Oral Answers to Questions

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Mr. Hanson: There are political acts, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the point with me. It is a political act to vote for the minimum wage or in support of pension credits. I hope that those political acts brought about fundamental and irreversible shifts in the balance of wealth and power and that they will not be repealed by any future Conservative Government. They have made a difference to people’s lives. The document before the Committee presents a political opportunity to consider how we can progress those matters still further.
Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP): The document says on page 14 that homelessness in Northern Ireland has
“increased markedly in recent years.”
Is that a political act? The Minister will be familiar with the Simon Community and the good work that it does to address homelessness in Northern Ireland. Is it a political act of the Northern Ireland Office that, in the past five years, it has not had a single meeting or exchange of correspondence with the Simon Community specifically about dealing with homelessness?
Mr. Hanson: I recognise the work of the Simon Community, and I will give a commitment to the hon. Lady if it helps her. If the Simon Community seeks a meeting with me while I have the powers as the Minister with responsibility for housing, I will meet that organisation before 26 March.
Lady Hermon: I am grateful for that offer to the Simon Community made through me as the MP for North Down, but will the Minister just answer the question? Why, given that there has been a directorial team in place for four years, has there not been a single meeting with the Simon Community?
Mr. Hanson: I can speak only for myself. As the Minister responsible for housing, I regularly undertake visits and go to meetings throughout Northern Ireland with a range of providers of voluntary sector social housing and with the Housing Executive. I have visited the hon. Lady’s constituency to discuss housing issues and the constituencies of many other hon. Members present. I am happy to attend such meetings and I am not aware that I have ever turned down an invitation from the Simon Community in my 20 months as the Minister with these responsibilities. If I have, I will look at that correspondence. I am happy to undertake to have such a meeting.
Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): If the Minister is dealing with the politics of poverty, will he recognise that the Noble index and other mechanisms used by the Department to assess the level of poverty, need and deprivation do not work across the community? The Unionist community is by far the most disadvantaged by the current use of those mechanisms. The strategy that has been adopted does not cover their areas as it should because of the close proximity of poverty and plenty in the Unionist community.
Mr. Hanson: I want to tackle poverty wherever it arises, be it in a nationalist or Unionist community and whether it concerns people of the Catholic, Protestant or other religion, or of no religion, because poverty is endemic in denying life opportunities. We are looking at real social need and have established targets on that. We have looked at areas of deprivation within communities as well as areas of relatively high poverty close by and we have a number of neighbourhood renewal areas across communities. There is a concerted strategy, but I will happily listen to what hon. Members have to say on that later.
Sammy Wilson rose—
Mr. Hanson: Before I move on, I want to make a few points about progress to date. It is important that people get the benefits to which they are entitled, but there is currently a great lack of benefit take-up. Promoting benefit take-up and high standards of customer service are among the many challenges that we face. The Social Security Agency is, as we speak, considering how it can modernise its business. Later today, the chief executive will write to all party spokespeople and public representatives about the results of its analysis on benefit take-up and the changes required for the agency to progress to the next stage of its development. I look forward to hon. Members being able to respond to that challenge.
Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford) (DUP): Will the Minister accept from me that the reason why there is such a shortfall in the take-up of benefits is because of the complicated form filling required? Older people and those from socially deprived backgrounds are less able to complete those forms. That is where the anomaly is.
Mr. Hanson: I accept that there are some who have great difficulties filling in forms, especially those who are elderly or confused, or who have low educational attainment; that is a fact of life. However, we shall look into the matter in detail. The forms are simpler than they used to be, and certainly much more user-friendly. The key thing is to ensure that people receive the benefits that they are entitled to. We recently piloted some benefit take-up schemes, and we are now thinking about how to roll them out. The chief executive will shortly write about the challenges that face the benefits system. Again, that is something that we need to consider.
