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Hilary Armstrong: A lot has been done to tackle deep-seated exclusion, too. I simply point to the shift in the way in which rough sleepers are dealt with and
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worked with. We have reduced the number of rough sleepers on the streets by more than two thirds—indeed, I think that that proportion is now more than three quarters. So we have been carrying out such work. However, it took time to begin to get the investment and the reform in public services working so that, for example, many more children could have the opportunity of a decent education and a decent start in life. Given the chaos in this country before 1997, and the ravaging of it that took place before then, 10 years is seen by many people as a fairly limited time in which to have made such progress. I hope that the hon. Gentleman recognises that we have made more progress in these areas than almost any other comparable country. However, no one is saying that there are not extremely complex and serious problems that trap a group of people and prevent them from fulfilling any ambition, largely because they have ended up with very little ambition.

Mr. Khan: Parenting courses were mocked by Her Majesty’s official Opposition when they were introduced, but they are an example of a complex measure with long-term benefits, although the rewards are not seen straight away.

Hilary Armstrong: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I intend to come back to that and to talk about an aspect of parenting on which we will be moving forward in the near future.

Today, we know that we need to narrow our intervention to those who will be helped only by intensive, individualised and tailored support, while at the same time retaining our broad determination to enable opportunities to be available to everyone by continuing to work towards having the best public services in the world. However, in a sense, it is because of our success that some problems have been more widely exposed. We adopt our approach because we do not take the traditional ideological views of poverty and exclusion. Too many people have said that those things are only a matter of income, and too many people on the other side of the House have said that they are a result of fecklessness and the fault of the people who are poor. The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells might not have heard that being said from his side of the House in this Parliament, but I assure him that I have heard it said time and again by Conservative Members during my time in the House.

We believe in the potential of everyone, and we are determined to acknowledge that through the way in which we develop policies. Yes, levels of material income matter, which is why we have done so much to address that, but for the minority of families and individuals who have not been able to take advantage of what is available, we must come in with new ideas and new ways of working. The more such people are disengaged from the opportunities that exist, especially those offered by education, the more likely they will be to drift into deeper and deeper problems. We cannot neglect the issue of being able to engage with those people, because it is at the heart of how we can reach out to the socially excluded and work with them to help to turn their lives round.

Many more people have gone into work and have begun to believe that they can improve their prospects and those of their families. As people begin to take
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advantage of Sure Start, extended school activities and tax credits, and as they raise their aspirations, those who are not doing so are left further behind. We know that—we acknowledge it in the action plan—and I think that that is the issue that the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells is addressing. There is a small minority of people whom we have not been able to engage in the new deal and other mainstream programmes. Those people have drifted further, and while general prosperity has risen, they have been left behind.

Many of us are very aware of that in our constituencies. These people are the family that will be seen as the problem in the street. The parents will probably be second or third-generation workless. They might have addiction problems. They get angry when confronted with officialdom. The children truant and are experienced by neighbours as running wild. They get involved in low-level crime and antisocial behaviour. The daughter will get pregnant while she is still a young teenager, and perhaps the children will be in and out of the care system. We, the public, spend a fortune trying to deal with the crises and the problems. The problems become deeply intractable and the most socially excluded become the hardest to reach. Their problems are multiple and entrenched and are often passed down through the generations. It was the understanding of the group that led the Prime Minister to look for a new focus on those who are most entrenched and excluded.

I was appointed last May, along with the Parliamentary Secretaries to the Cabinet Office, my hon. Friends the Members for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. McFadden) and for Doncaster, North (Edward Miliband). In September we brought out “Reaching Out: An Action Plan on Social Exclusion”. We set out the challenge that faces us: even in the context of an encouraging national prosperity, a hard core of about one in 40 of our fellow citizens still struggle to access the health, education and employment opportunities that benefit the vast majority.

Matthew Taylor: I am sure that the right hon. Lady and the Government are right to highlight that group of people. She will probably be aware that Save the Children and others have highlighted the fact that about a million children are still in what they term severe poverty—with an income less than 40 per cent. of median income. They are very much the kind of people whom she has described. However, the Government have been unwilling to monitor this most excluded and hard-up of groups and to publish numbers. Does she agree that it would be worth monitoring those in the severest poverty and ultimately setting targets?

Hilary Armstrong: The issue was considered in some detail by the Department for Work and Pensions. I am sorry to tell the hon. Gentleman that the problem is that the figures for those in the below 40 per cent. group are totally unreliable, because people move in and out of it very quickly, and it changes very quickly. It has proved impossible to find reliable information that gives us any way of dealing with the issue and moving forward.

Greg Clark: The Minister has effectively said that the figures are available, but that it would be inconvenient
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to disclose them to the House, because she thinks that they would be unreliable. I am sure that experts outside the House, such as Save the Children, to whom the Liberal spokesman, the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor), referred, are keen to see the figures, and would like the Government to publish them. Can we not be the judge of whether they are reliable? Give us the figures.

