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6 Mar 2007 : Column 408WH—continued

11.29 am

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) not only for securing this debate but for chosing to focus on this subject, which is of enormous importance to my city and my constituency. Child poverty is important in many large cities, including London and those in the south-west, but it is particularly important in the north. According to UNICEF figures, my constituency is the worst in the country for child poverty and is the only constituency in which well over 50 per cent. still live in poverty. No one can be proud of that; I cannot, as a constituency MP, and nor can society.

For those who live not just with the word “poverty”, but with what poverty does, the statistics and the reality behind them are absolutely dire. A male child born in my constituency today will live for eight years less than a male born in Surrey. That is a massive indictment of the type of world into which we bring our children. A child in my constituency—male or female—is more likely to die in the moments before or immediately after birth. In so far as they do survive, they will have poorer health and, for the most part, access to poorer health services, albeit massively improved over the past 10 years. That child will have poorer outcomes in education and be more likely to be involved in those aspects of life that we know are harmful to health. Access to cigarettes and serious alcoholism are more common among the poor, and abuse of hard drugs is more likely, too, in those areas that I have mentioned. Involvement in crime is more likely for a young male born in my constituency, while young females in my constituency are more likely to be pregnant earlier than elsewhere.

As my hon. Friend said, we know that all those factors will lead to the replication of poverty into the next generation by either the males who, in the worst cases, live potentially disordered lifestyles, or the young women who get caught by teenage pregnancy. However, it is important to put it on the record that many people who live in poverty in constituencies such as mine do not live disordered live. They work hard and try to bring up their families in the most exemplary way, so it is not possible to make a connection between social value and any judgment about poverty.

That is important, because I want to touch on something that my hon. Friend mentioned, namely the concept of giving a differential advantage to married couples. I do not often use my personal experience in these terms—partly because my personal experience of childhood was some year ago—but my parents never married when I was growing up. My father died when I was quite young and for a significant part of my growing-up years I was brought up by a single, unmarried mother. I hope that the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) will
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understand when I say that I would deeply resent the idea that the contribution that people such as my mother made to my family—bringing up five children and taking them all through higher education—might be seen as less worth while than the contribution of those who, for different reasons, were able to marry. I hope that she takes that message back to those in her party who are talking about giving a financial advantage to married couples in a way that would discriminate against worthwhile parents in all parts of our land who do their best to bring up their children in the best circumstances, despite those handicaps. It is of enormous importance that we do not fall into the lazy moral trap of trying to pretend that there are easy ways forward. I note her indication of assent, so I look forward to hearing what she has to say later.

Poverty has all the impacts that hon. Members have talked about: poorer education and poorer access to almost all the worthwhile services and advantages in our society. My hon. Friend spoke about the world of work. It is easy to recognise the work that the Government have done, and they have done a lot. It would be difficult to prove the case that any other Government have seen poverty as such an important part of their financial policy, and we can see the real difference that that has made. Nevertheless, it is still a fact that there are those among my constituents and other fellow citizens who still suffer the effects of poverty.

We must break the cycle of poverty. In part, that is most certainly about money. To those who say, “It’s not about money,” I would say that we must look at how unfair a society we are when, as I heard this morning, the chairman of British Petroleum has taken a pay cut from eight point something million pounds last year to seven point something million pounds this year. That would pay for whole communities in a constituency such as mine to raise their standards. Money would make a material difference to those people’s lives, just as I suspect it does to the chairman of BP and his lifestyle. That is not the politics of resentment; it is the politics of total incredulity that we can have the disgustingly rich alongside the disgustingly poor.

Mrs. Miller: I want to the press the hon. Gentleman on the issue of top-slicing and lifting those who are just below the poverty line to just above it, which the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) mentioned. Has he had any experience in his constituency of cases where those who are in deepest poverty have been left on the sidelines, as the hon. Lady mentioned?

Tony Lloyd: That is a good point, which we must address in non-emotive terms. It is a real issue, because it concerns exactly the kind of person or family about whom my hon. Friend spoke—often single-parent mums bringing up families or women who have massive difficulties, which can be of many kinds, such as educational disadvantage or a disability of one form or another. Such women can live disordered lives because of drug addiction, and women with drug addictions are the ones who will be engaged in prostitution—an almost perverse lifestyle that makes it harder for the mother or the children to get their heads above water. It is more difficult—it always will be—for us all to reach out to those forgotten people in our communities. However, they do exist and they exist in big numbers, not only in cities such as mine but, I
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suspect, in areas such as those of the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling)—I applaud him for his comments—and my hon. Friend. We know that we have to reach out more than we do.

