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Volume 472: debated on Monday 18 February 2008

We have made considerable progress in tackling poverty. Since 1998-99, the number of pensioners in relative poverty has fallen by more than 1 million, and the number of individuals in relative poverty living in households continuing a disabled person, after housing costs, has fallen by about 900,000. There are now 600,000 fewer children living in relative poverty, before housing costs, than there were in 1998-99.

The UK has a higher proportion of children living in workless households than any other EU country and, according to the Sutton Trust, social mobility in the UK is at the lowest level of any developed country. What connection does the Minister make between those two facts?

I make the connection that, for 18 years, there was a huge rise in child poverty—[Interruption.] That is a serious point. We cannot measure the life chances of a child who is 10 years old, which is the oldest that they could be if they had spent the whole of their life growing up under this Government. Those figures clearly measure life chances over the past two or three decades. We inherited a significant problem of child poverty; we have cut it by 600,000, and we have measures in place to cut it by another 300,000. The proportion of children in workless households has fallen by 400,000 under this Government. It was rising under the Tories, which damaged children’s life chances, but it is now falling under us. Over the next 20 years, as we are able to judge those children’s life chances, I believe that we will see a significant improvement.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, when dealing with families living at the bottom end of the economic ladder and those with young children, there can be no scope for using the removal of housing as part of the process of getting people back into the world of work? Will he confirm that there are better ways of doing that, and that it would be unworkable and unacceptable to use housing as a weapon in that way?

I think that my hon. Friend is referring to the debate that the Minister for Housing has started about people’s responsibilities in respect of social housing. It is right that, when people get social housing, which is much sought after, we should talk about the responsibilities that go with that. That is exactly the debate that my right hon. Friend has started. One thing that could be done, for example, is to ensure that applicants for social housing get employment support alongside it. We could take other measures as well. That is a debate that my right hon. Friend the Minister and I will be happy to have with my hon. Friend in the coming weeks.

The Department’s own statistics on households on below-average incomes show that, since 2001, the bottom 10 per cent. of families have become worse off. They are going backwards, and getting poorer. How has that come about?

The figures on the proportion of people who are on below 40 per cent. of median earnings—I think that is what the hon. Gentleman was referring to—have been described by the Office for National Statistics as not reliable. For example, there are many people in that category who do not declare any income at all. There may well be a certain amount of fraud in those figures, and the sample size is too small anyhow. The figures that are internationally recognised, which relate to those on less than 60 per cent. of median earnings, have shown a fall of 600,000 since 1997, and we have measures in place for another 300,000 to be taken out of poverty. The clearest contrast, however, is the one between this Government, who are committed to reducing child poverty, and the Opposition, who will not even say that they have an aspiration to reduce it.

I see from the Annunciator that, following these questions, the Chancellor is to make a statement that will help us to deliver on our 1983 manifesto pledge on banking. Will the Secretary of State tell us whether it will be 25 years before we deliver on our 2005 manifesto commitment to a full programme of action to support disabled people in leading independent lives and to increase their inclusion in the economy and in society? The Independent Living Fund has just announced that it is raising from £200 to £320 the threshold sum that a disabled person must be receiving from local authorities in order to access ILF funding. Will not this worsen poverty and increase disabled people’s exclusion from society?

I believe that that was done in consultation with local authorities and will not affect existing claimants. We do not think that a significant number of people will be affected. My hon. Friend is right, however, to say that the Government have a radical goal of getting equality for disabled people by 2025, and we have a number of policies in place to achieve that. However, I would be happy to talk to him if he has any further suggestions on what course the Government should be pursuing.

The recent report by Leonard Cheshire Disability shows that disabled people are twice as likely to live in poverty as non-disabled people; I know that the Secretary of State will be familiar with that. Over the past 10 years, the employment rate of people with work-limiting disabilities has risen by just 3.7 per cent., according to the Government’s own figures. What specific policies do the Government have to enable them to do better in future, and why should anyone think that they are any more likely to be successful?

I look forward to meeting Leonard Cheshire Disability and I am happy to look into the suggestions it has made. As the hon. Gentleman says, there has been an improvement in the employment rate of disabled people, but we want to go further. Reforming incapacity benefit by introducing the employment and support allowance will, we believe, help to get about 1 million people off incapacity benefit and into work. At the end of the spectrum where people have really significant barriers to work, we should be clear that we are not saying that they cannot work—we want to support everyone who wants to work—but we are seeing what more control we can give people in that situation so that disabled people, like everybody else, can have the expectation of being able to get into work.