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Young People (Oxfordshire)

Q9. [68680] Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): What estimate he has made of the effect of the 1999-2000 standard spending assessment settlement for children's social services on vulnerable young people in Oxfordshire.

The Prime Minister: The standard spending assessment for Oxfordshire will increase by 3.8 per cent. next year. If the authority's action plan is approved, Oxford will also receive an additional £586,000 for children's services, through the new quality protects grant. That far-reaching programme of action will improve all local authority children's services and is backed up by £375 million of targeted extra money.

Dr. Harris: The Prime Minister should be aware that the 10 per cent. cut in the children's SSA from this year to next year, combined with a continuation of the crazy Tory capping rules, are forcing the county council to threaten to close resource centres for disabled children--such as Summerfield, in Abingdon, in my constituency. The Kidlington family centre also is under threat, and there is a threat to community hospitals in my constituency. What does the Prime Minister say to parents of disabled children who fought 18--no, 20--years of Tory cuts, only to see their services face the chop under a Labour Government? Can he justify paying for the political prioritisation of education by cutting services to the most vulnerable in our society?

The Prime Minister: Let me just correct the hon. Gentleman. Oxfordshire's spending on all services will increase by almost 4 per cent. It is correct that the new allocation formula gives a much higher weighting to the number of people on income support, and that that factor has affected Oxfordshire's settlement. However, the Oxfordshire SSA works out at £97 per child in the county. That is in line with the average for shire counties, and is more than for similar shire counties in the south, such as Buckinghamshire, where the figure is £87 per child, and Cambridgeshire, where the figure is £91 per child. I understand the difficulties that have been caused by changes in the way in which the SSA has been calculated for Oxfordshire, but it still comes out significantly ahead of many other shires.

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Rod and Line Fishing

Q10. [68681] Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes): What representations the Government have received from the pleasure boat industry regarding rod and line fishing.

The Prime Minister: We have received a number of representations from the pleasure boat industry regarding rod and line fishing--including, I understand, one from the hon. Gentleman himself.

Mr. Steen: Is the Prime Minister aware that, if he came out angling off the Devon coast, he would not catch one mackerel? The reason for that is simple. EU commercial industrial factory ships are taking all the mackerel, spraying chemicals on them, so that they cannot be identified, and then converting them into feed for European animals. Is he aware of that? Will he tell EU Ministers that fishing for mackerel in a conservation mackerel box has to stop?

The Prime Minister: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his invitation. He has issued so many invitations to me to

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come out on various boats with him in the past few weeks that I am beginning to get worried about us. To be frank, I was not aware of the particular problem to which he has just referred, but I will look into it carefully. I know that he is a strong critic of the common fisheries policy, and I know that there have been a lot of difficulties in its implementation. However, I still believe that we would make a great mistake if we withdrew from it or scrapped it. [Hon. Members: "Rubbish."] Tory Front-Benchers say that that is rubbish. I think that our fishermen would lose an awful lot more if we withdrew from that policy.

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Dr. Jack Cunningham): The Tories signed up to it.

The Prime Minister: As my right hon. Friend points out, it was actually signed by the Tory party in government. I will look carefully into the point raised by the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) and be in touch with him about it.

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Points of Order

3.30 pm

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You may recall--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. I am sorry, but I cannot hear the hon. Lady. Will hon. Members leaving the Chamber please do so quietly? The conversations are far too loud.

Ann Clwyd: Thank you, Madam Speaker. You may recall that in the United States last week, damages of£65 million were granted against the author of a website which listed 200 doctors in the United States who carry out abortions. They were described as "baby butchers" and the damages were awarded because it was considered that the website amounted to death threats. I raise this matter in the House because three doctors on the list were murdered, and there were attempts to murder other doctors. There have been 39 bombings of abortion clinics and 99 acid attacks in recent years.

