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House of Commons

Wednesday 3 May 2006

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Child Poverty

1. Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): How many children in Wales have been lifted out of poverty since 1997. [66180]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Nick Ainger): I am sure that the House will join me in extending our condolences and sympathy to the family of Peter Law and his many friends in Blaenau Gwent and Wales. He served his community with distinction for 36 years and will be greatly missed.

The Government are committed to eradicating child poverty. Since 1997, an estimated 50,000 children have been lifted out of poverty in Wales. Further significant steps to tackle child poverty were announced in the Budget, including increases in child trust fund payments and the child tax credit.

Julie Morgan: Does my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary agree that child poverty has fallen further and faster in Wales than in the rest of the United Kingdom, according to the independent Joseph Rowntree Foundation? Does he agree that that is a major achievement, although there is obviously a long way to go? Does he further agree that that is due to the progressive policies that the Government in Cardiff and the Government in Westminster have introduced, such as the minimum wage, the huge rise in employment, the big increase in benefits—

Mr. Speaker: Order. That is too long for a supplementary.

Nick Ainger: I agree with my hon. Friend. Child poverty has fallen faster in Britain—a 22 per cent. reduction—than in any other European country since 1996–97. In Wales, 242,000 families and almost 400,000 children receive child tax credits. That compares well with the family credit system that the Conservative party operated when it was in power, under which only 42,000 families received family credit. The Chancellor announced that tax credits would
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increase by 14 per cent. in the next three years. We are making work pay—the national minimum wage has contributed significantly to reducing child poverty in Wales and the UK.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): Childhood deprivation and poverty is often measured by the take-up of free school schools, which is triggered by the benefits that families receive. In rural areas, take-up of benefits is insufficient, partly because many self-employed people find it difficult to fill in the forms. Is the Under-Secretary convinced that his figures on childhood poverty are true and reflect the position on the ground?

Nick Ainger: Yes, I am. The independent Joseph Rowntree Foundation confirmed the figures. It is important that those who are in work—and are perhaps self-employed—claim the child tax credits because significant sums are involved. I assure the hon. Gentleman that, if people make those claims, they will be amply rewarded. The credits are generous, lift significant numbers of children out of poverty and make work pay.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): I associate myself and Conservative Members with the tribute that the Under-Secretary paid to the former Member for Blaenau Gwent. Our thoughts are with his family at this time.

Notwithstanding the welcome reduction in child poverty in Wales, the Government have, once again, missed their targets. Around 28 per cent. of our children still live below the poverty line. In addition, local authorities in Wales take an increasing number—now well over 4,000—into care, and 58 per cent. leave care with no qualifications. What is behind the increase, and what can be done to halt the trend among some of our most disadvantaged children?

Nick Ainger: Under the Conservative Government, in which the hon. Lady served, child poverty tripled in 18 years. Although we need to look forward, it is worth remembering that before any criticism is levelled at the Government, who have presided over the biggest fall in child poverty in any country in Europe.

The hon. Lady made a specific point. Yes, genuine problems have to be tackled and we need to deal with them. However, we cannot do that if we adopt the Conservative party's current economic policy, which would mean reductions in public expenditure.

Affordable Housing

2. Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): What discussions he has had with the First Minister of the Welsh Assembly Government on affordable housing in Wales, with particular reference to cash allocated to assist first-time buyers. [66181]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): Regular ones. Both we and the Welsh Assembly Government are committed to increasing the supply of affordable housing and offering choices to people seeking their own home.

Mr. Llwyd: Before I ask my question, may I also associate myself and my party fully with the sincere condolences being sent to the family of the late Member for Blaenau Gwent?
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The Secretary of State will recall that we touched on the subject of affordable housing during the Welsh Grand Committee debate. The Under-Secretary has now written to me to say that it is a devolved matter. May I suggest four things that Westminster could be doing? The first would be to look again at stamp duty, and at the variable rates for second homes. The second would be to relax the planning system to release land specifically for affordable housing. The third would be to allow local authorities to borrow at public sector rates, backed by Government guarantee. The fourth would be to scrap VAT on renovations. Those four things could be done very easily by Westminster, working with our friends in the National Assembly.

Mr. Hain: The hon. Gentleman makes some practical proposals that we shall want to look at. We are constantly looking at these issues. Like him, I am concerned about the problem of affordability, especially for first-time buyers. In rural areas such as his, that is a particular problem. House prices have increased massively in Wales, catching up with those in the rest of the UK and reflecting Wales's growing prosperity. At the same time, I know that he will acknowledge that, since 2000, more than 1,200 homes have been provided under the homebuy scheme, that more and more money in social housing grant is going in through the Welsh Assembly Government, rising to £96.4 million, and that there are more homeowners in Wales than ever before in our history. All of that is good news.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): In areas of economic prosperity such as Wrexham, there is great pressure on the housing market. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to take a balanced approach to housing that looks not only at the private sector but at much greater development of the public and social housing sectors?

Mr. Hain: Yes, I do, and the Government are now tackling the problem with a three-pronged strategy. We are increasing opportunities for home buyers. There are more than 1 million extra home owners in Britain since we came to power, with a substantial number of new home owners—I am not sure of the figure, but it is probably well over 50,000—in Wales alone. The low mortgage rates that have made that possible are part of our economic success, but my hon. Friend is right to say that we need more social housing—the Welsh Assembly Government are working on that—along with more shared equity schemes, which the Government are promoting, including in Wales.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): May I also send my condolences and those of my party to the friends and family of Peter Law? He was a man of true conviction and personal integrity, and the House is the poorer for his passing.

The Secretary of State mentioned house prices. Is he aware that Welsh house prices have risen by 120 per cent. in five years, and by 157 per cent. in rural areas such as Montgomeryshire, where rural households earn only about £23,000? For that reason, will the Government consider introducing a strategy actively to promote community land trusts—such as the one that has been successfully piloted in Castle Ceireinion—
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shared ownership schemes and new council housing stock, to help to resolve the acute and worsening housing crisis in Wales?

Mr. Hain: The hon. Gentleman will know that there is a community land trust demonstration project in Powys, which has been supported by the Welsh Assembly Government. That is all to the good. I sympathise with his point about first-time buyers. Why have house prices risen so tremendously in Wales? It is because Wales is now healthier and more prosperous than it has ever been. My constituency has had rock-bottom house prices over the years, but some have now gone up by three or four times. That reflects the increasing wealth among home owners, which is good, but it also means that we have to do more for first-time buyers, which we are.

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