I inform the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.
I beg to move,
That this House notes with concern the fact that the United Kingdom comes bottom of a league table of 21 rich countries in a recent UNICEF study of child well-being, has one of the worst drug problems in Europe, has low levels of social mobility, has higher rates of family breakdown than many other European countries and has more people living in severe poverty today than there were in 1997; regrets that sufficiently effective action has not been taken to deal with these problems; recognises that a shared sense of social responsibility is the basis for a more effective response to multiple deprivation and for more effective solutions to the problems of social breakdown; and urges politicians of all parties to join together in an attempt to support families, provide new routes into work, enable people to escape from addiction and indebtedness and to enable voluntary organisations and social enterprises of all sizes to increase their invaluable contribution.
No subject we could debate is of more importance. Moreover, it is a good sign for British politics that that proposition, at least, is shared by Members on the two Front Benches and on the Liberal Benches. The subject is of importance not only because of the extraordinary effects of poverty and multiple deprivation on individuals and families, but because of the scale of the problems that we face.
There is a marked difference in the impression one receives of the country we are living in when one reads the motion and then the amendment. Of course, there is some truth in both the light and the shade, and I do not mean to suggest that Britain is everywhere in the same condition as it is in some places. Much of our country is in splendid condition in many ways. The problem is that much is not, and I shall retail a few of the indicators brought to light in the vast report that we have all been debating and discussing for weeks and months—as we shall continue to do for weeks and months ahead. I shall then try to tackle the question of what is underneath the dispute between the two Front Benches on how we go about curing the problems.
In 2006, child poverty rose by 100,000 before housing costs, which I think is the Government’s preferred measure, or by 200,000 after housing costs. The UNICEF study showed that for child well-being the UK is the lowest rated of 21 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way so early in his speech. The first line of the motion uses the word “comes”—the present tense—in reference to the UNICEF report. Will the right hon. Gentleman put on record that almost all the data in the UNICEF report predated 2001 and that none of it was newer than 2004? Does he therefore accept that the report does not, as its authors accept, detail the current situation?
It is inevitable that any report based on a large amount of statistical accumulation will reflect a period some time before it was published, but as we are considering what is, by agreement, the most important issue before us as a nation, I hope we shall not have to debate the exact use of the present tense in relation to what is inevitably the case with a report.
In our country, more than 1.2 million young people aged between 16 and 24 are not in work, education or training. The UK has a higher proportion of children living in workless households than any other EU country. That is a really important indicator—I want to come back to that—because, as we should all be able to agree, work is the crucial way out of poverty. I do not think that there is any remaining difference of view between the parties about that. Work is fundamental, so worklessness is fundamental, and the worklessness record is not good.
It is true that the Government have managed to move some people—a noticeable number of people—out of poverty, as measured by the 60 per cent. of median income line. However, unfortunately, if one looks at the figures carefully, one can see that in general the movement has involved people going from rather slightly below the line to rather slightly above the line. The problem is that, over the past seven or eight years, the number of people living in severe poverty—defined as less than 40 per cent. of the median income—increased by 600,000. In a way, that is the less important point, because it is a point about what has happened recently. The point about our country is that there are now 3.1 million people living on less than 40 per cent. of the median income. That figure is from the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Whatever view one takes of what has been done and is being done, that cannot be right. It cannot be where we are trying to be as a country. To be fair to Members on the Government Front Bench, the right hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn), the former Secretary of State for Health, was perfectly open about that and said that poverty had become more entrenched. That is a real problem for our country.
I hesitate to shatter the emerging embryonic consensus, but does the right hon. Gentleman share my fear that, given the manifesto on which he and his colleagues stood, people in the country might struggle to take him seriously on these matters?
I do not know who will take what seriously—I am not a psephologist—but in the end what matters is whether the present Government, the next Government and the Governments after that are seriously going to tackle the issue. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that we are not seriously committed to tackling it, he is wrong. We are. We would not have bothered to do the work that we have done on the issue if we were not seriously committed to tackling it. Moreover, we would not be making the argument that I am making, which is that this is the single most important thing we can tackle, unless we intended to tackle it. Just as a matter of political prudence, it would be slightly odd for a party to set itself up to try to tackle something and make that a priority if it thought that it was not going to spend any time or effort trying to tackle it and did not care whether it succeeded or failed. The truth is that we are committed to the issue. I know that it is uncomfortable for the hon. Gentleman and others who wish to be in a partisan position to acknowledge that we may have joint aims—although we may disagree about means—but the truth is that that is the position that we are in, so we ought to recognise it.
The new deal is a very considerable programme. I see the distinguished right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) in his place. He and many others have pointed out that, despite what are no doubt the best of intentions, the new deal has, to a very considerable degree, failed—in the sense that a large number of the people for whom it finds work unfortunately move back out of work extremely quickly. It has cost about £1.9 billion, but the number of unemployed young people has increased by about 70,000.
There cannot be anybody in the House—I go back to the right hon. Gentleman: I remember learning about this from him 10 or more years ago—who thinks that it is satisfactory that there are roughly 2.7 million people on incapacity benefit in Britain. That cannot be the position that we ought to be in as a country, especially when many of those people might be able to work, would like to work but are not working.
I completely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. It is distressing that nearly one in five people of working age in my constituency are on incapacity benefit. What we have been doing over the past couple of years has had some success. The programme to get people off benefits and into jobs, through Jobcentre Plus, is expensive. There are all sorts of complex reasons involved, particularly in former mining constituencies. I would be interested to hear whether he has any ideas about how one would cut that number. There is no point in just bewailing the situation; one has to have concrete ideas that work in practice.
Yes, we do, and I will come to those ideas in more detail in a moment. However, let me answer the hon. Gentleman so that he does not think that I am evading his question. The proposition put forward in the social justice policy group’s report, which is the foundation of our thoughts about these matters, is that we should move to an arrangement under which welfare to work is handled by agencies—whether social or voluntary agencies, or those in the private sector—that are paid by results. Those results should be long-term, not short-term, work. In other words, the agencies should receive remuneration related to the benefits saved when people move into work and stay in work for a considerable period, so that there is an incentive to help people to remain in work. It then becomes a sensible financial proposition for those enterprises to invest in helping people to become able to work either by trying to do something about their health, or by trying to find them things that are appropriate to their health condition—or both. As a matter of fact, I think that we might be able to achieve some consensus in the House on that. We are certainly considering the proposition seriously.
Is there not a danger that both parties are thinking institutionally about how to combat the huge extent of worklessness in many of our constituencies? Ministers on the Treasury Bench might be thinking about what to do centrally, while Conservative spokesmen might be thinking about what to do through voluntary organisations. Why do we not set the claimants free? We know perfectly well that most of our constituents on incapacity benefit will never be interviewed, or have anything happen to them, if we are the agents of change. Why do we not say to them, “Those of you who can, try to get a job in the next year, but keep all your benefits, including housing benefit. Come and tell us when you’ve got a part-time job, and we’ll try to help to build it up into a full-time job”? Those people would then become the agents of change, and it would not be us—whether the state or the private sector—doing good for them.
I am in the embarrassing position of not knowing whether the social justice policy group’s report makes that very recommendation because the right hon. Gentleman gave evidence to it, which I know he did, or whether the group invented it. However, I am happy to tell him that we are looking at that possibility seriously. Clearly, part of the answer must lie in not penalising people on benefits who would like to move into work when they try to get work and fail, and come back out of work and try again. We need a much more flexible system.
It is not just a matter of failing. Quite a few of our constituents who have been on benefit for a long time are hesitant to take the risk of moving into work because things might go pear-shaped. If we could say to them, “Don’t worry. Here’s a year’s money, and whatever you do will be in order,” many of them, although not all, would be able to make that journey without any of us having to interfere in their lives.
I have the same experience of meeting constituents who are frightened about the effect on their benefits of moving into work. We must change that situation. We are looking extremely seriously at propositions that will allow us to achieve that, which must be an aim.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one weakness of the system, especially when trying to get people with long-term disabilities into work, is that many of the schemes, irrespective of who delivers them, work on the premise that once people are made work-ready a sum is paid and a box is ticked? The hardest part of the process is helping people to apply for a job and to go through an interview so that they get sustainable employment. If his long-term plans involve bridging that gap, many such people will take the risk mentioned by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field).
I have just spotted the author of the social justice policy group report, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith); he is sitting behind me, but I will take the liberty of saying that that is precisely the point that the report raises about welfare-to-work programmes. They need to be carried out by people who have an incentive and a desire not just to find people something that looks like a job for a minute, but to help them into it, to help keep them in it, and to help them to get back into it if they fall out of it. That is a crucial component of such programmes.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that, at the last count, there were no fewer than 2,063 young school leavers in Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Milton Keynes not in education, employment or training, 1,000 of whom were in that position because they suffered from the hidden disability of speech, language and communication impairment, which had not been treated? Does that not underline the crucial significance of early intervention to tackle those problems, in the interests of both the economy and the fulfilment of individual potential?
Happily, I am in a position to reply yes, absolutely. The issue is not just worklessness; the structure of things is somehow wrong, too. That is partly to do with the couple penalty, an issue to which we have drawn much attention in the past few days. Indeed, the Minister for the Cabinet Office and I discussed it in a broadcast yesterday evening. The Institute for Fiscal Studies sets out a case in which the husband, or one partner, earns £15,000, and the wife, or the other partner, earns £5,000. It calculates that as a couple, they would get benefits and tax credits worth £2,317—those are not my figures, but those of the IFS—whereas the wife on her own would receive £7,785 from the state. That is a difference of £5,000. I neither know nor care whether those figures, calculated by the IFS in March 2006, are currently exactly correct. The point is clear, and it is repeated by a wide spectrum of people on low incomes: there are significant incentives in the system against admitting to being a couple. That is why we find cases of people living apart together, as it is mysteriously and rather horribly called.
The issue is not just poverty, worklessness or odd and misaligned incentives in the system. There are underlying critical problems about lifestyle that we have to face as a country, and here we are bound to be on common ground, because we are simply talking about facts. More than 300,000 people in Britain are drug addicts; I think that the figure was 327,000 in 2006. That is a little under 10 people per 1,000. Must we regard that as an inevitable feature of life that we must deal with and accept, or is it something that we could be more optimistic about—something that we could actually cure? In the Netherlands, three people per 1,000 are problematic drug users, and in Sweden the figure is 4.5 people per 1,000. I do not know every respect in which the Netherlands and Sweden differ from the UK, but the report for which my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green is responsible makes it extremely clear that there are significant differences in the way in which we think about rehabilitation and treatment, and I am sure that that is part of the explanation. In any event, it is clear that something needs to be done about the levels of addiction.
I give way to the hon. Gentleman, who has a long record of interest in the subject.
There is an encouraging tendency for the parties to agree, and many of us look forward with admiration to the Opposition report that we will soon see. Will the right hon. Gentleman consider two other countries? Portugal has reduced the number of deaths from drug use by 50 per cent. since 2005, and Australia has reduced the number of deaths from overdoses by 70 per cent. in nine years.
Yes—the report looks at a wide range of countries. Reducing harm and reducing death, about which the hon. Gentleman is extremely and rightly concerned, are important aims, but there is a difference. He and I may disagree, to judge by our previous conversations about the matter over the years. The report says, and I agree, that it is not good enough just to prevent harm. What we have to do is try to lead people, or enable people to lead themselves—it is a reconstruction of personality and ability that we are talking about—out of the condition of addiction into a non-chaotic lifestyle where they can work and be part of the mainstream. So harm reduction is an important goal, but it is not enough.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend who, as usual, is making a lucid and intelligent speech. Is it not the case that when young people addicted to drugs, make the brave decision that they need help and want to come off their—typically—heroin addiction, it is no good saying to them, “That’s fine. Come back in a month and we will find a place for you,” or, “You will have to join a queue for treatment in five or seven months”? One may as well say that there is no treatment available. It must be now or not at all. That is expensive, but it is a priority. Is there something that my right hon. Friend would like to say about that?
There is something that I would like to say, without falling foul of the Minister’s hope. When I was enjoying myself as shadow Home Secretary—
With great distinction.
With distinction or otherwise—I spent a lot of time going around treatment centres here and in other countries. What I saw is exactly what my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) says—that in order to be effective, treatment must be available at the moment when the addict is ready for it. It is part of the same conundrum that explains why it is often the case that only those who have been through addiction can lead others out of it effectively. So awful is the condition into which people are drawn that they need to relate to somebody who has been through it. For the same sort of reason, the condition is so awful that if there is the prospect of a wait, hopelessness sets in. We must be able to tackle the problem directly.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
Of course, to my right hon. Friend. In his report there is a recommendation that we deal with that by the expenditure of a considerable sum of money. We will have to consider that extremely carefully.
