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14 Nov 2002 : Column 240—continued

6.20 pm

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe): In my constituency lies Hughenden Manor, which was once the home of Benjamin Disraeli. Disraeli spoke of two nations, the rich and the poor—or the vulnerable, as Conservative Members might say nowadays. I want to speak about poverty in relation to the Queen's Speech.

No Conservative Member should doubt the commitment of the Government in general and the Chancellor in particular to relieving poverty and social exclusion. The main means that the Government use to achieve that are programmes that appear to be devised in and controlled from the Treasury, and targeted at people whom the Treasury or Downing street identify. It would be churlish not to acknowledge that some programmes have played a part in providing opportunity and inclusion.

However, it would be foolish not to acknowledge that the regime of centralised command, which controls most programmes, has flaws and, indeed, a fatal error. I hope to have time to consider that later. I want to concentrate on three aspects of the flaws. The first weakness involves means-testing and the take-up of benefits. I know that that is a theme that has often preoccupied the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who is in his place.

Up to a third of all benefits are means-tested. That particularly affects pensioners, for three reasons. First, many pensioners do not realise that the benefits exist. In my constituency, that applies especially to pensioners from ethnic minorities, many of whom speak English as a second language or perhaps not at all. Secondly, some pensioners, especially older pensioners, are too proud to claim. Thirdly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) said, some are simply confused, baffled and frustrated by the sheer number and depth of the forms that they have to complete. Anyone who doubts that is welcome to accompany me to a meeting with the Wycombe citizens advice bureau, which has to advise pensioners in difficulties.

The consequences are apparent in the figures. Between 1979 and 1995, the proportion of pensioners on means-tested benefits fell from 57 per cent. to 38 per cent. However, according to the House of Commons Library, the proportion will increase to between 56 per cent. and 59 per cent. by next April. Last year, almost 600,000 eligible pensioners were not receiving income support; more than 200,000 eligible pensioners were not receiving housing benefit, and more than 1 million eligible pensioners were not receiving council tax benefit. Pensioners who do not take up such benefits tend to be older and women. They are the principal victims.

Next April, the new pension credit will be introduced and the Government estimate a 67 per cent. take-up rate by 2004. Even the Department of Health described that

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target as Xambitious". However, there is no firm proposal for hitting the target. I should like to quote from the report of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, on which I serve, which is dominated by Labour Members. The report states:


I appreciate that the Minister is short of time, but will he tell us when we can expect to see the income-related benefit take-up figures for last year? They are normally issued in September. Alas, there is nothing in the Queen's Speech to ease the burden of means-testing.

The second weakness of centralised control involves area-based regeneration. I shall list six of most deprived boroughs in the country and state the number of schemes in them to help local groups relieve poverty. Manchester has 22 schemes; Tower Hamlets has 21; Liverpool has 21; Newham has 20; Hackney has 19, and Hartlepool has 18.

At this point, I want to quote the words of my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) in a debate on poverty in Westminster Hall earlier this year. He said:


There is indeed a strong argument for more single-pot funding, but again, regrettably, I see few measures in the Queen's Speech that will permit that—and that leads me to the third weakness.

Last summer, the Select Committee on Work and Pensions produced its report on the Government's employment strategy. I would describe the biggest problem that it identified as that of low social capital. Those people who find it hardest to find and keep work are usually those who lack social capital—the connections and self-confidence that some of us take for granted. Many of those who lack social capital have not had the childhood love and security that some of us are prone to take for granted, and it is often those who lack social capital who are causing the antisocial behaviour that was a theme of the Queen's Speech, as it was in 2000 and in 1997. A good appearance, punctuality, courtesy, and the ability to work in a team are the soft skills that help people to find and keep work. It was the lack of soft skills and the social capital that builds them up that the Committee identified as the biggest barrier of all to finding and keeping work. It is significant that the Committee stressed that the best means of allowing people to develop their soft skills and thereby build up social capital was to extend flexibility and local discretion in the provision of the schemes that help them.

As the Secretary of State and all hon. Members will know, one of the themes of all three main parties during the party conference season was devolution, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the only real way of extending flexibility and of building up the social capital

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the lack of which is at the heart of so many of our problems today is a radical programme of devolution. I do not see the breaking of the regime of central command anywhere in the Queen's Speech.

If there can be a social exclusion unit and a neighbourhood renewal unit in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, why can there not be at the centre of Government, as the Conservative party suggested at the last general election—my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) is on the Front Bench and I hope to hear that suggestion raised again—an office of civil society or equivalent that would take the lead in devolving power to the local councils, charities, schools, clubs, faith institutions, voluntary groups and communities that are best placed to build up the social capital that we need?

There is a paradox here. It is curious to be calling for another Government office to solve the problem of devolution, but only the centre can devolve power from the centre and there needs to be an engine in Government to do that. The Treasury is not that engine. We are not getting the devolution that we need to build up the kind of one nation society to which Disraeli was looking forward, and I am only sorry to say that such measures are not in the Queen's Speech.

6.28 pm

Mr. David Willetts (Havant): We have had a lively debate on the Queen's Speech, during which I think 20 hon. Members have spoken. Interventions have ranged widely, and I hope to comment on a few of them, but what has been particularly striking is that no fewer than four previous Secretaries of State have spoken. It is a bit like those wild west movies where the old gunslingers come out of retirement for one last appearance—in this case, out of retirement as Ministers, I hope not as Members of Parliament.

I was struck by the contrast between the interventions by the four previous Secretaries of State on the Conservative and the Labour Benches. My right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Virginia Bottomley) spoke about her concern about the state of the health service. We also heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley). My right hon. Friends' speeches were striking because of the two themes that emerged: my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey referred to trusting the professions and the importance of allowing professionals to exercise their medical judgment, while my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden spoke about patient choice. Of course, we believe that those two themes together are the way to raise standards in our NHS. We think that the dynamism achieved by the combination of patient choice and professional freedom produces the best possible patient care. My right hon. Friends' two speeches referred to the true and best way to raise health care standards—what a contrast they made with the speeches by the two Labour former Secretaries of State, whom it is good to see in their places.

The right hon. Member for Tyneside, North (Mr. Byers) spoke for new Labour, while the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) spoke for old Labour. They were indeed the smooth man and the hairy man. Strikingly, whereas our two

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former Secretaries of State combined provided a coherent alternative approach to the NHS, the right hon. Member for Tyneside, North, in what he described as his first intervention from the Back Benches for many years, produced a lot of rhetoric about new Labour, but not much reality as to what it means in practice.

The right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, speaking as one who was Secretary of State for Health in this very Government, gave a critique of the Government's health policies. It was hard to follow exactly what he proposed, but he seemed to say either, XDo not do any of it," or, XDo it properly so that all hospitals have the opportunity to enjoy the freedoms that are only on offer to 12 elite hospitals"—if I remember correctly the expression that he used in an article in The Observer recently.

We believe that the right way forward is to give as many hospitals as possible as soon as possible the full freedoms that will supposedly be enjoyed only by the foundation hospitals. I do not know whether the Secretary of State follows films, but XGroundhog Day" is to be shown on Channel 4 at the end of this week. For those of us who were involved in the health reform debate in the early 1990s, it is XGroundhog Day" all over again: we are hearing all our arguments on the need for greater freedom for individual hospitals to run their own affairs.

When I heard the Secretary of State trying to answer all those specific questions, I was reminded of nothing so much as the arguments that we made on how much freedom we wanted to give to self-governing hospital trusts. The right hon. Gentleman could do a lot worse than simply re-publish our consultation documents on how much freedom we wanted to give such trusts, which the Government abolished and are now to reinstate.


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