Oral Answers to Questions

[back to previous text]

Mr. Hanson: I tried to assure the Committee that the priorities set out in “Lifetime Opportunities” will be the Government’s priorities. When we receive the comprehensive spending review, it will focus on the Government’s key priorities, of which that is one.
Mr. McGrady: I thank the Minister for his intervention and correction, and I hope that what he says comes true. Unless we dedicate funding and people through the ministerial forum or otherwise, we will have been windbagging today. We have windbagged about different issues for different reasons, but the issue under discussion is much too serious: it is about humanity, our way of life and our society. We need personal dedication from the Department. The essential factor in the forum is that the social partners are included and listened to, and that the cohesion between the Government and their delivery and the social partners and their delivery is fully harnessed.
The hon. Member for Belfast, North touched on the community differential to which I referred earlier. The conflict and division in our society has led to complications that have resulted in poverty, or to put it mildly, a lack of opportunity. We must address the rapprochement of our two communities and the harmonisation of our objectives, and we must get together to resolve our difficulties and exploit our advantages to the full.
I noted a comment made by the hon. Member for Aylesbury about economic growth in Northern Ireland. One has to be nervous about that growth, because it is not based on manufacturing, and that is always dangerous. Perhaps it was my mental translation of what he was saying, but I think he mentioned the theory that a rising economic tide lifts all boats, as the old clichÃ(c) goes. I have never believed that. A rising tide does not raise all boats, unless they are capable of floating. Lots of people in our society cannot float with that tide. We have to ensure that they have a vehicle through which they can take advantage of the overall mood and the economic betterment to which our community can subscribe.
My time is up, but I should like to say one more thing. In nearly every one of the report’s four chapters on the different stages of life, there is a sentence that goes something like this: “A decent, fuel-efficient house and a safer environment is the right of all”. Aside from the generality of what we are talking about, Government policy, particularly in respect of rural planning, will create housing poverty in rural areas. The consequence will be the destruction of the rural way of life and the impoverishment, bad health and all the rest that will flow from it.
I should like to deal with that in detail, but given your admonishment and mention of 10 minutes, Sir Alan, I shall simply say this. Very recently, the Affordable Rural Housing Commission was set up in Great Britain, with dedicated people and funding, to address the twin problems of public sector rentable social housing and affordable housing for those who wish to be on the first rung of the property ladder. Under the broad umbrella of addressing and preventing poverty, I ask the Minister that such an affordable rural housing commission be set up urgently in Northern Ireland.
Starting now, let us prevent what could happen. In general terms, my party has accepted and endorsed the proposals and more for many years. We shall give our commitment to addressing and resolving the issues, but we need to deal with the flaws, failures and absences in the report.
3.17 pm
Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): I join my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North in saying how welcome it is to see the Grand Committee in Northern Ireland, especially in Belfast. I hope that this will be one of many times when the Committee comes to conduct Northern Ireland business here in Northern Ireland.
I am not sure that we will be able to guarantee the same background noise on every occasion. When the hon. Member for Aylesbury was speaking, the people outside tried to fit their noise in with what they believed was appropriate for the Tory party. They started with hunting horns and finished with the carol appropriate to the new, caring Tory party—“Good King Wenceslas Looked Out”. I think they even included the line, “When a relatively poor man came in sight”. We cannot guarantee that all the time.
Dealing with poverty is important for us all. A large section of the population—whether here in Northern Ireland or in other parts of the United Kingdom—is increasingly disengaged not only with politics and politicians, but with society as a whole. Such people feel that they have no part in it. For many of them, the day-to-day struggle of making ends meet means that they do not lift their eyes beyond their impoverishment. That is not good for the cohesion of society.
The Minister said that the Government have done a lot. He fell back, of course, on the old argument that so many bad things happened before his party came into power that resolving the issues will take ages. People in Northern Ireland are accused at times of being historical, but it has rubbed off on direct rule Ministers, who seem to pass all the problems on to previous Administrations. I would have thought that 10 years was long enough to deal with some of the things that have been mentioned today. It is a disgrace that 10 years after new Labour came into power and published the new TSN, and despite new targeting of social need, there arestill 110,000 youngsters living in poverty in Northern Ireland.
Let us remind ourselves what that means. It means that a single parent with two children lives on £186 per week. For many, that means that the smallest thing happening in the household becomes a financial crisis. Buying a school uniform at the beginning of the school year, or paying for fuel when winter comes becomes a financial crisis. It is little wonder that attendant problems follow.
