible to find reliable information that gives us any way of dealing with the issue and moving forward.
The Minister has effectively said that the figures are available, but that it would be inconvenient to disclose them to the House, because she thinks that they would be unreliable. I am sure that experts outside the House, such as Save the Children, to whom the Liberal spokesman, the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor), referred, are keen to see the figures, and would like the Government to publish them. Can we not be the judge of whether they are reliable? Give us the figures.
The hon. Gentleman has made a good attempt, but the reality is that, having wandered around the parties, he has ended up in one that has traditionally rejected the idea of any form of relative poverty. He is trying to encourage his party to move towards accepting it, and I commend him for that, but I do not commend him for the manner in which he used his figures. He used 1994-95 as a baseline, and said that we had not done what we said we were doing in relation to lifting children out of poverty—but the reality is that by using the 1994-95 figures, he is taking into account the last three years of the Major Administration, when poverty among children rose at a rapid rate.
He was not in the Tory party then.
That is right; I do not think that he was. The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells is trying to make out that the problems of the Major Administration are our fault. I hate to tell him this, but we were not able to influence that Administration in the way that we wanted to. He is exposing the failures of his party, rather than taking a look at what the Labour Government have done.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for raising that point, because it gives me the opportunity to explain. She may find it difficult to reflect on this, but the point of publishing a 10-year analysis was not to be politically partisan. Indeed, the report makes it clear that it is a look at severe poverty over successive Governments. However, as she is interested in her Government’s record, I can tell her that we have the figures for 1996-97, which is the standard baseline that she uses, and the figures for severe poverty increased by 400,000 during that period. We could be partisan and consider only her Government’s record if that is what she wants, but I chose to be non-partisan, and to be rather more analytical.
That is not quite how I remember the hon. Gentleman’s press release, but there we go; he forgets about that. The Conservatives claimed, incorrectly, that the number of people living on less than 40 per cent. of median income has grown by 750,000 under Labour, but there has been no rise in the number of people living below 40 per cent. of median income since 1997, once housing costs are taken into account. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will apologise to the House—
The question of whether to use figures that take account of housing costs can be answered very simply: the Government’s official definition of child poverty uses the figures before housing costs are taken into account, and those were the figures that I used.
The problem is that the hon. Gentleman uses only the 40 per cent. median figures. The Government numbers deal with the 60 per cent. figure on relative poverty. He cannot mix everything in, and then say that we are getting it wrong. I am giving him a clear message about what the real position is. He may not be satisfied with that, but it is true that the data based on the 40 per cent. of median income figure are not robust, and for that reason are not published. Indeed, his Government were prepared to say the same.
On housing costs, I thank my right hon. Friend for her letter of 14 December, in response to my point about the Harker report and the impact of the interaction between the working tax credit, housing benefit and council tax benefit in areas of high rent and council tax, such as Slough. The Harker report points out that for only £500 million, some 170,000 more children could be lifted out of poverty. Will she act on the promise that she gave me to talk to colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions about child poverty action, and will she try to ensure that we look favourably on that recommendation?
My hon. Friend is right to mention the Harker report, a significant report about how we move to the next phase in tackling child poverty. We are never satisfied; we always want to go further, and there are some very good proposals in the Harker report. I assure her that I looked, and will continue to look, with great care at those proposals with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. He is determined that we should have a new push on tackling child poverty. In addition, I hope that we can consider how to tackle the problem properly within regions, and I am committed to taking that forward.
Absolute poverty has halved since 1997, and relative poverty has fallen substantially, too. Some 2.5 million fewer people now live below the poverty line, including 800,000 children. Record numbers of people—2.5 million more than when we took office—are in employment, and crime has nearly halved over the past decade. We know that everything is not yet done, but we continue to think about what we could do further to make sure that there is real opportunity for everyone. Those are facts; they are real numbers, reflecting real changes for the better in the lives of the individuals and the communities most badly failed by the previous Government.
Will the Minister concede that in-work poverty has risen significantly? For example, in Wales, the figure has risen from 30 per cent. in the mid-1990s to 40 per cent. now—a rise of some 150,000 people. What are the Government doing to tackle that problem?
As I said, the Harker report considered the very issue of areas in which there is poverty that we have not managed to shift. Working families tax credit had an incredible effect on working families, but the hon. Gentleman is probably referring to people who do not have families. One of the reasons the Chancellor introduced the working tax credit is to enable us to begin to target those who do not have children. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that our overriding priority remains children and families with children, because, as I shall say later, we believe that unless we ensure that things are better for children, we are condemning them to a lifetime of poverty and exclusion. We want to find ways to intervene much earlier. Today’s debate is about how we should address the persistent and deep-seated exclusion of that small minority.
I do not just think that—I know it. I recently visited a school on the Isle of Dogs, which operates a volunteer programme that developed from the millennium volunteer scheme, and it is keen to pursue opportunities under V. It recruits as volunteers young people from year 10 upwards. It involves them in a range of activities, including mentoring and organising sport and games, and it provides them with training and support. Previously, many of those children would have lost their way and got into trouble. The programme has proved to be enormously effective in that school, and my hon. Friend will be able to ensure that it is effective in Stockport, too. I recommend that colleagues look at what they can do in their constituencies to enable many more young people to become involved in volunteering, which gives them a feeling of self-worth. That is a key problem that we have to crack—people must believe that they can do better and make a contribution—and it is very much the aim of our programmes.
Too many groups in our communities are still unable to take advantage of the opportunities that we have provided. Up to one in 10 young people are not in education, employment or training, and every year about 40,000 teenagers become pregnant—the number is lower than it used to be, but it is still high. Too many children and young people in care do not achieve the educational outcomes that children who are not in care expect to achieve. More worryingly than any of those individual facts is the clear evidence that those poor outcomes are persistent, interlinked and reinforcing. It requires sustained and usually complex investment to reverse social exclusion. Young people in care are more than twice as likely to become teenage parents. If they suffer from one risk factor, they probably suffer from others, too. Up to half of people with mental health problems are affected by substance abuse. That tendency is intergenerational. There is a strong association between low family income, as indicated, for example, by free school meal entitlement, and poor educational attainment, early parenthood and worklessness. A small but critical minority of families is at acute risk of entrenched harm and poor life chances.
Those individuals and families need the most support, but they do not engage with the services that could help them. People with multiple problems bounce between services. That costs a great deal of money, and they remain at enormous risk. If we are to tackle social exclusion we must reach out to those groups.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that those people are members of communities? We must invest in those communities to enable them to help their most deprived and least well-off members. We want communities to stand on their own two feet, and we cannot impose solutions from outside. The sustainable solution is for active communities working alongside the services to work with—not for—those people.
That is a key point. There are examples of such work around the country that have resulted in clear improvements in children’s attainments and other things.
After last May, we established a new focus by creating a dedicated social exclusion taskforce in the Cabinet Office and publishing the “Reaching Out” action plan in September. The key principles of reform in that action plan include, first and most importantly, better identification of the problems and who is suffering them, followed by early intervention. We need to identify as early as possible who is at risk of persistent exclusion and, in turn, use that information to design interventions and more effective support for individuals who are most in need before disadvantage becomes entrenched. That is critical if we are to ensure that people’s life chances are not determined at birth, and because it makes moral and financial sense to invest in prevention. We need a robust data-collection system that will enable us to predict later outcomes. I shall return to that later by outlining one of the programmes that we will roll out.
Secondly, we must identify what works. We will systematically identify and promote interventions that work. If we are to ensure the effective adoption of best practice we must develop the capability of those responsible for commissioning and providing services, and we shall introduce proposals on the subject. Thirdly, we want to promote more effective multi-agency working. We all know from constituency experience that the problems faced by the most socially excluded tend to be chronic, multi-faceted and beyond the scope of any single public service. We are determined to break down barriers and enhance flexibility so that local agencies can work together to meet the needs of excluded groups, especially those who face multiple problems.
Fourthly, we need to focus on personalisation and rights and responsibilities. We all know that a one-size-fits-all approach often lets down the most vulnerable. Indeed, nine rough sleepers—seven of them are now in accommodation, but two are still on the streets—came to see me yesterday. The clear message of our meeting was that services must be tailored to the needs of the individuals who use them. Where appropriate, we must empower excluded groups to make choices about their support or ensure that an independent, trusted third party works on their behalf. That must all be framed by a clear understanding of the rights and responsibilities of citizens, the community, those responsible for the delivery of services, and the state.
Fifthly, we must support achievement and manage underperformance. We have agreed that high-quality service provision is important in tackling social exclusion, and if local authorities and service providers deliver the goods, Government should leave them alone. But where there is underperformance, we ought to intervene and we will.
These are not abstract principles. They form the architecture of a renewed approach and they are already making a positive and practical impact. We want those principles to be the thread that links and co-ordinates policy across Government, with my Department using its elbows, so to speak, to ensure that we work corporately and that nobody takes their eye off the ball of tackling social exclusion.
The principles lie at the heart of recent departmental work—for example, the recent Green Paper on children in care from the Department for Education and Skills, and the local government Green Paper from the Department for Communities and Local Government. They also underpin the proposals set out in the action plan—proposals that we are already taking forward across the country.
I know that many of my colleagues are interested in very early intervention through health-led demonstration projects on parenting. We have set aside £7 million over a two-year period initially, to be invested in 10 local projects based on joint bids from primary care trusts and local authorities in some of our most disadvantaged areas. I see that as a key means of demonstrating that it is possible to intervene at a very early age in a way that has nothing to do with the nanny state or with stigmatising, but which ensures that the prospective mother is supported when she needs that support, and that the support continues until the child is about two and is better able to access the other programmes available.
This is an exciting and innovative programme that has not been undertaken systematically in this country before, and its evaluation has been highly favourable. The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-East and I recently went to the United States to see the programme in operation in Denver. The person who developed the programme has done an extremely thorough evaluation, and I know that colleagues have been studying in the action plan some of the outcomes of that programme. The pregnancy and birth outcomes are clear—fewer kidney infections, fewer pre-term deliveries among mothers who smoked, heavier babies among mothers aged 14 to 16, and as the child grows up, much better outcomes than for a similar group that was measured but was not in the programme.
I do not understand how anyone with any compassion, seeing the results of the programme and believing that we must enable people to handle their lives more effectively and deal with problems as they go on, could think that the programme was ludicrous and dismiss it as “foetal ASBOs”, but that is what the Leader of the Opposition did.
Does my right hon. Friend also agree—it is almost a truism—that the earlier the intervention, the less expensive it is? If a youngster is left to go wrong—for example, a 16-year-old put away for a year in a secure unit—it will cost society £250,000. Proper health visiting and midwifery for a minus-nine month to two-year-old will cost a tenth of that and will eliminate the tale of drug abuse costs, court costs and social work intervention costs. The earlier we intervene, the better the value for money for the taxpayer as well.
There is no doubt about that. It is also the right thing to do for those individuals. When we know that there is action that we can take by intervening early, why should we say, “Oh no, we won’t do that. It would be interfering or labelling people.” Why should we not develop a relationship at an early stage? What I saw in Denver was inspirational.
The young mother whom I visited there with her community nurse was clear that the programme had increased her self-worth and increased her ability to cope, to deal with the difficult relationships in her family, and to provide what the child needed in terms of play, stimulation and being kept safe. She did not experience that as the state coming in and telling her what to do. Most of the women involved in the programme and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) observed, most of the parents participating in parenting courses, even if they had been forced to participate, say, “Why on earth didn’t you let us have this earlier?” I hope that the Opposition will say today that they support such programmes. I hope that they will back them and ensure that throughout the country there is effective early intervention, so that we stop problems early, rather than waiting until they become too difficult to resolve.
I fully concur with the comments of the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen). Early intervention is so important, as is setting the right tone. A problem that we are seeing among teenagers in Bournemouth is binge drinking. That is seen as the norm, and in the new generation it has become acceptable to drink an awful lot from a very young age. What are the Minister’s views on that?
I think the hon. Gentleman exaggerates. I am concerned about binge drinking and about drinking. I have some difficulty with that, as I had a straightforward Methodist upbringing. We had no drink in the house. [Interruption.] Indeed, I was a member of the Rechabites. It is amazing how things change as one gets older.
There is a problem, but the hon. Gentleman should not label the majority of young people as binge drinkers. They are not. The majority of young people do not drink excessively, because many of them know what it would do to them. They are not interested in that. They have other ways of enjoying themselves and they know that they have choices. Yes, we are doing an enormous amount to tackle the issue that the hon. Gentleman highlights, but I will not label every young person as a binge drinker.
I am grateful for the opportunity to come back on that. The debate is not about the majority of people and I was not labelling the majority of people. The debate is about the 2.5 per cent. who are labelled as socially excluded. I put the question again to the Minister. Binge drinking is now considered the norm by a small minority but, as the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) pointed out, it will cost the taxpayer and the Government at a later stage because we are allowing that to happen. Does she agree?
I share my right hon. Friend’s disbelief about the term “foetal ASBOs” used by the Leader of the Opposition. Does she share my disappointment that there are only four Conservative Back Benchers present and no Liberal Democrat Back Benchers? That might belie the rebranding of the Conservatives as compassionate. Will my right hon. Friend look into a developing issue? With the innovative services provided by Sure Start, staff are coming in from the health service and the education service, where they are treated as key workers, yet in some of our under-fives centres and our nurseries, they do not have access to key worker housing schemes. With colleagues in the Department for Education and Skills, will my right hon. Friend ensure that all those who do such vital work with the under-fives, whether in the voluntary, the private or the public statutory sector, are included in key worker schemes, particularly in areas where income-related housing—
The Minister says that we must tackle parenting issues. I strongly support the Government on that. Does she agree, however, that a lot more could be done in schools as regards child development by encouraging older children to work with younger children? With the breakdown of extended families and fewer people living in extended communities, everyone is growing up with less experience of children and more alternatives to interacting with them than ever before.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. My colleagues in the Department for Education and Skills have been working on that. We are trialling mainstream programmes in addition to the alternative ways of working that some schools are adopting. It is also important as a means of trying to deal with teenage pregnancy in a different way. Young people must learn that children have needs and that if they decide to have a baby as the answer to their problems it will not be an easy way out but probably the start of a whole new set of problems. Good practice is going on in some of our schools and authorities in that respect.
I was talking about the health-led demonstration projects. We invited joint bids from PCT and local authority areas for funding for those projects and received an overwhelming response, with 63 areas putting in joint bids, representing more than 40 per cent. of the country. That shows that whatever the Leader of the Opposition thinks, people who are working with these issues on the ground want to see this in action. I cannot tell hon. Members which areas they are today, but I will make that announcement, with the Department of Health and the DFES, in the very near future.
We have announced a series of 12 to 15 pilots catering for chaotic adults with multiple needs. I became particularly interested in that group when I was Housing Minister. Such people frequently end up not only homeless but as visitors to accident and emergency departments, in mental health programmes, or in prison or custody of some sort. We need to build on current innovative practice, with the statutory sector working in partnership with the private and third sectors to try to get a more coherent and comprehensive approach to individuals with complex multiple needs.
I feel that I must keep going because so many other Members want to speak.
Nobody would pretend that resisting persistent social exclusion is an easy task—but it is, for the social and economic reasons that we have discussed, a major prize. The potential savings to individuals, communities and the state are enormous, but it will also enable many more people to reach their potential, to become aspirational and to turn their lives around. We must continue with all the other programmes that are producing the outcomes that I talked about. We must continue to invest in and reform our universal services so that whatever an individual’s need, whether acute or not acute, they are able to get the most out of those services. We must build on the successes and the lessons learned as we develop a more refined approach to prevention and to early intervention. We want to make a reality of our goal of progressive universalism, taking people with us and together making a difference to the lives of our most vulnerable families and communities.
I am sorry, but I am coming to a close because so many other Members want to speak.
It is a truism that the test of any Government is how they respond to their most vulnerable people. For this Government, that is not enough. We want to stand up to the test of courage and ambition in taking action to ensure that future generations will not face the same persistent exclusion that so negatively affected the life chances of those who came before them. That has dogged this country for centuries—indeed, it has dogged most countries; I do not know of anywhere where people have managed to tackle it successfully. We believe that the combination of good public services, a sound economy, measures to get people into work, and specific programmes to reach out to and engage the most excluded will together open up opportunities that for too many people are not there at the moment. We want to ensure that those future generations will not face the persistent exclusion that has so negatively affected the life chances of those around them.
The Government are serious about responding to this challenge. We recognise that it becomes tougher as we raise overall opportunity and prosperity further and faster, but unless we address it head on we will have failed in the task that we set ourselves when we took office in 1997. Progress has been made, but we are determined to reach out to those to whom no previous Government have reached out. We believe that it is possible to find ways of doing that. We have been able, through some of the programmes, to reach out to the most excluded. We want to ensure that in every part of the country those programmes become the way in which people truly focus on the needs of the least advantaged and most excluded in their communities.
I look forward to the rest of the debate and thank the House for its tolerance in allowing me so much time.
Let me start by welcoming the Government’s renewed emphasis on social exclusion. We share their concerns and welcome further efforts to help those on the edge of society. Although I promise not to refer to Polly Toynbee, it is only right to say that I agree that we should not let people fall too far behind the caravan of society. [Interruption.] I believe that those were her words.
We clearly have problems of social exclusion; the proportion of children in workless households is the highest in Europe, more than half the children in inner London are still living below the poverty line, more than 1.2 million young people are not in work or full-time education despite a growing economy, and 2.7 million people of working age are claiming incapacity benefits—three times more than the number who claim jobseeker’s allowance.
The Minister for Social Exclusion knows from her background in social work, as I do from helping many disadvantaged people as a lawyer—[Interruption.] She laughs, but if she has ever been to a law surgery, she will know what I mean. The statistics do not convey the full misery and hopelessness in which some people find themselves. Family breakdown, financial problems, addictions, poor educational achievement and worklessness are key matters at the heart of social exclusion that lead to people being trapped in pockets of permanent poverty.
As the Minister said, approximately 2.5 per cent. of every generation appears to be caught in a lifetime of disadvantage and harm. We argue that far more people are affected to some extent by the factors that I have mentioned. It is important to maintain a vision that is broad enough to help all those who are affected by social exclusion and does not simply concentrate on a tiny group that has particular problems. The Minister said that one of the core principles of the Government’s action is better identification and earlier intervention—I am happy to agree with that.
The groups at the highest risk of social exclusion are those affected by the issues that I mentioned. The Leader of the Opposition has asked my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith)—
He had a prior commitment to do with the subject that we are discussing. He had hoped to be here today. It is important to bear in mind that his social justice policy group has just published “Breakdown Britain”, which examines family breakdown in great detail. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) should listen because we are discussing a huge problem for the country. My right hon. Friend treats family in his report in its wider, less restricted sense and breakdown as meaning dissolution and dysfunction. He also considers homes without fathers and single parenthood.
Most people learn the fundamental skills for life in the family—physically, emotionally and socially—and the findings in the report are evidence based. I believe that they are important. The rate of marriage has declined but divorce rates are now stable. The continuing rise in family breakdown is driven by the dissolution of cohabiting partnerships. As the Minister said, there seems to be an intergenerational transmission of family breakdown, with high rates of teenage pregnancy. The same is true of abuse and neglect.
The hon. Gentleman has obviously not understood the process. My right hon. Friend has been given the task of first producing a detailed analysis. He has published a detailed document and I suggest that the hon. Gentleman read it. It runs to approximately 500 pages but it is very good.
The process of making recommendations has not yet happened—my right hon. Friend will do that in the summer. The shadow Cabinet will then consider them. We have not, therefore, reached the stage at which the hon. Gentleman would like us to be. However, it is right to have a serious, detailed process. As a party in opposition, especially one that has recently lost elections heavily, we are right to re-examine all the issues in detail. If the hon. Gentleman criticises that, I simply do not agree with him.
I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman again. I shall move on a little and then give way to the hon. Lady.
Survey evidence from YouGov based on a large sample showed a worrying correlation between those who experience family breakdown and other problems. It showed that those who are not brought up by both parents are more likely to experience educational problems, drug addiction, alcohol problems, serious debt or unemployment. On dysfunction, my right hon. Friend’s policy group identified a breakdown of nurture in many families that are unable to provide for core needs, such as secure attachment, protection, realistic limits to behaviour, freedom to express valid emotions, autonomy, competence and a sense of identity, which are gained from a nurturing family.
The report also worryingly points out the link between family breakdown and youth crime. The reduction in committed relationships has also affected the amount of family care that is available to the elderly. The Local Government Association recently said that that is an expensive problem for the country.
As the hon. Lady may recall, at the beginning of my remarks, I identified various factors that were important in social exclusion. They included financial difficulties—the hon. Lady’s point—and drug addiction. I raised family breakdown but it was not the only issue that I mentioned. She would be wrong to believe that I am saying that it is the only issue. However, it is important and if she read the research and examined the evidence, she would conclude that it is a problem. If she believes that it is not, that is fine, but it is not what the evidence shows.