As my right hon. Friend was rising to answer the previous intervention, there was the usual commentary about an expenditure commitment. I understand that. We have a lot of fun and games about that in this place. However, one of the problems is that we have continued to debate the drugs issue in the House like children. I did not include in the report the costs that we calculated for the deaths due to drug addiction in this country or the unknown number of lost lives. We should rise above the ludicrous games that are played. The Minister may look at the matter from the party standpoint and whether the Government can incorporate it, but I hope that the whole House will think carefully about it. People are dying out there while we play games. It is time to treat the problem as adults, not as children.
I entirely agree with that. Throughout the work on the report and our consideration of the issue, we need to take into account that the phenomena that I am describing do not just have a social cost and a cost for individuals and families—they also have huge economic costs. Drug addiction is among the largest causes of economic cost, and we ought to be able to balance that in a mature way.
Before the right hon. Gentleman moves on, will he expand a little on a fundamental point that he slipped in, which is mentioned a number of times in the section of the report on addictions—that treatment should be carried out by people who have direct experience of addiction? He said so a moment ago and it is specified in the report. Can he give an example of another country that bases its drug treatment system on that premise? How would it affect the 400 former addicts in my constituency whose treatment has been through GPs and the NHS, none of the GPs having had a prior addiction problem with the substance?
No, the hon. Gentleman misunderstands. I am not saying, nor is the report, that no good can be done by people other than those who have previously been addicts. What I discovered when I went to the Netherlands—it is echoed in many parts of the report—was that what is true in some rehabilitation centres in the UK today is true there. Alongside medically qualified professionals work people who have been through the experience and come out on the other side. That combination is an enormously powerful tool for enabling the addict to find a way of reaching genuine rehabilitation, but we are not suggesting that it is the only tool. I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not still think, as I noticed him saying at an earlier stage on the radio or in a newspaper, that this is somehow an attack on GPs—it is not. It is a question of trying to add a layer of rehabilitation that is not currently available.
I will give way once more, but then I am going to stop doing so.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for allowing the debate to continue. The report is absolutely explicit in saying that the way forward for drug treatment should be by using people— professionals—who had previously had a drug addiction. As he says, the Netherlands has tended to use that system. Will he confirm that the Netherlands is the only country in the world to have adopted what it describes as the “liberal” approach to drugs, and that in Sweden, the other country cited in the report, exactly the opposite is done and medical professionals, not those who have had a prior addiction problem, treat drug addiction and do so exclusively?
By taking two countries with spectacularly better results in terms of addiction levels than ours, one with one approach and one with another, the hon. Gentleman is proving that there is no absolute truth in such matters. However, there is good reason to suppose that the Netherlands, which happens to have the lowest rate of addiction in the sample that we are talking about—three or so per 1,000—has a method that is worth pursuing. [Interruption.] The figures that I am citing have been carefully calibrated to include problematic drug users on a consistent basis.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to speak later.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
I will, but then I really am going to stop.
I thank my right hon. Friend, who is being extremely generous. Will he take on board the importance of drug use prevention? No amount of drug rehabilitation treatment and harm reduction will work unless it is balanced with prevention. Otherwise, for every addict who is cured another one will come along—it is like pouring water into a hole in the sand.
My hon. Friend is obviously right that drug use prevention is enormously important—the report deals with that at some length—but we should not delude ourselves that it will ever be enough. The truth is that rehabilitation is critical to any strategy, and it is of course the more expensive and difficult bit.
There are other factors. The report deals pretty thoroughly with the question of how indebted our nation is, with not only many people who can afford to be in debt but, unfortunately, many who cannot. On survey evidence, some 7 million to 9 million people in Britain today report themselves as having a serious debt problem. That is a bad situation for the country to be in. By most measures, social mobility is lower in Britain than in Denmark, Norway, Finland, Germany, France or the United States, while family breakdown is higher than in almost any other European country.
I will bore the House if I go on and on. The picture is clear: there are serious problems with our society that are visited on groups of people who are concentrated in certain neighbourhoods and who suffer from multiple deprivation, rather than from simply one or other of the problems that we are discussing. That nexus of multiple deprivation, so tellingly portrayed in yesterday’s report and in its predecessor, “Breakdown Britain”, is the problem that we need to grip. I do not know, but I hope that that, too, is a shared analysis. I hope that the Government accept that the problem is not just one thing or another, but a combination of things and the cycle of deprivation that they create. Addiction, indebtedness, worklessness and family breakdown all combine to create not just poverty, but entrapment.
If we accept that analysis and accept that, while the vast majority of our population is of course mercifully free of that trap of deprivation, we have a moral, social and economic duty to do something about that deprivation, the question then becomes—what? The analysis ought to be shared up to that point, but now we come to the difficult question of how we get at the problem. I certainly do not say, and I never will say, that the Government have not sought to address the problems. It is manifest that they have sought to address them. Therefore, I take comfort from the thought that we share much of the analysis. However, it is equally manifest that the Government’s actions have not produced the hoped-for results, because if they had, the picture would not be as it is today, but as it was some years ago.
To a rational observer, that suggests either a pessimistic conclusion—that it would take almost incalculable efforts of the kind that the Government have been making to achieve those results, or that they or any successor Government will not be able to achieve them—or a much more optimistic conclusion: that there is something deficient about the Government’s approach that, if changed, could change the situation. That is the analysis of the report. I hope that I shall not embarrass the right hon. Member for Birkenhead if I say that much of the thinking that lies behind the report is thinking that he was doing 10, 15 or 20 years ago. There has been a long chain of thought about the issue that has not been translated into action.
I would characterise that thought like this. Approach A says, “Let’s do a series of discrete things. Let’s spend money on those things and let’s ensure, above all, that we get money to people who haven’t got it.” The Government have tried to do that, nobly and necessarily, but it has not produced the hoped-for results. The alternative approach is to say, “Okay, we’ve got to do that, but we’ve got to do more. We’ve actually got to change the way people feel about themselves and their lives, and how they conduct their lives if they’re entrapped.” Like a judo player, we have to use their weight, so to speak, to achieve the hoped-for result, rather than assuming that top-down action by the Government will achieve it by itself. That is a fundamentally different perspective, and it might be one on which the Minister and I profoundly differ.
I think that I am with the right hon. Gentleman so far on much of the analysis, but he is coming to the interesting bit about the policy prescriptions and whether his are better than those that are marketed elsewhere. On the vital issue of the family, does he think that the one of the principal proposals of the report that was published yesterday, on the transferable personal tax allowance, would increase the proportion of people over time who choose the married option?
I do not speak for the specific options put forward in the report, which we shall consider along with other options. However, I do speak for the principle that if the state, representing society, makes it clear that it recognises the value of stable relationships to society and does that by recognising marriage in the tax system, over time that will have an effect on people’s conceptions—albeit not in a way that we can calculate with certainty and project on computers—and will therefore help us to move in the right direction. Personally, I believe that the removal of the couple penalty that I spoke about earlier is even more important, because that involved a direct disincentive to people, who could not afford such a disincentive, to stay apart.
I have long believed that changes in culture, even though much slower and less direct, are more important than direct measures. An example is drink driving. Of course, there are laws against drink driving and enforcement mechanisms in place, but the fact is that over the past 20 or 30 years the culture in regard to drink driving in this country has utterly changed. There was a time when journalists—to pick a particular profession—would wander out of the King and Keys in Fleet street, having drunk I do not know how much, and think that it was a fine thing to get into their cars and drive away. Nobody thought the worse of them for that. Today, we would think that that was the wrong thing to do. We are right, and they were wrong then. Whatever the truth of the matter, there has certainly been a culture shift, and it has been much more powerful than all the policemen and breathalysers in the world put together. We are talking today about achieving direct results and cultural shifts, and I believe that the cultural shifts matter.
I have some sympathy with the right hon. Gentleman’s points about tax credits, as he knows. Nevertheless, I thought that his support for the transferable allowance was somewhat conditional, if I can put it like that. Does he have in mind the fact that when the married couples allowance served as a recognition of marriage, it was notably unsuccessful as a signalling mechanism in relation to encouraging marriage?
The report makes the point that, for various reasons, the married couples allowance was not a very successful device. It puts forward various options for a different model of transferable tax allowance, and we will consider them. We are committed to some form of recognition of marriage in the tax system.
The report is quite clear about the married couples allowance. It was a hopeless device. It was cobbled together at the last moment, and the reason why it had no effect was that a lone parent could get exactly the same amount through another device, which negated any effect that the married couples allowance had. It was a hopeless device and we would not return to it.
I shall let my right hon. Friend speak for himself on that matter.
I think that the right hon. Gentleman is feeling his way towards a view—and I hope that it is a consensual view, in a way that it was not a few years ago—that all well-meaning Governments have failed because they have looked to remedial policies and sought to cure the symptoms. I hope that we all—including the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) in his excellent contribution to the debate, which was published yesterday—now understand that the problems that we face are inter-generational and cannot be solved by a specific programme to cure particular individuals.
Does the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) accept that we need at least a 20-year prevention programme, or early intervention programme, as we are calling it in my city? Only if we do that will we be able to break the inter-generational cycle. Also—I address this remark to those on both Front Benches—this will have to be an all-party programme. There will have to be national consensus to pursue such policies, otherwise, at some point in the future, we might find ourselves on the other side of the House, criticising and nit-picking over statistics as another set of policies fails to deliver.
I have an enormous amount of sympathy for the hon. Gentleman’s point. This is an inter-generational matter, and it will take an enormously long time to change. I do not know whether his estimate of a 20-year span is right; it might take longer. We could achieve significant effects quite soon, but there is no doubt that the greatest effects will take time to materialise. Yes, we need a shared analysis, to the extent that we can get one. I also agree that this is a question of tackling causes, not symptoms; we need to have that as a shared principle. It is inevitable that some of the views on the mechanics of addressing the causes will differ between the parties; that is a tolerable position for the country to be in. It would not be tolerable if there were no agreement on the need to tackle the causes, or on the centrality of the issue, because that would result in the matter simply flip-flopping and our never achieving the consistency required to make real changes over a long period. So, broadly, I agree with the hon. Gentleman.
Finally, if we are to help people to help themselves, and put our faith in that process instead of in things from outside that are intended to make people’s health and relationships better—to avoid a top-down approach and instead help people, families and neighbourhoods to help themselves—we must place an entirely different amount of emphasis on community groups, social enterprises and voluntary bodies than we have to date. I hope that the political classes—us, councillors in council chambers and so on—will consider this report and its deep implications, but as the debate continues throughout the country I also hope that it will be recognised that one of the most important things it says—
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I am terribly sorry, but I will not; I am going to try to finish my speech.
One of the most important things said in the report is that the state in Britain is paying nothing like enough attention to the ability of civil society to help people to help themselves out of the traps of multiple deprivation. I strongly believe that there is a parallel with the argument we all had in the 1970s and 1980s about whether the route to prosperity was through planned economies or free markets. That debate has passed. We all agree that the regulated free market is the engine of prosperity, and thank God for that. It is a huge advance for humanity and for this country. We have to get to a similar position in this case, where we recognise that we are talking about the liberation of energies far beyond those that currently exist, however brilliant a group of Ministers and civil servants there is in Whitehall. If we achieved that transformation, much else that I, and the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), with his mention of long-term plans, want to achieve could be achieved on a sustainable basis.
My argument is not merely that there is a problem, that we have to address the causes rather than the symptoms, or that in order to address them we have to find ways of helping people to help themselves rather than simply telling them what to do and how to do it—it is that we must release the energies of a vast centre of activity that is underrated in Britain today. It is impeded unnecessarily, unconsciously and unintentionally by the Government, and we can do much more to liberate it and make it effective.
I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
‘notes that since 1997 employment has risen to the highest level ever with 2.5 million more people in work, the number of workless households has fallen, the number of children in workless households has fallen, the number of children in non-decent homes has been cut by 1.4 million, child poverty has fallen by 600,000, pensioner poverty has fallen and educational attainment has risen for pupils from all social classes, across the board and at all key stages; further notes that this has happened because of a sustained strategy No. 122 Order of Business: 11th July 2007 2589 which includes the New Deal programme, Tax Credits, the National Minimum Wage, Sure Start, a National Childcare Strategy, programmes to improve parenting, Educational Maintenance Allowances and record investment in public services; and urges politicians of all parties to recognise the benefits of these reforms and not undermine them, support all children and work together to tackle the social challenges that the UK still faces through continued investment, engagement of individuals and communities, work with the voluntary sector and through an approach which recognises that the best way to build a fair society is through providing opportunities for all citizens, not just the few, to meet their aspirations.’.
I start by saying that it is a pleasure to have the chance to speak opposite the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin). We will not always agree in this debate, but I have great respect for him and his ability to think deeply about many issues, which he showed in his speech. It is worth acknowledging that he has pushed his party to focus on such topics, and for that he deserves congratulation. I know that the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), too, has thought about these issues for a number of years, as leader of the Conservative party and since then. We need to think seriously about many of the proposals in his report, and we will do so. Any contribution that can be made to tacking the issues we are addressing today is welcome.
