Oral Answers to Questions

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Mark Durkan: The hon. Gentleman makes a point about some of the indices, but surely that worry applies only where people are using simply the local government wards as the areas of measurement. The Noble indices provide for much more discrete and specific areas of enumeration as well, which give a much more articulate mapping of poverty, so that areas can be targeted for their poverty even if they are beside much more affluent areas.
Mr. Dodds: I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. However, it is clear that under the Government’s neighbourhood renewal strategy, the 36 areas identified for that seven to 10-year investment are very large. There have been numerous complaints—I think that the hon. Gentleman will accept that—about the identification of those areas. They tend to cover places where there are large concentrations of deprivation, and smaller areas of deprivation have not been adequately covered as a result. There is an issue that will bear closer examination.
I wish to focus on education. The hon. Member for Aylesbury has already referred to that, and I was delighted that he was able to come to north and west Belfast yesterday to see some of the issues at first hand, to look at the opportunities for economic regeneration at Crumlin Road jail and to speak to the principals of a number of schools, teachers and others who are acutely aware of the issues. They are at the coal face, as it were, in some very difficult areas.
The hon. Gentleman will have seen and other hon. Members will be aware that there are particular problems in Protestant areas—Unionist areas—of this city. I am thinking in particular of the weak community infrastructure. That is not to deny that there are problems of deprivation in nationalist, Catholic areas as well. Of course there are, and I am only too well aware, as a former Minister for Social Development, of those problems and the work that we did in tackling them. However, there are particular issues in Protestant and Unionist areas that need to be addressed. That is well recognised by the Government. Indeed, they have addressed it specifically in the renewing communities initiative published earlier this year.
The Select Committee on Public Accounts, in its report last week on numeracy and literacy in schools in Northern Ireland, pointed out some of the problems, in particular the fact that only 4.4 per cent. of Protestant children going through secondary school are achieving an A-C grade in their maths GCSE. That is far less than their Roman Catholic counterparts attain, far less than is acceptable and far less than is attained elsewhere in the country. We have to do something about that. Education is clearly one of the greatest avenues for getting people and communities out of poverty. Our emphasis in those communities should be, as far as possible, on education—giving kids and young people hope, instilling in them a vision of getting out and beyond what they are currently having to endure and exist in. What the Government and all of us must do is look at ways in which we can ensure that teachers, schools and parents in those areas are empowered to help those children.
We know that not everything is about money, but a great deal comes down to resources. The principal of Edenbrooke primary school in my constituency, Betty Orr, of whom Ministers will be aware, has spoken eloquently about some of those issues. Class size is important, and the provision for special educational needs is a priority. More needs to done with educational psychologists, so that children who need to be statemented can be statemented early. Yesterday we spoke to Ann Thompson, the principal of Currie school in my constituency, who said that children can go from P1 right through to P7 and secondary school and still be waiting for an educational psychologist to examine and assess them. It is an outrageous that that should happen in this day and age. More needs to be done on resources in that regard.
Reference has been made to young children and early years. It is vital to intervene as early as possible. As all the evidence shows, the earlier the intervention and help, the more potential children and young people will have in later life. Early intervention is an excellent investment. Reference has also been made to Sure Start. I shall not rehearse all the arguments about that, except to say that we in Northern Ireland are behind the rest of the country in terms of Sure Start. It does not cover as many children in Northern Ireland as in other parts of the country, only covering those aged between nought and four, and a great deal more work needs to be done. I welcome the extra investment that has been announced, but it needs to go much further. The hon. Member for North Down pointed out the inadequacies in that regard.
I would be grateful if the Minister explained to the Committee in more detail the proposals for children’s centres in the most disadvantaged areas. The report highlights that as important, so I should be grateful if he told the Committee just how much investment will go into the children’s centres, what he intends they should encompass, what services they will provide, and how they will be situated. What criteria will be used to determine their location?