What are the real pathways out of poverty? Of course income is important. I shall say again and again to my Government what I say to Opposition parties: please never forget that if we do not see income as central to poverty, we miss the most important issue. However, we also need joined-up government, because income of itself will not solve all the problems of poverty. We know that with poverty comes all the things that I have talked about, such as a lack of attainment elsewhere. We need to look at those who are most likely to be the next generation of the poor.

We need to think about very young pregnant women in our society. Of course we support them, but we do not support them enough to give them the opportunity to break away from what pregnancy in early years has always done in the past, which is to give an automatic passport to the world of poverty. We must break that, by ensuring that our education system is flexible for the very young women—actually, young girls—who are pregnant in cities such as mine, but also throughout the country.

We must ensure that support mechanisms are in place in child care services. We have done an awful lot on child care in our society, but we must recognise that child care of itself is central to poverty. We must recognise that health education is fundamental. Again, we fail to recognise reality if we do not accept the fact that it is much more likely that the child growing up in Surrey will have supportive parents in a supportive family, will have health education, access to a good diet and all the things that promote healthy living. In areas such as mine, however, far too often we see parents who smoke and communities that regard hard drinking as a social norm. I do not stigmatise my community, but I come from it and know very well the temptations and the reality of life there. We are stupid if we ignore those things.

In the end, however, the world of work is tremendously important. We know that in the not-too-distant future there will be very little in the way of unskilled work for people in our society. The poorly educated mother, whom we want to get back into the world of work and who desperately wants to do so as a better way of supporting her family and aspiring to a lifestyle of dignity, will be massively handicapped unless we recognise that the skills training available is not adequate for those of our fellow citizens who have been the most disadvantaged in the educational race up to the point of motherhood. They need a lot more support in the process.

We must call for joined-up government, and the Government have gone a long way towards achieving that. I do not want this to end up as a bizarre debate about the failure of the Government, who have done an awful lot. The reality, however, is that we must consider what more we need to do to ensure that we lift those who are the most disadvantaged by the poverty trap and continue the significant progress that has been made.

The hopeful point is that we can see that if we take co-ordinated steps, we will begin to make a difference. I recently visited a scheme in London called The Place2Be, which is about active intervention in schools. I want it to come into my inner-city constituency as it supports young children who bring massive emotional, sometimes psychological, difficulties into school, which makes teaching
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them a problem unless there is a package of support. The scheme makes a difference for young people where it exists and, five or six years in, we can begin to see the results. Young children who would not have made educational progress now make precisely that progress. Such things change people’s aspirations.

In my constituency schemes such as Sure Start have made a difference. It makes an enormous difference when families know that they have a supportive environment and when families—mothers in particular—know that they have a properly supportive child care structure that allows them not to spend their time racing around looking for an aunt, brother, cousin or friend to look after their children. Such things make a real difference by allowing people to live an ordered life in which aspiration is the norm and poverty does not always pull them back into a difficult, problematic way of life. We know that we can make a difference.

I again congratulate my hon. Friend on raising the debate and I applaud what she said about our need to translate the real progress made on income support and specific schemes into a joined-up approach to poverty. That will allow us both to address the problems experienced by those to whose lives we have already made a significant difference and to float off the rocks of poverty those for whom we have not properly begun the process, teaching them that aspiration and the other things that the rest of society takes for granted can be within their reach as families and, in particular, in the reach of their children. We can then break for ever the cycle of poverty that has been handed down from one generation to another, just as wealth is unfortunately handed down from one generation to another in our two-tier society. It is vicious to be at the wrong end of that, and we must break the cycle once and for all.

11.43 am

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) on raising this subject. It is an incredibly important issue, and she has raised it at a timely moment, for reasons that she set out.

I believe that I am right in saying that the last time we had a debate on the issue was about nine months ago, and that it was also a Westminster Hall debate. It was secured by one of the hon. Lady’s Back-Bench colleagues. It was rather a pity that the only Members to speak in that one-and-a-half-hour debate were the three Front Benchers and the Back-Bench Labour Member who raised the issue. It is striking that, although the matter ought to be one of the biggest economic and social policy priorities for us as a country and for the Government, we seem to be unsuccessful in engaging many of our colleagues in the House. That indicates some of the challenges in engaging the public and making them understand the extent of child poverty in a country that is otherwise regarded as extremely affluent.