I want to try to take a little further the consensus that is breaking out, but to do that we need to do three things. First, we need a shared analysis of the condition of Britain. I fear that the analysis offered by the right hon. Member for West Dorset does not represent a completely true picture, and I shall explain why. Secondly, we need a strategy for the future, and I want to explain briefly the way in which we would like to approach that. Thirdly, we need an honest debate about where and why we disagree. That is especially relevant to the role of the state—I want to consider that—and perhaps to the way in which we support families.
Let me begin with the condition of Britain. Serious social challenges face us, and we should all acknowledge that. However, my problem with the right hon. Gentleman’s speech, and to some extent with the document that was produced yesterday, is the lack of a proper sense of balance about the genuine state of Britain. The report rightly states that the way out of poverty is work. However, worklessness has not increased but decreased in the past 10 years. The number of children who live in workless homes has decreased by 400,000 and the number of people in work has increased by 2.5 million since 1997.
Does the Minister acknowledge that the distribution of employment in the past 20 years has become much more unequal? Although the statistics that he cited are accurate, it is also true that more children live in poverty in workless households in this country than almost anywhere else in Europe.
The hon. Gentleman makes the comparison with Europe, but the right hon. Member for West Dorset talked about the number of workless households. They have decreased from 18 per cent. in 1997 to 15 per cent. today. Progress has been made.
The report also states that the Conservative vision for society is one in which there is less poverty. I would support that. However, poverty has decreased not increased since 1997. The number of children who live in poor households where income is below 60 per cent. of the median has decreased by 600,000 since 1997.
The right hon. Member for West Dorset repeated a claim that Opposition Members have made for some time, and I want to correct it. He said that we have lifted some people from just below the poverty line to just above it. Let me give him the figures for those who receive below 50 per cent. of median income, because if we had lifted some people from just below 60 per cent. to just above, the figures would not have changed. In fact, the number has decreased from 1.8 million to 1.4 million—a bigger fall than for the number of those receiving below 60 per cent. of median income.
One of the Opposition’s central claims about our approach to poverty—that we have almost been fiddling the figures and appear to have done something about poverty when we have not—is incorrect. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) asks about the figures for those receiving below 40 per cent. of median income. I cannot find a credible commentator who believes that the figures that the Conservative party has produced for that category are reliable or robust, partly because of self-employment and other issues.
I fully understand why the Minister takes a defensive position on a set of figures—we could argue about statistics—and does not want to answer the question about the figures for those whose income is below 40 per cent. of the median. However, I do not want to get into that. Does he believe that debating whether the Government have been successful serves any purpose? The key is where we are now. The report discusses the current position and how it is becoming embedded and not moving. All the early, easier stuff has been done. The problem is becoming deeper and harder to solve.
The right hon. Gentleman asks an important question, and I shall tell him why it serves us to discuss whether we have been successful. The question is whether we change course because we believe that the Government have not succeeded in the past 10 years, or whether we acknowledge the gains that have been made. If we do the latter, we build on the strategy and do not reverse it. The debate on the condition of Britain is therefore important.
I do not make my next comment in a partisan way, but to inform the debate. When we examine the indicators for poverty, worklessness and educational attainment, we realise that the figures went in the opposite direction between 1979 and 1997. Why did that happen?
I do not want to bang on about this matter, but let us take, for example, youth unemployment. We know that, after all the money that has been spent on the new deal, youth unemployment has increased since 1997. I believe that the Government have been trying, but they have not got it right. I stress that the early, easier stuff has been done. If we continue to pursue a strategy because it was successful earlier, but the rewards and results are now narrowing, we will hit a brick wall.
The argument that we now need to build on the important successes of the last 10 years is very different from the argument that the last 10 years have been a failure and our strategy has not worked. Let us be completely candid about this: that agenda is part of the Opposition’s approach to these issues, which is why I believe that it is right to correct it.
Let me move on to talk more about the future. As I said, we need to build on what we have achieved so far. Let me set out four ways in which we can build on the progress of the last 10 years. First, we have invested to remove the barriers to opportunity, and we need to go further in that direction. We can all agree that education is the key to opportunity, and I am pleased that the report acknowledges that investment in the early years is particularly important. That is why we have invested, and why we will continue to invest, in the early years. That is why we intend to reach our goal of having 3,500 children’s centres by 2010. Those centres are making a big difference in my constituency. To echo the sentiment of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), this is a long-term strategy, which is why it is so important to persist.
I realise that the Opposition now support Sure Start, which I greatly welcome, and I hope that they stick with it. There have been mixed evaluations of Sure Start: we should be honest and respond to them, but I believe that Sure Start can make an enormous difference to helping people in the earliest years as well as helping parents, which, again, was rightly emphasised in yesterday’s report.
We also need to look beyond schools and beyond what happens within the hours of schooling. Since entering the House, I have campaigned on the issue of youth services, which is one of the important keys to the issues that we are debating. Indeed, I know that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, have taken a keen interest in that issue in the past. When I was chairman of the all-party group on youth affairs, I was struck by the number of hon. Members who told me that inadequate youth services were a very serious problem. Here, I agree that the voluntary sector and social enterprise can play an important role. The truth is that we have not invested properly in youth services for something like 40 years, since the Albemarle report was published in the 1960s. That marked a big increase in the amount of investment in youth services. In the next few weeks, the Government will produce a strategy on how to invest in the future, which I very much hope will command all-party support.
Part of the strategy should be investing in universal services, but as the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North has demonstrated extremely well, that is not enough in itself. We have learned that lesson over the past 10 years. At the same time, we also need to focus extra help on those who need it most. That has been the focus of the social exclusion unit—now the social exclusion task force—and it has led to reductions in rough sleeping and improved support for older people. We now need to go further.
We are learning from experience overseas, which once again brings us back to the importance of the early years. Family nurse partnerships are all about providing support to young mothers, particularly providing structures and intensive home visiting to disadvantaged mothers from early pregnancy until the child is aged two. I am encouraged because the report produced by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green talks encouragingly in the foreword about the importance of these family nurse partnerships and the difference that they can make. Indeed, the right hon. Gentleman found out from the people who were directly involved in those projects that they really were making a difference.
Highlighting the issue of prevention, it is right to focus on the income of expectant mothers. We announced in the Budget that child benefit would be available not just from a child’s birth, but from the 28th week of pregnancy—an approach that had long been called for. I hope that it will provide an important source of support to pregnant mothers.
I acknowledge that we need to provide more focused help to those who need it most, across the board. That is why over the next few weeks my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will be announcing plans to build on the new deal, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families will be providing extra support in the form of one-to-one tuition to help children who are struggling in primary schools, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills has announced extra support to help teenagers from poorer families to attend university.
I had the privilege of talking to the right hon. Member for West Dorset last night while we waited a rather long time before appearing on “Newsnight” together. I acknowledge that on drugs policy, he made a strong case that there was further to go. We have doubled the number of treatment places, but we will look with great care at what the report recommends. The section on addiction is the thickest section of the report, so I cannot pretend to have read all of it since it came out yesterday. We will look carefully at what it says.
There are nowhere near enough drug and alcohol addiction services in this country, but it is sometimes felt that there is a prejudice against faith-based organisations involved in these areas. Although faith-based solutions might not be right in every case, there are many cases in which a church or church-based organisation can make a dramatic difference.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. When I was Minister with responsibility for the third sector, I met a number of faith-based organisations who told me that they did not want to proselytise or convert people. It was faith that drew them to the work they did on drug addiction, but they were not trying to impose their faith on people. It is often hard to get public authorities and others to understand that. I have no problem with faith-based organisations helping to provide those services, as long as there is no conditionality in terms of converting people.
May I take my hon. Friend back to the point made by the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) on drug prevention? We need to change the culture in this place and in Government about how we view prevention. People do not get many brownie points, or tick many boxes in their local area agreement, for prevention. One can find it difficult to measure the product of prevention. Will my hon. Friend, and the House, seek to make the big cultural shift—in the Government above all—to recognise prevention and measure it effectively? If so, we will be spending much less money—an argument that he can deploy with the Treasury—on the consequences of failure and a little bit more on making sure that as a result of drug prevention, we get productive youngsters.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is a double-funding problem; we have to spend to deal with the consequences of failure, and it is difficult to shift money away from that because we need to continue to deal with the problem. Many of the programmes launched in the past 10 years, such as Sure Start, are precisely about prevention, as are youth services. My hon. Friend is also right to say that the issue of outcomes is difficult. We need to show that we are getting results from public money, but these outcomes are often difficult to capture. Perhaps we can draw on my hon. Friend’s experience in this area.
To his great credit, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) talks in his report about our failure on drugs policy, which is worse than that in almost any other country in the world. It is not the result of the last 10 or 20 years; it is the result of the last 35 years of policy by all parties, who have been excessively defensive about their policies. In 1971 there were 1,000 drug addicts. There are now 280,000. Should not we start by recognising that failure, and then go on to look for solutions in other countries that have achieved great successes?
My hon. Friend is right to say that we need to learn from other countries. Although the number of drug-related deaths is falling, there is no room for complacency. I should add, however, that this is an extremely complex social, economic and cultural problem; as a constituency MP, I know that there are no easy solutions to it.
The Minister rightly emphasises that faith-based organisations can play an important role in tackling drug and alcohol dependency. However, there is much less scope than some of their advocates propose for faith-based approaches to tackling problems such as the high rates of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. The truth is that it is no good preaching at people about abstinence; what we need are decent sexual health services and contraception provision. There must be a practical approach, rather than one based on religious fervour.
The hon. Gentleman makes the point far more eloquently than I could, and I completely agree with him. I think that he has also said that good sex education is important. Our teenage pregnancy rate is high compared with those in the rest of Europe, but it is lower now than it has been for 20 years. That is partly because of the approach of the past 10 years, which has involved more sex education than previously.
I give way to the hon. Gentleman, whose constituency I recently visited.
Yes, and I was grateful for that visit. The Minister rightly stresses the importance of early intervention and youth services, so does he share my concern that throughout the country there is only one small residential facility funded by statutory services—Middlegate—where young people can receive help with addiction?
The hon. Gentleman has told me something that I did not know. We have increased the number of residential places, and the issue of young people and addiction is important.
The report also addresses personal debt, and we can agree with much of what it says. We have tried to provide more advice for people who suffer from personal debt and to increase the amount of affordable credit. There is common ground on that subject, and we must make further progress.
I have said that we need universal services, and that we must back them up with extra support. To echo a point made by the right hon. Member for West Dorset, we also need to engage citizens in solving their problems. He offered a judo analogy; my judo is not good enough for me to have followed it fully, but I agree with the sentiment as far as I understand it.
We have made progress, and we must continue to do so. In social care, we are introducing individual budgets and putting the user in control. Some of the most disadvantaged people in our society, who need extra help to live independently, have been able to do so, and have felt much more in control of what happens to them. We must build on that.
We also face a massive challenge in education. We must engage parents in the literacy and numeracy skills of their children, and get them to feel that they can support their kids. We are introducing a new family learning course to help.
More generally in terms of neighbourhoods, we need to further the engagement of citizens in local decision making; my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is addressing that. That is part of the solution to the problems we are discussing. There are also issues to do with neighbourhood budgets and policing.
I am also pleased that the document supports our community asset fund, which is based on the notion that local authorities should in certain cases be able to transfer assets to local communities, as that gives local communities a sense of control and an economic and social stake in what is happening in their areas. As a Minister, I have been keen to make progress on that, and I want to continue to do so.
I hate to introduce a divisive note into what has been a very cotton-wool debate so far, but my constituency has many areas of multiple deprivation. I listened to the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) and my right hon. Friend, but the main problem for my local community and voluntary groups is the Conservative council selling community assets at market rents without consultation. Unless Conservative and Liberal councils fund voluntary organisations and support community groups, we will not even get to first base.
I agree with my hon. Friend. I do not wish to introduce a partisan note, but I fear the record of Conservative councils in the past couple of years in relation to the voluntary sector. My hon. Friend and I had an Adjournment debate about the council’s disturbing record in Hammersmith and Fulham, and there are other examples from around the country where the welcome rhetoric about the voluntary sector is not matched by action.
That takes me to the fourth element of our strategy, which is to draw on the skills of the third sector. I agree with the right hon. Member for West Dorset that often it is the third sector that can best reach out to people and involve them in services, often because staff are drawn from the communities they serve. That is why we have increased funding for the third sector over the past 10 years and are trying to tackle the barriers that frustrate it in delivering public services. It is also why we want to support small organisations that make a particular difference. The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green and I have talked in the past about the role that small organisations play as part of the social glue of our society.
