Oral Answers to Questions

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Dr. McCrea: Although it is true that resources and money are not everything in themselves, does the hon. Gentleman not agree that, if we do not have the finances to follow and go alongside all the strategies, we will not be able to carry out the policies properly?
Mr. Lidington: We must do both: we must ensure that the resources are there, and we must therefore have the economy to generate the wealth in the first place. We must then ensure that the money is used to make a real difference, rather than being swallowed up to meet targets that sometimes seem devised to be convenient for the administrators of a scheme, rather than get to grips with the complexities on the ground.
I am not talking only about Shankill; I remember visiting a social enterprise—the Cresco Trust—in Derry with the hon. Member for Foyle. It is in his constituency. The people running the training schemes told me that they were dealing with families in which no one had had a permanent job for three generations. What we would regard as the basic disciplines for economic participation—punctuality, timekeeping, being courteous to customers and colleagues at work—had never been learned. Even the aspiration to have a job, let alone a career, that was anything like permanent, had gone, if it had ever existed. I do not believe that there is a single panacea or quick fix to such persistent and deep-seated problems.
Rev. Ian Paisley: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that money is needed in the educational field? I am sure that he saw that on his visit. If there are large classes, certain pupils cannot be handled. We need smaller classes and more money in the educational facility, which provides one of the only disciplines through which such children can have some sort of hope. Surely, a lot of money needs to be spent on education in Northern Ireland.
Mr. Lidington: I do not disagree with the right hon. Gentleman’s general proposition. We should certainly seek to direct money, as it becomes available, to the front line of education, rather than holding it back to run boards and other administrative organisations. I was struck by a comment that I think came from the Public Accounts Committee report. It suggested that, although Northern Ireland was spending as much, or the same, on secondary education as other parts of the United Kingdom, the per capita spend on primary education was less. I have not had time to investigate that in detail, but perhaps it needs to be addressed.
In my visit to two primary schools yesterday, the concern of the principals about the challenge of coping with very large numbers of children with special educational needs came over strongly, and I should like to make a plea to the Minister.
Mrs. Iris Robinson: On special needs and learning disabilities, is the hon. Gentleman aware that a decision has been made to freeze new build schools? That decision will impact greatly on Torbank school in my constituency of Strangford, which should have been built this year if all things were equal? Now it has been put on hold and those kids, with so many excessive needs, will be excluded from a new build.
Mr. Lidington: The hon. Lady makes a powerful case on behalf of her constituents.
Maria Eagle: No decision has been made to freeze such programmes. There has been a short review of existing programmes arising out of the findings of the Bain review.
Mr. Lidington: I am grateful to the Minister for explaining the Government’s position. I was going to put it to her that principals are very concerned about the challenge of coping with large numbers of children with special educational needs. If I wanted to pass on to her just one message it would be that, in the view of those schools, there is an unacceptably long delay in accessing the statementing process, partly because of the difficulty at the first stage of the process in getting an appointment for a child to be assessed by an educational psychologist. If she can do anything to improve matters, it would be a direct benefit to the sort of schools that I visited yesterday.
I am conscious of the time, but I want to refer briefly to the third matter on which the document was lacking: it placed relatively slight emphasis on the role of the voluntary and social enterprise sector in addressing the problems that the Minister and I have described. It seems to me that organisations in that sector have a particularly important role in addressing the problems of poverty and social exclusion.
Such organisations are flexible. Even the most dedicated member of staff in a Government office usually works a set number of hours and is bound by a rulebook written either in Whitehall or Stormont. People on the margins of society often need emotional and psychological support as much as they need money. Their needs are not confined to office hours and, again, I believe that the third sector could offer them the way forward.
Mr. Anderson: Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that public sector workers will not work beyond their normal hours?
Mr. Lidington: No, and I know of many public sector workers in my constituency and elsewhere who do so. However, people who are bound by an employment contract and who inevitably work by a set of rules that are designed to deal equally with everybody cannot always offer an arm around the shoulder, the emotional support and the ability to be on call 24/7, all of which are needed when dealing with people at the margins.