When the hon. Gentleman reviews his party policy on the law relating to cohabiting couples, will he support a change to give some rights to partners in such relationships? One of the problems in breakdowns of cohabiting relationships is that there is no access for one of the parents, and the parent who is usually left with the child often loses their home. That is one of the key factors that leads to child poverty and exclusion.
As the hon. Lady knows, the Law Commission has produced an interesting report on the matter and we are currently considering it. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Tooting laughs. Is it wrong for an Opposition to consider a serious report by a serious organisation? I think not.
Let me answer the hon. Lady’s point in a little more detail. A range of issues needs to be examined. A court can currently make an order in favour of children in order to provide a home during their youth up to the age of 18 or when they cease full-time education. The Law Commission is considering whether that can be expanded. It is an interesting and important question and we will reach a view on it in due course. Nobody could argue that it is not important or that we do not need to support and strengthen those who are in committed relationships over time.
The hon. Gentleman has mentioned some of the issues that his party is considering. He identified child poverty as an issue about which he is concerned. Does he believe that his party leader should support Labour’s pledge to eradicate child poverty by 2020? If not, why not?
I shall deal with that shortly, but let me finish my point on family breakdown. It seems harsh to mention public spending but there is a high cost in benefits—more than £20 billion on lone parent benefits. We all know about the increasing housing needs that family breakdown generates, and the extra care costs for councils due to changed demography are estimated to be £146 million. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green will report on his conclusions in the summer. At that point, we will consider our policy response.
I am interested in the fact that the hon. Gentleman is discussing family breakdown. I do not deny that there are genuine problems, but if the Conservative party is so worried about it, why, when divorce rates increased throughout Europe during the Thatcher years, was family breakdown in this country much greater than in comparable countries where divorce increased at the same rate? Does he believe that that had anything to do with that Government’s policies, given that they did not support those who were changing their family circumstances? Why did the Conservative party vote against the changes to maternity rights, all the policies on job sharing and enabling women to get time out of work, and all the proposals that support people while a breakdown is happening so that they do not become excluded? Other countries have prevented social exclusion through the sort of measures that we have introduced, yet the Conservative party has voted against them and, when it was in power, family breakdown was much greater even though divorce rates were comparable with those in other countries.
As the right hon. Lady knows, although divorce rates have stabilised with marriage at a much lower level than it used to be, family breakdown has not ended—it is rising—which is a major issue. I would not necessarily blame family breakdown on the current Prime Minister, so it is a bit rich for the Minister to blame past family breakdown on our party’s leader 20 years ago. Another important point for the Minister to consider is that we are embarked on a new direction. Are we not entitled as a party to say that we have lost three elections and need to look at our policies again? I would not have thought that the Minister would want to criticise us for that. As she well knows, the Labour party had to do the same thing. She was arguing for all sorts of things in the early 1980s that she does not argue for now.
The hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) speaks some sense for a change. Instead of heckling my hon. Friend, he should make some useful contribution to the debate.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a sense of smug complacency on the Government Benches this afternoon, particularly when the Government have widened the gap between the richest 10 per cent. and the poorest 10 per cent. over the period since 1997? In fact, they have put a stop to social mobility, which is officially recognised in most academic evidence. Does my hon. Friend agree that that record hardly provides a basis for the Government to lecture our party, which is attempting to develop interesting, intelligent and coherent social policy?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Recently published research shows that the poorest households in Britain are paying a higher share of tax and getting a lower share of benefits than they did before 1997. The figures show that if the poorest fifth of households were paid the same share of total taxes and got the same share of total benefits as in 1996-97, they would have £531 a year more; and the second poorest fifth of households would have £427 a year more. My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) is therefore absolutely right to speak as he does. To add insult to injury, the poorest fifth of households pay a higher proportion of their income in taxes than any other group.
The claim in the action plan mentioned by the Minister—that the steady rise in income inequality has been halted—is simply not right. The fact is that levels of income inequality are now slightly higher than they were in the 1980s or 1990s. The Minister ended up saying that there has not been an increase, while acknowledging that the position has not improved. However, what the Institute for Fiscal Studies said in its report was that inequality was slightly higher. The Government wonder in the action plan why those on the very lowest incomes have seen the lowest rates of income growth, which I think is a valid question.
So is the hon. Gentleman disputing the figures in the action plan, which show that the bottom two fifths of incomes have grown quicker than the rest of the income brackets during the period of the Labour Government? Far from what the hon. Gentleman is saying, incomes for the bottom two fifths have actually grown quicker than the rest—by about 1.5 per cent., I believe. The diagram in the action plan is very clear and very easy to understand, so I direct the hon. Gentleman to it on page 15.
The quotation that I referred to was that
“those on the very lowest incomes have seen the lowest rates of income growth”,
which comes from page 17 of “Reaching Out: An Action Plan on Social Exclusion”, published in September 2006. The Institute for Fiscal Studies said that there has been
“little impact upon the slight upward trend in inequality that has been experienced over Labour’s term in government.”
That is a straightforward quotation.
Social mobility, which is so important, has been reduced since 1997. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who is well respected in the House, said in a speech to the Social Market Foundation on 13 September:
“It is actually getting harder for people to escape poverty and leave the income group, professional banding or social circle of their parents. In fact, it’s currently harder to escape the shackles of a poor upbringing in Britain than anywhere else in Europe”.
If your parents are poor, you are likely to be poor—and that is after 10 years of a Labour Government.
It is not just that the rise in incomes—once one takes account of tax—has not been the success story one would hope for, as the cost of living for families is rising fast. The Leader of the Opposition recently highlighted the true levels of inflation on items affecting people on low incomes. He pointed particularly to energy prices, which are up 71 per cent. since 2003. Mortgage payments, which are also important to many, are up 78 per cent. and taxes are up 81 per cent. He has asked the Office of Fair Trading to investigate the rises in energy prices.
The Minister and I would agree about the importance of education—she mentioned it—to reducing social exclusion. Unfortunately, success has proved elusive. Three quarters of 16-year-olds from low-income families in England and Wales failed to get five good GCSE passes at grades A to C. That is double the rate that applies to other students. The Public Accounts Committee recently highlighted the failure of 1,500 schools and only today we have learned—it is in the news—that 500 schools have failed to meet the 25 per cent. target for five good GCSE grades. If we look into some of the most excluded groups, such as children in care—[Interruption.] Well, the Minister should know a lot about this, as she used to be a social worker. About 89 per cent. of children in care failed to get five good GCSE passes—a poor record of dealing with the low achievement of children in care.
The Government admit it. The Minister for Children and Families has said that despite the Government’s efforts—no one is denying that the Government are trying—the gap between the outcomes of looked-after children and others is “extremely wide” and “completely unacceptable”. The future for many children in care is very depressing. Almost half of young women in care become mothers within 18 to 24 months of leaving care; and between a quarter and a third of rough sleepers have been in care. I think that tackling the present level of under-achievement has to be a major priority.
Schools can play an important role in the overall strategy to halve teenage pregnancy by 2010. If teenage parents are encouraged to increase their participation in education and training or employment, they may reduce their chances of long-term social exclusion. The likelihood of teenage pregnancies is far higher among those with low educational achievements, even after adjusting for the effects of deprivation. Nearly 40 per cent. of teenage mothers leave school with no qualifications at all. We need to give young people access to consistent help from professionals who understand them and can advise them—with proper assurances of anonymity, where appropriate. It is concerning that, despite the work of the teenage pregnancy unit, set up by the Government, pregnancies among under-14s are actually rising and the overall target for reduction has been missed.
In terms of health, despite the Government target to reduce infant mortality by 10 per cent., the relative gap in the infant mortality rate between the general population and the poorest social classes has increased by 46 per cent. since 1997. Despite the clear link between mental health and social exclusion, the Government have had to reduce the percentage of funding for mental health in many parts of the country. Children are often the worst affected with 15 per cent. of those with mental health needs having to wait more than 26 weeks to see a specialist—[Interruption.] Well, those are all Government figures.
Aside from treatment, we need to provide people with mental health problems with better access to training and employment. Just 20 per cent. of those with severe mental health problems have jobs. Four out of 10 employers have said that they would not consider employing someone with a history of mental illness. If we are to move forward, we must tackle that stigma and discrimination.
Concern is being expressed in the voluntary and not-for-profit sector that the Government are asking it to deliver a Government agenda, rather than allowing it to develop innovative services based on its knowledge and expertise. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. McFadden) will give the House an assurance when he responds to the debate that the kind of measures that the Minister for Social Exclusion was describing—monitoring, ensuring standards and so on—will not involve cutting back on the innovation that some social enterprise voluntary bodies have been able to give us to tackle these deep-seated problems.
I welcome what the hon. Gentleman is saying about innovation through social enterprises and voluntary organisations. Will he tell me, however, why, since the Conservatives took control of the Association of London Government—I believe that it is now called London Councils—in May, they have slashed the quantity and size of the grants given to the voluntary sector organisations doing exactly that job by one third, in favour, they say, of keeping the council tax down?
We could spend a long time talking about local government settlements. When the Audit Commission looked into why Conservative councils in particular had had to put up their council tax rates, it made the clear finding that a lot of the money had been sent elsewhere, away from Conservative areas. That might have a bearing on this matter.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern, which was articulated recently by the chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, about the year-on-year real-terms reductions in public health expenditure and the static state since 1997 of public health professionals? The chief medical officer entitled the relevant chapter of his annual report:
“Raiding public health budgets can kill”.
Does not that stand in stark contrast to the rhetoric from Ministers about taking all public health issues seriously, including alcohol abuse, tuberculosis and sexual health?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is a considerable body of evidence that good public health—particularly the encouragement of good practice and healthy living—can really improve health outcomes. This is an area in which the Government certainly took their eye off the ball during their first few years. For example, there was an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, particularly in London, before they took action. They also took a very long time to take action on the issue of tuberculosis, particularly among the Asian community. In public health terms, there are real concerns about how slow the Government have been to react to these major problems. I certainly concur with what my hon. Friend has said.
The Minister may say that, but it is well established that some of the cheapest and most successful health systems in the world are those that place a strong emphasis on public health, so that fewer people require treatment for the more expensive conditions. She should not think that it is always a question of spending more money. One of the problems with the Labour Government is that they have never really got down to implementing any solid reform in the public service sector in order to deliver on their intentions. Those intentions have often been very good, but the delivery has often been a bit of a shambles.
I have visited many projects that help the socially excluded, and one lesson that I have learned is that it is not possible to make sweeping decisions from on high. The socially excluded are, by their very nature, individuals with complex needs. Solutions to social exclusion must come from the bottom, from the people who know the individuals and their problems. This is not about abdicating responsibility; it is about giving the power to those who should have it. There is a role for national initiatives, but they work only if those delivering them on the front line accept them.
The Minister has been somewhat critical of the Leader of the Opposition for talking about Government gimmicks. The work that is being done on pilots on early intervention may well prove to be serious, important work, and we would certainly be happy to look in detail at how the pilots have worked. She should forgive us, however, for being a bit cynical after all these years of Government initiatives that have simply gone nowhere. An example was the proposal to take yobs to the cash point and make them pay their fines using their cash cards, which was absolute nonsense.
There have also been some quite good proposals. The north Liverpool community court, for example, is an excellent initiative. It is a pilot scheme, but it has been going for a considerable length of time and it is still not clear whether the Government see it as a model for the whole country or a one-off pilot in one area. The problem is that they constantly pilot things but do not deliver on them, roll them out or even report in detail on their successes or failures. This is bringing the Government into disrepute. The Minister should therefore not be surprised that Opposition politicians are critical.
The hon. Gentleman says that he is prepared to look at early intervention projects. Will he withdraw his party leader’s shameful description of our programme to get extra help to some of the most vulnerable children in the country as “ludicrous foetal ASBOs”?
The hon. Gentleman should not get so worked up. The Leader of the Opposition was making a perfectly sensible, genuine point about the way in which the Government have gone in for gimmicks and initiatives that do not go anywhere. If that programme turns out to be a good scheme involving some serious work, we will certainly evaluate it. We are prepared to look at anything that will help the condition of people in this country. However, we have had an awful lot of press releases from the Prime Minister that have not amounted to very much at all.
We wish the new social exclusion taskforce well, and we hope that it will be more effective than previous attempts. We are concerned, however, that the new body does not appear to have the same direct backing of the Prime Minister as the original social exclusion unit, which was based at No. 10. We accept that tackling social exclusion is an enormous challenge that will involve efforts across many Government Departments, but this will require the full and energetic support of No. 10, simply because it crosses so many portfolios.
Rather than relying on traditional thinking, and on the ideas that underpinned the last nine initiatives on social exclusion, is it not time to look for a new direction based on trusting people and on social responsibility? We need to trust the professionals, the social enterprises and the voluntary sector to tackle multiple deprivation through a combination of long-term funding, increased scope to innovate and a level playing field. We also need to trust local government, and to accept that civil servants and Ministers in Whitehall might not have all the answers. We need to move away from thinking that everything is the responsibility of the state, and towards a new spirit of social responsibility in which we work together to empower local people and local communities. We should not be so arrogant as to believe that politicians have all the answers. Our approach should not be solely about what the Government can do. It should be about what people can do, and what society can do, because we are all in this together.
I shall be brief because I know that a number of my colleagues are anxious to speak, having given up their Thursday in their constituencies to be here.
This is a timely debate. After 10 years of the social exclusion unit, and now with the introduction of the new taskforce, this is an appropriate time to consider how we have fared on social exclusion. I am afraid that I do not accept the parameters laid down by the Minister for the Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong), in relation to either supporting the taskforce and its programme or being seen as disloyal or lacking in sympathy for social exclusion.
I am saddened by the lack of ambition displayed by the social exclusion unit during its nine years of operation. I was generously given a list of things that we have done, and it was gratefully received. There are some tremendous achievements, including taking 700,000 children and 1.1 million pensioners out of poverty, and getting 2.5 million people into work. The only trouble is that the major achievements in tackling social exclusion, of which the minimum wage is another, have come from the Treasury and, if it is not too provocative to some Ministers on the Front Bench to say so—perhaps it is—the Chancellor. If the Chancellor had not introduced such fiscal changes and initiatives, today’s debate would be pretty subdued.
Although the social exclusion unit did some good work and produced 40 important reports, they are very much on the margin. It failed, or perhaps was not allowed to do, one of the jobs that, organisationally, it was ideally placed to undertake: to persuade and even bully Departments into mainstreaming, which is in its original terms of reference. That would mean making social inclusion a part of a Department’s job and persuading it to fund initiatives. Instead, we had the time-honoured practice whereby Departments agreed to take measures relating to social exclusion as long as new money was provided.
That is an important issue. The Government’s spending this year is £554 billion. Were we to take 1 per cent. of that—£5 billion—each year, we could make massive inroads into social exclusion. Such an amount would dwarf the neighbourhood renewal fund and all the programmes for which we fight one another and beg Ministers. I have seen this in local and national Government. Just 1 per cent. should be easy, but it has not been done. That is what always happens. Departments will do what we want only if we get the Chancellor to give them the money; they will not give up their main budget.
With regard to terms of reference and the four objectives, the taskforce has been sold a pup. I will not have a word spoken against any of the four objectives; they are admirable. Ten years have passed, however, and we must now ask the Prime Minister, who set the four objectives, “Where have you been?” Were I setting the taskforce objectives now, unemployment would be at the top of my list. I would say, “Why don’t you get the Departments together and have another look at unemployment?” The situation is worrying.
In the first four years of the Labour Government, when the Chancellor had money from the utilities to fund welfare to work, unemployment in my constituency and in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) dropped by 50 per cent. Since then, it has not moved, until this year when it increased by 15.9 per cent. In Nottingham in the past year, unemployment in two constituencies has increased by more than 20 per cent., and the other two constituencies have seen an unemployment percentage increase in double figures. Are the Government satisfied that no inroads have been made into unemployment—the first signpost of poverty and social exclusion—in places such as Leeds, East or Nottingham? I would have thought that someone somewhere should say, “We’d better take another look at it.”
The Government’s initiative worked for four years in which we saw 54 consecutive months of economic growth. We have therefore had the benefit of a stable and growing economy. If that changes, I dread to think what will happen. If anyone thinks that social exclusion has disappeared from Leeds, East, I can tell them that it has not. On that basis, however, it will come back fairly quickly if economic growth slows or goes into reverse.
I do not dismiss the four objectives of the taskforce; it is just that, as someone mentioned, they lack ambition. That is shown in the failure to address unemployment and ethnic minority unemployment in particular. After 10 years of a Labour Government, I still go into wards that have large ethnic minority communities and feel ashamed, because there is three times as much unemployment in the 16 to 24 age group in those communities as there is among white youngsters. Is it any surprise that community relations are not as good as they should be? After 10 years of a Labour Government, should not we be ashamed that there is still such a disparity in economic activity between white and ethnic minority people? Why is the taskforce not being invited by the Prime Minister to have a fresh look at something that seems to have eluded the social exclusion unit—[Interruption.] If the Minister says she is not allowed—
After 10 years of a Labour Government, ethnic minority unemployment is still at the same levels, and unemployment is still at the same levels in the inner cities of places such as Leeds, Nottingham, Manchester and Liverpool. If, after 10 years of Labour Government, the inner city still exists, we should tell the social exclusion unit to revisit the issue, as the policy is not working.
The other area that I would discuss today, although I know why we are not being invited to consider it, is education. I am surprised at the Opposition’s generosity in not raising the issue of education and GCSE figures. After 10 years of education, education, education, out of 43 schools listed in Leeds—[Interruption.] The Minister must contain herself. Out of 43 schools listed in Leeds, the four in my constituency are placed 19th, 37th, 40th and 41st. Clearly, something is not working. Year after year, we have had education legislation, and we have been told that we must vote for this or that legislation because it is the way forward and it will deliver. It is therefore saddening to see such figures.
In GCSE English and Maths, the schools concerned have 21, 16, 17 and 44 per cent. pass rates. The school with 44 per cent. is the one that everyone fights to get into, but 56 per cent. of pupils do not get passes in English and Maths. That is the successful school, and there are three unsuccessful ones.
If we are talking about life chances and social exclusion, but we are so unambitious and perhaps complacent—or perhaps afraid to fall out with the leader—that we do not revisit our policies on unemployment or education, we need to consider again. We must swallow our pride, because youngsters are having their futures severely damaged, and we cannot blame the Conservative party for that. It was nice to do that a few years ago, but we have now had 10 years in government, and I would have expected a far better position. Certainly, I would not have expected us to be satisfied with three high schools in one constituency in a major city such as Leeds having 16, 17 and 21 per cent. pass rates in GCSE Maths and English.
On health, I do not even think that I will read the figures; it makes too hard reading. I walk about and live in the place. I have had two debates in the House on inner-city poverty in my constituency and been assured from the Front Bench and by the Government office that I live in a place of prosperity—paradise in Leeds, East. Every week, I go around where I live and see the lives of the people and I think, after 10 years we should be making a difference. They have sad lives. [Interruption.] Yes, I am looking at the clock as well. They have sad lives, bad education, bad health, high crime figures, bad housing, high unemployment, or double the national average unemployment, and I think, we cannot blame anyone else now, we are the Government, why is it happening? The taskforce has not been asked by the Prime Minister to look at those issues.
The last issue that I shall raise briefly is another that I do not understand in respect of social exclusion: asylum seekers. The redeployment of asylum seekers to the northern cities has been a total disaster. They came out of Hounslow and Dover because they were concentrated there and they caused difficulty, with competition for school and hospital services, doctors and housing, so they were sent to the north and concentrated in the inner city. Why? There are two reasons. First, inner-city people tend to be less articulate than the middle class of the leafy suburbs, so they do not fight it. Secondly, the housing is cheaper. The authorities bought up the cheap housing and put the asylum seekers in communities that are already greatly deprived and under strain.
Garforth and Elmet have two asylum seekers; I have 1,300—I think that that is a conservative estimate. They are all concentrated in the inner city causing great problems. Let us look at how we are treating these individuals. I had a wee lass at my surgery at Christmas. She was perhaps in her 30s and suffering from deep depression and mental health problems. She had been told the week before Christmas that she was being thrown out. The authorities were taking section 4 help from her and she was homeless. Think of the weather the week before Christmas! She was on the street. They do not bother. They recently wrote to 500 Iraqis who were receiving section 4 help and said, “Sign up to say that you will go back or we will take your accommodation from you.” Instead of signing up, 450 disappeared. Where are they living? How are they earning a living? How are they feeding themselves?
I know the sheer bureaucratic incompetence sounds amusing but in human terms it is devastating. Every Member who has asylum seekers in their constituency knows that that is going on. At every surgery I have at least one asylum seeker. In fact, it is never one; it is always more. They are homeless, living with friends or at an indeterminate address. They are keeping themselves either by charity or by “other means”. We know what that means.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make this brief speech. [Interruption.] As someone who took an hour, the Minister should not mutter at me. I am simply making the point. I support the taskforce. I support the four objectives, but I would like the opportunity for a rethink of the list to make it a bit longer.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie) on his speech. Arguably, his was the first Opposition speech on behalf of the next Prime Minister. Whether it will catapult him into office in a few months remains to be seen. I will be a little more moderate in some of my criticisms than the hon. Gentleman has been of Government Front Benchers. He certainly managed to do a rather more effective job than the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman.
