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11 Jan 2007 : Column 466

Let me answer the hon. Lady’s point in a little more detail. A range of issues needs to be examined. A court can currently make an order in favour of children in order to provide a home during their youth up to the age of 18 or when they cease full-time education. The Law Commission is considering whether that can be expanded. It is an interesting and important question and we will reach a view on it in due course. Nobody could argue that it is not important or that we do not need to support and strengthen those who are in committed relationships over time.

Barbara Keeley (Worsley) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman has mentioned some of the issues that his party is considering. He identified child poverty as an issue about which he is concerned. Does he believe that his party leader should support Labour’s pledge to eradicate child poverty by 2020? If not, why not?

Mr. Heald: I shall deal with that shortly, but let me finish my point on family breakdown. It seems harsh to mention public spending but there is a high cost in benefits—more than £20 billion on lone parent benefits. We all know about the increasing housing needs that family breakdown generates, and the extra care costs for councils due to changed demography are estimated to be £146 million. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green will report on his conclusions in the summer. At that point, we will consider our policy response.

Hilary Armstrong: I am interested in the fact that the hon. Gentleman is discussing family breakdown. I do not deny that there are genuine problems, but if the Conservative party is so worried about it, why, when divorce rates increased throughout Europe during the Thatcher years, was family breakdown in this country much greater than in comparable countries where divorce increased at the same rate? Does he believe that that had anything to do with that Government’s policies, given that they did not support those who were changing their family circumstances? Why did the Conservative party vote against the changes to maternity rights, all the policies on job sharing and enabling women to get time out of work, and all the proposals that support people while a breakdown is happening so that they do not become excluded? Other countries have prevented social exclusion through the sort of measures that we have introduced, yet the Conservative party has voted against them and, when it was in power, family breakdown was much greater even though divorce rates were comparable with those in other countries.

Mr. Heald: As the right hon. Lady knows, although divorce rates have stabilised with marriage at a much lower level than it used to be, family breakdown has not ended—it is rising—which is a major issue. I would not necessarily blame family breakdown on the current Prime Minister, so it is a bit rich for the Minister to blame past family breakdown on our party’s leader 20 years ago. Another important point for the Minister to consider is that we are embarked on a new direction. Are we not entitled as a party to say that we have lost three elections and need to look at our policies again? I would not have thought that the Minister would want to criticise us for that. As she well knows, the Labour
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party had to do the same thing. She was arguing for all sorts of things in the early 1980s that she does not argue for now.

Mr. Stewart Jackson: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way—

Mr. Khan: The voice of sanity.

Mr. Jackson: The hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) speaks some sense for a change. Instead of heckling my hon. Friend, he should make some useful contribution to the debate.

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a sense of smug complacency on the Government Benches this afternoon, particularly when the Government have widened the gap between the richest 10 per cent. and the poorest 10 per cent. over the period since 1997? In fact, they have put a stop to social mobility, which is officially recognised in most academic evidence. Does my hon. Friend agree that that record hardly provides a basis for the Government to lecture our party, which is attempting to develop interesting, intelligent and coherent social policy?

Mr. Heald: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Recently published research shows that the poorest households in Britain are paying a higher share of tax and getting a lower share of benefits than they did before 1997. The figures show that if the poorest fifth of households were paid the same share of total taxes and got the same share of total benefits as in 1996-97, they would have £531 a year more; and the second poorest fifth of households would have £427 a year more. My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) is therefore absolutely right to speak as he does. To add insult to injury, the poorest fifth of households pay a higher proportion of their income in taxes than any other group.

The claim in the action plan mentioned by the Minister—that the steady rise in income inequality has been halted—is simply not right. The fact is that levels of income inequality are now slightly higher than they were in the 1980s or 1990s. The Minister ended up saying that there has not been an increase, while acknowledging that the position has not improved. However, what the Institute for Fiscal Studies said in its report was that inequality was slightly higher. The Government wonder in the action plan why those on the very lowest incomes have seen the lowest rates of income growth, which I think is a valid question.

Hilary Armstrong: So is the hon. Gentleman disputing the figures in the action plan, which show that the bottom two fifths of incomes have grown quicker than the rest of the income brackets during the period of the Labour Government? Far from what the hon. Gentleman is saying, incomes for the bottom two fifths have actually grown quicker than the rest—by about 1.5 per cent., I believe. The diagram in the action plan is very clear and very easy to understand, so I direct the hon. Gentleman to it on page 15.