The third advantage of such organisations is their ability to nurture independence and build social capacity. They are embedded in the communities that they serve and they aim to deliver not only basic literacy or numeracy skills, but less tangible qualities, such as self-esteem and confidence. We need to enable those qualities to flourish in individuals and, through them, in neighbourhoods if people in the poorest neighbourhoods of Northern Ireland are to be able to take responsibility, make decisions about their future and break free from the culture of dependence that the Minister described.
There is much that the Government could do to make life easier for the third sector. They could simplify the fragmented funding flows and the separate bidding criteria. They could also look at the how the tax and benefit regime and the planning system could make life easier for voluntary and social enterprise organisations.
I conclude as I started: there is much in the report with which I have no quarrel and which I am happy to support, but important issues that relate to poverty in Northern Ireland are being underplayed. In particular, we must face up to the severity of the challenge facing communities on the margins, which are not being helped sufficiently by the best intentions of Ministers and their Departments.
Several hon. Members rose—
The Chairman: Order. I have no power to impose a time limit on speeches, but if I had, it would be10 minutes.
2.32 pm
Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): I start by congratulating the Minister: his speech was the first by a Minister to have concluded to the acclaim of heavenly hosts. Whatever party is going on next door, I hope that it does not end before the Committee does, so that we have a chance to join the festivities.
I commend the report and the work that has gone into it. Trying to tackle poverty is a noble cause and a huge challenge, and successive Governments here and in the mainland UK have struggled with it since time immemorial. In 1947, the Beveridge report identified want, idleness, squalor, ignorance and disease as the five huge giants, and, as we see in the report before the Committee today, they have yet to be slain.
I have a personal anecdote to put our discussion of poverty into context. In October, I took my young son to Rosslea in County Fermanagh to visit the house where my mother was born in 1940. It was built by my grandmother and grandfather using the money that my grandmother had saved while working in domestic service on the west coast of America. It was a two-bedroomed farm house, but it is now being used as a barn. It was extremely interesting and moving to take my young son there and explain to him that the house, which was little more than a shed, was where his grandmother had been born. It had no running water, gas or electricity and, most intriguingly for a four-year-old, no toilet, which led to some interesting discussions with my uncle in the car on the way there and back.
What is interesting about the report is that it looks at the different life cycles of poverty and accurately states that poverty is a generational issue. People in Northern Ireland have suffered from chronic stress as a result of the violence endemic in their society over the 30 years of the troubles, and many of them have been brutalised by that violence. We know that we have come a long way in the past 60 years, but we also acknowledge that we have a long way to go
The benefits of the Sure Start centres are not to be underestimated. It is critical that we bring children’s services and, just as important, parents’ services together to give parents the best access to full-time child care. As a working parent, I know that if parents are to enter the labour market it is imperative that they have flexible child care arrangements. That will allow them to start work perhaps as part-timers, but to move on to full-time employment. It is also important that those parents who do not have English as a first language have access to the language training that they need.
It is important that we consider the poverty strategy of providing support for parents. The Government announced an initiative for England and Wales to support parents through Parentline. When that initiative was announced, it was reported in my local newspaper. Two sets of parents immediately phoned my constituency office asking how they could gain access to the scheme, as they were desperate for help in dealing with difficult teenagers. At all stages of a child’s life, whether dealing with toddler tantrums or teenage tearaways, we cannot do too much to support parents in the incredibly important job of bringing up children in the best possible way, giving them the self-confidence that they need and not waiting until there is visible evidence of neglect and then relying on social services to step in.
Lady Hermon: I agree entirely with the hon. Lady about Sure Start, but as a Labour Member is she not slightly embarrassed by the fact that, according to the document being debated this afternoon, Northern Ireland has only 23 Sure Start projects for a population of about 1.7 million, with a proposal for seven new projects to come into operation in September 2006?
