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This is an exciting and innovative programme that has not been undertaken systematically in this country before, and its evaluation has been highly favourable. The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-East and I recently went to the United States to see the programme in operation in Denver. The person who developed the programme has done an extremely
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thorough evaluation, and I know that colleagues have been studying in the action plan some of the outcomes of that programme. The pregnancy and birth outcomes are clear—fewer kidney infections, fewer pre-term deliveries among mothers who smoked, heavier babies among mothers aged 14 to 16, and as the child grows up, much better outcomes than for a similar group that was measured but was not in the programme.

I do not understand how anyone with any compassion, seeing the results of the programme and believing that we must enable people to handle their lives more effectively and deal with problems as they go on, could think that the programme was ludicrous and dismiss it as “foetal ASBOs”, but that is what the Leader of the Opposition did.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend also agree—it is almost a truism—that the earlier the intervention, the less expensive it is? If a youngster is left to go wrong—for example, a 16-year-old put away for a year in a secure unit—it will cost society £250,000. Proper health visiting and midwifery for a minus-nine month to two-year-old will cost a tenth of that and will eliminate the tale of drug abuse costs, court costs and social work intervention costs. The earlier we intervene, the better the value for money for the taxpayer as well.

Hilary Armstrong: There is no doubt about that. It is also the right thing to do for those individuals. When we know that there is action that we can take by intervening early, why should we say, “Oh no, we won’t do that. It would be interfering or labelling people.” Why should we not develop a relationship at an early stage? What I saw in Denver was inspirational.

The young mother whom I visited there with her community nurse was clear that the programme had increased her self-worth and increased her ability to cope, to deal with the difficult relationships in her family, and to provide what the child needed in terms of play, stimulation and being kept safe. She did not experience that as the state coming in and telling her what to do. Most of the women involved in the programme and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) observed, most of the parents participating in parenting courses, even if they had been forced to participate, say, “Why on earth didn’t you let us have this earlier?” I hope that the Opposition will say today that they support such programmes. I hope that they will back them and ensure that throughout the country there is effective early intervention, so that we stop problems early, rather than waiting until they become too difficult to resolve.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): I fully concur with the comments of the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen). Early intervention is so important, as is setting the right tone. A problem that we are seeing among teenagers in Bournemouth is binge drinking. That is seen as the norm, and in the new generation it has become acceptable to drink an awful lot from a very young age. What are the Minister’s views on that?

Hilary Armstrong: I think the hon. Gentleman exaggerates. I am concerned about binge drinking and about drinking. I have some difficulty with that, as I had a straightforward Methodist upbringing. We had
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no drink in the house. [Interruption.] Indeed, I was a member of the Rechabites. It is amazing how things change as one gets older.

There is a problem, but the hon. Gentleman should not label the majority of young people as binge drinkers. They are not. The majority of young people do not drink excessively, because many of them know what it would do to them. They are not interested in that. They have other ways of enjoying themselves and they know that they have choices. Yes, we are doing an enormous amount to tackle the issue that the hon. Gentleman highlights, but I will not label every young person as a binge drinker.

Mr. Ellwood: I am grateful for the opportunity to come back on that. The debate is not about the majority of people and I was not labelling the majority of people. The debate is about the 2.5 per cent. who are labelled as socially excluded. I put the question again to the Minister. Binge drinking is now considered the norm by a small minority but, as the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) pointed out, it will cost the taxpayer and the Government at a later stage because we are allowing that to happen. Does she agree?

Hilary Armstrong: The hon. Gentleman wanted to correct himself, and he has done so.

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): I share my right hon. Friend’s disbelief about the term “foetal ASBOs” used by the Leader of the Opposition. Does she share my disappointment that there are only four Conservative Back Benchers present and no Liberal Democrat Back Benchers? That might belie the rebranding of the Conservatives as compassionate. Will my right hon. Friend look into a developing issue? With the innovative services provided by Sure Start, staff are coming in from the health service and the education service, where they are treated as key workers, yet in some of our under-fives centres and our nurseries, they do not have access to key worker housing schemes. With colleagues in the Department for Education and Skills, will my right hon. Friend ensure that all those who do such vital work with the under-fives, whether in the voluntary, the private or the public statutory sector, are included in key worker schemes, particularly in areas where income-related housing—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I think that the Minister will have got the point that the hon. Lady is making.

Hilary Armstrong: I am aware of the issue that my hon. Friend raises, and I can assure her that we are considering it.

