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11 Jan 2007 : Column 512

The way in which the benefits system works creates a problem of people who are trapped on benefits or in unemployment. I hope that our social justice commission will examine ways in which to tackle it. The Government are aware of it and I am interested in their attempts to tackle it at a time when there are jobs in the economy. It is important to ensure that socially excluded people are eligible for the jobs and that one does not have to be Polish to get a job in the United Kingdom.

We also have a problem with educational aspirations. Only 11 per cent. of children in care get five or more GCSEs at grades A to C, compared with a national average of 56 per cent. Often, the education system failed the parents of those children. The position is even more stark at university level. The Government’s Green Paper on children in care considers a £2,000 bursary—that would be a move in the right direction, but it would be only for children in care. Many socially excluded children are not in care.

From talking to people in my constituency, I realised that there was a problem with different attitudes to debt and investment. Middle class families are used to borrowing money to buy a house and seeing capital appreciating. They are used to borrowing money to buy a car, for which they pay, and it enables them to enjoy their lives, get to work and do all the things that they want. However, people from socially deprived areas view debt as a very bad thing because the person from Provident Financial comes round every week to try to collect their weekly repayments on high value loans. They see people having their property repossessed by bailiffs, and others thrown out of their houses because they do not pay their rent. When the children of those families approach university age, the idea of taking on thousands of pounds of debt is a disincentive to going to university, yet they are the very children who, if they are sufficiently gifted, should take those opportunities.

In the Barrowcliffe area of Scarborough, we have a wonderful Sure Start scheme, which I have visited. The hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) referred to the scheme in his area. I saw parents benefiting from our scheme. On the day that I visited, they were learning how to cook healthy food for their families. Sadly, many families who should benefit from Sure Start do not come through the door. It is a challenge to get those who desperately need the opportunities that Sure Start provides to come and see the benefits that it offers. In many cases, the very people who need to come through the door do not do so.

In Eastfield—an area that I would not want to compare with some of the worst areas in big cities such as Sheffield, Manchester and Newcastle—we have one beacon of hope. As the hon. Member for City of Chester mentioned, hope can be an individual, and in this particular case it is an individual headmaster.

At the George Pindar school in Eastfield, the headmaster, Hugh Bellamy, has really turned it around. The recent Ofsted report remarked on the fact that he had pulled the school out of a hole and enabled it to go forward by building on the Eastfield community. He reached out from the school into the community. He realised that many parents who had suffered bad educational experiences themselves did not want to come into the school, so he went out into the
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community, built bridges and got those parents to come in and work with social services in a way that enabled the school to move forward. A hairdressing salon was set up in the school—not just to train children to be hairdressers, but to enable them to learn about business, to learn how their skills can be marketed and so forth. I visited the salon before Christmas and saw the fantastic work that was going on.

We heard some banter across the Dispatch Box earlier about how best to measure poverty. I would suggest to right hon. and hon. Members that we all know poverty when we see it. A child at the door was revealed to Ebenezer Scrooge by the ghost of Christmas future. We need to address poverty—and not just from a simple financial perspective. Plenty of children whom I would regard as living in poverty may well be wearing £80 trainers, but they still experience poverty. I am talking about poverty of opportunity, poverty of aspiration and poverty of hope.

The Government are genuine in their wish to combat the problem, which stubbornly refuses to go away despite 20 years of economic progress. It is another case of there being a lot left to do. Sadly, we will still be left with an enormous challenge when the present Government pass the baton to the next Conservative Government.

4.46 pm

Mrs. Sharon Hodgson (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) and, indeed, my hon. Friends, who have all provided great examples of improvements in their constituencies, thanks to the Government’s work on tackling social exclusion over the past 10 years.

I have to say that many of my hon. Friends will sleep more soundly in their beds tonight having heard the contributions of some Opposition Members, particularly the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries), who is no longer in her place, and the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood). It seems that the Conservative party has joined us and decided that social exclusion is unacceptable in a modern, caring society. The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire went so far as kindly to inform us that that has always been so. She highlighted how even Disraeli talked about the evils of social exclusion, and how every Government since have taken the matter seriously and included policies to tackle it.

