I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of tackling poverty in the UK.
Helping people in the UK to escape poverty is one of the key challenges for the new Government and something that we are passionate about achieving. Although this Administration face one of the biggest financial challenges in our peacetime history, we are determined that we will not act in a way that leaves behind some of the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. Before Labour Members contribute to this afternoon’s debate, I hope that they will think back to their 13 years in power in times when they felt able to spend money freely, and remind themselves just how little progress was made with so much money.
Within days of taking office we saw the release of official poverty statistics, and what a bleak picture of progress they painted: 18% of people in the UK today live below the official poverty line, defined as a typical family, comprising a couple with two children under 14, having an income before housing costs of less than £342 a week. Official research has shown the number of children who live in families where even the most basic needs cannot be met. Of children in households with incomes in the bottom 20%, more than half live in families who cannot afford to replace worn-out furniture or broken electrical goods, and about two thirds cannot afford to make a saving of £10 a month. Of course, families under pressure to meet their daily needs are likely to see making provision for their retirement as a relatively low priority, which adds further to poverty down the line.
We believe that the last Government went wrong because they simply did not understand the nature of the poverty problem in this country. With one or two notable exceptions—I shall return to the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) later in my speech—they seemed to believe that Whitehall knew best: they always talked about poverty simply in terms of money and seldom demonstrated a clear understanding of the far deeper problems that can leave so many people struggling. Behind the facts and figures—beyond the statistics and the measures of material deprivation—lie incredibly complex and challenging issues.
Poverty is not just about income. Family breakdown, a lack of experience of work and education in the home, a lack of experience of parenting in the home—all contribute to a climate of poverty. Some children are brought up without even a single stable family home or in households that are ridden with the challenges of addiction. All of that shapes someone’s chances of getting on or not getting on in life.
A debate on child poverty, which I introduced, was held yesterday in Westminster Hall. Will the Minister confirm that, according to Barnardo’s, at the conclusion of 13 years of Labour Government the number of children living in poverty totalled 3.9 million?
The hon. Gentleman makes his point very well and I commend him for the work that he has done to highlight the subject. One of the most disappointing things about the last Administration is that, despite talking as much as they did about child poverty, they missed their 2010 target. In their later years in office, child poverty was rising, and not simply as a result of the recession.
The reality is that being in poverty shapes those children’s lives and too often ends the lives of too many people. On average, people living in the poorest neighbourhoods in England will die seven years earlier than those living in wealthier neighbourhoods. Health inequalities today are worse than they were in the 1970s and the gap in educational attainment between children from rich and poor backgrounds remains persistently great.
Does the Minister agree that one form of poverty that is little mentioned is poverty of aspiration for young people who come from very deprived backgrounds? They do not see further or higher education as something that is for them. That is why it is important that we continue to put money into education: if we do not, that gap will worsen.
The hon. Gentleman is right. What he says about higher education is one reason why I am proud that the present Administration will provide more university places this year than were planned by the previous Administration. He makes a valid point. I remember the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) saying in the House some years ago that in his constituency, a person was seen to be weird if he or she stayed on in education past the age of 16. That underlines the challenge in communities where there is too little experience of educational achievement. I absolutely agree with the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami): there is a need to break down the barriers and to raise aspirations.
Does the Minister agree that evidence also shows that children from the poorest families are unable to make the most of their education? At as early as 22 months, children from poorer backgrounds are doing less well than children from better-off backgrounds and that gap continues to widen as they go through the school system. Does he agree that efforts to address both educational attainment and aspiration and family incomes need to go hand in hand if children are to make the most of their schooling?
The hon. Lady has extremely extensive experience of these matters and she is absolutely right. We remain firmly of the view that early intervention is important. I mentioned parenting skills earlier; when talking about these matters, I always pay tribute to the charity Home-Start. Enabling people who have good parenting experience to mentor those who do not makes a valuable contribution to helping young people who grow up in more challenging environments to do better than they might otherwise have done. That is hugely important because we have massive divides within communities, between people living side by side.
Here in Westminster, for example, we have the largest difference in life expectancy of any London local authority. In areas such as Knightsbridge and Belgravia, people can expect to live into their mid-80s, but just up the road in Queens Park life expectancy is just over 70—a gap of nearly 15 years. For every two minutes on the tube between Knightsbridge and Queens Park, the life expectancy of the communities through which one travels drops by a year.
As a resident of Queens Park, this is an opportune moment to seek to intervene.
On the issue of health inequalities, poverty has to be understood as a relative as well as an absolute issue. Before the right hon. Gentleman goes too far in dismissing everything that the Labour Government were doing, does he agree with the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which said:
“Tax and benefit measures implemented by Labour since 1997 have increased the incomes of poorer households and reduced those of richer ones, largely halting the rapid rise in income inequality that we saw under the Conservatives”?
What measures that the Conservatives took—or failed to take—in those years will he now say will not be reintroduced if we are to make further progress?
Of course, we have not been in office since 1997. One of the tragedies of the past 13 years is seeing the amount of money spent leading to so little in the way of results. The point made by the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside about poverty of aspiration is a crucial one. I shall come on to discuss worklessness, but a lack of experience of work or educational achievement in a household, and other factors, can make such a difference. The divides are enormous. If one goes to a city such as Liverpool, one only has to walk for 20 minutes from one of the smartest, newest shopping centres in the country to streets where almost no one is working. Worklessness is central to the challenges faced by many of our communities.
What are the right hon. Gentleman’s views on the comments made earlier by the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), who said that local authority cuts will fall hardest on the poorest areas?
We have to look at this in a far more three-dimensional way. It is about changing educational achievement, which is why we have said that it is important to focus on a pupil premium for the most deprived areas. It is also why we have said that it is important to ensure, as the economy recovers and as the employment market picks up, that we do not make the mistakes of the past 10 years. Too many of the jobs that were created went to people coming into the country from overseas, as the right hon. Member for Birkenhead has identified on more than one occasion. We have to make sure that we break down the culture of worklessness and educational failure, which is as essential to dealing with poverty as any other factor.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way again. To approach the question that I asked earlier from a different angle, the IFS confirmed that Labour’s measures had largely halted the rise in income inequality, which increased dramatically under the Conservative Government. Does he accept that the measures that he has to put in place must not repeat the errors and mistakes, with deep roots in unemployment and social breakdown, that characterised the Conservative years and led to rising income inequality and poverty?
My right hon. Friend is speaking very well about the inequalities between rich and poor, mainly in an urban context. Does he agree that nowhere is that difference more stark than in rural locations? Despite their rhetoric on rural-proofing over 13 years, the Opposition did absolutely nothing to narrow that divide. Will he provide an assurance sought by my constituents, and confirm that the plight of the poor in rural locations—they tend to be among the poorest in our society—will be addressed during our coalition Government?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. As we prepare the Work programme, I shall seek to ensure that it includes scope for the voluntary sector organisations that specialise in local communities and individual groups in our society that can make a difference. Groups that best understand rural areas can make the biggest difference to ensure that we help people in rural communities into prosperous and successful working lives, and not leave them stranded on benefits. I certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance.
We have a moral duty, even in difficult times, to do what we can to break down the cycle of deprivation that affects many of those communities. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and his team have committed years to identifying the challenges that face those deprived communities and how to solve them. We have demonstrated a willingness to look at ideas across the political spectrum. I am delighted that we can take advantage of the expertise of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead in his review. He is highly regarded in all parts of the House for the knowledge and insights that he has built up, and we look forward to seeing his conclusions, particularly on how we measure poverty and capture a more accurate understanding of it in all its forms. That work enables us to understand more clearly how to develop solutions for the problems that we face.
I hope that we can maintain dialogue with Members such as the hon. Member for Nottingham North, who is a leading thinker on how to use early intervention to tackle deprivation. He has worked closely with my right hon. Friend who is now the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and we believe that this is an issue that should capture expertise wherever it lies. In addition, we have established for the first time a cross-departmental Cabinet Committee under the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend to ensure that we join up all the thinking and work that we do on social justice across government.
All of that will require radical reforms. It is about stimulating economic growth by moving more people into work; providing more effective routes into truly sustainable jobs; establishing clearer links between work and reward; and helping people to make responsible choices and save for their retirement. And ultimately, in these straitened times, we must ensure that we are using the money available to the best possible effect, both for those individuals and the taxpayer.
I agree strongly with the Secretary of State that leading people to, and enabling them to sustain, well-paid jobs is an important route out of poverty, but with only about 0.5 million vacancies—and, as his Government have said, about 5 million on inactive and unemployment benefits—can he confirm that an adequate safety net for people who cannot be in paid work will be sustained, and in particular, that there will be no freezing or cutting of benefits on which families who are out of work rely?
I am not going to announce the Budget today, but it will remain a Government commitment to provide a security or safety net for people who find themselves in difficulties. That safety net must not be a place in which people simply live their lives. No one benefits from sitting at home on benefits doing nothing, whether it is people with incapacities, people with disabilities or lone parents. There is general agreement—between ourselves, and between representative groups outside—that if we can help people into work it gives them a more fulfilling life, and it provides a job for their families. We regard breaking down the culture of worklessness as a huge priority.
The hon. Lady is right about the economic situation, but we must not make the mistake that has been made over the past 10 years. The previous Government presided over a situation in which jobs that were created tended to go not to people who were stranded on benefits in this country but to people moving here from overseas. That must not happen in the coming decade.
Further to the Secretary of State’s comments on the balance between work and benefits, will he take into consideration a letter from a constituent that I received this morning? She is a single mother trying to support her children, but she pointed out she was not eligible for a grant for a uniform for one of them because she works.
“should I be penalised for not claiming benefits, for going out to work to try and better myself when I am in fact worse off. I am in two minds to give up my job so that I can get more perks.”
I urge the Secretary of State, in reshaping policy, to take into consideration people such as my constituent who are trying to do the right thing but who find that people on benefits are better off.
My hon. Friend is right. We have to make sure that people benefit financially from going back to work. We will do everything that we can as an Administration to ensure that people who do the right thing genuinely benefit from doing so, and that no one is incentivised to say, “There’s no point in getting a job. I’ll stay at home.” That does not do them, or any of us, any good whatsoever.
We are talking not just about individuals but about whole families: two or three generations of the same family who not only do not work but have never worked. That is not simply the result of a lack of opportunity. In many of our most deprived and challenged communities, the culture of dependency and the sense of exclusion from mainstream society has resulted in a sense of hopelessness and poverty of ambition, as the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside said, which we have to break down. We will do everything that we can to meet that challenge.
I want to set out five key areas that are central to helping people to escape from that poverty trap. First, all the evidence shows that early-years experiences are crucial in determining life chances. A stable home life can make a huge difference to the health and well-being of our children. Family breakdown has been linked to mental health problems, addiction and educational failure, and there is no doubt that the impact of families on life chances seems to be more pronounced in the UK than in neighbouring areas. The earning potential of a child in the UK is more closely related to that of their parents than it is in countries such as the United States, Germany or France. The rate of family breakdown is much higher in the UK than in other major countries, and we have one of the highest proportions of single-parent families in the OECD and the highest rate of teen pregnancies in the EU.
The reality of the links to poverty is clear: 34% of children in families with just one parent in their home were in poverty in 2008-09—a much higher proportion than the national average, which is 22%—and we know that a family with just one parent is twice as likely to have an income in the bottom 20% as families where there are two parents. We want to create a system that supports families, creates a stable environment for children and improves social mobility. That is why we will work to strengthen families by investing in effective early-years provision, including expanding the availability and accessibility of health visitors, so that all parents have access to expert support and advice in the crucial early days of a child’s life. We will recognise marriage in the tax system, and, as soon as we can we will tackle the couple penalty in tax credits. We will encourage shared parenting from the earliest stages of pregnancy, including the promotion of a system of flexible parental leave. We want to restore aspiration, allowing parents to hope for their children and children to dream for themselves. Education plays a central role in that, and it is the second key area that we wish to address.
Education is vital. We know that people with five or more GCSEs at grades A to C earn more than those without, and they are around 3% more likely to be in work. But we also know that of the 75,000 children who receive free school meals every year, almost half do not get a single grade C at GCSE—more than a thousand classrooms of children each year let down by the system. We have some of the most disadvantaged children in the UK. Of the 6,000 children leaving care every year, only 400 are in higher education by the age of 19. Children in care should be a particular priority for us. Every child should have access to good quality education. Too many of the poorest children are stuck in chaotic classrooms in bad schools, so we will give teachers more power over discipline, bring in a pupil premium and provide extra funding for the poorest children so that they go to the best schools, not the worst.
But we are concerned not only about preventing the next generation falling into a cycle of poverty and worklessness. We also have to deal with the challenges that are there right now. So the third area that we will address is the problem of worklessness and welfare dependency. Each week, if one includes tax credits and child benefits, 12 million working-age households receive benefits at a cost of around £85 billion a year. About 5 million people claim out-of-work benefits, and around half of those have spent at least half of the last 10 years on some form of benefit. We know that many of those on out-of-work benefits cannot work for reasons of health, but many with the right help could get back into work.
At its worst, the current system divides people and assigns support based on the type of benefit claimed rather than need. It fails to recognise people who need extra help and it refuses up-front support, allowing people to become so entrenched in the benefit system that they cannot see a way out. Many Members who represent some of the most challenged communities and talk to those people know that we must help them to break out of the environment in which they live, raising their aspirations and showing them that there is a better way forward.
During the last 10 years, an array of programmes was set up by the last Government. They believed that the answer was to create top-down, closely designed programmes, which they imposed on the system. That did not work, so we will do something different. When we introduce our single work programme next year, it will create an environment in which the support that we offer will be tailored to the needs of individuals, not designed in Whitehall by Ministers and officials. Everyone who can work should get the help and advice that they need to get a job and move into sustainable work. That will be our focus and those who deliver that support will be paid on the basis of the success that they have in delivering that support and getting people into work.
Britain is a nation of opportunity. It must be a nation of opportunity. As we tackle the deficit and get the economy back on its feet—I keep returning to this point—we must ensure that the jobs that are created in the next few years go to those who are in the most need, who can get off benefits and make more of their lives. We cannot make the same mistakes all over again. That is what our welfare reforms are all about.
I want to talk briefly about another group—those on incapacity benefits. More than 2 million people claim incapacity benefits, nearly half of whom have been out of work for the last 12 years. They, in particular, need fresh opportunities. Not all will be able to work, but very many can work, and very many would be much better off in work. All of those who work with people with incapacities and disabilities say that if we can get them into mainstream employment, return them to a normal working life, it will do them a power of good, improving their quality of life and making a real difference to them. That can and will be a big priority for us.
As we design the work programme, we will ensure that we have a system and a structure in place that encourages the people who deliver that programme to provide the specialised, tailored support that we need to steer those people who have been on incapacity benefit for so long down a better path and get them into employment. In particular, we recognise that the most disabled, those who have the biggest challenge in their life, will need additional help and support to get into work. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), will no doubt be talking later about some of the ways in which we hope to deliver the best possible support to those people.
Many disabled people would welcome the opportunity to be in paid employment. What efforts are being made not just to concentrate on supporting them to find suitable work, but to work with employers to ensure that they respond to the particular needs of disabled people in the workplace?
That is an important point. We must encourage and work with employers, and we should start at home. Whitehall and Government Departments and agencies should be at the forefront of finding the best ways to provide opportunities for people with disabilities, and that will be a priority for my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. If we do not lead from the front, no one else will, and that is something that we certainly want to see happen.
First, I congratulate the hon. Lady on her election to the Chair of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions. My colleagues and I look forward to being grilled by her in the months ahead, but I hope that we will have a constructive relationship. I hope that we can listen openly to the ideas that come from her Committee and that we can work together to make a difference on some of these issues.
I very much agree with the hon. Lady on mental health issues. One thing that I hope will come through the Work programme, where we have established providers with specialist skills working with employers and people who have had mental health challenges in their lives, is that we will have the kind of partnership that will break some of these barriers down. Once a provider starts to work with a group of employers, starts to bring good people to them, and that works well, more doors will be opened. The hon. Lady makes an important point; more than 2 million people are on incapacity benefit and many have supplemental health problems, and they must be looked after in the Work programme and we must ensure that it delivers opportunities for them.
Remploy does some very good work. We have been in office only three weeks, so there is still a lot of work to be done, but we recognise the importance of Remploy. In particular, I pay tribute to Remploy for doing some of the work that the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Miss Begg) would like to see, such as getting people who have various forms of disability routinely into workplaces alongside members of society as a whole. That is particularly important. I want to see as many people as possible with either mental health problems or physical disabilities in workplaces as a matter of routine, and Remploy’s work in getting more people into work has been extremely valuable.
May I also welcome you to your Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker? This may or may not be your first session, but it is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair today. If you will forgive me, I shall move on quickly and make way, because many Members want to make their maiden speeches.
On pensioner poverty, we are concerned to see that older people enjoy dignity and security in their old age, and that means ensuring that those in work are able to put money aside for their future. We have far too many pensioners living in poverty today, about 1.8 million people, so we need a system that works for our pensioners. We need a fair, decent and simple system that is supported by a vibrant private pensions landscape, too.
As a first step in doing the right thing for our pensioners, we will from April next year restore the earnings link with the basic state pension, and there will be a triple guarantee that pensions will be raised by the higher of earnings, prices or 2.5%. That is a big step forward for state pension provision, and I am very proud to be part of an Administration who intend to deliver that change.
We will also do everything that we can to ease the burden on pension funds, to encourage companies to offer high-quality pensions to their employees and to stop drowning pension funds in the red tape that has been symptomatic of the past 13 years of government. We also need to put people back in control of achieving their retirement aspirations, instead of being reliant purely on the state, and that involves creating the savings culture that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has talked about.
We need to address another area—debt, the single biggest challenge facing the UK. This week we have talked extensively about the national challenge that we face, but we should not forget the challenges that individual families face with debt. People in lower-income families are the most vulnerable; they have nothing to fall back on in an emergency; and the debt that they have to take on is twice as expensive as that for most other people because of the risk that they are perceived to represent. Debt creates tensions in families, it can be a disincentive to work and it leads to worry and stress-related illnesses. We will consider ways of alleviating some of the credit and debt challenges that our poorest communities face. That is essential if we are to deal with some of the issues in those communities, and we hope to bring forward thoughts and ideas in due course.
Drug and alcohol misuse and addiction is closely linked to some of the biggest challenges that we face, whether they are social challenges, educational failure, family breakdown, or even crime. Problematic drug and alcohol users are frequently unable to hold down a job or form relationships that do not revolve around their habit, and such addiction can ruin lives and destroy families, often leaving little room for anything else. Poverty and deprivation are a cause and effect of addiction, born out of the fact that 80% of problem drug users are in receipt of benefits, often for many years, with little realistic prospect of finding employment. Addiction in the home can do huge damage to children too, so as we design the work programme’s detail, we will also be mindful of how we address the deep-rooted problems of addiction in our welfare state and our most deprived communities.
The past decade has been a wasted opportunity for this country. Promise after promise was not kept; hopes and expectations were dashed; and the jobs that were created went to people entering the country from overseas, not those on benefits. The reality is that billions and billions of pounds were spent to relatively little effect. We are determined to ensure that our most deprived communities are not left behind as they were over that decade. We will strive to get people back into work as the economy recovers; we will strive to improve the chances of those people getting a good education; we will work to strengthen families; we will work to break down the barriers between our richest and poorest communities; and we will work to raise the aspirations in those communities.
This is a Government who believe in opportunity, and we will work tirelessly to deliver it for all our citizens.
Thank you very much indeed, Mr Deputy Speaker. May I say what a pleasure it is to see you in the Chair this afternoon?
I welcome the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), to his new post. I know that on 5 May he thought he would become the Home Secretary, but the Department for Work and Pensions is a great Department, with excellent officials and a fantastic network of dedicated public servants throughout the whole country, and I hope he enjoys his time there as much as I enjoyed mine.
I have been trying to picture how the new ministerial team meetings are going, and I guess that the right hon. Gentleman has a pivotal role in mediating between the Secretary of State, who believes that family breakdown is a key issue that must be addressed, and their new colleague, the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb), who said:
“To hear Conservative Front Benchers suggest that they even care about this subject...is…unbelievable.”—[ Official Report, 20 July 2009; Vol. 496, c. 625.]
I was wondering why the right hon. Gentleman had been given that job, and whether it was because of his famed diplomatic skills, but then I remembered that it was in fact because he used to be a member of the Social and Democratic party—until he was swallowed up by the Conservatives. So he really is the prototype for the new coalition politics.
We have said that we want to be a constructive Opposition, supporting when we agree and criticising when we do not, and I must say that the Minister has not given a fair or accurate account of the Labour Government’s achievements in tackling poverty. Over the 13 years in which we were in power, we reversed the trend of rising poverty and lifted 900,000 pensioners out of poverty and 500,000 children out of relative poverty. On the statistics published only last month, we see that 2 million children were also lifted out of absolute poverty.
Is the hon. Lady aware of early-day motions 61 and 62? The first is on the Joseph Rowntree Foundation audit of poverty, which shows that poverty is at the same level as it was in 2000. The second is on a study by the Fabian Society and the Webb Memorial Trust, which shows that 20% of the population lives in poverty. Is that really a triumph of new Labour’s 13 years?
The latest year for which we have figures is 2008-09, and the hon. Gentleman must take account of the fact that since then two things have been going on: first, we have had to face the global recession; and secondly, the Labour Government have put in train all the measures from the 2007 Budget. Our calculations were that they would lift a further 500,000 children out of poverty, so the hon. Gentleman slightly overstates his case.
Will my hon. Friend express a view on the comments of the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill)? I asked about them earlier and did not receive an answer, but the Under-Secretary said that the poorest would bear the brunt of the cuts.
That is the big worry, and if even Government Back Benchers can see it, I hope that Government Front Benchers will take that concern very seriously. As my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) said earlier, the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies also stated that Labour’s tax and benefit reforms have reduced income inequality. If we had maintained the policies that we inherited in 1997, there would have been a much greater degree of income inequality.
The Minister before us this afternoon also overstated his case on worklessness. In fact, the number of people on inactive benefits is now 350,000 lower than the number that we inherited, and the number of lone parents in work has increased substantially from 46 to 58%, because of the positive measures that we took. I hope he does not mind my saying that he will find the problems rather more intractable than he implied in his speech.
We welcome the commitment to restoring the earnings link to pensions, and we are extremely pleased that the Government have decided to maintain the winter fuel allowance and free bus passes, which we introduced. As the Minister said, encouraging a savings culture is obviously important, but Labour Members cannot quite marry that with the halt that seems to have been put on the auto-enrolment programme.
May I, for the record, ensure that the hon. Lady understands that there is no such halt? We are committed to auto-enrolment, but we are reviewing how it is done within the whole NES—new entrepreneur scholarships—programme.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention.
The Minister talked about the importance of the problem of debt facing the very poorest people, and the Secretary of State mentioned credit unions in his speech on Tuesday night. The Labour Government introduced a growth fund for credit unions, and we put £86 million into credit unions across the country. I very much hope that the new Government will maintain that level of support in the public spending round that they are going to undertake.
Has my hon. Friend had the same experience as I have in my constituency, where the Financial Services Authority is regulating credit unions in the way we wish it had regulated the big banks, thereby putting their future at stake? As my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) said, credit unions play a vital role in giving poorer people an alternative way of getting cheap credit.
In my constituency and around the county of Gloucestershire, the three credit unions that still exist—in Stroud, Forest of Dean and Gloucester—are all very small and only scratch the surface in trying to reach those on housing estates who are most vulnerable to loan sharks. Under this Government, we will try, with the help of a community foundation and social enterprises, to consolidate those three credit unions into a county-wide credit union that will be bigger and more solid and sustainable, and will reach more of the most poverty-stricken people.
I am of course interested to hear about what is going on in Gloucestershire. I do not know whether DWP Ministers have yet had time to engage with their colleagues at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, but the regulatory issues mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) clearly need to be addressed in conjunction with that Department.
I should like to turn to the issue of free school meals, on which I hope to be able to offer the new ministerial team some constructive advice. I do not know if they have seen the letter that the Secretary of State for Education sent to my right hon. Friend the shadow Education Secretary on 7 June, in which he says that he plans to discuss the whole issue of free school meals with DWP colleagues. Labour Members are disappointed that the Secretary of State has decided not to go ahead with extending the eligibility of free school meals to the 500,000 children in primary schools whose parents are on working tax credits. He says in his letter:
“I am sympathetic to the arguments for extending eligibility—though surprised that a decision to do so was taken before any evidence on the impact on attainment could be collected from pilots.”