I am proud to repeat that much has been achieved by Government. However, significant challenges remain, including high levels of economic inactivity among people of working age, particularly lone parents and people with disabilities; a culture of benefit dependency—which is difficult to challenge in some of the harder estates—and low pay, which is still endemic despite the introduction of the minimum wage and the successes that that has brought. Workers are still inadequately skilled and, dare I say it, there are some whose skills will not enable them to meet the challenges of the next phase of the economy, which is likely to leave them even further behind.
We need to tackle all those issues. People who are on disability benefits, the economically inactive and those with few skills are the groups who are most likely to face unemployment, and unemployment is the key to most poverty in Northern Ireland.
Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Does the Minister understand that many working people in Northern Ireland are in the poverty trap, and that that trap is getting deeper than it has ever been before? We have higher food and fuel costs than the rest of the United Kingdom and our water rates are getting higher—up 18 per cent. in one year—yet our wages are lower than they are in any other part of the United Kingdom. It is not only benefit recipients who are in poverty. Many people who are working, and working hard, are going deeper and deeper into poverty.
Mr. Hanson: I accept that, and I understand the hon. Gentleman’s commitment to the issue. We need to raise the wages in Northern Ireland. We are doing that, in part, through the minimum wage and working family tax credits, but we need to improve the productivity and economic base of Northern Ireland. We need to meet the challenges of the next set of employment issues, not to fight the battles of the past. We need to ensure that we are highly skilled. The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) is working hard to ensure that we increase college throughput and invest in primary and nursery education to ensure that young people start to acquire skills early in life.
The challenge in Northern Ireland is to create a competitive economy that encourages and involves all people in the community. We know that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are still underperforming educationally; poor housing conditions persist, notably in the private rented sector; and fuel poverty in Northern Ireland is still significantly higher than it is in the rest of the UK, despite our efforts. Furthermore, health inequalities between the poor and the better-off remain significant. There are more poor people and they are further away from the richer sectors of the community than they are anywhere else in the United Kingdom. Poverty and multiple deprivation continue to be concentrated in areas that have been persistently deprived for decades, both urban and rural, and there is a range of issues that we need to examine. Poverty can affect young and old alike. We must, therefore, break the cycle that brings people into poverty in the first place.
The “Lifetime Opportunities” strategy aims to tackle some of the basic social inequalities in Northern Ireland; to put in place broad policies and challenging targets aimed at eradicating poverty and social exclusion in Northern Ireland by 2020. It covers a number of categories.
First, it is important that we give children the best possible start in life. Our goal in early years is to do that by ensuring that every child has a chance to develop to their full potential in infancy regardless of social background. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State are committed to ensuring that we improve the quality of life in early years education for young people in Northern Ireland.
To achieve that, “Lifetime Opportunities” says that we will set a number of key targets. We aim to end child poverty by 2020, based on the estimate that more than 130,000 children in Northern Ireland have been in relative poverty. That means that we need to focus on lifting 65,000 children out of poverty by 2010 and on eradicating poverty completely by 2020. That target means the development of a broad and balanced curriculum from pre-school to the age of six. Such a curriculum should provide progression.
For children and young people, we need to take a number of key steps to ensure that, during their school life, we put the investment in and make it work in a proper and effective way. We aim to ensure that we improve the provision of child care and that we improve educational attainment, particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, for looked-after children and for those in both the primary and post-primary sector. We need to examine how we can support that progress, not just through investment. We must also consider how we manage and develop those resources. The Government’s commitment is in place, as are the targets. We believe that we can meet them in due course.
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): I note the Minister’s emphasis on the child poverty targets that the document sets out. Does he accept that there is concern at the lack of both interim targets and a meaningful timetable underpinning the headline target for 2020? Given the Government’s emphasis on the importance of children’s centres in the comments made by Ministers about this strategy, is it correct that there will be four children’s centres in the next two years? How does that compare with the situation in England? If we are to match the English position, we would need70 children’s centres by 2012?
Mr. Hanson: In consultation with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, I can confirm that four children’s centres are likely to be put forward in the next two years. I will check the figure and, if need be, get back to my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle in due course.