On a similar worldwide website--entitled "Christian pro-life against abortion and pro-choice murderers"--are listed 62 hon. Members of this House. The implication is that they are all pro-murder. Lawyers have advised me that the comments in which the information is included are defamatory. I would be grateful, in view of the implied threat, if you would investigate the matter.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. These Christian fundamentalists, with their obsessive hatred of anybody who opposes their view, deliberately incite violence against individuals. Many of us, as Members of Parliament, have been threatened and intimidated, including the late and wonderful Jo Richardson. Given that the information is on a worldwide website, can you ensure that the British groups--supported by certain hon. Members--with links with US groups advocating murder and terrorism are properly investigated by the appropriate authorities?

Madam Speaker: The hon. Ladies seemed to imply that this may be a matter of privilege. If they think that, they should put the matter to me in writing. This is the first intimation that I have had of it. I will look into the matter, but if it is thought that there is privilege involved, I urge them to let me have the information in writing, so that I can investigate it properly.


Welfare Reform and Pensions

Mr. Secretary Darling, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Secretary Prescott, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Secretary Blunkett, Mr. Secretary Dewar, Secretary Marjorie Mowlam, Mr. Secretary Michael,Mr. Stephen Timms, Mr. Andrew Smith, Mr. Geoffrey Hoon and Mr. Hugh Bayley, presented a Bill to make provision about pensions and social security; to make provision for reducing under-occupation of dwellings by housing benefit claimants; to authorise certain expenditure by the Secretary of State having responsibility for social security; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed [Bill 44].

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Poverty and Social Exclusion (National Strategy)

3.36 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I beg to move,

In his Sheffield speech at the launch of the new deal, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out the scale of the challenge that the Labour Government face to tackle poverty and social exclusion. He said:

    "we now face a task of reconstruction as intense as the one that faced the post-war Labour Government and that's why we need an anti-poverty strategy of the same ambition and breadth."

I am proud to say that much has been achieved already: the new deals for the young, lone parents and disabled people are already helping to get people back into jobs; the statutory national minimum wage will help to end the scandal of poverty pay; increased spending on education will help to prevent poverty; and the new deal for communities will help to regenerate not only bricks and mortar, but the life chances and opportunities of people living in some of the country's most deprived neighbourhoods.

In addition to all that, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has established the social exclusion unit, whose job is to focus on the multi-dimensional nature of poverty and to co-ordinate action across Government. That is an impressive record of achievement from which I do not want for one moment to detract. Indeed, many of us entered politics in the first place to tackle poverty and all its consequences.

Why, then, is there a need for the Bill? Primarily, it provides a framework in which the excellent start that the Government have made can be developed. It is not a framework that I have dreamt up, but one that was agreed at the 1995 world summit for social development in Copenhagen. One of the summit's towering achievements was to bring together Governments from the developing and the developed world to consider the issue of poverty globally. For the first time, the absolute poverty experienced in many developing countries and the relative poverty experienced in countries such as the United Kingdom were considered together. The poverty here may be less extreme than that in some other countries, but it is no less unacceptable or offensive.

At Copenhagen, the then Tory Government signed up to a programme of action that required the development of national strategies to combat poverty and social exclusion; unfortunately, they failed to produce such a strategy. If adopted, the approach agreed in Copenhagen and taken in the Bill would develop the Government's anti-poverty strategy in two key ways. First, the development of policies designed to combat poverty and social exclusion would be participatory. Participatory policy development means that all those with something to contribute to the process are included in it, and implies new forms of democracy to encourage active engagement and empower communities, which is something that the Government are already promoting in their proposals for improving local democracy. In this context, it means that people with direct experience of poverty and social exclusion are at the head of policy making.

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Participation does not mean consultation with or involving organisations and individuals who speak on behalf of those living with poverty and social exclusion. That may well be necessary, but real participation means taking seriously the proposition that the real experts are those who live daily with poverty and social exclusion. The barriers created by the complexities of the benefit system, the struggle to make ends meet on an extremely low income, the reality of exploitation in the workplace, the burden of crime or, indeed, the additional problems for those suffering from mental illness all go hand in hand with poverty in the United Kingdom.

The social exclusion unit has found to its cost how difficult real participation can be. Although it has made some attempt to include people experiencing poverty and social exclusion in its work, this has not really been a success. Tight deadlines, very short periods of consultation and a lack of resources have all acted against participation. What is needed is a national strategy to combat poverty and social exclusion, which includes participation from the outset. Participation should be not an add-on to discussion but a central force in that discussion. The Bill would require that, and it provides a framework in which it could take place.