Mr. Heald: The quotation that I referred to was that

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which comes from page 17 of “Reaching Out: An Action Plan on Social Exclusion”, published in September 2006. The Institute for Fiscal Studies said that there has been

That is a straightforward quotation.

Social mobility, which is so important, has been reduced since 1997. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who is well respected in the House, said in a speech to the Social Market Foundation on 13 September:

If your parents are poor, you are likely to be poor—and that is after 10 years of a Labour Government.

It is not just that the rise in incomes—once one takes account of tax—has not been the success story one would hope for, as the cost of living for families is rising fast. The Leader of the Opposition recently highlighted the true levels of inflation on items affecting people on low incomes. He pointed particularly to energy prices, which are up 71 per cent. since 2003. Mortgage payments, which are also important to many, are up 78 per cent. and taxes are up 81 per cent. He has asked the Office of Fair Trading to investigate the rises in energy prices.

The Minister and I would agree about the importance of education—she mentioned it—to reducing social exclusion. Unfortunately, success has proved elusive. Three quarters of 16-year-olds from low-income families in England and Wales failed to get five good GCSE passes at grades A to C. That is double the rate that applies to other students. The Public Accounts Committee recently highlighted the failure of 1,500 schools and only today we have learned—it is in the news—that 500 schools have failed to meet the 25 per cent. target for five good GCSE grades. If we look into some of the most excluded groups, such as children in care— [Interruption.] Well, the Minister should know a lot about this, as she used to be a social worker. About 89 per cent. of children in care failed to get five good GCSE passes—a poor record of dealing with the low achievement of children in care.

The Government admit it. The Minister for Children and Families has said that despite the Government’s efforts—no one is denying that the Government are trying—the gap between the outcomes of looked-after children and others is “extremely wide” and “completely unacceptable”. The future for many children in care is very depressing. Almost half of young women in care become mothers within 18 to 24 months of leaving care; and between a quarter and a third of rough sleepers have been in care. I think that tackling the present level of under-achievement has to be a major priority.

Schools can play an important role in the overall strategy to halve teenage pregnancy by 2010. If teenage parents are encouraged to increase their participation in education and training or employment, they may reduce their chances of long-term social exclusion. The
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likelihood of teenage pregnancies is far higher among those with low educational achievements, even after adjusting for the effects of deprivation. Nearly 40 per cent. of teenage mothers leave school with no qualifications at all. We need to give young people access to consistent help from professionals who understand them and can advise them—with proper assurances of anonymity, where appropriate. It is concerning that, despite the work of the teenage pregnancy unit, set up by the Government, pregnancies among under-14s are actually rising and the overall target for reduction has been missed.

In terms of health, despite the Government target to reduce infant mortality by 10 per cent., the relative gap in the infant mortality rate between the general population and the poorest social classes has increased by 46 per cent. since 1997. Despite the clear link between mental health and social exclusion, the Government have had to reduce the percentage of funding for mental health in many parts of the country. Children are often the worst affected with 15 per cent. of those with mental health needs having to wait more than 26 weeks to see a specialist— [Interruption.] Well, those are all Government figures.

Aside from treatment, we need to provide people with mental health problems with better access to training and employment. Just 20 per cent. of those with severe mental health problems have jobs. Four out of 10 employers have said that they would not consider employing someone with a history of mental illness. If we are to move forward, we must tackle that stigma and discrimination.

Concern is being expressed in the voluntary and not-for-profit sector that the Government are asking it to deliver a Government agenda, rather than allowing it to develop innovative services based on its knowledge and expertise. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. McFadden) will give the House an assurance when he responds to the debate that the kind of measures that the Minister for Social Exclusion was describing—monitoring, ensuring standards and so on—will not involve cutting back on the innovation that some social enterprise voluntary bodies have been able to give us to tackle these deep-seated problems.

Tom Levitt: I welcome what the hon. Gentleman is saying about innovation through social enterprises and voluntary organisations. Will he tell me, however, why, since the Conservatives took control of the Association of London Government—I believe that it is now called London Councils—in May, they have slashed the quantity and size of the grants given to the voluntary sector organisations doing exactly that job by one third, in favour, they say, of keeping the council tax down?

Mr. Heald: We could spend a long time talking about local government settlements. When the Audit Commission looked into why Conservative councils in particular had had to put up their council tax rates, it made the clear finding that a lot of the money had been sent elsewhere, away from Conservative areas. That might have a bearing on this matter.