I also believe that we must enable charities to campaign, because real social change—which is needed in many of these areas—comes not just from above but from below, and from the campaigning work and advocacy that third sector organisations can do. We must be careful, however. The voluntary sector can play an important role in helping to deliver services, but it must never be used—as my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush (Mr. Slaughter) says—as a way of abdicating the state’s responsibility to fund public services adequately. That is a cautionary note, if I may say so, for the Opposition in particular.
It is important that when the state, whether national or local government, engages the third sector—and especially small and successful organisations—it does not then try to wrap the third sector in so many terms, conditions and specifications that it is prevented from doing its job. Does the Minister agree that third sector organisations must be given their head so that they can continue to do the job they were doing before they were contracted by the Government?
I agree, and it is a matter I was working on when I had ministerial responsibility for the third sector. It is tough, because we are responsible for the proper spending of public money, but at the same time we have to ensure that third sector organisations are not stifled when they come into contact with Government.
My right hon. Friend makes the strong point that we need large and small organisations active in the sector and helping to deliver services. Does he detect in the report that we are discussing a strong bias against larger organisations, and does he agree that the delivery of the digital hearing aid strategy, for example, could not have been done by a small organisation? It was delivered by the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, working closely with the Government. Has he also noticed that if the Conservative party manifesto commitment to fund the four pillars of the lottery equally—25 per cent. each—were to be implemented, it would cut the amount of lottery money going to small organisations—currently 35 per cent. of lottery funding—by £60 million, which is the equivalent of the awards for all budget?
My hon. Friend is right to post a warning, because anxiety about large organisations is a theme in the report. If that is simply about the fact that we need to ensure that small organisations are properly involved and their skills and talents are tapped into, that is right, but many large charities do an extraordinary job in many different ways. I agree with my hon. Friend that we should not have a prejudice against them.
I have laid out our strategy, but I shall now say something briefly about the Opposition’s approach, as exemplified in the speech by the right hon. Member for West Dorset and the document published yesterday. They say that their policies are designed to break the cycle of disadvantage in the early years of a child’s life—that is a central part of the report. I welcome that, and I have said that we will look at the proposals.
There are, however, two areas in which I feel that I must part with the tempting consensus that is breaking out. In an intervention, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green said that we should not engage in point-scoring on public spending and how much a policy costs. I agree with that, to an extent, but we would not be discussing the spending implications of this report, which amount to billions of pounds, and I do not criticise the right hon. Gentleman for that, were it not for the fact that the Opposition are committed to cutting public spending as a share of national income.
I welcome the fact that Opposition Members have come to this debate saying, “We do think that poverty and social justice matter, and that the issues that our society faces are important.” However, I fail to understand how they can also say, “As a precondition of deciding our strategy, the one thing that we know is that public spending must fall as a share of national income.” I am not asking them to say that it must rise as a share of national income. All I am saying is, do not tell us that we need more spending on dealing with drugs and alcohol, more spending on special needs, more spending on people with learning disabilities and more spending across the board—we share many of those views—yet then say, “But we must cut the state as a share of national income.”
That is the problem for the Conservatives. They are caught between their new-found embrace of social justice, which we welcome, and what their hearts tell them they believe in—the smaller state. The right hon. Member for West Dorset is in transition, if I may put it that way. In 2001, in a famous—or infamous—episode, he told the Financial Times that we should cut the share of national income to 35 per cent. of GDP. He then disappeared, and reappeared in a toga in his constituency. I notice that he has not being saying that for the past six years, which I very much welcome. However, we cannot have the grown-up debate that the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green wants following his report if the Opposition say, “We know we need a smaller state to achieve the outcomes that we want,” when nothing in the speech of the right hon. Member for West Dorset suggested that the smaller state was the key.
That is what is remarkable about this debate. I will be honest—I expected the right hon. Gentleman to say, “And here’s why we need to cut public spending. Here’s why cutting public spending as a share of national income is the answer to the social problems that we face,” but he did not do so. So I suppose I am urging him to go that one step further in his transition, and to say, “Well, look—that is probably not the right approach. It probably isn’t right to pre-judge the size of the state in that way. It’s probably right to say that in fact, that is an old ideological hang-up from 2001 and the toga episode.”
I will gladly give way to the right hon. Gentleman if he wants to change the Conservative party’s policy on this issue. He is its policy guru—he wants to be the Rab Butler of today. After 1945, Rab Butler changed the Conservative party’s ideological position out of all recognition. I know that the right hon. Gentleman wants to go down in history as the Rab Butler of his time, so I offer him the opportunity to follow that tradition and to come to the Dispatch Box and be Rab Butler.
Rather than satisfying the right hon. Gentleman on that point, may I ask him a question? Do the current Government’s spending plans involve a reduction in the share of national income taken by the state due to public spending growing more slowly than anticipated as a proportion of GDP, or not?
Yes, they do. [Hon. Members: “Ah.”] However, there is one crucial difference: it is a matter of discretion, not of dogma. That is the difference in this debate. We have increased the share of national income used for public spending significantly over the past 10 years, but we would never have been able to do so under the proceeds of growth rule.
I was listening with great interest as the Minister expounded what he saw as the moral duty to increase the state. It now appears that the Government’s plan is to bring it back down again, but I want to get beyond all that. Crime costs the state £60 billion a year, and family breakdown £24 million, while failed education, together with drug and alcohol abuse, are also huge costs to the Exchequer and the taxpayer. Is he arguing that they are good and should be kept, or is he trying to reduce them? If the latter, I wonder whether he would agree that we should reduce the size of the state.
I completely share the right hon. Gentleman’s worry about the costs of social breakdown, although I do not think that all the costs that he identified are costs on the state. I have no doubt at all that his report is genuine in its concern about poverty, but it is incumbent on him to say how its long list of spending commitments would be met. I can tell him that that cannot be done if there is a dogmatic view in advance that the size of the state should be cut.
The right hon. Member for West Dorset did not take up my invitation to make the transition and be Rab Butler, so I shall turn now to families, the second area of disagreement between us.
We all believe in supporting families, and the Government have a clear strategy. It involves supporting parental income and extending leave, and improving the relationship counselling and parenting advice available. All hon. Members know that the Government have invested in supporting children and families through tax credits, and that, by and large, that approach has been acknowledged as a success. However, should we go further and spend an extra £3 billion on transferable tax allowances?
The right hon. Member for West Dorset did not take up the invitation extended by the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) to say yea or nay to the proposals made by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green. I shall be more candid: I am not in favour of the proposal for transferable tax allowances, and I shall explain why.
I agree with the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), who said last year:
“The right test for our policies is how they help the most disadvantaged in society, not the rich.”
That is right, but I am afraid that the transferable tax allowance proposal fails that test. The poorest people in our society would receive least help from that allowance, as just 3 per cent. of the benefit would go to the poorest tenth of the population.
Therefore, I do not believe that the transferable tax allowance—which the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green has proposed with honesty and genuine intent—can possibly be in tune with the new Conservative party. If the priority of every policy is to help the disadvantaged, how can a policy be adopted when it gives just 3 per cent. of the benefit to the poorest tenth of the population?
Again, in the spirit of building consensus on these matters, I am very happy to give way to the right hon. Member for West Dorset so that he can come to the Dispatch Box and explain that I am wrong and that the proposal would help the most disadvantaged. Alternatively, he might be tempted by me, as he was not tempted by the hon. Member for Yeovil, to say that it is not such a good idea after all.
The right hon. Member for West Dorset is obviously not keen to intervene, so I will give way for a final time to the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green.
The Minister knows that that proposal is part of a package. I can understand why he is being so explicit, as he made his reasons clear yesterday, but will he be just as explicit about his position in respect of the couple penalty? Given that 60 per cent. of children in poverty live with couples who are disadvantaged by the benefit system, will he now say that he agrees with our proposals to eradicate that disadvantage and rebalance the system?
Again, the right hon. Gentleman makes a proposal costing £3 billion as though there were unlimited money to spend. Of course, we will look at all the proposals in his report, but the same structure was used for family credit and the family income supplement. We have not changed the benefit system; the structure is the same.
In the House, we have all noticed how careful the official Opposition have been about endorsing the idea of transferable tax allowances, although they seem to be much clearer about getting rid of the bias in the benefit system that operates against two-parent families. May I suggest to my right hon. Friend that just as Members on the Opposition Benches are beginning to distance themselves from transferable tax allowances, we should look seriously, well before the next election, at the bias against couples in the benefit system?
My right hon. Friend knows far more about the benefit and tax systems than I do. He raises a fundamental issue: in an income-related system, people with more income receive less tax credit. The couples proposal would not fundamentally change that situation. Of course, we will look at everything in the report produced by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green and I am happy to talk further to him about it.
I am glad that we are having a proper debate about these matters. The couple penalty issue warrants the closest and most serious scrutiny, and I think that the right hon. Gentleman will need to come back with a somewhat fuller response at some point. There is an honourable view in support of the transferable tax allowance to married couples, but it is not everybody’s view. I think it is a thoroughly bad idea: it will be highly expensive; it will not cause anyone to get or stay married who would not otherwise do so; and it sends a detrimental signal to many other people. It should be relegated to the circular filing tray sooner rather than later.
Order. Before the right hon. Gentleman responds, I point out to the House as a whole that although the debate has been very intense and, no doubt, of high quality, several Back Benchers are hoping that they might be able to make a contribution. Perhaps that could be borne in mind from now on.
I take your point, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and will shortly act on it.
The problem is not simply that the transferable tax allowance is unfair in its impact on the affluent and less affluent, but that it picks and chooses which families to support. Widows with children receive nothing. Spouses abandoned by their partners receive nothing. Married couples where both partners work receive nothing. On the other hand, people married twice, three times or four times receive help.
The Conservative party has found lots of new friends over the past two years—its period of transition. It has new friends in the Child Poverty Action Group, One Parent Families and Relate, the family counselling service, but all of them say that the transferable tax allowance is a thoroughly bad idea. That view is shared by another person: Camilla Batmanghelidjh, who has appeared on a number of platforms with the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green and the leader of the Conservative party. Indeed, in his report, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green said that
“these inspirational people showed me that things could be much better if politicians learnt from them ‘what worked’ and ‘what didn’t work’”.
What did Camilla Batmanghelidjh say yesterday about the proposal?
“I don’t see how it is going to help people or affect in any way people staying married or getting married. And I think it is unfair when there are people living happily together to not give them the same tax incentives.”
There we have it: the Conservatives’ proposals for a transferable tax allowance condemned by the people to whom they said they would listen.
We should be seeking consensus on these issues in the House, but it takes two to build, perhaps—
It takes three. The consensus requires us to make a balanced analysis of the past 10 years, to support children and families on the basis of family need, not family circumstance, to propose costed, not uncosted, change, to abandon dogmatic attachment to cutting the size of the state and to acknowledge in a spirit of humility where people have been wrong. I believe the Opposition have not done those things, so I urge my hon. Friends to vote against the motion.
We have had an extremely interesting debate so far, involving two of the most thoughtful and generally reasonable Front-Bench Members from the Government and the Conservative party. To do justice to a subject of this breadth—it must be the most important of all the domestic policy challenges—we would need far longer than we have today. However, I hope in a reasonably brief period of time to put on record our views about the issue and some of the policy challenges that we have identified. I hope that I can do so in a way that will leave time for others to contribute to the debate.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) on his report. I must confess that I, like the Minister, have not managed to read it all yet. Indeed, not only have I not managed to read the section on drug abuse, because of its length, I have not even managed to print it off so far, because I ran out of printer paper while I was printing the rest of the report. The report is a valuable contribution to the debate and I recognise a lot of the characteristics of today’s society that are identified in it—in particular, the breakdown of family life in this country over the past three or four decades. The social consequences of that breakdown are important and are issues that all the parties need to think about carefully. It is a matter not only of the consequences, but of what action the Government can usefully take to have an impact on the issues.
What is striking about the UNICEF report that was published earlier this year, whether or not it is based on slightly out-of-date data—that was a moderately fair point, although I am not sure that it would have changed the overall league table position greatly—is just how badly Britain performs in the league table, not only on some of the relative poverty measures, but on many of the issues that relate to family and child well-being, and factors such as drug and alcohol abuse, which are in the right hon. Gentleman’s report. To me that indicates that there is nothing inevitable about the nature of the problems that we have in this country, in their widest sense. If having greater family fluctuation and breakdown than in earlier years, or less social mobility, or more drug and alcohol abuse, were simply characteristics of any liberal society, we would expect to see those problems replicated across a lot of advanced countries, but we do not. The United Kingdom does extremely badly, and that is a challenge to us to think about what we can do to have some influence in those areas.
The hon. Gentleman made a point about the UNICEF report. The date of the data is very important. In many cases, the data relate to five or more years ago, which means that the effects of child tax credit, Sure Start, and the big increase in outcomes for primary schools in recent years are not included in the report.