Hilary Armstrong: The hon. Gentleman has made a good attempt, but the reality is that, having wandered around the parties, he has ended up in one that has traditionally rejected the idea of any form of relative poverty. He is trying to encourage his party to move towards accepting it, and I commend him for that, but I do not commend him for the manner in which he used his figures. He used 1994-95 as a baseline, and said that we had not done what we said we were doing in relation to lifting children out of poverty—but the reality is that by using the 1994-95 figures, he is taking into account the last three years of the Major Administration, when poverty among children rose at a rapid rate.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Edward Miliband): He was not in the Tory party then.

Hilary Armstrong: That is right; I do not think that he was. The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells is trying to make out that the problems of the Major Administration are our fault. I hate to tell him this, but we were not able to influence that Administration in the way that we wanted to. He is exposing the failures of his party, rather than taking a look at what the Labour Government have done.

Greg Clark: I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for raising that point, because it gives me the opportunity to explain. She may find it difficult to reflect on this, but the point of publishing a 10-year analysis was not to be politically partisan. Indeed, the report makes it clear that it is a look at severe poverty over successive Governments. However, as she is interested in her Government’s record, I can tell her that we have the figures for 1996-97, which is the standard baseline that she uses, and the figures for severe poverty increased by 400,000 during that period. We could be partisan and consider only her Government’s record if that is what she wants, but I chose to be non-partisan, and to be rather more analytical.

Hilary Armstrong: That is not quite how I remember the hon. Gentleman’s press release, but there we go; he forgets about that. The Conservatives claimed, incorrectly, that the number of people living on less than 40 per cent. of median income has grown by 750,000 under Labour, but there has been no rise in the number of people living below 40 per cent. of median income since 1997, once housing costs are taken into account. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will apologise to the House—

Greg Clark rose—

Hilary Armstrong: The hon. Gentleman will have the chance to speak later, as he is to respond to the debate.
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Greg Clark: Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Hilary Armstrong: But will you be honest about what you said about us?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. Could it be made clear whether the Minister is accepting an intervention—and, indeed, whether the hon. Gentleman is making an intervention?

Greg Clark: The question of whether to use figures that take account of housing costs can be answered very simply: the Government’s official definition of child poverty uses the figures before housing costs are taken into account, and those were the figures that I used.

Hilary Armstrong: The problem is that the hon. Gentleman uses only the 40 per cent. median figures. The Government numbers deal with the 60 per cent. figure on relative poverty. He cannot mix everything in, and then say that we are getting it wrong. I am giving him a clear message about what the real position is. He may not be satisfied with that, but it is true that the data based on the 40 per cent. of median income figure are not robust, and for that reason are not published. Indeed, his Government were prepared to say the same.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): On housing costs, I thank my right hon. Friend for her letter of 14 December, in response to my point about the Harker report and the impact of the interaction between the working tax credit, housing benefit and council tax benefit in areas of high rent and council tax, such as Slough. The Harker report points out that for only £500 million, some 170,000 more children could be lifted out of poverty. Will she act on the promise that she gave me to talk to colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions about child poverty action, and will she try to ensure that we look favourably on that recommendation?

Hilary Armstrong: My hon. Friend is right to mention the Harker report, a significant report about how we move to the next phase in tackling child poverty. We are never satisfied; we always want to go further, and there are some very good proposals in the Harker report. I assure her that I looked, and will continue to look, with great care at those proposals with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. He is determined that we should have a new push on tackling child poverty. In addition, I hope that we can consider how to tackle the problem properly within regions, and I am committed to taking that forward.

Absolute poverty has halved since 1997, and relative poverty has fallen substantially, too. Some 2.5 million fewer people now live below the poverty line, including 800,000 children. Record numbers of people—2.5 million more than when we took office—are in employment, and crime has nearly halved over the past decade. We know that everything is not yet done, but we continue to think about what we could do further to make sure that there is real opportunity for everyone. Those are facts; they are real numbers,
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reflecting real changes for the better in the lives of the individuals and the communities most badly failed by the previous Government.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): Will the Minister concede that in-work poverty has risen significantly? For example, in Wales, the figure has risen from 30 per cent. in the mid-1990s to 40 per cent. now—a rise of some 150,000 people. What are the Government doing to tackle that problem?

Hilary Armstrong: As I said, the Harker report considered the very issue of areas in which there is poverty that we have not managed to shift. Working families tax credit had an incredible effect on working families, but the hon. Gentleman is probably referring to people who do not have families. One of the reasons the Chancellor introduced the working tax credit is to enable us to begin to target those who do not have children. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that our overriding priority remains children and families with children, because, as I shall say later, we believe that unless we ensure that things are better for children, we are condemning them to a lifetime of poverty and exclusion. We want to find ways to intervene much earlier. Today’s debate is about how we should address the persistent and deep-seated exclusion of that small minority.

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): Stockport recently received cash from the Government’s V fund to support volunteers. Does she think that those volunteers could be used to help to contact those hard-to-reach young families who do not respond to the statutory agencies?