There is some genuine good news. The hon. Member for Leeds, East started in similar terms. That has to be said. It is important for anyone looking at these issues to realise how big a change there has been since the Conservative Administration. I hope that the Conservatives really have changed. It is a little hard to believe that 165 changed their minds about everything the day after they lost the last general election—but if they have, it is a conversion worth having.
The fact is that there are some 700,000 fewer children now in income poverty. There have been particularly big falls in pensioner poverty, which fell from some 27 per cent. of all pensioners to 17 per cent., and among single pensioners it has halved. Employment rates are much higher. Those are all good pieces of news.
I would not say, as the hon. Gentleman said, that the Government have been unambitious and complacent, but I would say that some of what the Minister has said, or perhaps more accurately a lot of what the Government say in presenting their record, oversimplifies the problem. In addition, in policy terms, the reason they have struggled is that they have overcomplicated the solutions. Therefore, they present the problem in simplistic terms and come up with solutions so complex that they do not deliver the goals that they are designed to deliver. They simply create a bureaucratic nightmare that all of us experience as MPs in dealing with the problem of, for example, constituents’ tax credits. That is the single biggest work load going through my office, and, I suspect, the offices of a lot of other MPs who represent poorer communities—but much the same could be said of many of the other systems.
The Minister likes to describe the success, which I have outlined, in terms of a hard-core minority now being left—a few who fall outside the mainstream, a last hurdle—but I do not think that that is true. I wish it were, but I think the problems go much further. For the poorer, the less educated, and minority groups, there are still huge inequalities and problems at all life stages: problems with child poverty, with skills, at working age, later in life and because of geographical exclusion.
It is true, for example, that under the Conservatives we were effectively the child poverty capital of Europe. Child poverty tripled to one in three, and the situation is much better now, but the Government have fallen short of their target. We had an interesting exchange earlier when the Minister criticised the Conservatives for using figures before deducting housing costs for those most excluded, because the Government, too, use figures before deducting housing costs to claim an improvement in child poverty that exceeds the reality. The Government claim they have reduced the number of children in poverty by 23 per cent. Actually, it is more like 17 per cent., against the Government target of 25 per cent. According to the estimates of Save the Children and others working on that issue, 1 million children continue to live in severe poverty—that is, on less than 40 per cent. of median income.
The significance of that figure is that it has not changed. I think that the explanation is that those who are relatively able have through Government policies been helped into work, but those who have the greatest problems, who tend to be in the severest poverty, have not benefited from Government policy. The Minister says that the Government have considered releasing the statistical data on that and tracking it, but that it changes fast and is unreliable. On her own terms, we are talking about the most significant group, the hardest to shift. Both targets and data are necessary and if there are caveats around the reliability of it, add those caveats, but we need that information. We certainly need it to set targets. While she may not agree publicly, I think that many of the Minister’s comments imply that she accepts that that is a real need.
It is interesting to note that tax credits are helping more children than ever. That is true, but the number needing them has sharply risen. We seem to be creating a circumstance, therefore, in which the Government are having to pour more and more resources into an ever bigger problem, rather than tackling the underlying problem.
If we are going to meet the 2020 target, which we support, and welcome the fact that the Minister and the Government are working towards it, we will need to overhaul the entire tax and benefits system. The Liberal Democrats have said a lot about that and are doing a lot of work on it.
Good. Whether the Conservative party will ever be in a position where it will be held to account for that is another matter, but it is good that all of us can focus on the issue.
The social exclusion unit—I would rather it were called the social inclusion unit—has not been as effective as was originally intended, as the hon. Member for Leeds, East said, and some of the recent changes suggest that the Government are aware of that. These debates, which cross Departments, encourage the Conservatives to put things on the record. However, we need to look at benefits reform, non-means-tested child benefit, and second and further children, since doing so could provide a way to raise many hundreds of thousands of further children out of poverty.
On maintaining family units, I am cautious about providing more income for the support of children who have two parents within a family unit to the disadvantage of children who do not. However, we need to make sure that there are no financial incentives for people to move out of the household, and the possibility of a couples premium in child tax credit can be looked at. We do not want to end up with children being financially penalised at the same time as they are being penalised in so many other ways by the break-up of their family unit.
The biggest single change that could and should be made concerns the 1.5 million children in poverty in households that nevertheless pay full council tax. As a party, we are committed to a move towards relating the amount that people pay to the council to their income. If we made the change to a local income tax, there would be an immediate impact on those 1.5 million children. It is hard to understand why any such household would pay full council tax, but that is the nature of the system.
On skills, there are headline improvements in educational standards at 11 and 16. Today it has been announced that Truro college, in my constituency, is the first to be rated as outstanding anywhere in the country. That is good news from a college that I worked hard to make sure came into being. It has been delivering the goods partly because the Government have helped with resources, and also as a result of European objective 1 funding.
However, 27 per cent. of 19-year-olds still fail to reach minimum educational standards, and poverty and low achievement reinforce each other. My fear is that the Government’s emphasis on getting people into work ignores the fact that the groups that we are now dealing with tend to be people whose problems are not simply related to work. The fact that they are out of work reflects other issues, and pushing them into part-time low-paid employment, while it may be good for statistics, does not necessarily do much to tackle social exclusion.
There have been big falls in poverty and exclusion for pensioners and children, but for those of working age the reverse has been true, which is partly related to educational achievement and abilities. We know that that relates specifically to certain groups, such as ethnic minority groups, Traveller children—in my area—and pupils with special educational needs. If we are to tackle child poverty, we need to twin it with basic numeracy and literacy goals, for which we need to move from our current relatively poor European levels to among the highest.
We particularly need to increase investment in the early years. We would use the child trust fund differently, putting it into early years investment rather than a fund that can be spent on a holiday when the child reaches 18. Choices have to be made; perhaps that is a better use of the money.
Parenting is also vital. There is a lot of knocking copy when the Government take a lead on parenting; there are suggestions that parenting education would be all about whether people should smack their children, whether they should leave babies to cry so that they get three or four hours between feeds, or whether babies should be fed on demand. It has nothing to do with that; it is about fundamental issues such as understanding child development, the importance of interaction between the adult and the child from birth, how one can help the child to read, and the importance of interaction as opposed to sitting the child in front of a video.
Teachers are talking about children coming to school with no basic skills at all, such as being able to listen, communicate or participate in groups, because they have simply sat in a house in front of one form or another of electronic entertainment. Schools are starting with basic child development that should have taken place at six months. Such children tend to come from backgrounds of social exclusion, poverty and so on, but in the modern world—without extended families, and where children can grow up without ever interacting with much younger children as they would have done in the past—they can come from middle class families as well, particularly with the pressure to work, and high mortgages and housing costs. Those are real pressures, and there is a role for education.
We can be sure that many seven and eight-year-olds will be parents themselves within 10 or 15 years, and they will need those skills, whereas very few of them will be using French or German, or much else in the curriculum. This is not about criticising people for being bad parents; it is about recognising social change. If we want to tackle those issues, we must start not with remedial treatment but by giving everyone the basic skills of parenting. I feel passionate about that, and I hope to see it incorporated more fully into our party policy. I hope that will be the case for both other main parties as well.
I strongly agree. I am experiencing all this myself, because I have a seven-week-old baby son. Both the maternity services—excellent but overstretched individuals—and health visitors, who are too overstretched to make the visits that should in theory take place, are rightly targeting where they think the greatest pressures are, but the fact that resources are so stretched does nothing to help tackle issues from the early stages, including basic ones such as helping people with breastfeeding. Many women start to breastfeed but find it increasingly difficult. The more support they get, the more likely it is that breastfeeding will continue; we all know about the health benefits of breastfeeding, but there are also socialisation benefits.
I shall now move on to people of working age, because I want to pick up the point that I made to the Minister earlier. The numbers with low or no qualifications have been dropping, although they are still bad among ethnic minority groups, and they are appalling among people with disabilities, for whom poverty rates, at 30 per cent., are twice those for the non-disabled. That is worse than 10 years ago. I am sure that that was not the Government’s intention; I suspect that they are ashamed and will want to put it right.
The evidence shows that work alone is not the solution; I cannot say that often enough. Poverty among working-age adults has not been reduced; it remains unchanged. Some 6.2 million working-age adults are in poverty, exceeding the figure for pensioner poverty and child poverty combined. In-work poverty has become a major problem, with many people, because of withdrawal of benefits and the imposition of taxes, facing effective tax rates of 60, 70, 80 or even 90 per cent. That is a significant problem, and the Government need to address it.
It is a problem that has been made worse by the overcomplicated tax credit system. We need to move to a simpler system to reduce both that problem and the extraordinary problems that some of my constituents have been facing in respect of tax credit errors having been made that are not their fault, and it then becoming almost impossible to get the system corrected. I now have one of my members of staff working almost full-time on tax credit problems, because we find they can be resolved only on the telephone, and even then there have to be multiple telephone calls and multiple pieces of paper are produced as information is got wrong. People who are already on very low incomes and in difficult financial circumstances are told that they owe thousands of pounds through no fault of their own, and those sums are then reclaimed from the very payments that are meant to be helping them out of poverty. I might add that in the process they are hit with illegal bank charges that pile up further hundreds or even thousands of pounds of debt; because such people are not paid the right amounts at the right time, they get hit with bank charges. They can get the money back, but few people realise that; I will raise that issue next week in an Adjournment debate.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point about tax credits. Does he agree that that is a particular problem in rural areas, such as my constituency, where there are high levels of self-employment and therefore a high proportion of people making use of tax credits—and where there are often low incomes generally in any case?
The hon. Gentleman is right. I represent a poorest-income county. We have very high levels of self-employment because there are few other employment opportunities. We have one of the highest levels of self-employment and small businesses in the country, but we also have low incomes and high levels of social exclusion and other poverty issues. The Government have, to a degree, recognised some issues to do with rural poverty, which the previous Government did not. That set of circumstances is probably why we have a particularly high case load of problems to do with tax credit—and, indeed, with the Child Support Agency.
I might add that those problems are not being helped by the process currently under way of closing front-line offices where the staff dealing with them work; I am thinking in particular of Inland Revenue cuts. That means that people lose the front-line accessible office in their own town, because of a centralisation process that dictates that everything should be in main towns, and does not recognise the kind of rural communities that the hon. Gentleman and I represent.
On the issue of the life cycle, £2.9 billion of means-tested benefits are unclaimed by pensioners. The evidence shows that much of that is because of overcomplication, and some of it is because elderly people often do not want to make claims as they find doing so demeaning; they want to be able to survive on a pension that once upon a time they were told would look after them in their old age, but which is now simply inadequate.
Last April, Age Concern estimated that 2 million pensioners do not get the council tax benefit that they are entitled to; that amounts to £1.1 billion, or £540 for each pensioner. I do a lot to encourage people to get what they are entitled to. There are other pensioners whose circumstances put them just over the margin for such benefit, and who pay £1,000 or so in council tax out of annual incomes of only £12,000, £13,000 or £14,000.
The Government—and the Conservatives, if they want to support the continuation of the council tax system—have to recognise that if we have a local income tax we will get rid of all the benefits and the claims, and people will simply pay according to their means. Any party that argues for maintaining the council tax system—as Labour certainly does, and I understand the Conservatives do—has to recognise that a direct result of that is a complex benefit system that many find difficult to get through, and which particularly penalises pensioners, both because they might not claim and because benefit is phased out so quickly that even people on low incomes are now faced with bills averaging well over £1,000 a year.
News of another real issue for the Government emerged yesterday, when the Commission for Social Care Inspection highlighted the social exclusion suffered by the growing number of elderly people who live alone, and who need comparatively little support. Councils all over the country have phased out the support extended to those whose needs are low or moderate, and no longer visit once a week or once a day to give them a wash or just to check that they are okay.
People whose needs are high get good support. It is improving all the time, and the Government have done well in that regard, but the lack of adequate funding means that local councils all over the country have reduced support for those whose needs are not so great. Cornwall was one of the last to offer that sort of help, but even it has had to cut it recently. No council can afford to help elderly people whose difficulties, although real, are not as severe as others’. As a result, the CSCI said, those elderly people suffer even greater exclusion, and are forced to rely on family or friends—if they exist, or are in the neighbourhood.
The Department of Health has confirmed that social care is improving in many areas. That is true for people with high need, but concern remains about the possible effects of rising eligibility criteria. Sufficient resources must be allocated to health and social services so that the necessary support can be provided, because an expression of concern by itself will not help anyone.
Incidentally, this country remains almost at the top of the winter deaths league, and that is something of which we should be ashamed. The Government have introduced programmes to tackle fuel poverty, but not enough has been done to prevent the many deaths that occur every year because people cannot keep themselves warm.
The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) has already mentioned geographical exclusion, a subject that I have raised before with the Minister. Thousands of rural post offices have closed as a result of policies pursued by this Government and their Conservative predecessor. The result is that small numbers of people are very hard hit.
In rural areas, for example, one person in five is likely not to have a car. If a person is female, the one car in her household may be driven to work by her partner, whereas a person who is disabled or elderly may not be able to drive, and young people may not be able to afford to. For people in that situation, the loss of basic services such as post offices constitutes a type of social exclusion. That is compounded when bus services are closed or very erratic, as they are used by the people who need them most.
The people who suffer that social exclusion do not always show up in the poverty figures, as they live among relatively wealthy people—the ones whose second homes mean that locals have no houses to buy, or the ones with the good jobs who have moved to the country with their families for a better style of life. The people about whom I am speaking live in real poverty, with no access to the facilities available in cities. That sort of rural poverty is a growing problem in my constituency, and in Cornwall as a whole.
Neither this Government nor the Conservatives before them have had an adequate answer to the problems that I have described. With fewer and fewer people using services such as the local bus service or post office, the obvious response, from operators or the Government, has been to close them. That has created a stratum of very poor people in rural areas who are increasingly isolated and excluded, and whom the Government have simply ignored.
I am pleased to contribute to this important debate. My experience of social exclusion is based on several factors, among them the fact that, like every other hon. Member, I am a constituency MP. I represent an area on the outskirts of Nottingham, in contrast to the inner-city patch represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie), but the outer cities suffer from great deprivation as well. My constituency is not ethnically mixed—essentially, it consists of former council estates with a white, working class population—but it too faces serious problems.
Secondly, my experience comes from being a local person, born and bred in one of those estates, who encountered even as a youngster, but also as a constituency MP, a number of the problems that have been alluded to today. Thirdly, and this is where I will concentrate my remarks today, I have experience as chair of the local strategic partnership in my area called One Nottingham, which is charged with tackling deprivation and is doing its best to help regeneration in a city with a tight Victorian boundary, which means that the problems often appear even worse than the quite difficult problems that they are.
As chair of the LSP, I can regale the House with statistics about the difficulties in my area. Fifty-eight per cent. of youngsters are born out of wedlock. I make no moral judgment about that, but it is a structural phenomenon that needs to be addressed. One in seven young people who go to secondary school cannot read the first lesson that is put in front of them. My constituency sends the lowest number of youngsters to university. These and many other statistics underline why it is vital that social exclusion—as someone said, why do we not call it social inclusion?—is paramount on the Government’s agenda.
For me, the key thing is that we start to tackle causes rather than merely chase the consequences. That is where the debate has moved on to. We have seen today from the Front Benches—all parties have been responsible—that we chase after the difficulties and try to mitigate them, because that is what gets into the newspapers and what we get earache about. But we should take our political responsibilities even more seriously and work back to find out how we can prevent things from happening in the first place. It is evident now that the Government are addressing the problems in that way.
I guess that regression is a good way to look at this. All of us encounter the problems of crime, antisocial behaviour, poor educational attainment, health inequalities, and particularly poor levels of qualification. We say, “Why can’t we do more at this level? Why can’t we throw a bit more money here? Why can’t we have another hospital here or build a new academy?” If we are serious about tackling the problems, we have to look not only at what is going wrong in secondary schools and make them more effective, which our Government have done over the past nine years, but at primary schools, which feed the secondary schools.
We should look beyond the primary school at what happens from nought to five. Are we preparing youngsters to make the best of the now much-improved education system that is on offer? Further than that, we should go prenatally, beyond mere classes about what to do if one is pregnant and how to get a new baby. We should go beyond that to those youngsters who will become pregnant. We should give people values and life chances that they can pass on to their newborns. That will break the cycle so that problems are not constantly repeated in each generation, with yet another set of remedial measures required; ever earlier intervention, ever more effective and ever more inexpensive for the taxpayer and the neighbours in the locality.
So I very much welcome the focus given by the ministerial team to social exclusion. As someone suffering from jet lag, I think that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office gave a sterling performance from the Dispatch Box. I would have given a far better speech than I am going to give had I been able to do it at 3.30 am, so my right hon. Friend deserves great praise indeed. She and her ministerial colleague have brought the new focus, and it is very welcome, because all parties in the past have failed to tackle the issue in the way that we are now doing.
I open this up to all parties. I commend some of the efforts from the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister to raise the issues. I know that we all get into the party political game and condemn each other and pick on each other’s words. It is as wrong to condemn people with phrases such as “foetal ASBOs” or “ASBOs for embryos”, as it is to talk about “loving louts” or “hugging hoodies”. People in our constituencies deserve a more serious debate and I hope that Members on both Front Benches and on both sides of the House will provide it. I commend my hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench for doing so, as well as officials in various Departments. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East was a bit tough on the social exclusion unit; in recent months, the many departments of the civil service have been working together in a way that I have not seen in all my experience in the House.
The debate is moving on; we are moving up the learning curve and I am pleased to see it. Departments are joining up as they never have before: the Home Office, the respect unit, the Department of Health and our Department for Education and Skills. I very much hope that as my right hon. Friend the Minister looks at public service agreements across the board there is more power to her elbow in respect of social exclusion and prevention, which is always difficult to measure.
Those things cannot be delivered from on high; they have to be mirrored locally in systems that can take up policy initiatives and give them the local sensitivity that will make them work. That is where local strategic partnerships and councils come into play. It is not a question of either-or; we need both working together. It is not a zero-sum game. If one part of governmental structure is effective, it does not mean that another part is ineffective. In a genuine partnership, we hope to create the best by joining all the bits together so that they equal more than the sum of their parts.
We can make a difference. One Nottingham has done remarkable things over the past year. We have refocused our efforts to tackle social exclusion and massively limited the scatter-gun approach, whereby money was sprayed across the community, and reduced 190 projects to about 60. We intend to go further so that we see some benefit from focusing our small but important resources.
LSPs include the health services, the police, the voluntary sector, local authorities and many others. Their mission is prevention, pre-emption and early intervention—three words that, in effect, are saying the same thing: we need to get in early and make sure that we have an impact at the beginning of the cycle, rather than mitigating the worst effects. We are developing theme partnerships in each sector—health, education, skills, crime and drugs—to make sure that everyone is working together. We are not merely taking good initiatives and improving them, which we can do using neighbourhood renewal funding, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East suggested, we are then getting them into the mainstream.
Short-term funding is the bane of the lives of those who are genuinely trying to tackle social exclusion at the grass roots. In Nottingham, we have attempted to come up with key projects, put real financial oomph behind them and make sure they work as effectively as possible. Our projects include tackling the 50 most difficult families in the city of Nottingham. We are teaching social behaviour in every primary school, as the antithesis of antisocial behaviour. We are building on the Government’s superb SEAL programme—the social and emotional aspects of literacy—the volume effort to ensure that every youngster has the emotional and social skills set that enables them to learn and which gives them the ability to resolve arguments without violence, thus allowing them to take advantage of what is on offer academically at primary and secondary school.
We have a welfare to work programme. Ours is the first LSP to adopt a city strategy, to make sure that people can get back to work—not forcing people, but making sure that they have the therapy and help that anyone needs if they have been out of work for a long time, giving them the self-confidence to overcome their initial anxiety or the depression they experience due to lack of self-worth. Those things are important.
My right hon. Friend the Minister alluded to the nurse-family partnerships. They have proven themselves over and over again—in Denver and in the work of Professor Olds and others. They represent, in effect, really good health visiting, with knobs on, to make sure that there is a personalised approach. That is the way that we need to go. I will flag up a warning to Ministers: even if we are determined to make those things work, it is important that they are taken on by the mainstream. We need to ensure that, while we support individual projects of that nature, which are incredibly valuable, we do not see the number of health visitors dribbling away at the other end so that such projects cannot become mainstream. I know that my hon. Friends are well aware of that.
This is all about person-specific stuff. Getting the community on side and involved is a phrase that I have heard used in today’s debate. Often the people we are talking about have no relationship whatsoever with communities. Often they feel antagonistic to even the idea of a community. They are the people we need to bring into the community. That emphasis on person-specific service is important. All those projects that I have described, which we are trying to undertake in Nottingham, are, in effect, not about swatting the mosquitoes, but draining the swamp. We need to ensure that those things are going to have a long-term impact.