Matthew Taylor: The Minister says that we must tackle parenting issues. I strongly support the Government on that. Does she agree, however, that a lot more could be done in schools as regards child development by encouraging older children to work with younger children? With the breakdown of extended families and fewer people living in extended communities, everyone is growing up with less experience of children and more alternatives to interacting with them than ever before.

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Hilary Armstrong: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. My colleagues in the Department for Education and Skills have been working on that. We are trialling mainstream programmes in addition to the alternative ways of working that some schools are adopting. It is also important as a means of trying to deal with teenage pregnancy in a different way. Young people must learn that children have needs and that if they decide to have a baby as the answer to their problems it will not be an easy way out but probably the start of a whole new set of problems. Good practice is going on in some of our schools and authorities in that respect.

I was talking about the health-led demonstration projects. We invited joint bids from PCT and local authority areas for funding for those projects and received an overwhelming response, with 63 areas putting in joint bids, representing more than 40 per cent. of the country. That shows that whatever the Leader of the Opposition thinks, people who are working with these issues on the ground want to see this in action. I cannot tell hon. Members which areas they are today, but I will make that announcement, with the Department of Health and the DFES, in the very near future.

We have announced a series of 12 to 15 pilots catering for chaotic adults with multiple needs. I became particularly interested in that group when I was Housing Minister. Such people frequently end up not only homeless but as visitors to accident and emergency departments, in mental health programmes, or in prison or custody of some sort. We need to build on current innovative practice, with the statutory sector working in partnership with the private and third sectors to try to get a more coherent and comprehensive approach to individuals with complex multiple needs.

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Hilary Armstrong: I feel that I must keep going because so many other Members want to speak.

Nobody would pretend that resisting persistent social exclusion is an easy task—but it is, for the social and economic reasons that we have discussed, a major prize. The potential savings to individuals, communities and the state are enormous, but it will also enable many more people to reach their potential, to become aspirational and to turn their lives around. We must continue with all the other programmes that are producing the outcomes that I talked about. We must continue to invest in and reform our universal services so that whatever an individual’s need, whether acute or not acute, they are able to get the most out of those services. We must build on the successes and the lessons learned as we develop a more refined approach to prevention and to early intervention. We want to make a reality of our goal of progressive universalism, taking people with us and together making a difference to the lives of our most vulnerable families and communities.

Mr. Ellwood: Will the Minister give way?

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Hilary Armstrong: I am sorry, but I am coming to a close because so many other Members want to speak.

It is a truism that the test of any Government is how they respond to their most vulnerable people. For this Government, that is not enough. We want to stand up to the test of courage and ambition in taking action to ensure that future generations will not face the same persistent exclusion that so negatively affected the life chances of those who came before them. That has dogged this country for centuries—indeed, it has dogged most countries; I do not know of anywhere where people have managed to tackle it successfully. We believe that the combination of good public services, a sound economy, measures to get people into work, and specific programmes to reach out to and engage the most excluded will together open up opportunities that for too many people are not there at the moment. We want to ensure that those future generations will not face the persistent exclusion that has so negatively affected the life chances of those around them.

The Government are serious about responding to this challenge. We recognise that it becomes tougher as we raise overall opportunity and prosperity further and faster, but unless we address it head on we will have failed in the task that we set ourselves when we took office in 1997. Progress has been made, but we are determined to reach out to those to whom no previous Government have reached out. We believe that it is possible to find ways of doing that. We have been able, through some of the programmes, to reach out to the most excluded. We want to ensure that in every part of the country those programmes become the way in which people truly focus on the needs of the least advantaged and most excluded in their communities.

I look forward to the rest of the debate and thank the House for its tolerance in allowing me so much time.

1.28 pm

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): Let me start by welcoming the Government’s renewed emphasis on social exclusion. We share their concerns and welcome further efforts to help those on the edge of society. Although I promise not to refer to Polly Toynbee, it is only right to say that I agree that we should not let people fall too far behind the caravan of society. [ Interruption. ] I believe that those were her words.

We clearly have problems of social exclusion; the proportion of children in workless households is the highest in Europe, more than half the children in inner London are still living below the poverty line, more than 1.2 million young people are not in work or full-time education despite a growing economy, and 2.7 million people of working age are claiming incapacity benefits—three times more than the number who claim jobseeker’s allowance.