That argument is not wholly unfamiliar to us. However, I would like the Minister to understand that we decided to go ahead with extending eligibility to those 500,000 children not only because we expected it to have a beneficial impact on their performance in school but because it is estimated that it would lift 50,000 children out of poverty and would be a serious improvement to the quality of work incentives. I strongly urge him to ask his officials if he could look at the analysis of the most cost-effective measures for addressing child poverty, because I believe he will see, as we did, that this is one of the most effective things that could be done. As the Education Department team are not here, I point out that another advantage of the measure is that it does not come off the DWP budget. This delay will be seriously disappointing for large numbers of families across the country. I urge the Government not to begin their tenure by repeating Mrs Thatcher’s snatching of the milk.
I have considerable sympathy with the hon. Lady’s point, but I have to tell her—I researched this for an Adjournment debate that I had in the last Parliament—that it was the legislation of the last Labour Government that paved the way for the withdrawal of school meals services. Certainly, the Tories in Essex used that legislation to go down the route of removing the school meals service. Perhaps she should look at the Education Act 1944, and then she will see what a proper Labour Government used to do.
I suggest that the hon. Gentleman look at the Child Poverty Act 2010, in which we extended the eligibility of free school meals—that was a proper action by a proper Labour Government.
I said earlier that in our 13 years we had a political objective of decreasing poverty together with the policies to make it happen. I welcome the fact that the coalition has said that it will maintain the objective of ending child poverty, and that those living in poverty will be protected as the Government deal with the deficit. Indeed, the Prime Minister has said:
“The test of a good society is how…you protect the poorest, the most vulnerable, the elderly, the frail.”
The Deputy Prime Minister has even said that the cuts will be “progressive”. Labour Members will hold them to that, but I have to say that the omens are not good.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Child Poverty Act has provided for the relative poverty measure to continue to be an element of the way in which we measure success and progress on poverty? Does she agree that that is the most meaningful measure for determining that we are ensuring that living standards for all, including the poorest, keep up as society’s wealth improves?
I certainly do; my hon. Friend anticipates one of the points that I was going to make.
As I was saying, the omens are not good, and I fear that the rhetoric is not matched by the reality. Only this morning, the independent Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development forecast a rise in unemployment to almost 3 million as public sector workers, mainly women and the low-paid, are thrown on to the dole. In fact, it is difficult to see exactly what the strategy of Her Majesty’s Government is. So far, the two coalition partners can agree on getting rid of the child trust fund and the future jobs fund, but what will be the effect of those cuts? The child trust fund was the first serious attempt to tackle intergenerational poverty by enabling low-income families to build up assets for their children. As the Minister said, it is vital to encourage a culture of savings, and it was designed to do precisely that, but it is going to go.
The coalition Government were also able to agree to cut the future jobs fund, despite the fact that before the election both coalition parties said they would continue it. That means that 80,000 young people will lose their chances of work this year, and perhaps 150,000 next year. The whole reason why we introduced the fund was that we saw the scarring effects of youth unemployment in the 1980s and ’90s. Because we took measures over the past 18 months during the recession, long-term youth unemployment is now one tenth of the level that it was then. However, the coalition parties have clearly learned nothing and care less. One must ask oneself why that is, so let us examine where the cuts in the future jobs fund will fall most heavily—the west midlands, the north-west, Wales and Scotland. The future jobs fund is about real jobs.
May I point out to the hon. Lady how proud I am to have many new colleagues on our Benches from the west midlands, the north-west, Wales and so on? Will she confirm to the House that a couple of weeks ago, this Administration announced tens of thousands of new apprenticeships, which are likely to have a much longer-lasting impact on securing proper careers for the future for young people?
Of course Members from the coalition parties could be elected in those areas, given that they did not say before the election that they would cut the future jobs fund. They promised that they would continue it, and now they have cut it. That is the problem. I suspect that the Government’s real agenda is to make young people do the same work that they were doing under the future jobs fund, but whereas everybody was paid at least the minimum wage through that fund, under the schemes that the Minister and the Government are proposing they will have to live on benefits. What will that do for poverty levels, and where does it leave the Liberal Democrats’ commitment to raise the minimum wage for people under the age of 24?
It is ironic that the one thing the partners in the coalition really cannot agree about is the role of the family. The Tories want to reintroduce the married couples allowance, but that is one of the few matters on which the coalition agreement allows the Liberal Democrats to abstain. Who will benefit from it? Not the widow, the abandoned mother or the woman who has left her husband because of domestic violence. The Liberal Democrats should have the courage of their convictions, and they should vote against it. It is a wholly regressive and retrograde step. As the Deputy Prime Minister said during the election campaign, it is
“a throwback to the Edwardian era”
and “patronising drivel”.
The Secretary of State, who unfortunately is no longer in his place, revealed on 27 May that he was still looking to the Treasury for an extra £3 billion to reform the benefits system. The coalition agreement states that
“initial investment delivers later savings through lower benefit expenditure…based upon the DEL/AME switch”—
the departmental expenditure limits/annually managed expenditure switch. That is obviously based on the work of the Centre for Social Justice, which we examined in some detail when we took evidence on the Child Poverty Bill. The Secretary of State even seemed to be laying his job on the line later on 27 May when he said that he had not taken the job to be a “cheeseparer”, and stated:
“If somebody tells me I have to do something different then I won’t be here any longer.”
I suspect that the Chancellor of the Exchequer may be telling him to do something different right now, because he says that tackling the deficit is the priority. If Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions can persuade the Treasury that the extra £3 billion is the goose that will lay the golden egg, we shall be extremely surprised.
A further complication in trying to tease out the Government’s strategy is that No. 10 has appointed my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field). We have not yet seen his terms of reference—I do not know whether they are to think the unthinkable—but there seems to be something strangely familiar about the situation. Last Saturday The Guardian said that he was going to look again at the definition of poverty. That really would be unthinkable. What is the point of it?
I will, because I would like my right hon. Friend to answer two questions. Is the purpose of moving away from the definition agreed in the European Union and the OECD to tell poor people that they are not really poor, or to avoid future embarrassing comparisons?
I am disappointed that my hon. Friend does not know the Labour Government’s record better. If she examines the last publication that we produced, she will see that we said there was a choice of four definitions of poverty. I shall go into them more if I catch your eye later, Mr Deputy Speaker, but that document asked for views on the balance among the four and whether we should add others. By all means let us have a go at each other about this on a personal level, but let us also be clear where the Labour Government left the debate.
I think my right hon. Friend ignores the fact that it is less than three months since the Child Poverty Act 2010 received Royal Assent. It committed any Government to eradicating child poverty and set out the four measures that will be used to make that judgment, which are of absolute poverty, relative poverty—that is the one agreed in the EU and the OECD—persistent poverty and material deprivation. Everybody in the House supported that Act, and I hope that the Government will not renege on that support.
The main problem with the Government’s position is that it is incoherent. They are divided on family policy and welfare strategy. Everyone knows that worklessness is one of the key drivers of poverty, but the proposals that we have heard from the Government so far will increase unemployment and the north-south divide.
Was my hon. Friend surprised that the Minister made no mention of child care, which is critical to employment levels, particularly of lone parents? Does she share my disappointment that just before the election, the Mayor of London chose that moment to abolish child care from the London Development Agency’s work and to start unpicking measures such as the child care affordability programme? Does she agree that affordable child care must be at the heart of the wide range of programmes and policies that we use to tackle poverty?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I hope that what the Mayor of London has done is not a precursor of what the Government intend to do. The Labour Government increased resources for child care significantly. We provided for three and four-year-olds to have 12 and then 15 hours of free provision, and we provided an element in the tax credits for people to pay for the child care that they found convenient. Our manifesto set out a commitment to extend child care provision to two-year-olds as well, because of the importance of the developmental needs that the Minister talked about so eloquently little more than 15 minutes ago.
The proof of the pudding will be whether the Government commit the policies to match the rhetoric. We fear that that will not be the case, and that there is now a serious risk of a double-dip recession. I urge DWP Ministers to be very careful indeed, lest they frustrate their no doubt good intentions by agreeing to cuts in the coming Budget.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to catch your eye so early in this debate. It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, and I think that you are the first successful Labour candidate I have ever voted for. I have to confess that, as I voted for you and for my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans), I realised that as a Yorkshireman I had cast my ballot for two Lancastrians. I was consoled by realising later that I have at least silenced two Lancastrian Members for some time—[Laughter.]
As the first Back Bencher to speak in this debate, I have no previous maiden speeches to commend, but I have spent the last week and a half in my place, and I hoped to be called in the education debate last week. I heard more and more maiden speeches, and there were some fantastic examples. I only hope that I set the bar sufficiently low that everything that comes after me today is an improvement.
I pay tribute to my predecessor in Brigg and Goole, Mr Ian Cawsey, who was indeed my only predecessor, as the constituency was created in 1997. I also wish to apologise to the House, not for ridding the country of a Labour Member of Parliament, which I think was rather a good thing, but for helping to break up the world’s only parliamentary band, MP4. Mr Cawsey served the group with some distinction as its lead singer. I have been approached by one or two of the remaining members to take his place, but alas that is not to be. Ian served the constituency incredibly well. He was very decent in the election campaign and in my dealings with him in the past three and a half years. I genuinely wish him and his family, who are extremely loyal to him, all the very best for the future.
As I said, the Brigg and Goole constituency has only existed since 1997, and before then the area was covered by other constituencies and represented by several distinguished Members, including—I am pleased to say—my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), who served the Boothferry constituency between 1987 and 1997. The Brigg part of the constituency was served by Michael Brown, who will be remembered on both sides of the House and is still active in public life today. The previous Member for Scunthorpe also served a portion of my constituency for a time.
Since my election, several people have asked me, “Where exactly is Brigg and Goole?” My job today is to enlighten the House about the delights of the constituency. Mine is a difficult task, because I represent one of the few constituencies that cross county boundaries. The constituency is two thirds in North Lincolnshire and a third in the East Riding of Yorkshire, where I was born and bred. Being a Yorkshireman representing a Lincolnshire seat can have its challenges, and I have to tread a careful path. My predecessor had the same problem, especially as Brigg Town football club often play Goole Town football club—a potentially dangerous situation for a Member of Parliament. My predecessor had a clever approach to the problem, courtesy of the communications allowance, and regularly sponsored both clubs’ matches—a pleasure that will not be open to me.
The constituency was formed when the dreaded Humberside authority existed, and we are all delighted to have seen the back of that—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I am grateful for support on that point. However, the Humberside name still exists, and I will probably have more to say on that in the weeks and months to come.
The constituency has a long history, going back centuries. Brigg is a small historic market town in north Lincolnshire, with a famous fair that dates all the way back to 1205. Brigg is also the gateway—depending on which way one enters—to the beautiful Lincolnshire wold villages, many of which have played an important role in the history of this country. I also have the pleasure of representing a unique area of the country called the Isle of Axholme—a portion of land bounded on all sides by major rivers that was actually marshland until it was drained by Cornelius Vermuyden in the 17th century. In an early example of English jobs for English workers, Mr Vermuyden was a Dutchman who brought Dutch workers over and came into conflict with the locals. The King had to intervene and ensure that half the work force was English—something that the previous Prime Minister was unable to achieve.
The Isle of Axholme also houses the beautiful market town of Epworth, the birthplace of Charles and John Wesley, the founders of Methodism. It also has one of the world’s largest trolleybus museums at Sandtoft. I confess that I have yet to visit it, but I will do so shortly. The area is also home to Britain’s oldest traditional tussle, the Haxey hood, which takes place on the 12th night after Christmas. It has various interesting characters, including the lord of the hood, the chief boggin and a fool. As I look round the Chamber, I have allotted some positions for next year, but it would be rude to go into details.
Goole is in the East Riding of Yorkshire and is Britain’s biggest inland port. It is a company town, having been formed through the creation of the Aire and Calder canal. Also in the East Riding is the small village in which I live, Airmyn, which has a long history with the Percy family. We—I say we, although I suspect that my links to the Percy family are more illegitimate and feudal than I might like them to be—used to hold the title to Airmyn, and the pub is still called the Percy Arms. Its recent refurbishment finishes today and it will reopen at 7pm tonight. All are welcome.
My constituency also played a major role in the second world war, with parts of the Mulberry harbour being completed in Goole. We also housed several airfields, including RAF Sandtoft, RAF Elsham Wolds and RAF Snaith. The latter has a fantastic memorial team, which I am involved in supporting.
Before becoming a Member, I was a schoolteacher, and I intend to champion the issues of school funding, deprivation and exclusions. I am delighted to have been called to speak in the debate on poverty because although I represent a large rural constituency I was brought up in a neighbouring constituency of Hull as a proud comprehensive boy, and I am pleased to say that there are two comprehensive boys now in Parliament, one on each side—[Interruption.] I meant two Hull comprehensive boys. I have taught in some of the most deprived schools in Hull, so the issues of child poverty and deprivation are dear to me.
In my time in Parliament I wish to champion the cause of excluded children, who under the last two Governments—and perhaps also under previous Governments—have not received the attention that they deserve. In particular, children who receive free school meals are three times more likely to be excluded from school. As a practitioner in the last few years, I know that we had fine words from the previous Government, but we were hamstrung in schools by a commitment to social inclusion. The social inclusion agenda was introduced for good reasons, but it had the opposite effect to that intended in secondary schools, because it tied the hands of schoolteachers who wanted to deal with discipline, which is at the core of many of the problems we face in schools today. I do not have time to go into great detail today, but I intend to champion the cause of excluded children in the future. We are moving in the right direction with the pupil premium, but we must accept that dealing with excluded children is expensive. We need to follow the examples of excellent practice around the country and make progress on this issue.
I would have liked to talk for longer on this subject, but that is not possible. So I shall end by saying that I intend to be an independently minded local champion for the fantastic people of Brigg and Goole.
I welcome you to your new position, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I thank you for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech during this important debate on poverty, following the excellent maiden speech by the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy).
It is a great honour to serve as the Member of Parliament for Leicester West. My constituency has a proud history, as part of an open and diverse city that has welcomed people, commerce and ideas. In Roman times, Fosse Way, which still runs through Leicester West, was one of the main routes across Britain. This road helped to bring trade to my constituency in wool and leather during the middle ages, and later in textiles, hosiery and shoemaking—industries for which Leicester was long and rightly famed.
These industries gave birth to the co-operative movement, which still has a strong presence in my constituency today. In 1936, Leicester’s co-operative society hosted the Jarrow marchers on their way to London, providing them with a much-needed change of boots from one of the city’s many shoemaking factories. I am proud to be a member of the Co-operative party and, I might add, a frequent customer at my local Co-op on the Narborough road. Co-operative principles of mutuality and solidarity are at the heart of the Labour movement and my constituency.
Since helping the Jarrow marchers, my constituency has continued to welcome people from throughout the UK, many of whom come to study at Leicester’s excellent universities, and from across the world. Leicester West has been enriched by our Asian communities, from east Africa, Gujarat, Punjab, Pakistan and Bangladesh, by our African-Caribbean community, by people from eastern Europe, including Poland and Ukraine, and more recently by people from Turkey and our new African communities, including those of Somalia, Sierra Leone and Cameroon. All the different communities in Leicester—white, black and Asian, Christian, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim—are what make us a great city and country. As the MP for Leicester West, I will always champion and celebrate the strength that this diversity brings.
As is customary in maiden speeches, I pay tribute to my predecessor, Patricia Hewitt. She was a dedicated local MP, passionately committed to serving her constituents. She worked tirelessly, not only for Leicester West, but for the Labour party and Government. As Britain’s longest serving Trade and Industry Secretary and Cabinet Minister for Women, she pioneered family-friendly employment, including the right to request flexible working, alongside improvements in international trade, equality and human rights. As Health Secretary, she was responsible for Labour’s ban on smoking at work and in public places. The ban was very controversial at the time, not least in some of the working men’s clubs in my constituency, but I believe that in years to come, it will be remembered as one of the most important achievements of the Labour Government.
I am proud of Labour’s record in Leicester West. The new deal for communities has helped to transform Braunstone, which was one of the most neglected parts of my constituency in 1997. The new Brite centre, skills centre, health and leisure centres and Business Box are helping local residents get the training, jobs and services they need to build a better life for themselves and their families. As a former director of the Maternity Alliance charity, I know that the very earliest years of life are critical in determining children’s later life chances. Sure Start children’s centres are providing help and support to families with young children in Beaumont Leys and Stocking Farm, Braunstone, Braunstone Frith, New Parks, Rowley Fields and the west end.
The dedication and hard work of NHS staff, alongside Labour’s investment, mean that patients in my constituency now wait a maximum of 18 weeks for their operations, which is down from 18 months in 1997. Our investment has also built brand-new schools, such as the award-winning Beaumont Leys. This has helped transform not only the physical environment of the school, but the attitude, self-esteem and motivation of pupils and staff. That is why I am extremely concerned about the Government’s plans for Building Schools for the Future and why I will fight to ensure that our proposals to rebuild or refurbish the remaining secondary schools in Leicester West will now go ahead.
Despite these improvements, poverty and inequality still blight the lives of too many families and communities in my constituency. More than a third of children in Leicester West are still growing up in workless families. Children born into poverty in Braunstone or New Parks are more likely than children in better-off families to die before they are five, more likely to leave school without qualifications, less likely to go to university and get a well-paid job, and more likely to die before their time. This is simply unacceptable in the 21st century in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. That is what I came into politics to help change, and that is what I intend to do as Leicester West’s MP.
Improving education is the key to tackling poverty and inequality in my constituency. Real progress is now being made. We have seen improvements in maths and English results, and our GCSE results are improving faster than the national average. My No. 1 priority is helping to build on this progress to achieve a step change in education, skills, training and aspiration in Leicester West, starting with young children, and continuing through school and on into adult life.
I will also champion local businesses and jobs. One third of jobs in Leicester are now in the public sector, but we cannot rely on public services to create the majority of new jobs over the next 10 years, as they have done in the previous decade. Leicester has the potential to be a leading centre of modern manufacturing in this country, if we continue to invest in our transport infrastructure and skills, and to combine the entrepreneurial zeal of our local businesses with our experience in design and technology and the knowledge in our universities.
Making life easier and fairer for every community in my constituency means increasing the amount of affordable housing, particularly social housing, tackling crime and antisocial behaviour, and giving young people more things to do, particularly in the evenings and at weekends. Fantastic services are available in some parts of my constituency, and we now need them in every local area—services like Street Vibe’s dance teams, the Mashed-up’s DJ van and our community boxing gyms in New Parks and Home Farm.
I am pleased that the Government have matched Labour’s commitment to restoring the link between earnings and pensions. We also need radical change in the way we care for our ageing population. This issue is one that our society has barely begun to address in areas such as social care, dementia services, and end-of-life care.
My job as a Back-Bench MP is to stand up for my constituents. I will play my part in providing a strong and effective Opposition. I will not oppose the Government for the sake of it, but I will judge them on whether their policies boost jobs and growth, and increase fairness and opportunity for people in Leicester West. So if the Government go ahead with their plans to scrap the future jobs fund, which is helping young people in my constituency to get work and new skills, and to reduce benefit bills, I will oppose them. However, if their pupil premium gives more money for children in deprived areas in Leicester West, without cutting funding for other vital programmes, I will support them.
But the improvements we need cannot be achieved by the Government alone. Change must come from within communities by empowering people to take more control over their own lives. This is already happening in many parts of Leicester West, through the tireless work of our community organisations, public services, local businesses, and voluntary and faith groups. However, they rightly expect, and need, more support. I cannot promise to address all the challenges we face in Leicester West—and my constituents would not believe me if I did—but I can promise I will continue to listen and do everything I can to serve the people who have given me the greatest privilege, by electing me as their MP.
May I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker? It is a privilege to speak in this important debate on poverty and to follow such outstanding maiden speeches from the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) and my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy).
I pay tribute to my predecessor, who is soon to be ennobled as Lord Spicer of Cropthorne in the county of Worcestershire, for his years of service to the West Worcestershire and, prior to that, the South Worcestershire constituencies. He was elected to Parliament nine times during his 36 years of service to Worcestershire residents, and during my almost four years as parliamentary candidate, I met so many people on the doorstep who paid tribute to his service as a constituency MP and to his energetic pursuit of his casework. He set a standard that I shall strive to maintain. For three decades he championed the case for a new community hospital for Malvern. I am delighted that, after 30 years, my constituents and I will welcome the opening of its doors this coming October.
Here in Westminster, Sir Michael had a stellar career as well, serving as a Minister under Margaret Thatcher and being known latterly to Conservative Back Benchers as the chairman of the 1922 committee, a position for which he stood for many years unopposed. He was clearly admired by colleagues here every bit as much as he was by his constituents. I will not presume to match his achievements, but merely work hard on behalf of the constituents of West Worcestershire and try every day to serve their interests to the best of my ability.
I would also like to reassure all my neighbouring hon. Friends that, unlike my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley), I need not aspire to any neighbouring territory in any future boundary review. That is because the Baldwin ward is already part of the West Worcestershire constituency, and is named, of course, after Britain’s three-time Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, who lived at Astley. Stanley Baldwin’s Bewdley constituency contained much of the same beautiful scenery as the current West Worcestershire constituency, and I have often been asked on the doorstep whether I am his granddaughter; in fact, more often than not, people say, “I hear you are Stanley Baldwin’s granddaughter.”
I am grateful to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to put the record straight in Hansard. My maiden name was Eggleston, and my husband was christened James Stanley Baldwin—obviously my mother-in-law was a big fan—but so far we have not been able to find any family linkage beyond the name. Indeed, I was so concerned about possibly being elected on false pretences, with an overestimation of both my ability and my ambition, that I even answered the question in my election address. Nevertheless, I am proud to be called Baldwin, which is a very good and widespread surname in West Worcestershire.
I hope that hon. Members will indulge me if I paint a picture of the main attractive aspects of the West Worcestershire constituency. It is the heart of England, and from the fertile plains of the Severn valley rises the solitary, final western hill of the Cotswolds, Bredon hill, which was an inspiration to A. E. Housman, the great English poet. The River Avon meanders around the beautiful Georgian town of Pershore, on its way to join up with the River Severn, creating flood plains and fields that are famous for being able to grow the most succulent asparagus. On the west of the River Severn, across more fine fields, pasture, orchards and common land, the Malvern hills rise up suddenly, to a great height. It is said that someone standing on the top of the Malvern hills and looking due east will not see a higher hill until they get to the Urals. [Hon. Members: “Ah?”] It is true.
The county border runs along the summit, but the West Worcestershire constituency, which stretches to the north and west of the hills, runs up the River Teme valley to the town of Tenbury Wells, and then as far north as villages such as Bayton and Mamble, which have Dudley postcodes. The four main towns of Malvern, Pershore, Upton upon Severn and Tenbury Wells are complemented by more than 70 different parishes, all with their own charms. It is particularly worth noting that the great English composer Elgar was born at Lower Broadheath. Throughout his life he drew musical inspiration from the scenery and landscape of the Malvern hills.
Food production is important locally. I have mentioned the asparagus crop, but visitors can also eat delicious local cherries, apples and pears, and enjoy locally raised chickens, eggs, turkeys, geese, beef, pork and lamb. To drink with that, they can enjoy the pure Malvern water, or beer, cider or locally produced wine. I am sure that other hon. Members will want to join me in my efforts in this place to promote our wonderful local food.
Visitors can buy locally produced milk and honey as well, but in this afternoon’s debate on poverty, I want to use this opportunity to highlight some of the causes of poverty in West Worcestershire. I was delighted to hear the Minister mention drug use, which is not unknown in my constituency, particularly in some of the more deprived parts. I do not need to remind hon. Members of how badly drug use can ruin lives. I am particularly keen to use my time in the House to work with local residents, the police, charities and social enterprises to help people to tackle addiction and ensure that those who deal in drugs are shown no tolerance.
The population of West Worcestershire has one of the older demographic profiles in this country, and I want to raise some of the challenges of poverty among the elderly. I am keen for the Government to make progress on the issue of paying for long-term residential care. Many of my constituents worry about having to pay for their care or sell their homes in old age. I hope that we can support them with a voluntary insurance scheme and that the coalition Government come forward with other proposals that will help us all to afford the increasing cost of looking after our elderly citizens with dignity and respect.
Before coming into Parliament, I was a pension fund manager. One of the many scandalous legacies of the outgoing Government is the way in which they destroyed our private pension system, which used to be the envy of the world. However, the unfunded liability of the public pension system has increased enormously. We are all living longer, so the current situation is completely unsustainable. A pensioner in my constituency on modest savings who has lived responsibly and within her means all her life has to face an annual increase in her council tax, which is often due to the need for the local council and local police to make an ever greater provision for their future pension entitlements.
