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House of Commons

Wednesday 13 December 2006

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Duchy of Lancaster

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked—

Social Exclusion

1. Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): What steps the Government are taking to promote best practice in the targeting of support to socially excluded people. [108604]

The Minister for Social Exclusion (Hilary Armstrong): The social exclusion taskforce is working on identifying and promoting best practice in targeting support at socially excluded people. That will include developing a common rating system for high-quality evaluations and examining the case for a centre for excellence in children’s and family services. The Government will also be undertaking a review of how well services aimed at at-risk families are working together on the ground.

Nia Griffith: I know that the Minister is fully aware that there are no easy answers to tackling social exclusion and that we need to build up an evidence base of good practice to inform future policy. Will she assure me that such projects will be based in not only England, but Wales?

Hilary Armstrong: I know that my hon. Friend has been assiduous throughout her career at trying to play her part in tackling social exclusion. She is absolutely right. To turn lives round, we have to use interventions that we know really work. We must make sure that programmes with a proven track record are adopted more widely. I am happy to assure her that Wales has been doing very well. The Welsh Government are seeking to roll out throughout Sure Start centres in Wales a parenting programme called the incredible years. That significant programme has been well tested and has very good outcomes. Indeed, Judy, who runs the programme, has been very helpful and an inspiration to me since I was appointed. The evidence gained from such programmes is crucial to drawing up social exclusion policy.

Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell) (LD): Does the Minister agree that among those who are most
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excluded in society are the elderly, disabled and parents of young families, who do not have a car and live in rural communities without access to many services? One in four or five families in rural areas have no access to a car. In such circumstances, has she used her influence to try to persuade her colleagues not to announce the closure of thousands of sub-post offices in those communities, which provide services to precisely those excluded groups?

Hilary Armstrong: The hon. Gentleman has worked extremely hard to cover as many subjects as possible. In the social exclusion taskforce, we are looking carefully at those who have been most excluded—wherever they live and whatever their circumstances—and considering what we can do to support them as effectively as possible. We know that all too often even if a service exists, the most excluded do not access it properly. We want to tackle that too, which is why we are concentrating on early intervention.

John McFall (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op): I am sure that my right hon. Friend agrees that socially excluded people can also be financially excluded. I hope that she welcomes the report “Cash machines: meeting consumer needs”, which was produced this morning under my chairmanship. Some 600 free cash machines will be put in low-income areas. Will she ensure that we work with local authorities so that they can identify sites and free up the planning process to allow us to make inroads into the problem and ensure that socially excluded people become financially included?

Hilary Armstrong: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Under his chairmanship, the Treasury Committee has begun to examine much more closely how the way in which financial services work affects people who have not had the sort of access that they should have had. I am very pleased that he has examined that matter. I look forward to working with him to ensure that we can make financial services much more accessible. Indeed, as part of some projects, such as the new deal for communities, we have been considering how we can achieve that in imaginative and creative ways. My right hon. Friend’s work will help us with that.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): Does the Minister agree that some of the most excluded people in our society are those who sleep rough on our streets? Sadly, the number of such people is on the rise again at the moment. Will she take this opportunity to pay a warm tribute to many voluntary and charitable organisations, such as Shekinah Mission in Plymouth, that will open their doors this Christmas and provide much-needed warmth and support to a vulnerable and at-risk group?

Hilary Armstrong: Of course, those who sleep rough on our streets are among the most excluded. When I was Minister with responsibility for housing, I was responsible for reducing the number of people sleeping rough on our streets by more than two thirds, so I know that the Government are absolutely determined to get the most vulnerable people off the streets and inside. That will not cure all their problems, but it will
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mean that the Government and those who work with them, including many exceptionally good voluntary organisations, can begin to help those people to put their lives back together. Next year, the social exclusion taskforce will take a lead in pilots in which we will consider how we can more effectively help many people who end up with chaotic lifestyles that may well include rough sleeping.