Mr. Stewart Jackson: Does my hon. Friend share my concern, which was articulated recently by the chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, about the
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year-on-year real-terms reductions in public health expenditure and the static state since 1997 of public health professionals? The chief medical officer entitled the relevant chapter of his annual report:

Does not that stand in stark contrast to the rhetoric from Ministers about taking all public health issues seriously, including alcohol abuse, tuberculosis and sexual health?

Mr. Heald: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is a considerable body of evidence that good public health—particularly the encouragement of good practice and healthy living—can really improve health outcomes. This is an area in which the Government certainly took their eye off the ball during their first few years. For example, there was an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, particularly in London, before they took action. They also took a very long time to take action on the issue of tuberculosis, particularly among the Asian community. In public health terms, there are real concerns about how slow the Government have been to react to these major problems. I certainly concur with what my hon. Friend has said.

Hilary Armstrong: Spend more money.

Mr. Heald: The Minister may say that, but it is well established that some of the cheapest and most successful health systems in the world are those that place a strong emphasis on public health, so that fewer people require treatment for the more expensive conditions. She should not think that it is always a question of spending more money. One of the problems with the Labour Government is that they have never really got down to implementing any solid reform in the public service sector in order to deliver on their intentions. Those intentions have often been very good, but the delivery has often been a bit of a shambles.

I have visited many projects that help the socially excluded, and one lesson that I have learned is that it is not possible to make sweeping decisions from on high. The socially excluded are, by their very nature, individuals with complex needs. Solutions to social exclusion must come from the bottom, from the people who know the individuals and their problems. This is not about abdicating responsibility; it is about giving the power to those who should have it. There is a role for national initiatives, but they work only if those delivering them on the front line accept them.

The Minister has been somewhat critical of the Leader of the Opposition for talking about Government gimmicks. The work that is being done on pilots on early intervention may well prove to be serious, important work, and we would certainly be happy to look in detail at how the pilots have worked. She should forgive us, however, for being a bit cynical after all these years of Government initiatives that have simply gone nowhere. An example was the proposal to take yobs to the cash point and make them pay their fines using their cash cards, which was absolute nonsense.

There have also been some quite good proposals. The north Liverpool community court, for example, is an excellent initiative. It is a pilot scheme, but it has
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been going for a considerable length of time and it is still not clear whether the Government see it as a model for the whole country or a one-off pilot in one area. The problem is that they constantly pilot things but do not deliver on them, roll them out or even report in detail on their successes or failures. This is bringing the Government into disrepute. The Minister should therefore not be surprised that Opposition politicians are critical.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Pat McFadden): The hon. Gentleman says that he is prepared to look at early intervention projects. Will he withdraw his party leader’s shameful description of our programme to get extra help to some of the most vulnerable children in the country as “ludicrous foetal ASBOs”?

Mr. Heald: The hon. Gentleman should not get so worked up. The Leader of the Opposition was making a perfectly sensible, genuine point about the way in which the Government have gone in for gimmicks and initiatives that do not go anywhere. If that programme turns out to be a good scheme involving some serious work, we will certainly evaluate it. We are prepared to look at anything that will help the condition of people in this country. However, we have had an awful lot of press releases from the Prime Minister that have not amounted to very much at all.

We wish the new social exclusion taskforce well, and we hope that it will be more effective than previous attempts. We are concerned, however, that the new body does not appear to have the same direct backing of the Prime Minister as the original social exclusion unit, which was based at No. 10. We accept that tackling social exclusion is an enormous challenge that will involve efforts across many Government Departments, but this will require the full and energetic support of No. 10, simply because it crosses so many portfolios.

Rather than relying on traditional thinking, and on the ideas that underpinned the last nine initiatives on social exclusion, is it not time to look for a new direction based on trusting people and on social responsibility? We need to trust the professionals, the social enterprises and the voluntary sector to tackle multiple deprivation through a combination of long-term funding, increased scope to innovate and a level playing field. We also need to trust local government, and to accept that civil servants and Ministers in Whitehall might not have all the answers. We need to move away from thinking that everything is the responsibility of the state, and towards a new spirit of social responsibility in which we work together to empower local people and local communities. We should not be so arrogant as to believe that politicians have all the answers. Our approach should not be solely about what the Government can do. It should be about what people can do, and what society can do, because we are all in this together.

1.58 pm

Mr. George Mudie (Leeds, East) (Lab): I shall be brief because I know that a number of my colleagues are anxious to speak, having given up their Thursday in their constituencies to be here.

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