That results in real poverty for pensioners who have a small amount of savings and are thus unable to claim pension credit. These days, very few people in the private sector are saving enough for their greater longevity either. We are storing up terrible pensioner poverty for the future in this country. The Government have made a welcome start on tackling the fiscal deficit, but I hope that they and this Parliament can also begin to address the long-term pensions savings deficit in this country.
I am extremely grateful for the opportunity that you have given me to make my maiden speech in this important debate, Mr Deputy Speaker. I look forward to using my time in this House to serve the good people of West Worcestershire, both here at Westminster and in the local community, as the Government take on some of those long-term challenges.
May I add my congratulations on your election, Mr Deputy Speaker? I noticed that you have the “Directory of Members” to hand. I hope that you will agree that I do not look quite as bad in the flesh as I do in that truly horrific photo.
I come to this House from Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East—a constituency served with great distinction by my predecessor, Rosemary McKenna. Rosemary’s 13 years in Parliament were the culmination of a lifetime of public service. As teacher, councillor, council leader, president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and, latterly, Member of this House, Rosemary served the public with distinction for more than 40 years. Rosemary’s distinctions are many, but I would like to emphasise her temperament and character. Rosemary’s generous nature, her good humour, and, especially, her serenity served her well. To keep one’s head when all around are losing theirs is an asset in every walk of life, but especially, I suspect, in this place. I am sure that the House will join me in wishing Rosemary well in her retirement.
For those who do not know the geography of my constituency—and I suspect that there are a few—Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East sits at the heart of Scotland, roughly at the centre of a triangle formed by Edinburgh, Glasgow and Stirling. This central location, along with a work force well educated in our excellent local comprehensive schools and colleges, is attractive to employers both private and public. Indeed, Members unlucky enough to receive a call from the Inland Revenue will, I am sure, take some comfort in the knowledge that they are likely being called from my constituency, home to one of the largest Inland Revenue offices in the country.
The economy of my constituency is, I think, much like the economy of the country: it reflects a symbiotic relationship between the private and the public sectors. That is why I disagree with some of the speeches I have heard—not today, but in previous debates—from Conservative Members, who repeatedly draw a stark distinction between the public and the private. To me, that is rather artificial. Our economy depends on interaction between these two sectors. No man is an island, and neither is any private sector enterprise. In my view, the private sector could not flourish without a public infrastructure of roads, rail, sanitation, telecoms or, indeed, a people well educated in our public, by which I mean our state, schools.
That is the perspective that underpins the views of Labour Members on the Government’s deficit reduction plan, with all its implications for poverty reduction. Yes, reducing the deficit is important; yes, it is a priority; but cutting before the recovery is established and before confidence is restored is to flirt with disaster. Badly timed public sector cuts of the kind proposed by the Government will not, in my judgment, damage only the public sector, but the private sector, too, as they will reduce demand in the whole economy.
I urge Members on both sides of the House to read the report released today by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, whose chief economist has revised his forecasts. Looking at the proposed Government cuts, he now believes that unemployment will reach 2.95 million by 2012 and remain close to 3 million until 2015. That would be a disaster for the poor: when the economy retracts, it is the poor who suffer most. Substantial reductions in poverty depend on economic growth, because in the end substantial poverty reduction depends on the creation of jobs. I am sure we all agree that the single best poverty reduction programme is creating well-paid, secure jobs.
That is the context in which I raise my concern about how the Government are approaching the deficit, with all its implications for poverty in this country. I recognise, of course, that it is entirely consistent for the Conservatives to advance deflationary economic policies. As a historian, I can see them having been put forward in different guises for 100 years, whether it be by Bonar Law in the 1920s, Mr Baldwin in the 1930s, Mrs Thatcher in the 1980s or the new Prime Minister in 2010. The object is generally the same—to reduce the financial burden on those who tend to vote Conservative. That is understandable.
More depressing, from my point of view, is the Liberal Democrat embrace of this deflationary strategy. One hundred years ago, the Liberal party broke with that kind of economics. In his “People’s Budget”, Lloyd George rejected as inadequate and likely to increase poverty exactly the kind of approach that underpins the new Government’s strategy. I wonder what Lloyd George, Beveridge, and, above all, Keynes would make of the Liberal Democrat position. I suspect that those great social Liberals would see the Government’s so-called anti-poverty measures—whether they be fractional tax advantages for a minority of married couples, or appeals to the “Big Society”—for what they are. In my judgment, these are measures designed to ease the consciences of those who wish to feel that something is being done about poverty, while the actual priority is that that “something” to be done is of minimal cost.
More positively, I hope the Government can be persuaded that poverty reduction depends, as I say, on well-paid secure jobs. I believe that the minimum wage and tax credits are excellent measures that reward work and have done something significant to reduce poverty in this country. I urge the Government, if I may say so, to embrace them with the zeal of a convert.
I also ask the Government to consider the issue of work that pays not too badly, but too well. I welcome the Government’s commitment to ending excessive salaries in the public sector, but I think that we have to look at the private sector, too. Excess public sector pay is not fair and should be curbed, but it is not actively dangerous, whereas inappropriate incentives in the private sector—excessive and poorly calibrated bonuses in particular—have put our entire economy in jeopardy.
Growing up in the new town of Cumbernauld in the 1980s, I saw with my own eyes the harm done by deflationary political economy. It took over a decade of Labour Government to begin to heal the scars left in Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, and, indeed, in many other parts of the country. We ask not to be targeted again by a new round of deflationary cuts, particularly when the recession was inspired by the financial services sector. What I ask is that the burden is fairly shared.
In the end, I repeat, it is growth that will reduce the deficit in a way that enables the economy to prosper, thus allowing further reductions in poverty to take place. The best way to reduce poverty is to create work with a decent wage, which depends on economic growth. By cutting too fast, too soon, the Government risk a slump in demand across the economy: the result will be even higher unemployment than at present and thus greater poverty too. For me—and, I am sure, for many Members—that is a grim prospect indeed.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to speak in today’s debate. It is a pleasure to see you in your new role.
As with a lot of new Members, this is not the first time that I have tried to give my maiden speech. Given that this was the third time that I tried to get elected, it was a wait that I was prepared to sit out just a little bit longer. Originally, I stood in the European elections for the west midlands, unsuccessfully, and then in my home town, for Dudley, North, where my father was a councillor for 30 years. To coin a phrase used by a close friend, “Andrew fought Dudley, and Dudley fought back.”
I am honoured to represent the people of Burton and Uttoxeter in today’s debate, because the subject is a hugely important one for those people. Like many making their maiden speeches, I went to the Library and looked at the contributions that previous MPs for Burton had made to the House, and I have to say that there were some impressive people, particularly Mr John Jennings, who, as well as being an ex-headmaster and making a massive contribution as an MP, rose to the illustrious role of Deputy Speaker.
Then, of course, there was the great Sir Ivan Lawrence, the previous Conservative MP for Burton, who was a well-renowned barrister before he came to this House. Sir Ivan famously defended the Kray twins before moving here, where he defended the Governments of Mrs Thatcher and Mr Major. Sir Ivan is famous for having made the longest speech in this House in modern times. He spoke for some four hours 27 minutes on the vital issue of water fluoridation. Although Sir Ivan was a marvellous constituency MP, defending the interests of the people of Burton and Uttoxeter, and playing a massive role here, my hon. Friends will be delighted to know that I intend to try to fill his shoes, but with just a little more brevity.
Another famous incident involving Sir Ivan occurred when, having been invited to address a dinner of local charities and bigwigs, the time got to 11.45, and after numerous speakers, numerous courses and numerous glasses of wine, he had still not been called. The toastmaster stood up and said, “I now call on Sir Ivan Lawrence to give his address,” to which Sir Ivan stood up and said, “267 Newton road. That is where I am going now—goodbye,” and left the room.
A wonderful lady called Janet Dean preceded me. She was elected to the House in 1997, having moved to Uttoxeter in 1968. She was a hardworking champion of the people of Burton and Uttoxeter, and was greatly loved and respected. She did an incredible amount of work in representing people in my constituency on important issues, and she is revered and much loved.
When I was selected as candidate for Burton in an open primary—I know that the Government are keen to promote those further—I was interviewed by a reporter from the Burton Mail. I said to him afterwards, “Tell me a little about Janet. What do you think of her?” He replied, “It is a little bit like sending your mum to Parliament.” It was with that maternal love, and that maternal respect for her constituents, that Janet Dean presided over my constituency for the 13 years of her reign, and I know that she will be greatly missed.
Burton—or Burton and Uttoxeter, as it is known by many people living there—is a wonderful constituency. I believe that it is one of most diverse constituencies in the country. Of course it is famous for its brewing town and its long brewing history, but if you will allow me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will give you a thumbnail sketch of it.
Outside Burton are some beautiful villages such as Tutbury, which is famous for its castle; Marchington, which is famous for its marvellous pub The Dog and Partridge; and Rolleston, which has rightly earned its title as the most friendly village in Staffordshire. My constituency is a beautiful place in which to live and to work, and I am honoured to represent it. Of course, in the middle of my constituency is Uttoxeter, a famous market town. Although it has now lost its cattle market, it is still heavily influenced by the agriculture that surrounds it, but over the years it has developed and grown as a commuter town for nearby Derby and Burton.
I hope that the coalition Government’s proposal to reduce the number of Members in the House by 10% will allow a wrong to be righted and enable the Boundary Commission, for the first time, properly to recognise the importance of Uttoxeter by including it in the name of any future constituency following a boundary review.
The people of Uttoxeter are nothing if not plain-speaking. During the election campaign I was walking around the wonderful Kirk House, a care home for the elderly, and I went into a room where three of the elderly ladies were having their hair done. They greeted me, and were pleased to see me. The hairdresser said, “Are you the gentleman whose pictures I have seen on all the posters around the town?” “Yes,” I replied, rather proudly. She looked at me and said, “It is a very flattering photograph.” [Laughter.]
The constituency also contains Rocester, home of the world-famous JCB, the yellow digger, which is a British icon and a champion of the engineering industry. I applaud the work that is being done in the JCB academy to try to motivate young people to become involved in engineering and develop our engineers in the future. I intend to use my time in the House to promote engineering, and to promote the good work that is done at the academy.
Let me return to the main industry in Burton, which is brewing. Burton has a proud history of brewing, and I hope that it is an important part of our bright future. Hon. Members may be surprised to learn that, as well as being a brewing town, Burton has a wonderful rehabilitation centre for people addicted to drugs and alcohol, the Burton addiction centre, BAC O’Connor. I had the honour of bringing my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) to visit the facility.
We politicians often say that we want to improve people’s lives. The BAC is giving people back their lives. I met a gentleman there who had been on heroin and methadone for 30 years; the BAC had got him clean for two years. He said that he had spent his life in state-induced dependency. I hope that the coalition Government will take that issue into consideration, and will develop policies to tackle addiction.
We desperately need to support the brewing industry that is so vital to Burton. We have seen a haemorrhaging of pubs, and of the strength of the brewing community, as a result of 13 years of the last Government. I hope that the new coalition will act to right that wrong as well. Tony Blair told us that the late-licensing laws would usher in a café culture, but that is certainly not what we are finding in Burton, where in just a few weeks there have been a fatal stabbing and two brutal beatings—all as a result of people spilling out of late-night drinking establishments.
I hope that the new coalition Government will do something for the brewing industry and the people of Burton, and tackle our late-licensing problem. I also hope that they will introduce measures to prevent below-cost selling in supermarkets. We are seeing too many young people drinking in parks, and going out to drink when they have already consumed too much alcohol.
Finally, I hope that the Government will introduce the “smart taxes” that were proposed in our manifesto. The last Government, with a Scottish Chancellor, did very well for the Scottish whisky industry. I believe that our proposals to tax the bad and reduce the taxation on low-strength alcohol will help to tackle binge-drinking, and also to support the brewing industry in Burton.
Several hon. Members rose—
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As you will note, according to today’s Order Paper there is supposed to be a written ministerial statement on special advisers. I have just been to the Library and it was not there, but two media companies have telephoned me to tell me that Mr Andy Coulson is paid more than the Deputy Prime Minister, and that there has been a significant increase in the number of spin doctors at No. 10. Is it possible for a Minister to come to the House to apologise for the discourtesy, and to explain the seeming anomaly whereby a hired hand is paid more than an elected Deputy Prime Minister?
Let me begin, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by welcoming you to your new position in the Chair. I noticed a glint in your eye when two maiden speakers, the hon. Members for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) and for Burton (Andrew Griffiths), managed to mention, respectively, the opening of a pub and the brewing industry in their constituencies. I am sure that both those things are very dear to your heart, and I hope that you will enjoy yourself in your new role.
As the first Back-Bench non-maiden speaker to speak today, I think it only fair, before I turn to the matters in hand, to pay tribute to the five maiden speakers whom we have heard this afternoon. I am very impressed: all the maiden speeches that I have heard over the last few weeks have been superb, and I think that that augurs very well for the future of the House of Commons and its importance in the life of Parliament.
The hon. Member for Brigg and Goole spoke in a very easy style, with plenty of humour. I suspect that that is because he was once a teacher. As a former secondary school teacher myself, I can tell him that the behaviour in the House of Commons is probably far, far worse than that of his worst secondary school class.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall), a fellow Co-operative, paid tribute to her predecessor, Patricia Hewitt. I hope that she will continue the work that Patricia did, particularly in regard to the equalities agenda. Patricia certainly caused a stir when she was Business Secretary, because she was the first woman to fill the post. I clearly remember her coming to Aberdeen to open one of the offshore oil and gas fields in a very male-dominated industry. She was a breath of fresh air, but I am sure that the new Member for Leicester West will be as well, and I welcome her to the House.
The hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) waxed lyrical about the beauty of her constituency. If hon. Members do not appreciate their own constituencies, no one else will, and it was clear from her speech that she loves the area.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Gregg McClymont) has inherited what I believe is the second-longest constituency name in the House. I think that the longest belongs to the new Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the right hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander), but I have not counted the letters. I know that the right hon. Gentleman and Rosemary McKenna, my hon. Friend’s predecessor, had some arguments as to whose constituency name was the most difficult to pronounce. I was glad that my hon. Friend paid such a warm tribute to Rosemary, because she was one of my close friends in the House and I miss her very much. I hope that he will pass my best wishes on to her in her retirement. Unfortunately, I will not be able to make her retirement dinner, as it is on the one weekend that I have off in the next two months, but I would have loved to have been there. My hon. Friend might not remember his predecessor but one, Norman Hogg, who came from Aberdeen. He returned to Aberdeen to retire and played an important part in my election campaign, particularly in 2005. Unfortunately, he has since died, and we missed him during this election.
My hon. Friend was not shy in stating his views in his maiden speech. He was clear in the way that he argued his case—certainly in what he said about there not being a false divide between the private and the public sector. I imagine that he will add a great deal of intellect to future debates in the House.
The last maiden speech up to now, by the hon. Member for Burton, was very impressive. He spoke without any notes, which will stand him in good stead, as one of the worst things that can happen when a Member speaks is when Members from the opposing side shout “Reading!” at them. Perhaps it is just as well that the rules of the House have changed and that Members can no longer make four-hour speeches such as the one by his predecessor that he mentioned. The hon. Gentleman will also be a credit to his constituency and we welcome him, as we do all the others. I, too, was very friendly with his predecessor, Janet Dean, and his description of her as a mother figure was all too accurate.
I, too, have a new job this afternoon, Mr Deputy Speaker, as the new Chair of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, and I thank those hon. Members who voted for me. Let me also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), who was a formidable opponent. It was a very close fight, and she would have made an excellent Chair of the Committee. We worked well together in the 2001-05 Parliament. This afternoon, she showed her talent for holding the Executive to account in questioning the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling). I would have liked to welcome him to his job, but unfortunately he is no longer in his place. Such questioning is clearly the role of Select Committees, which are the workhorses of the House. They play an important role and I hope that the Work and Pensions Committee does its job well in holding this Executive to account. Shadow Ministers all say that Select Committees are very important when they are in opposition, but they might change their mind when they get into government.
I was a little disappointed by the way in which the Minister of State handled the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North, because he managed to avoid answering it. I hope that he was not setting the tone for the future. He failed to answer what she was clearly asking, which was what this Conservative Government, albeit a coalition Government, would do differently from the previous Conservative Government, after whom there was an increasing level of poverty, particularly child poverty, an increasing divide between the rich and poor and an increasing dislocation in many communities. As he did not answer that question, I, too, would like to put it to the Government.
As far as I can gather from what the Minister of State said, the Government will do what the Labour Government did, but a lot better with a lot less money. I did not hear what I expected to hear—new ideas and what will be different. For example, what will be different about the way in which the Government deal with mental health issues? I asked about that in my intervention, but his answer could have come from a Minister in the previous Government, because it was about what the previous Government were doing. So, what they were doing must have been working, if the new Government are not saying that they would do anything different that will work better.
We know that these issues are difficult and need to be tackled, but let me say what the Labour Government did. We introduced the minimum wage, tax credits, child care credits, the child trust fund and pension credits. They were all introduced through practical legislation that tackled the issue of poverty. They were not just warm words or aspirations—they were things that made a difference. On top of all that, we introduced a number of universal benefits to make sure that everyone benefited from the welfare state, not just those at the bottom end. For example, we made sure that there was an increase in child benefit. I do not whether the new Government intend to tax child benefit or whether it will continue to rise at the rate it was rising under the previous Government. Those were all important, practical measures that tackled poverty.
The last Government did other important things such as introducing Sure Start, which we have not seen the results of yet as the first generation of Sure Start children are only just leaving primary school. My worry is that the longitudinal, intergenerational, changing measures that we put in place will be undermined by the new Government, and I seek assurances that they will not, because we know that early intervention works. Indeed, it is one of the few ways in which to tackle the intergenerational poverty that has blighted our society. I hope that the new Government will do more than just say the warm words that we have heard this afternoon. I hope that they will do practical things to make sure that those of our citizens who still live in poverty soon no longer will.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech during this very important debate on poverty. I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Miss Begg) on her election as Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, and I congratulate all other hon. Members who have made their maiden speech in this debate. May I also take the opportunity to congratulate you, Mr Deputy Speaker, on your election to the Chair? I might be new, but I know that you have been a stalwart of this Chamber and that you will continue to champion its importance.
It is a real honour and a privilege to be speaking in the Chamber today. It was in the early 1990s that I first visited the Palace of Westminster with my sixth-form colleagues, and ever since that day I have wanted to represent a Kent constituency on these green Benches. With that in mind, I am proud to say that I am the first Conservative MP to represent Chatham and Aylesford. The seat was formed in 1997 from the old Rochester and Chatham, Mid Kent and Tonbridge and Malling seats, so I benefit from the mixed parentage of some excellent Conservative parliamentarians, such as Peggy Fenner, Andrew Rowe, Julian Critchley and, of course, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley).
It is traditional to pay one’s immediate predecessor a tribute. I am told that that is occasionally done through gritted teeth, but I have nothing but genuine respect for Jonathan Shaw, who represented the constituency since 1997. Members from both sides of the House have praised Jonathan, who entered the House at an even younger age than I, and fought many battles on behalf of his constituents. He is highly regarded locally and has been kind enough to answer a few queries since the election, for which I am very grateful. I hope that I will serve my constituents as well as he did.
I am very proud of my constituency. Although I was born and bred in another part of Kent, I have now made the area my home. It is steeped in history. Chatham was first recorded as a settlement in the 9th century and was home to the Romans, the Saxons and then the Normans. Its significance has always been related to its position on the banks of the River Medway, which has been a harbour for warships since the 16th century. The town formed around the dockyard, which, although not in the boundaries of my constituency, has always been of critical significance to the town. Raids by the Dutch on the north Kent coast in 1667, which wrecked the flagship of the fleet harboured in Chatham, recorded by Pepys and remembered by Kipling, led to the proper fortification of the Medway. That massive rebuilding saw the expansion of Chatham into the large town that it is today. The historic dockyard was closed as a shipbuilding yard in 1984, and sadly many jobs were lost. However, it has evolved into a heritage site and parts have been regenerated into housing and tourist attractions, which range from warships to Dickens World.
Beyond politics, my passion is football and I was therefore delighted to learn that Chatham was one of the founding clubs in the southern England league in the 19th century. However, as a lifelong Tottenham fan, I was less pleased to learn that Spurs crashed to successive league defeats at the hands of Chatham in January 1899, losing 5-0 and 4-0 in the space of eight days. A few days later, the Spurs manager was sacked. A man with the surname of Cameron was appointed and the following season, they won the southern league title. It sounds reassuringly familiar.
Although Chatham is now the largest part of my constituency, the history of other parts goes back much further. Aylesford and the surrounding villages of Burham, Eccles, Wouldham, Ditton, Larkfield and Snodland can be traced back to neolithic times. There have been many finds of archaeological interest, including bronze age swords, an iron age settlement and a Roman villa. Now the area is dotted with numerous listed buildings, industrial estates, a vineyard, quarries, playing fields and picturesque oast houses.
Nearby is Blue Bell hill, well known to many motorists in Kent as a key intersection between the M20 and M2. However, I mention Blue Bell hill today not for its historical or transportation value, but for its supernatural element. The ghost stories are legendary, and sightings have been reported in the local papers on numerous occasions—including, I was amused to see, by a current member of the Press Gallery, Mr Nigel Nelson, whose article, which was written for the local paper before I was born, is still cited by today’s paranormal investigators.
The newspaper industry is hugely significant in my constituency. Not only have many who worked at the Kent Messenger group, based in Larkfield, gone on to trade in political journalism, including the Prime Minister’s press secretary, but the UK’s largest paper mill is based in Aylesford, providing 400,000 tonnes of newsprint per annum—the equivalent of 1% of the world's total newsprint, and all from recycled and recovered materials.
There are many more wonderful things that I am sure I should mention about my constituency, but with time being short, I want to say a few words about today’s debate. Parts of my constituency are reasonably well off. Many residents have solid family relationships, comfortable jobs and a decent wage. However, other parts are not. Across Medway, poverty affects nearly 12,000 children—a shocking 22%. Two wards in my constituency are the most severely affected, and sadly, one features in the top 10% of most deprived areas nationally. That is not a league table in which any area wants to be included, but it highlights the fact that there are huge challenges locally. Inadequate health and housing, low standards of living and high unemployment continue to characterise parts of Chatham, which for many years have been left behind.
There is no easy answer. It is not just one thing that needs to change. Low income, family breakdown, addiction, mental health problems and criminal behaviour contribute to a lack of expectation that, in turn, leads to inactivity. Charities find themselves too small to help; agencies find it too difficult and authorities find it too expensive. Complex problems may require multiple solutions, but unless we invest our time, energy and support, deprivation in parts of one of the most advanced countries in the world will continue to blight our nation.
I have heard many maiden speeches over the past few weeks, and the one thing all new Members share is the desire to make a difference. While I am in Parliament, I want to accomplish many things on behalf of all my constituents, but I hope that improving the plight of the poorest will be my greatest achievement. The Government must of course cut the deficit, but our legacy must be to reduce the dreadful levels of poverty and give every person in my constituency and throughout the country the standard of living they deserve.
I am pleased that you were in the Chair when I rose to speak, Mr Deputy Speaker, even though you are about to leave the Chamber, because I can add my congratulations to those of others. It is a particular pleasure to see someone from the north-west in the Chair.
As the debate is rightly dominated by maiden speeches, I wanted to comment on how I felt more than three decades ago when I made my maiden speech, but from what I have experienced in this debate, my recollections will be irrelevant. For days, my insides were chewed up with nerves because I was worrying about making that maiden speech. The good news that I thought I would be bringing to Members making their maiden speech today is that it does not get any better. However, I can see from their performance that their confidence and the quality of their contributions far exceeds that of the intake of 1979.
I am grateful for the chance to contribute to this wide-ranging debate on poverty. I hope the House will forgive me if I focus narrowly on part of the canvas rather than addressing some of the wider aspects that Members have already touched on. A starting point for me is our debate on the Child Poverty Bill before the last election, when I expressed both admiration for what the Government had done and a sense of worry about where we would go from that position of relative success.
If we cast our mind back to the then Prime Minister’s objective to abolish child poverty by 2020, we can only exclaim that it was one of the most audacious targets set by any Government. I happened to be a Work and Pensions Minister at the time, and I learned about the target for the first time when I went into my room at the Department and saw Sky News on the television. That is when I learned that the Government’s objective was to abolish child poverty by 2020, even though I was a Minister with some responsibility for it. Others will have shared my sense of awe about how decisions came down to us—lesser Members—from Mount Sinai.
