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Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): There are many issues on which the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party and the Conservative party are united, such as the environment and, more latterly, Iraq, where we both want our troops out as soon as possible and democracy to be working smoothly. Might I encourage the hon. Gentleman and his party to join us where they support us and where we agree?

Mr. Heath: I always welcome support from the Conservative Benches when it is forthcoming. Sometimes, over the last few years when we have been opposing the Government, it has been forthcoming; sometimes, the Conservative party has decided that it prefers to support the Government. That has been one of the tragedies of the lack of real opposition from the Conservatives during that period. However, I think that he has a point. His colleagues in the European Parliament are deeply concerned at being asked to sit with Ms. Mussolini, Mr. Le Pen and the others in that ragbag. I would not be so crass as to ask them to join the Liberal Democrats, but they might like to submit entry   application forms to the Alliance of Liberals and   Democrats for Europe group in the European Parliament. It would be a shame for the Conservatives to lose all their chairmanships and influence in that Parliament, even though that is what they seem determined to do by joining the wackos on the extremes and thus making themselves a fringe element. Until the Conservative party understands the basics about how to make opposition count, I am afraid that it will hold little attraction for Liberal Democrats.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Gentleman is an acknowledged expert on human rights, so does he agree that to urge Conservative MEPs to join the Liberal Democrats in the European Parliament would infringe their human rights on the grounds that it is a cruel and unnatural punishment?

Mr. Heath: Some would say that simply being in the European Parliament was cruel and unnatural, but I am not one of them. I am sure that MEPs do a lot of excellent work.

That is probably an appropriate point at which to end   my comments, as I do not want to exceed the 15-minute limit that would have been my lot if I had been speaking from the Back Benches. However, I take this opportunity to wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and Mr. Speaker a very happy Christmas, and I extend the same good wishes to all hon. Members who will take part in this very important debate.
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2.11 pm

Mr. Michael Wills (North Swindon) (Lab): I want to turn the thoughts of hon. Members to those who are less fortunate than ourselves at this Christmas season. This Government have done more than any previous Government to tackle poverty and deprivation, and the social exclusion unit's pioneering work has transformed the way that those problems are tackled.

Nearly 2 million pensioners and 750,000 children have been lifted out of poverty, and there are 2 million more people in work. Using the new definition of social exclusion, which deals with people suffering multiple disadvantages, there are more than 1 million fewer socially excluded adults. That is a proud record, but everyone recognises that there is much more to do. I   want to use this opportunity to ask Ministers to consider the position of my constituency in Swindon as the Government move forward with tackling social exclusion.

Targeting resources where they can be most effective in tackling such complex issues is, inevitably, difficult, and requires different instruments. Programmes for individuals, both universal and targeted, play a central role. For example, tax and pension credits, significant increases in child benefit and the state pension, as well as the winter fuel payments, have all played an important part in tackling disadvantage under this Government. So too have programmes aimed at groups.

Adam Afriyie: Like many hon. Members, I recognise the motivation behind the benefits system and the complex regime of tax credits and means-tested benefits. However, does the hon. Gentleman accept that vulnerable and elderly people feel pressurised and stressed by the need to work out how the system works before they can make a claim?

Mr. Wills: I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman says, but it is obvious that he has not talked to many of the people who operate the system. Had he done so, he would have been aware of the simplicities that we have introduced to make it easy to understand. The aim has been to facilitate processing for people who need help. Moreover, the hon. Gentleman does not seem to understand the stress and distress caused by 18 years of   Conservative government, when vulnerable and disadvantaged people had no such help available. I   suggest that he contact those of his constituents who benefit from tax credits before he makes another intervention along the same lines.

The Government have also introduced programmes aimed at groups of people who are at risk of exclusion, such as disabled children and drug misusers. Rightly, a lot of investment has gone into the most deprived local authorities. Although that focus is understandable, there is a risk that smaller communities that are in need can be missed by such targeting, especially if they are   located within more prosperous areas. I welcome the Government's recognition of that risk, and the announcement that the focus will move from the most disadvantaged local authority districts to 903 individual wards, to ensure that effort is more effectively targeted. That must be a good thing, and it will help target deprivation in Swindon that otherwise might be missed by Government programmes because it is diffused throughout a relatively prosperous town.
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Moreover, that problem is not confined to Swindon. Using the new geographic unit of super-output areas   devised by the Office for National Statistics—at their lower layer, the areas are smaller than wards—I   have drawn on the excellent work done by Adam   Mellows-Facer and the House of Commons Library in mapping deprivation, for which I am much indebted. From those data, it appears that half of the most income-deprived people do not live in the 20 per cent. most deprived areas.

In the index of multiple deprivation compiled by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Swindon local authority is ranked at 171 out of 354—more or less in the middle. However, 11 of Swindon's 119 super-output areas are in the least deprived 10 per cent. of SOAs in England, and seven of its SOAs are in the most deprived 10 per cent. of such areas in England.

Variations and complexities exist even within those areas. The SOA that covers part of the Gorse Hill and Pinehurst wards falls within the 10 per cent. most   deprived areas on the overall index of multiple deprivation. It does better than that on employment deprivation, falling within the 16 per cent. most   deprived areas, but it does significantly worse on education deprivation, falling within the 2 per cent. most deprived areas. That poses particular problems for front-line professionals.

Headlands secondary school serves Pinehurst ward and has gone through great turmoil in recent years. It now has new leadership, and the new head, Jan Shadick, and her team are working extremely hard with governors and parents to turn the situation around and make progress. I hope that Ministers will join me in commending all their efforts and achievements, but they know that there is a lot more still to do and they need more support.

It is not just a question of money, although that always helps. Bold and imaginative action is also needed to tackle the root causes of disadvantage. Much has already come into Swindon and the areas that I have mentioned as a result of Government action. For example, the communities now have a successful Sure Start scheme, and I pay tribute to Liz Evans and her team and all the parents of Pinehurst and Penhill who are doing such good work.

However, there is still a lot to do. Jan Shadick, for example, talks eloquently of the need to break the cycle of cultural deprivation. She wrote to me recently and her letter is worth quoting, as it illustrates problems that can lie among some of this country's most advantaged communities. She wrote:

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I hope that this Government continue to take heed of the needs of Headlands school and the community that it serves—and of the needs of all the other similar schools and communities that are surrounded by relatively prosperous areas. From my perspective in North Swindon, if the Government do not help them, it does not look as though anyone else will.

Conservative-run Swindon borough council has received huge help from central Government in recent years. Funding has increased by 30 per cent. since 2001, and officials from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister have been seconded to sort out the acute managerial problems that the council could not sort out on its own. Yet the council seems oblivious to problems of deprivation and exclusion right in the middle of our town. Cuts are made by the council that tend to fall most heavily on the most vulnerable. Last time round, it butchered the Berkshire advice service, which served the most disadvantaged people in Swindon. This summer, it   grandiosely launched a vision for Swindon in 2010 with 50 promises—50 of them. It is a shame that not a single one mentioned tackling poverty or deprivation or disadvantage, but that is modern Conservatism.

The ceaseless efforts of councillors to help their communities in the most disadvantaged wards in my constituency—Pinehurst and Penhill—are routinely ignored by the council. Those communities desperately need support in tackling deep-seated problems, and it would be a tragedy if, just because they are in a relatively prosperous town, they were to be overlooked in the wonderful measures that the Government have taken to tackle social exclusion. As islands of disadvantage in a sea of prosperity, they are always in danger of being overlooked. I hope Ministers will be able to reassure me and the people of Swindon that those communities will continue to be remembered.

2.21 pm

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