There are many other issues that time prevents me from raising, but there are one or two points that I want to leave with Ministers. Above all, the issue is about helping not only to set the policy context, but to ensure that, locally, people feel that they can take projects up. People are still working in their silos. They are still afraid of losing control. Sometimes they may even be frightened of the success of a partnership. The Government as a whole need to ensure that those people, locally, feel that they are able to be entrepreneurial, to take risks and to do stuff. There is often pressure from other Departments to meet this target and fill out that form. I speak with some experience. I became a chair of a local strategic partnership and was asked immediately to produce a local area agreement, a community strategy, and a floor target action plan, even though the organisation that I took over was in need of oxygen and life support. The perspective needs to be got right and there needs to be the necessary light touch. Often targeting will distort and rob initiative if we are not careful.
We must ensure that Ministers take on board the concept of prevention and of getting that recognised as part of a legitimate function of what we do locally. Prevention is often hard to measure and does not enable us to tick boxes this time next year. The Government need to make the space to recognise and value those institutions locally that seek to undertake prevention. Finally, I want to draw attention to the work of wave research, which features in the document being put forward. If there is one picture that sums it up, it is this—
Order. Visual aids are not encouraged in the Chamber since it makes it difficult for the Official Report to record what the hon. Gentleman is talking about. I am afraid that he is going to have to use words.
I was merely trying to illustrate the point to your good self, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The photograph shows that a three-year-old who suffers neglect—who is not nurtured properly, not loved, and not given the right nutrition or the right stimulus—has a brain of a small size, whereas a child that does not suffer that neglect has a larger brain. That child is more likely to be empathetic and to be able to interact in society. That is a stunning measure of where we need to get to from where we are. This Government team, in particular, has made a tremendous start on the issue. Prevention is now seriously back on the agenda of all political parties. I wish everyone well in ensuring that the debate that we need to have is an all-party debate, as far as is possible, and one that is reflected in the localities.
I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), who made an excellent speech. I could not agree with him more that social exclusion is a subject that should be above party politics. It should be the objective of all hon. Members to ensure that those who live in socially deprived areas, or who suffer as a result of social exclusion, can find their own pathways out. We should attempt to achieve that by whatever means we can. The debate should be non-partisan.
Disraeli was probably the first pioneer of social exclusion. In 1872, he said that one of the main objectives of his Government would be the elevation of the condition of the people. That has been fundamentally at the heart of all Governments who have been in power since then—although they probably did not use phrases such as “social exclusion”—as part of the formation of their policies on health, education, transport or welfare payments.
Our debate takes place against the backdrop of what my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) described as “Breakdown Britain”. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) discussed my right hon. Friend’s report, which raises important issues. Labour Members have shouted to ask why my right hon. Friend is not in the Chamber. He is working on two projects in Balsall Heath in Birmingham. While we are in the Chamber talking about the problem, he is out there with his sleeves rolled up looking for the answers and talking to the people who know the answers.
I want to talk about the link between special educational needs and social deprivation. I think that I can hear groans from Labour Members, which is disappointing, because since I became a Member I have taken every opportunity— whether in the Chamber, in Committee, or in sittings of the Education and Skills Committee—to talk about that link and the way in which children with special educational needs are especially held back in society.
The report by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green describes education as a social escalator that elevates many people from the background into which they were born to a future that they deserve and should have the opportunity to enter. Speaking as someone who spent the first 21 years of her life on a Liverpool council estate and who is dyslexic and has a dyslexic child, I know that education is the most secure pathway. I use the word “secure” because education will be with a person for life. It is the most secure pathway to social mobility.
My right hon. Friend also identifies the fact that the escalator is broken—it is out of order. The cost of that is huge; it can be measured only in lost opportunities and wasted lives, especially for children with special educational needs. The statistics back that up: 87 per cent. of all children who are excluded—I prefer to use the word “expelled” because it describes what happens more graphically—from primary schools have special educational needs. That figure speaks for itself.
We know that there is a link between poverty and SEN, although it is not unique. It does not necessarily follow that someone with SEN will be from a socially deprived background and nor is it the case that someone from a socially deprived background will necessarily have SEN. However, we know that 26 per cent. of all statemented children in secondary schools are eligible for free school meals, compared with a figure of 13 per cent. for all secondary school pupils. In areas of high deprivation—I am sure that the hon. Member for Nottingham, North will identify with this—the figure for statemented children reaches a staggering 50 per cent. Although I am talking about statemented children, the policy of inclusion means that many children in mainstream education are not statemented. We do not know how many children with special educational needs are in receipt of free school meals, only the number of children who are statemented.
Unfortunately, statementing carries with it an obligation of funding and provision. In many areas—this affects some of my schools—an obligation that is put down in part 3 of the statement to identify financing and the hours and provision of education can be difficult for the authorities to meet. Many authorities resist statementing children and attempt, in all honesty and to the best of their ability, to follow the policy of inclusion. However, that does not work for many children, including autistic children and those who live chaotic lives in socially deprived areas and who have particular special educational needs.
A middle-class parent who has English as their first language, who has a good income and a reasonable intellect, and who can battle with teachers and the authorities, may be able to secure the provision that their child needs. If they cannot secure that provision, they may have the finances to take their child out of the system and educate them privately. I did that, and as a Conservative, I have no guilt about it. I made my choice: I educated my daughter in a private boarding school, Kingham Hill school, which has a special Greens learning support unit that addressed her special educational needs. That focused my attention on the parents and pupils whom I left behind in the school from which I took my daughter—the parents who did not have English as a first language, and who could not argue the case for their children. Many of those parents had special educational needs themselves. A parent with special educational needs will often have a child with special educational needs, as I did, because there is a genetic link.
I am sure that Labour Members are squirming, but I do not make judgments about anybody who does what I did to secure the best provision for their child. I endorse my right, as a Member of the House, to speak whenever I can on behalf of children who have special educational needs that are not met under the policy of inclusion, or because they are socially deprived. The state lets down children with special educational needs, especially those who come from socially deprived backgrounds. When things go wrong for a child with special educational needs, they go spectacularly wrong, as I know from first-hand experience.
Some parents can argue the case for their child, but let us put ourselves in the position of a child who comes from a chaotic home. It is a challenge in itself to get those children, who may also have special educational needs, through the school gate in the mornings. If they arrive at school, they often have not had breakfast. They do not like coming to school, as they feel different because they are from a socially deprived background. They already feel isolated and excluded, and their educational problems make them feel even more so. Their special educational needs exacerbate and enhance the problems that come from their backgrounds.
As I say, it is difficult to get those children through the school gates, and when they arrive they may not have eaten. When they do eat, if they do not partake of the free school meal, they will probably eat junk food loaded with additives, which makes their behaviour even more difficult in the afternoons. When they go home in the evening, they do not have a quiet place to do their homework. They do not have the encouragement that we give to our children. The domestic problems in the home may be acute; there may be problems with dependence and/or debt, and those problems may overwhelm any parents or carers who are in the home.
If there is one thing that the state could and should do, it is provide the education that is needed by both special educational needs children, and children who come from socially deprived backgrounds. The state can do that, because the infrastructure and expertise are already there, and the levers are just waiting to be pulled, so that we can provide those children with an education that meets their specific needs. If we do not take action, a self-fulfilling prophecy will come into play. Those children will not go on to contribute to society or the economy, but will be trapped for ever in their lifestyle. As the Minister for the Cabinet Office said, they will go on to have early teenage pregnancies. They may have children with special educational needs, but they will have no pathway out of the environment into which they were born. People who are born into poverty and have special educational needs feel very lost and excluded.
Many of those children, as I know from first-hand experience, begin to truant and spend time on the streets. They are vulnerable to street culture and to people who enjoy life on the streets. Drugs are far more accessible and easier to buy than they were years ago, so their problems accelerate and worsen. Many of them find themselves in young offender institutions, one of which I recently visited. All of the inmates had special educational needs, and they all came from socially deprived backgrounds. If 100 per cent. of YOI inmates have special educational needs and come from such backgrounds, what more evidence do we need? We must address the problem to prevent those children from going to those institutions We must get them through the school gates, not the gates of YOIs. The situation is frustrating, because the Government and, indeed, any Government, have the ability to achieve that goal in the education system. Many people involved in community programmes think that they are powerless and that there is nothing that they can do to stop those things happening. However, there are things that we can do because, as I said, education is a social escalator.
In his recent report, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green said:
“We need a system that understands that while material deprivation must continue to be dealt with, poverty isn’t just an issue of money. While money is important, so is the quality of the social structure of our lives. To improve the wellbeing of this country it is necessary that we help the people of Britain to improve the quality of their lives or we all become poorer.”
We are letting those children down, as their special educational needs are not being met. They drop out of school, because they do not think that they belong and they do not receive the education that they need. They feel different, isolated and excluded, so they end up on the street with children like themselves, with whom they feel comfortable. They fall into a life of crime, as we heard from several hon. Members, and they end up in youth offender institutes. There is a revolving door, because when they leave those institutes the cycle begins again. At the heart of my right hon. Friend’s comment in “Breakdown Britain”—an excellent, hard-hitting report that I recommend to everyone in the House, whatever their party—is that cycle and the escalator out of social deprivation.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries), who did the House a service by reminding us that special needs, when linked to social deprivation, become extra special needs and require more attention.
My contribution has two themes, the first of which concerns the Community Development Foundation, a non-departmental public body that has existed in one guise or another since the 1960s. Its trustees are appointed from the public, private and voluntary sectors, and I have the pleasure of chairing it. It is a Government appointment: members from each political party serve as trustees, and the chair is always drawn from the governing party. Mr. Deputy Speaker, the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst), chaired the CDF many years ago. The role of the CDF is to discover, develop and disseminate good practice in community development. It is through strong communities that we tackle social deprivation and exclusion, and it is important that sustainability is built in. Until a few months ago, the CDF was part of the active communities directorate at the Home Office, but after last summer’s reorganisation, the principal component of which was the establishment of the office of the third sector in the Cabinet Office, it was agreed that the CDF would be better placed in the Department for Communities and Local Government.
The voluntary sector, of which I am a strong supporter, plays a vital part in communities. A healthy community is one with a healthy voluntary sector, but the voluntary sector is only one of the players in a healthy community, and it is the job of the CDF to work with all such players to establish good practice.
“Together We Can” is a slogan that embodies the most positive approach to community development. It is also the title of a campaign launched in the Home Office a few years ago, which was transferred and reinvigorated by the Department for Communities and Local Government over the past few months. But “Together We Can” is more than a slogan. It is an attitude that goes to the heart of community development. It is all about partnership, because without partnership there can be no sustainability, no mainstreaming of ideas and practices, and no common interest in the achievement of shared goals.
Within those successful partnerships there must be trust, which can be measured by the way in which Government and Government Departments can let go and allow projects to be managed independently and locally, with different processes developing and even different outcomes being achieved in different areas. If we increase the ability of individuals and communities to participate in local decision-making to improve local public service delivery, we must trust those communities not only to deliver an outcome that is right for that community, but to hold themselves accountable for their actions.
If the process of letting go is a problem for Government, it is no less challenging for local government. Because councillors identify so closely with their wards and set so much store by their elected status, it can be difficult for them as individuals to let go. Good councillors, in my view, do not represent their wards and their communities despite the activists who work in their ward to better the local community: they work alongside them. Good councillors are enablers, helping their electorate to do things and taking responsibility themselves for the delivery of services.
Good councils give electors direct access to services while not undermining the role of councillors. Indeed, greater involvement of voters in the everyday decision-making process of local authorities should enhance the role and status of councillors, not diminish it. Giving councillors a greater scrutiny role and extending that scrutiny to areas such as health, outside the traditional ambit of local government, is a great idea and I am pleased to see it being taken forward. The establishment of local area forums, which allow electors to hold councils and councillors to account, face to face, presents opportunities, rather than threats, to diligent councillors.
I was interested in the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) about local strategic partnerships. I was at a conference about a year ago which examined the role of LSPs. I overheard two councillors who had not met previously discussing local strategic partnerships. “These voluntary sector types,” one said, “who do they think they are? They come along and speak with such authority. Don’t they know that we are the elected representatives?”, to which the other replied, “We don’t have that problem in our LSP. We don’t have voluntary sector people sitting on our LSP.”
How can a local strategic partnership be a partnership, genuinely representative of the locality, or even strategic if the people who are the users of services, those who deliver the informal and increasingly the formal services that operate in those communities, and those who are asked to make judgments about the quality of the social environment at election time are not involved in the strategic planning process, not just once every four or five years, but on an ongoing basis? But good practice does exist in the operation of local strategic partnerships and should be celebrated.
The Community Development Foundation was asked by the Government to undertake the administration of the neighbourhood renewal fund and more recently the faith communities capacity building fund. That fund supports faith and interfaith organisations to play a fuller part in civil society and to generate community cohesion and social inclusion by supporting interfaith activities that bring together people from different faith groups to talk, network and learn from each other. At a time when faith is seen by some as a byword for conflict, community cohesion and social inclusion across those barriers of faith are essential.
Religious tolerance, like any other tolerance of ideas or personalities, is something that I take as read within a successful community because every compassionate, articulate and intelligent person must see that tolerance underlies the whole concept of cohesion where it is an issue—it is not always an issue.
However, work must be done, principally by people of faith themselves, to increase levels of understanding of the needs and the nature of religious communities as a way of breaking down fear of the unknown among others. The faith communities capacity building fund is one way of enabling that to happen: 582 organisations received grants of up to £30,000 each for interfaith projects in the first round of the fund, and bidding for the second round recently closed. I am pleased to say that both rounds were massively oversubscribed, showing a genuine interest among grassroots members of faith organisations in breaking down these barriers and promoting the social inclusion both of their own people and of others—their neighbours.
Last summer, I took the board of trustees from the Community Development Foundation to my constituency, and we spent an afternoon in the ward of Gamesley. Gamesley is unique, certainly by High Peak standards, and not only because it has a Roman fort—Melandra castle—and is crossed by the popular trans-Pennine trail. I wanted to show my colleagues a model of community development of which I am incredibly proud—a community that started with nothing and is now developing into something of which to be proud.
During the slum clearance programme in central Manchester in the early 1960s, it was decided to relocate hundreds of families by building a council estate in the middle of nowhere on a greenfield site well outside Manchester. The estate was designed with flat-roofed houses, narrow streets and a perimeter road, which, to this day, feels like a defensive moat. It was given half a dozen shops, a primary school, a church hall, two pubs, a narrow choice of bus routes, very few play facilities and no employment opportunities to speak of. It was not designed to liberate people or to engage or involve its residents. It was not designed to integrate with its larger neighbour, Glossop, nor even to be seen from other parts of the vicinity. In a phrase, that estate was not designed to succeed as a community.
Even today, Gamesley is among the most deprived 5 per cent. of the nation’s communities. It has high levels of unemployment, single parenthood, incapacity benefit claimants and teenage pregnancies. It has the highest level of smokers in Derbyshire and the county’s lowest proportion of mothers who breastfeed. According to the 2001 census, half of all households have at least one person with a limiting long-term illness, half of all households have no car, and half of all adults have no educational qualifications. One in three of those who are registered unemployed are classed as long-term unemployed.
On a more positive side, 96 per cent. of pensioners in that ward who are entitled to benefits are receiving them. When that figure was published two years ago, it was the highest such level in any ward in the country. That is a clue to what is happening in Gamesley, because statistics like that do not happen by accident. This is a community which works and which cares. At the heart of that community is the early excellence centre—now, of course, the Sure Start centre. Time was when that was simply a nursery. It is now the hub of a network of activities, including a pensioners’ luncheon club, a huge variety of adult education classes, with an exceptionally high participation rate, a comprehensive adult literacy programme, including popular parenting classes, to which many parents go for the first time as adult learners and then choose to stay on to do other courses. The centre’s activities fully complement the estate’s lottery-funded healthy living programme. Members of the local church run a community cafe on the estate offering basic fare at an affordable price. When I dropped in on their Christmas party, I could sense how much that community involvement by the church was appreciated.
Gamesley is not a diverse community in terms of race or religion or of family income and aspiration. Derbyshire county council invests heavily in services on the estate, and the newly refurbished community centre is well used by statutory and voluntary groups, including the youth service. There is a thriving football community. I recently visited a new Rainbow group for the youngest members of the Girl Guides family. Rainbow is run by volunteers, as are so many organisations there, including the very active residents association.
In recent years, the doctor’s surgery on the edge of the estate has vastly increased the services that it delivers locally. The Tameside and Glossop Primary Care Trust has invested in a community dentist, and community safety officers work alongside the police and in direct consultation with residents’ groups to keep antisocial behaviour under control.
Since the council in High Peak—then under Labour control—reorganised council housing across the borough, with the overwhelming support of tenants, into an arm’s length management organisation, investment in homes and the local environment has been not only massive but well focused. The then chairman of the Gamesley residents association also became chairman of the ALMO for the borough. In Gamesley, they know how to respond to the needs of the complex organisms that constitute today’s communities.
In December, I was delighted to present the community in Gamesley with a Big Lottery Fund cheque for £250,000 from its “Reaching Communities” grants programme. According to the BLF website, the money is designed to
“make a lasting difference to the community by offering new experiences and giving people opportunities that they may not otherwise have had”.
“will boost people’s health, confidence and well-being, enhance the local environment, promote family learning and offer better employment prospects.”
All 3,500 residents will be eligible for courses, events, classes and schemes to bring genuine changes to their lives and their community.
Many other communities like Gamesley are divided and deprived—one could even say “dysfunctional.” Gamesley has its difficulties but I am delighted to say that the trustees of the CDF whom I took there in the summer were impressed with what they saw.
It is widely believed and acknowledged on that estate that a Labour Government have given those people hope and provided opportunities to make their community good and even better in the future, through not only supporting the measures that I outlined, but through investment in child and working tax credits, creating jobs with a national minimum wage safety net, and providing for pension credit, the winter fuel allowance, Sure Start, police funding and investment in—to coin a phrase—human and social capital.
By empowering those communities to take responsibility for their future, we promote social inclusion. In future elections, those people will know exactly who has helped them and who they need to vote for to ensure that the support continues.
It is a pleasure to participate in the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) on a passionate and thoughtful speech. His views about the importance of the local role in tackling social exclusion and enhancing communities are shared across parties.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries), who made a passionate and powerful speech about the importance of education. The hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) also made a notable contribution through his interventions and his speech. Hon. Members of all parties can learn much from his thoughts about some of the initiatives in Nottingham, which could be established in other parts of the country.
Social exclusion is a relatively new term in British policy. It refers to poverty and low income, and some of the wider causes and consequences of that. The Government have a definition, which covers unemployment, poor skills, low incomes, poor housing, high crime, bad health and family breakdown—a myriad subjects, crossing several Departments, which shows the importance of the debate. All of us come across many of those concerns in our constituency surgeries. They affect the groups of people that we are discussing.
To give credit where it is due, the Government have their heart in the right place when they focus on the problems of social exclusion. However, I am worried that we spend so much time thinking about helping people out of the trap that we do not do enough to prevent them from getting into it—and that is what I should like to concentrate on today.
The Government set up the social exclusion unit in 1997. Its priorities were the issues that I outlined. The unit has published a series of reports on neighbourhood renewal, rough sleepers, teenage pregnancy, young people who are not in education, training or employment, truancy and exclusion. Much of the focus is national and not based locally, whereas the hon. Member for High Peak placed great emphasis on a local focus.
The Cabinet Office report put into context the size of the group that we are talking about. Its report of September 2006 said that about 2.5 per cent. of the population were labelled as socially excluded. My concern is that we do not focus enough on prevention, as opposed to treatment, in respect of the people caught up in the process. Unemployment is on the rise, as are prison numbers and family breakdown. Obesity, binge drinking and taxation of the poor are on the rise, and so is truancy. Those are all important factors, showing that we are not necessarily winning the battle against social exclusion. We need to tackle the dismal statistics and ask why so many people are falling into the trap.
I shall deal with employment first. The tax and benefits system is confusing and does not lend itself to helping people out of the poverty trap. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) referred in his opening remarks to research demonstrating that the poorest households in Britain are now paying a higher share of tax, but getting a lower share of benefits, than before the present Government came into power. If the poorest one fifth of households paid the same share of tax and got the same share of total benefits as they did in 1996-97, they would have been about £530 better off in 2004-05. The poorest one fifth of households pay a higher proportion of their income in taxes than any other group. That must be tackled.
More than 1.2 million young people are not in full-time education, and it is costing the Government in failing to prevent that from happening. The Government have put forward many initiatives that are well meaning, but are failing. The new deal was cited in the Minister’s opening remarks, but that is not a good example of money being well spent. A staggering £4.6 billion has been spent on the project annually, yet about two thirds of people going through it do not gain any form of employment. Homelessness is another mark of social exclusion. Levels of homelessness are starting to decrease, but they went up from 102,000 in 1997 to 135,000 two years ago.
Child tax credits are another concern in the context of trying to ease the burden on poor families. The Chancellor put forward that initiative, which again was well intentioned, but about two thirds of people affected in Bournemouth are receiving the wrong payments. More than 4,700 cases were overpaid—individual cases where too much money was paid, which then had to be paid back. A further 2,700 cases were underpaid by a total of £104 million. That causes confusion and misery for the families affected, yet the Government’s intention was, I agree, well founded.