The Minister for Social Exclusion knows from her background in social work, as I do from helping many disadvantaged people as a lawyer— [Interruption.] She laughs, but if she has ever been to a law surgery, she will know what I mean. The statistics do not convey the full misery and hopelessness in which some people find themselves. Family breakdown, financial problems,
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addictions, poor educational achievement and worklessness are key matters at the heart of social exclusion that lead to people being trapped in pockets of permanent poverty.

As the Minister said, approximately 2.5 per cent. of every generation appears to be caught in a lifetime of disadvantage and harm. We argue that far more people are affected to some extent by the factors that I have mentioned. It is important to maintain a vision that is broad enough to help all those who are affected by social exclusion and does not simply concentrate on a tiny group that has particular problems. The Minister said that one of the core principles of the Government’s action is better identification and earlier intervention—I am happy to agree with that.

The groups at the highest risk of social exclusion are those affected by the issues that I mentioned. The Leader of the Opposition has asked my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith)—

Mr. Khan: Where is he?

Mr. Heald: He is in Birmingham.

Mr. Khan: Why?

Mr. Heald: He had a prior commitment to do with the subject that we are discussing. He had hoped to be here today. It is important to bear in mind that his social justice policy group has just published “Breakdown Britain”, which examines family breakdown in great detail. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) should listen because we are discussing a huge problem for the country. My right hon. Friend treats family in his report in its wider, less restricted sense and breakdown as meaning dissolution and dysfunction. He also considers homes without fathers and single parenthood.

Most people learn the fundamental skills for life in the family—physically, emotionally and socially—and the findings in the report are evidence based. I believe that they are important. The rate of marriage has declined but divorce rates are now stable. The continuing rise in family breakdown is driven by the dissolution of cohabiting partnerships. As the Minister said, there seems to be an intergenerational transmission of family breakdown, with high rates of teenage pregnancy. The same is true of abuse and neglect.

Mr. Khan: Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the comments of the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), who is head of the Conservatives’ social justice commission, that we need tax breaks for married couples?

Mr. Heald: The hon. Gentleman has obviously not understood the process. My right hon. Friend has been given the task of first producing a detailed analysis. He has published a detailed document and I suggest that the hon. Gentleman read it. It runs to approximately 500 pages but it is very good.

The process of making recommendations has not yet happened—my right hon. Friend will do that in the summer. The shadow Cabinet will then consider them.
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We have not, therefore, reached the stage at which the hon. Gentleman would like us to be. However, it is right to have a serious, detailed process. As a party in opposition, especially one that has recently lost elections heavily, we are right to re-examine all the issues in detail. If the hon. Gentleman criticises that, I simply do not agree with him.

Mr. Khan rose—

Mary Creagh rose—

Mr. Heald: I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman again. I shall move on a little and then give way to the hon. Lady.

Survey evidence from YouGov based on a large sample showed a worrying correlation between those who experience family breakdown and other problems. It showed that those who are not brought up by both parents are more likely to experience educational problems, drug addiction, alcohol problems, serious debt or unemployment. On dysfunction, my right hon. Friend’s policy group identified a breakdown of nurture in many families that are unable to provide for core needs, such as secure attachment, protection, realistic limits to behaviour, freedom to express valid emotions, autonomy, competence and a sense of identity, which are gained from a nurturing family.

The report also worryingly points out the link between family breakdown and youth crime. The reduction in committed relationships has also affected the amount of family care that is available to the elderly. The Local Government Association recently said that that is an expensive problem for the country.

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman seriously suggest that the prime cause of social exclusion is family breakdown rather than poverty?

Mr. Heald: As the hon. Lady may recall, at the beginning of my remarks, I identified various factors that were important in social exclusion. They included financial difficulties—the hon. Lady’s point—and drug addiction. I raised family breakdown but it was not the only issue that I mentioned. She would be wrong to believe that I am saying that it is the only issue. However, it is important and if she read the research and examined the evidence, she would conclude that it is a problem. If she believes that it is not, that is fine, but it is not what the evidence shows.

Mary Creagh: When the hon. Gentleman reviews his party policy on the law relating to cohabiting couples, will he support a change to give some rights to partners in such relationships? One of the problems in breakdowns of cohabiting relationships is that there is no access for one of the parents, and the parent who is usually left with the child often loses their home. That is one of the key factors that leads to child poverty and exclusion.

Mr. Heald: As the hon. Lady knows, the Law Commission has produced an interesting report on the matter and we are currently considering it. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Tooting laughs. Is it wrong for an Opposition to consider a serious report by a serious organisation? I think not.

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