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8.1 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Chris Pond): I congratulate the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton) on securing a debate on childhood poverty in the United Kingdom. I know from the quality of her representations this evening and her active interest in the area that we agree that the subject is a matter for constant attention because of the blight on children's opportunities that poverty causes. That is the very reason why we have pledged to eradicate child poverty by 2020 and halve it by 2010. As today's Joseph Rowntree Foundation report and the recent Institute for Fiscal Studies report show, we are making steady progress on that aim, although we fully recognise, as she suggests, that we have set ourselves ambitious targets and that there is more to do.

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I shall start by outlining why tackling child poverty is such a priority for us. Social justice and strong communities are absolutely central to this party and Government. Since 1997, we have worked hard—with real success—to tackle inequality and expand opportunities for all. Today's report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which was prepared by the new policy institute, reports that

in tackling low incomes.

We have done that in a new way by giving people the power to transform their own lives, their family and their community through a new and enabling welfare state. It is a modern welfare state that attempts not only to ameliorate poverty, but to tackle its root causes, thus giving people the opportunity to become active citizens, rather than the passive recipients of welfare. We need to break the cycle of disadvantage that too often in the past has led to poor children growing to be poor pensioners.

That is why we are rebuilding the benefit system and my Department around the support of work for those who can work, while ensuring that support is there for those who cannot. Today's Rowntree report confirms:

However, for people of working age, there is now overwhelming evidence that the best route out of poverty is a job. Since 1997, we have helped nearly 2 million more people into permanent jobs and virtually eliminated long-term youth unemployment. For the first time ever, more than half of all lone parents are in work. The minimum wage and the system of tax credits are also designed to ensure that work pays, so that when people have a job they are lifted out of poverty.

The hon. Lady referred to the implementation of the new tax credits, of which she was somewhat critical. We admitted that because the change is massive—the biggest change in support for families since the establishment of Beveridge's welfare state—there were difficulties in the early stages, and we have apologised to those families affected. She should recognise, however, that nearly 6 million families, containing more than 10 million children, are benefiting from the new tax credits. Combined with child benefit increases, child support for the first child has risen to £54.10p a week, twice as much as it was in 1997.

Our crusade to tackle inequality starts where it should: with children. We should never forget that previous Conservative Governments witnessed a shameful increase in child poverty. By the time they opted out of the European social chapter, Britain accounted for a quarter of the poor children in the EU. The fact that not a single representative from the Conservative party is in the Chamber to hear this important debate shows how uninterested they are in the welfare of children and the problem of child poverty. The increase in child poverty that we experienced in those years cannot be tolerated by a civilised society. For that reason, we have set ourselves the most ambitious target to be set by any Government: we have pledged to eradicate child poverty in a generation, and we have wasted no time in starting on that task.

Real rises in child benefit and the new tax credits have meant that all families with children are on average £1,200 a year better off and the poorest fifth of families

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are on average £2,500 a year better off. We have cut the number of people sleeping rough and are beginning to make in-roads into reducing the high rates of teenage pregnancy.

I hope that the hon. Lady, as a former teacher, recognises the priority that we have attached to education in breaking cycles of deprivation. I know that she thinks we have not done enough, but more has been invested in education. There are smaller primary class sizes and a stronger emphasis on literacy and numeracy. We recognise, however, that many disadvantaged children are simply not ready to learn by the time they reach secondary school age. Research shows that the early years of a child's life are crucial to their welfare and future. Sure Start, to which the hon. Lady referred, is aimed precisely at addressing early childhood disadvantage by improving child care, health and family support in the most deprived areas. Local parents are directly involved in shaping provision to meet local needs.

We have also matched new resources with demanding targets to reduce worklessness, maternal smoking and the number of children at risk and with learning and behavioural difficulties. We have concentrated efforts to boost family incomes on those with young children through, for example, the enhanced child tax credit available for babies. Our wider child care strategy has created new child care places for 1.3 million children, about 8,000 out-of-school clubs and a new curriculum for the early years that places a premium on play and learning.

I think I heard the hon. Lady say that she opposed the child trust fund.

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde) (Lab): She did.

Mr. Pond: My hon. Friend confirms it. The hon. Lady described herself as a community politician, but that message will not go down well on the doorsteps. For the first time in this nation's history, we have an opportunity for young people to start their lives with a nest egg, which could give them a stake in this country's future wealth.

We are already seeing the results of the Government's commitment and investment. More than 500,000 children have been lifted out of low-income households since 1997. This means that we are making steady progress on our public service agreement target to reduce by a quarter the number of children in low-income households.

I think that the hon. Lady confused the statistics and the commitments in that she suggested that we had promised to lift 1 million children out of poverty. We have said that the commitment is that the number of children in "low income" is more than a million lower now than it would have been if we had taken no action at all since 1997. The numbers in poverty would have continued to grow. As a result of the actions that we have taken, 500,000 children have been lifted out of low-income households since 1996.

The hon. Lady will know from the interest that she has shown through parliamentary questions that we will

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announce the results of our consultation on long-term child poverty measurement before the end of the year.

Poverty, as we have always said, is not just about low income, so it is encouraging to see progress in other domains too. For instance, the proportion of children living in houses that do not meet basic standards has fallen from 43 per cent. to 30 per cent. Schools in the most deprived areas have seen their results rise fastest. Teenage conceptions have fallen by more than 10 per cent. since we launched our teenage pregnancy strategy. The number of children living a household where nobody works has fallen by 350,000.

Yet despite this success we cannot be complacent because we must not underestimate the scale of the challenges that we still face. Our strategy has to be an all-embracing one that addresses income, access to basic amenities and key services such as education and health. It must be one that balances support with personal responsibility. That is why employment is at the heart of our strategy to tackle poverty across all age groups.

Once again, I welcome this debate and congratulate the hon. Lady on securing it and on her determination to keep the issue at the top of the agenda. I hope that I have been able to show that we are making real progress in tackling child poverty in the UK. However, we are under no illusion that the Government can go it alone. We cannot. If we are to win the fight against poverty, we

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will need to use every lever at our disposal: jobs; help for people who cannot work; and public services that deliver for us all.

A partnership between the Government and all sectors—voluntary organisations to which the hon. Lady referred and to which I also pay tribute, and private, public, faith and community groups working together—is the best way to tackle poverty and support families. That is demonstrated by the fact that some of the best projects of recent years have partnership with community organisations at their heart, from Sure Start to the new deal for communities. We need to tap into that expertise continually to refine our strategy in line with what works on the ground.

Today's British Social Attitudes report shows that the British people oppose the idea, in an increasingly prosperous society, that large numbers of our fellow citizens should live in poverty. They reject the Tory philosophy of cuts in public services and the claim that economic prosperity can be achieved only at the expense of social justice. We reject that philosophy as well.

We are making progress in building the fairer society that people want, but there are no quick fixes to sort out problems that have developed over several decades. We have set ourselves an ambitious target and we are determined to deliver it. We are ready to be judged on whether we do.

Question put and agreed to.

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