Had I been consulted beforehand, I hope I would have advised the then Prime Minister that although we should commit ourselves to the objective, the formula was one that no other country in the free world had achieved. We should not set targets for people, nations or Governments to fail; we should set targets they can achieve. It was thus immensely important before we fought the general election that we not only set out attempts to broaden our understanding of how we might measure poverty but put them in an Act of Parliament. That process is being developed and possibly taken a stage further in the review that the Prime Minister has asked me to undertake.
It gives me considerable pleasure that I have been asked to carry out the review, but it would have given me even more pleasure had my own side asked me to undertake that activity. The terms of reference took some time to agree—about seven times as long as the coalition agreement. They are public—they are certainly on my website—and I shall set out what I hope the review will achieve by Christmas.
In interviews, I have cited just one study, although there are many others that we could cite from our constituencies. The study relates to the work of the Prince’s charities in Burnley. It is a wonderful project, where volunteer mothers make sure that children are up in time for school. The children are taken to school. If need be, they are washed at school, fed breakfast and made ready, with all the other children, to start their day’s activities and endeavours.
My plea to the House is that if anyone thinks that those projects will be made irrelevant simply because we increase household incomes, however necessary basic income is, they are doing a disservice to poorer families and to the poor generally. Indeed, one of the great purposes of the review, if it fulfils its ambitions, is not only to run alongside the monetary definitions of poverty considerations of what non-financial aspects push children into poverty but, more importantly, to move the debate on. Until now, it has been obsessed with inputs—what we put in, and how much money is at stake, crucial though that is—and we need to consider outcomes. Therefore, part of the review will consider how we can together construct an index of what determines children’s life chances, how we can extend those life chances and, more importantly, how we can measure that, so that we can report back to our constituents on whether we have been successful during each Parliament.
I should like my right hon. Friend to be specific. I am not sure whether we were at cross-purposes earlier. My concern is that we do not redefine the poverty level. That is the major concern among Labour Members. We should not say, “Oh, 60% of median income is far too high. We want to go to 40%.” I draw his attention to the full definition that we put in the Child Poverty Act 2010. We now take into account a wide range of things: outdoor space in which to play, celebrations on holiday and at Christmas and swimming at least once a month. Those items are under a continual process of renewal, because that index is based on surveys of the whole population and what the whole population thinks it is reasonable for a child to have.
I am happy to give assurances to my hon. Friend. The law is quite clear about the objectives. I have no idea what the report will contain, but those objectives that we have are ones that we should achieve. The primary definition that we used before the 2010 Act was not only difficult to achieve mathematically, but has not been achieved in any country in the free world—hence we asked in the document that we published whether we should use an average of those countries that do best in achieving that definition in setting our target.
Time is scarce, and I obviously do not want to be delayed by a narrowly focused, technical debate on definitions—I hope there will be plenty of time for that—but my hon. Friend says that other aspects of the 2010 Act that are used to define poverty are important. Of course they are important, but I want to focus much more clearly on pathways out of poverty and on increasing life chances. I hope that those Members of Parliament who have views—they clearly have, given today’s maiden speeches—that will add to that side of the review, as well as to the debate on the technical definition of poverty, will contribute to the review.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that measures such as the future jobs fund, tax credits and the increase in child benefit provide an important pathway out of poverty? I hope that he will touch on that—I see from his notes that he might—because I am very concerned about the coalition Government’s proposals to undermine those schemes.
If my hon. Friend had really good sight, he would be able to see that No. 3 on my extensive notes is the jobs fund.
There will be two tasks for Opposition Members as the Government begin the necessary task of reducing public spending towards the level of what people in this country are prepared to pay in taxes. We will no doubt have a rigorous debate, but even when the details are decided, I hope that stage 2 will be to argue whether any cuts are being made in the right areas. My plea to Ministers is that they look most carefully at their choice of making initial cuts to the new deal jobs fund programme. When I sat on the other side of the House, I was clear in my criticisms of the new deal. One has only to look at the outcomes regarding levels of unemployment, levels of NEETs—those not in education, employment or training—and levels of retreads to conclude that that huge area of expenditure clearly needs to be examined.
The one thing that I hoped we would do in our first year in office—we got round to it only towards the end of our time—was to ensure that we could give some job guarantees to our constituents, including our younger constituents. That is important for two main reasons, the first of which is that, as we all know from our constituencies, many people try desperately hard to get jobs yet fail to do so, and the cumulative effect of that failure has an enormously crushing effect on them. The jobs fund was beginning to offer concrete jobs for people to go to, and that was a lifeline that had never been offered by any amount of new deal, any amount of retreading the new deal, or any amount of rhetoric from our side. The fund was one of the most precious things with which the previous Government were involved.
The second reason why the scheme was valuable was because we all have individuals in our constituencies, especially young lads, with no intention of working, although this is not the time for us to delve deeper into why that is so. If we are telling people that their benefits will be time-limited, cut or ended, we will carry the electorate with us only if we can definitely offer someone a job. Those young lads who have worked out how to fiddle the new deal and know that, if they turn up in a certain state, no employer in their right mind would ever give them the job on offer will know that it is decision time for them if, through the jobs fund, we can guarantee to offer them jobs irrespective of how they turn up. As I said, the fund was one of the most precious initiatives that the Labour Government introduced, so although I am not arguing with Ministers against their cuts, I ask them to think differently about how the cuts are distributed among people on benefits whom we would hope would be seeking work.
I am grateful for being called to speak, and I am even more grateful for the interventions because they have given me a bit of extra time. I look forward to hon. Members’ contributions to both this debate and the review.
It is a particular honour to be following the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) in a debate on poverty, and I congratulate you, Madam Deputy Speaker, on your new role.
We are in the season of maiden speeches and have heard a good many today. I congratulate in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch). She spoke with great passion and conviction about her constituency and we will all have learned much from her.
I wish to pay tribute to my predecessor, Helen Southworth, who represented Warrington South for 13 years. She was a Treasury Parliamentary Private Secretary and, for about four years, a member of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. She made her biggest mark in the House, however, through her more informal campaigns. As chair of the all-party group on children who run away or go missing, she did a number of things that will have changed many lives for the better. I did not know Mrs Southworth well, but whenever I met her I was impressed by her compassion and dignity.
The history of Warrington and the Warrington South constituency is carved out of water. The town was founded by the Romans on the banks of the Mersey—it was the first place they could find to cross that river. Later we were bisected by the Bridgewater canal—the first to be built in this country—and subsequently the Manchester ship canal, a huge engineering triumph that says much for the people of Warrington, their entrepreneurial flair and their persistence. Even to this day, large boats travelling along the canal stop the traffic in Warrington, which can be something of a problem. The canal still carries freight—6 million tonnes are carried right now.
The major landmark in Warrington is the golden gates, which stand in front of our town hall. They are a magnificent feature. The town hall, also built by the Victorians, is a beautiful building, and I am pleased to be making my maiden speech in front of a former Warrington borough councillor, the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue). The gates themselves were not constructed for Warrington: they were made as a gift to Queen Victoria, for the front of the Sandringham estate. When the Queen came to the town to receive the gift, however, she was somewhat disappointed to see a large statue of Oliver Cromwell in the centre; she declined the gift and Sandringham’s loss became Warrington’s gain.
The statue does not imply disloyalty, but it is true that Warrington has close links with Cromwell. He kept an army there during the civil war, and during the war Warrington was something of a fulcrum. We have a slightly less controversial relationship with Lewis Carroll, the creator of “Alice in Wonderland”. There are many monuments around Warrington in tribute to Lewis Carroll; in particular, Daresbury parish church still has the Cheshire cat emblems standing in its grounds. Over the past few weeks, as I have become more accustomed to being an MP and struggled with procedure and process in this House—particularly with getting an office—I am reminded of Alice’s comment as she burrowed around: “Curiouser and curiouser!”
I pay tribute to a prominent citizen of Warrington, Helen Newlove, who has recently been created a life peer. Members will be aware of the tragic death of her husband three years ago. They will know of the courage and fortitude that she has shown since then and of her campaigning zeal. She will be a tremendous addition to the other place and give immeasurable assistance to debates there.
Before I leave Warrington, I pay tribute to our rugby league team, winners of the Challenge cup last year. I have never tried to hide the fact that my background in rugby, such as it is, is in the other code. None the less, slowly but surely I am coming to grips with rugby league, and I am proud to be the only Conservative Member of Parliament with a super-league rugby league team in his constituency.
I shall now say a little about the subject of the debate. Warrington South contains some wards that are among the most affluent in the country and some that are among the most deprived. Four of our inner-city wards are in the bottom 20% by income, and in both Bewsey and Latchford East, one in four children are being brought up in workless households. The existence of such disparities is troubling. I acknowledge that the previous Government, through pension credits and in-work credits, tried hard, but it is a fact that throughout the last Parliament, levels of both absolute and severe poverty increased.
To make progress, I believe that we have to address two issues: first, our country has 8 million people who are economically inactive; and secondly, our country is the worst in western Europe in terms of the number of children growing up in workless households. The best way to help many people out of poverty is to create the well-paid, sustainable jobs that will make a difference. We have to do so over the next few years in a period in which we are going to reduce our dependence on financial services and on unsustainable public sector jobs. In my opinion, the only way in which that can be done is through increased investment in applied science, engineering and innovation.
I was particularly pleased that the Gracious Speech made reference to measures to create a large number of apprenticeships, but it is important, too, that we make sure that we create enough professional engineers to make a difference. It is a particularly sad fact that over the past three decades, in spite of the increase in higher education, the number of engineering graduates from our universities has decreased. That is not the case in India or China; indeed, it is not the case in any other country in continental Europe.
On the fringes of Warrington is Daresbury science park, which is a brilliant place that takes some of the best ideas produced in universities in the north-west and combines them with marketing skills and venture capital. Such places are going to create the jobs that we need in the medium term to fight the battle against poverty. In my view, social mobility is a hallmark of a civilised society. It is sad that in the past decade, social mobility fell in this country. I believe that the coalition, of which we are all part, will be judged, at least in part, on our ability to reverse that decline in social mobility.
May I welcome you to the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker? I congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) and other Members who have made maiden speeches this afternoon.
I am grateful for the opportunity to make my second maiden speech, which might sound like a contradiction in terms. I can say one thing with certainty: I do not intend to make a third. I am delighted to represent Leyton and Wanstead in the House, having represented Hornchurch for eight years until the last election but one. Leyton and Wanstead which, like Hornchurch, is in east London, is a great place. I shall observe the traditions of the House by paying tribute both to my predecessor and to my constituency.
Harry Cohen built a reputation over many years as an assiduous and hard-working constituency MP. He championed certain causes over many years, including Tibet, for which he fought—although I do not mean physically. He represented Tibet in the House, and he was a leading light in the all-party Tibet group, which I joined this morning. He fought, too, for asylum seekers—some of the most persecuted and vulnerable people in the world, and he did a great job on that. He led the campaign to save Whipps Cross hospital in the constituency, which was under threat of closure from the Tories for many years, but whose future was secured under the Labour Government. Whether it will be secure from now on remains to be seen.
Leyton and Wanstead is one of the most diverse communities in Britain, with a huge range of religions, races, languages, beliefs, persuasions and outlooks. Across all those communities there is a high level of tolerance. People with widely divergent views and backgrounds can live together in harmony most of the time—recently, in fact, all the time—which is one reason why I like it so much. There have been one or two notable MPs for Leyton and Wanstead. Winston Churchill was MP for the old Wanstead and Woodford seat to the north of the constituency, until he retired in 1964. In the 1960s and ’70s, Patrick Gordon Walker was the MP. He fought an infamous by-election after he had lost his seat unexpectedly in the 1964 general election. A vacancy was created in the old Leyton seat by putting the sitting MP, Reg Sorensen, into the House of Lords, so that he could fight it at the election, but he lost the seat. He regained it at the next election, but for a short time he was the unelected Foreign Secretary in Harold Wilson’s first Government. These days it is unimaginable to think that somebody who was unelected could hold such high office, but there we go.
I want to touch on three key local issues. The first is Whipps Cross hospital, which, as I said, was under threat for many years under the Conservative Government. Under the Labour Government, £30 million was spent on it, but it needs more investment. Whether that will be forthcoming, whether the hospital’s future will be secure after all the threats of cuts that we have heard from the Treasury Bench in the last few weeks remains to be seen, but I and others will fight tooth and nail for its future.
The second issue concerns the safer neighbourhood teams, which come under the aegis of the Metropolitan police. They face cuts. We have a Conservative Mayor, Boris Johnson, and a Conservative Government, both of whom, particularly the Mayor, have promised cuts. Those teams have made a significant impact across wards in London, particularly in Redbridge and Waltham Forest in my constituency, and to start reducing community officers in those teams would reverse that impact on our communities.
An issue that is particularly close to my heart is that of the Sure Start centres. We are not quite clear where we are with Sure Start. Before the election, the Conservatives said that they would cut them pretty extensively. [Interruption.] This is a maiden speech so hon. Members should pipe down. I do not think that the Lib Dems have quite discovered what Sure Start is yet, but they probably will in due course. However, cuts seem to be in the pipeline.
Sure Start has made an impact in some ways in alleviating child poverty, which brings me to the subject of today’s debate. The Minister got very excited about the idea that child poverty increased under the Labour Government. It is slightly difficult to put the words “the Minister” and “excited” in the same sentence, but he did get a bit worked up about it. The fact is that in 1997 when Labour came to power, the number of children living in poverty was 3.4 million. In the first two terms of the Labour Government, the number fell to 2.4 million, so we took a million children out of poverty. The figure went up to 2.8 million and then levelled off.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) mentioned, the most recent figures that we have cover the year 2008-09, the penultimate year that Labour was in power, and they demonstrated that during that financial year, 100,000 people were removed from poverty and the increase in child poverty started to level off.
The coalition Government now say—we have heard this on a number of occasions—that tackling poverty is one of their priorities, yet three factors lead me to think that that may not be the case, or that the rhetoric may not be matched by the reality. First, we will see cuts in the child trust funds, which have been one of the most successful exercises in encouraging people, particularly from lower-income backgrounds, to save. We have seen a trebling of saving among families with children, predominantly among lower and middle-income families.
Secondly, there is the cancellation of the public housing programmes. Again, we are not wholly clear about this, but it is pretty clear that there will be some cancellations in the public housing programmes that were pushed through in the last year or two of the Labour Government by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), who was an outstanding Housing Minister. They should have happened years earlier. They should have started in 1997, but at least we started them in the last two years, and billions of pounds were going to be pumped into them.
Finally, there is the agency workers directive. Agency workers are some of the most exploited and low-paid workers in Britain. That directive took years to negotiate in Brussels, and it may not make as big a difference as I would like, but it will have a modest impact in creating a certain equality between agency workers and full-time, permanent workers. Very often agency workers are used to undercut the permanent work force.
Again, we do not have a clear position on this. That is partly because the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has Ministers from different political backgrounds. In fact, the Secretary of State has been in more parties than Paris Hilton. It seems that the directive may be abandoned, watered down or renegotiated. That will have a significant impact on some of the most vulnerable workers in Britain.
The roots of Britain’s current position with regard to poverty go back to the 1980s. In 1979, the last time that we left office, we left the country with one of the most egalitarian societies in the western world, rivalling Australia and West Germany in terms of income and wealth distribution. In 1997, when we returned to power, it was one of the most unequal societies in the western world, and the figures back that up. If a Government privatise and deregulate like a bunch of medieval crusading zealots and insist on shackling and attacking trade unions, removing the rights and protections of some of the most vulnerable workers in Britain and ripping up and eviscerating whole industries and communities on the basis of economic fundamentalism and political vindictiveness, an explosion of poverty, like that which came about in the 1980s, can hardly come as a surprise. That was the result then, and it is plain for all to see.
The coalition accuses us of a failure to tackle poverty. In reality, the criticism that can be levelled at the last Labour Government is that we did not go far enough in repairing the damage of the previous 18 years. There were modest attempts to do so, but they did not go far enough, and my worry is that this Government have now come back to finish their previous job. The price of the cuts that we hear about will be paid by our constituents, who are some of the most vulnerable in Britain; Opposition Members will be representing people on the receiving end. The Deputy Prime Minister talks about “progressive cuts”, but it is easy for him to say that when he comes from a background of wealth and privilege and is not going to be on the receiving end of the cuts himself. I should like him to come to the House and explain to us exactly what “progressive cuts” means, because I am struggling to find a definition of it.
Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker, and may I welcome you to your place? I am much in favour of seeing women in positions of authority and, indeed, high office. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister takes note of that.
It is a great pleasure to be called to speak in this very important debate on poverty, and to follow the contribution of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) and many fine maiden speeches. On those earlier maiden speeches, I can do no better than agree with the characteristically generous tribute from the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Miss Begg), so I shall not try to do so. However, it is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat), who, unlike myself, had the courage to do this without notes, and the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer), who is certainly a most passionate advocate of his constituency. Surely the fact that that was his second maiden speech will explain the fluidity and passion with which he delivered it.
I have the honour of following Phil Hope as the Member for Corby, and I hope that Opposition Members bear me no particular grudge for depriving their Benches of such a kind and pleasant man. He was a passionate advocate of Corby and achieved ministerial office early, serving in various Departments, from Education to Health and the Cabinet Office, before winding up as the Minister for the East Midlands. His obvious political ability was matched only by his kindliness and courtesy, which I know must have endeared him to many Members from all parts. In the four years that I was the Conservative candidate for Corby, Phil and I never exchanged a sharp word, and I am glad to see the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) in her place, because he exemplified the principle that in politics our opponents need not also be our enemies.
Urban Corby, the fastest-growing town in the country, is surrounded by the idyllic countryside of east Northamptonshire. We have more than 60 villages, as well as the thriving market towns of Irthlingborough, Raunds, Thrapston and Oundle. Corby is a former steel manufacturing town, and it played its part in the war effort by supplying the pipes used in Operation Pluto, which bought fuel safely to our allies as they fought in Europe. I am well travelled, but nowhere have I encountered such pride in place as Corby people have in their town. If I had to sum up the town in a single word, “pride” is the one that I would use.
Located though it is in the heart of England, the pride of Corby is its diaspora from Scotland. My constituency, perhaps uniquely in England, celebrates a regular highland games, and I am informed by staff at Corby Asda that they sell 17 times more Irn-Bru there than in any other store in England.
Meanwhile, my right hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire Dales (Mr McLoughlin)—the Chief Whip—and my Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), who I see in his place, will be glad to learn that rebellious women do not fare well in my constituency. The glories of east Northamptonshire include the village of Fotheringhay, where Mary, Queen of Scots met her fate in 1587. Be that as it may, I am conscious—as are, I am sure, many other Members making their maiden speeches today—that I was sent to this place to represent the interests of my constituents here, not the other way around.
My noble Friend Baroness Thatcher inspired me to enter politics. She taught me the importance of ideology—crucially, in the context of this debate, that politics is in its essence counter-intuitive, and that Conservative means deliver liberal ends. On arriving at the House just after the general election, it was something of a relief to discover that, on occasion, Liberal means may deliver Conservative ones.
It is particularly appropriate that the Member for Corby should deliver her maiden speech in a debate on poverty, because the ambitious programme of welfare to work laid out by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his team will assist many of my constituents, who saw a 103% rise in claims for jobseeker’s allowance over the course of the last Labour Parliament. This ambitious programme will provide a way out of poverty and despair for many thousands of families. It is the result of years of focusing on social justice by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and I commend it to the House.
If I myself have a political ambition, it is—perhaps I may ask the House’s traditional indulgence for a maiden speech—to suggest a cross-departmental project to my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Work and Pensions and for Defence. For several years, I lived in the United States—indeed, my family are American—and I was struck by the exceptional way in which people treat their troops and their troops’ families. Over there, the Veterans Administration, which has a seat at the cabinet table, oversees all military welfare, from hospitals to low-cost housing loans. There was much in the Conservative manifesto for our troops to celebrate, from extra money for mental health provision to the application of the pupil premium to the children of military families. Too often in Government, however, the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing.
I am glad to see my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) in his place beside me, for he spoke most movingly in his maiden speech of the need for this House to put Help for Heroes out of business by providing better medical care for our troops. I suggest to him, and to the whole House, that a fully fledged veterans administration might go even further, overseeing all military welfare, from widows’ pensions to mental health provision, and that it need not cost too much; rather, it would merely tie all military welfare together.
My county of Northamptonshire hosted no fewer than seven United States airfields during the war, and in my constituency the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes still fly proudly side by side to commemorate the fellowship of our forces. I suggest to the House that we learn from the special relationship where it still has something to teach us. We can, and should, do better by our troops and their dependants. We are considering today issues of poverty; let us ensure that poverty and despair do not touch the lives of those who have given so much for this country.
I thank the House for its traditional courtesy in hearing me out in silence during my maiden speech. It has been an honour to speak in a debate on poverty and to commend the Government’s ambitious programme to the House; and also, of course, to speak as the Member of Parliament for Corby and for east Northamptonshire—the heart of steel in the rose of the shires.
Thank you for calling me, Madam Deputy Speaker, and congratulations on your election.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Corby (Ms Bagshawe) on her confident, interesting and passionate maiden speech. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) on his maiden speech, and I wish every success to his rugby team, except when they play Wigan.
I should like to begin by stating that although I follow the well-respected and esteemed Ian McCartney, about whom I am going to say more later, there are a couple of obvious differences between us—I am female, and I do not have a Scottish accent. I think there might be a slight height difference as well. I wish also to express my pride in being the first female MP for Makerfield.
Makerfield has a proud tradition of electing Labour MPs going back to 1906 and the election of Stephen Walsh, who incidentally was 4 foot 10 inches tall—perhaps another precedent there. The people of Makerfield were so determined to send a Labour MP to this place that they raised the funds themselves to pay his salary and ensure that he could represent the constituency in Parliament. That determination in the face of adversity still characterises the people of Makerfield today.
Makerfield is not one particular, easily identified area but a collection of pit villages that grew up around the collieries, each with its own proud history and identity. Heaven forbid that one confuses Bamfurlong with Platt Bridge and Stubshaw Cross with Bryn. Each area has its own sense of community and history, and many of their people lived through—and, despite the wonderful efforts of the past 13 years and the excellent Labour council, are still living with—the devastation caused in the 1980s. However, there is a lot of grit and determination in Makerfield. It is unequalled, as is the people’s warmth and friendliness. During the cold weather spell in January, I came across an 86-year-old woman, Theresa, shovelling snow and clearing paths outside not only her house but her neighbour’s. When the council workmen offered to do it for her, she said, “Nay, I’ve been shovelling coal as a pit brow woman since I was 14, and I can handle a shovel better than you two.” Grit, determination and a sense of community with the people all helping each other—that is what sums up Makerfield to me.
I turn to my predecessor, Ian McCartney. The words that I speak about Ian are spoken not by convention but with conviction and affection—an affection that is felt throughout Makerfield and the labour movement. Ian represented Makerfield for 23 years, and his love for the area and its people is nearly as great as the affection and respect that they have for him. His career in opposition and in government was both varied and influential. In opposition he spoke on health, employment, education and social services, and in government he was Minister of State in the Department of Trade and Industry. It was during that period that he introduced a major new package of employment rights, including the national minimum wage. I do not believe it would be an exaggeration to say that millions of people throughout the country have benefited from those measures and have reasons to be grateful to him.
As chair of the national executive committee and the national policy forum, Ian was trusted by both the leadership and the membership—not an easy to balance to hold. That is just one demonstration of his integrity and the high regard in which he is held. Despite his senior positions, he never forgot his roots. His first aim, which he undoubtedly achieved, was to be a good constituency MP. Indeed, he once said to me that all the best legislation, including his campaign that led to the banning of foam furniture that emitted toxic fumes when alight, which has saved thousands of lives across the country, came from constituency casework. Of course, with Makerfield being part of Wigan borough, I cannot leave out the fact that he was the founder member of the all-party rugby league group. Wigan has a proud rugby league heritage and amateur clubs continue to produce world-class players who represent Wigan and their country.
Ian was also president of the Money Advice Trust, and it is credit and financial capability that I now wish to discuss. I have been chief executive of a citizens advice bureau for 23 years, and during that time people have come to me with an incredibly diverse range of problems. However, credit and debt consistently make up the highest percentage of our work, and it has an impact on people’s ability to continue in their work, on their health and on their relationships. I have long believed that there are three strands to tackling the problem, each of which is important and requires funding and, in some cases, further exploration and legislation.