I have to say that I was somewhat astounded by that statement. As a child growing up in Gateshead in Thatcher’s Britain in the 1980s, I suffered first hand from the policies of the Conservative Government, which seemed to promote, produce and prolong social exclusion across swathes of the north-east, and, indeed, across many of the most vulnerable communities in the country. It is under the present Labour Government that the legacy of those 18 years has been tackled, and I am pleased to say that the lives of people living in those communities have been transformed. I hope to provide examples of how that has been achieved and to provide something of a north-east perspective on the real difference that has been made to people’s lives, as well as to deal with the fresh challenges ahead in our ongoing commitment to fighting social exclusion.

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It was once said by someone—I have already mentioned her once and will not mention her again—that there is no such thing as society. On this side of the House at least, we know that that is not true. Millions of children and parents supported by Sure Start also know that it is not true, as do the millions of teenagers and young people helped into work by the new deal. Those projects show society at work from the top of government down through to the individual’s everyday life—and no one knows it better than those who are unable to play a part in it.

Many of us take our role in society for granted. We live our lives in regular contact with the institutions of society and feel able to contribute something and shape the way in which we live our lives. We can make choices, and we have the freedom to make those choices. We all appreciate that that is a privileged position to be in, and that a lot of people in society do not enjoy that privilege.

After nearly 10 years of a Labour Government we have achieved a tremendous amount. In my constituency the number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance has almost halved since 1997, and thousands of young people, single parents and over-50s have been helped into work by the new deal. Incapacity benefit claims are falling, more than 15,000 people were lifted out of potential fuel poverty by the winter fuel payments, and thousands of pensioners are receiving their pension credits. As well as all that, more than 100,000 pensioners and children have been lifted out of poverty in the north-east since 1997.

Although it is important to reflect on the fantastic work done by the Government, the job does not stop. We are now in a position to reach the most excluded people in our society. As the work goes on and we start to get to the core of social exclusion, the nature of the job changes. We need to seek new approaches to dealing with families and individuals whose exclusion is long-term and deep-seated. There remain too many places where there is little expectation of ever having the opportunity to contribute.

Social exclusion is a waste—in many ways, the worst kind of waste. It causes chances to be limited and leaves talent by the wayside. It is vital that we do not rest on our laurels. That is why I am delighted by the launch of the Government’s new social exclusion action plan. Early intervention makes a massive difference for children at risk of social exclusion, and I welcome the renewed focus on involving children in society as early as possible. Beyond that, the approach to breaking down cycles of deprivation must look at all stages of life and develop a new, honest approach to understanding the different circumstances that lead to prolonged social exclusion. In my constituency we are well placed to push forward the fight against social exclusion. There are hundreds of people who, through their own initiative and hard work, are really making a difference in combating the causes of social exclusion from childhood to old age.

I want to take this opportunity to inform the House of just a few examples of the work being done in my constituency. I recently had the privilege of accompanying the Gateshead young women’s outreach project to the Philip Lawrence awards. The girls had set up a project entitled “Am I bovvered?”, a phrase made famous by one of Catherine Tate’s characters. The
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project is all about safe drinking, acknowledging that young women want to drink and will drink, so it is no good just saying, “Don’t drink. You’re too young, it’s bad for you.” The young women decided to encourage sensible and safe drinking by setting sensible limits and giving sensible tips such as “Don’t drink on an empty stomach”. That seems obvious to us, but young people who have never drunk before do not always realise that it is important. They are also advised not to mix their drinks, and to drink soft drinks in between the alcoholic ones. They are also given tips on staying safe, including keeping an eye on their drink and looking out for each other.