The hon. Gentleman makes a half-reasonable point. The factors that he points out would affect particular measures in the UNICEF report; they certainly would not affect others. Any fair analysis of the Government’s record would recognise not only that they have sought to do a tremendous amount since 1997, or perhaps more accurately 1999, but that, so far, the results are mixed and that it is too early to say quite how successful they are going to be. These things obviously take a considerable amount of time to work through. That is true of areas such as social mobility, where we are commenting on figures that relate to an earlier time.
Before I move on to the Government and the present situation, I would like to say that I particularly welcome the fact that the Conservative party is taking an interest in these issues. In fairness to other parties in the House—I am sure that the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) would be the first to acknowledge this—although some of the problems identified in the report relate to family breakdown that may have nothing to do with any Government, many of them relate to the problems of unemployment, homelessness and economic breakdown that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, when his party was in power, and are not unrelated to Conservative party policies. If the report reflects an acknowledgment that the Conservative party must focus on not only economic efficiency, but a fairer society and social mobility, that is a good thing.
Let me turn to the present situation before I comment briefly on several of the proposals in the report by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green and some of the issues that we want to be flagged up. The Government have a record of enormous commitment to tackling many of these problems, even though there is marked ambiguity about their attitude to the breakdown of the family. The Minister’s speech did not really touch on whether the Government believe that family breakdown is an enormous cause of social problems and on whether they take the view that they simply do not have any mechanisms to influence that. If we look at what has happened over the past few years, while there are certain signs of improvement as a consequence of the Government’s policies, there are big unresolved, challenges and areas in which things have moved backwards. When the Minister defends the Government’s record, I hope that he will not understate the enormous problems of social breakdown that remain unresolved because if he does, he will be giving up the leadership that his party has displayed over the past few years by failing to recognise how bad some of these problems are.
Let me draw the Minister’s attention to a few specific problems, such as housing. As the Prime Minister acknowledged today, we have gone backwards with regard to access to affordable housing and the number of people on the homeless list since 1997. We now have more children in overcrowded accommodation and outside a stable home environment. Those factors must be enormously important for determining whether someone will do well.
The Government have exaggerated their achievements on the employment front—perhaps they have started to believe their rhetoric. Yes, this country has a high employment rate compared with several others, but we also have an enormously unequal employment situation. Many double-earning couples are doing quite well, but a huge proportion of people have been out of the work force completely for a long time. That is why, although this country has a high employment rate, it manages, bizarrely, to be the EU country with the largest number of children in workless households.
When we look at employment over the past few decades, we see that the Government’s record on the employment rate has been flattered by the fact that female employment has been increasing over the past 10 or 15 years. Male employment is now 10 per cent. lower than it was in the era of Harold Wilson. An enormous cohort of people—many of whom lost their jobs in the 1980s and 1990s and some of whom went on to incapacity benefit—are still out of the labour market. The fact that almost the same number of people are on incapacity benefit 10 years on from 1997 should worry a Government who came in with a pledge on welfare reform.
The breakdown of family life is yet to be reversed—hopefully there are signs that the situation is not getting worse, but it is certainly not getting much better—and there is a much greater concentration of deprivation in deprived neighbourhoods. As John Hills recently reported, while the employment rate in social housing estates was almost two thirds a few decades ago, it has plummeted to something like a third. People in deprivation are now more likely to be living with people in those same difficult circumstances. Their children are attending the same schools as other children in such circumstances, which reinforces disadvantage. As the UNICEF report indicated, when young people have little hope and few skills, they are far more likely to take the option of having children at an early age and staying out of the labour market, thus resulting in cycles of deprivation. The situation out in the country is slightly gloomier than the Minister allowed for. When he defends an extremely impressive record of commitment, he should not underestimate in any way the problems that exist.
Let me turn briefly to several of the proposals in the report by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green. It was inevitable that a few of them would dominate the media coverage. When I scanned the report as rapidly as I could today, I noted that some of the most interesting proposals were those that would attract the press rather less, owing to their very nature. We all know that that happens when we try to get coverage on policy matters. I have no doubt that we—and the Government—will go through the report carefully to see what we agree with, what we can pinch, and what is a good idea. I have no doubt that we will find a great many good ideas in it.
My concern about the drift of Conservative social justice policy is that it seems to rely on two things, and the Minister for the Cabinet Office touched on one of them in his comments about public expenditure. He mentioned that the Conservative party has got hooked up to a rule that involves reducing the public expenditure growth rate even further than the Government already have to. Investment in public services, whether through the public sector or the private and voluntary sectors, will be that much more difficult for a Conservative Government who stick to that rule. That means that some of the big gains and savings that the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green has mentioned a couple of times in his interventions will be that much more difficult to achieve.
As I have seen in my constituency, voluntary and private sector groups can play a big role, either as an add-on to state services, or working completely separately from them, but there may still be many cases, including in relation to employment services, in which the state will have to fund the voluntary and private sector provider. If there are rigorous controls over public expenditure growth, it will be very difficult to square the circle, and to fund the proposals properly while still investing in education and health. That is one concern.
The second concern is that many of the right hon. Gentleman’s proposals rely on the hope that the Government can, by pulling various levers, encourage families to stay together. I do not underestimate the possibility of people, particularly those on low incomes, responding to economic incentives. Indeed, that idea is the basis of some of the Government’s tax credits; the idea is that people will go to work because there is a working tax credit.
There is a problem with tax credits, and if the Minister looks again at the report on fraud and error in tax credits that was issued this time last year—there will be another one tomorrow—he will see that the Government reported that almost £400 million-worth of fraud and error in tax credits was simply due to the discrete problem of people who lived together misrepresenting their position, and pretending to live apart. There is no question but that there are problems to do with whether people have incentives to misreport their position. It is more difficult to know whether people are deciding not to couple on the basis of tax credits. As I know from my advice centre, the economic incentives are significant, and should not be underestimated for people on low incomes; the right hon. Member for West Dorset cited that point earlier. We should consider that issue carefully, and although the Minister danced around the boxing ring a bit on that one, I am pleased that he did not completely rule out action; perhaps we will see measures on that issue in the future.
I am less optimistic about some of the other proposals in the report produced by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green; I do not think that they will strengthen the position of married couples in the way that he thinks they will. Earlier today, I spoke to the Institute for Fiscal Studies about transferable allowances, which have been mentioned briefly, and one of the hard facts that it pointed out to me immediately was that most of the cost of the transferable allowance will be spent on people who have no children. The right hon. Gentleman’s proposal would cost £3.2 billion, and £1.7 billion of that would go to families with no children, whereas his concern, obviously, is to get the money to children.
If the hon. Gentleman looks at the report again, he will see that there are sectioned-off processes; the scheme can be broken up, so that we can offer the allowance to those with children below a certain age, to all couples, or to couples with caring responsibilities. It depends on what we wish to do. All the figures that the hon. Gentleman gave are not exactly correct. I actually set out the IFS figures in the report.
The right hon. Gentleman is right that the allowance can be salami-sliced, but there are other problems. Today, I looked at the figures relating to the individuals who might be entitled to the transferable marriage allowance. About 25 million people in the United Kingdom are in married couples, and of those individuals, about 5 million are retired, so the allowance is of limited relevance to them, on the whole. There are 18.7 million people of working age in couples, and 11.6 million of them are part of a couple in which both people work. As I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would acknowledge, they would get no benefit at all from the proposal, because they are already using their allowances to the full. There are 2 million households where nobody is working at all. So only 20 per cent. of the 25 million married couples in the United Kingdom would gain anything, and 80 per cent. of people would be totally unaffected.
Other groups would be affected in ambiguous ways. I was interested to read that there are 1.1 million married couples living apart in separate households. That raises the challenging question of whether we would give, and how we would administer, transferable allowance based on marriage to two people who had split up, especially where the person who gained from the transferable allowance could well be the man, who had left his wife and the children. Such situations would present great policy challenges.
As the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green is aware, the issue was considered in the 1980s by Lord Lawson who, I believe, was quite sympathetic, but when it went out to consultation at the time, there were other big objections. One of them was cost. We have to consider what the other priorities are if we are to spend £3 billion. Administratively, it would be immensely difficult because we would have to track two incomes for two individuals at the same time throughout the tax year. The proposal would be a disincentive for the second individual in a married couple to work, for reasons that are obvious, although the right hon. Gentleman may be less worried about that if he is happy for one of the individuals in a couple to stay at home looking after the children.
One must also question whether a £20 incentive for only 20 per cent. of married couples will cause people to change their behaviour. I know of no economic evidence that suggests that. The right hon. Member for West Dorset, who is a thoughtful, fair-minded and intelligent man, was suitably cautious and circumspect when he responded to me earlier, probably because he knows that there is no evidence. I acknowledge his point about the proposal being a signal, but signals are important only if people ultimately respond to them. We do not know whether they would.
Is there not an ethical point which pulls against the main strand of the report—in one sense, one is undermining the concept of marriage by suggesting that the problem of family breakdown would be radically rectified if there were financial incentives to encourage people to marry? I probably married more people than any other Member of the House when I used to be a vicar. I do not remember ever saying anything other than “For richer, for poorer”—never “For £20 extra”.
That sounds like an echo of the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) who, when he was beginning to phase out the married couples allowance in the 1990s, said that he knew of many reasons why people got married, but the existence of the married couples allowance had never been one of them.
I am sceptical about whether a financial incentive would have an impact, but I would consider it if I believed that it would help to deal with some of the problems that we face as a country. I am not sure that I have an ideological objection to it. I am just not sure that it would work. There are also some serious issues—Ministers have sought to raise them—about the effect of sending out that signal on the children whom we are indirectly trying to affect.
When thinking about the proposal yesterday I wondered what the House’s attitude would be if, instead of a married couples’ tax allowance, we were proposing a married couples’ enhancement to child benefit. That is, in some ways, what we are saying. We are willing to penalise some families and children and reward others on the basis of those choices. It is a difficult issue. This country has a massive problem with the breakdown of marriage and stable relationships, and I understand why the right hon. Gentleman has given the proposal priority.
There is no school that I visit in my constituency where the head teacher does not comment on the fact that their job has become so much more difficult over the past 10 or 20 years because of the breakdown of stable families and the consequence of that for their intakes. I am not sure whether the proposal would make the difference.
Surely the juxtaposition of married units against unmarried units is all wrong. There can be a very compelling case for giving targeted assistance to households where there are children, whether the household is based on a married couple, an unmarried couple or a single parent, but for the life of me I cannot see is why one should give a prize to people with no children, simply because they happen to be married. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is bizarre?
I certainly agree that if it is not even going to work, it is not a particularly strong runner for £3 billion of public expenditure.
Anyone can make a case that others are being excluded, which is nonsense as regards this proposal, which offers a very focused sort of support. It is about people on marginal incomes—those who would particularly benefit—who are having to make a choice about whether they go to work or try to stay at home for three or four years to look after their children. If it were to go wider, it could also help those who may choose to look after their mothers when they get older. As the hon. Gentleman may or may not know, some of the greatest problems for couples arise when they are having to make such choices balanced against the amount of money that they can have. This would not generate an immediate desire for people to get married, but it recognises something that came up endlessly when we produced the report—that many people out there, beyond our own world, have jobs, not careers. If someone is eviscerating chickens on an assembly line in Bradford, that is not a career—they make that choice because they have to, because they cannot afford to bring their family up otherwise. This would be one way of allowing them to make a choice; there may be others.
I understand why the right hon. Gentleman feels so strongly. My main argument against this specific proposal is that I do not think that it would work. I do not underestimate the significant penalties for couples, particularly in relation to tax credits and for people on very low incomes, and it is worth considering a couples premium. Many other elements in his report, for example on good parenting practices and encouraging strong families, should also be looked at closely. I recognise that on the basis of not only the national picture but my constituency experience.
I should like to raise several other points about the major proposals in the report, but I fear that I will try the patience of the House if I do so in too much detail. Let me just say, in general terms, that although I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman and his party have produced a report of such quality—and there may be some very good ideas in it—they have to deal with two further challenges in this area: first, the public expenditure challenge and the question of priorities that the Minister raised; and, secondly, whether the proposed policies, particularly on taxation in relation to marriage, would make the difference that they envisage.
I shall finish by highlighting a few of the challenges that Liberal Democrat Members think that the Government and those in other parties should be addressing. One of the risks with the Government’s policy, if one were to stereotype it, is that there is too much emphasis, in public expenditure terms, on getting people above an arbitrary poverty line instead of getting them permanently out of poverty and giving them the opportunities that they need.