Financial capability is the preventive area—teaching children, families and community groups the skills that they need to manage their money and choose their financial products wisely. I am heartened by the partnerships developing between citizens advice bureaux, the Personal Finance Education Group, credit unions and the Money Advice Trust. Indeed, locally my own bureau worked in partnership with Welcome credit union to provide financial education to low-income groups.
The second strand is the availability of credit, especially to low-income borrowers, and encouragements for non-traditional savers to save. I therefore deeply regret the Government’s removal of the child trust fund, which was the first time some families had a lump sum to put into a savings account for a child. It has been a practical demonstration to that child and the family of how savings work.
I hope that credit unions will be supported and allowed to expand. My constituency has two excellent and progressive credit unions, Unify and Welcome. Encouraging credit unions, mainstreaming their services and making them a real alternative to iniquitous rates of interest—2,760% in some cases—for people who want to take out a short-term loan are all really important. I firmly believe that we need to explore a range of policy initiatives with mainstream lenders, credit unions and the social fund to end the cycle of credit dependency.
Thirdly, for people already trapped in the spiral of unaffordable borrowing, access to debt advice services is crucial. Funding for that should not be solely for legally aided people, but should be available to all. I have seen for myself the effect of the face-to-face funding for debt advice provided by the previous Government and I have been able to more than match that funding from a PCT-funded project to reduce lower level mental health problems. Indeed, a report has come out this week showing that in two cases professionals have downgraded people previously at risk of suicide to no longer needing medical intervention as a result of that project. I urge the Government to continue the face-to-face funding and to explore other funding to help to support people in work to stay in work, maintain their health and their relationships and not let debt destroy families and individuals.
I began by referring to my predecessor and commented on our differences. However, I would now like to finish by stating that I hope that we also have similarities and that the most striking similarity will be that we have both been, and will be, a strong voice for Makerfield.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to make my maiden speech. I congratulate you on your illustrious elevation and I am delighted to see a fellow Bristol MP in the Chair. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) on her maiden speech, and all the other hon. Members who have made their maiden speeches today. I have enjoyed listening to them all, and it has been heartening to hear the passion and conviction with which they have spoken about their constituencies.
For my own constituency, it is both an honour and a privilege to stand here as the new Member of Parliament for Kingswood. Located between Bristol and Bath, within the boundaries of South Gloucestershire, it includes the towns and villages of Kingswood itself, Hanham, Longwell Green, Barrs Court, Cadbury Heath, Emersons Green, Bitton, Willsbridge, Oldland Common and North Common, Siston, Warmley, Mangotsfield, Rodway and Soundwell, as well as a large part of the beautiful countryside that lies within our precious green belt. It is a great place to live, and as the new Member, I hope that I can play my part in making it an even better place to live and work. As a local man, who was born and grew up there and whose family have lived in Kingswood for generations, I am extremely proud to serve the local area that I call home.
Since the creation of the constituency in 1974, Kingswood has been fortunate to be served by some excellent Members whom many in the House will remember, including Terry Walker, Jack Aspinwall, Rob Hayward, and my immediate predecessor, Dr Roger Berry. They all have left behind a record of public service and civic duty that will be hard to emulate. Roger Berry is perhaps best known in the House for his tireless efforts to champion the rights of the disabled and most vulnerable in society, for which I pay him credit and hope to continue his hard work.
Like many of our neighbourhoods and towns, Kingswood has a rich tapestry of history. The town first came into prominence in the late 17th century through coal mining. Kingswood’s reputation was first founded on its people—the colliers who mined those deep seams underground. They were fiercely independent in spirit, and one contemporary wrote that
“the colliers were numerous and utterly uncultivated. They had no place of worship. Few ventured to walk even in their neighbourhood; and when provoked they were the terror of Bristol”.
It was into this lawless land that the preacher George Whitefield chose to venture. With no church nearby, Whitefield chose to preach beneath the open skies. On a clear night, if one looks out across the horizon of Kingswood, one can see the very spot he chose, Hanham Mount, for it is marked out by the green light of a beacon shining out from one of the highest parts of the constituency. Beneath it is a memorial—a grassy area with a large paved cross—beyond which a gorse-covered bank leads up to a stone platform with a wooden replica of a pulpit. It was here that Whitefield first preached on 17 February 1739. He was afflicted by a squint so severe that no one knew exactly where he was looking, and yet he began to draw vast outdoor crowds who never took their eyes off him. Benjamin Franklin, who later heard him preach many times in Pennsylvania, declared that he had a voice like an organ.
At first the local miners mocked Whitefield’s temerity, but his persistence paid off. The numbers attending his sermons grew steadily from a few hundred to nearly 20,000, and Whitefield himself noticed the effect that he began to have on them, not least from the white tracks appearing on their faces—black from coal dust—formed from the tears streaming down their faces. Shortly afterwards, Whitefield was called away for other duties. He sent for his friend, John Wesley, to fill the gap. Wesley later described his initial reluctance to participate in preaching outside, away from the sanctity of a church:
“I could scarce reconcile myself to this strange way of preaching. I should have thought the saving of souls a sin, if it had not been done in a church”.
Yet Wesley cast aside his hesitation and discovered his own revelation that there was no better place to reach out directly to the communities around.
We sit here now very much in our own place of worship, closeted away from the outside world. We talk between ourselves, quoting statistics and observing our customs, yet often, like Wesley, we seem hesitant to reach out into the local communities and neighbourhoods that matter and to understand the language that ordinary people speak. As a new Parliament, we have the opportunity to make ourselves relevant, to restore people’s faith in us and to create a new relationship with those who need our help—a relationship that looks outwards, rather than inwards.
Over the past few days, I have sat through many speeches, many of which have been excellent. That is testimony to the talent that many hon. Members bring to the House. However, I have been struck by how many hon. Members opposite have felt the need to blame the present problems facing our nation on the events of the 1980s. What we need is not a history lesson, however inaccurate. The past, whatever our respective views upon it, will not provide us with an answer. We need to look forward and to understand that now, in this the second decade of the 21st century, we still do not have all the answers and solutions needed to tackle the desperate poverty still afflicting many areas of our nation.
We will only begin to find these answers if we begin to seek to ask the right questions: how is it that, despite billions of pounds spent, in the past 13 years, the gap between the richest and the poorest has widened? How is it that, despite the state taking an ever interfering role in the lives of local neighbourhoods and communities, local people feel increasingly powerless over the decisions that matter in their own lives? And how is it that those men and women who once believed proudly in the value of work and the life-affirming capacity that it brings are being forced to stay at home and claim benefits for fear of losing the welfare on which they have become dependent?
It is clear that the state and its money are not always the best solution. Poverty cannot simply be measured in pounds and pence. Those in desperate need cannot be measured by a line on a graph. Each has their own problems and concerns that cannot be met unless we, in the tradition of Whitefield and Wesley, reach out beyond our confines and not just listen, but hear, what they have to say. I do not have an answer to the complex problems that I know the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) will attempt to tackle. I merely know that the direction of the previous Government has not worked.
On that note, it is perhaps best to recall the words of advice given by George Whitefield in one of his sermons:
“Press forward. Do not stop, do not linger in your journey, but strive for the mark set before you.”
Indeed we must press forward and not look back. The mark set before us might seem a difficult one, but it is one that, for the sake of all our constituents and this nation, we must now strive for.
I am grateful to the House and to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me this opportunity to speak here for the first time. I have listened carefully to the debate, and I extend my congratulations to the hon. Members who have made varied, interesting and eloquent speeches.
This is the first maiden speech by a Member for Erith and Thamesmead, as my predecessor, John Austin, made his maiden speech, in 1992, as the Member for Woolwich, before my constituency was formed for the 1997 election. John Austin is a man who served his community for more than 40 years, first as a councillor, and then as mayor, leader of the council and, in this place, Member of Parliament. During his time here, he took up many causes, fighting tirelessly against injustice and, in particular, for women’s rights. I commend especially the work that he did in the Council of Europe on human trafficking. John Austin is one of the handful of men I have met whom I could truly call a feminist.
Like many other urban areas, Erith and Thamesmead has a long and proud multicultural tradition. It is an area where people come to settle. One of our primary schools is called Windrush, in honour of those who came from the West Indies in the ’50s and ’60s to help Britain rebuild after the war. Many Vietnamese boat people also put down roots in the area in the 1970s. Erith is also the place where Alexander Selkirk, the real-life model for Robinson Crusoe, landed in 1711, when he returned home after many years on a desert island. My constituency is truly a place of homecomings. Over the past decade we have also had a fast-growing African community, which has settled here and intends to make the area its home—so much so, that during the forthcoming World cup, I am sure that the people in that community will be cheering just as loudly for England as they will be for their native Nigeria or Ghana.
The area also consists of places such as Abbey Wood, Belvedere, Lesnes Abbey and Plumstead, where during the late 19th century we had a wonderful football club named Woolwich Arsenal. The team played there until just before the first world war, when Woolwich was dropped from the name and they moved north of the river. I am not quite sure what happened to the club after that. In the north of the constituency, we boast a grade I listed building that has been described as
“A masterpiece of engineering—a Victorian cathedral of ironwork,”
which is a lovely way to describe the Crossness sewage works. Crossness houses the Victorian beam engines, which have been lovingly restored by the Crossness Engines Trust, a registered charity that since 1987 has overseen the restoration project.
In the mid 19th century, Crossness was part of the visionary work of Sir Joseph Bazalgette, who built the London sewer network that cleaned up London and wiped out the cholera epidemics that had previously killed hundreds of Londoners every year. It is ironic that Sir Joseph’s great grandson is Peter Bazalgette, the TV executive who brought the phenomenon of “Big Brother” to Britain. Whereas Sir Joseph spent much of his life trying to get rid of unwanted waste from the homes of the nation, some might say that his great grandson has done quite the opposite.
I have lived in Erith and Thamesmead for more than 30 years. As for my political motivations, the hon. Member for Corby (Ms Bagshawe) said that she was inspired to enter politics by Mrs Thatcher, and I have to say that I was too, albeit for what I imagine were completely different reasons. I was born in 1955, a child of the welfare state. That welfare state helped my family and millions of families like us to have opportunities that previous generations could only dream of: a free health service; a right to education; and a national insurance system that people pay into when they do not need it, but which is there when they do. The welfare state gave me a ladder, which I fully used and which, in turn, has enabled my two daughters to achieve their full potential.
All those things were Labour developments of which I am proud, just as I am proud now of Sure Start, the future jobs fund and the national minimum wage, which are all key building blocks in the fight against poverty. If there is to be dignity in work, poverty pay has no place in the 21st century. In my previous career, tax, national insurance and the national minimum wage were my fields of expertise. I came across no end of imaginative ways that employers would try to get around paying the minimum wage, but who really pays when business pays poverty wage rates? It is the rest of us—the taxpayers—who pay, subsidising the low-paid through the benefits and tax credit systems, while the employers pocket the profit. As we have heard here today, the best way out of poverty is through work, but it must be work that pays a living wage.
Now is a crucial time economically. The economy is beginning to grow and borrowing is falling. To put that at risk by cuts to the public sector and to job opportunities places us in grave danger of having a double-dip recession. Anyone who, like me, has sat in a jobcentre week after week will know that cuts to services such as the future jobs fund will cut not waste, but opportunity, hope and life chances.
The coalition seems to promise so much change, yet its cuts preclude the change that my constituents need. Indeed, the only change the coalition will bring to Erith and Thamesmead is a change for the worse, by cutting the jobs programme, which, along with Sure Start and the national minimum wage, has brought the first effective reduction in poverty in Erith and Thamesmead for a generation.
I know that the job of government is to govern for all the people, not just for those I consider to be my natural constituents. Contrary to some, however, I believe there is such a thing as society and no matter what people’s income or voting tendency, we all live within it. Policies that help the weak, the vulnerable, the unemployed and the disadvantaged thus add to the quality of life of all of us. There is no point at all in paying less tax if someone lives a life with bars on their windows and a personal alarm in their hand.
I also understand that government is about making tough choices. Life is about tough choices, but by tough, I mean strong and durable, not cruel or severe. It is vital for the recovery that we keep people in work. Unemployment reduces national wealth and tax revenues. To insist that we protect jobs is not socialist sentimentality; it is economic common sense.
People in Erith and Thamesmead earn below the average wage and have higher unemployment. One of the reasons for that is that their transport connections are poor. Thamesmead was built in the 1960s and the Jubilee line was meant to run there, but that never happened. Thirty years later, there are 30,000 residents without a station. West of Tower bridge, there are 24 crossings and to the east, just two Victorian tunnels, a ferry and a toll bridge at Dartford. It is not difficult to see that that makes accessing the work and business opportunities in the city all the more difficult for people who live where I do.
I am pleased that the London Mayor and I seem to agree on something, which is that the Abbey Wood line of Crossrail must go ahead. People living in Thamesmead can see the bright lights of the city three miles across the river, but to get there they must travel by foot, by bus, by train and by the docklands light railway, and it takes over an hour—the same amount of time it takes the business traveller from Paris or Antwerp to get to City airport, flying close over the heads of Thamesmead residents.
The people of Erith and Thamesmead are not without pride or without aspiration. They band together to run voluntary and community groups: they run local history projects, they clean the canals, they mentor young people, they serve meals at the pop-in parlours and they help the disadvantaged and elderly through their temples and churches. They are a true coalition, a coalition of the willing who just want to be given a chance.
Finally, I would say that a place such as Thamesmead will be a test of the Prime Minister’s big society. This is the big society that is meant to re-localise the economy, re-capitalise the poor and re-democratise power. If the big society is to mean anything other than a slogan, the Government need vision—and a vision of a cross-capital rail link is vital not only to the economy of London, but to that of the UK as a whole. The vision of a living wage, upgraded year on year, is vital to the fight against poverty. I hope to be a strong voice for Erith and Thamesmead residents, making sure that they are able to access the opportunities that should be available to them, living in the south-east corner of a world-class city.
Thank you for calling me, Madam Deputy Speaker. I congratulate you on your new post, and I congratulate all other Members who have spoken for the first time this afternoon.
I have listened to a number of maiden speeches over the last two weeks, in which a number of Members have wisely mentioned their local press. I would like to follow suit. In the week that followed the election that saw the constituency of Warwick and Leamington change hands for the first time in 13 years, the front page of our local paper kindly announced that a cat had been rescued. I shall display this front page in my new office to reassure me that there are issues of great importance that happen outside this House.
I want to take this opportunity to praise my predecessor. He was an honourable Member who developed a great reputation for being an outstanding constituency MP. I hope to follow his example, and I wish him well for the future. In his maiden speech 13 years ago, he observed that Members had heard little or nothing about our constituency for the past 75 years. He offered a quick briefing, and I wish to continue that tradition.
My constituency is steeped in history, from the magnificent castle in mediaeval Warwick to the elegance and splendour of our spa town of Leamington. We have a third and important town in Whitnash, and an array of Warwickshire villages with all their charm. We are diverse in age, ethnicity, occupation and belief, and we have a great deal to be proud of. We have excellent front-line services, outstanding schools, and a large population of students studying at the well-respected Warwickshire college and University of Warwick. We have household names and independent retailers. We have Aga Rangemaster, Calor Gas, National Grid and Wolseley, with its sustainable building centre. We have agriculture and manufacture. We are an oasis of opportunity. We are middle England, in terms of not only geography but demography. With a fantastic array of charities and voluntary organisations, we are a tightly bound community that has proved time and again that we can unite in challenging times.
As many will know, one name on the list of my predecessors in the House is that of a former Prime Minister, and my constituency has often been referred to as the garden of Eden. A visitor walking down the parade in Leamington, wandering around the marketplace in Warwick or driving along the Myton road, which connects the two towns, might be forgiven for thinking that we do live in a paradise, and very wonderful it is too.
However, as with all constituencies, not everyone in our community is as fortunate as a quick tour of our area might lead people to believe. We have a magnificent heritage of industry and manufacture, but the loss of that industry has been a source of rising unemployment and, indeed, poverty. Warwick and Leamington has many pockets of deprivation, and that is why I would rather make my maiden speech in this debate than in any other.
In 2005 the jobseeker’s allowance claimant count was 884; it is now 2,166. The story of one of my constituents sums up the unfairness that many see in the current system. Having been made unemployed, she claimed jobseeker’s allowance, council tax benefit and housing benefit. As someone who wanted to work, she did the responsible thing and sought new employment, and after much searching she found a job in a nearby constituency, just over 10 miles away. She earned about £120 for a 20-hour week, and with rent of £30 a week and council tax of £12 a week to pay, she was left £11 a week better off. Unfortunately, travelling to work cost her £18 a week, which meant that, unbelievably, she was made worse off by trying to do the right thing.
At a time when people speak of the need for higher pay and bonuses to attract people in top jobs, surely it cannot be right for people at the bottom to be given no encouragement to move into employment when they see that they will receive no financial benefit from their labours. We need to create new jobs locally. That is easier said than done, but there are reasons for great optimism. Warwick and Leamington has massive potential to attract new and diverse industry and create new jobs, not least in the thriving video games industry and the green economy, which are our particular strengths. Once we assembled parts for the automotive sector. What is to prevent us from using the same skills to assemble solar panels? The seeds of future growth are here, and we must create the environment in which they can flourish.
The example of my constituent shows that it is not a question of people being unwilling to work; those who refuse to work can be penalised for not doing so. It is a question of making it financially beneficial to people who understand the benefits of working in terms of self-confidence, self-belief and social standing. Last Friday, I visited both the jobcentre and the citizens advice bureau. We must do all we can to reduce their work load and to reduce the anxieties that have been brought on by spiralling debt and crushing welfare dependency.
I am aware of the enormous expectation that the people of Warwick and Leamington have of our new Government and of me as their representative in this place. I know that our Prime Minister is as ambitious for the country as I am for my constituency. What better way to start realising that ambition than by reforming the welfare system and creating the big society that the Prime Minister has spoken about—a fairer society in which those who can work have the opportunity to do so and those who cannot get the help they need?
It is a real privilege to follow the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White), whom I congratulate on his maiden speech. I congratulate him also on his real and obvious passion for tackling the problems of poverty that still exist in this country, as that is a passion I share.
I wish to draw attention to a series of decisions that have been made by the Government that are either very serious mistakes or a damning indictment of their commitment to tackling poverty that we heard earlier. Before I came to the House, I worked in the children’s charity sector. Many charities such as Barnardo’s and Save the Children are still, despite a great deal of Government support and intervention, grappling with the terrible problem of child poverty. The roots of that problem run very deep, as we have heard. I want to draw attention to one issue in particular that I think has been overlooked.
Many of the children who are growing up in poverty have parents who work, as the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington has discussed. If we are serious about tackling poverty, we have to make work pay. Will the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), consider adopting a living wage policy in her Department and urge her colleagues across government to do the same? Will she also commit to making sure that we have a definition of a living wage outside London in constituencies such as mine where people are also really struggling and would benefit strongly from such a policy?
I want to talk a little about the households living in poverty in which people have not worked for generations. Many hon. Members have talked about this today. We have heard a lot about the legacy that this Government inherited when they took office, but what about the legacy left to the Labour Government? Young people who left education in the 1980s and 1990s and were unable to find work have since had children who have grown up in households where nobody has ever worked. I know that because I have seen it on the front line in my work for the Children’s Society. Supporting families to change that situation takes time.
I am concerned by what we have been hearing about the Sure Start programme. One reason why Sure Start has been an important innovation is that it unites families from across the social spectrum. It brings children and their parents into contact with other children and their parents right across the income scale. It helps to build confidence for that reason without any of the social stigmas that can become attached to services that are reserved simply for the poor. I have seen that for myself in the Beech Hill and Ince Sure Start centres in my constituency; it could not be more important to those two communities to have those services that unite people. In his opening remarks, the Minister talked about visiting communities and seeing for himself where people face these challenges. Well, some of us live in them and some of us represent them, and our message to the Minister is that he should not restrict those services but preserve them, as they are hugely valuable to the whole community.
For the same reasons, I also want to discuss the future jobs fund. I have heard today that the Government have, as well as deciding to axe the future jobs fund, announced that £750,000 is to be taken out of the working neighbourhoods fund in Wigan. Together, those two things will cripple my constituency. Despite its relatively short life, the future jobs fund has already brought real benefits to the young people in Wigan. I know that because, yesterday, I received a letter from the chairman of my local Age Concern, writing in a personal capacity. My hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) referred to it earlier. I shall briefly read out the comments because they do much more justice to his real anger than I can with my words. He says:
“Currently we have two able, bright and personable young people who have come to us under the auspices of the Future Jobs Fund. I am angry on their behalf that this scheme has been cancelled. I am even more angry at the hypocrisy of current government ministers claiming that they wish to protect the jobs, particularly of the young, when these two young people find that their opportunity to gain skills and knowledge that would enhance the possibility of their gaining employment has been so casually and thoughtlessly removed.”
By taking away a scheme that guarantees a real and lasting paid job for young people who would otherwise not have one, we store up trouble for future generations. If we are not careful, we will leave a legacy every bit as devastating for future generations as the one that continues to blight so many children’s lives now. We must not repeat the legacy that was created in the 1980s and 1990s. I urge the Minister to think again.
Guess what? I, too, would like to congratulate you, Madam Deputy Speaker, on your new role. I also congratulate those who have made their maiden speeches. They show that there are some very good new Members in this Parliament. I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me today, although it is, inevitably, rather a daunting moment, not only because so many Members from the 2010 intake have spoken so well, but because we follow in the footsteps of many wonderful orators who have made history in the House.
In a maiden speech it is customary to pay tribute to one’s predecessors. In my case, it is a little difficult because Mid Derbyshire has been made up of four different constituencies, and I am the first Member to be elected for the new constituency. However, a constituency called Mid Derbyshire was created in the general election of 1885, when Sir James Alfred Jacoby was elected as the Liberal Member of Parliament. He held the seat until his death in 1909, when he was succeeded, after a by-election, by John George Hancock, also a British Liberal party politician, until 1918, when the seat was abolished. He was one of a group of trade union-sponsored Liberals who were instructed by their union to join the Labour party. He held his seat as a Labour Member, without Liberal opposition, in both 1910 elections.
Relations between the Labour and Liberal parties deteriorated after that, and they were expected to field candidates against each other at the next general election, which was anticipated to be in 1915. Hancock decided that he would rather be defined as a Liberal, so he crossed the Floor in 1915 to rejoin the Liberals. He held the seat until the constituency was abolished for the 1918 general election. He was then returned unopposed for the new Belper constituency, also once held by the well known politician Lord George Brown. Belper is in the new Mid Derbyshire constituency.
My constituency comprises part of West Derbyshire, now Derbyshire Dales, part of Amber Valley, part of Erewash and part of Derby North. Hon. Members now representing two of those seats have already paid great tribute to their predecessors in their maiden speeches, and my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Jessica Lee) is sitting right behind me—I hope she will be called today. The three Members who preceded me and left at the election worked hard for their constituents and were well known by them. I will try to be as diligent and hard-working in my duties in the years to come. The fourth Member is, of course, my right hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire Dales (Mr McLoughlin), who is a long way from retirement. He remains a very successful Member and is part of the new coalition Government.
Before saying more about my right hon. Friend, I want to say how delighted I am to represent the people of the new constituency of Mid Derbyshire. It is a wonderful mixture of urban and rural, and at its heart is part of a world heritage site—the Derwent Valley Mills, birthplace of the factory system. The Derwent Valley Mills and the industrial revolution influenced north America, Europe and, indeed, the world. There are some beautiful areas, including Dale abbey where a hermit lived in a cave. Some of Derby’s suburbs are very pleasant, as is the village of Little Eaton where I have lived for many years.
Mid Derbyshire is on the edge of the beautiful Peak district, part of the soft landscape of the southern Derbyshire dales. Derbyshire building society was one of the major employers, although as I said yesterday it is about to close; but we do have the relatively new Derby university.
I am fortunate to have known my right hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire Dales since just after his narrow by-election win in 1986, when the then Labour Derbyshire county council decided to abolish, not for educational reasons but from political spite, the sixth form at the school that my children attended. As chairman of the school parent teacher association, it was left to me to lead the campaign to save the sixth form of what was, and is, the most successful comprehensive in the county. We even had an Adjournment debate in this place. It did not start until after 3 o’clock in the morning but it was attended by more than 150 parents, staff and children. The campaign was successful and the sixth form was saved.