Mary Creagh: I take the hon. Lady’s point on under-provision. However, there are particular issues specific to Northern Ireland, particularly in connection with the rural population, that create difficulties—for instance, in which village to put a Sure Start centre, and how parents from other places will access such centres. It is easy in areas with a large population to draw a map and to say that x thousand people live there and that a certain number of Sure Start centres will be needed. It is right to focus the resources first in areas of greatest need, because by investing early in those areas we shall reap the greatest benefit over the longest period.
The part of the report that deals with five to 16-year-olds mentions extended schools, which is vital if we are to allow parents to work and to pick up their children later. Interestingly, it will provide opportunities for integrating education outside the school day. It will allow parents to pick up their children together and for them to meet at the school gates, and for children to form relationships across traditional religious boundaries.
I am interested in the part of the report that deals with entrepreneurship. Before becoming a Member of Parliament, I was an academic at Cranfield school of management. We designed programmes for entrepreneurs and we had a partnership with the Coleraine campus of the university of Ulster. When I visited Northern Ireland in 1996, a colleague there told me about the challenges that the university faced. He also told me an anecdote about the arrival of the Argos superstore in the city. He said that people were so desperate to get into Argos for the first time that little children were going into the store, taking catalogues and selling them for a fiver to people further down the queue. That story has stayed with me; it is a fantastic example of the entrepreneurial spirit of people in Northern Ireland, but that spirit needs to be nurtured and developed and to be set free. In that respect, I pay tribute to the work of the Shell Livewire programme and the Prince’s Trust.
Two issues are missing from the report. The first is safety in the home and on the roads. As far as I can see, nothing in the report mentions the critical fact that people living in poverty and social exclusion are far more likely to be victims of accidents inside and outside the home than those with higher incomes. That is particularly true of children in relation to household accidents. Children living in lower-income areas are20 times more likely to die in a house fire and 13 times more likely to die in a road traffic accident than children living in other areas.
I notice that the human rights part of the report says that it has no human rights implications. In a narrow, legalistic sense, that is true, but as the broad base of human rights begins with the right to life, the Government should be serious about reducing the number of avoidable deaths and injuries to young children through road accidents and fires. I draw hon. Members’ attention to the “hot water burns like fire” campaign to put thermostatic mixing valves in homes.
Dr. McCrea: Would it not be of great assistance to many families in danger if the Housing Executive ensured that every house under its control had fire alarms?
Mary Creagh: Again, we need to target resources to the areas that need them most. I am not clear—perhaps the Minister will respond—where fire safety devices are installed. Two children from Wakefield died tragic deaths in Corfu. In another, totally unreported incident a couple of weeks later, an elderly couple aged 88 and 90 were poisoned by carbon monoxide as they sat in front of their own coal fire with the glass doors open. In effect, there have been four deaths in Wakefield from carbon monoxide poisoning.
That issue requires attention, but another is crucial, and I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Foyle and for Belfast, South for their support on it. The “hot water burns like fire” campaign, which I have been leading in the House, is an attempt to encourage the national Government to install thermostatic mixing valves in homes. The Scottish Executive passed a law with effect from 1 May 2006, but I believe that legislation is needed for England, Wales and Northern Ireland. I hope that the Assembly will consider that when it sits again in March.
Brief and fleeting references have been made to tourism. Northern Ireland has huge potential for tourism, which it is vital for the country’s development. Thousands of people visit each year. Given Northern Ireland’s compactness, it is easy to see quite a lot in a short time, whether it is the glories of the North Antrim coast or the wonders of Fermanagh, which I saw when I visited in October. I pay tribute to the village heritage centre in Rosslea, which is run by an inspiring woman called Annie McGinnerty. Rosslea is a tiny village, but people come there from all over the world to see photos of their parents’ and grandparents’ weddings, school days and farming days. The centre runs on a wing and a prayer.
Investment is needed in such precious cultural heritage. Employment training can be provided for young people, and those in border areas have the opportunity for cross-border movement and employment on both sides of the border. If I had not visited the heritage centre, I would have been unaware of the fact, which I am only too happy to share with the Committee, that there are at least 10 implements for cutting peat.