As parents and adults we want to tell our children not to drink, but this project has been so successful because it was initiated and conceptualised from the start by the young women themselves, and is expressed in their language. They led the design and content of all the materials involved, and they are also leading the roll-out and delivery of the project. I was thrilled when I learned that they were to receive one of the Philip Lawrence awards, and I was truly honoured to attend the ceremony with them last month, at which they received their award from the Home Secretary. For most of them, it was their first trip to London. For some, it was their first stay in a hotel. For all of them, it will be an unforgettable experience that will change the path of their lives and help them to feel, and be, less socially excluded, as they have now helped to influence society. They have engaged in the project and made a real difference, and they now know how to do that. They have been empowered, and that will change them for ever.

I hope that, after hearing about that amazing initiative and about the great work of the Gateshead young women’s outreach project, the House and the Minister will join me in congratulating the project’s director, Jo Vardy. I am pleased to be able inform the House that she was honoured in the new year honours list with a very well deserved MBE. She is an inspirational and amazing woman. I am sure that she would say that she was not worthy of such an honour, but—to use youth-speak again—she so is. She did it. It is thanks to people such as Jo Vardy and her team, and people across the country who work on social exclusion, that some of the most vulnerable people in our society get a second chance. As a result of their work, such people feel valued and realise that they have choices. I am also pleased to inform the House that the “Am I bovvered?” campaign is now to be used by the Home Office as an example of best practice across the country.

I will give just one more example—I have many—as I know other Members are waiting to speak. In Sunderland, the Sure Start to later life campaign encourages older people to remain active and involved in society, and is supported excellently by the older people’s champions who work with local authorities and ensure that health and social care is delivered to fit people’s needs. Also in Sunderland, the council has effectively introduced information and communications technology tools to promote social inclusion. Those have been so successful that the initiative has now been included in the Government’s
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digital challenge—a fitting reward that recognises the innovative approach taken by Sunderland city council in taking technology out into the community.

The social exclusion action plan is another step in the fight against social exclusion, and one that will make a real difference. Most importantly, it will renew our commitment and provide new impetus to ensure that every person in Britain is aware that there is indeed such a thing as society.

4.56 pm

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) on her excellent contribution?

Just before Christmas, I welcomed the Minister for Children and Families to open a new children’s centre in Brinnington. We already have one children’s centre in Adswood and Bridgehall, and I have been impressed by the huge range of interventions being made by all agencies to improve the life chances of local children. Such support at an early age will enable children to develop the language and other skills that they need to take advantage of educational opportunities at primary and secondary level. Those early interventions will prevent future exclusion.

I want to comment on those children and young people who have not had the advantages of a Sure Start in life and who, because of their current behaviour, have started to exclude themselves socially. Some of them have been subject to antisocial behaviour orders. To achieve a sustainable change in behaviour patterns, we need to tackle the root causes of antisocial behaviour by placing greater emphasis on interventions such as individual support orders, which offer support to overcome underlying problems such as drug or alcohol addictions.

The Government recognise that an integrated approach to problems, and a mix of care and control, carrot and stick, is necessary to improve outcomes for both the young person and the community in which they live. I support antisocial behaviour orders as a method of controlling persistent antisocial behaviour, which can have a devastating effect on communities and also put young people at risk. With proper intervention to accompany the control offered through the ASBO, an opportunity exists to prevent such young people from going down the criminal road.

In June, in an Adjournment debate, I highlighted my concern about the underuse of individual support orders, which can be attached to stand-alone ASBOs for 10 to 17-year-olds. ISOs have the authority of the court, agencies must provide the intervention detailed in the order, and the young person is aware that there are penalties for non co-operation, unlike under the informal acceptable behaviour contract.

I expressed disappointment in June that of 786 stand-alone ASBOs issued on application between May 2004 and the end of September 2005, only 31 had an ISO attached—just 4 per cent. Given that the ISO was a mandatory and constructive measure, it is to difficult see how the conditions were met in only 31 cases. A Youth Justice Board survey of those cases revealed an improvement in the behaviour of 29 of the 31 young people for whom ISOs had been issued. I have obtained
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fresh figures that show that since the period May 2004 to December 2005, 1,053 stand-alone ASBOs have been issued and only 49 ISOs attached—still representing only 5 per cent. of the total.