Since those times my interest in international development has grown through starting a project in Uganda with students from two of the four secondary schools in Mid Derbyshire. We have been to Uganda to see what it is like for children to be brought up in a developing poor country. The project links very well with my interest in education, because we help schools over there. The students pay most of the cost of the trip, but we all fundraise to pay for the rest and for the aid that we take to the two schools that we support. Last year, £12,000 was shared between the schools. It is a good way for students from relatively comfortable backgrounds to see that others can be as successful as them. Just because the Ugandan students are poor does not mean that they cannot succeed.
Students from Ecclesbourne school in Duffield and Woodlands school in Allestree spend many of their weekends fundraising, which has included bag-packing in supermarkets, washing cars, running stalls at fairs and baking cakes for sale. The students have learned to speak in public, either at school to inspire other students to help or in local churches to explain why we have a cake stall after the service. They have also learned that fundraising is hard work.
Those young people see students in Uganda who have nothing but who are getting on with a good education without books or equipment. They study the same syllabus but without a textbook in sight, relying only on the teacher’s knowledge to learn, often by rote, from the blackboard. Their schools are in poor rural communities and it has been useful for our students to realise that from an early age Ugandan students have to fetch water from the well before walking up to seven miles to school. They do not have iPods, computers, mobile phones or the internet—luxuries that our students take for granted. The fundraising has transformed the life chances of the children we have helped in Uganda, as well as giving our students an insight into what real poverty is. I have also been to Rwanda with a Conservative party project, so I am delighted that we are committed to work towards our 0.7% international development goal.
Of course we have poverty in this country. Derbyshire does not have inner-city poverty, but there is poverty. Much of the money going to schools follows free school meal take-up, and I have been told regularly by head teachers that in a relatively affluent area, the problem is that people who suffer poverty are frightened and nervous about asking for free school meals. I would like our Government to look at how we can encourage take-up in schools where relatively fewer people are in poverty.
We need to remember that there are pockets of poverty in rural areas and in certain suburbs. I am delighted that our Government will give local authorities the freedom to spend money as best they think fit. We must ensure that hidden deprivation is not one of those things that is missed, so that the students in our schools get the best educational chance that they can.
I want to represent all the constituents of Mid Derbyshire, from whatever part of the social spectrum, and I am particularly concerned, as I said yesterday, about the problems that we will face with unemployment, given the impending closure of the head office of the Derbyshire building society. I have written to the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to ask him to consider how he can help those people to get back into work.
I, too, congratulate you, Madam Deputy Speaker, on your elevation to your new role. I am sure that you are probably getting tired of hearing such congratulations, but I wanted to add mine.
I also congratulate hon. Members on their maiden speeches. Having made mine a couple of weeks ago, I know what a daunting prospect it is. I particularly welcome the contribution by the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham). We were colleagues on Derby city council before we were elected to the House at the general election, so it is especially fitting to address the House directly after her.
Poverty is an incredibly important issue, and a recognition of its importance is shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House. In many ways it defines the sort of society in which we live. I welcome the coalition Government’s commitment to the previous Labour Government’s commitment to eradicate child poverty by 2020. The big question is, of course, how we will get there under the new regime.
I and other Labour Members strongly believe that work is indeed one of the best pathways out of poverty, but to ensure that it is a genuine pathway out of poverty, it is vital not only that we continue to support measures such as the national minimum wage and move towards a living wage, but that we recognise that we must also support initiatives such as child tax credits. Child trust funds have also made a big contribution by encouraging people to save. I very much regret that the Government have decided to do away with those funds. Particularly for families from low-income backgrounds, not to have that start in life or that incentive to continue to save and to build up a nest egg for when they reach the age of 18 is a very big mistake.
On work as a pathway out of poverty and the importance of the measures that I have identified, we must acknowledge—I used to work in welfare rights, so I have some knowledge of this—that the work disincentives that used to exist have now been addressed in large measure. Although I accept that more probably needs to be done, work has become a genuine pathway out of poverty. I stress that I am very concerned about the Conservative party’s proposals. The precise detail of some of them remains to be seen, but I would be concerned about any attempt to reduce support for things such as tax credits, which are so vital to the process of helping people into the labour market.
Of course, ensuring that employment pays is one of the most important methods of addressing poverty, but we should also acknowledge the measures that are vital in relation to tackling pensioner poverty and the fact that many disabled people also experience poverty. Again, that is why I would be concerned if measures were proposed to undermine some of the support mechanisms that we put in place. For example, concessionary travel has liberated whole swathes of older people in our country who were previously imprisoned essentially in their own homes, unable to travel beyond their immediate neighbourhoods. The pension credit system has also made a big contribution to tackling poverty, as have the cold weather payments. I remember that many elderly people simply could not afford to heat their homes in the 1980s, but those sorts of things are no longer among the concerns of many elderly people in our country because of the measures put in place by the previous Labour Government.
In the end, growth is the key to tackling poverty, so the big question is how we deliver growth in our economy so that we make the welfare payments that are so important to addressing poverty a reality. Labour Members believe that it is vital that the state and public spending play a role in ensuring that the economy continues to grow. Conservative Members say that they are sick of hearing history lessons from us, but if we do not learn the lessons from history, we will make the same mistakes. It is therefore essential that we acknowledge the role of the state in ensuring that the economy continues to grow.
For example, Bombardier, a company in my constituency, is bidding for the Thameslink contract. We hope that the announcement will come shortly and that it is in favour of Bombardier, because that will secure 2,600 jobs directly in the company, as well as a further 5,000, 6,000 or even 7,000 jobs in the supply chain. If we cut public spending and such programmes, however, that would throw 7,000, 8,000 or perhaps 9,000 people out of work, which would put more pressure on the state, because of increased unemployment benefit, and lead to the downward spiral of having to make cuts to people’s welfare provision to accommodate the diminishing tax revenue resulting from a declining economy. I therefore urge Conservative Members to learn the lessons of history because they are otherwise destined to repeat the same mistakes, and it will not be they or many Labour Members who will pay the price of those mistakes, but ordinary working-class people in my constituency and throughout the country. They will pay the price for a failed economic prospectus that was tried in the 1980s and the 1930s but proven not to work. For goodness’ sake, people need to look at their history books and learn these vital lessons.
We are hearing a lot about history from the hon. Gentleman, but the Labour party does not seem to have learned one lesson from history: whenever it has left government, the country has been more bankrupt, more in debt and with unemployment higher than when it came in. Interesting as it is to hear history lessons from the hon. Gentleman, he should perhaps look to his colleagues before he starts lecturing Conservative Members.
The hon. Gentleman ignores the fact that we have just experienced the most significant worldwide recession for 80 years. Worldwide opinion acknowledges that the previous Government’s leadership, particularly under the auspices of the former Prime Minister, is getting the world’s economy back on its feet. It is somewhat unfair for the hon. Gentleman to talk in such terms about the economic situation that the coalition Government have inherited.
As independent commentators have said on a number of occasions, without the measures put in place by the previous Government, at least 500,000 more people in this country would be out of work. The largest proportion of this country’s deficit is a direct consequence of unemployment. If the Government parties’ policies are put in place, however, I fear that unemployment will continue to grow, which will put further pressure on the public finances and mean that we will not get the growth that we desperately require.
I know that the Government parties are set on a course, but we will scrutinise very closely and expose all their shortcomings to ensure that, at the next general election, they are held to account for the actions they take.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me this opportunity to make my maiden speech. Although we are not quite neighbouring MPs, we share an excellent motorway, the M4, which connects our two constituencies.
I congratulate all those who have made some first-class maiden speeches today, two of which I shall highlight. My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) spoke passionately about her love of football—a love that I share but, the House will be delighted to know, not of the same team, Tottenham Hotspur. My hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) championed the sampling of the fine traditions of Burton’s brewing industry. I am sure that all of us suffering greatly from nerves as we headed towards making our maiden speech would have formed an orderly queue to take up his suggestion.
Following tradition, I pay tribute to my predecessor, Michael Wills, who served the North Swindon constituency for 13 years. He had a reputation for meticulous attention to detail and worked extremely hard for my fellow local residents. On my first meeting with Michael, he assured me that one day we would both be in Parliament together. How right he was. I am sure that the whole House joins me in congratulating him on his elevation to the House of Lords, where he can continue to represent the people of Swindon in a different role.
I am a local resident of North Swindon and was a councillor for 10 years, up to the day of the general election. I am grateful that the local residents did not give me a huge amount of free time in allowing me to change roles. Earlier this week, on Monday, my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) made an enlightening speech in which he set out the proud history of our town, covering its beginning as a small Saxon market town and its development through our proud railway heritage. Now, Swindon is one of the fastest growing towns in the country. In the spirit of teamwork that we show in having joint staff and joint offices, I shall not repeat the summary of history that he gave; instead, I shall focus on some of the more quirky and light-hearted facts that make our wonderful and unique town of Swindon so proud.
All maiden speakers champion the towns they represent, but I am delighted to say that I have some evidence that Swindon is as good as we all claim. In 2008, The Times said that it was the best place to buy a house—I welcome any Member who wishes to visit one of our local estate agents. We had the first example of a lending library, and I am pleased to say that two years ago we built a new £10 million central library on time and to budget—an aspiration for many Government Departments. I must say, however, that despite the fact that ours was the first lending library, it took us 40 years to replace a temporary set of portakabins, much to the annoyance of local residents. In addition, the much loved mechanics’ institute was the first example of the basis of the NHS.
When I say that I am from Swindon, many people mention roundabouts, and we are indeed famous for “the magic roundabout”. I assure those who have never embarked on the magic roundabout—a series of five roundabouts—that doing so is as daunting as making one’s maiden speech. Those who know the music industry will know that, allegedly, the famous band Oasis named themselves after our very popular local Oasis leisure centre. I am proud that Swindon is twinned with cities such as Salzgitter, Ocatal, Torun, and Murcia. In addition, thanks to the endeavours and creative skills of local resident Rebecca Warren, we now have a formal twinning arrangement with Disneyland, so the magic of Disney is now being sprinkled across Swindon and our local paper finally has some colourful coverage.
In my role as a councillor, one of my main focuses was on leisure. I played a small part in addressing the subject of this debate—poverty—because I see how sport and leisure can play a big role in raising aspirations and providing opportunities for people. As a result of the excellent work of the sports forum that we set up, we now have more than 60 voluntary sporting groups that come together to share best practice, network and work together to create greater opportunities, as well as to leverage extra funding from external organisations and the council for that work.
Swindon is a thriving sports town. When researching all the different sports other than my main passion, football, I was surprised to find the following names that have all been adopted by local sports teams—I shall be testing hon. Members later. We have Swindon Wildcats, Flames, Sonics, St George, Supermarine, Robins and, of course, Swindon Town football club, which two weeks ago I was delighted to have the opportunity to cheer on at Wembley. I am afraid, however, that we did not quite overcome the final hurdle and make it into the championship, as we lost the play-off final, but I am sure that we have good foundations for next season. As a diehard blue Conservative, it is the only time people will catch me shouting, “Come on you reds!”
Turning from Swindon to the poverty debate with a rather tenuous link, I am concerned about the long-term quality-of-life issues arising from new build development. In the 10 years in which I was a councillor, I represented a predominantly new build area. When I was first elected in 2000, we had just 3,000 houses—I was very grateful when it took me just a few hours to deliver leaflets to all of them—but when I stood down, there were nearly 10,000 houses, and it took many weeks to deliver leaflets. I saw lots of examples of good development—I live in the area myself—but there were examples, too, of things that were not good, and we are storing up problems for the future, predominantly arising from the increasingly high density of new developments.
The first area of concern stems from the lack of open spaces and parks. That was partly down to the changing classification. Green space was taken into account, but it included hedges and heritage spaces—basically, places where people could not put down jumpers for goal posts. I have a great fear that future generations will miss out on the inspiration of sport. When I was young and Wimbledon was on for a fortnight, we would play tennis. When the Tour de France was on, out came the bikes. When the World and FA cups were on, out came the football. When the Ashes cricket was on, out came the cricket bats, and I was proud to emulate the failings often of some or our national sporting icons.
Without those open spaces, it is no surprise that child obesity has increased. Too often, we look at improving leisure centres, which is a commendable thing, but the lion’s share of sporting activity takes place in open spaces. I am concerned that the lack of such space will fuel antisocial behaviour, as young people’s endless, enthusiastic energy will not be burnt off.
Parking provision is another problem. It is understandable that the then Government should try to encourage residents to transfer to public transport—I support that principle—but local residents are far more creative than that and would find parking spaces on pavements and roundabouts, causing all sorts of problems, particularly for parents with pushchairs trying to get to local schools, as they had to go on to the road. All too often, emergency vehicles could not get access to roads, which was a serious concern.
The size of household gardens has shrunk by a third since 1960. In fact, 3.3 million people do not have access to their own private garden, so it is no wonder that the amount of time that children spend in their back garden under parental supervision has halved since the 1960s, fuelling child obesity. I enjoyed the outdoors, but too often children nowadays miss out on that.
I am concerned about unbalanced development. In theory, all developments are supposed to have a mix of family homes, private homes, affordable homes and retirement homes, but in my ward I kept seeing developers targeting family homes. We had a high concentration of young children, but despite the fact that every single primary school had expanded to the maximum capacity that the land would allow—and often beyond that—we still could not provide sufficient places in the most popular schools. We need a better mix of development so we can spread the burden on local infrastructure and services.
I sometimes question developer conduct—I certainly never received a Christmas card from developers in the ward that I represented, and I was quite proud of that—for two reasons. The first is their inability to adopt roads—I notice there is an Adjournment debate on the issue later—and the fact that they take far too long to do so. In particular, the moment the last house is sold, all too often maintenance falls away, much to the frustration of residents who are still paying council tax. Secondly, I am concerned about developers who create storage sites, which become an eyesore for local residents.
Sometimes in politics there is an element of luck. As I prepared my speech over breakfast the other day, I turned on the news only to see that the Government had announced that they were going to scrap minimum density targets and increase the power to protect back gardens. I was delighted to hear that and, as the Member for North Swindon, I will be a strong supporter of those proposals, and I will do all that I can to make sure that in future we have better developments that enhance the quality of life of people living on them.
It is a pleasure, Madam Deputy Speaker, to see you in the Chair. It has also been a pleasure this afternoon to listen to so many eloquent maiden speeches. I made my maiden speech two days ago, and it is amazing how quickly one can feel like an old timer in this House.
I am delighted that we are having a debate so early in this new Parliament about the vital issue of poverty in this country. I think that there is agreement across the House about the damage that poverty does in blighting lives, the harm that it does to our community and the waste of potential that poverty amounts to.
I pay tribute to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions for the tremendous work that he has done, and with and through the Centre for Social Justice, in drawing attention to the impact of poverty and the way in which it has destroyed and damaged so many lives. I pay tribute to the way in which he and colleagues have raised our awareness of the complexity of factors that contribute to poverty. I am pleased to welcome him and other Ministers who have a strong identity with the cause to their roles today.
It is important that we take care to disentangle the causes and consequences of poverty, and some of what I have heard from those on the Government Benches suggests a little confusion on that front. It is certainly true that lone parents face an exceptionally high risk of poverty, but it is also the case that poverty and the stress of trying to make ends meet can contribute to family and relationship breakdown. It is important that we help to sustain relationships and keep families together, and ensure that they have adequate resources to remove that stress and concern.
It is also important that we note who faces a particular risk of poverty, and why—disabled people and people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds; where one lives; unequal access to the labour market; and unequal access to and experience within the labour market. Those are the structural drivers of poverty that it is important public policy addresses.
I think we are all agreed that it is important to make work pay if work is to be a secure route out of poverty for as many people as possible. However, we do not make work incentives by making those out of work even worse off. The way to make work pay is to move to higher wages, and I particularly endorse the call of my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) for a move towards the living wage. We make work pay by ensuring that the support is in place to enable people to get into work and then to progress and upskill to improve their prospects at work. We make work pay by improving incentives, and I welcome the attention that the Government offer to pay to addressing the high marginal deduction rates faced by some people as they move into or increase hours of work on low pay.
However, it is also important that we acknowledge that life for those out of work and on benefits is not a life of luxury. I challenge all hon. Members to consider how any of us would manage on a disposable income of £65.45 a week. It is not just my contention that benefits in this country and the relative poverty line at 60% of median income force people into a lifestyle that is beyond sustainable; it is the contention of the research of the highly respected Joseph Rowntree Foundation and its work on minimum income standards, which reflects the wide public perception of what individuals and families need to live. That perception and the work on minimum income standards show clearly that in setting our aspiration at a relative poverty line of 60% of median income, we fall some way short of what the public themselves believe is adequate in order to raise a family and make ends meet.
I also say to Government Members that when evolving policy it is important that we learn from what has and has not worked. I am sure that they will want to do that. During the 1980s and 1990s child poverty doubled, but since 1999 the number of children in poverty has been reduced by 500,000, and that is not by accident. Child poverty has gone down in the years in which Governments have invested in family incomes, through benefits and tax credits, and it has increased in the years in which Governments have not made that investment. The Labour Government’s policy of seeking to reduce poverty through increases in tax credits and benefits is not a failed policy; on the contrary, if we had had more of it we might have been further ahead than we are today.
I therefore caution Ministers to consider carefully what the evidence tells them, and to take careful account of the significant expertise that exists outside the House. I was pleased by the almost entirely cross-party support that the Child Poverty Bill secured during its passage through the previous Parliament. The Child Poverty Act 2010, as it became, put in place a recognition of the need to sustain the poverty targets, confirmed the importance of the relative income poverty target and set it once more at the 60% median line. Picking up a point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) made earlier, I note that the Act also acknowledged that, in seeking to set a realistic target, we should take account of what our European and international neighbours are able to achieve. Some of us who were not Members at the time ventured to suggest that the target could have been a little more ambitious, but we have a realistic and achievable target. We know that, because other countries are able to achieve it, and we must do so, too.
I look forward to the creation of the child poverty commission, for which the Act has made provision, and to the strategy that the Government have committed to bring forward by March next year in order to demonstrate the progress that they intend to make so that they can bring about the achievement of those targets. That strategy must focus on good jobs, holistic support and adequate incomes for all. We have learned enough to know that those are the ingredients of a successful anti-poverty strategy, and I look forward to the proposals that the Government bring to the House.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I join all colleagues who have spoken this afternoon in welcoming you to your new position? I also congratulate those colleagues who have made their maiden speeches—and some excellent maiden speeches there have been, too. I just hope that mine continues in the same vein.
I represent the wonderful and stunningly beautiful Calder Valley, which at more than 22 miles long has just five small but incredibly diverse townships, Todmorden, Hebden Bridge, Ripponden, Elland and, where I live, Brighouse. They are complemented by a cluster of villages, all nestled on some of Yorkshire’s finest moorland.
The constituency was established at the 1983 general election, and since then it has had only two MPs. Some of our older, established Members will remember the first one, Sir Donald Thompson, for his wit and good old Yorkshire charm. As a Member for more than 18 years, he was a hard-working constituency MP whom most people still talk about today when one knocks on doors. Sir Donald, as he was affectionately known, was a solid, stout, no-nonsense Yorkshireman, who worked his way up through the Whips Office before joining the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food as a junior Minister. Sadly, he passed away in 2005, but he is and always will be fondly remembered by the people of Calder Valley.
Chris McCafferty, who had been the MP for the past 13 years, was also known as a good constituency MP. She was a member of the Procedure Committee and the International Development Committee. More importantly, since 1999 she has been a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and she has won a great deal of respect for her commitment to overseas development, sexual health and, most important, the rights of women.
Those were two good, strong local MPs, who, in the true spirit of Calder Valley, excelled in many ways, like so many more of the local people who were born there. In Brighouse and Rastrick, for example, we have the world-famous brass band who, in 1977, stayed at No. 2 in the singles charts for nine whole weeks with their version of “The Floral Dance”. Even today, they are considered to be the best public subscription band in the country.
Hebden Bridge saw the birth of Sir Bernard Ingham, who was Margaret Thatcher’s press secretary and a newspaper columnist. Mytholmroyd saw the birth of Ted Hughes, the late poet laureate, who passed away in 1998. His first wife, Sylvia Plath, is buried in our hilltop gem of a village, Heptonstall. Earlier this afternoon, two colleagues mentioned John Wesley. In Heptonstall, we have the oldest Methodist chapel in continuous use not only in Britain, but in the whole world. I am incredibly proud to say that it is also a place where my three beautiful children all went to Sunday school.
Who could forget the town of Todmorden, which has had more Nobel prize winners than 28 countries? It also has the same number of Nobel prize winners as a further 10 countries; and the country of New Zealand as a whole boasts only one more prize winner than Todmorden. Sir John Cockcroft won the physics prize for splitting the nucleus of the atom, and Sir Geoffrey Wilkinson pioneered inorganic chemistry and transition metal catalysts. The amazing thing about these two men is that despite their being a 24-year gap between them, they were both taught at Todmorden grammar school by the very same science teacher, one Mr Luke Sutcliffe—an amazing teacher who taught two amazing students.
That brings me nicely to another amazing group of students. I want to talk about the educational attainment levels of looked-after children in our country. This is about poverty on an amazing scale—educational poverty. Incredibly, Sir Donald Thompson, in his own maiden speech some 31 years ago, talked about the attainment levels of children through education back then. Although the percentage of year 11 looked-after children who achieve five A* to C grades at GCSE has doubled in the past 10 years, it is incredibly sad that that number still only accounts for 14% of them. Nationally, more than 13% of our looked-after children still miss more than 25 days of schooling, sometimes because of exclusions. A third of previously looked-after children are not in education, employment or training at the age of 19. A total of 22% of persistent young offenders were being looked after by social services, and a staggering further 27% had been looked after previously.
Earlier, a colleague talked about aspiration. In 2005, a research report by the Frank Buttle Trust showed that only one care leaver in every 100 children goes to university—a staggering 1%. In 2008, “Care Matters”, the ministerial stock-take report by the then Department of Children, Schools and Families, showed that 7% of care leavers went to university. Whatever the current figure is—whether it is 1% or 7%—it compares with 43% of all other children. Frankly, that is not good enough.
In Calderdale, where I have spent the past three years as lead member for children’s services, I am glad to say that our looked-after children do significantly better than the national picture. Sadly, however, it is still not good enough. We have a fabulous team in Calderdale who strive for excellence in attainment for our looked-after children. I am incredibly proud of two of the last things that I did as lead member before coming to this House. First, I secured money to fund a virtual head teacher for our looked-after children in Calderdale. In itself that is not unusual, but it is an important and significant step forward for those children. Secondly, under the superb leadership of Councillor Stephen Baines, the Conservative leader of Calderdale council, last year we became only the second authority in the United Kingdom, after Rotherham, to introduce a virtual library so that every child under the age of five gets a free book monthly. That is unusual in itself, but in conjunction with the facilities at Sure Start children’s centres, where parents who cannot read are also taught to do so, it is a perfect way of starting to break the cycle of poverty.
I am proud also to say today that I have written to several prominent local people from Calder Valley to ask whether they will sit on my MP’s charity, which will be established purely to consider what value we can add to driving the attainment levels of looked-after children. That is intended not to replace what the local authority does but to add value and raise awareness of the need to support our looked-after children and help break the poverty cycle.
I support the Government’s policy on poverty and look forward to playing my part within the House and outside in helping to reduce it.
I, too, welcome you to your new role, Mr Deputy Speaker, and thank you for coming to speak to me prior to your election.
I am grateful for the opportunity to make my maiden speech today in this historic Chamber in a debate on poverty, a subject about which I feel strongly. I listened with interest to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) as he spoke with real passion about his constituency and about poverty.
Most importantly, I thank the people of Brentford and Isleworth constituency for giving me the privilege of representing them. I follow in the footsteps of distinguished politicians including Sir Harold Paton Mitchell, Lord Hayhoe and Nirj Deva. I should today like to acknowledge the work of my recent predecessor Ann Keen, who served Brentford and Isleworth for the past 13 years. She was a well-known MP, had the support of many constituents and was well regarded for her experience in health care. I am also very grateful to the many people who helped me along the way since I first stood for Parliament in 1997. Many who have helped me over the years are in the Chamber today, and I thank them for their support and guidance during my long journey to make it here.
I was delighted to be selected for the constituency of Brentford and Isleworth, because London is not only my birthplace—just across the river at St Thomas’s hospital—but has been my home for the past 20 years. It is a creative, successful, diverse and stimulating place. It is, and will remain, a city of opportunity and dreams.