I want briefly to touch on four areas. The first is education, which is obviously vital. In its report, UNICEF, which is not a body that would be inclined to vilify lone parents, stressed that, as a general rule, children growing up in stable families, usually with two parents, do far better. It was concerned that, in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, many youngsters take a decision to get pregnant, or do so very early on. That is partly linked to aspirations and skills, as it offers a far more plausible, and even attractive, option to people with no skills and no prospects than to people who expect to have a career. We should focus on dealing with the very significant problems of educational underachievement. Instead of setting broad and unachievable targets to deliver private school levels of funding on some unspecified time scale, we should concentrate on delivering those levels of funding to pupils in real need—for example, through a pupil premium such as that in other countries, which targets additional money directly at the pupils in greatest need. That would mean that schools in certain parts of the country that often have much greater problems in terms of their catchment areas but similar funding to schools in other regions would have greater funding in future.
I hope also that future Governments will be able to do a lot more about the employment challenge. Unquestionably, as the right hon. Member for West Dorset indicated, we still have much too high a level of worklessness in this country. We have made totally inadequate progress on getting people on incapacity benefit back into work. The lone parent figures are still disappointing, as is the number of young people out of the labour market. We ought to be looking at how we can use the voluntary and private sectors to get many more people back into the labour market.
We must also deal with housing, which the Prime Minister touched on today, at the same time as finding the resources to reduce the proportion of people in poverty. Those are things that the Government can reasonably do, which will not only strengthen families, but give people the opportunities to get themselves out of poverty, rather than simply trapping them in dependency.
Order. I remind all right hon. and hon. Members that Mr. Speaker has imposed a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches. However, in view of the very limited time now left for Back-Bench contributions, perhaps hon. Members may want to reconsider the length of their speeches.
The title originally given to this debate by the Opposition was “Mending the Broken Society”, which I thought a bit rich from a party whose leader said that there was no such thing as society. Until this Government came to power, society was at breaking point in my constituency. We were 29th in unemployment for the whole of Great Britain and we were No. 1 in youth unemployment in the whole of England. As a result of this Government’s policies, youth unemployment in my constituency has fallen by 45 per cent., overall unemployment has fallen by 47 per cent. and long-term unemployment has fallen by 80 per cent. People now have a choice—a choice of jobs and a choice because of the national minimum wage, which the Tories said would produce mass unemployment. Because of the minimum wage, my constituents now have a choice, and if I have time I shall give one example of that.
The Tories and the Liberal Democrats voted against the windfall tax that financed the new deal. My constituents have benefited enormously from the new deal. It is the same with education. When the Government came to office, the rain was coming through the roof at schools in my constituency such as Old Hall Drive and Wilbraham primary, while the teachers tried to teach and the pupils tried to learn, and we had oversized classes. Yet the financing was going not to the 14,000 children in the 39 state schools in my constituency but predominantly to the children in the three independent fee-paying schools, who were paid to have assisted places.
I have three such schools in my constituency, although I compliment the Government on the fact that one of them—William Hulme’s grammar school—will enter the state system as a city academy in September. That is a remarkable achievement for the head, the teachers, the governors and everybody else. However, 95 kids in my constituency were on assisted places in those schools and £13 million went on those assisted places, whereas £24 million went to the 39 state schools in my constituency during the same seven-year period. In Stanley Grove primary school, the teachers were teaching music on the stairs, while in Manchester high school for girls, there were sound-proofed rooms for teaching the violin. That was the difference; that was the society that was broken by the Tory party.
Owing to the reduction in class sizes brought about by the reallocation of funding, I have had the privilege of opening new classrooms all over my constituency. We have smaller classes, we have computer suites in schools where the kids used to learn with the rain coming in through the roof, and we have free fruit and vegetables in pretty well every primary school in my constituency—where before that previous Tory leader who said that there was no such thing as society had even taken away their milk. Abbey Hey primary school has a fruit stall every Friday afternoon, which sells fruit and vegetables to the children and to the neighbourhood. In Gorton, we have an educational village. Mellands school and Cedar Mount school are part of an educational village in what used to be one of the most deprived areas of my constituency. St. Kentigern’s school—a faith school of the kind that the Tories and the Liberal Democrats tried to destroy through their destructive amendment on quotas—has some of the highest Ofsted ratings in the entire country.
We have a women’s health group, mainly comprising Pakistani and Bangladeshi women. It provides a fantastic way for those women to emancipate and realise themselves. Where does it meet? It meets in the £3 million Sure Start centre in Longsight, which is one of the most remarkable achievements. All over my constituency, Sure Start is providing playgrounds in parks and all kinds of other facilities. In my Levenshulme ward, where people are asking for a Sure Start facility, the argument is not about whether there should be such a facility but about what it should be, how it should be run, the space that it should take up and the facilities that it should provide. Manchester royal infirmary is now one of the star hospitals in the entire country, and that achievement has been brought about by this Government’s policies. On law and order, that lot—the Liberal Democrats in particular—opposed ASBOs. They are now queuing up for ASBOs in my constituency—[Interruption.] That guy—the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws)—might giggle, but the Liberal Democrats opposed neighbourhood wardens when they were introduced, and now they are asking for more of them. The hypocrisy of the Liberal Democrat party! We have a voluntary group in Gorton, the On the Streets group, which is reclaiming young people who have had ASBOs or committed criminal offences. They now help old people with their shopping, remove graffiti and do all the things that the Tory party’s report says are needed. That has been brought about by the policies of this Government and by the wonderful, public-spirited local people.
On housing, during the Tory period we had negative equity and a spread of private landlords using their properties for drugs and brothels. This November, the licensing system for private landlords will come to my constituency and, as a result, there will be controls and fines for antisocial landlords. Under the antisocial behaviour legislation, which the Liberal Democrats opposed, the police can now close down pubs and other premises where drugs are being sold.
I totally agree that this is nowhere near enough. However, we were one of the most deprived constituencies in the country, and now we no longer have situations such as the one that existed during the period of the Conservative Government, when a man in the Fallowfield area of my constituency, a security guard, came to me and said, “My employers have increased my working hours to 64 hours one week and 72 hours the next, alternating, with no overtime. They have also reduced my hourly wage.” That was what life was like in my constituency under that lot who want to mend the broken society. When I wrote to the then Secretary of State for Employment and asked her what could be done for that man, she wrote back to say that he could resign from his job. With no jobs available in the constituency and no national minimum wage, that would have meant his forfeiting even his redundancy benefits, such as they were.
The Tory party reminds me of the boy who goes before court having murdered his parents and asks for clemency as an orphan. That is the Tory party today. What is happening in my constituency—steady, with lots still to do—is due to the Labour Government, after 10 years with many still to come.
So much for the consensual tone of the debate so far. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) referred to the original proposed title of the debate: “Mending the Broken Society”. When we use the phrase “broken society”, we at least begin to get close to how many people instinctively feel about the condition of our society today.
There is a deep unease about what could be called social breakdown, which goes far beyond a lack of income and often describes people who live in highly concentrated communities, experiencing multiple and complex challenges that serve to lock them and their children into a cycle of underachievement, poverty and unhappiness. We can argue about definitions of poverty, talk about the language—whether we describe it as social exclusion, deprivation or poverty—and discuss the measuring sticks we use to assess the extent of it, but at the end of the day most Members of the House know what we are talking about. The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) talked about the number of head teachers who referred to problems in their schools resulting from family and social breakdown. Many of us see the consequences of that in our surgeries on a Friday, and if we do not see it there, we should see it in social action projects in our constituencies, or at least read about the consequences of the phenomenon in the newspapers.
When I was flicking through the social justice policy group report last night, I was reminded of a book I read 10 years ago, which made uncomfortable reading for Conservatives at the time. It was a book called “Dark Heart” by a left-wing journalist called Nick Davies, who had spent two years travelling around some of Britain’s most deprived communities. He saw teenage boys who had made the passage from local authority care into teenage male prostitution, girls who had been abused as young children and who had gone into prostitution, and people in cycles of substance abuse and addiction—people living on the fringes or outside the law. Flicking through that book, I wondered what he would see if he went back to those same communities 10 years on. I do not pretend that everything has got worse, but on the housing estates which I am familiar with in Walworth, Peckham, Bermondsey and south Hartcliffe in Bristol, or on some of the smaller estates in west Wales, poverty has become more entrenched for many and the situation has got a lot worse.
After 10 years of this Government, let us not pretend that the blame is all to be laid at their door. We have a shared responsibility, and there has been discussion about how long-term some of the challenges are. I was reminded recently of some girls I met on the youth offending wing of Eastwood Park female prison in Gloucestershire. Those girls would have been six or seven years old when this Government came to office, but by that time the course of the lives of many of them would already have been easy to predict. A lot of them would have been victims of abuse and deeply scarred inside. At the age of 16 or 17, many of them have deep, messy scars on their wrists; they wear ugly home-made tattoos and carry expressions of deep hopelessness and despair.
I found that the most prevalent factors in the lives of those girls were exactly the same for a group of lads in Cardiff prison. The common factors throughout their lives are family breakdown, educational failure, worklessness and substance abuse, and it is those themes that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) and his group sought to address in their excellent report. I welcome the contribution that the report makes to the discussion. It must be taken seriously on the Opposition Benches, and on the Government Benches too. It provides some hope.
In the short time that I have left, I would like to make a few points. First, I make a plea to my party’s Front Benchers to consider seriously the report’s findings and not to allow caution, especially on spending commitments, to prevent them from adopting many of its recommendations. There must be up-front investment to provide some of the solutions, and we need to be ambitious. We might be cautious and afraid of opening up little holes in our public expenditure plans, but the truth is that there is a whopping great hole—a bleeding great hole—in our public finances, which is the £102 billion cost of social breakdown.
My second plea is to Government Front Benchers for positive engagement on the issue. I know that the Minister has a powerful intellect and a good heart, and I welcome his positive engagement. Too often, when I have raised such issues, Ministers have refused to engage and provided answers to completely different questions. For example, when Ministers have been asked about the number of young people not in education, employment or training, who are doing nothing constructive with their lives, too often they trot out statistics about the fall in youth unemployment. It is a completely different subject. The cohort of 16 to 20-year-olds who fall through the net has been growing at a time when, demographically, the number of 16 to 20-year-olds has been shrinking. In Wales, 12 per cent. of young people are not in education, employment or training. I therefore appeal to the Government to start to engage positively on that.
Thirdly, let us consider alcohol misuse. At the weekend, there was discussion in the media about one or two recommendations in the large report about tackling the curiously British problem of widespread alcohol misuse and the proposal for a tax hike on alcoholic drinks. The alcohol industry’s response was predictable and depressing—it simply dismissed the suggestion out of hand. I do not know whether that policy solution is correct; I would need to consider evidence for elasticity of demand and availability of alternatives and so on. However, we need the drinks industry to respond positively and join the discussion as it has not done up to now. We should tell it like it is—it is not the drinks industry but the binge drink industry. It makes its money not from people having a pint of beer after a round of golf, but from all the young people who go out on a Friday and Saturday night and get hammered.
In the past 10 or 20 years, the industry has progressively ramped up the alcohol content of the drinks it sells. A pint of beer nowadays is not the same as a pint of beer 20 years ago. It is now common to buy a pint of beer that is 6° proof; 20 years ago, it would have been 2.5° or 3° proof. That is one reason why alcohol consumption, especially among young people, causes so much damage and devastation. I encourage hon. Members to spend an evening with their local police or in the accident and emergency department of their local hospital, if they still have one, to ascertain the sheer volume of cases that are a direct result of alcohol misuse.
There has been much discussion of family policy and whether the proposals in the Conservative report will have the suggested impact of encouraging more couples to stay together. There is much more discussion to come. Family breakdown was the most prevalent factor in the lives of the young people I met in Eastwood Park prison and Cardiff prison. Often, their parents were not divorced—they had simply been raised by a lone parent. We do the children of this country a huge disservice by trying to cling to a pretence that we can be neutral about different family structures. A huge body of social science research shows that a child from a broken home or a lone parent family is far more likely to fail at school, turn to crime, be a victim of crime and fall into alcohol and substance misuse.
When we discuss human rights and international development in the House, we adopt a tone of voice that is different from the note that we strike when discussing other issues. On those subjects, we have a consensual approach to ultimate aims that does not prevent dissent and disagreement about specific policies, but the tone is much more attractive to the public. We need to achieve that tone on the subject of today’s debate. We must avoid the petty tribalism and partisanship that will get us nowhere. If we are to make progress and tackle deep-seated, entrenched problems, we need to achieve a consensus on the aims. We can have a robust discussion about how we get there, but we need to change our tone and start engaging with a much wider audience. Perhaps that would also help restore faith in this place.
There has been a lot of talk about consensus in today’s debate, but it is important to test the breadth and depth of that consensus. I am afraid to say that I, for one, am not convinced of its sincerity and I intend to test it in my contribution today.