Homelessness among those who have no dependants has risen by 60 per cent. in Northern Ireland. The Minister pointed out that this year the housing associations will build 1,500 new houses, but that is against a background of increasing homelessness. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North would not say this himself, but when he occupied in the old Stormont Administration the post that the Minister occupies today, he was building some 2,200 houses. The sooner he gets back into that position, the better. [Interruption.] We are working towards that.
Twenty-four per cent. of people are still in fuel poverty despite the prominence and the priority that has been given to it. I could go on with statistics, but, after 10 years, I do not think that the Minister can pat himself or members of his Administration on the back and say, “We have done a good job.”
Mr. Hanson: If the hon. Gentleman had listened to my speech, he would have heard me say clearly that a lot has been done and that there have been improvements, but that many challenges are left. A revolution will not happen overnight by changing the party, but we can make a concerted effort to tackle issues over the long term. We are planning to do that over the next 15 years.
Sammy Wilson: I have simply tried to inject some balance into the debate. When the Minister claps his Administration on the back, I point to the hill that is still to be climbed in tackling poverty. I accept that there are no instant solutions, but one would expect that a Government who are taking 42 per cent. of the gross national product in tax would have sufficient funding to do more than has been done to date.
I want to deal with several areas, but I will concentrate on child poverty during the short time that is available. The Minister said that we cannot have a revolution and change everything instantly. I accept that, but Save the Children, which has identified that 110,000 youngsters still live in child poverty in Northern Ireland—3,700 in my constituency—indicated that, at one fell swoop,10 per cent. of those who are currently deemed as living in poverty could be dealt with by the introduction of two seasonal payments of £100, in the summer and in the winter, at just the times when many parents go to advice centres because of their difficulties in funding school uniforms or winter clothing for youngsters.
The Minister will probably say that of course there is the social fund, and there are loans and everything else, but one quarter of applications to the social fund are rejected, and unless people have been on benefits for six months, they do not qualify. Even if they qualify, the terms are so inflexible that they tend to take loans from people who come to the doorstep offering them. They pay an enormous amount of interest, but perhaps those loans are more flexible than those through the Social Security Agency. It will be interesting to hear the Minister’s response and whether the Government are contemplating something along the lines suggested by Save the Children.
Another area where the matter can be tackled is in individual schools. I can think of a number of initiatives that have worked at local level. Schools have sought to use money from either the school support programme or the additional money that the Chancellor has made available to schools. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that the £50,000 average for primary schools and the £200,000 average for secondary schools that the Chancellor announced in his speech on the pre-Budget report last week will apply to schools in Northern Ireland. That could give flexibility to school principals.
In one school in my constituency, the additional money from the school support programme was used to employ a school-home liaison officer, and the families of youngsters who were frequently absent were targeted. It was a matter not just of ensuring that the youngsters came to school and did not fall behind, but of dealing with issues involving the parents, some of whom were directed to courses that would help them with their reading and enable them to help their youngsters with their homework, and so on. Breakfast was sometimes provided for children who came to school hungry in the morning. Such local initiatives are best implemented by schools that see the problems on the ground and can tailor the initiatives, but that requires funding. I shall be interested to hear from the Minister whether that additional funding will be made available to schools in Northern Ireland so that principals can involve themselves.
The Minister’s Department has caused some difficulties for community groups that seek to tackle poverty innovatively. Perhaps because of lack of long-term commitment to funding for good schemes, the Department has put some of them in jeopardy. I visited a “parents and children together” scheme in Carrickfergus in my constituency not so long ago. On a large public sector housing estate, a number of families had problems with youngsters going to school and it was decided to get parents involved. After-school facilities were provided, but not just to dump youngsters. Parents were required to become involved by attending information evenings at which they could find out what courses were available to them to help with their youngsters’ education. Sometimes the requirement was as little as saying to dads, “Come along and take the youngsters out to play football in the afternoon or on a Saturday morning. That is your commitment if you want your youngster to come to the scheme.” Such schemes get parents involved with kids and provide them with role models. However, innovative schemes to deal with problems at local level often find that when they get off the ground their funding is cut. The scheme to which I referred is under threat because of lack of funding.
I listened to what the hon. Member for South Down said. The strategy is full of targets, but it lacks the details of how those targets will be met. We must look at best practice in the statutory and voluntary sectors and try to build some schemes and policies around those targets to help to deal with the problem.