My constituency is just up-river from Westminster, in a beautiful part of west London. It starts at Chiswick and continues north of the river to Hounslow, winding through the historic towns of Brentford, Isleworth, Osterley and Syon. The constituency is an important crossroads for London, as it is where the River Brent meets the River Thames and where the Great West road meets the North and South circular roads. In ancient history, it was the meeting place for ancient British tribes, and it was where Caesar forded the river on his approach to London. We have more green parks than anywhere else in London, and we are also fortunate enough to have five heritage houses in the constituency.
The area is famous for its football and its nylons, its broadcasters and businesses, its brewers and the Brompton folding bicycle, its impresarios and inventors. Lubricated by some decades of Fuller’s brewing, we are the silicon valley of west London with some of the most prestigious high-tech, media and pharmaceutical companies, such as GlaxoSmithKline, which is now prospering on Brentford’s golden mile. I hope that the area, which was the motor of the new prosperity in the 1930s with Hoover and Gillette, will power the new economic era that this Government are eager to create.
The constituency has been home to many notable residents over the years, including the famous artists William Hogarth, Turner, Pope, Yeats and Vincent van Gogh. It is also home to Brentford football club, which is rightly proud of its ninth place in its first season in league one, although it is naturally aiming for the premier league. I am ever the optimist. The club has recently been awarded the prestigious community mark by Business in the Community—the first English football league club to be recognised with that award for its outstanding work in the community.
Multicultural and cosmopolitan, the Brentford and Isleworth constituency is a harmonious cohesion of communities and an example to the rest of the country. I am proud to represent such a diverse and historic constituency. It is a place that demonstrates what London is all about and has a history almost as exciting as its future. It is a unique and vibrant place that people travel to and through, and preserving the balance of those two groups is vital. I am delighted that both the Prime Minister and the Mayor of London have supported the campaign against the third runway, and have already delivered on that election promise. Quality of life is something that should be above politics. I hope that all my election promises will be as easy and quick to implement.
At the election, my constituents voted for change, and this Parliament represents the biggest change in Members for many years. It is a new Parliament in more ways than one. It must adapt to changing times and adopt different methods. If it is new politics, it must also be genuine change. Let us be the change that we want to see in the world.
I am sure that most hon. Members would agree that we need to rebuild trust in politicians. To do this, this place needs to be representative of the communities it serves. In one important respect, this House has further to go. Women remain a minority in this place, but are a majority in the country. That cannot and should not be the case. For many years I have been, and will continue to be, an advocate of encouraging more women into politics, irrespective of their views. Imagine how different the world would have been if another woman, in another London seat and in another time, had decided that the odds were insurmountable. Small in number we may still be in this House, but there is an old saying in business—“If you want a job done well, give it to a busy woman.”
Our task in this House is not only to rebuild people’s trust in politics but to rebuild the economy. We face many and significant challenges as we attempt to tackle the national debt and set our country firmly on the journey to recovery and prosperity that we all want. We must do that if we want to address poverty. We now have a coalition Government to lead us through these difficult times. I hope that all hon. Members will do everything in their power to put country before party and work together to find the right solutions. These are the things that not only unite us as politicians, but as people. I wholly endorse the coalition and the work that needs to be done together for the sake of the nation, but I will also never forget that I was elected as a Conservative. I will stay true to the principles and values that I hold dear and that I know will help this House in bringing about the changes that are needed in the years ahead. We cannot be less than what we are.
As a coalition, we may have to make decisions that are unpopular, but the measure of a politician is not popularity, but the great and good causes they fight for. At the heart of why hon. Members are here in this Chamber today is a vision of a different world—a world in which children can aspire and succeed whatever their background may be; where those who are ill or infirm are supported, helped and cared for; and a world in which people have aspirations to be the best and can achieve their goals and dreams. It is a world with compassion for those in real need. That is what I want to bring to this great country of ours, and I will spend every moment on these Benches seeking to deliver it, locally and nationally.
Our debate on poverty today addresses these issues. First, I wish to say a quick word about international poverty. As a former ambassador for ActionAid, I believe that whatever economic difficulties we face nationally, we must not neglect our responsibilities as a civilised nation to act to reduce world poverty. Hunger kills 3.5 million children every year—one every 10 seconds—and we must do all we can to end it.
Even closer to home, we have issues of poverty to tackle, and that is even more important now than ever before. I see that in areas across my constituency. Currently, 2.9 million children are living in poverty in this country, which prevents them from having the fair start in life that all children deserve. We will work to change this. I agree with the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) that our first task is to ensure that we give children the best education possible and give them the skills that will make a real difference to their lives. After that, it is about cutting the deficit and creating jobs for the future, so that we can create a strong and stable future for us all.
Finally, we will face many challenges in the lifetime of this Parliament, and we must do so with the courage and energy of the new intake, allied to the wisdom and experience of experienced Members. As the new MP for Brentford and Isleworth, I will take on those challenges with enthusiasm, commitment and determination, and I will stand up for what I believe in and work hard to make a real difference to those in most need. Working together, we can achieve so much more and deliver real change for our country.
I congratulate you, Mr Deputy Speaker, on your election to your post, and I am grateful to you for calling me to make my first speech to the House. I also warmly congratulate all Members, on both sides of the House, who have made their maiden speeches today on enlightening us about the many delights of their constituencies.
I am greatly honoured and humbled that the voters of Bury North have placed their trust and confidence in me to represent them. It is a great privilege. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod), I first stood for Parliament in 1997, and I had to stand four times before being elected, which is testament to the fact that perseverance pays off. My predecessor as MP for Bury North was Mr David Chaytor, who while holding very different political views from my own, always treated me with the greatest courtesy and respect. I am sure that my constituents whom he helped during the 13 years he represented the constituency would want me to thank him publicly for the work he did on their behalf. Mr Chaytor made frequent contributions in the House, particularly on education and energy.
Prior to Mr Chaytor, Bury North constituency was represented by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt). He is still fondly remembered in Bury from the 14 years he represented the constituency, and I congratulate him on his ministerial promotion to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Bury North constituency has changed little geographically since the days when it was represented by him. The latest boundary review transferred voters in three of the four polling districts in the redrawn Unsworth ward from Bury North into Bury South. The name “Bury North” reflects the fact that the constituency covers the northern part of the borough of Bury, which was formed in the 1974 local government reorganisation, when the six townships of Prestwich, Whitefield, Radcliffe, Bury, Ramsbottom and Tottington were combined to form a single metropolitan district within the Greater Manchester conurbation. It is the last three of those—Bury, Tottington and Ramsbottom—that together now comprise the current constituency of Bury North. It is, if I may say so, archetypal Lancashire territory, where the people have a strong sense of local pride, identity and community.
Bury grew quickly during the industrial revolution, on the strength of its textile and paper industries. Although those industries are now largely absent from 21st century Bury, there is much to commend it to would-be visitors. Indeed, if there are any hon. Members who have not yet booked their summer holidays, may I suggest that they need look no further than Bury? The list of attractions is wide and varied, starting with the world-famous Bury markets, where people have the chance to purchase the local delicacy, Bury black pudding. Then there is the regimental museum of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, the east Lancashire railway and the wild splendour of the moors of east Lancashire, along with the Peel tower and the Peel statue, which stands in the square in front of the great parish church, commemorating one of Bury’s most famous sons, Sir Robert Peel.
Much has been said of the changes that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made to the Conservative party, particularly with regard to increasing the number of women and the number of Members from an ethnic minority background in the parliamentary party. However, surely none of those changes is as noteworthy or striking as the fact that I, as a Yorkshireman from a working-class background, was selected to fight a seat in Lancashire. Although I was born in Sheffield, in common with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, I attended a comprehensive school in Rotherham. It must be something of a record, but this is the second time in less than half an hour that Rotherham has been mentioned, as it was by my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker). In those days, Rotherham was—and it probably still is—referred to as the “Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire”. [Hon. Members: “It still is.”] Indeed. I am sure that there was no attempt at political indoctrination, but if there was, it clearly failed.
Let me turn to the topic of today’s debate. I note that nowadays poverty comes in all sorts of technical categories. We have “severe” poverty, “relative” poverty, “absolute” poverty and “persistent” poverty, but it seems to me that, with our welfare system and the vast amounts that we spend on welfare in Britain today, there is no reason why any of our fellow citizens should be categorised as living in poverty. It is incumbent on us all to look at how we are spending our welfare budget. It is the poverty of aspiration and ambition, which is so pervasive and widespread among many in the lower socio-economic groups, that is the real problem. In that regard, I hope that perhaps my achievements can be an inspiration to others.
Finally, let me say that I intend to be a strong and independent advocate for my constituents in Bury, Ramsbottom and Tottington, speaking up for them with straightforward common sense. I believe in small government, freedom for the individual, less bureaucracy and red tape, an end to political correctness and restoring the full sovereignty of this Parliament, free from control by the European Union. It is for those causes that I will be fighting during my time in this House.
I welcome you, Mr Deputy Speaker, to your new role, and I thank you for allowing me the opportunity to make my maiden speech in the House today. I congratulate the Members who have preceded me, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), who has just made a magnificent speech. I congratulate other Members on both sides of the House on making eloquent speeches, which I hope I can live up to today.
I must say how delighted and proud I am to be elected to represent the good people of my home town constituency. They have shown a great deal of faith in me, which I intend to repay over the course of my time in the House. I aim to be an excellent constituency representative and to work diligently for my constituents with the same enthusiasm, passion and old-fashioned hard work that I showed during the election campaign.
The Nuneaton constituency in the fine county of Warwickshire in the heart of our country was formed in 1885, following the Redistribution of Seats Act 1885. From that time until the second world war, the seat regularly changed hands between parties of all persuasions. After the second world war, however, the seat became somewhat of a Labour stronghold. That lasted until the general election of 1983, by which time the seat included several wards from the borough of Rugby.
Mr Lewis Stevens became the first Conservative post-war Member for Nuneaton. He was regarded as a hard-working and conscientious Member who was one of the best attendees in the House during his time here and had an excellent voting record. He was also extremely well respected within the constituency. Mr Stevens, who still lives in Nuneaton today, has been a good personal friend, to whom I have always been able to look for advice and support. I thank him for that. It is a great privilege for me to join Lewis in such an exclusive club as only the second Conservative Member for Nuneaton since 1935.
In 1992, I cast my first vote for Mr Stevens, although it was not perhaps the luckiest of omens because unfortunately he was sadly defeated by Mr Bill Olner. From 1992 until the Dissolution of Parliament earlier this year, Mr Bill Olner served the constituents of Nuneaton. In my experience, Bill was a reasonable and gentlemanly character, who was a loyal supporter of the Labour Government. I am aware that he seemed to be well liked on all sides of the House. He was a prominent local figure, and like my good self, before his election he served for many years on the Nuneaton and Bedworth borough council before eventually becoming its leader—a privilege that I also enjoyed. Bill was also involved in the establishment of the Mary Ann Evans hospice and is still the president of that fine organisation today. I would like to thank Mr Olner for his work and service to the people of Nuneaton, and I wish him well on his retirement.
The latest incarnation of the constituency sees the wards from the borough of Rugby that came into it in 1983 returned to the constituency of Rugby. I now formally welcome the North Warwickshire borough wards of Hartshill, Arley and Whitacre to the constituency. It was apparent during the election campaign that many constituents from these wards were mostly unaware of the boundary changes. There appears to have been a most unfortunate lack of consultation, from which the House should perhaps learn when we conduct the reorganisation that is outlined in the coalition document.
Both the urban and rural areas of the constituency at one time relied heavily on the industries of mining and mineral extraction, much of which has now ceased, with the notable exception of Daw Mill colliery— the single largest coal-producing colliery in the UK. The colliery is situated right on the border where the constituencies of Nuneaton and North Warwickshire meet.
Nuneaton itself was traditionally an industrial town known for textiles and manufacturing, but like many constituencies it has changed dramatically in the post-war period. The traditional industries have given way, and in recent years, due to its convenient geographical location and unparalleled transport links at the heart of the motorway network, Nuneaton has become an excellent distribution hub. Companies such as RS Components and Dairy Crest have their national distribution centres within the constituency. Other major companies such as Holland & Barrett have their headquarters in the constituency.
Manufacturing is still very much alive, with a number of small and medium-sized enterprises that work in the supply chain to the car, aviation and defence industries. I am aware from speaking to local business leaders that those industries depend considerably on available credit for both cashflow and development. Many have struggled through the current recession, and continue to do so. I hope very much that the new Government will be instrumental in ensuring that credit is made available to SMEs, particularly those engaged in manufacturing. They are vital to our economy, particularly in the west midlands.
Nuneaton also has a fantastic town centre which has done exceptionally well to fend off the challenges from the big cities—the likes of Coventry, Birmingham and Leicester. A key to the success of the town centre is the vibrant and historic street market, which has operated in the town since the charter of 1226 and is going strong to this day, winning the accolade of the UK’s best market in 2009 and best market attraction in 2010. Those are proud achievements. However, in 2010 our traditional markets face serious challenges, and we must recognise them if the markets are to survive the test of time as they have so far.
The constituency has been home to a number of famous sons and daughters. Among the most notable is the Victorian novelist George Eliot, born at South Farm, Arbury, as Mary Ann Evans. She adopted the name George Eliot to overcome the prejudice against female writers that existed at the time. Her works include “Adam Bede”, “The Mill on the Floss” and “Silas Marner”. She was inspired by Nuneaton’s Arbury estate, the jewel in whose crown is Arbury hall, built during the reign of Elizabeth I. Arbury hall is still recognised as one of the most authentic stately homes of the era. A previous owner of the estate, Francis Newdegate, represented Nuneaton in this very House, and the Newdegates are still the owners and custodians of the estate. Although Nuneaton is not necessarily renowned as a tourist destination, it does attract many tourists from as far afield as Japan, who come to see where George Eliot was inspired to write such great works.
Probably the most famous son of Nuneaton was the late entertainer Larry Grayson, who Members of a certain age may remember entertaining us on Saturday nights during the 1970s and 1980s as the effervescent host of television’s “The Generation Game”. They may recall such sayings as “Shut that door”. Nuneaton is also linked to two former giants of this House, Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone, fierce rivals who both owned land in Nuneaton. The original deeds with which the pieces of land were transferred are still on display in Nuneaton and the neighbouring town of Bedworth.
Nuneaton is a friendly and homely place in which to live, and on the whole still enjoys an excellent community spirit. Demographically, the constituency is very diverse. We have areas of relative affluence, but pockets of real deprivation. In fact, three wards in the constituency are in the bottom 20% in the country. Over the past 13 years the last Government made much of the need to narrow the gap between rich and poor in such wards and ensure that child poverty ended, and substantial amounts were spent during that time, but outcomes were often not proportionate to expenditure.
Although well intentioned, the last Government received very little for their money in terms of social mobility and a reduction in the gap between the rich and the poor, and they have further fuelled a culture of benefit dependency in which children grow up seeing parents and grandparents who have never worked as their role models, in which people are better off living apart than living together, and in which there is no incentive to work because of the fear of becoming worse off.
I must say that I am enthused by the coalition document, and particularly the work conducted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), with his practical and pragmatic ideas to simplify the benefits system, help people into work, and prioritise early intervention which will help our most deprived communities. I am sure that the new Government’s commitment to such measures as the pupil premium and support for further education colleges and universities will give the young people of my constituency the educational opportunity that will make them more socially mobile, raise their aspirations, unlock untapped potential and let individuals take control of their own lives once more.
I particularly welcome the new Government’s commitment to providing an additional 50,0000 apprenticeships, which I am sure will engage and enthuse many young people who do not have the necessary aptitude for—or, more often, are not attracted to—further academic studies. I hope that many of those apprentices will be employed in Nuneaton. I am also convinced that there is no better way of regenerating our areas of deprivation than to create an environment in which the private sector can thrive. We must reduce regulation and business taxes and get credit moving, so that businesses can create the jobs that the skills provided by our Government will deserve.
Let me sum up by again thanking the people of Nuneaton, whom I now represent. I will work hard and to the best of my ability properly to represent them both in the constituency and in the House. I will do whatever I can to make a contribution that will have a more positive effect on their lives.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Deputy Speaker. May I congratulate you on your election? Having just fought my first election, I know how arduous it can be, so I congratulate you on having fought a second one so soon after the first.
It has been a pleasure to listen to the maiden speeches of so many hon. Members on both sides of the House today. I envy the fact that so many people are post-maiden, while I still have that ordeal ahead. At least, unlike earlier today, I can speak to a hushed and listening House, although perhaps Hansard can show that that is because there is quite a lot of green space on the Opposition Benches. I do not, by contrast, envy anybody their constituency as I think that I represent quite the nicest bit of this great country. The constituency of Devizes encompasses a large chunk of central Wiltshire. We have the vibrant market towns of Devizes, Marlborough, Tidworth, Durrington and Ludgershall, as well as the armed forces garrisons at Tidworth, Netheravon, Bulford, Larkhill and Upavon. We have 111 beautiful villages, the neolithic monument at Avebury, miles of rolling chalk landscape and the tranquil Pewsey vale. It is wonderful and I urge all hon. Members to visit as soon as possible.
We host the Devizes to Westminster canoe race, which some might say is an easier way of getting here than fighting a general election. We are also home to the Wadworth brewery, which brews with pride the famous 6X beer. That is why I am such a fervent supporter of community pubs and why I would like taxes on beer to be lowered when the economic circumstances that we have inherited improve.
There are many useful lessons in the Devizes constituency for budding politicians to learn, and I shall mention a couple of them. In the Devizes Market place there is a cross bearing the legend of Ruth Pierce, a market-woman who, when doing a bit of dodgy dealing in the Market place, said, “God shall strike me down if I am found to be telling a lie.” She was struck down immediately, bearing the proof of that lie in her hand. I think that is a valuable lesson for politicians when making speeches.
The need to create legislation that endures is also obvious in my constituency. The oldest piece of legislation never to be repealed was passed by the Parliament of 1267 that met in Marlborough, so there is another lesson to be learned about passing legislation that stands the test of time.
The legendary Devizes Caen Hill lock flight on the wonderful Kennet and Avon canal, which is the longest in-water canal in the British isles, shows us what local energy and activism can do. It was the local business people of that town who paid for the canal to come to the top of the hill, where Devizes sits, when it would have been so much easier for it just to go around it. Energy, activism and a refusal to “go around” are all things that my predecessor, Michael Ancram, demonstrated abundantly. When he was elected to represent Devizes in 1992 he was already an experienced politician, having first been elected in 1974. In 1979, he beat a young Scottish Labour politician—one Gordon Brown—for the seat of Edinburgh, South. It took another 31 years for my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) to emulate that feat by beating the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) in the general election.
Michael’s distinguished political career spanned almost four decades and took in the roles of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, shadow Foreign Secretary, shadow Defence Secretary and chairman and deputy leader of the Conservative party. While I might, in my wildest moments or in my cups, aspire to follow in his political footsteps, it is his personal characteristic of unfailing courtesy, his dedicated work on behalf of his constituents and his great love for the part of Wiltshire that he represented that I would most like to emulate. Indeed, it is my great love for Wiltshire, which has been my family’s home for the last decade, that has brought me into politics.
I live in a small Wiltshire village, so I have seen at first hand the damage to rural Britain that was caused by the last Government—possibly the most urban-minded Government that Britain has ever seen. Our farmers have struggled with mountains of red tape, unchecked animal disease and an indifferent Government who were not interested in buying British food or dealing with the dishonest food labelling regime. We have had multiple grandiose regional spatial strategies in Wiltshire, but we still lack affordable housing, transport links and the broadband infrastructure that is so important for building a living and working countryside. A shocking legacy of the previous Government is the NHS quangocracy, which means that my constituency has the worst ambulance response times in the region and no minor injuries unit.
However, the lacklustre state of the rural economy and embedded rural poverty trouble me most. Employment in my constituency—that great driver-out of poverty—is still weak, and unemployment has more than doubled in the past five years. As the former Government’s rural adviser said, there are huge traditional barriers to gaining employment in rural areas: poor public transport, less training and less guidance provision—a bit of new Labour gobbledegook that means that we do not get as many jobcentres per head of the population in rural Britain.
There is genuine poverty in rural Britain, and it is often well hidden behind a chocolate-box façade. Examples of that hidden poverty include the pensioner who is too proud to claim benefits; the family travelling 40 or 50 miles on poorly maintained roads with high petrol prices to get to work; the unskilled labourer laid off when the nearest job is 40 miles away, and the single mother who came to my surgery who is sleeping on her parents’ sofa because she cannot get on the housing list. We need to tackle those issues, and I know that my constituents do not feel that the previous Government listened to them. This Government will not overlook them.
No discussion of my constituency could be complete without a mention of the armed forces. As my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray), likes to say, I am the Member of Parliament for most of the British Army. That is a small exaggeration, but my constituency is home to more than 11,000 soldiers as well as at least the same number of dependants, not to mention the several thousand Ministry of Defence civil servants. That is why I am so proud to support the armed forces. I know that all Members of Parliament do so, and many of us on these Benches welcome the imminent strategic defence review and a Government who are more supportive of our current operational commitments.
I was not successful today in the private Members’ ballot. I wanted to introduce a Bill to make Remembrance day a national holiday so that all generations can understand the sacrifices that our armed forces have made and pay their respects to our past and serving troops. I assure hon. Members that they will be hearing from me about that in future, and I would welcome the support of Members of all parties to get it done.
Although the name of my constituency is derived from the Latin “ad divisas”—I did not learn that at Nailsea comprehensive school—or “on the boundaries”, reflecting the town’s historical position on the edge of two local manors, I want the people of Devizes no longer to feel that they are on the edge of policy making, on the political boundaries or forgotten by the Government. Instead, I want them to know that their aims and aspirations are at the heart of our Government’s outlook. It is my job to make that happen; it is a job that I am proud to do.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to make my maiden speech today. I welcome you to your position—I will just mention that I voted for you.
I applaud all hon. Members who have made their maiden speeches today. My hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Ms Bagshawe) in particular left me feeling somewhat inadequately prepared. The hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) referred to a former Member for the seat whose constituents had a whip-round to pay his salary. It is beginning to feel a bit like that round here at the moment. I especially congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), whom I follow. She has left me quite a challenge.
First, I thank my constituents for sending me here. It is a privilege to be given the opportunity to represent them, and I give my assurance that I will do so to the very best of my ability. As a new Member with a new constituency, I am often asked where Meon Valley is. My constituency sits in the southern part of Hampshire, to the south and east of Winchester, and to the north and west of Portsmouth. It was made up of the bottom half of Michael Mates’s seat and the bottom half of Mark Oaten’s seat—that description has raised the odd eyebrow.
We take in the beautiful green lush Meon valley itself, with life revolving around small market towns, but the bulk of the population live in the south-east corner of the constituency, in Waterlooville, Cowplain, Hart Plain and Horndean. Living there are people I describe as bedrock Britain—many of them ex-services—the very engine of our country. Many of them are finding life increasingly difficult, a subject to which I shall return before I conclude.
The constituency contains many highlights, and given his well known evocation of the English countryside, the right hon. Sir John Major would be comfortable visiting us. In Hambledon, we have a village that can boast the first record of its cricket club in 1756. The club can claim to have given us much of what we recognise in the modern game, and was the focal point for the sport until the MCC took over in 1787.
As for beer, it is to be regretted that our major brewery, Gales in Horndean, closed after a recent merger with Fuller’s, which is based in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod), who spoke earlier. However, in Gladys avenue, Cowplain the fight-back has begun. We have many excellent ales, but I single out Michael Charlton, backyard brewer extraordinaire, who won last year’s Hampshire beer of the year with his majestic Havant Finished, produced in his garage. I look forward to launching Havant Forgotten with him in November, in aid of the Royal British Legion. As a Conservative Member with an active and dedicated association, I think it wise that the subject of old maids is probably best avoided.
Both my predecessors are hard acts to follow. Michael Mates enjoyed a highly distinguished career in the Army and for 36 years from 1974 sat on the Conservative Benches, serving with great distinction in many senior roles. Michael is an expert in diverse fields, but it is for his record in the House on defence matters and on Northern Ireland that colleagues will know him best—oh, and the Flanders and Swann.
As a constituency MP, Michael was no less well regarded. I have met countless people across the constituency whom he has helped. Aided by his long service and consequent connections, he unlocked bureaucratic logjams for many of his constituents.
Mark Oaten from the Winchester constituency is someone I am pleased to call a friend. Starting with a controversial two-vote majority at the general election in 1997—
Two votes it was. In a November rerun—the first election I participated in—Mark converted those two votes to 21,500, which was not the most auspicious start for my political career. That figure stood Mark in great stead in following elections, not least against me. He held various prestigious positions in the Liberal Democrat party and made a contribution to the orange book—a tome whose pages are now more important than ever before.