The key is that we are setting high targets on the eradication of poverty for 2010 and 2020. Within that, Departments such as my own Department for Social Development and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary’s Department for Employment and Learning are examining what they can do to contribute.
In the document, and at its launch, I have indicated to my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle and to other hon. Members that the Government have established a monitoring group, which I will chair. It will comprise a number of stakeholders, and it will consider how we develop policies to meet those targets. I anticipate that we will meet three or four times a year to examine the quarterly progress on our targets. I hope that the Assembly will take that forward in due course, as it is a matter for it to address. After Christmas, I will be calling the initial meeting of the monitoring group to examine how we can commence progress towards the targets.
Sammy Wilson: The Minister has rightly highlighted the need to hit targets quickly. Does he accept Savethe Children’s argument that two seasonal grants of £100 for children in poverty would immediately lift 400,000 children out of poverty in the United Kingdom? In other words, such grants would achieve a tenth of the target that he is talking about almost immediately. What plans do the Government have to consider such a policy?
Mr. Hanson: I am always happy to examine a suggestion, and I will certainly look at the points that the hon. Gentleman has raised on that policy. We have set out our view of how we can achieve those targets and reductions. The Government have set high targets and have put in place the mechanisms in terms of investing in young people, as I have mentioned, to lift them out of poverty. We can and should do many things, and I shall examine his proposal. We could discuss it at another time and in another place.
Lady Hermon: Will the Minister elaborate on the composition of the Minister-led forum and whether there will be representatives from children’s groups? Who will be speaking for the homeless and those who are suffering poverty? Is it going to be a forum for the great and the good or will it have representatives from those who are greatly in need such as the elderly?
Mr. Hanson: I am in the process of finalising the ministerial terms of reference, but, for the benefit of the Committee, I hope that the forum will promote the aims and objectives of the strategy. I also hope that the forum will monitor and review the success of the strategy, take a facilitative approach by talking to the voluntary sector and other agencies involved in tackling poverty, monitor departmental targets, encourage the Department and look at best practice across Northern Ireland. The forum will meet with myself as the chair initially but I hope, in due course, with the Assembly on a three yearly basis. There may also be sub-groups looking at particular items that could be geographical or sectoral in terms of policies.
As well as the issue of children and young people, which we have made a considerable effort to deal with, working-age adults need to have the support of the Government to help get out of poverty. To ensure that we provide that support, targets have been put in place by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State to encourage full participation in the economic, social and cultural life of Northern Ireland.
By 2015, we want to ensure that the work force are literate, numerate, and have good information and communication skills—particularly in relation to ICT. We need to improve employment and encourage other social participation, including cultural and sporting activities. We particularly need to focus on rural areas to ensure that those communities have equitable access to public services and programmes.
In the document, we have also set targets for older citizens to ensure that they are not just valued and respected, which I hope is self-evident, but remain independent in the community for as long as possible, participate as active citizens and are able to support a good quality of life. The changes that we are making to increase pension provision will go some way to help with that, but we must also look at a whole range of measures in terms of community support and voluntary sector activity. I know that all Ministers in the team are currently looking at how we can help to contribute to the targets in the document.
Hon. Members will know that fine words are fine words and nothing will happen unless we commit resources to the strategy. Earlier this year, the Government, inour direct rule capacity, committed the Northern Ireland Assembly to two important funds that will help achieve our objectives. The first is the children and young persons fund, which is allocated an additional£103 million between now and 2008 and will aim to reduce underachievement and improve life chances for children and young people. Secondly, the skills and science fund has established more than £35 million that over the next two years will be invested in skills—particularly for those who are de-skilled or unskilled at the moment.
Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): My hon. Friend will be aware that last week the Leitch report was published on skills and helping people in work without skills to face the challenge of the next two decades so that by 2020 we are able to compete globally. Will the lessons in the Leitch report be adopted in this part of the UK?
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Prepared 13 December 2006