Oral Answers to Questions

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Mr. Hanson: I understand that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is reviewing that as we speak and I am expecting an announcement shortly after Christmas. If my hon. Friend can hold his enthusiasm, I will report back to him on those matters.
The key point is to commit resources to these sectors. We have set out a number of high-level targets on children and young people, on providing skills, on improving the economy and on ensuring we give help and support to older people. We have put in place a range of funds to deal with that over the next 12 to18 months. The key element for the future will be how we respond to the comprehensive spending review and secure the range of resources necessary to meet the challenges between 2008 and 2011.
That might well be the difference between the political parties. I believe that the Labour party and the Government are committed to finding investment to obtain those resources. If we are challenged with a choice between tax cuts and investment, I know which side my hon. Friends and I will be on. We will invest in public services and in services generally. I should be very interested to see what choices would be made by the other political parties around the table.
Mark Durkan: The Minister referred to funding mechanisms recently created by direct rule Ministers. Was the establishment of the funding package for children and young people really an acceptance by those Ministers that their predecessors made a mistake in abolishing the children’s fund established by the Executive as one of their programme funds? Does he accept in the context of the strategy that we are discussing today that recreating the social inclusion fund, another of the Executive’s programme funds, would be a step forward as well?
Mr. Hanson: When a Government have been in office for 10 years, as this Government will have been very shortly, there are often occasions when policies move on.
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): It feels longer.
Mr. Hanson: If the hon. Gentleman thinks that10 years feels long, he should remember the 18 years of the previous Government. It was an awfully long time.
During our 10 years in office, we have often reviewed and modernised policies to ensure that we continue to meet the challenges of the future. Establishing the funds is a key way for us not just to manage the billions of extra pounds being invested in Northern Ireland through public services generally, but to focus targeted funds on making a difference in a number of areas. Children and young people is one such area and skills and science is another. They will be key drivers for the next two years.
My point concerns the comprehensive spending review. We need to plan public expenditure to meet Government targets for the coming years. “Lifetime Opportunities” is a cross-cutting priority for the direct rule team, the Secretary of State and me. As with previous targeted policies, we need to ensure that resources and effort from Departments will be allocated to meet the objective need identified in the document. “Lifetime Opportunities” is an opportunity for the Government to give clear direction about what types of target they want and their objectives for the resources that they are supplying. We want to see a continuation of the fall in unemployment, poverty and mortality rates. We want to see changes in housing policy, investment in education and opportunities and an improvement in life chances for people who, through no fault of their own, find themselves poorer in life because of the circumstances of their birth. That cannot be right in a modern society.
Dr. McCrea rose—
Mr. Hanson: I am anxious to finish, because I want to give other hon. Members an opportunity to speak.
Dr. McCrea: The Minister said that housing policy is one of the challenges. The hon. Member for North Down mentioned the increase in homelessness in Northern Ireland. Bearing that in mind, as well as the poor state of quite a lot of housing stock in Northern Ireland, does the Minister not realise that it is an indictment of the Government that after they have been in power for 10 years, we have little new-build social housing? Also, as a result of the price of new houses in the private sector, it is impossible for many of our young people to get on to the housing ladder. What is he going to do to stop the situation from being actively exacerbated?
Mr. Hanson: I remind the hon. Gentleman of the statistics that I gave earlier. In 1996, 6 per cent. of households in Northern Ireland lived in unfit accommodation. Three years after this Government came to power, we reduced that figure by half. We are building 1,500 properties a year in the social housing sector. I accept that that is still difficult because of many pressures, but he will know that I have established the affordability review under the chairmanship of Sir John Semple. It will report to me shortly—in fact, within the week—to give me an indication of housing costs and what we need to do in the housing and private sectors. That will be open to consultation in the next few weeks, and the hon. Gentleman can have his say on that document. I, or potentially the Executive, will be making final decisions in March 2007 about what we need to do to improve the housing situation. I recognise, by the establishment of the affordability review, that there is a real need to tackle housing issues in the community at large.
Tackling poverty and social exclusion is at the heart of the Government’s agenda. The strategy to do that is also at the heart of the Government’s agenda and at the heart of public expenditure planning for the foreseeable future. Only by mainstreaming poverty in that way can we achieve the challenging targets that we have established in our strategy. I believe that we can do that. The Government are committed to tackling poverty, antisocial behaviour and social exclusion. I commend the report to the Committee, but I would also welcome comments in a constructive manner from members of the Committee on what they think the Government should do in the light of the report.
2.6 pm
There was a great deal in the Minister’s opening remarks with which I am happy to agree. I am certainly prepared to sign up to the theme that seems to run through the strategy document—that one key test of social policy must be the extent to which it will help the poorest in society. There is no doubt in my mind that the continued pattern of growth in the country since 1992 and the end of the Provisional IRA’s campaign has opened up possibilities for economic growth in Northern Ireland that we have not seen for a couple of generations at least.
I felt that there might have been more emphasis in the document on the importance of seeing the private sector expand, although to be fair, the Minister went some way to redress that imbalance in his opening speech. As he said, if we are to look for higher earnings on a sustainable basis for the future, we must look to people acquiring the training and experience to beable to undertake highly skilled jobs in a modern, technically skilled economy. If we look south of the border, we can see the lessons from the Irish Republic about how lower taxes, lighter regulation and a reduction in the proportion of the national economy taken by the public sector have helped to generate a remarkable growth of employment and prosperity.
As I have said, there is much in the strategy paper with which I agree, but I want to focus on three areas of criticism that I shall try to express, as the Minister requested, in a genuinely constructive manner. We can certainly have our knockabout, about what previous Conservative Governments did or did not do. I could respond about the extent to which, to use the words of a book title by the distinguished journalist Sir Simon Jenkins, the current Prime Minister and Chancellor might be seen as the sons of the noble Lady, Baroness Thatcher.