The good news for the Opposition is that the Daily Mail is delighted by their rehashed Mary Poppins agenda, but the bad news is that their recently beatified patron saint Polly Toynbee is fully depressed by it. I welcome their attempted apostasy, but like the British people I do not believe it—simply because, on the basis of today’s comments, there is no evidence to support it. With that in mind, I care too much about the progressive cause, improvement of society and social democracy to turn away willing converts, but any such conversion must recognise past social policy mistakes and the root causes of them. If there is to be a consensus, we must test it.
My point is that if society is broken, Opposition Members should recognise that it was they who broke it. A strong society needs strong social policies. Key elements of our currently effective social policy include the national minimum wage and the record-breaking increase in public spending on our nation’s schools, hospitals and other public services. That must be recognised—those investments not only strengthen the bond of our society, but are the glue that keeps it together. If the Opposition are serious about social cohesion, they must recognise that the failed policies of the past—including lower taxes paid for by less public spending on public services—inevitably resulted in worsening public services and social decline. Those policies were unwanted and unworkable.
Logically, if the Opposition recognise that truth, they must jettison their proceeds of growth rule, which underpins all that they sought to achieve in office and would also lead to a repeat of the failed policies of the past and their consequences. If they really wish to help improve society, they should commit to its betterment with actions rather than words. To go further, they should support us and support our public expenditure policies.
I believe in marriage, which is an important and valuable institution, but my commitment to it is personal, not social. I did not marry for the benefit of society and I do not believe that the Government should incentivise lifestyle choices. I am surprised that so many supposedly libertarian Conservatives seem prepared to do so. If minor financial inducements can really make marriages work, perhaps the Leader of the Opposition should consider repealing his flight tax in order to subsidise honeymoon travel—I think that might work. It is a curious juxtaposition when someone claims to want to mend society while creating social divisions between the married and the unmarried.
It is surely perverse to ask the state to make a judgment on the value of people’s unique relationships both within and outside marriage. Would such incentives apply to gay marriages and civil partnerships? If the motivating factor behind such a move is, in part, consideration for the well-being of children, why discriminate against children from relationships and in families outside married relationships? How many children—the innocent parties and unwitting victims of those proposals—would be disadvantaged by this move? As a married father, I have no wish for the state to reward my children for my relationship choice and I do not think that their classmates, whose parents are not married but clearly enjoy stable and loving relationships, should be penalised because of the state’s view of their parents’ actions. That cannot be right.
The Opposition are absolutely right to highlight the effects of drug use on our society. Here again, however, I must take issue with them because their prevailing mindset seeks to penalise certain behaviours among the lower social orders while ignoring those same vices or lifestyle choices among the more affluent sections of society. That manifests itself in a particular way in current Conservative thinking.
The Leader of the Opposition recently announced that he was in favour of lowering the classification of ecstasy from a class A to a class B drug. In the same week, the police in my constituency seized a huge haul of ecstasy. The market for that drug was clearly children and teenagers, whose safety and well-being should not be sacrificed in a desperate search for modernity or, still worse, a headline for the Conservative party. I do not doubt the sincerity of the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) or the intentions of the Opposition more widely, but they must be consistent. If they care about the effect of drug use on our society, the Leader of the Opposition must recant his views and drop his double standards. Talk is cheap—but by their deeds shall we know them.
It is a pleasure to contribute to the debate, in which I have a particular interest as the deputy chairman of the addictions working group. In the short time available, I hope to draw on some of our material. I apologise for the pressure it may have caused on the printing machines that we used to get the report out, but I make no apologies for the depth in which we sought to tackle the problem of addiction to drugs and alcohol. We looked primarily into the underlying causes behind the massive problem of addiction.
We sought to take the inquiry deeper than some other commissions, which ask the great and the good to give their words of wisdom. We heard from a balance of the great and the good, but we also sought to go out to the different areas of the country to hear from those who are profoundly affected, both addicts and their families and those in the field. I hope that the report was informed by their experiences.
I can also draw upon 11 years of work as a criminal solicitor dealing with many clients who were addicted to drugs and alcohol. We should be concerned both about the 300,000 people with an opiate or cocaine dependency and the increasingly younger people who are being affected by the misuse of alcohol. It is important to look at individuals and, in my years as a criminal solicitor, I have learned that the characteristics of those affected are that they are drug addicts, often with a learning difficulty. They may have come from single-parent homes and had little or no contact with the father or any role model.
My first client at Enfield police station, who also ended up as my last client, graduated through crime to become one of the most prolific burglars in Enfield, sometimes doing 100 burglaries in a weekend. He is now serving a stretch at Pentonville, but he had become disconnected from society and consumed by his addiction, which affected those most dear to him. There were times when he connected with society, mainly when he was in his role as a father and he suddenly realised that he had a relationship with society and those around him. It is important for policy makers to capture such individuals at those times and to ensure that they realise that they have a role in society.
The Government want such people to stop committing crimes, but that is it. They are happy in many ways to see such people parked up on a methadone programme and not going any further. However, we have higher expectation—we want them to recover, become part of society and take their responsibilities seriously as fathers, citizens and employees. Such individuals are parked up in prisons, but some are in other institutions such as hostels, child care facilities and the like. They are most at risk of never getting out of the cul-de-sac they are in.
The Government have approached that matter by throwing money at it. We talk about public spending, and £7 billion has gone into the fight against drugs. That is no mean amount, but how has it been spent? It has been spent to the detriment of the funding of alcohol dependency treatment, which accounts for only 6 per cent., while the money is spent primarily on methadone prescribing; £111 million—one third of the pooled treatment budget—goes into prescription. That is a concern for those in the field, addicts and recovering addicts. In many ways, the expectation has not gone beyond methadone prescribing. There is a place for methadone prescription, but it has to be part of a supportive programme.
Professor Strang, the director of the national addiction centre—who is often prayed in aid by those supporting a harm reduction approach—says that one of the valid criticisms of some methadone maintenance programmes is that they are “little more than dispensaries.” There is no recovery plan or support programme. That is a concern to addicts in particular. Lee, an addict who graduated from the Phoenix programme in Sheffield, said:
“I was maintained on methadone for years and years and not once did the doctor or drugs worker say, ‘Well look have you ever thought about rehab?’ You’re still in your home town, with the same people, the same drugs, the same everything. And you are very blinkered. Common sense will tell you that you need to get out and break the circle…if you’re still there. on a methadone script, people still use, you’ve got no chance at all. When I first came here, I thought ‘I need to get off drugs’ and that was it. But then I learnt as I went on, that it was about learning life skills which I never learned from being on heroin and methadone for 22 years.”
The concern now is that we have “geriaddicts” who are simply parked up.
If one method is the Government throwing money at the problem, the other is targets. Someone once said:
“Government targets are asking me to view my business in a way that’s just not capturing the work that we do. It’s about getting bodies into a system, head counting, and just watching them, it’s sheep dipping, basically.”
It has also been said that the Government seem to be more concerned with targets and how many people enter treatment than with outcomes and trying to achieve positive results—that they are more concerned about numbers than freeing people from drugs.
There is a concern that we might be addressing drug addicts simply as statistics—that we are thinking only of targets and ticking boxes, and of removing addicts from the criminal justice system. There is a worry that we have a top-down approach that does not enable them to be freed from their enslavement to drugs and to take part in society, and that that does not enable us to deal with them properly as individuals. The Government’s drugs strategy is under review and we might hear more about that later this month. The worry is that that might culminate in the adoption of a paternalistic “we know best” approach that disempowers local people, communities, service providers and commissioners. The best providers are voluntary ones—those offering residential treatments.
Let me sum up by quoting someone called Leanne. She said:
“When someone says to me about family values I didn’t know what that meant, but now I have a real family and I feel I actually belong somewhere.”
She managed to break out of her cycle of abuse and addiction because those who cared—particularly voluntary and faith-based providers—did not treat her merely as a statistic.
Although I welcome the Opposition’s late conversion on this important matter, I also have reservations about it. Although the Conservatives will never be in power in the coming decades, if they ever are I hope that they will build on the work done by the Labour Government.
I want to draw attention to the great work being done in my constituency to improve the lot of children and young people from all backgrounds and the danger of any policy that might put that work at risk. Swindon is not a broken society; we face serious challenges, but our society is good, whole and can embrace those who are not currently playing a full part in it.
Extra Government funding for children—for every child—makes a huge difference. Government funding is helping us to realise the dream that every child should get the best start in life and the support that they need to make the most of their talents. Yesterday, there was a community cohesion meeting at the Drove campus in my constituency. The campus includes Drove primary school, Drove children’s centre and Drove social hall, and it is a shining example of what can be done with Government funding. I hope that a Minister will visit the Drove centre to see the great work being done by Nick Capstick and his team. Solutions come from the local community, not from national Government. National Government provide the resources and set the framework, but local people must find solutions to their local problems.
Swindon has a good reputation for community cohesion, but there are tensions—as there are in all our towns and cities. Children and young people from the black and minority ethnic community need to know that the authorities will provide them with support, development and safety.
In a briefing paper prepared for yesterday’s meeting, one young person was quoted as saying:
“The council don’t invest in us, why would we invest in Swindon?”
It is true that the council could do a great deal more for young people and adopt a more proactive stance on community cohesion. I hope that the council will look at what Nick is doing at the Drove centre and work with him— in the past it has not shown much interest in doing so.
Because of Government funding, children’s centres such as the Drove centre exist and are starting to have the resources they need to reach out to the whole community. I was a county councillor under the previous Tory Government and I remember that we had to scrimp and save to open 20 new nursery classes across Berkshire in the teeth of Conservative opposition. Although I welcome the Conservatives’ conversion, I have that memory and I use it as a warning to myself that they might say things but not follow through in the future. The steps towards a solution to the tensions in our society should include building on examples such as Drove primary school’s excellent community outreach work and reputation. That includes early intervention in problem families in which there is a cycle of deprivation over several generations. They are the most difficult families to reach.
The children’s centre services include early learning combined with day care, adult education and links with Jobcentre Plus for parents and carers who wish to consider training or employment. None of that would be possible without the Government’s policy framework, and I am disappointed that the Opposition do not seek to build on that in their report.
I have a particular problem with the phrase in the Opposition’s motion about
“higher rates of family breakdown”.
We should not conflate family breakdown with marriage breakdown: they are not the same. Many families remain strong despite the sad occurrence of marriage breakdowns. Family breakdowns can occur in marriages, and we need to bear that in mind. I do not know whether the Opposition meant family breakdown or marriage breakdown, but I suggest that they need to do a little more serious, in-depth thinking about families and marriage.
I have been happily married, I am glad to say, for 29 years. As my husband subscribes to theyworkforyou.com, I am just giving him notice that it will be our 30th anniversary next year. We have many friends who have been happily married for many years. We also have friends whose marriages have broken down, but they have made a tremendous continuing commitment to their children and their extended families. Other friends of ours have not married, but have very strong families. Marriage is important to me, but it is not for me to dictate how other people should lead their lives. It is certainly not for me, as a married person without any children, to take £20 every week. I want that money to go to families with children who need it, whether they were born in or out of wedlock. It is not the children’s fault what their parents decide to do.
Nick Capstick of the Drove campus says that he is grateful for the resources given to him for children’s centres, but that there is a case for improved, targeted and additional funding, above and beyond the usual children’s centre funding, from which hard-to-reach communities could benefit. He asks me to congratulate Ministers and the Government on his behalf for what they have done so far, but calls for even greater vision in developing bespoke solutions for certain communities.
When we make change, we need to do so in a considered and costed way, so that local economies can continue to grow and create opportunities for all of our society.
There is a pressing need for us to rethink how we relieve poverty in this country and how we tackle social injustice. At present, 5 million people of working age in Britain are not working. There has been an alarming increase in the number of young people who are not in education, employment or training, and others have spoken about the impact of family breakdown. The most disturbing statistic of all, to me, is the appalling fact that 55 per cent. of families with a disabled child live in poverty.
We are not the first politicians to talk about the need to tackle poverty. My own party, in 1911, introduced measures and Labour implemented the Beveridge report and created the post-war welfare state, but the past half century has seen social security budgets balloon, ad hoc benefits become permanent and measures that were meant to be transformative become permanent.
I suggest that we take a new approach. Rather than having another Government initiative, we should learn the lessons from Bill Clinton’s America. I am not someone who has a natural empathy with Bill Clinton, but his 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act had such a positive impact on the fight against poverty that we need to draw some lessons from it.
What did Bill Clinton’s Government do? What magic wand did he wave? In short, he did less—or rather, he got central Government to do less, so that local state government could do more. He devolved; he de-federalised; he localised responsibility for welfare. It was so successful that the number of families on welfare fell from 5 million to 2 million. Some 1.6 million fewer children were in poverty as a result, and minority groups, particularly African-Americans, benefited from the changes. Bill Clinton’s changes created pluralism and enabled local state innovation.
