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Mr. Straw: I understand the problem, not least from the strong briefing that I have received on this matter from my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping), who is also my parliamentary private secretary and is in his place. He led a debate on this matter in Westminster Hall just a couple of days ago. I understand that the matter of surface workers is currently before the courts.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. There are nine hon. Members left standing. Some are regulars of course, but I do not want to disappoint any hon. Member. I will be assisted if they ask one supplementary, as briefly as possible. Then I can get all hon. Members in.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): May we have a debate on Government waste? On the Home Office’s own figures, they are spending some £40 million a year housing some 6,000 asylum seekers who the courts say should not be here. One could buy a lot of police officers and police community support officers in Oxfordshire for £40 million. Yet another area of policy that the Government and the Home Office have lost track of is asylum policy.

Mr. Straw: I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman raises the issue of asylum. Of course some asylum seekers should not be here, but every time that Ministers try to remove those asylum seekers, we are met with a barrage of protest, including from local Opposition Members of Parliament campaigning for their non-removal. Our removal record has been fantastic compared with the previous Conservative Government’s. In 2005, for example, we removed as many asylum seekers in a single year as were removed in the four years from 1993 to 1996.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): I welcome the statement that there will be a debate on the Joint Committee on Conventions next Wednesday. There are honestly held differences of opinion on both sides of the House about the consequences of the report, so will my right hon. Friend explain how the process will develop? We need a fundamental constitutional debate on how to go forward to the next stage—the future reform of the House of Lords.

Mr. Straw: I commend my hon. Friend’s work as a member of the Joint Committee. The Government welcome the Committee’s reports. Later today, we shall table a motion approving the Joint Committee’s report. My hon. Friend will be aware that there is a Government response to the report, but that is not before the House for approval because we want the widest possible consensus behind the Joint Committee’s report itself. Some of the issues raised in the Government’s response necessarily go wider than the Joint Committee’s terms of reference and there will be an opportunity to debate them fully when we publish the White Paper on future reform of the House of Lords.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): I was pleased to hear the Leader of the House confirm my constituents’ concerns about the democratic deficit in
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respect of quangos and regional assemblies. With that in mind, may we have an urgent debate about how the East of England Development Agency can propose thousands of new homes in my constituency when my council has no right to oppose such development? As we do not have enough water for our existing houses, how can more houses be imposed on us?

Mr. Straw: I note the hon. Gentleman’s concern about water. Indeed, an interesting report on that issue came out today. I hope that he will have an opportunity to raise those matters on the Adjournment or in Westminster Hall.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): More than 100 million land mines are scattered around the globe. Scandalously, Pakistan is adding to that number by mining the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Will my Friend join me in condemning unreservedly Pakistan’s decision, and will he reassure the House that the Foreign Secretary will come to the Chamber and explain the Government’s position, as there seems to be a conspiracy of silence on the matter?

Mr. Straw: My hon. Friend will excuse me if I do not offer that condemnation, not least because I am not fully briefed on the matter. I will of course pass on his concerns to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, and there will be Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions next Tuesday, 16 January.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Yesterday, the Prime Minister agreed with his hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) that the Royal Navy plays a fundamental role in defending the country and that it must have the resources it needs. May we, therefore, have a statement on the proposal to reduce the number of Royal Navy frigates and destroyers to only 19, given that the Government’s own strategic defence review posited 32 as necessary and that the former First Sea Lord says that we need at least 30 to carry out the number of commitments that the Royal Navy is responsible for fulfilling at present?

Mr. Straw: I have already given the House an indication that there will be a full debate on defence in which that issue can be raised. However, we have the biggest warship building programme that this country has seen in decades. We are introducing larger and more capable vessels, which means that we need fewer frigates, destroyers and attack submarines than before, but our commitment to maintaining and, indeed, improving the strength of the Royal Navy remains.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): My right hon. Friend may be aware that in 2005 First increased bus fares in Sheffield and south Yorkshire on four occasions during a 12-month period. After a short respite, passengers are now faced with a further 14 per cent. fare increase, which is four times the rate of inflation. Will my right hon. Friend find time for an early debate on putting passengers first, and the Secretary of State’s proposals for extra powers for transport authorities on services and fares? As the
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poorest people in our communities suffer most from such fare increases, we need those powers in place as soon as possible.