Living in temporary accommodation is another yardstick. The number of households living in temporary accommodation has risen by a staggering 139 per cent. since 1997. Those figures are unacceptable.
We had an interesting debate on Monday about which crime statistics can be believed. It can be agreed that unemployed people are almost twice as likely to be victims of violent crime. People living in the most deprived areas of England and Wales are twice as likely as those in the wealthiest areas to be victims of violent crime. It means that once people move into that category, it is difficult to get out of it. The same applies to burglary. People renting accommodation or living in social housing are more than twice as likely to be burgled than owner-occupiers.
A picture is emerging: the Government are well intentioned, but the reality is that some of these initiatives are not working. Incapacity benefit provides another example: 2.7 million people of working age are claiming it—four and a half times more than the number of job vacancies in the UK. Economic inactivity is a useful yardstick for comparison with other nations around the world. In an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development survey of 23 countries, the UK had the highest percentage of economically inactive men between the ages of 25 and 45. That shows the extent of the challenge that the Government are facing.
It is important to examine why we are in this position. Great emphasis has already been placed on the role of education. Three quarters of 16-year-olds from low-income families in England and Wales fail to achieve grades A to C in their GCSEs. Without those good grades, they find it difficult to get out of their present station in life and improve their position. Nearly 1 million children are estimated to be in poorly performing schools, according to the National Audit Office. That represents a staggering 13 per cent. of the school population. More worryingly, one third of all failing schools are in the most deprived 20 per cent. of our communities. This gives rise to another statistic with which the House will be familiar: more than 1 million children play truant every year. This is not the rosy picture that the Minister painted in her opening remarks.
On health, the Government have introduced targets in relation to life expectancy and infant mortality, and those are useful in grading areas of poverty and deprivation. On the basis of the Government’s statistics on health inequalities, they set targets in 2001 to reduce by 10 per cent. the gap in infant mortality rates between manual groups and the population as a whole, and to reduce by 10 per cent. the gap between areas with the lowest life expectancy at birth and the population as a whole. Those targets have not been met; the situation is worsening in both cases. The relative gap in infant mortality rates between the general population and the poorest social classes has increased by 46 per cent. since the 1997-1999 baseline.
Would the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the mortality gap has widened not because the position of the people at the bottom of the pile has worsened but because it has not increased as much as it has for those at the top? Would he also acknowledge that all groups have improved their position under the stewardship of this Labour Government?
The hon. Lady makes her point, but my argument is that that is comparative to the general base. Her argument is therefore flawed. Those are targets set by her own Government, and they have not been met. She may smile, but the targets have failed. There is work to be done, and we are not getting there at the moment.
In December 2006 the Government published their document “Tackling health inequalities”, which the hon. Lady might care to cast her eye over. It makes it clear that there is a widening gap between the life expectancy of both males and females in the target groups compared with the wider population. That report was produced more than a month ago, but, interestingly, there was not one press release about it. That is a clear indication that the Government are not meeting their targets.
Is my hon. Friend aware of the rapidly deteriorating access to NHS dentistry? In many parts of the country, including my constituency, families from the socially excluded sector are unable to get the free treatment that they thought was available on the NHS.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. That is yet another illustration of how the NHS provides different services in different parts of the country, which affects those very people—the 2.5 per cent. of the nation—on whom we are focusing today.
In July 2006 the Government’s chief medical officer slated the progress being made in the NHS, saying:
“There is strong anecdotal information from within the NHS which tells a consistent story for public health of poor morale, declining numbers, inadequate recruitment, and budgets being raided to solve financial deficits in the acute sector.”
That gives us an indication of one of the problems at the heart of what is happening to the 2.5 per cent. of the population whom we so want to help. If the NHS is forced to cut budgets, one of the groups of people that will be affected is those on low incomes, as my hon. Friend has just pointed out.
I intervened on the Minister earlier to talk about binge drinking, which is a matter of concern in Bournemouth. An awful lot of money has been pushed into the area to tackle this growing scourge that is affecting the United Kingdom. The accepted norm for the amount of alcohol that the young can drink is now much higher than when I was growing up. I put it to the Minister that it was evident that alcohol abuse was on the increase, but I am afraid that I did not get a clear answer. The Office for National Statistics states that since 1997 alcohol-related deaths have increased by 40 per cent.—an astonishing figure. Hon. Members may cringe, but I am not making that figure up; it is from the ONS. On the one hand, the Government are pouring money into stopping binge drinking, while on the other hand, late licensing laws are encouraging more drinking, thereby making the Government’s job all the harder.
The Government estimate that alcohol abuse costs around £20 billion a year. As many hon. Members on both sides of the House have mentioned, we could have saved that money had we taken preventive action much earlier. In addition, as was mentioned in the opening remarks, the overall 3 per cent. increase in sexually transmitted infections poses a challenge.
Obesity has also caught the attention of the media in the past few months, with Jamie Oliver’s initiatives receiving an awful lot of press coverage. Since 1997, the proportion of two to 15-year-old boys who are either overweight or obese has increased by 33 per cent., while according to the same criteria the proportion of girls has increased by 27 per cent. To put it in another way, 15 per cent. of children in the UK are considered overweight or obese. That problem affects the individual and the state in different ways. It affects the individual by causing an increasingly lethargic approach to life, and in some cases lower self-esteem and alienation. It also increases the risk of developing serious health problems in later life, including heart attacks and strokes. That has a knock-on effect on the NHS. By failing to tackle obesity, we are committing a future Government to cover the health bill for such individuals.
We must tackle the root causes of ill health—obesity, sexually transmitted infections and alcohol abuse. Public health budgets are being raided to solve the NHS financial crisis. I want Government policy to focus not so much on dealing with consequences but more on making interventions beforehand. The origins of health inequalities lie in standards of living, family structures and employment, among other factors.
For me, education and family are the two critical pillars in a child’s upbringing. If we invest in the education of individuals while they are young, we will not only save the state huge sums of money but help those individuals to progress in life. For example, I would like to see class sizes reduced from the high figure of 30, to provide a more individual one-to-one focus from teachers or teaching assistants. Having visited a number of schools, and having seen the number of pupils with whom teachers must contend, I know that classes are often split in half: the teacher takes one half, and the teaching assistant takes the other. Pupils can then get the type of attention, whether one-to-one or as a group of 15, that is crucial to making them feel valued and to enabling them to learn in a better environment.
For the record, will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that it was this Government who brought primary school class sizes down to 30 or lower in the first place? The scenario that he has just described would not be possible without the investment in teaching assistants that this Government also provided.
I have no problem with acknowledging that. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) said, there is no point in trying to collect points—[Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman would listen to my answer, he would hear that I very much support a number of this Government’s initiatives. However, on my visits to schools in Bournemouth, I have seen the effects of budget cuts and the knock-on effect on the standards of teaching. Let me illustrate that. When I go into a head teacher’s office, the first thing they do is point me to the top shelf, showing me myriad publications, laminated products and initiatives that have come from central Government telling them how to run their schools. Each one of those initiatives costs money, denying front-line teachers the money that they deserve.
Adult education is a great way to take someone out of their station in life so that they can do something else. The Learning and Skills Council has cut the number of courses in the UK. As it has recognised, 230,000 publicly funded courses have been cut. That has affected many courses in Bournemouth. Once they are cut, it is difficult to get them back up and running. If they are not cut, the onus for payment is on the individual. Often, the group of people with whom we are concerned today are not able to afford that.
Another area of interest is education in prisons. One thing that I wanted to ask the Minister about is a subject that has not been mentioned so far. Prisons have been in the public eye in the past few days, and my concern is that the overpopulation in prisons is having a knock-on effect on our ability to rehabilitate the people who affect communities when they get out.
Some of the statistics are shocking: 58 per cent. of all adult prisoners, and 72 per cent. of 18 to 20-year-old male prisoners, were reconvicted within two years of release. Those people are coming out of prison with nothing. They went into prison with one level of skills and came out probably having learned negative skills that they cannot put to use. We are failing to look after that population in our prisons to ensure that they are rehabilitated and able to be productive for our community. Instead they know no other way of life other than to commit another crime, reoffend and to go back into our prison system, costing every year around £38,000 per individual prisoner. A little education would help them to find a new niche in life and a new direction, so that they can make a positive contribution to the community that they go into. I would like to see—I am glad that the Conservative party has called for this—a greater prison drug rehabilitation programme, and increased education programmes as well as special education in our prisons.
I wanted to discuss the voluntary sector, which plays an important role, but I shall not do so as I know other hon. Members wish to speak. However, I would like to say that our leader, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), has made it clear that the Conservative party is committed to tackling the problems of social exclusion, and he has established the fact that creating “greater social justice” is one of the six big challenges facing Britain today. He said:
“We will consider how we can strengthen our society—and will develop ideas to empower the voluntary sector, to foster social enterprise, to increase the scope of community action and to encourage neighbourhood revival.
“I want my Party to be one that says, loudly and proudly, that there is such a thing as society—it’s just not the same thing as the state.”
Those are powerful words, and I hope that all Members on both sides of the House will agree what an important role that sector plays.
Labour's approach has been one of running things from high, introducing well-intended initiatives that are not working, but are causing increased bureaucracy. We are losing a sense of community in our constituencies, and that has an impact on the sense of pride and duty that individuals have. There is no easy answer to that.
We have covered an awful lot of subjects for which some initiatives have worked and some have not, but I am concerned about the benefits system, our savings system, the impact on marriage, and the role models individuals have—who they aspire to be like. I am also concerned about some of the initiatives that Labour has come up with. I have mentioned the licensing laws. Casinos are another. That simply encourages more spending, often by people with little money who are trying to get out of their station in life by taking a gamble.
Bournemouth is affected by overdevelopment of the very environment in which we work. We are building on back gardens and there is no sense of community. We do not create the type of environment that encourages three, five and 15-year olds to be able to expand or educate themselves. Football fields are being removed, as are other facilities that allow people to expend their energies, so they go off and do other things that can be detrimental to society.
The Minister began by saying that social inclusion means encouraging people to make a contribution to life. So why are teenagers getting pregnant deliberately to get themselves a council house? Why are older people deliberately spending their money to make sure they have no savings when they retire? Why are prisoners reoffending because they have not been able to gain the skills they need to get a decent job when they come out?
To understand the causes of social exclusion is to recognise the gaps in joined-up government. Churchill talked about the net that should exist to catch such people; Polly Toynbee talked about the caravan of society. There is also the penguin model, of which hon. Members will be aware. When penguins huddle in the winter to keep themselves warm, there are always some on the outside. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs shows how things can collapse when something goes wrong. If one needs a house, that is the most important thing; one is not going to go for a drink with one’s friends. If there is no food on the table, one needs to get things in order.
I believe that it is difficult to prevent people from falling into the poverty trap, but we can make sure that their stay there is as short as possible. There is an awful lot that we need to do and, from a bipartisan point of view, there is much that can be achieved.
I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) and I am grateful to be taking part in this debate on social exclusion mainly because—I am going to break the sort of consensus we have seen in the House today—I would like to vent my spleen about the report on social justice produced by the Tory party. I have read the report and reports on the report. One journalist called it
“to hell in a handcart” ,
which I thought was much more appropriate than “Breakdown Britain.”
One of the depressing things that comes out of the report is the kind of messages the Conservative party is inadvertently sending to people affected by broken marriages, the area on which I will focus. One of the main problems with the report is that it restricts the definition of family to marriage. Any family breakdown is awful; I myself come from a broken home and it is no laughing matter.
I will give several. If I do not do so by the end of my speech, the hon. Gentleman may intervene again, but I do not want to interrupt my flow. In an ideal world, it would be lovely to make sure that no child ever had to endure the breakdown of the parental relationship; nobody wants to be in that position. But it is unrealistic to say that that will never happen again and we must start from that position.
The reason I was so furious when the report was produced was the kind of message it sends to people such as my mother. Through no fault of her own, my mother was left alone with four children. She is English and my father is German. We had to move to England, but she had few qualifications and she ended up picking apples. The report refers to people such as my mother, and I will give a quote to the hon. Gentleman. It states:
“Children from broken homes are twice as likely to have behavioural problems, perform less well in school, become sexually active at a younger age, suffer depression and turn to drugs, smoking and heavy drinking”.
My mother had enough problems on her plate without having to know that all four of her children were going to be completely antisocial and dysfunctional members of society. Frankly, as I am standing here today, what does that quote say about Members of Parliament?
That quote is no more than a statement of statistics that are in the public domain; it offers no prediction of what is likely to happen to an individual. Although it mentions broken homes, it refers to many types of relationship. I hope that all Members accept that, as the hon. Lady implied, where parents can stay together, that tends to be best; the report is no more than a restatement of that.
I absolutely take on board the hon. Gentleman’s point, but what I am saying—which I shall provide evidence to support—is that to equate family with marriage and to suggest that the breakdown of marriages is the reason we have social exclusion in our society is not only wrong but deeply offensive to people such as my mother.
I use my mother as an example—I hope that she does not mind—but there are also many other such people who feel as if they are constantly being beaten over the head with a pointy stick. The report underlines that—it goes even further in doing that. I suspect that that is unintentional; I suspect that the intentions behind the report were good, but its outcomes and the messages it gives are very bad indeed.
To follow on from the hon. Gentleman’s point, although such statistics are in the public domain, they are being used to make a point that I am unsure whether his party intends make. The report also states that statistics indicate:
“Marriages are far more likely to provide a stable environment for adults and children than cohabitation”.
Again, that is in the public domain.
It also states that people living together are 12 times more likely than married couples to break up before their child’s fifth birthday. That goes to the heart of what I am trying to say about the report’s messages.
Absolutely not. If the hon. Gentleman listens and does not interrupt so often, he might understand what I am trying to say. The statistics and the so-called evidence given in the report are used to give out messages that are wrong. That is all I am saying; I do not dispute the figures, but I am saying that the messages are wrong.
Absolutely; that was exactly the point I was trying to make. A scaremongering message is given out by statistics such as that couples living together are 12 times more likely than married couples to break up before their fifth anniversary. That also suggests that for a couple living together it is only a matter of time before the woman is a single mother—and if she is a lone mother already, then God help her because she is totally beyond the pale. That is the kind of message being given out.
No, because a number of Members want to speak and my speech is already running far later than I wanted it to.
Families are complex. They are far more complex than the “Peter and Jane” Ladybird book version of families that the Conservative party is trying to paint in the report described as
“to hell in a handcart”.
It is early January so all Members have just come out of the famous, festive, family-cohesion season of Christmas. I am sure that we have all enjoyed spending time with our extended families—obviously, I have enjoyed all my extended family! That goes to show that relationships are always difficult; they are never easy. We should not promote marriage as some kind of perfect family model to which we should all aspire. That is unrealistic and dangerously over-romantic, as it further excludes people who cannot reach that level of perfection. That is very wrong, because the people least likely to be able to aspire to that perfect model of the family are those who are poorest. The richer people are, the more likely they are to be married. That is not because they are better at relationships, but simply because marriage is easier for richer people.
The social justice commission report says a lot about the Conservative party, which clearly understands richer people better than it does poorer people.
No, as I have given way a number of times already. I have only a little more to say and, unlike most of us, the hon. Gentleman has the privilege of summing up at the end.
The report adds that the
“failure to form a durable bond between mother and father often leads to welfare dependency.”
That is one of my favourite quotations, as it implies that a failure to marry condemns a person to a life on benefits. The Opposition are so far removed from normal, real life that they have not grasped that it is not an inability to marry that condemns people to poverty.
The report also claims that marriage is the answer to social exclusion. If that is so, will the Opposition propose a system of arranged marriages when they publish their policy suggestions in June—or will they make divorce illegal? Both options are natural consequences of what is contained in the report, although of course I totally understand that neither will be adopted.
The social exclusion unit has done, and is continuing to do, work on poverty and poverty reduction, on teenage pregnancy, on runaways, on education, employment and training, on children in care, and on neighbourhood renewal. I suggest that the Opposition look at that work—and that they change the name of their report from “Breakdown Britain” to “FCUK”.
I think that that is just about allowable.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel). No contention that people are deprived because they are depraved—or that they are depraved because they are deprived—can be supported, although that is what comes across in the contributions from some hon. Members.
I want to start on a positive note. I welcome some of the steps that this Government have taken over the years, especially the introduction of the minimum wage and of tax credits. Both those innovations have been very useful in my constituency and throughout rural Wales, and elsewhere. I shall qualify that praise somewhat when I speak briefly about the current dislocation of the tax credits system, but I accept that this Government have taken very positive steps in respect of social exclusion.
The same is true of the Welsh Assembly Government, whose community first schemes target resources on 100 identified deprived communities. The schemes have been very effective. I should declare an interest, in that my daughter runs one in Aberystwyth, but I know from direct experience how valuable they have been.
In my remarks, I shall concentrate on social exclusion and rurality, in Wales and elsewhere, but my view of social exclusion may be somewhat broader than that of other hon. Members who have contributed to this afternoon’s debate. It is not specifically the 2.5 per cent. at the most deprived end that I want to talk about. I take a broader view, as did the Welsh Affairs Committee some six years ago in its report on social exclusion. That allowed them to take evidence from all kinds of community projects throughout Wales and a wide section of society.
We should think of social exclusion as a dynamic process of shutting people out partially or fully from economic, social and political systems and, crucially in Wales, from language and cultural relationships. The process is ongoing. Social exclusion is not something that one is born with or that cannot be addressed. Clearly, social exclusion is being addressed effectively by some projects.
Social exclusion is a process of being detached. It is not a monolithic process. It is not all or nothing or tied to certain types of behaviour or levels of income, although low income—below 40 per cent. of the average perhaps—is clearly tied to social exclusion. As the Minister noted, there is a good deal of migration between society in general and the groups who are subject to the most social exclusion. It is not a set group of people who are subject to it.
In Wales—I take these figures from the Wales rural observatory at the university of Aberystwyth—a quarter of rural households have someone who has difficulty finding local employment whereas a third of low-income rural households have. That is a measure of social exclusion. It is clearly associated not with a small number of people but with a broad swathe of people on low incomes.
Fifty-nine per cent. of rural households have access to a computer; 34 per cent of low-income families have access. Looking at some more subjective tests of social exclusion, when people were asked whether they felt isolated, 19 per cent. of people in general said yes and 25 per cent. of people on low income did so. There is clearly a link between low income and certain forms of social exclusion.
This is not an academic point. It has a great bearing on the formation and application of policy and the targeting of resources. It is important that we are clear that social exclusion extends beyond the bottom percentages of the population. Poverty and social exclusion in rural areas are widespread. I had a look at some of the statistics for older people. They are the most obviously excluded group in rural areas. Some two thirds of the rural poor are over 55. Some of that is to do with the fact that older people are not working and are on low pensions, but it is significant that poverty and social exclusion are in some ways confined to that particular group.
Interestingly, in rural areas poor families tend to be employed rather than unemployed. Unemployment does not go hand in hand with social exclusion in the same way as it does in urban or inner-city areas. That is particularly significant when one looks at the way in which the tax credits system works in rural areas. Tax credits are a very important component of income throughout rural areas. If we have problems with the tax credits system, as we have at present, it tends to hit rural areas particularly hard.
Rural and urban areas are similar in terms of consumption, employment, income and savings, but it is significant for the application of policy that social relationships are often better in rural communities. Some people have an idealised view of rural communities, so it may seem like stating the obvious to say that things are better there, but the point is borne out by objective research undertaken at Aberystwyth university and by my former colleague, Dr. Delyth Morris, at the university of Bangor. The research found that more people in rural areas tended to know each other. If they were born in the area, and in Wales, if they spoke Welsh, they had better social networks.
There are some lessons to be learned from those findings. The hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie) mentioned the difficulties experienced by people from black and ethnic minority communities in accessing employment and various other services. We could usefully address language issues in the rest of the UK in the same way as we have in Wales.
Housing is immensely problematic in rural areas, as the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor) agreed earlier. One should not assume that socially excluded people do not own their homes; two thirds of lower income households in rural areas are owner-occupiers, and they experience particular problems, not only with paying their mortgages but also with repairs and insurance. If we are to target help for socially excluded people, we must remember that in rural areas a number of them could be paying a mortgage, or even be outright owners of their homes, perhaps due to an inheritance.
In an intervention during the Minister’s opening remarks, I referred to in-work poverty and the importance of tax credits in sustaining incomes in rural areas. I am happy to reiterate my welcome for the tax credit system, which has been a wonderful lifeline for many people. However, there can be problems and difficulties in rural areas, as I said earlier.
A proportion of households in Gwynedd, my area, and the valleys—often regarded as an urban area in Wales—have annual incomes of less than £10,000: 21.7 per cent. in Gwynedd and 21.3 per cent. in the valleys, so there are more low income households in my area than in the most deprived areas of Wales. The valleys area is certainly the most deprived according to many measures, but on the measure of low income my area and a great swathe of rural Wales have as many problems. Because of that a large amount of my casework is sorting out overpayments, underpayments and the general mess associated with the tax credit system.
