To ask Her Majesty’s Government what actions they plan to take to tackle rural poverty.
My Lords, government policy is based on economic prosperity and helping people out of poverty. The Government are again increasing the national living wage and tax thresholds, investing more than £9 billion in affordable housing, introducing the warm home discount, reforming the energy company obligation and providing 30 hours of free childcare. All these are intended to help people and families with low incomes across the country.
I thank the Minister for that reply, but he will have seen the latest figures showing that UK poverty levels are increasing, with a 30% increase for children just in the past year. This is particularly damaging in rural areas, which are already being left behind economically in comparison to growth in the cities. This is a direct result of the Government’s policies. We know that rural employment is too low, low skilled and insecure. The abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board is making matters worse for those who work on the land. Further, young people in rural areas do not have easy access to decent schools, training opportunities or post-16 education. When are the Government going to accept their responsibility to tackle rural poverty and the lack of social mobility in these areas, which is holding their prosperity back?
My Lords, I entirely agree that we need to advance on these subjects. That is why I am pleased to say that since 2010 we have 600,000 fewer people in absolute poverty—a record level—200,000 fewer children in absolute poverty, 300,000 fewer working-age adults in absolute poverty, 3 million more people in work and 954,000 fewer workless homes. That is the way in which we will ensure prosperity across the country and, in fact, it is why rural areas have lower unemployment. We are working extremely hard on a range of issues to ensure rural prosperity; the Government are doing all they can on that.
My Lords, can my noble friend update your Lordships’ House on childcare policies and their impact on rural communities?
I bet he’s got an answer to that.
Well, of course I have got an answer to that, my Lords. I have good hearing. Childcare is a hugely important part of the beginning of anyone’s journey, and that applies both to working families and to children. Two of the areas trialled on the childcare provision were in rural counties, to ensure rural proofing. In fact, there are 15,500 more teachers working in state-funded schools in England than there were in 2010. I am sure that all noble Lords agree that that is a very good thing.
Does the Minister agree that the speedy rollout of truly fast broadband in the countryside, not the phantom speeds bandied about by Openreach, would lead to a much greater supply of jobs and thus an increase in prosperity?
My Lords, this morning I had a meeting about rural enterprise with many of the interested parties. A leader of one local enterprise partnership said, “If we can crack connectivity, we will have cracked almost everything”. I entirely agree. This is a challenge in rural communities and for business. We are on track, with 95% of UK homes and businesses scheduled to have access to superfast broadband by the end of this year, and are seeking to increase that to 97% over the next few years. However, the universal service obligation is important as a safety net and we are looking at all sorts of innovative ways of getting to hard-to-reach areas.
My Lords, housing is a key factor in evaluating poverty. In the county of Hampshire alone, over 20,000 people are on council-house waiting lists, with over 4,000 of them in the New Forest. Given that the Government have recently announced significant new funding for new housebuilding and new affordable homes, can the Minister give us a clear indication of the expected spending on homes for social rent in rural areas?
The right reverend Prelate raises another important issue, that of affordable housing in the countryside. Between 2010 and 2017, 119,000 affordable homes were delivered in rural local authorities in England. We want to do better, which is why the Government have increased funding for the 2016 to 2021 affordable homes programme in England to more than £9 billion. Clearly, I—and other Ministers—want to ensure that rural housing associations bid for this programme, because it is important to ensure it for multigenerational situations in villages.
My Lords, the Government set out a whole batch of measures that they are proposing to deal with poverty, yet poverty is increasing. What is going wrong with the Government’s policy?
The answer to all these issues is a growing economy. Last year, we were the fastest-growing G7 economy. That is a very strong point. After all, it is through a growing and successful economy that we will do all the things that we want and need to do. That is why £70 billion is being devoted to low-income families and why we have record low unemployment. That is a very good thing.
My Lords, with ever-increasing house prices in rural areas, local working families are priced out of the market. The right-to-buy scheme has not led to new housing replacing those sold. There are now large numbers of essential workers unable to afford to live in rural areas. Do the Government agree that it is time for them to provide homes for essential workers, such as care workers, teachers, nurses, firefighters and front-line police officers?
My Lords, that is why I mentioned the £9 billion in the affordable homes programme scheme. We did this precisely because we want people working in the countryside to be able to ensure that communities tick and that they have affordable homes. Last week I was at a very interesting rural affordable housing development in Warwickshire—another fine example of the many sensitively built and small-scale schemes doing exactly what we need to do to keep villages vibrant.
My Lords, while rural poverty is of course of immense importance, does the Minister not agree that as far as rural areas are concerned there is a comprehensive disadvantage? In almost any heading of amenity they come a long way down in the list. It is a question of not just poverty but a whole range of amenities.
My Lords, as a Government we want to ensure that disadvantage is eradicated, but I am very proud of coming from a rural background. Rural areas are wonderful places to live, work and play. They are beacons of excellence in looking after our natural environment. In truth, unemployment, poverty and homelessness are lower in rural areas. I very much want us to ensure that all these indices are reduced wherever we are in the United Kingdom.