Mr. Straw: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is well aware of the concerns of my hon. Friend and many others in the same situation. As my hon. Friend knows, we plan to introduce those powers so that there can be better and more effective regulation of bus services, not least so that we can see outside London what has happened in London—an increase, rather than a decrease, in bus ridership.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): May we please have a debate in Government time about sexual health? Given that the incidence of sexually transmitted infections continues to rise, particularly among young people, and that in some cases they can threaten long-term health, as demonstrated in a recent study of the link between gonorrhoea and an increased risk of bladder cancer among men, does the Leader of the House agree that an early debate would allow us to explore how a combination of public policy and private initiative can together tackle that serious scourge?

Mr. Straw: It is an important issue and an important proposal. I cannot guarantee that time will be found but I will look into the matter, as the hon. Gentleman asks.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): May I add to the earlier calls for a debate on prisons and sentencing? Dangerous murderers inappropriately put in open prisons are walking out, more than 1,500 criminals have Sky television in their cells and there is an early release scheme, despite a recent Home Office report showing that the longer people spend in prison the less likely they are to reoffend. May we have an urgent debate on that matter of public concern, so that we start putting the rights of the decent law-abiding citizens of this country above the human rights of criminals?

Mr. Straw: It is not the case that murderers are inappropriately transferred to open conditions. They cannot be transferred to open conditions without a recommendation from the Parole Board and the decision of the Home Secretary. As I have already told the House, the rejection rate in such cases has risen from 41 per cent. since May 2006, compared to less than 10 per cent. the year before. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary takes these matters seriously.

On sentence length, one of the reasons we face an increase in the prison population, which I do not regard as adverse—as long as crime is at the current level we need as many prison places as possible—is that courts are awarding longer sentences than before.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Last year, unemployment in Wellingborough increased by more than 20 per cent. It is now 6.5 per cent. higher than it was nine years ago. Unfortunately, unemployment has increased at an even higher rate in 75 other constituencies. May we have a debate on that worrying trend of increasing unemployment, which blights so many families across the United Kingdom?

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Mr. Straw: It is extraordinary that in trying to defend the previous Administration’s lamentable record on unemployment, the hon. Gentleman should make the kind of point he has just made. The simple fact is that unemployment has dropped dramatically across the country in one constituency after another and the employment situation has improved dramatically, with 2 million extra jobs. If the hon. Gentleman wants to raise the matter on the Adjournment, he has every opportunity to do so.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for Health to attend the House and make a statement on why it is, in effect, Government policy to force doctors, nurses and ancillary staff to pay to park at their place of work? At Kettering general hospital, 3,000 staff are furious that they are being forced to pay to park their cars when they drive to work, to make up for an £11 million deficit due to Government underfunding of our local hospital.

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman is well aware that decisions about car parking charges are local matters, for the health trust and the local authority. We should be in a ludicrous position if Secretaries of State, of whatever party complexion, were expected to answer for car parking charges. Where people can be persuaded or encouraged to share vehicles, as well as to take public transport, it is generally to the public benefit. In those circumstances, parking charges can play a part in securing that encouragement.

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Social Exclusion

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Steve McCabe.]

12.29 pm

The Minister for Social Exclusion (Hilary Armstrong): I am delighted to open this important and timely debate. Social exclusion is a tragedy of wasted potential. It represents the failure of society to engage with people’s aspirations and of individuals to fulfil their potential. For the individuals concerned it can mean a lifetime of poverty and social harm, with the end result that they are unable to create and share the opportunities that most of us take for granted. A real danger is that these patterns of low aspiration and achievement will persist and be passed on from one generation to the next. The implications of persistent social exclusion can be just as catastrophic for the rest of society. The economic costs of dealing with the effects of social exclusion are considerable, and are compounded by the loss to society of individuals who should and could be making a meaningful contribution. In a competitive global economy, we cannot afford to have sections of our society unable to play a part in the nation’s economic and social life.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Hilary Armstrong: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will let me get a little further, and then of course I will.

Nor should communities be expected to bear the brunt of problems that result from social exclusion: crime, antisocial behaviour, poverty and the fracture in our communities. Britain was scarred by that type of exclusion on a huge scale when we entered government in 1997. For a generation, more than 3 million people were denied the opportunity to work. As unemployment doubled, income inequality surged in the 1980s and 1990s. In the decade before 1997, incomes for the top 50 per cent. of earners grew by 2 to 3 per cent., but the incomes of the bottom 50 per cent. grew by just 1 per cent. Public services were starved of investment, crime doubled, community and family breakdown reached unprecedented proportions, homelessness and rough sleeping were almost endemic, and the wealth of our country was shared increasingly disproportionately to favour the well-off. This Government faced those most extreme challenges in 1997. To quote John Hills and Kitty Stewart in their book, “A More Equal Society”, published in 2005:

Philip Davies: Is the Minister not concerned about welfare dependency? For example, there are now 20 times more people claiming incapacity benefit for five years or more than there were in 1997. What representations has she made to the Department for Work and Pensions to tackle welfare dependency?