Areas surrounding my constituency have a similar benefit profile to the valleys in terms of income-based jobseeker’s allowance. I am trying to explode the myth that rural areas are idyllic and different from deprived inner-city areas or, in Wales, deprived valleys and heads of the valleys areas. It is important to bear that in mind.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in urban areas when people’s benefits are messed up, they often have to have recourse to door-to-door credit salesmen, but in rural areas they cannot even take out expensive credit as a way of making ends meet on a short-term basis?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. If I can beg the indulgence of the Chair for a moment, the proposed changes to the legal aid regime will not help at all in rural areas. Fixed fees and the other changes proposed will lead to legal aid deserts in large parts of rural Wales, and I suspect in parts of rural England as well. The system of credit unions —another alternative—is less developed, as well.
I have addressed some particular aspects of rurality in terms of my constituency in north-west Wales and Wales in general. However, there are points that are relevant to England and inner-city parts of England. I will turn to a couple of contentious points. The social deprivation and exclusion faced by people in my constituency and elsewhere is not helped by the withdrawal of face-to-face services from public offices such as the Pension Service and the Department for Work and Pensions and the proposed closure of the Revenue and Customs office, which provides a Welsh medium, face-to-face service for local people. Social exclusion will be exacerbated by those moves. Interestingly, that is happening in an area that is defined by the Welsh Assembly Government as an objective 1 area—an area that is deserving of and gets large amounts of Government funding, which we are glad to have, to create jobs. At the same time central Government in London are taking jobs away from people working in those offices and making it more difficult for self-employed people in the constituency to run their businesses, because of the lack of face-to-face services.
The way in which social exclusion is measured or defined influences the way in which resources are allocated. Wales has had the Welsh index of multiple deprivation since 2000. It takes into account a large number of variables and allowed the Welsh Assembly Government to identify and place 750-odd communities in Wales in rank order, so that they were able to say that the 100 bottom communities would get special help through the community first scheme. That is a clear and valuable example of the Welsh Assembly Government intervening.
Unfortunately, the latest version of the Welsh index of multiple deprivation has been changed. I will refer to two changes. First, the geographical access domain has been replaced by a more general measurement. The original index meant that if someone was far away from services, in a place such as Aberdaron in my constituency, and could not get to the hospital, which was 45 miles away, they were in some way deprived. That focused attention on the deprivation experienced by extreme rural communities in mid-Wales and west Wales. If that geographical consideration is taken away, it makes it more difficult to devote resources to those communities. The net effect of that has been to transfer resources from very rural areas to inner-city and valley areas—not that I am for a moment decrying the investment in inner-city or valley areas. However, in some ways, small rural areas have been left behind by the dropping of that geographical measurement.
The other point about the index is probably the most contentious. It should act as a caution to the Government or anybody else thinking of using these sorts of indices. It is said that decisions about the weighting of domains should be based on policy priorities, rather than being objective. That is well and good. Policy is important. However, the virtue of the index initially was that it was objective.
I am talking about the index as it applies to Wales. One of the first steps that the Welsh Assembly Government took was to commission Oxford university to devise an index specifically for Wales. As some hon. Members will know, the previous index—the Townsend one—took the possession of one motor car to be an indication of wealth and the possession of two to be an indication of even greater wealth. However, people in mid-Powys have to have two cars, even though that is the area of Wales with the lowest wages. The index was modified to include an element of geographical isolation, but interestingly, that has been dropped.
Decisions about the weighting of domains should be based on policy priorities. The virtue of the previous index was that it was objective and took the whole decision-making process for where resources should be allocated out of the political domain. I am afraid that this latest move puts that firmly back into the domain of party politics, and just before Assembly elections, that was a negative move.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I thank the Ministers for doing a remarkable job of spearheading the renewed drive to tackle deep-seated social exclusion.
I listened with compete incredulity to some of the speeches. Sadly, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie) left the Chamber fairly promptly after finishing his speech. If the situation is as bad as he makes out, he should be having a dialogue with his chief executive and local politicians in his constituency as a matter of urgency.
Unfortunately, the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) has also left the Chamber. I would have liked to assure him that there is no evidence that the new licensing laws have increased alcohol-related disorder on our streets throughout the country. I agree with him that there is a connection between homelessness and social exclusion, but I would have liked the opportunity to remind him in person that much of the homelessness that we have in our society today is a result of the complete collapse over the 18 years of the previous Government of not only social house building but repairs and maintenance work.
I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman has made several interventions and other hon. Members wish to speak.
I wish to share with the House some examples from my constituency of really good practice to tackle social exclusion. As many hon. Members have said—Conservative Members have acknowledged this—the Government have every reason to be proud of their achievements. We have heard that 700,000 children and more than 1 million pensioners have been lifted out of poverty. In my constituency, which is fairly affluent, there was 15 per cent. unemployment in some wards in 1997. Thousands of jobs have been created since then and there is now virtually full employment. They are not low-paid and low-skilled jobs, but jobs in world-class manufacturing companies such as Airbus and in financial services. Indeed, many are jobs in dynamic, young start-up companies that have been helped by Department of Trade and Industry grants.
Government funding in Chester for the Blacon neighbourhood management pathfinder and the Lache regeneration project has totalled more than £10 million. These projects are making a significant contribution towards rebuilding the two most disadvantaged communities in my constituency in which, quite honestly, the people were abandoned by the previous Government’s policies. Homes have been brought up to a decent standard by the Chester and district housing trust. Schools are working together, rather than competing with each other, and children’s educational attainment has improved significantly. The previously high levels of crime and antisocial behaviour have plummeted.
It is always invidious for politicians to single out individuals and organisations for special mention, but I would like to share with the House three excellent examples of partnerships that reach out to communities and transform lives. The first is the Blacon junior youth inclusion project, which works with eight to 13-year-olds who are at risk of offending, being expelled from school, or exclusion in their neighbourhood. It is part of the Cheshire early-prevention programme and is managed by Crime Concern, and it is funded by the Blacon neighbourhood management pathfinder and the Cheshire children’s fund.
The young people who are helped by the project—I met some of them the other week—are identified through a variety of agencies, including the police, youth services and schools. The activities that they are offered are all tailored to their individual needs, and importantly their mums and dads are involved in the project, too. The achievements to date are remarkable, and I invite Ministers to have a look at the project. Most of the children involved have now returned to mainstream education. One in three has successfully participated in the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme, and not one has received an antisocial behaviour order. In fact, 94 per cent. of those who had previously committed an offence have not reoffended. The Blacon junior youth inclusion partnership is an excellent example of how early intervention, working with parents, can result in successful outcomes. Of course, there are also benefits for the local neighbourhood: people feel much safer, and the fear of crime has been reduced. Such programmes can save the state a great deal of money.
Hon. Members have mentioned that a number of groups in society are at particular risk of social exclusion, including children leaving care, families with complex problems, people with mental health problems, and teenage parents. People in those groups often remain stuck at the bottom of society. They may face a lifetime of disadvantage, and conventional public services have often failed to reach those groups.
A number of hon. Members mentioned Sure Start. The establishment of children’s centres, in which all the services for young children and their parents are brought together under one roof, is one of the Government’s best achievements so far. We all know that children who miss out on caring and learning opportunities in their early years will probably never achieve their full potential.
The second project that I shall mention centres on three young teenage mums, Tanya, Rose and Gemma, who, with the help of youth workers, have formed a self-help partnership group called Hand to Hand. Having improved their own parenting skills, those three young women are helping other mums. They are encouraging young mums to go back into training and education. They have even organised a teenage pregnancy conference, and they are accepting invitations to visit schools to talk to students about their experiences. I am told that sex education classes led by those three young women are far more effective and persuasive than classes given by a slightly embarrassed 50-year-old biology teacher. That is another innovative project.
Finally, no one has mentioned projects led by fire services. The fire service is a surprising and unusual delivery vehicle for a social exclusion project, but it is a trusted organisation held in high regard by all parts of society, and fire service personnel are excellent role models for young men. Cheshire fire and rescue service has carried out home safety assessments to allow vulnerable older people to stay safe and secure in their homes. It is leading the Prince’s Trust team programme, which is targeted at disaffected and excluded 16 to 25-year-olds and has achieved remarkable results by getting youngsters back into education or into training and employment.
Cheshire fire and rescue service has managed to reach the parts that other service providers cannot reach. The fire cadet scheme in Thorn Cross young offenders institution aims to reduce reoffending by developing self-respect, self-esteem and teamwork, and by helping young offenders to gain qualifications. The results are impressive, and the reoffending rate is virtually nil. My message to Ministers is simple: the fire service is often overlooked, but it has a great deal to offer, and it can be an effective partner in social exclusion programmes.
Many of my colleagues wish to speak, so I shall conclude. We have done a great deal, but pockets of severe deprivation remain. All too often in the past, as many Members have said, public services have managed failure rather than addressing the root cause of problems. There are lessons that we can all learn. Early intervention certainly works and is cost-effective. I used to work with people with mental health problems, and we must stop the practice of shunting socially excluded people from pillar to post. The more one-stop-shop advice centres that we can establish, the better. In future, the role of local area agreements must be strengthened to encourage proper collaboration and joined-up working between public services. Professionals and front-line staff have started to come out of their silos, and we must make sure that they do not retreat back into them.
Services must be tailored to meet individual needs and circumstances. The town or county hall does not always know best, and it is vital, as a number of contributors have said, to engage with communities, as it is to engage with local people who know the priorities in their neighbourhood or on their estate. Long-term sustainability is required, because social exclusion has affected families in some communities for generations. Breaking the cycle of deprivation takes time—it can take a generation or more. Raising aspirations and building confidence and self-esteem do not happen overnight, and there are no quick fixes. I urge Ministers to be patient and keep the funding going in. We must make jolly certain that the extra investment that has gone into public services—not just universal services, but services targeted specifically on disadvantaged communities—continues.
Order. Six hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. Provided nobody speaks at too great a length, everybody should be able to get in.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christine Russell), who demonstrated her commitment to her community. She made a telling remark when she said that town hall does not always know best. In many cases individuals—a community group, a head teacher or, as she said, the fire brigade—make a difference. We are often critical of the Government for adopting the fire brigade approach to certain problems, but in Cheshire at least that seems to be working.
I must, however, pick the hon. Lady up on one point. She compared the social housing record of the Government with that of the previous Government. She may recall that earlier in the week we heard from the Liberal Democrat Front-Bench spokesman, so it must be true, that in their first 10 years the present Government have built less social housing than the last Conservative Government in their final 10 years. That is a record of which we can be proud.
No political party can claim a monopoly of compassion. The fact that so many Labour Members wish to contribute to the debate reflects the areas where the problems are worst. Although we speak of 2.5 per cent. of people in this country being socially excluded, they tend to be concentrated in particular areas. Those of us with more leafy and grassy constituencies do not appreciate the problem so much. We can all welcome the Government’s action plan on social inclusion published by the Cabinet Office in September 2006. It is often in areas of former industrial decline, as we heard from the poignant contribution of the hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie) earlier, that the problems need tackling.
In 1992 I had the privilege—that is the right word, I think—to be the Conservative parliamentary candidate in Redcar, standing against Marjorie Mowlam. Coming as I do from an agricultural background in rural north Yorkshire, that was a baptism of fire for me. I was the sort of person who had previously thought that a ram raider was some kind of sheep rustler. I was appalled to see the social deprivation and the health problems in areas such as South Bank and Grangetown. At that time the massive local government housing estate in Grangetown was recognised as the most unhealthy place to live in western Europe, as it was located next to the huge steel and petrochemical complex. Problems of smoking and obesity already existed there.
The big problem that I witnessed in that area was that if anybody managed to break the mould and get a decent education and a decent job—for example, on the oil rigs—and get hold of a bit of money, the first thing they did was to leave that community. They bought a house in Stockton or in one of the nicer parts of Middlesbrough. That is not a problem in the rural community. We have all sections of society together in the same pub or shop. There is much more of a cohesive community spirit. I felt sorry for the people trapped in the communities around Redcar. The very people who would have been organising events—the sort of people described by the hon. Member for City of Chester—were not there. They had joined the exodus to the leafy suburbs.
We witness an economic segregation, which is exacerbated by problems that we all encounter in our surgeries. The hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor) spoke about the sort of issues that come through the door of our surgeries— problems with child benefit, the Child Support Agency and applications for housing benefit. In many instances incompetent or hard-pressed local authorities in the kind of areas that we are discussing do not process housing benefit applications quickly, which means that landlords, especially private sector landlords, do not want people on benefit in their properties. Sadly, many of those areas have been run by Labour local authorities since Adam were a lad, as they say.
I think that the casual observer would see my constituency as almost the garden of Eden, having as we do the North Yorkshire moors and the wonderful areas that so many people visit as tourists or see on their television screens every Sunday night if they tune into “Heartbeat”. However, as we heard from the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams), who is not in his place at the moment, there are pockets of deprivation even in the most well-to-do and prosperous rural communities. Although we have not been subject to the immigration mentioned by the hon. Member for Leeds, East, we have other problems. Rural communities have many people in low-paid jobs. Many people do not have access to the sort of shops where they can get good deals and have to rely on their village shop, which may face pressure to carry on as a post office. Many hill farmers struggle to make ends meet, and not only because of the chaos in the Rural Payments Agency. I spoke to somebody just before Christmas who was eligible for family tax credit but was frightened to spend the money because in the previous year they had been overpaid and made to pay it back, which caused considerable difficulties.
We also have problems as regards access to certain services. There is a wonderful Sure Start scheme in Scarborough, but many people in rural communities cannot get to it. Many parents find that their children cannot participate in out-of-school activities that take place after the end of the school day because if they have not got a car or access to other transport, the children have to come home on the bus and miss out on the activities—sports, computer clubs and so on—in which children who live in Whitby or Scarborough can take part. In Whitby, we have a wonderful community group called Interactive which takes a playgroup around village halls, but only for one day a week.
In Scarborough, we have the Barrowcliffe estate and Eastfield, which lies just outside the town, both of which were formerly big council housing areas that have been taken over by Yorkshire Coast Homes. I pay tribute to that organisation for investing in those homes by putting in new kitchens, bathrooms, heating and windows. It is doing the sort of work that contributes to cutting social deprivation, because housing is central to that problem.
In the tourist areas of Scarborough, people with certain problems—sometimes they have been released from jail but often they have just had family breakdowns or have been living rough—take advantage of bed-and-breakfast accommodation that was previously used by tourists. The problem is receding a little now because the high value of property means that many of those premises have been turned into high-value apartments. However, those people still cause problems in the centre of town, because they tend to bring alcohol abuse and drug abuse with them.
Several common factors run through these issues. Family breakdown is a problem. As the Minister said, someone who comes from a socially excluded sector of society is twice as likely to become pregnant as a teenager. Many young girls fall pregnant by accident, as a way of trying to get their boyfriend to stay with them, or because they think, rather foolishly, that they may get housing and be looked after if they have a child. In other much more serious cases, where there is sexual or physical abuse in the household, they see falling pregnant as a way of escape. We have particular problems. I do not believe that any hon. Member has mentioned the difficulties of women trying to bring up families when their husbands are in prison—those who have not already absconded, dare I say it? Problems also occur when the prisoner returns because another relationship has often started in the meantime.
Alcohol abuse, and especially drug abuse, lead to crime when people turn to it to fund their habit. Sadly, they often prey on their communities. They do not go to the richer parts of town to commit burglaries to fund their drugs habit, but prey on their neighbours, friends or elderly people in the same community. Many people are frightened because drug-driven crime is on their doorstep—they see those with drug habits on the street and know that they may well be subject to crime.
Some people are stuck in the benefits trap. The Government’s move to more and more means-testing makes it difficult for unemployed people to perceive any benefit in going to work, especially if they are on disability benefit. Some people who are already in part-time work are effectively subject to a 90 per cent. marginal tax rate. The incentive to do more hours and more work is simply not there. Last week, I spoke to a friend who works in Newcastle as an educational welfare officer—in Yorkshire, we call them “kid catchers”; in the north-east, I understand that they are called “wag wifeys”. She said that she had been offered more work—another day a week—but that it would almost cost her money to do it, so she has turned it down.
The way in which the benefits system works creates a problem of people who are trapped on benefits or in unemployment. I hope that our social justice commission will examine ways in which to tackle it. The Government are aware of it and I am interested in their attempts to tackle it at a time when there are jobs in the economy. It is important to ensure that socially excluded people are eligible for the jobs and that one does not have to be Polish to get a job in the United Kingdom.
We also have a problem with educational aspirations. Only 11 per cent. of children in care get five or more GCSEs at grades A to C, compared with a national average of 56 per cent. Often, the education system failed the parents of those children. The position is even more stark at university level. The Government’s Green Paper on children in care considers a £2,000 bursary—that would be a move in the right direction, but it would be only for children in care. Many socially excluded children are not in care.
From talking to people in my constituency, I realised that there was a problem with different attitudes to debt and investment. Middle class families are used to borrowing money to buy a house and seeing capital appreciating. They are used to borrowing money to buy a car, for which they pay, and it enables them to enjoy their lives, get to work and do all the things that they want. However, people from socially deprived areas view debt as a very bad thing because the person from Provident Financial comes round every week to try to collect their weekly repayments on high value loans. They see people having their property repossessed by bailiffs, and others thrown out of their houses because they do not pay their rent. When the children of those families approach university age, the idea of taking on thousands of pounds of debt is a disincentive to going to university, yet they are the very children who, if they are sufficiently gifted, should take those opportunities.
In the Barrowcliffe area of Scarborough, we have a wonderful Sure Start scheme, which I have visited. The hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) referred to the scheme in his area. I saw parents benefiting from our scheme. On the day that I visited, they were learning how to cook healthy food for their families. Sadly, many families who should benefit from Sure Start do not come through the door. It is a challenge to get those who desperately need the opportunities that Sure Start provides to come and see the benefits that it offers. In many cases, the very people who need to come through the door do not do so.
In Eastfield—an area that I would not want to compare with some of the worst areas in big cities such as Sheffield, Manchester and Newcastle—we have one beacon of hope. As the hon. Member for City of Chester mentioned, hope can be an individual, and in this particular case it is an individual headmaster.
At the George Pindar school in Eastfield, the headmaster, Hugh Bellamy, has really turned it around. The recent Ofsted report remarked on the fact that he had pulled the school out of a hole and enabled it to go forward by building on the Eastfield community. He reached out from the school into the community. He realised that many parents who had suffered bad educational experiences themselves did not want to come into the school, so he went out into the community, built bridges and got those parents to come in and work with social services in a way that enabled the school to move forward. A hairdressing salon was set up in the school—not just to train children to be hairdressers, but to enable them to learn about business, to learn how their skills can be marketed and so forth. I visited the salon before Christmas and saw the fantastic work that was going on.
We heard some banter across the Dispatch Box earlier about how best to measure poverty. I would suggest to right hon. and hon. Members that we all know poverty when we see it. A child at the door was revealed to Ebenezer Scrooge by the ghost of Christmas future. We need to address poverty—and not just from a simple financial perspective. Plenty of children whom I would regard as living in poverty may well be wearing £80 trainers, but they still experience poverty. I am talking about poverty of opportunity, poverty of aspiration and poverty of hope.
The Government are genuine in their wish to combat the problem, which stubbornly refuses to go away despite 20 years of economic progress. It is another case of there being a lot left to do. Sadly, we will still be left with an enormous challenge when the present Government pass the baton to the next Conservative Government.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) and, indeed, my hon. Friends, who have all provided great examples of improvements in their constituencies, thanks to the Government’s work on tackling social exclusion over the past 10 years.
I have to say that many of my hon. Friends will sleep more soundly in their beds tonight having heard the contributions of some Opposition Members, particularly the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries), who is no longer in her place, and the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood). It seems that the Conservative party has joined us and decided that social exclusion is unacceptable in a modern, caring society. The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire went so far as kindly to inform us that that has always been so. She highlighted how even Disraeli talked about the evils of social exclusion, and how every Government since have taken the matter seriously and included policies to tackle it.
I have to say that I was somewhat astounded by that statement. As a child growing up in Gateshead in Thatcher’s Britain in the 1980s, I suffered first hand from the policies of the Conservative Government, which seemed to promote, produce and prolong social exclusion across swathes of the north-east, and, indeed, across many of the most vulnerable communities in the country. It is under the present Labour Government that the legacy of those 18 years has been tackled, and I am pleased to say that the lives of people living in those communities have been transformed. I hope to provide examples of how that has been achieved and to provide something of a north-east perspective on the real difference that has been made to people’s lives, as well as to deal with the fresh challenges ahead in our ongoing commitment to fighting social exclusion.
It was once said by someone—I have already mentioned her once and will not mention her again—that there is no such thing as society. On this side of the House at least, we know that that is not true. Millions of children and parents supported by Sure Start also know that it is not true, as do the millions of teenagers and young people helped into work by the new deal. Those projects show society at work from the top of government down through to the individual’s everyday life—and no one knows it better than those who are unable to play a part in it.