I agree with some of the points that have been made by other hon. Members. It is not just a case of money. We must raise the aspirations of people such as youngsters whose parents have never seen education as the way forward. By getting educational qualifications and achievements they can work their way out of poverty in the longer term. That sometimes means starting with youngsters. The new university of Ulster in my constituency has tried to do that by going to primary schools, especially difficult ones, through the step-up programme. The Minister recently funded an extension of that programme to parts of Belfast. I would like it to be extended further afield.
Last Thursday, I went to the launch of the sports academy in the university of Ulster, through which students are also going out to schools such as smaller primary schools that do not have sporting expertise. The students are engaging with youngsters and bringing them to the university so that even at an early age they are being encouraged and given the vision that they might one day achieve a place there. That type of good practice does not require a lot of money—perhaps it does not require any—and should be disseminated wider.
We must also look beyond children to their parents. Many do not give their youngsters many aspirations in life because they have none of their own, perhaps as a result of disability, disappointment or disillusionment. I welcome some of the initiatives that the Government have taken to encourage people back into work. I do not want there to be a benefit culture in Northern Ireland. It is not good for people to feel and be totally dependent on the state. Of course, there are times when people have to depend on the state and there should be a safety net, but it is far more important to encourage people back into full-time employment. It is also important that there are opportunities for advancement when they get there—perhaps through access to further education or training—so that they can become self-sufficient and climb their way up the economic ladder.
There is much to be done. I accept that the Government have made a start, and I have been critical because more could have been done with the resources that they take out of the economy through taxation. However, I look forward to the challenge of local politicians doing that job. The success of any local Assembly will be whether after four years it has made a difference in the areas where these problems are most prevalent. That should be a challenge for local politicians, but it is currently the challenge of the direct rule Administration that has assumed responsibility for those areas.
3.33 pm
David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): I, too, welcome you to Belfast City hall, Sir Alan. I was glad that the Minister was able to get a winter fuel payment through for the City hall so quickly, but I think we need another influx of money now because it is getting very cold. The 50ps must have run out. We will have to talk to some of the councillors who belong to the City hall. There is usually plenty of hot air in this chamber at council debates. It is good to have the Grand Committee here today. Like others, I hope that this is the start of a great relationship. We look forward to the Committee meeting in the city of Belfast again.
Much has been said about poverty among children, and we all know that that is a great difficulty throughout our Province. Issues such as lifelong opportunity and tackling poverty are core to any plans that we put in place for the future prosperity and social stability of the Province. Far too many people in Northern Ireland still live in poverty. More than a third of over-65s living on the lowest household incomes have 10 per cent. of their earnings eaten up paying fuel bills. The winter fuel payment is simply not keeping pace with increases in fuel prices. Society is judged by how we treat the most vulnerable, and the Government need to act now and increase winter fuel payments for households with people over the age of 60. We also need to look at the mandatory retirement age. Many people want to work over the age of 65 and are prevented from doing so. They are also held back in terms of promotion whenever they reach their mid-50s because of pending retirement. That must stop.
Far too many of our young people go across to the mainland to study at universities and never return. That trend must be not only halted but reversed. We must encourage our young people to return home and build a future for themselves and their children. In the process, that will help to build a great future for all of us in the Province of Northern Ireland. Regardless of devolution, it is the role, duty and responsibility of the Government to promote our economy and improve the lifelong prospects for our young people.
We need a proper partnership involving the Government, business and individuals in order to help our economy and meet the challenges of a cut-throat global economy. The Minister mentioned the economy. I remember that on the economic sub-committee we set up in Stormont the hon. Member for Belfast, South mentioned the issue of partnership in relation to the circle being closed between the business sector and education. I supported him in that because there is a lacking there, and there should be a closer working relationship between the education establishment and the business community. Government have a major part to play and should create the proper environment whereby business can prosper. We recently had discussions on corporation tax and the money that the Government are talking about putting into Northern Ireland if and when devolution is restored. Corporation tax is a major problem; on the commercial rating, I know the Minister is currently chairing a committee to see if commercial rates can be capped at 25 per cent. I know he is working hard at that and I hope to see some dividend coming from that committee although I understand it is standing still at the moment.
Previous Contents Continue
House of Commons 
home page Parliament home page House of 
Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2006
Prepared 13 December 2006