I shall say a final word on home safety as it relates to pensioners. Slips, trips and falls account for 60 per cent. of all accidents and injuries suffered by people over 65. For many elderly people, a fall in the home can be fatal if it breaks a hip. People’s homes are a difficult area where Government fear to tread, but if we are serious about reducing accident rates and improving quality of life, we must integrate the health aspects and deal with this issue as a cross-cutting issue. Tackling poverty is about the pursuit of both individual and collective happiness. Eliminating poverty will allow people to live in safety and security, to reach their potential and, as we have heard from the Minister, to live longer.
We have reduced inequality and we hope through the strategy to increase collective, community solidarity and allow people to have intercultural and multicultural experiences. Sometimes we say politics is not so much a sprint as a marathon; in Northern Ireland, it can sometimes feel on all sides like an Ironman endurance test, but I look forward to the next stage in 2007, when the devolved institutions are restored. I hope that that will bring the political stability and economic prosperity that has been denied to the people of Northern Ireland for so long.
2.46 pm
Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wakefield. I share her fondness for the county of Fermanagh, as it is the area where I was brought up and schooled and where my parents still live. She is quite right to point to the attractions of that area and its potential, particularly for tourism. I wish her many happy trips to Fermanagh in the future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Sir Alan, and to welcome the Grand Committee to the City hall. This is an historic sitting and we are delighted to have your presence here today. The City hall has witnessed many important debates and significant events. It is a very important building in the history not only of this great city of Belfast, but of Northern Ireland. It celebrates its 100th birthday this year and it is appropriate that it should host the Grand Committee in this its centenary year.
This is the first time I have seen the City hall in its present configuration, with Democratic Unionist members sitting on the Sinn Fein benches and the SDLP sitting in the Democratic Unionist benches—conversions all round. The hon. Member for South Down sits in a seat which I have been honoured to occupy for 22 years as a member of the council, and the hon. Member for Belfast, South occupies the seat which the hon. Member for East Antrim has occupied for 24 years. It is a particular pleasure to see them in their places. It is particularly welcome to see the Labour party and the Government converted to the Unionist benches. The Conservatives have perhaps drawn the short straw by sitting in the Alliance party benches, which should, of course, be occupied by Members of the Alliance party’s sister party, the Liberal Democrats; however, they are not present here today. That is a surprise given the close ties to Northern Ireland that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire has. It is indeed a pleasure to have the Grand Committee meet here in the City hall today.
The subject that we are debating is extremely important. The Minister has pointed to its cross-cutting nature and the priority that the Government give to it. The statistics bring home to us the extent of the problem. According to the Government’s own measurements, 327,000 people in Northern Ireland are living in poverty, including 102,000 children and 54,000 senior citizens. Of those people, 284,000 live in the most deprived areas, two of which are in my constituency in Belfast, North, in the Shankill area. The report points to the fact that the people living in those areas have a life expectancy which is much lower than the average elsewhere in Northern Ireland. That emphasises the necessity of all of us taking the issue seriously and ensuring that appropriate action is taken to put the problems right as quickly as possible.
It is clear that poverty, social exclusion and deprivation are not confined to one side of the community. All the evidence points to the fact that they affect both sides of the community. The four most deprived parts of Northern Ireland are in this city of Belfast, in north and west Belfast, although that is not to say that there is no social deprivation and exclusion elsewhere—of course there is, particularly in rural areas and the west of the Province. However, the Whiterock, Falls, Shankill and Crumlin wards in north and west Belfast are the four most deprived wards in Northern Ireland. Two of the wards are staunchly Unionist and Protestant, and two are staunchly nationalist and Roman Catholic, so these issues affect the entire community in Northern Ireland.
Having said that, my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East made a good point in an intervention when he said that often the poverty and social exclusion in Protestant areas can be masked by dint of the fact that the indices used to measure social deprivation, social exclusion and the rest do not fully and adequately take into account that sort of deprivation because of geographical factors. Larger areas than I believe are appropriate are used, so within them are subsumed small pockets of deprivation, particularly housing estates. As a result, small areas can be overlooked when it comes to setting priorities.
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Prepared 13 December 2006