Many of us take our role in society for granted. We live our lives in regular contact with the institutions of society and feel able to contribute something and shape the way in which we live our lives. We can make choices, and we have the freedom to make those choices. We all appreciate that that is a privileged position to be in, and that a lot of people in society do not enjoy that privilege.
After nearly 10 years of a Labour Government we have achieved a tremendous amount. In my constituency the number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance has almost halved since 1997, and thousands of young people, single parents and over-50s have been helped into work by the new deal. Incapacity benefit claims are falling, more than 15,000 people were lifted out of potential fuel poverty by the winter fuel payments, and thousands of pensioners are receiving their pension credits. As well as all that, more than 100,000 pensioners and children have been lifted out of poverty in the north-east since 1997.
Although it is important to reflect on the fantastic work done by the Government, the job does not stop. We are now in a position to reach the most excluded people in our society. As the work goes on and we start to get to the core of social exclusion, the nature of the job changes. We need to seek new approaches to dealing with families and individuals whose exclusion is long-term and deep-seated. There remain too many places where there is little expectation of ever having the opportunity to contribute.
Social exclusion is a waste—in many ways, the worst kind of waste. It causes chances to be limited and leaves talent by the wayside. It is vital that we do not rest on our laurels. That is why I am delighted by the launch of the Government’s new social exclusion action plan. Early intervention makes a massive difference for children at risk of social exclusion, and I welcome the renewed focus on involving children in society as early as possible. Beyond that, the approach to breaking down cycles of deprivation must look at all stages of life and develop a new, honest approach to understanding the different circumstances that lead to prolonged social exclusion. In my constituency we are well placed to push forward the fight against social exclusion. There are hundreds of people who, through their own initiative and hard work, are really making a difference in combating the causes of social exclusion from childhood to old age.
I want to take this opportunity to inform the House of just a few examples of the work being done in my constituency. I recently had the privilege of accompanying the Gateshead young women’s outreach project to the Philip Lawrence awards. The girls had set up a project entitled “Am I bovvered?”, a phrase made famous by one of Catherine Tate’s characters. The project is all about safe drinking, acknowledging that young women want to drink and will drink, so it is no good just saying, “Don’t drink. You’re too young, it’s bad for you.” The young women decided to encourage sensible and safe drinking by setting sensible limits and giving sensible tips such as “Don’t drink on an empty stomach”. That seems obvious to us, but young people who have never drunk before do not always realise that it is important. They are also advised not to mix their drinks, and to drink soft drinks in between the alcoholic ones. They are also given tips on staying safe, including keeping an eye on their drink and looking out for each other.
As parents and adults we want to tell our children not to drink, but this project has been so successful because it was initiated and conceptualised from the start by the young women themselves, and is expressed in their language. They led the design and content of all the materials involved, and they are also leading the roll-out and delivery of the project. I was thrilled when I learned that they were to receive one of the Philip Lawrence awards, and I was truly honoured to attend the ceremony with them last month, at which they received their award from the Home Secretary. For most of them, it was their first trip to London. For some, it was their first stay in a hotel. For all of them, it will be an unforgettable experience that will change the path of their lives and help them to feel, and be, less socially excluded, as they have now helped to influence society. They have engaged in the project and made a real difference, and they now know how to do that. They have been empowered, and that will change them for ever.
I hope that, after hearing about that amazing initiative and about the great work of the Gateshead young women’s outreach project, the House and the Minister will join me in congratulating the project’s director, Jo Vardy. I am pleased to be able inform the House that she was honoured in the new year honours list with a very well deserved MBE. She is an inspirational and amazing woman. I am sure that she would say that she was not worthy of such an honour, but—to use youth-speak again—she so is. She did it. It is thanks to people such as Jo Vardy and her team, and people across the country who work on social exclusion, that some of the most vulnerable people in our society get a second chance. As a result of their work, such people feel valued and realise that they have choices. I am also pleased to inform the House that the “Am I bovvered?” campaign is now to be used by the Home Office as an example of best practice across the country.
I will give just one more example—I have many—as I know other Members are waiting to speak. In Sunderland, the Sure Start to later life campaign encourages older people to remain active and involved in society, and is supported excellently by the older people’s champions who work with local authorities and ensure that health and social care is delivered to fit people’s needs. Also in Sunderland, the council has effectively introduced information and communications technology tools to promote social inclusion. Those have been so successful that the initiative has now been included in the Government’s digital challenge—a fitting reward that recognises the innovative approach taken by Sunderland city council in taking technology out into the community.
The social exclusion action plan is another step in the fight against social exclusion, and one that will make a real difference. Most importantly, it will renew our commitment and provide new impetus to ensure that every person in Britain is aware that there is indeed such a thing as society.
May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) on her excellent contribution?
Just before Christmas, I welcomed the Minister for Children and Families to open a new children’s centre in Brinnington. We already have one children’s centre in Adswood and Bridgehall, and I have been impressed by the huge range of interventions being made by all agencies to improve the life chances of local children. Such support at an early age will enable children to develop the language and other skills that they need to take advantage of educational opportunities at primary and secondary level. Those early interventions will prevent future exclusion.
I want to comment on those children and young people who have not had the advantages of a Sure Start in life and who, because of their current behaviour, have started to exclude themselves socially. Some of them have been subject to antisocial behaviour orders. To achieve a sustainable change in behaviour patterns, we need to tackle the root causes of antisocial behaviour by placing greater emphasis on interventions such as individual support orders, which offer support to overcome underlying problems such as drug or alcohol addictions.
The Government recognise that an integrated approach to problems, and a mix of care and control, carrot and stick, is necessary to improve outcomes for both the young person and the community in which they live. I support antisocial behaviour orders as a method of controlling persistent antisocial behaviour, which can have a devastating effect on communities and also put young people at risk. With proper intervention to accompany the control offered through the ASBO, an opportunity exists to prevent such young people from going down the criminal road.
In June, in an Adjournment debate, I highlighted my concern about the underuse of individual support orders, which can be attached to stand-alone ASBOs for 10 to 17-year-olds. ISOs have the authority of the court, agencies must provide the intervention detailed in the order, and the young person is aware that there are penalties for non co-operation, unlike under the informal acceptable behaviour contract.
I expressed disappointment in June that of 786 stand-alone ASBOs issued on application between May 2004 and the end of September 2005, only 31 had an ISO attached—just 4 per cent. Given that the ISO was a mandatory and constructive measure, it is to difficult see how the conditions were met in only 31 cases. A Youth Justice Board survey of those cases revealed an improvement in the behaviour of 29 of the 31 young people for whom ISOs had been issued. I have obtained fresh figures that show that since the period May 2004 to December 2005, 1,053 stand-alone ASBOs have been issued and only 49 ISOs attached—still representing only 5 per cent. of the total.
I am not alone in being perturbed at the low take-up of ISOs. Home Office Ministers, the social exclusion unit, the Home Affairs Committee, the Local Government Association and the children’s charity Barnardo’s have all called for greater use of them. The Youth Justice Board commissioned a review of the effectiveness of preventive measures and their cost and benefits across Europe and the United States. The survey suggested that it is good value for money to invest in preventive measures.
The National Audit Office said that local agencies would be better placed to target their interventions more effectively if the Home Office undertook formal evaluation of the success of different interventions and the impact of providing support services in conjunction with enforcement. It also called for further preventive measures to be developed by the Government, and concluded that international research suggested that preventive programmes such as education, counselling and training could be a cost-effective way of addressing antisocial behaviour. As well as a formal evaluation of the effectiveness of ISOs, I would like to see an evaluation of the new funding mechanisms in encouraging better take-up.
In each area of the country, there is a minority of young people who cause most problems to themselves and to others. Significant improvements could be brought about by changing the behaviour of that small number. That is where I believe properly funded ISOs could play a far greater role. That is an excellent policy that can help to motivate vulnerable young people to change the course of their lives and to learn how to respect themselves and others.
The Government are already doing much to support and to protect vulnerable families. For young people who have not yet received such early interventions and are at risk of becoming the prison population of the future, it is even more essential that preventive measures such as ISOs are used to their fullest potential.
Before I entered the House, I had the privilege to work for many years in the social regeneration sector, so I well remember the excitement that we felt in the early years of this Government as it dawned on us hard-bitten campaigners against poverty that the Government meant business and were going to shove billions of pounds into the attempt to break the cycle of deprivation.
The social exclusion unit has a great track record in driving an agenda to address the causes and consequences of social exclusion, poverty and low income. It is clear that no Government body was more aware of what remained to be done than the social exclusion unit. Its superb assessment of progress in 2004, the “Breaking the Cycle” report, was a model of clear, honest stock-taking across the entire range of domestic government. It even found time for mature reflection on domestic government, and that was referred to by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) in his contribution.
I commend the social exclusion unit and the report. Without honest debate, we cannot move forward at all. I commend the fact that it realistically assessed what was happening and had happened as a result of the intervention. The major ground that the social exclusion unit broke was in establishing the primacy of what is now a fundamental no-brainer in domestic policy: thinking in silos is stupid, and the age of flexible, joined-up thinking, at national, local and neighbourhood levels, is here to stay.
I want to use my time to talk about two issues that need joined-up government. The first is an afterthought from the Third Reading of the Welfare Reform Bill this week. I am left with a powerful conviction that the link between health and capacity to work cannot be over-emphasised; nor can our responsibility to make the two relevant arms of government work effectively together. Nowhere is that more important than in the Bill's provision for an
“assessment by a health care professional approved by the Secretary of State”.
My view is that we need to make sure that all recipients of the new employment and support allowance should receive not just assessments of their health, but what follows from that assessment—enhanced health support generally, related not only to employment. Members will know in their hearts, and most of us have them, that we are talking about people who have been on not only an employment and benefits scrapheap, but a health scrapheap. It is little known, though hardly surprising, that the people whom that provision is concerned with have high levels of premature mortality. We should not forget that. I am glad to say that my view is powerfully reinforced by the DWP research into the impact of the pathways pilots. I was going to quote from that but, given the time, I will not.
I cannot stress too strongly that those health-enhancing clauses in the Bill need to be backed up with resources and determination, and extended in their application. Joined-up delivery here means the Departments for Health and for Work and Pensions, with all those resources going into turning around our poorest communities, singing from the same hymn sheet, and loudly.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health will soon find, I hope, that there are financial spin-offs in reducing the pressures of emergency admissions to hospital, which are strongly associated with deprivation. The 2 million-plus currently receiving incapacity benefits are surely the most deprived adults with poor health, and the core of the challenge to the NHS. The provision for health back-up in the Bill needs to be pursued vigorously; it is not an optional add-on. Joined-up thinking and implementation are fundamental to the success of this key aspect of welfare reform.
My second theme in terms of reducing social exclusion through joined-up government is about the low wage economy and what needs to be done. I raise this as the MP for one of the most deprived constituencies in London. Low pay matters desperately in London, particularly when we look at figures that show how much it costs to live in London and how much less it costs to live outside London. The high cost of living in London is the nub of the problem facing Londoners struggling to get through each week on low pay. In 2003-04, excluding pensioner households, half the people in this country in income-deprived households had somebody in employment in their home. In other words, among non-pensioner households, half the problem of poverty is now about poverty in work.
To give a sense of what living in London is about, the family budget unit compared the costs for Londoners and the residents of York of a low cost but acceptable standard of living. For London, they were calculated to be 31 per cent. higher than in York for a couple with two children with one parent working full-time and one working part-time. They were 35 per cent. higher for a working single parent and 28 per cent. higher for a single person. But the huge gulf between the costs faced by Londoners who cannot afford to buy and cannot get into social housing and the rest of the country lies in private rents. Privately rented two-bedroom flats subject to housing benefit claims in 2004-05 averaged £165 a week in London, £77 in the north-west and £92 in the south-west. The evidence is stark; it is hard to make work pay on low wages in London, particularly if you live in the private rented sector.
I am arguing for a living wage for London to be recognised as a core issue in addressing social exclusion and the associated big issues, right up to health inequality. I am also arguing that we need to address some of the underlying factors that make the problem of poverty pay such a difficult nut to crack, such as the continued existence of a deep poverty trap, as referred to earlier, and the shortage of housing that is affordable to those who want to work and who want and deserve better lives.
I cannot emphasise this strongly enough; if we want to tackle worklessness, child poverty and the early mortality rate of those living in poverty in the capital, we have to look at a living wage for London that is above the minimum wage currently on offer. I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office to use her sharp elbows to get to the table on this one and to try to do some joined-up thinking about how we can make this a reality for the people of London.
I respect the recent decision to concentrate the efforts of the new social exclusion task force on the most deprived sectors of the population, where the inability to cope in society is replicated from generation to generation. However, I want to be reassured that the much wider agenda identified by the social exclusion unit’s report “Breaking the Cycle—Taking Stock of Progress and Priorities for the Future” will continue to be driven with determination and the intelligent, integrated overview that has characterised the social exclusion unit.
I want to talk briefly about my constituency, which has wards that although only a couple of miles apart, highlight the type of difficulties inherent in tackling social exclusion. They are challenges on which I am determined that we should make better progress in future. The more prosperous wards in Worsley have benefited from general increases in prosperity, while the other wards represent problems that seem intractable.
Incomes have risen nationally by between 2 and 3 per cent. each year. On average, the highest income level has risen to £46,000 a year in one Worsley ward. By contrast, the nearby ward of Little Hulton has an average income of only £21,000. Those two wards are only a few miles apart, but the difference between their average incomes is £25,000.
That stark discrepancy in income carries through into almost every other aspect that I have looked at. Unemployment in the more disadvantaged ward is 8.3 per cent., whereas it is 1 per cent. in the more advantaged ward. We can see that we have had record funding in health and education; that has produced wonderful improvements, such as in cancer mortality rates and deaths from heart disease. However, the more disadvantaged areas in Worsley have not seen those improvements; we see them in some places, but not in others.
The income inequality in my constituency is now reflected in a health gap. There is a seven-year gap in life expectancy between the two wards I have highlighted; one of them has a life expectancy of 73 years, whereas its more prosperous neighbour has a life expectancy of almost 80—much longer than the England average. Unsurprisingly, the ward with the lowest life expectancy also has the highest mortality rates. It has the highest mortality rates in Salford for heart disease and stroke, and a nearby ward has the highest mortality rates for cancer. In fact, 14 to 15 per cent. of people in those two wards, which are the most disadvantaged, say that they are not in good health, compared with an England average of 9 per cent.
Ill health on that scale leads to a heavier burden of caring. Nationally, about 10 per cent. of the population are carers, with about a fifth of those carers caring for 50 or more hours per week. In Boothstown ward—the more advantaged ward—there are numerically more carers, but the amount of caring that they have to do every week is less. In Little Hulton ward—the most disadvantaged—higher health inequalities lead to one third of carers caring for more than 50 hours per week. It is increasingly accepted that a heavy burden of caring has an impact on the health of the carer. Therefore, it is clear that caring needs in families in my most disadvantaged ward add further to health issues in the community, which are already severe.
There have been some dramatic improvements in education standards in Salford in recent years—they have improved by 20 per cent. However, we are still improving from a very low base. One school in my constituency has now improved to having 45 per cent. GCSE passes in the last year, but until merely a year ago it achieved only about a 20 per cent. pass rate. We celebrate its success in having made that improvement, but we should bear in mind that until recently eight out of 10 young people were leaving school without five good GCSE passes. Therefore, our low income problems will carry on, as that education difficulty will affect future employment and income potential.
We have debated this issue, and thinking back to it I reflect on the fact that such young people started school in 1990 or 1991, so they have not benefited from all the changes brought in from 1997 onwards. I also believe that it was right to change policy to deal with schools in special measures more quickly; such measures will start to create improvements in our schools.
I do not have the time to speak about everything that I wanted to discuss, but it is important to touch on the cycle of deprivation—of that passing on from generation to generation—and on the importance of breaking into that. Teenage pregnancies are a significant factor in that. They happen through the generations—daughters of teenage mothers are more likely to become pregnant at such an age themselves.
A few years ago, Little Hulton ward had the highest teenage conception rate in western Europe, and it still has a conception rate of 60 per 1,000 females. Therefore, the steps that the social exclusion taskforce is taking on teenage pregnancy are welcome. What such wards need is the most robust approach that we can manage to tackle social exclusion and break into the cycles of deprivation.
The social exclusion action plan approach is the right one, particularly the first of the five key guiding principles—better identification and early intervention. That is vital. That support to front-line practitioners such as health visitors and community midwives will be essential.
Mention has been made of the important recent Lisa Harker report on tackling child poverty, and we await further developments with great interest. Some of the proposals in Lisa’s report will be vital in my constituency. Other initiatives, such as the health-led parenting support projects, will also be vital.
I want to say a little more about the issues affecting carers. The action plan makes it clear that there are groups of people whose needs are unique, complex and difficult to meet. The plan mentions children in care and adults leading chaotic lives, but carers often find that they are socially and financially excluded from society, and they merit special attention.
Carers UK has undertaken a number of surveys of carers, which show that financial exclusion is a problem for them. Six out 10 of the carers surveyed had given up work to provide care, so employment is not a solution for them in the short term because they are unable to take on a job. Four out of five of those surveyed said that they were financially worse off since becoming a carer, and there is concern that young carers will miss their chances of education, training and employment. When we look at the figures for young people who are not employed or engaged in education or training, we must understand that some of them are carers.
Statistics about young carers are hard to come by, and insufficient work is being done to identify them, but as many as 50,000 young people under the age of 18 nationwide are thought to provide care to another family member, usually a parent. A study of carers aged 16 to 25 found that half were living in lone-parent families, most of which were workless households. Fourteen per cent. of carers look after a disabled child or young adult, and many face years—or even a lifetime—of caring, as almost 500,000 children or young people in the UK have a disability or long-term illness.
National surveys of parents caring for disabled children show similar elements of financial exclusion. Naturally, such parents are less likely to work. Nine out of 10 of lone parents who are caring, and more than one third of couples who are caring, have no income other than benefits. One in three parents said that their disabled children had needs—for clothing, bedding, or other basic necessities—that could not be met.
More generally, carers can experience financial difficulties. I commend the Carers UK survey “Carers on the Breadline” to the House. It found that one in five carers often had to cut back on food spending, that one in three had difficulties paying household bills, and that two in three worried about finances to the extent that their health was affected.
Those figures are disturbing. When hon. Members talk in the House about carers, they display great sympathy for their cause, but we must do more to identify carers’ needs and problems, and then work harder to address them. Although there are many carers in our communities, the ones with the heaviest burden of caring are most likely to experience financial and social exclusion, and that should help us to focus on their needs.
In Worsley constituency, between 6,000 and 7,000 adults provide unpaid care and, as I mentioned earlier, many of the carers in the most disadvantaged wards provide care for 50 hours a week or more. That means that, in that area, the group on whom we should focus consists of about 1,200 adults, and perhaps a maximum of 100 young people.
The first and most important step in helping carers is to identify them. After that, we need to keep in contact with them so that we can provide additional help and support. Last year, I introduced my private Member Bill—the Identification and Support of Carers (Primary Health Care) Bill—to provide a step forward. Although it fell, I hope to bring it back, as it would require professionals such as GPs or their staff to identify adult carers, while teachers or college staff would do the same for young carers. In a practice serving, say, 2,000 people, it would not be too arduous for a GP to identify the 200 patients who were carers, or the 40 of that number who were providing care at the most burdensome level. We will have opportunities in the coming months to look at this issue again. We tabled an amendment to the Education Bill that had to do with identifying young carers, but we ran out of time and the amendment was not considered.
Finally, the Welsh Assembly has a Minister who acts as the carer’s champion. The Cabinet Office has the important role of co-ordinating the Government’s policy on certain matters, so I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office to consider whether it could achieve more by acting as the carer’s champion in respect of the matters that I have set out in my speech. That would help to mitigate the financial exclusion that the carers in our community suffer, and provide a way forward.
I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this debate, and I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley), who gave a typically thoughtful and caring speech.
Before I was elected to this House, I worked in the voluntary sector. I want to focus on the respective roles of the voluntary and public sectors in tackling social exclusion. Of course, social solidarity and social justice are central to the Labour party’s tradition, our vision for the future and our mission. Our approach is significantly different from that of the Tories. Throughout the Tory years, they were obsessed with opportunities for opting out, but we are trying to build a society where everyone can join in. This is about more than tackling poverty, although I believe that resources are at the heart of the issue.
A social justice approach to tackling social exclusion means two things. It means building a culture and mainstream institutions in which everyone is accepted, where the notion that your face does not fit becomes irrelevant. That is why our equalities agenda is also significant to the work on social exclusion. It means creating mainstream institutions that do not allow people to slip through the net, which is why the work that the Department for Education and Skills is doing on children in care is important. Personalised public services are important, because everyone is different. In my view, mainstream culture should not be all about celebrity. I do not want to live in a world in which a woman’s status depends on being able to buy a handbag costing £350. I am sure that most other hon. Members, at least on the Labour Benches, agree with that. When we acknowledge and recognise the value of community activities that are not media-driven but are controlled locally by people, we are taking an inclusive approach, which is why in County Durham the Durham miners’ big meeting is so popular. It is a totally community-led festival.