Sex Education

2. Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): What steps the social exclusion taskforce is taking to ensure that sex education addressing teenage pregnancy rates takes into account the emotional context. [108605]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Pat McFadden): Rates of teenage pregnancy have fallen in recent years, but across Government, we are working to bring them down further. As part of that effort, the Government’s recently published teenage pregnancy strategy sets out a strong focus on personal, social and health education. Good quality PSHE can make an important contribution to young people’s emotional development. Young people value sex education that is set in the context of discussions about relationships and the responsibilities involved, and that is what the Government aim to provide.

Natascha Engel: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but I am still concerned about the fact that if we are really to tackle the high levels of teenage pregnancy in this country, we can do so only by radically changing the way in which we teach children at school about sex. I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that unless we teach them about the emotional side, and about self-esteem and self-confidence, at a much earlier stage than secondary education, nothing will have an impact on the country’s high levels of teenage pregnancy.

Mr. McFadden: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to stress that education should prepare young people for life, and that the emotional aspects of sex education are important. In addition to providing PSHE, we are putting an emphasis on sex and relationship education. A programme on the social and emotional aspects of learning, known as the SEAL programme, is already in place in one third of schools, and another third are expected to introduce it by mid-2007. All that is part of the effort to increase confidence and maturity, and to help to prepare young people for coping with making important decisions later in life.

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): Although I agree with the point made by the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), may I point out to the Minister that there will be no success on the subject unless parents are involved? Will he note that the only time that teenage pregnancies and abortion rates really fell was during the Victoria Gillick case? Hon. Members will remember that she tried to ensure that parents were informed if their under-age children were given either abortions or contraception. After all,
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parents have to give permission if a child is to have a tooth extracted, but not if he or she is to be provided with sexual education.

Mr. McFadden: It is absolutely right to say that parental involvement and a parental role is important. It is important, both for parents and schools, that we have a full and frank discussion about the issues. We should discuss them openly and not try to sweep them under the carpet, and in that way, we can prepare young people for the important decisions that they have to make in life, and ensure that they delay making important decisions about pregnancy until they are fully equipped to do so.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments on teenage pregnancy advice, but that advice is desperately needed for people with severe learning difficulties, too. Although some attempt has been made to address that target group, provision has been immensely limited. Will he extend that advice and support to carers of people with severe learning difficulties, who want to be better advised so that they can assist the person for whom they are caring?

Mr. McFadden: My hon. Friend makes an important point, and it illustrates that if a strategy to reduce teenage pregnancy rates is to be successful, it has to involve a wide variety of people. Where it has been successful, it is because parents and the people involved in education, in local authorities and in local health care have all contributed to the strategy. I very much agree with my hon. Friend that when people work together, we can have an impact on the issue.

Funding Agreements

3. Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): What estimate she has made of the proportion of funding agreements between central Government Departments and the voluntary sector which are based on full cost recovery. [108606]

4. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): What estimate she has made of the proportion of funding agreements between central Government Departments and the voluntary sector which are for three years or more. [108607]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Edward Miliband): Preliminary findings from the state of the sector panel survey for 2004-05 indicate that 57 per cent. of all public funding was awarded on the basis of full cost recovery, and 53 per cent. for three years or more. We recognise that we need to make further progress, so the pre-Budget report announced that a norm for the spending review would be three-year funding, and training for commissioners and standard contracts will further promote full cost recovery. Overall, central Government funding for the voluntary sector has increased by 96 per cent. in real terms since 1997.

Mrs. Dorries: Why is it then that seven out of 10 financial directors do not believe that they will achieve full cost recovery this year?

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Edward Miliband: We have made progress on the issue, but we have further to go, as I said in my answer. If I may so, the difference between the Opposition and the Government is that they talk about it, but we have a plan to make it happen.

Mr. Amess: The Minister knows how important the issue is for voluntary organisations. He will know that in 2002, the Treasury recommended certainty for three-year funding, and the Chancellor has recently made a statement. Last year, however, the National Audit Office said that little progress had been made, so will the Minister come to the Dispatch Box and tell the House what guarantee there is that voluntary organisations will have some certainty?