I am not alone in being perturbed at the low take-up of ISOs. Home Office Ministers, the social exclusion unit, the Home Affairs Committee, the Local Government Association and the children’s charity Barnardo’s have all called for greater use of them. The Youth Justice Board commissioned a review of the effectiveness of preventive measures and their cost and benefits across Europe and the United States. The survey suggested that it is good value for money to invest in preventive measures.

The National Audit Office said that local agencies would be better placed to target their interventions more effectively if the Home Office undertook formal evaluation of the success of different interventions and the impact of providing support services in conjunction with enforcement. It also called for further preventive measures to be developed by the Government, and concluded that international research suggested that preventive programmes such as education, counselling and training could be a cost-effective way of addressing antisocial behaviour. As well as a formal evaluation of the effectiveness of ISOs, I would like to see an evaluation of the new funding mechanisms in encouraging better take-up.

In each area of the country, there is a minority of young people who cause most problems to themselves and to others. Significant improvements could be brought about by changing the behaviour of that small number. That is where I believe properly funded ISOs could play a far greater role. That is an excellent policy that can help to motivate vulnerable young people to change the course of their lives and to learn how to respect themselves and others.

The Government are already doing much to support and to protect vulnerable families. For young people who have not yet received such early interventions and are at risk of becoming the prison population of the future, it is even more essential that preventive measures such as ISOs are used to their fullest potential.

5.1 pm

Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): Before I entered the House, I had the privilege to work for many years in the social regeneration sector, so I well remember the excitement that we felt in the early years of this Government as it dawned on us hard-bitten campaigners against poverty that the Government meant business and were going to shove billions of pounds into the attempt to break the cycle of deprivation.

The social exclusion unit has a great track record in driving an agenda to address the causes and consequences of social exclusion, poverty and low income. It is clear that no Government body was more aware of what remained to be done than the social exclusion unit. Its superb assessment of progress in 2004, the “Breaking the Cycle” report, was a model of clear, honest stock-taking across the entire range of domestic government. It even found time for mature reflection on domestic government, and that was referred to by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) in his contribution.

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I commend the social exclusion unit and the report. Without honest debate, we cannot move forward at all. I commend the fact that it realistically assessed what was happening and had happened as a result of the intervention. The major ground that the social exclusion unit broke was in establishing the primacy of what is now a fundamental no-brainer in domestic policy: thinking in silos is stupid, and the age of flexible, joined-up thinking, at national, local and neighbourhood levels, is here to stay.

I want to use my time to talk about two issues that need joined-up government. The first is an afterthought from the Third Reading of the Welfare Reform Bill this week. I am left with a powerful conviction that the link between health and capacity to work cannot be over-emphasised; nor can our responsibility to make the two relevant arms of government work effectively together. Nowhere is that more important than in the Bill's provision for an

My view is that we need to make sure that all recipients of the new employment and support allowance should receive not just assessments of their health, but what follows from that assessment—enhanced health support generally, related not only to employment. Members will know in their hearts, and most of us have them, that we are talking about people who have been on not only an employment and benefits scrapheap, but a health scrapheap. It is little known, though hardly surprising, that the people whom that provision is concerned with have high levels of premature mortality. We should not forget that. I am glad to say that my view is powerfully reinforced by the DWP research into the impact of the pathways pilots. I was going to quote from that but, given the time, I will not.

I cannot stress too strongly that those health-enhancing clauses in the Bill need to be backed up with resources and determination, and extended in their application. Joined-up delivery here means the Departments for Health and for Work and Pensions, with all those resources going into turning around our poorest communities, singing from the same hymn sheet, and loudly.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health will soon find, I hope, that there are financial spin-offs in reducing the pressures of emergency admissions to hospital, which are strongly associated with deprivation. The 2 million-plus currently receiving incapacity benefits are surely the most deprived adults with poor health, and the core of the challenge to the NHS. The provision for health back-up in the Bill needs to be pursued vigorously; it is not an optional add-on. Joined-up thinking and implementation are fundamental to the success of this key aspect of welfare reform.

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