More than anything else, Mark taught his constituents what to expect from an MP. Nothing was too much trouble for him. He accumulated a reputation as the acme of a local champion. If I can ever establish a reputation in Meon Valley as widely and deeply felt as Mark’s in Winchester I will truly have achieved something extraordinary.
I am delighted that the coalition has made clear its plans to return control of housing targets to local people, and has acted to restrict back garden development and to remove density requirements. It is incredibly important that all of us work to ensure that those changes are seen as an opportunity. We have been given the freedom to shape better communities that work for all our citizens, and to do it to our own design. But there is an obligation on us, too.
In a country as wealthy as ours, it is uncivilised that so many people are on housing waiting lists—some 3,500 in the Winchester district alone and another 3,000 in Havant borough. Those numbers are unsustainable. Most people in Meon Valley understand that and recognise that new housing is needed. Without the skirts of Government-imposed housing targets to hide behind, none of us should shirk the task of making that case to our communities. My experience, in Meon Valley at least, is that most people agree if the proper facts are laid before them.
Furthermore, under the auspices of the dreadful planning policy statement 3, far too many developments crammed affordable housing into flats and small dwellings so that central targets on density could be met—the perverse effect of central Government targets at work. In my view, communities with vision will now use the removal of those targets to build larger dwellings for those who cannot otherwise house themselves. A proper family home, with adequate living space and some privacy both indoors and outdoors, must be a fundamental ingredient of happier lives and less troubled, more contented communities. It is down to us and all our councillors to go out and make that argument. We can and should seek to persuade our constituents that it is in all our interests to do so.
Finally, let me say a brief word on a threat that we must all recognise. Among my constituents there are a great many people who, to their enormous surprise, find themselves in challenging economic circumstances. Most of them are in their 70s. They often own an asset, in their own homes. They have saved and accumulated pensions, but rarely are any of them more than modest in scope. Over the past several years, through a combination of low returns on savings, the lack of eligibility for state help, rising energy bills and, particularly, the cost of ever-increasing council tax, many of them are finding it very difficult to get by. Yes, they could sell their homes, but most of them already live in small dwellings and cannot practically downsize without moving away from their friends and family. Yes, they could use equity release schemes and enjoy a modestly increased income from capital, but many of them now struggle to find such products or, in fact, are scared of using them.
These people may seem asset-rich, but they are certainly income-poor. The asset that they strived so long and hard to obtain is now an impediment to getting any kind of help. We now face a future where many of those whom we would all regard as model citizens and who have paid much of the tax that allows the Government to function regard doing the right thing as a poor piece of advice to give to their children and wider families. That, surely, is something that we should be very concerned about.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for inviting me to give my maiden speech this afternoon. It is perhaps an afternoon of debuts, and I, too, wish to congratulate you on your appointment to the Chair, as well as welcoming and thanking all the other hon. Members who have made their maiden speeches this afternoon. The bar has, yet again, been set very high for those of us who follow. In particular, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) for his fine speech.
In time-honoured tradition, I should like to begin by paying tribute to my predecessor, the retiring MP, Liz Blackman. Ms Blackman represented Erewash with compassion and commitment and is remembered in particular for her contribution on issues to do with education and children with autism. I note from Ms Blackman’s maiden speech that she commented that she was the first Labour MP for Erewash and that she hoped that Erewash would continue to return Labour MPs for many years to come. I hope that she will forgive the electorate of Erewash who have perhaps taken a different view from hers on this occasion. I do, of course, wish her well for the future.
I wish to mention two earlier predecessors as Member of Parliament for Erewash: first, Peter Rost, and secondly, Angela Knight, both of whom will be remembered fondly by the House. Angela Knight has been very supportive to me and continues to contribute extremely well to public life.
Now, for the benefit of the uninitiated or perhaps the unfamiliar, I wish to explain that the constituency of Erewash is, in fact, in south-east Derbyshire, in the heart of the east midlands, between the cities of Nottingham and Derby. The constituency derives its name from the River Erewash, which meanders through the constituency. It is right to say that the river is not without its literary references. Indeed, the author D. H. Lawrence makes reference to the River Erewash in some of his novels.
The geography of Erewash consists principally of two towns—Ilkeston and Long Eaton—as well as a number of pretty villages and a stretch of beautiful countryside. Indeed, the stretch of countryside that I refer to is under possible threat from developers through the access routes on the old Stanton ironworks, and I assure the House that I will do all that I can to preserve our green belt and valuable open space in Erewash.
The ironworks was once at the centre of employment opportunities in my constituency. Erewash has been blessed with a fine history of lace making, manufacturing and engineering. Indeed, the last, sole remaining traditional lace factory in the country still operates in Ilkeston. It is called Cluny Lace, and it has a dedicated work force and an impressive family history of work in the industry. Other industries, such as high-tech engineering, the service industry and information technology, still service the Erewash economy, but it is right to say that the traditional industries have suffered enormously in recent years. There has been a steep decline in manufacturing over the past 10 years and the effects on the economy are still felt most keenly. It is to the credit of my constituents’ ingenuity and entrepreneurship that a number of small and medium-sized businesses have started, with niche markets being reached and new technology helped. However, Erewash itself was not assisted by the policies of the previous Labour Government, who used their best efforts to stifle entrepreneurship and made small businesses suffer.
Erewash has much to offer any business investor: a willing work force; excellent transport links, with the M1 running through the constituency; and well-located business premises. I will do all that I can to bring investment and much-needed jobs to the families of Erewash.
We are lucky to have a well-respected and flourishing organisation called the Erewash Partnership in my constituency. It acts as an effective umbrella organisation for the local authority, all local small businesses and the voluntary sector. I shall do all that I can to support the partnership’s vital work.
One route back into employment can be through volunteering; indeed, national volunteers week has just drawn to a close. My strong commitment to supporting volunteers is a principle that was impressed on me from my school days. We are lucky to have a strong army of volunteers in Erewash who help the vulnerable, the elderly and families in many different ways, and long may that continue.
There is a campaign in Erewash for the reopening of the train station, which I hope can be achieved because it would assist businesses and residents in Ilkeston. Erewash has a proud history of service on the train network. Indeed, my dear, late grandfather worked for many years as fitter on the steam trains across the east midlands. I know that he will be cheering me on from above on that particular campaign.
I am grateful to be able to contribute to this extremely important debate about poverty. As we heard earlier, more than 3 million children in the UK are living in poverty. There is a pressing need to tackle the problem, so I applaud my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s recent announcement that there will be a review on poverty in the UK and how the state can assist the least advantaged. The whole House benefited from the contribution to the debate made by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), who will lead the review, and I look forward to assisting in any way that I can.
Agencies working together locally to assist families is the key to fighting poverty. The reality is that the state cannot and should not seek to provide all the answers to this complex problem by itself. We have a dedicated voluntary sector with many large and small charities that help disadvantaged families in the UK. Further steps to enable the third sector to work hand in hand with social services and adult services are to be encouraged.
Before I was elected to the House, it was my privilege to work as a lawyer specialising in cases concerning children and their welfare. The consequences for children of a life in poverty were all too clear in my daily work. Family breakdown, substance misuse, personal debt and educational failure can all too easily follow, and the consequences for children can be far-reaching and devastating. I will contribute in any way that I can to the ongoing debate on protecting children and ending the cycle of poverty that can perpetuate.
I am extremely grateful to the voters of Erewash for putting their trust in me to represent them here. Like many of my new hon. Friends, I am already enjoying attending events, dealing with constituency case work and tackling problems. I particularly enjoyed opening the local Riverside football festival recently. I made it quite clear to the organisers that although I would do anything that I could to help their club and the festival, I would perhaps draw the line at wearing a small pair of football shorts.
On arriving in Westminster and this magnificent building, the responsibility of one’s duty to serve becomes more acute. I am sure that many of my new hon. Friends feel the same way. It is a privilege and a duty to be here. My family and schooling have taught me the value of service and helping others. Now, I continue with those principles as I commence my journey of serving the constituents of Erewash and speaking for them in this House.
This is my first outing at the Dispatch Box. I know it is customary for Front Benchers to start by saying what an excellent debate it has been, regardless of whether that is true, but I can in all sincerity say that today’s has been an excellent debate and I have been pleased to be able to sit here listening. Members on both sides of the House have spoken with conviction and passion about the fight against poverty, which blights so many lives and communities. Of course, we have also heard many excellent maiden speeches, in which new MPs have demonstrated their determination to do their utmost for the people they represent and the constituencies they serve.
The hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) disappointed the House by telling us that he had turned down an invitation to join MP4, but given that the current membership consists of one Tory, one Scottish nationalist and one Labour Member, perhaps in the new politics we should be looking for a Lib Dem to join them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) made an excellent speech praising the diversity in her constituency and her predecessor for introducing the ban on smoking in public places.
The hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) confirmed that she is not related to Stanley Baldwin and dwelt in some detail on the wonderful food produced in her constituency, which I think was rather unfair to those of us who were trapped in the Chamber all afternoon and not able to get out to have some lunch.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cumberland, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East—how did I do with that?
Oh, I wrote it down wrong. It is not my pronunciation that is wrong but my literacy. My hon. Friend told us that he was better looking than his photo in the parliamentary guide— I shall have to check that out—and spoke eloquently about the poverty in his constituency and the previous Government’s progress in tackling it.
The hon. Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) told us that he is not better looking than his election photo, much to the disappointment of his constituents who met him on the election trail. He also told us that one of his predecessors had, as a lawyer, defended the Kray twins and then, on being elected to Parliament, defended the Governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major. I am not sure which was the most difficult task.
The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) talked about her great love of football, of which I am already very much aware, having attended a Chelsea-Arsenal game with her. Perhaps she could have done a little more to endear herself to the Press Gallery: pointing out that one member of it, Nigel Nelson, was writing articles before she was born might not be the best way to get into their good books.
I missed the speech of the hon. Member for Warrington South (David Mowat)—I popped out to take a phone call—but I am told that he spoke without notes and with great eloquence about issues such as social mobility and worklessness.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer), making his second maiden speech after returning to Parliament, delivered a passionate speech about the need to protect Sure Start and child trust funds, and about his support as a committed trade unionist for the agency workers directive.
The hon. Member for Corby (Ms Bagshawe) did not quite live up to the romance of her previously published works—novels such as “Passion” and “Sparkle”. I am the proud owner of an autographed copy of “Passion”, which she sent to me—we have never met, only communicated through Twitter. Perhaps an autographed copy of her maiden speech should follow.
My hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) confirmed that she is taller than her predecessor, Ian McCartney. I want to place on the official record the fact that I too am taller than Ian McCartney, although it is perhaps a slightly closer match. She spoke with great passion about her interest in financial capability and the need to promote it, as well as her work with credit unions. I look forward very much to seeing her promote those agendas in the House.
The hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore), who is my neighbour, although we have yet to meet—he should get on Twitter; that is how I make all my friends—praised the work of his predecessor. I have to say that, in Roger Berry, he has a very hard act to follow, but I wish him well.
My hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) will not, I suspect, be glued to the television watching the new series of “Big Brother”, but she raised an important issue. Tackling poverty is not just about putting money in people’s pockets and a household’s immediate resources, but about things such as transport. The poor transport links in her constituency make it difficult for people to gain access to jobs.
The hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) praised his constituency, and discussed the need to promote more green jobs there. I was pleased that the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) discussed her support for international development, and I hope that she puts pressure on her colleagues in the Department for International Development to carry on its good work linking international development with work in schools. The hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), as is almost customary for Members making maiden speeches about Swindon, mentioned the magic roundabout, and perhaps persuaded me that I ought to get off the train more often when I pass through Swindon on the way to London.
The hon. Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) discussed his experience as the lead member for children’s services when he was a councillor. I was pleased that he expressed support for his local Sure Start scheme. The hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod) said that she was pleased to see more women in politics—I am too, and I am glad that we are no longer looking at a row of men in suits on the Government Benches. Perhaps the Front Bench has a little more work to do, although I am glad to welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), to her ministerial position.
The hon. Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) tried to tempt us with the delights of Bury black pudding, which I shall pass on. The hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) gave us a cultural tour that ranged from George Eliot to Larry Grayson—quite a wide span. The hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) discussed how she wished to support members of the armed forces in her constituency and their families, and I wish her all the best with that. The hon. Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) explained to a bemused House exactly where his constituency is. We are all very much in the picture now—somewhere around the Winchester area, I think. The hon. Member for Erewash (Jessica Lee) discussed the importance of volunteering and the experience that she will bring to the House as a lawyer who has worked on child protection issues. I am glad that she will pursue those interests in Parliament.
We also heard speeches that were not maiden speeches, including from my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field). I was pleased that he described Labour’s job guarantee as precious, and I hope that in his new role he can do something to protect our future jobs fund. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Miss Begg) on her election to Chair of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions. I am sure that she will do an excellent job.
My hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) made an excellent speech in which he rightly highlighted the progress made by the Labour Government in tackling pensioner poverty, for which we did not get enough credit. We heard two speeches from people whom I had the pleasure of working with on child poverty issues in the last Parliament: my hon. Friends the Members for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) and for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green). My hon. Friend the Member for Wigan spoke from her experience at the Children’s Society and discussed the legacy of communities that have been ignored and suffered from a lack of investment going back to the 1980s. Once that intergenerational cycle of poverty and worklessness is created, the issue cannot be solved overnight; it is a difficult problem to crack. I thought that she spoke incredibly eloquently about that. My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston, who was chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, impressed us all with the experience and knowledge of the issue that she brings to the House. I hope that Ministers listen closely to what she has to say.
In the short time remaining—I appreciate that we do not have long, given that many Members wish to speak—I should like to ask the Under-Secretary a few questions. I am pleased that Ministers managed to secure a debate on poverty, as it at least suggests that it is an important issue for the new Government. However, I have heard very little to convince me that the reality will match the rhetoric, and that their professed desire to tackle poverty will triumph over their desire to implement savage cuts. It was notable that when the Secretary of State replied to the Queen’s Speech debate on Tuesday there was barely a mention of any policy at all. I hope that we can hear a little bit more from the Under-Secretary today.
The Labour Government did not just talk about poverty but acted to tackle poverty. We acted to lift 1 million pensioners out of poverty with our pensions guarantee, the pensions credit, the winter fuel allowance, free bus travel and eye tests, and by cutting fuel poverty by insulating pensioners’ homes. We lifted half a million children out of poverty, not just by putting more money into their families’ pockets, but by helping their families move from welfare into work. It is a complete fallacy to suggest that the Labour Government did not try to move people from welfare into work. The suggestion is that we were quite happy to leave people languishing on benefits and that we did not address that. That is exactly what we were trying to do with nursery places, tax credits, and making work pay to ensure that people were better off in work. I could list a range of other policies that were all intended to address that issue.
When the Minister replies, will she say how, in terms of looking at the bigger picture, the Government can claim to be serious about tackling poverty, when, through their planned programme of cuts, they will undermine the package that the Labour Government tried to put together in the last 13 years to support people on their route out of poverty? How can they claim to be serious about tackling poverty and yet axe the future jobs fund, which aims to break the intergenerational cycle of unemployment that the Government claim to deplore? How can they say that they want to enhance the life chances of children growing up in poverty when they are scrapping child trust funds, and cutting tax credits, and when they will not confirm what is meant by their proposal to streamline benefits? Does that mean cuts in benefits for people or not?
How can the Government claim to care about so-called broken Britain—a phrase that I reject—when they fail to support Sure Start and family intervention projects, which work with families with the most difficult problems, when they oppose things like compulsory sex education in schools, which would have helped to address the issue of teenage pregnancy and lone parenthood, and when they are slashing public sector jobs and public services without a thought for the consequences?
The Government say that they want people to stand on their own two feet, but how can they do that if the Government pull the rug from under them? I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
I warmly welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was a firm supporter of yours in the recent elections. I also warmly welcome the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) to her position. She has been sitting in the Whips Office for a number of years now, and I am sure that standing at the Dispatch Box beats that any day of the week. I congratulate those hon. Members who have made their maiden speeches today, which I will come to in a bit more detail later.
First, I want to pick up on some of the points made by the hon. Lady in her closing comments. The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), began the debate with the bleak picture of poverty that the country faces. Despite record levels of spending on benefits in the last 13 years, we have more working-age adults living in relative poverty than ever before. The hon. Lady said that the Labour Government acted to tackle poverty, but I am afraid that her rhetoric does not match the facts. Income inequality is at its highest since records began, and a higher proportion of children grow up in workless households in the UK than in any other EU country. That is a damning indictment of the previous Government’s legacy, a legacy that I am afraid was absent from the opening comments of the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman). The facts could not be clearer. The tired old ways of continually throwing money at the problem, no matter how deeply entrenched or seemingly intractable, lie discredited.
I welcome the hon. Lady to her position. I am sure that she will do some very important work in the Department. Will she confirm that the number of children living in workless households has fallen significantly since 1997, having previously risen substantially?
The shadow Secretary of State fails to point out that the previous Government completely failed to tackle the level of poverty in this country in the way that they set out that they would, and they did not hit their child poverty targets. They have left us to put in place a firm strategy to address that issue. The right hon. Lady should not be too selective with her facts.
It could not be clearer that we need fresh ideas if we are to reverse the dreadful situation that we face; and it could not be clearer that, if new approaches to tackling poverty are to have any effect, they require new, clear thinking. That is exactly what our coalition Government are able to offer: a new vision and a new strategy to tackle the root causes of poverty. Family breakdown, educational failure, addiction, debt, worklessness and economic dependency are the pathways to poverty and the underlying problems that can lead to a lifetime—even generations—of worklessness and welfare dependency.
I am sorry, but I cannot. I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive me, but I need to comment on a number of maiden speeches.
As my right hon. Friend the Minister said, such a multi-faceted problem demands an holistic solution, and many contributors echoed that point. The problem requires supporting families in order to give children the right start at home and in education; it requires the reform of our welfare system, by simplifying it and removing disincentives to work; it requires supporting disabled people effectively to give those who need it the specialist support that will help to prepare them for work; it requires supporting a savings culture, helping those who try to get back on their feet and encouraging families to take responsibility for their debt; and it requires all of us throughout all Departments, the Government and the House to work together.
Before I pick up on today’s maiden speeches, I shall draw the House’s attention to a couple of other contributions. I am sure that the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland did not mean to sound complacent about Labour’s record on poverty, but she did, and she needs to think about that if she is to rebuild Labour’s credibility in the eyes of the country. She picked up on several issues, including the future jobs fund and free school meals, on which I should like to give her some clarity.
All pupils who currently qualify for free school meals will continue to be eligible, and we will continue with pilots in Newham, Durham and Wolverhampton to see whether there is a robust case for extending free school meals. Taxpayers would expect us to do that. On the future jobs fund, recent statistics show that only 9,000 out of the 25,000 jobs that were promised are being delivered. The Government want long-term job opportunities and sustained employment, and that is why we are putting our faith in 50,000 new apprenticeships and the Work programme that will help to fill that gap.
The hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Miss Begg) made an important contribution to the debate, and I congratulate her on her new role as Chairman of the Work and Pensions Committee. I look forward—at least I think I do—to having detailed conversations with her, including in the Committee’s sittings, I am sure. I would have liked to pick up on some of the issues that she raised, and particularly on Sure Start and its effectiveness, but I fear that time does not allow me. Suffice to say, I hope that she will look at the Office for National Statistics data on Sure Start and, in particular, at how we can make that programme much more effective at tackling poverty.
The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), who is not in his place because of a prior engagement, spoke with great authority about the importance of the non-financial support that we give children and families who live in the most difficult circumstances, and I look forward to his independent report and the contribution that he will undoubtedly make to this debate in the coming months.
The maiden speeches were, in the great tradition of this House, independent and spirited. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) spoke powerfully about the importance of supporting excluded children. He also stressed the fact that he will be an independent-minded Member, and I am sure that the Whips will have taken special note of that.
The hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) spoke about her co-operative roots and the pride that she has in her community and, particularly, its multicultural heritage. My hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) paid tribute to Sir Michael Spicer, and I echo the tribute that she paid to a man who made a great contribution to the House. She also noted the damage that has been done to the pensions industry over the past decade, and I am sure that, with her considerable financial expertise, she will contribute to the coalition Government’s work on that.
The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Gregg McClymont) has the prize for the constituency name that is most likely to stump Ministers, and he will forgive me if I did not pronounce it very well. My hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) made a very humorous contribution to the debate and drew on the colourful characters who have previously represented his part of the country, as well as discussing its brewing heritage; I think that perhaps the two things are not unconnected.
I know how highly regarded my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) already is in her constituency, because I have been there and visited her local Sure Start centres. Its residents have a great Member of Parliament in her. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) spoke of famous past residents, including Lewis Carroll. He referred to Alice in his quote from Lewis Carroll’s work. I would perhaps have referred to the Mad Hatter’s tea party, because it can often feel like that in this place; he will know what I mean shortly, I am sure.
The contribution by the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer) challenged the House’s tradition of listening in silence to maiden speeches. I apologise if I joined some other Members in exclaiming at some of the things that he said. I will not pick up on those points in detail now, but perhaps we can talk in the Tea Room.
My hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Ms Bagshawe) made a fluid and assured speech in which she drew the House’s attention to the excellent support that forces families receive in the United States through the Veterans Administration. I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends who deal with defence issues will study her comments closely. The hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) spoke of the grit and determination of her constituents. I am sure that the House will benefit from her 23 years’ experience of working in a citizens advice bureau.
Turning to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore), I clearly remember his moment of victory on general election night—it was something that stood out. In his maiden speech, the House caught a glimpse of the intellectual, analytical and, above all, compassionate approach that he will have to his job. The hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) reminded us that her constituency is the birthplace of the Arsenal football team. I will remind my sons of that, as they are great fans.
My hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White) gave us a thoughtful account of his feelings about poverty and the fact that it affects all parts of the country in many different ways. The hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) spoke movingly about the working poor and the role of Sure Start. She also mentioned the future jobs fund. I would merely say to her that under that programme 100,000 jobs have been granted to the successful bidders.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) drew our attention to the fact that hers is a new constituency, and I know that it will benefit from her extensive experience. She spoke movingly about opening the eyes of the next generation in her constituency to poverty in Africa; that is something that will have helped them.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) talked about his bit of Swindon being the new Disneyland. He also said that Swindon is famous for roundabouts. Speaking as the Member of Parliament for Basingstoke, I think that we are more famous for roundabouts—I will challenge him on that one.
My hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) spoke with pride and passion about the part of the country that he represents, and reminded the House that we all have to improve the life chances of looked-after children. My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod) reminded us that her part of the world is the new silicon valley of west London. Importantly, she pointed out that she will put country before party, in the best spirit of this coalition Government.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) was getting us all booking our holidays to Bury this summer when he talked about the wonderful part of the country that he represents. My hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) reminded us that he represents the home town of the late Larry Grayson. He also spoke movingly about the role that inter-generational poverty can have in the context of this debate.
I very much welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) to the House. I know that she will contribute greatly to the work of this place. She will be a dedicated and effective voice for us, drawing on her extensive experience before coming here.
My neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery), reminded us where his constituency is and also of the importance of the entrepreneurial spirit in Hampshire, which is alive and well among the backyard brewers of his constituency. We were all pleased to hear that.
Last but absolutely by no means least, I think the House will agree that my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Jessica Lee) spoke eloquently about the history and heritage of her constituency. I reassure her that football shorts would not really be in the dress code of this place—well, not at the moment. Maybe we are far too conservative in such things and should change that.
This has been an important debate. It was important that we put the issue of poverty before the House early on in this Parliament to explain how we as a Government will tackle it. Members have heard in the comments of the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell, and myself about this Government’s commitment to tackling poverty throughout the country. Poverty comes with a host of other problems that have a visible and measurable effect on families across the country. If we fail to address those challenges, we will fail many of those families and their children.
Opposition Members who contributed to the debate of course tried to explain what they feel the previous Government achieved, but they also have to listen carefully to what is said about the areas in which they did not make progress. If we are trying to draw together a more consensual Government who build together for a future of success, we need to ensure that we work together on matters such as this. Through the newly established Cabinet Committee that will consider these issues, we will draw up a child poverty strategy in line with the Child Poverty Act 2010. I hope that Opposition Members will be able to contribute to that strategy so that it enjoys the support of all Members.
We must take steps to deal with the underlying problems that have made poverty such a corrosive issue in this country for too many years. Through radical welfare reform, we will reinforce fairness and encourage responsibility, and I believe that we will start to build a stronger community for a better Britain. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House can come together to deliver that.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of tackling poverty in the UK.