Edward Miliband: I know that the hon. Gentleman speaks up for voluntary organisations in his constituency, but his party does not like targets. We think that the target is right, which is why the Chancellor’s announcement in the pre-Budget report last week is important. My right hon. Friend said that the norm for the spending review is three-year funding, and I might add that such funding was not even dreamt of when the previous Government were in office. The Government introduced three-year funding for central Government, and it is soon to be introduced for local government and for the voluntary sector as well.

Deputy Prime Minister

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

European Union

11. Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): What steps he is taking to ensure that Government Departments co-ordinate Government policy on the European Union. [108594]

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott): I am just checking to see that the press are in the Gallery.

I regularly discuss policy relating to Europe with ministerial colleagues. Detailed departmental policy relating to the European Union is decided collectively by Cabinet and its committees. For example, I chaired recent Cabinet committee discussions about the future of the European emissions trading scheme. As a result of those discussions, we agreed a set of proposals that were submitted to the European Commission. The House will be aware that the Commission recently confirmed that the UK is the only member state to produce an acceptable cap on carbon emissions for the next stage of the emissions trading scheme. It was a tough decision, but it demonstrated the Government’s commitment to tackling climate change and the importance of bringing Departments together to discuss difficult political issues and make a decision.

Mark Pritchard: With the advent of the German presidency of the European Union, and Chancellor Merkel’s commitment to a revived constitutional treaty, albeit in compressed form, will the Deputy Prime Minister give the House an undertaking that if there is
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a transfer of more powers and competences, and any further loss of UK sovereignty as a result of a compressed or mini treaty, the UK will have an opportunity to express its view in a national referendum?

The Deputy Prime Minister: It was agreed after the last referendums that there would be discussions, and that the German presidency would introduce proposals after those discussions. We have always made it clear that a referendum would be required, whatever the conclusions of those discussions.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): Is it not important to take a positive and engaged approach to the European Union so that we do not just talk about climate change but introduce serious proposals for change through an emissions trading scheme and a post-Kyoto agreement?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I very much agree with my hon. Friend. Indeed, the statement by the Commission to which I referred made it clear that Britain and Sweden were the only two countries that met their Kyoto targets. On the emissions trading scheme, we were the only country to make a proposal that was acceptable to the Commission. Yet again, that shows that Britain is ahead on most of the climate change proposals.

Ministerial Visits

12. Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): How many civil servants accompanied him on his recent visit to the far east. [108595]

The Deputy Prime Minister: The House may recall that, as I reported last month, I recently returned from the far east, where I discussed a range of international and bilateral issues with Prime Ministers and senior Government Ministers. Our discussions included climate change, sustainable development, security and nuclear tests in North Korea. I also used the visit to promote British business interests in those fast-growing economies. As is usual for ministerial visits, I was accompanied by civil servants on scheduled flights to support me in my role.

Mr. Jackson: We learned last month that the Treasury had spent £56 million on subsistence for travel in the United Kingdom and overseas. Since the Deputy Prime Minister commenced his new role—I do not use the word “responsibilities”, as he has none—how much has he spent, and does he consider that good value for money?

The Deputy Prime Minister: It is clear that when one compares the amount of money spent on hospitality and travel by this Government, it is a lot less than the amount spent by the previous Administration. [Interruption.] Yes, it was, and I believe we get better value for money than they did.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that there are more than 2,000 civil servants living in my constituency and the surrounding
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area who provide a national service through the Inland Revenue? Those 2,000 jobs would be at risk if the nationalists stole Scotland out of England.

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): However many civil servants accompanied the right hon. Gentleman to the far east, is it not an insult to the taxpayer that 20 civil servants have to support him in what has become the non-job of Deputy Prime Minister? Is not the £2 million cost of that a sum that could keep open nearly 100 post offices, and would that not be dramatically better value for the nation?

The Deputy Prime Minister: That is almost as much money as the right hon. Gentleman earns making speeches abroad. [Interruption.] The holder of the position in the previous Administration did less work in Cabinet Committees, did less work than I do, and made it clear to the Select Committee that a Deputy Prime Minister does the job as requested by the Prime Minister. I am happy to do the job that I am doing. I have met more Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers than the right hon. Gentleman has in his job.

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