Another aspect of tackling social exclusion is helping and supporting those who suffer from it. That is what this debate has focused on more. I do not need to repeat the manifestations of social exclusion—we have heard many excellent examples in the course of the afternoon—but one of the things that concerns me is that we should neither be alarmist nor engage in unnecessarily negative labelling. When we do that, we make it more, not less difficult to tackle the problems.
I simply do not recognise the picture presented by Tory Members. My constituency is in County Durham. It is the second poorest county in the country. We have several wards in the poorest 10 per cent. The people whom I meet who suffer from social exclusion often display significant human virtues. For example, people turn up to the surgery with mental health problems, which may be undiagnosed or unacknowledged. Of course their behaviour may be alarming sometimes to their neighbours, but essentially they are very vulnerable people.
To take a completely different example, we should build on the initiatives that local people take in developing their communities, whether it be negotiating with British Rail to reserve carriages for pigeons to be sent to the south of England so that they can take part in racing, or organising community festivals. Those are the kind of enterprising attitudes that we should build on.
The Government’s record in tackling social exclusion is excellent. The new plan “Reaching Out: An Action Plan on Social Exclusion” produced by the Cabinet Office and the review on children and young people, which was published only this week by the Treasury and the Department for Education and Skills, show that we are continuing to build on the excellent work that has been done up to now.
One thing that has become evident in the debate is that many people have complex and different needs. The public services have traditionally had difficulty in dealing with that. There has been a tendency to send people from pillar to post and for the public sector to operate in silos, with people feeling that their professionalism will be challenged if they have to tackle more than one problem. Professionals dealing with people suffering from social exclusion have tended to see the problem, not the person.
One of the great strengths of the voluntary sector in tackling social exclusion is that it is good at joined-upness. An example is the Dene valley community transport project in my constituency. Everybody told me, “You have to see it; it’s fantastic. They run five buses”, so I went along. When I arrived, I found that it was not just five buses; there was a breakfast club, a pensioners luncheon club, takeaways, deliveries, a computer course, an advice centre and signposting to other public services. That project is typical of how the voluntary sector picks up the problems and deals with them. Working with the public services, the voluntary sector can provide an effective gateway to the more highly skilled and qualified professionals who may be needed in some instances.
I want to take the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Edward Miliband), on a trip down memory lane and remind him of a visit we made to a Children’s Society project in Salford in 1999. It was an excellent project whose participative approach was essential to its success. There was a play scheme, benefits advice, a food co-op and a second-hand furniture shop. All the activities had been chosen by the local community. Voluntary sector workers provided the skills to enable as many local people as possible in that isolated community to participate in decision making.
We need to ensure that we give the voluntary sector a good framework, so that both it and the public services can each do the bits of the job that they are good at. We have to acknowledge that there is a tension in respect of the voluntary sector. When we are wearing our taxpayer hat, we ask how money is spent and what the outputs are, but as local citizens we want more flexibility to decide what goes on in our area. Unless we acknowledge that fact, we shall not set up structures that resolve tensions in the way that funds are channelled to local projects.
I emphasise the fact that it is the Labour Government who have set up the compact for the voluntary sector. They have committed to three-year funding, early decision making and covering overhead costs. I am proud to be on the Labour Benches and to support the work being done in the Cabinet Office at present.
By the time we reach this stage of the debate, everything that needs to be said has been said, but not everyone has said it, so here goes.
It has been a lively and sometimes rumbustious debate, but throughout, with one or two exceptions, we have reflected and established consensus: on both sides of the House all Members feel strongly about social exclusion. We feel that it matters, and that it is not remotely acceptable that people should become detached from the mainstream of society and left to languish or, still worse, fall farther behind.
There are many ways to define or depict social exclusion. I make no apology for borrowing from Polly Toynbee the now famous image of the caravan progressing through the desert. She is right: if the people at the back of the caravan are detached, it could be said that society is splitting up. It is important that we ensure that that does not happen. We have different means of combating that. That is perhaps the only thing that I end up agreeing with Polly Toynbee about. I gather that she is a bit grumpy that I have even borrowed the image that she used. Nevertheless, we on this side of the House are passionately concerned to make sure that those at the back are kept in touch with those in the mainstream and make the progress that those in the mainstream are able to make. As society becomes more prosperous, we should all move forward together.
Many speakers in today’s debate have drawn attention to the Government’s record on reducing child poverty. From the Opposition Front Bench, we have welcomed that. We recognise and applaud it. However, most of the progress has been made in the group described in the action plan published by the Minister as covering wide social exclusion. That is defined mostly in financial terms, particularly in relation to relative low income at the 60 per cent. of median income level that we have been hearing about. That progress is to be welcomed. It is clearly appropriate that people who are on those levels of income should find that their lives are made easier. We know from numerous studies that tax credits have done most of the heavy lifting in achieving that progress.
That is very valuable, no doubt. However, we need to look beyond that at what has happened to what the action plan refers to as deep social exclusion and I and some of my colleagues have referred to as severe poverty. Over the last decade, 400,000 more people have entered severe poverty, if it is defined as less than 40 per cent. of median earnings. That should not be a matter for contention and I am surprised that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster regards it as such, because it is in the report that she published in September. The report makes it clear that virtually all members of society, apart from the bottom 5 per cent., have seen their incomes rise between 2 and 3 per cent. a year over the last decade. However, the bottom 5 per cent. have seen their income rise by just 1 per cent. a year. In other words, the poorest are falling further behind. To be fair, the action plan recognises that and talks about measures to tackle it. It reflects on the fact—this was mentioned by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster—that we need to recognise that the causes of poverty, especially in that hard-to-reach group are many and various. Multiple deprivation contributes to a difficult set of circumstances to tackle. I was pleased to hear the many contributions that emphasised the role of the voluntary sector. As the shadow Minister responsible for that, I hope that we can harness the voluntary sector’s practical track record in making a difference to those people.
It would be a mistake if we were to look only at deep social exclusion. The Prime Minister’s introduction to the action plan talks of 2.5 per cent. of every generation being stuck in deep social exclusion. That is the consequence or the outcome. It is no good just treating the consequences. We need to catch people before they fall into that very bottom category. We know, for example, that 11 per cent. of 16 to 18-year-olds are in the NEET category—not in education, employment or training. That figure has been static for 10 years, according to the action plan. We should not take any comfort from that. People must not become detached from society, but neither must society become so ossified that people have to know their place within it and not shift from that.
In that context, it is worrying that a youngster born in the bottom quarter of society 50 years ago had a greater chance of working their way up to a higher economic group than a youngster today. It is remarkable that, although we have expanded higher education, in the bottom 20 per cent. of income groups, 6 per cent. completed a degree in 1981, compared with only 9 per cent., or thereabouts, today. For the top 20 per cent., the figure has risen from 9 per cent. to 46 per cent. That is another example of impaired social mobility relative to some other groups. Let us be clear: 90 per cent. of the poorest do not go to university. That is unacceptable. [Interruption.] Of course we welcome the expansion of the university sector, but when most of that eludes the people who could benefit from it most, I am surprised that Members on the Government Front Bench are complacent. We on this side of the House regard that as a problem to be solved and it is significant that that does not seem to be the case on the Government Benches.
The Prime Minister’s introduction to the social exclusion report says that we need a
“radical revision of our methods for tackling social exclusion.”
Ten years on, I do not think that I am alone in thinking that that is a somewhat plaintive summary by the Prime Minister of the progress on and prospects for social exclusion. The matter has been a long-standing interest of new Labour since the days of John Smith—the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. McFadden), used to be one of his advisers—so there is a certain sense of regret, which was echoed by the hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie), that there has not been greater progress, although we acknowledge that some progress has been made.
That situation is perhaps reflected by the status of the social exclusion unit. It was established in 1997 as a flagship initiative of new Labour’s first term. It initially reported directly to the Prime Minister, and then reported to the Deputy Prime Minister. Although I readily acknowledge that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has a long-standing interest in the matter, the unit has moved beyond the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister. Just over a year ago, the Minister for Local Government told hon. Members that the social exclusion unit
“arrived at its rightful home when it came to … the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Department dealing with communities and the agencies on the ground where this problem can be tackled.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 20 October 2005; Vol. 437, c. 314WH.]
However, it now seems that the Department for Communities and Local Government, which the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has become, is not the right place for the unit after all, and there is now a different structure.
The action plan shows a lack of ambition—that is one of the themes that has emerged from the debate. Progress has been made, but given the possibilities, we are a little regretful that the report does not display greater ambition. For example, out of 23 recommendations in the report, eight are recommendations to explore and four are recommendations to introduce trials, pilots or demonstration projects. There are four recommendations to publish new Green Papers or guidance, and two recommendations to examine and review. There are two recommendations to promote or encourage. There is no sense in the text of the dynamism that once characterised the debate, and Conservative Members regret that very much. Our report and the report by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) show that we are galvanised into taking action.
There are good aspects of the Government’s report. I commend the personalisation agenda, which is long overdue, as the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster acknowledges in her introduction. An increasing role for the voluntary sector is also welcome. The interesting innovations suggesting using brokers to assist those in social exclusion to cope with some of their choices are a welcome development that we encourage.
The hon. Gentleman disparages what he calls a lack of ambition, but he does not take into account the scale of the problem that we had to address in 1997, which was caused—I was in local government before I became a Member—by the deliberate underfunding of services, by a Prime Minister who did not believe that there was any such thing as society, and by a Government who wanted a hands-off approach to the very services about which we are talking. Putting the problem right and getting safety nets in place was the first priority. Moving on from there so that communities and people in deprivation can help themselves is where we are now.
I have acknowledged the progress that has been made over the past decade, but it has been a decade—[Interruption.] It is getting on for a decade; it will be a decade on 1 May. That is a long time in government. I do not understand why it was not possible to anticipate at the time the problem of severe poverty or the deep social exclusion that is mentioned in the report. I do not understand why those things could not be done together—[Interruption.] We will set out our policies. I want to look forward and talk about what we are going to do. Perhaps I could commend to the Ministers the speech made by the hon. Member for Leeds, East, who decided, in a grown-up way, to put party politics to one side and to reflect on the issue in a non-partisan way, as we will seek to do. His speech should be circulated to all hon. Members because it was an unvarnished yet practical encapsulation of some of the problems that we will all look to resolve.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will reflect, as this does inform the future, on why child poverty trebled under the last Conservative Government, yet has gone down by 700,000 under this Government. Why does he think that happened, and what does it tell him about the future?
The Minister for the Cabinet Office encouraged us to consider the people who are in deep social exclusion. I have acknowledged that there has been great progress in reducing child poverty, but we need to consider those in severe social exclusion. We have heard countless examples of such exclusion from hon. Members on both sides of the House today, and for Members to try to play party politics with the subject is disappointing. We want to concentrate on the problems that are hard to solve. I share the sadness that the hon. Member for Leeds, East, feels about the social exclusion unit’s lack of ambition. The figures that he quoted on education, which is one of the main ways out of poverty and social exclusion, are shocking, and we should do something about them. I served with the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) on the Select Committee on Public Accounts, and everyone on that Committee was disturbed by the persistence of failure in schools. [Interruption.] The Minister for the Cabinet Office confirms that she is interested in the matter, and I applaud that, but we still have further to go.
My hon. Friend is making a characteristically excellent speech, but he is being characteristically modest, too. Ministers on the Treasury Bench asked what the Conservative commitment is to enlivening this debate, but is it not the case that my hon. Friend’s contribution to the social justice commission report not only secured the front page of The Guardian, but made relative poverty the central issue of political debate for a week? That is more than the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has managed during her period in office.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention, but modesty forbids me to comment. The hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor), the Liberal Democrat spokesman, underlined the issue of lack of ambition. It is interesting that although the action plan is about those in deep social exclusion, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster confirms that the Government decided not to publish any figures that would give us an insight into the progress being made. If we are to think about people in severe poverty, why do the Government not publish the figures, which they can make available in the Library in response to Members’ questions? Why do they not do what Save the Children wants and publish regular figures—and not just at the 60 per cent. level, although we support moves to reduce poverty at that level, but at lower levels, such as the 40 per cent. level, too? It is perfectly possible to do that.
As for the speeches made today, in a very civilised speech, the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) discussed with great courteousness some of the problems in Nottingham. One in seven children there leave primary school and enter secondary school unable to read, and Nottingham has the lowest number of university entrants of any city in the country, despite the fact that it is a great university city. That must impel us to action, and the hon. Gentleman rightly highlighted that. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries), who has a reputation as a great battler against injustice, gave a passionate speech, in which she spoke from personal experience and with authority about the contribution that SEN education makes to social mobility. That chimes with her commendation of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green, who has been a stalwart supporter of choice for parents who face the problem of deciding where to educate their children with special educational needs.
I mentioned the contribution of the hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt), and I welcome his endorsement of the voluntary sector’s role. It is important to allow projects to be managed in different ways, and that point was echoed by the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland. We need to relax a bit and tolerate a bit more diversity in failure if we are really to allow innovation to take place. My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood), gave an elegant and persuasive speech, and he mentioned that obesity can lead to a lethargic approach to life. I gather that he is about to set off on an expedition across the Arctic, so he cannot be accused of taking such an approach. He made a well-rounded and wide-ranging contribution, for which we were grateful. The contribution of the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) left me so perplexed that I could not explain it to myself, until I realised that there must be a vacancy for Deputy Prime Minister. Clearly, her speech was an application for the job, such was the nonsense talked.
There were a wide range of contributions, and most of them were in the spirit of the debate, which was one of concentrating seriously on tackling problems of social exclusion. We Conservative Members intend to do that, and I look forward to hearing that the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-East, will join us in looking for genuine answers to the problems that we have begun to identify, some of which are in the report before us.
I am glad that we have had the opportunity to hold a debate on such an important issue. May I begin by welcoming the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) to his post as Front-Bench spokesman, and by giving belated congratulations to the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor) on the birth of his baby son? I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part in our debate, particularly the many Labour Members who have stayed late on a Thursday, because they recognise that it is an important issue. Not only do we care about it a great deal, but it is vital to the strength of the country.
So many points were made by hon. Members that they will be disappointed, or perhaps relieved, to learn that I cannot respond to all of them, but I will to try to deal with the main issues. The starting point for this debate is the progress in the battle against poverty and the fight to extend opportunity to people who were denied it in the past. Over the past decade poverty has decreased, more people are in work—in fact, the UK has the highest employment rate in the G7—fewer children are born into poverty, and fewer pensioners are forced to live out a retirement in poverty than was the case a decade ago.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies said:
“Child poverty has now fallen in every year since 1998/99, which is the longest period of sustained falls in child poverty since consistent data on relative poverty rates started to be available”
in 1961. That says something about the record on which we are seeking to build. That progress is not accidental—it was achieved because the Government made a decision to attack poverty and enhance people’s life chances. Instead of freezing child benefit, we increased it. Instead of opposing the minimum wage and saying that it would cost jobs, we introduced it, and as a result, employment went up. Instead of two recessions that left 3 million people unemployed, we have 2 million more people in work, and fewer than 1 million people on jobseeker’s allowance. Instead of denying families the support that could help them deal with the twin responsibilities of work and bringing up children, we extended maternity leave and pay, and we introduced paternity leave and other rights to help families in those circumstances.
We wished to hold this debate, because for all the progress that we have made, there is more to do. There are still people who are denied both the chance to make the most of their potential and the opportunities that most of us take for granted. It is precisely because we want to focus on the most excluded individuals—that is a difficult task, because, as we have heard, some people face multiple problems—that the Prime Minister appointed my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong) as Minister for the Cabinet Office last year, and we published the action plan on social exclusion in September. As my right hon. Friend said in her opening speech, in preparing the action plan we asked ourselves not just who were the most excluded groups or what policies would have an impact on the situation, but what could be done to prevent deeply entrenched social exclusion from extending to the next generation.
Early intervention was mentioned by my right hon. Friend, and by my hon. Friends the Members for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), for Stockport (Ann Coffey), for Worsley (Barbara Keeley) and others. The social exclusion action plan provided an analysis of who was vulnerable to social exclusion, as well as proposals that could have an impact on the situation. We discussed the way in which the early months and years of a child’s life are vital in influencing their future life chances. Support in the early years can have a greater impact than support later in life, which is why we established Sure Start and 1,000 children’s centres—that number will increase to 3,500—throughout the country. But for the most vulnerable children we want to do even more. At the heart of the action plan was the offer of extra support to families in the most vulnerable circumstances, with health-led professional help from before the baby is born right through the first couple of years of the child’s life.
Let me be clear: that has nothing to do with social branding and everything to do with social opportunity. It is about trying to break the cycle of disadvantage and offer help to families who need it most, when they need it most. As my right hon. Friend said, analysis of this kind of programme in the United States has shown positive outcomes for both mothers and children, as well as positive impacts on the community as a whole. That is why I am saddened that the Leader of the Opposition described the approach as “ludicrous”. I hope we will see a more constructive approach to such a programme in the future.
Disagreement over this kind of policy exposes an important choice—whether we do what we can to offer the support that could prevent problems from arising, or whether Government should deal only with the consequences of poverty and social exclusion. We believe that the right approach is to take preventive action if we have good evidence that it can make a positive difference, so we will begin piloting this approach later this year to try to head off problems before they develop, and to provide support when it can be most effective.
I note with interest the Minister’s remarks about early intervention. I also noted his side-swipe at the Leader of the Opposition—but my right hon. Friend has raised up the political agenda the importance of using whatever mechanisms and levers we can to support couples staying together when they have children for whom they have direct responsibility. Does the Minister regard that intervention as helpful? Can he point to the steps that the Government have taken to ensure that parents can stay together to help look after their children?
I am coming to the subject of family. I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving us the pleasure of his company for the last five minutes of the debate. I do not withdraw my criticism of his leader’s description of support for the most vulnerable children in the country as “ludicrous”. That is his problem, not mine.
The subject of the family was raised in the debate, and I shall say a little about it. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) spoke about it, with some impact, and the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells mentioned it. I do not propose to go over all the ground again. The debate is not about whether one is pro-family, or about the view that we take of marriage, divorce and family breakdown. We all know that the family is the basic building block of society.
The point that I make, and which my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) made, is that what Government do to support families has an impact too, so it matters if we offer families some degree of stability and predictability about the economic environment and the labour market in which they live and work, as we have done by maintaining a strong and stable economy in the past decade.
It matters if we act to ensure that families do not have to subsist on poverty pay, as we have tried to do through the introduction of a minimum wage. It matters if we support families at crucial moments such as childbirth, as we have done by extending maternity leave, increasing maternity pay and introducing paternity leave. Being pro-family is not just a moral claim. It is about what Government do. On that score, the Government have tried to support families in effective and multiple ways, and we will continue to do so.
Another issue raised in the debate by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) from the Front Bench, and by others, was the role of the state and the voluntary sector. Our contention is not that the state should do everything or that the state should attempt to replace society, the voluntary sector or the people in local communities who achieve so much throughout the country. We heard, for example, from my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) about the tremendous work being done by the people of Gamesley, which is reflected in other communities throughout the country. We know that individuals have responsibilities, communities have responsibilities, and so, too, do Government. The key question about the voluntary sector is whether it should be a partner or a substitute.
We see the voluntary sector as a crucial partner in fostering social justice. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) said, its role is not, and never can be, the same as that of Government. It has an independence, sometimes a creativity, and a campaigning voice, and those are essential to its success. Of course it has a role to play in the delivery of services and in having a creative input into their design, where many voluntary organisations do a fantastic job. Although the sector has a crucial role in that regard, it cannot be a substitute for the Government’s responsibility to fund public services, to foster opportunity and to try to enhance life chances.
The Conservatives deny that their agenda is one of substituting, or withdrawing Government responsibility. Today we heard Conservative Members talk about the need for more spending on areas such as health and special educational needs, yet we have increased spending in both those areas in a manner completely unrecognisable from the budgets that used to exist under the Conservatives. When the Leader of the Opposition was asked on the “Today” programme about the extent of Government responsibility, he made himself very clear. He said that sharing the proceeds of growth would mean
“a dramatic difference. It would be dramatically different after five years of a Conservative Government”.
Perhaps Conservative Members who wish to see more spending on one area or another should have a discussion with their own party leader about that “dramatic difference” and what it would mean for public services in their constituencies if he ever got the chance to implement it.
I wish to make progress.
Many other crucial matters were raised, including carers, rural areas, and prisons. This debate has given us an important opportunity to discuss an issue at the heart of our society—how we maximise opportunity for people regardless of their background, make a reality of our belief in the worth of every person, and try to heal social division for the good of the whole community. We believe that the good society requires us not only to foster dynamism and enterprise but to pay heed to the life chances of the most excluded. As we look around the world today, we recognise that if it was ever possible in the past for countries to rely on the talents and energies of a few, that is certainly no longer the case, and it will not be so in the future.
On the foundation of our record of reducing poverty and tackling social exclusion, we have renewed our commitment to offer help, support and opportunity to some of the most vulnerable and marginalised people in society so that they may make the most of their lives, and so that not only they but society as a whole may benefit as a result.