I should like to mention older people and the poverty in which many of our senior citizens live. The statistics show that our older people in Northern Ireland are relatively more impoverished than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. That needs to be taken on board. We need to remove the barriers to older people continuing in work, and more needs to be done to ensure that we tackle age discrimination. We need to ensure that older people have the dignity in old age that comes from having proper financial resources and independence.
The Minister mentioned pensions reform and the Turner commission. I welcome many of those provisions, but their implementation is still some time away. They will not lift today’s pensioners out of poverty and means-testing to the extent that is required. I urge the Government to look at means-testing, as my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford mentioned. For many pensioners and people in poverty, means-testing is a disincentive. They are put off claiming the benefits to which they are entitled because of the complexity of the forms that they have to fill in and because of the indignity that many of them feel.
Lady Hermon: Bearing in mind what the hon. Gentleman has just said about pensioners and the poverty that they endure in rural and urban areas of Northern Ireland, will he kindly give a commitment this afternoon that, if and when the Assembly is up and running again—and if, of course, his party is there in a prominent position—he will campaign to have a commissioner for older people, just as we have a Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People?
Mr. Dodds: I am pleased to hear the hon. Lady raise that issue, on which I am glad of her support. It is an issue on which my party and I have campaigned for some time. The proposal has been in our manifesto and it is something that we support. I remember addressing a rally at the front of the City hall just over a year and a half ago, with Help the Aged and Age Concern, at which we called for the establishment of that post. I welcome her support, and I hope that her party colleagues in the Assembly will do likewise. I am sure that she will use her good offices to ensure that the message gets through, and that they will support us.
I would like to say much more, but I am conscious that others wish to speak. On benefit take-up, I was talking about the importance of trying to streamline means-testing and, wherever possible, to divest ourselves of it. I know that the Chancellor is fond of means-testing; he thinks that the way forward is through means-testing, tax credits and all the rest of it. However, means-testing results in one in three people who are entitled to pension credit in Northern Ireland not claiming it. That is a lot of people.
I recently listened to a presentation by the head of the anti-poverty unit in the Social Security Agency. Mention was made of the pilot schemes that are under way to try to increase benefit take-up. It is clear that when statistics of that magnitude are involved, no matter what one does to try to get more people aware of their entitlements—I have no doubt that good work is being done, and pay tribute to those who are doing that work—there will always be an enormous number of people who do not claim. We therefore need to examine the matter. Statistics on the extent of fraud and error in the social security system are bandied about, and we need to clamp down on those things as much as possible, but no mention is made of the fact that the Government save hundreds of millions of pounds every year through not paying out to people who are eligible for benefits the moneys that they should get. More needs to be done in that regard.
I attach great importance to the problem of fuel poverty. I pay tribute to the Minister, because the Department for Social Development has put extra resources into tackling it in recent years. Some 1,300 people die each year as a result of cold. None of us should be comfortable with that statistic, and we need to eradicate the problem. The rising fuel prices of recent years are negating all the Government’s good work, so we must pay attention to that issue. The winter fuel allowance has remained static since 2000, at £200. Then it would have bought an enormous amount of fuel for the homes of elderly people, but nowadays it buys very little. It is surely about time that the Government considered increasing it. I know of no other benefit or allowance that has remained static for almost seven years, and the Government cannot justify that.
3.2 pm
Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): First, may I give you a warm welcome to Belfast, Sir Alan? We are very much honoured by your presence—much more than we would be were we sitting in a more common meeting room in Westminster. I endorse the thanks that you extended to the Northern Ireland corporation for the hospitality at the reception this afternoon.
We have before us a consultation paper, rather than a statement of intent. It is a broad blueprint rather than specifics on how the objectives can be achieved. I consider it to be an outline of a plan, with the detail and the methodology yet to be painted in.
The opening foreword by the Secretary of State gave three objectives. The first is to ensure that by 2020 no one in Northern Ireland is denied the opportunities that they are owed. The second is the elimination of poverty and social exclusion. The third is, as an overarching objective, to halve child poverty by 2010 and to eradicate it completely by 2020.