There are three aspects in which the strategy paper is deficient and in which it might be redressed. First, it pays too little attention to the existence of persistent pockets of poverty that, under successive Governments, have resisted both the idea of the invisible hand of capitalism and the so-called trickle-down effect, and the benignly intended intervention of Departments and Government agencies. Secondly, the report gives insufficient weight to the impact of family breakdown, especially the lack of a resident father, drug and alcohol abuse and paramilitary groups on the persistence of poverty and social exclusion, particularly in certain inner-city neighbourhoods.
Thirdly, the strategy document places too much faith in the efficacy of Government intervention alone. I should like to have seen more about the role of the voluntary sector and social enterprise.
Mary Creagh: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman and the Conservative party on their recent conversion to caring about poverty. I do not know whether he is a Toynbee Tory, but on his second point about family breakdown, I was interested in the coverage of the social justice report yesterday and the impact of the breakdown of co-habiting couples’ relationships. Does he not agree that it is important—in fact, imperative—to reform the law on people who live together, so that when a couple’s relationship breaks down, they can share some of their assets, and so that, generally, the mother and child do not end up homeless, creating further social problems and social exclusion?
Mr. Lidington: I am not an expert in family law, but I believe that, on the division of assets after a separation of the type that the hon. Lady describes, the court will do its utmost to avoid a situation in which a parent—usually a mother—with the care of young children is put into such penury. My hon. Friends and I are perfectly open to the consideration of a reasoned and well founded case for changing the law, but she will appreciate that, although I acknowledge the social problem that she describes, I shall not make up policy on the hoof in Committee.
I want to deal with the problem of persistent poverty, which the Government’s strategy paper spent insufficient time discussing. The Government define the poverty line as 60 per cent. of median income. Much of their recorded success in lifting people out of poverty has involved raising those people just below the 60 per cent. line just above it, and we must question whether the Government’s policies have helped people at the bottom of the heap.
If we consider the households below average income survey for Northern Ireland, we see that severe poverty is worse there than in Great Britain and that a greater proportion of the population of Northern Ireland is—in the jargon—in the bottom two quintiles of the population. In Northern Ireland, there are about 200,000 people whose income is half or less of median income, and that is true whether we look at their income before or after housing costs.
We know from the same source that the poorest people in Northern Ireland are more dependent on benefits, including tax credits, and less reliant on earnings than their counterparts in the lowest income groups in Great Britain. Despite the end of the troubles—the end of violence for good, we hope—and despite economic growth, large numbers of people are still out of work and not in full-time education or training.
Lady Hermon: If—I shall take some persuading—the Tories are genuinely concerned about those people who are in persistent poverty, will the hon. Gentleman kindly enlighten the Committee about why Tory members of a recent Committee did not vote against the introduction of water charges, which will impact greatly and greatest on those in persistent poverty in Northern Ireland? Would he care to explain why to the Committee?
In 1997, just over a fifth of the population of Northern Ireland were economically inactive but were in neither training nor education. Today, that figure has barely shifted; it has gone down from 21.5 to 21.2 per cent.—more than 222,000 people out of a working-age population of just over 1 million. The figures for young people aged between 16 and 24 show, if anything, that things have got worse. In 1997, 23,000 young people were economically inactive and not in education or training, and the figure has now risen to 26,000. In percentage terms, it has risen over that nine-year period from 11 to 12 per cent. of the group of young people aged between 16 and 24.
Other benefit figures confirm the picture: there is a large group of people who, despite Ministers’ best efforts, remain mired in poverty. Nearly half of income support claimants in Northern Ireland have been claiming for five years or longer. That is a higher proportion than two years ago. The latest figures show that the numbers on long-term incapacity benefit have remained in the low 60,000 range throughout the Government’s term and that the number of people receiving either long-term incapacity benefit or incapacity benefit credits is nearly 113,000, compared with 98,600 in 1998.
Some of those figures, especially those for incapacity benefit, reflect, at least in part, the legacy of 30 to 35 years of violence and the traumatic effect of the physical injuries and the mental illness that people have suffered as a result of enduring those dreadful times. I do not quote the figures simply to beat Ministers about the head in debate but to illustrate that there is a problem, which hon. Members on both sides of the Committee must acknowledge and which it will not be easy to solve.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Maria Eagle): On persistent incapacity benefit claims, does the hon. Gentleman welcome the introduction to Northern Ireland of pathways to work?
Mr. Lidington: I am looking forward very much to seeing how the pathways to work scheme works in practice, although admittedly, it is still very early days. I am in favour of Government agencies talking individually to incapacity benefit claimants and trying to help them to find pathways to work. I understand that the project that the Minister described involves addressing issues such as mental illness, encouraging people to seek help and pointing them in the right direction. If it works, I will applaud it; the test will be whether those people are fully able to take part in the economy and in social life.
I spent most of yesterday in the Lower Shankill and Tiger’s Bay areas of Belfast. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Belfast, North and Diane Dodds MLA for helping arrange that and introducing me to people there. I listened to teachers and others from the communities. They described the challenges that they face on the ground. If it had not been already, it would have become clear to me that social exclusion, underachievement and poverty in those poor districts cannot be solved by money alone. Clearly, money is important, but it is not the entire solution.
If a pupil’s family is chaotic and dysfunctional, even the most dedicated teacher will struggle to nurture in them self-discipline and respect for others. If parents are illiterate and place little value on schooling, neither will their children. If boys grow up without a stable adult male role model in their families, we should not be surprised if they find it difficult to adjust to becoming mature members of society. Worse, if they see the wealth, status and sheer swagger of the paramilitaries, they might consider them a model to copy.
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