Hilary Armstrong: I do not just think that—I know it. I recently visited a school on the Isle of Dogs, which operates a volunteer programme that developed from the millennium volunteer scheme, and it is keen to pursue opportunities under V. It recruits as volunteers young people from year 10 upwards. It involves them in a range of activities, including mentoring and organising sport and games, and it provides them with training and support. Previously, many of those children would have lost their way and got into trouble. The programme has proved to be enormously effective in that school, and my hon. Friend will be able to ensure that it is effective in Stockport, too. I recommend that colleagues look at what they can do in their constituencies to enable many more young people to become involved in volunteering, which gives them a feeling of self-worth. That is a key problem that we have to crack—people must believe that they can do better and make a contribution—and it is very much the aim of our programmes.

Too many groups in our communities are still unable to take advantage of the opportunities that we have provided. Up to one in 10 young people are not in education, employment or training, and every year about 40,000 teenagers become pregnant—the number is lower than it used to be, but it is still high. Too many children and young people in care do not achieve the educational outcomes that children who are not in care expect to achieve. More worryingly than any of those individual facts is the clear evidence that those poor outcomes are persistent, interlinked and reinforcing. It
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requires sustained and usually complex investment to reverse social exclusion. Young people in care are more than twice as likely to become teenage parents. If they suffer from one risk factor, they probably suffer from others, too. Up to half of people with mental health problems are affected by substance abuse. That tendency is intergenerational. There is a strong association between low family income, as indicated, for example, by free school meal entitlement, and poor educational attainment, early parenthood and worklessness. A small but critical minority of families is at acute risk of entrenched harm and poor life chances.

Those individuals and families need the most support, but they do not engage with the services that could help them. People with multiple problems bounce between services. That costs a great deal of money, and they remain at enormous risk. If we are to tackle social exclusion we must reach out to those groups.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that those people are members of communities? We must invest in those communities to enable them to help their most deprived and least well-off members. We want communities to stand on their own two feet, and we cannot impose solutions from outside. The sustainable solution is for active communities working alongside the services to work with—not for—those people.

Hilary Armstrong: That is a key point. There are examples of such work around the country that have resulted in clear improvements in children’s attainments and other things.

After last May, we established a new focus by creating a dedicated social exclusion taskforce in the Cabinet Office and publishing the “Reaching Out” action plan in September. The key principles of reform in that action plan include, first and most importantly, better identification of the problems and who is suffering them, followed by early intervention. We need to identify as early as possible who is at risk of persistent exclusion and, in turn, use that information to design interventions and more effective support for individuals who are most in need before disadvantage becomes entrenched. That is critical if we are to ensure that people’s life chances are not determined at birth, and because it makes moral and financial sense to invest in prevention. We need a robust data-collection system that will enable us to predict later outcomes. I shall return to that later by outlining one of the programmes that we will roll out.

Secondly, we must identify what works. We will systematically identify and promote interventions that work. If we are to ensure the effective adoption of best practice we must develop the capability of those responsible for commissioning and providing services, and we shall introduce proposals on the subject. Thirdly, we want to promote more effective multi-agency working. We all know from constituency experience that the problems faced by the most socially excluded tend to be chronic, multi-faceted and beyond the scope of any single public service. We are
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determined to break down barriers and enhance flexibility so that local agencies can work together to meet the needs of excluded groups, especially those who face multiple problems.

Fourthly, we need to focus on personalisation and rights and responsibilities. We all know that a one-size-fits-all approach often lets down the most vulnerable. Indeed, nine rough sleepers—seven of them are now in accommodation, but two are still on the streets—came to see me yesterday. The clear message of our meeting was that services must be tailored to the needs of the individuals who use them. Where appropriate, we must empower excluded groups to make choices about their support or ensure that an independent, trusted third party works on their behalf. That must all be framed by a clear understanding of the rights and responsibilities of citizens, the community, those responsible for the delivery of services, and the state.

Fifthly, we must support achievement and manage underperformance. We have agreed that high-quality service provision is important in tackling social exclusion, and if local authorities and service providers deliver the goods, Government should leave them alone. But where there is underperformance, we ought to intervene and we will.

These are not abstract principles. They form the architecture of a renewed approach and they are already making a positive and practical impact. We want those principles to be the thread that links and co-ordinates policy across Government, with my Department using its elbows, so to speak, to ensure that we work corporately and that nobody takes their eye off the ball of tackling social exclusion.

The principles lie at the heart of recent departmental work—for example, the recent Green Paper on children in care from the Department for Education and Skills, and the local government Green Paper from the Department for Communities and Local Government. They also underpin the proposals set out in the action plan—proposals that we are already taking forward across the country.

I know that many of my colleagues are interested in very early intervention through health-led demonstration projects on parenting. We have set aside £7 million over a two-year period initially, to be invested in 10 local projects based on joint bids from primary care trusts and local authorities in some of our most disadvantaged areas. I see that as a key means of demonstrating that it is possible to intervene at a very early age in a way that has nothing to do with the nanny state or with stigmatising, but which ensures that the prospective mother is supported when she needs that support, and that the support continues until the child is about two and is better able to access the other programmes available.

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