Hilary Armstrong: I almost feel that this is a continuation of business questions. It beggars belief that the hon. Gentleman can talk about that matter today without recognising the enormous strides that we
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have made in tackling welfare to work and making sure that many more people are back in work. I hope that he will vigorously support the measures to get many more people off incapacity benefit and into work, and that he will begin to try to persuade Members on his Front Bench to support the new deal and some of the matters that we are raising, so that a real opportunity is developed. I thank him for that intervention.

In 1997, we launched a direct attack on poverty. Our priority was to save Britain’s universal public services through investment and reform, and to implement a range of policies to make work pay for the less well-off at last: tax credits for the low paid, welfare to work, and the minimum wage. All that was underpinned by a stable and growing economy that finally brought an end to the years of boom and bust. We all know that it is the poorest who suffer most when the economy moves up and down as it did in the Thatcher and Major years. [ Interruption. ] I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman is nodding at that.

Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell) (LD): The Minister talks about work paying. The Government have certainly saved substantial sums in benefits and other payments, but she is probably aware that the figures for the working age population show that although there has been a shift into work, the proportion in poverty has remained the same. That suggests that because much of that work is low-paid or part-time, the Government have pushed people into jobs that have not helped those people, although doing so has saved the Government money.

Hilary Armstrong: Again, I am bit surprised at the hon. Gentleman. I am delighted that he is here, but I think that he has believed the propaganda from Opposition Front Benchers. I am more than happy to come on to that issue and deal with what he has to say about poverty.

Mr. Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend as astounded as I am by the sheer audacity of the last two interventions? Will she confirm her commitment to policies such as more tax credits, improving the minimum wage, the pension credit and the new deal, which, if I remember correctly, were all opposed by the Opposition parties?

Hilary Armstrong: They were indeed. My hon. Friend draws attention to the fact that we have raised many people out of poverty, including children and pensioners who had no hope and no opportunity in the past. The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) put out a report in which he acknowledged relative poverty, and we welcome that conversion. The only problem is that many of his colleagues subsequently went on to deny that there was such a thing as relative poverty, but never mind.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): I am not going to refer to Polly Toynbee—I will leave that to my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark). On a more serious level, what would the Minister say about the report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies? It shows that Labour has
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had little impact on the slight upward trend in inequality that has been experienced over its term in government. In other words, rather than seeing a halt to the rise in inequality of incomes, things have got slightly worse under Labour.

Hilary Armstrong: I will deal with that in some detail later, but the hon. Gentleman is being extremely partial about what the Institute for Fiscal Studies said. It calls Labour’s record “a remarkable achievement” and states:

Clearly, he is not interested in the fact that we have reversed the trends that his Government established. The Institute for Fiscal Studies says:

Mr. Heald: But the right hon. Lady has not answered the point, which is about inequality of incomes. On child poverty, she cannot be that complacent when 1.2 million children in London alone live below the poverty line. On inequality of incomes, will she not accept what the experts say, which is that things have got slightly worse under Labour?

Hilary Armstrong: The report that the hon. Gentleman cited states:

[ Interruption. ] It is not worse. The report says that we have reduced child poverty and pensioner poverty. Despite the bogus figures that the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells gave, the IFS validates what we said, and I will come on to deal with that matter.

We have been able to lift more than 700,000 children and 2 million pensioners out of relative poverty. There are record numbers of people in work and we have public services fit for the 21st century. It is only having achieved all that that we can turn to, and prioritise, supporting people with extremely complex needs who are hard to reach effectively with traditional universal services. In 1997, we inherited exclusion on a huge scale, with millions of people excluded from the economic activity of the nation. Today, we have narrowed that down to those who will be helped only by intensive, individualised and tailored support. It is precisely because we recognise that—which, in many senses, is due to our success in tackling widespread poverty—that we can focus on the needs of socially excluded groups in our society. It has always been a priority of Labour Members to tackle exclusion. It is central to the Government’s ambitious pursuit of social justice.

Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): I recognise that some progress has been made, but was it not possible to tackle deep exclusion at the same time as addressing the child poverty targets? Why did the two have to be done sequentially?

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