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The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Margaret Hodge): Since 1997, the number of children living in relatively low income households, after housing costs, has fallen by 700,000. At the same time, the number of children living in workless households has fallen by 400,000. However, poverty is about more than low incomeit is also about health, housing and the quality of the environment. The seventh annual "Opportunity for all" report, which we recently published, sets out the Government's strategy for tackling poverty and social exclusion and presents information on the indicators used to measure progress against this strategy.
Mr. David: I thank my right hon. Friend that reply. I am sure that Opposition Members are as impressed as I am by her answer. Does she agree that such policies could not be pursued if there was a tax-cutting agenda?
Margaret Hodge: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend's statement. If we are to deliver on child poverty, we have to ensure that the commitment is affordable and that we do not take risks with public finance. I suggestreflecting on the future, not the pastthat the Conservative party's honeymoon period will run out very quickly if it does not think about the public expenditure commitments in some of its promises.
Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): The fall in child poverty in Wales is especially welcome, given that it has been the second or third highest in the UK for many years. At the same time, however, in-work poverty has increased from about 30 per cent. in the mid-1990s to 40 per cent. today. The fact that 40 per cent. of people in work are still living in poverty is entirely unacceptable. What will the Government do about that, given that their efforts since the mid-1990s have clearly not worked?
Margaret Hodge: I am rather puzzled by the figures that the hon. Gentleman has given us and would be grateful if he would send them to me. I see that he is waving a piece of paper. Measures such as the introduction of the minimum wage are part of our strategy to ensure that work pays. Other measures such as the new deal, which the Conservative party attackedI know that it was supported by the hon. Gentleman's partyare designed to ensure that not only the main earner in households but their partners work, so that families are lifted out of poverty through all those in the family contributing to family household incomes.
Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that four out of every 10 children in south Tyneside have no parent in work? Does she agree that jobs are needed in the north-east and not back-to-work schemes?
Clearly, a back-to-work scheme would not work if we did not have jobs. I challenge my
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hon. Friend on his assumption that there are not job opportunities in the north-east. As for the Government's record on bringing people into work, it is those areas that suffered the most under the previous Government from closures and the loss of jobs that have benefited the most from this Government through the new deal and also the very good stewardship of the economy, which has created jobs.
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): Did the Minister hear the Prime Minister claim yesterday that the Government had tackled child poverty? Does she think that that is an inappropriate use of language, given that one in three children still lacks adequate clothing, especially shoes and winter coats, and that the gap in educational achievement between the different socio-economic groups has, if anything, widened?
Margaret Hodge: I agree with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and for this reason. I think that the most dreadful legacy that we inherited from the previous Government was the growth in child poverty, together with the growth in division between the rich and the poor. The record of which I am proudest as a member of this Government is the measures that we have put in place that have lifted so many children and so many families out of poverty. We need to build on that record, but it is a record of which I am particularly proud.
The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Margaret Hodge): As at May 2005, there were 48,300 incapacity benefit and severe disability allowance claimants whose primary diagnosis was recorded as drug abuse.
John Mann: One question that my right hon. Friend might want to consider is the rather new tendency of those who are on incapacity benefit to be termed "depressed", and therefore to receive enhanced disability living allowance, for example, on the basis that they are depressed. Will my right hon. Friend take a specific look at this and consider whether it is a barrier to return to work for some individuals?
Margaret Hodge: I congratulate my hon. Friend on the extensive work that he has undertaken in the area of drug abuse. Having prepared for questions today and having seen his record, I know that he has added much to the information and knowledge that we have, and on which we can build our policies.
I agree with my hon. Friend, and the issue of mental illness and its link to incapacity benefit claimants is something that we are considering. The proportion of people who start an incapacity benefit claim because of mental illness has doubled in the past 10 years, and four out of 10 of those now coming on to incapacity benefit do so because of mental illness. It is my view that if we can get much stronger and earlier intervention and support through the health service so that people have access to appropriate counselling therapies, we could
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prevent many people from getting on to the route of being locked into benefit dependency. There is much sense in what my hon. Friend says, and we are exploring the issue in the development of our Green Paper proposals.
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Does the Minister agree that to wean drug addicts off the benefit culture, it is vital to have the right treatment facilities in place? Is the right hon. Lady satisfied that we have the right number of facilities? Is she satisfied also that we have the right number of qualified doctors available to run those facilities?
Margaret Hodge: As I am not a Health Minister, I do not have the figures for treatment centres and facilities before me, but we have greatly increased their number. I accept, however, that there is much more to do and further to go. Efforts to look at job opportunities for drug misusers and relinking them to the labour market are a difficult policy area, but we must ensure that we achieve the co-operation of people who are misusing drugs if we are to support them into a positive lifestyle in which they contribute to their local communities.
Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Minister accept that many drug addicts follow a pattern of committing crime, going to prison, leaving prison and going on to benefit? While addicts are in prison and are a captive audience, we have an opportunity to give them proper education and support. Does she agree that much more needs to be spent in that area?
Margaret Hodge: I agree entirely, and my hon. Friend may be aware that just before Christmas we published a report that was the result of work between our Department, the Department for Education and Skills and the Home Office, which looked precisely at the issue of how we can improve the quality of support that we give people in prison to prevent them from returning there. That includes looking at drug misusers who, because of their habit, end up committing crime and therefore spending time in jail.
The Minister for Pensions Reform (Mr. Stephen Timms): We are planning for a White Paper in the spring in response to the report of the Pensions Commission. It will set out what legislation will be needed and a planned timetable for reforms. We are not planning to introduce pensions reform legislation before the summer recess.
I continue to be concerned about more than 1 million pensioners who fail to receive pension credit or means-tested benefits, and I am sure that the Minister shares my concern. His Government, the Chancellor and his Department designed that complex tax and benefit system so, on their behalf, does he accept any responsibility whatsoever for the plight of the most needy and vulnerable in society because of the complexities of the pension system?
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Mr. Timms: Let me start by agreeing with something that the hon. Gentleman said. I, too, think that it is important that people receive what they are entitled to, which is why we have been doing a great deal of work to increase the take-up of pension credit. A total of 2.7 million households now receive it, which is an increase of 900,000 over the minimum income guarantee and income support that preceded it. Between April and November, staff from the Pension Service carried out 600,000 home visits to help to make sure that people receive the benefits to which they are entitled. We are using direct mail, and are also doing a great deal of work to make sure that people receive what they are entitled to. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support staff in the Pension Service in his constituency who are working to ensure that people receive what they are entitled to.
Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): Before we move to the legislative phase, would my hon. Friend support a programme, which could take place around the country, to aid public education and discussion of the issues affecting pensions? It is vital that we help people approaching pension age to understand their options and, equally, that we encourage younger people to take pensions much more seriously.
Mr. Timms: My hon. Friend is right, and that will be an important part of a successful programme of pensions reform. It is one of the reasons why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will shortly announce details of an expanded national pensions debate in the next few months, to contribute toward reform proposals. It is important, too, that we do more about financial education to make people aware of the opportunities available to them.
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