I have been impressed by many things that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) has said, but I was particularly impressed by his suggestion that we should devolve control of welfare to local welfare officers. Is there a need to reassess the assumption in the Beveridge report that the welfare state should necessarily be built on universality? Does that not create centralism? Does universality not preclude flexibility and the need to take into account the different conditions of individual people in this deeply imperfect world? As it is centralised, the current system is all too often devoid of compassion. Applying Mr. Clinton’s logic, could we not localise control over welfare? Could we not give local budgets to local agents and give them discretion? Politicians in this place constantly talk the talk of localism—of giving local government a greater role. Why not do it? Why not pilot some welfare projects that give them responsibility?
Time is short, but I would argue that if we are to be serious about welfare reform, we should look to decentralise control and give local government and local agencies a greater role.
I begin by congratulating all three Ministers on their new appointments. I know that the two Ministers responsible for today’s debate have a long-standing and genuine interest in the matters under discussion. I am an optimist about our society. For many years now, our society has been getting better for most people. We are generally more prosperous, and people have opportunities they used not to have. Our culture is now such that racism, sexism and homophobia, for example, are increasingly unacceptable, which has meant a material improvement in lives that were previously subject to harassment and misery. In many ways, we are becoming a gentler and better society.
However, that is not true for everyone. Too many people in our society are breaking away from the mainstream and are being left behind. Given that most of us are experiencing improvements in our life chances, we have a particular obligation to take account of those who are struggling and being left behind. I am not going to trade statistics, of which we have heard plenty in today’s debate. The report of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) contains many expert and erudite analyses of the problem.
Even in my own constituency of Tunbridge Wells, which in many ways is a byword for comfort and prosperity, I have had some shocking experiences. One of the most shocking occurred when I was on patrol with the police on a Friday night. It might surprise you to hear, Madam Deputy Speaker, that Friday night in Tunbridge Wells can be as rowdy as Friday night in other places. [Interruption.] I invite the hon. Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron) to experience it; it is quite good fun, as well.
While I was on patrol with the police, they stopped a group of youths to make an arrest for the suspected theft of a bottle of wine from an off-licence. Observing what went on during that interaction was both shocking and instructive. One of the youths—a young man probably aged 17—was very loud and full of Friday-night brash self-confidence, until he was presented with the stop-and-search form that suspects questioned by the police now have to fill in. When confronted with that form, his behaviour changed completely. Having been aggressive and self-confident, he became embarrassed, almost furtive in his behaviour.
I thought that something more serious had happened—that he had drugs on his person, and that a relatively trivial incident had become something more major. I drew closer, and discovered that the young man could not deal with a simple form of the sort that we fill in every day of our lives because he could not read or write. He was not proud or complacent about something that was clearly the source of acute embarrassment. He did not want his mates to see that, and so he moved away.
I mention the incident because, if something like that can happen in Tunbridge Wells, I cannot see how a young man who does not know how to read or write after 12 years of education can ever prosper economically, anywhere in the world. Clearly, the education system has let him down, but that is not because of teachers’ personal failure. They say that we must look at the home life of young people, because the problem is deep and has many facets. As a result, reports such as that compiled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green are exactly the right way to proceed.
Therefore, I welcome the tone adopted at least initially by the Minister and his colleagues in responding to the debate. We need to approach this matter seriously and in an attempt to achieve consensus.
I turn now to some of the speeches that have been made. I was a little disappointed by the Minister’s speech. I know that he thinks seriously about these matters, but his remarks were defensive of the Government’s record and his policy suggestions were cautious. He was inclined to niggle at points that had been made constructively.
The Minister should not be so defensive and cautious. Where is the ambition that once characterised the Government’s approach to these matters? The Labour party set up the first Commission on Social Justice, but no one on the Government Benches spoke with the zeal and energy displayed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green. That is unfortunate, because not all the ideas can come from this side of the House. I had hoped for greater energy from Labour Members.
In addition, what is the Government’s action plan? The Minister spoke about the Government’s actions, but we know what they have done. I am holding the Government’s document “Reaching Out—An Action Plan on Social Exclusion”, which was published late last year. I do not wish to be rude, but it bears no comparison to the serious piece of work produced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green—and as my right hon. Friend relied on people donating their time voluntarily, that is a sad reflection on the Government’s level of ambition.
The Minister made great play of the tax allowance proposal, but I fear that he has got himself into some confusion on the matter. No less a personage than the Prime Minister has told us that the Government’s policy is to support marriage through the taxation system. As we learned from the “Today” programme this morning, and from the Minister yesterday, their plan is to do that through inheritance tax. If the Government’s policy is to support marriage through taxation, I suggest that to do so through inheritance tax—at the very point when a marriage ends, sadly, through death—is probably not the best targeted intervention.
The Minister needs to think carefully about that, and he did not answer my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green, who asked whether he supported the argument put by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) that the Government should correct the anomaly in the benefits system that imposes on couples a real disincentive to stay together.
The Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), made the important point that international comparisons that show us falling behind are, paradoxically, a cause for great optimism. They show that things can be done so much better, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green has shown that the fact that places such as Sweden and the Netherlands can tackle drugs so much more effectively means that we can do the same here. The title of my right hon. Friend’s report—“Breakthrough Britain”—correctly conveys the optimism that Opposition Members share.
I do not have time to go through all the speeches in the debate, yet I cannot help but comment on the ludicrous contribution from the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman). It is rather sad that he seems to be so lost in the past. The contrast with the intellectual energy and application that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green has brought to the subject could not be greater. I think that we are all sad that the right hon. Gentleman cannot apply his great intellect and experience of Government to the serious problems, instead of rehearsing the battles of the 1997 election. That is a loss to the debate and a loss to the country.
We have had a vigorous debate. We started with consensus, which deteriorated somewhat during contributions such as that from the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton. I end on a note of consensus, however, by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green on a report that will be debated for many years to come. I am certain that it will shape many of the policies of the next Government.
We have had a short but important debate. About 20 Members on both sides of the House spoke and intervened with great passion, offering their experience of the needs of children, young people and families in their constituencies. Members—at least those on the Labour Benches—described the great progress that Labour has made in tackling the Conservative legacy of economic and social failure from the 1980s. They described the tremendous work of voluntary organisations and social enterprises in championing the most vulnerable and meeting their needs.
My first regret about the debate is the failure of the Conservatives to acknowledge, let alone apologise for, the devastation they inflicted on families and communities during their appalling 18 years in government. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed), I make no apology for striking a discordant note in response to the Conservative efforts to present their compassionate face. I was a local councillor. I worked in the third sector throughout the 1980s and the early 1990s and, like my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman)—who made a brilliant contribution—I saw at first hand the devastating effect of mass unemployment and cuts to public services, which put intolerable pressure on vulnerable families, children, young people and pensioners. I for one will never let the Conservatives duck their responsibility for the poverty, homelessness, mortgage misery, divorce and crime increases. Whole communities were abandoned when they were in power. Groups such as lone parents were stigmatised and scapegoated by the Tories, so I agree with my right hon. Friend that for them now to try to shed their reputation as the nasty party and claim to be the party that will deliver social justice is a little hard to swallow.
What might have helped the Conservatives’ case would have been some recognition in their document of the enormous progress in economic and social justice that the Labour Government have brought about since 1997. The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) says that he wants consensus on the way forward, but he deliberately—almost perversely—refuses to name, let alone, applaud, the huge improvements of the past 10 years under Labour. Six hundred thousand children have been lifted out of poverty. Unemployment has gone down dramatically and 2.5 million more people are in work, including many more women. Pensioners have not been mentioned in the debate, but 2 million of them no longer live below the poverty line. The number of children living in workless households has dropped. Teenage pregnancies are at their lowest level for 20 years. There are record levels of investment in education, increasing the educational achievement of young people not only in schools but in apprenticeships, which have trebled to 250,000 a year.
My hon. Friend the Member for Copeland talked about action, not words. He probably does not know that the motto of Corby borough council in my constituency is, “Deeds not Words”. The Tories’ voting record in opposition, let alone their past in government, tells us all about the sincerity of their commitment. They voted against tax credits, the new deal and the minimum wage. However, it is good to see Members such as the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) breaking ranks with his Front Bench. He called for more public spending, clearly opposing Conservative Front Benchers’ commitments to cut funding by £21 billion.
I do not want to be wholly negative. There are some useful suggestions in the Conservative proposals, some of which will appear familiar to my hon. Friends—not least because they are lifted from our policy documents. Imitation is of course the sincerest form of flattery, so I welcome the support in the document for the measures we are already undertaking to support the third sector, about which I shall say a little more later.
Crucially, the Conservative flagship proposal for a transferable tax allowance is fundamentally flawed. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office said, the Tories, would be taking more than £3 billion from public services and support for families to help married couples who pay tax, most of whom do not have children —at the expense of children who are growing up in low-income families—the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) forensically took apart the Tory proposals.
I must admit that before the debate I wondered whether others on the Opposition Benches would be happy to support proposals for changing the tax system that would mean that only 3 per cent. of the benefit would go to the poorest 10th of the population. I was delighted that the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) made it clear in his intervention that he thoroughly disagreed with a proposal that would clearly stigmatise and penalise children in the most disadvantaged families. The Tories have chosen to spin this aspect of their report as something that makes them “the great party of marriage”, but as we have seen today they are hopelessly divided among themselves on the proposals. They have no answers to the forensic demolition of what are socially unjust proposals, given the impact that they would have on children in need.
The truth is that families come in all shapes and sizes and that the Government must support all families, irrespective of their structure. My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove) was right to say that it is not the role of the state to say what type of family is best. The real focus of our efforts to tackle inequality should not be on family structures; it should be on supporting children so that they can grow up in loving, stable and supportive families, whatever their circumstances. The issue is about income for those children. It is about financial support through increased child benefits, which the Tories froze when they were in power, and the working families tax credit, which the Tories opposed when they were in opposition. There is the issue of giving children more time with their parents through increased maternity and paternity leave and giving parents that time to be with their children in those crucial early formative months and years. There is also the issue of giving greater support to parents through better access to child care. There are new children’s centres and new programmes covering parenting skills and giving advice.
We do not have a massive problem of family breakdown and it is simply not true to say that we do. My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon made that point. The vast majority of families are doing well. Parents are doing an excellent job and the outcomes for their children are getting increasingly better. Our challenge is to concentrate our help on those families—about 2 per cent.—who experience multiple family disadvantages and who have not been reached by the growth of our universal services. We might at least have a consensus on that and on the role of the third sector in meeting those needs. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), who is not now in the Chamber, made an important point about early intervention and preventive work with those families.
That takes me on to the importance of the third sector. The report states that one of the Conservatives’ objectives is to increase the role of the third sector in tackling poverty. As the Minister with responsibility for the third sector, I wholeheartedly agree that voluntary organisations, charities, community groups and social enterprises make a vital contribution. That is why, over the past 10 years, the Government’s public support for the third sector has risen from £4.5 billion in 1997 to more than £10.5 billion in 2005. In practical terms, that is reflected in the thousands of community groups and local voluntary organisations that are involved in programmes to support families, communities and those with disabilities. We heard from the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) about those who work with people with addictions. The hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire mentioned those who work with young people in and out of custody. My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon—a real champion in her community—described the work of the Drove centre in her constituency.
It has not been possible to acknowledge properly all the contributions made by hon. Members. However, warm words about social justice from Conservative Members cannot hide the facts of their party’s record in office and voting record in opposition, or the reality of the stigmatising impact that their party’s proposals would have on children in most need. A shiny new façade—
rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.
Question, That the Question be now put, put and agreed to.
Question put accordingly, That the original words stand part of the Question:—
The House proceeded to a Division.
I ask the Serjeant at Arms to investigate the delay in the No Lobby.
Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.
Madam Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.
That this House notes that since 1997 employment has risen to the highest level ever with 2.5 million more people in work, the number of workless households has fallen, the number of children in workless households has fallen, the number of children in non-decent homes has been cut by 1.4 million, child poverty has fallen by 600,000, pensioner poverty has fallen and educational attainment has risen for pupils from all social classes, across the board and at all key stages; further notes that this has happened because of a sustained strategy which includes the New Deal programme, Tax Credits, the National Minimum Wage, Sure Start, a National Childcare Strategy, programmes to improve parenting, Educational Maintenance Allowances and record investment in public services; and urges politicians of all parties to recognise the benefits of these reforms and not undermine them, support all children and work together to tackle the social challenges that the UK still faces through continued investment, engagement of individuals and communities, work with the voluntary sector and through an approach which recognises that the best way to build a fair society is through providing opportunities for all citizens, not just the few, to meet their aspirations.
BUSINESS OF THE HOUSE
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 15 (Exempted business),
That, at this day’s sitting, consideration of proceedings on the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill may be proceeded with, though opposed, until any hour.—[Mark Tami.]
Question agreed to.