The date for halving child poverty is four years hence, and the date for achieving the other objectives is 14 years hence. The task is daunting and the scheme is ambitious. We welcome and endorse it, but we are disappointed with some aspects of the paper, more in respect of omission than commission. The aims on the concept of social exclusion are acceptable to all public representatives in Northern Ireland, but crucially there remains no specific definition of poverty, as has been mentioned. That concern has repeatedly been raised by us and by the social partners in Northern Ireland.
The document pays inadequate attention to other serious issues. There is a serious lack of acceptable timetables, an absence of measurable targets and a complete silence on the strategies by which these important and compelling objectives will be achieved. I would like to think that in the weeks, not the months, ahead some flesh will be put on the bones of these areas of concern in order that the document’s objectives, which we accept, can be fully implemented.
The document aims to tackle poverty throughout the four stages of life, or the cycle of deprivation as it is called, from childhood to retirement. However, some key themes have been overlooked, including the elimination of community differentials and addressing the legacy of the conflict that we have had for 30 years. Strangely, it also failed to mention that we can build upon north-south co-operation and the available north-south funding, especially in rural areas in the border regions, which are deprived in comparison with their city counterparts.
The emphasis remains on promoting employment as the main route out of poverty, but it does not adequately address the needs of those who are not, and will not be, in a position to take up employment due to disability or caring responsibilities, for example. I would like much greater emphasis to be placed on carers and greater provision to enable them to provide adequately for themselves and the people for whom they care. Carers make an enormous contribution to society, which fails to support them in the tremendous work that they are doing which is so cost-effective for the Exchequer.
Mr. Dodds: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Does he agree that one of the biggest benefits for carers would be to allow them to continue to claim the carer’s allowance when they reach pension age? One of the greatest complaints is that when women reach the age of 60, and men the age of 65, they lose that allowance, which is pitiful enough as it stands.
Mr. McGrady: I entirely accept what the hon. Gentleman says, but even to extend the carer’s benefit beyond pension age would not fully address the issue. It would only be tinkering with what carers really need. What is required is a complete reassessment of how we support carers and, through them, how we support those for whom they care. That would be of enormous benefit in helping us to address parts of the poverty scenario.
As yet, there is no definition of poverty. As a group, we have made several suggestions to Government over the years. In response papers in 2004 and 2005, which were phases of the new targeting social need strategy, we suggested that the definition of poverty should be that of the European Union, which is an income of less than 60 per cent. of the median, or some other equally clear but simple definition. That would enable us to judge the relative merits of the demanding, and sometimes conflicting, sectors, and the social partners and the Government could get together on that basis.
I subscribe to the views of many of the speakers who also referred to the indices hiding pockets of severe deprivation. I am aware of that on a day-to-day basis. Although pockets in urban areas and cities can easily be identified as falling well below the poverty margin, in rural communities they are not readily identified; in fact they are completely disguised. In rural areas there are many people—families or the older generation on their farms—who are well below the poverty and income levels that one would desire. However, they do not show up anywhere.
Government funding is directed towards specific areas that are highlighted almost like the ward system, as my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle said. It indicates the poverty and deprivation in that ward. Scattered throughout our country, right across the rural community, but particularly in the border regions, however, an enormous number of people do not have a decent standard of living, any prospect of income, any adequate housing or any quality of life. We should be able to pick them out and deal with them by whatever system we apply in order to address our objectives.
Funding was also mentioned. We cannot proceed meaningfully or truthfully with the projects unless there is dedicated funding. My hon. Friend mentioned the child fund and the social inclusion fund, which for whatever reason were abolished, and we are now dependent once again on a cross-cutting exercise among various departmental budgets. I note in the report—perhaps I note from an absence in the report; I cannot remember which—that there is no dedicated fund, and that those tremendous objectives must be achieved within existing budgets. That is just not possible. I may be wrong, and I hope that in the Minister’s winding-up speech, he will tell me that I am horribly wrong, and that there will be dedicated and extra funding to deal with all the areas that he describes in his report.
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