Some hon. Members may argue that such participation is not possible. To them I would say that it may be difficult, but participatory policy work is already taking place. Every month, members of the UK Coalition Against Poverty encourage men and women who are experiencing poverty and social exclusion to take part in the meetings of the all-party parliamentary group on poverty. The ideas and knowledge that these experts bring is invaluable. They are resources that should not be pushed to the margin, but brought into the centre. With sufficient time and support, this small start could be extended to other aspects of policy making. The Bill would require that to happen.

The second key element of the Government's strategy for tackling poverty and social exclusion included in the Bill is the requirement to set time-bound and measurable targets. We live in an age of targets, and we know how effective they can be in galvanising action towards a particular goal. If we are serious about first reducing and then eliminating poverty and social exclusion in the UK--I believe that the Government are--why should we be afraid of targets? Let us demonstrate our commitment to this goal by saying openly, "This is what we want to achieve, and this is how we intend to achieve it."

In the Republic of Ireland, where a national anti-poverty strategy has been in place since 1997, targets have been set in a range of areas, including unemployment, income adequacy and educational disadvantage. The Bill would require the national strategy to combat poverty and social exclusion to include similar targets relevant to the UK.

A Government such as that now in office, for whom social justice is a primary political objective, have nothing to fear and everything to gain from publicly seeking ambitious targets. Indeed, the Government have already set themselves ambitious targets in various ways, whether in the reduction of class sizes or getting unemployed young people into work. In one of the first

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White Papers of this Parliament, the Government also set themselves ambitious targets for tackling poverty. In her White Paper entitled "Eliminating World Poverty: A Challenge for the 21st Century", my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development set out the following target: a reduction by one half of the proportion of people living in absolute poverty by 2015. It is a noble and important goal, but if we can set a target for tackling the poverty that blights the lives of our brothers and sisters overseas, surely we owe it to our brothers and sisters at home to do the same.

The setting of targets is, of course, a difficult matter. At worst, targets can be set so low that achieving them is meaningless; at best, they can be a powerful tool for change. Work on establishing common agreed indicators of poverty and social exclusion, such as that recently undertaken by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, can be built on to provide targets against which performance can be measured.

It is essential, however, that targets for the reduction of poverty and social exclusion reflect the concerns and priorities of those directly affected. That is why the Bill includes the opportunity for people with direct experience of poverty and social exclusion to be involved in the setting of targets and then in monitoring and evaluating the progress made towards achieving them.

The Republic of Ireland is not the only EU country to have followed up the commitments made in Copenhagen. Last year, a law against exclusion was passed in France. That legislation is designed to help everyone to access and exercise their rights. For people experiencing poverty and social exclusion, the denial of rights that others take for granted is a daily fact of life.

As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Public Health has made clear, the right to a decent standard of health is a good starting point. The poorest members of society are ill more often and die sooner than their wealthier neighbours, so the national strategy to combat poverty and social exclusion required by the Bill would bring forward measures designed to ensure that the rights that poverty and social exclusion too often deny to many citizens are restored to them.

My own experience is based on 12 years as a councillor in the county of Gloucestershire. During that time, I discovered for myself the reality and the pernicious nature of poverty across the spectrum from rural to urban areas. With other councillors, I helped to devise the county's anti-poverty strategy in 1997. Our council joined the growing number of other local authorities adopting such strategies: Suffolk, for example, has done innovative work in rural areas.

Establishing our strategy in Gloucestershire has resulted in some pioneering work to help map rural poverty, right down to enumeration areas. A national strategy would help to provide a real boost to local policies, practices and partnerships, above all because such a strategy would be effective in co-ordinating policy across a range of Government Departments.

The national strategy to combat poverty and social exclusion required by the Bill would have that scope. Indeed, it would provide a framework for what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister called for at Sheffield--an anti-poverty strategy of the same breadth and vision as that adopted by the Labour Government of 1945.

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