I repeat the request, which I made in the previous debate but which has obviously fallen on deaf ears, that we should consider the issue in more detail in the Government’s time. Rather ironically, I cannot remember any debate on child poverty issues in Government time since I became the Liberal Democrat spokesman after the 2005 general election. Given that it is a huge priority for the
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Government, we would all benefit from a debate and from an exchange of the ideas and opinions of the parties.

Perhaps one of the reasons why hon. Members are frightened away from these debates is that the issues are so complex and span such a wide variety of subject areas. It is tempting to think that none of those subject areas falls within any one portfolio. Today, we have heard good Back-Bench speeches from the hon. Members for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) and for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd), touching upon a range of policy issues from tax credits to education and health. All those matters need to be taken into account if we are to deal with the problems of child poverty.

The debate is important, not only because of the extent of child poverty, which, as the hon. Member for Bristol, East indicated, rose from something like 14 per cent. in 1979 to about one third of children by 1997—one of the worst figures in the European Union and probably in the developed world. On reflection, that demonstrates that there is nothing inherent about us as a country that causes us to have child poverty at the levels of the past decade or so, because we had far lower levels in the 1970s.

It is sad that the increase in child poverty seems to have corresponded with a decline in social mobility, so that it is getting tougher and tougher for many children from some of our most deprived neighbourhoods—undoubtedly including those that the hon. Member for Manchester, Central represents—to succeed in life and rise to the level that their ability should allow.

We would all have assumed that, in the past 30 or 40 years, a more affluent society with free public services would also be one in which social mobility increased. However, it seems that social mobility is reducing—something that is recognised even by the Prime Minister and senior members of the Government. The recent report on housing by John Hills showed that many poor communities are getting a much greater concentration of low-income individuals. In the 1960s and 1970s, many poor communities used to have much more of a mixture of people on middle incomes and in employment. One aspect of the problems in our housing market is that people with high needs are much more concentrated in certain areas.

The issue is massively important, and the hon. Member for Bristol, East was right that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) made it clear in December that our party would sign up to the child poverty target. We thought that it was an important enough issue and a big enough commitment to consider it carefully before doing so, but we believe that it is the right target to set and that we should get down to the lowest levels in the EU. We intend not only to set an aspiration and a target but to say later this year how, in detail, we believe we should move towards it. The hon. Lady will be delighted to know that we shall release a policy paper in the summer—she can read it in her summer vacation—and we will debate it at our conference in the autumn.

I have said that the issue is important, and the debate is also timely for three reasons, one of which is the spending review, which the hon. Lady mentioned, towards which we are heading. I am bit unclear on whether it is likely to drift backwards. I am not sure why, but perhaps because of organisational issues
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within the governing party, there was some suggestion that the review might move off into the autumn. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister whether that will be the case and to have clarification on the question, asked by the hon. Member for Bristol, East, of which Department will take lead responsibility for delivering the public service target on child poverty.

At the moment, the responsibility sits slightly uncomfortably between the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions, partly because of the rather bizarre transfer of child benefit and tax credits from the DWP, where many of us believe they belong, to the Treasury. It would be useful to have clarification on those points at this very important time; as we know, the next spending review will be extremely tough. Public expenditure will grow much less than since 1999, so it is a question of not only whether the Government will manage to provide money to reduce child poverty, but where the money will be targeted and on which Departments.

The second reason why the debate is topical is that it comes on the back of the important UNICEF report that came out a month or so ago and is a terrible indictment of the circumstances in which we now find ourselves. Of 21 developed countries, the United Kingdom was ranked 21st for child well-being, behind countries such as Hungary, Portugal, the Czech Republic and Poland. We should all be ashamed of that.

In fairness to the Government, I should say that many of the figures are early ones, from about 2000-01; there will have been some improvement since then. It is also fair to point out that the figures emphasise relative poverty. Young children in Britain are better off than those in some of the countries that I have mentioned, which have lower relative poverty, but higher absolute poverty.

What is striking about the UNICEF report—I recognise this from my constituency—is the variety of the sources of deprivation. Obviously, the report considers not only relative poverty, but issues such as health, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Manchester, Central. It considers alcohol issues and the proportion of young children who are failing in education. The hon. Gentleman talked about the aspirations of young children and low skills, and how significant they are in respect of the labour market. It was disturbing to see in the report that, in the United Kingdom, the percentage of pupils aged 15 who expect to find work that requires only low skills was, at 35 per cent., one of the highest of all the developed countries. That is worrying in the context of the skills problem for about a quarter of our young people and given the lack of aspiration that the percentage reflects.

Although the Government might take some comfort from the fact that the figures are a bit out of date, none of us should take too much—first, because of the magnitude of the problem that we still have, with a quarter of children in relative poverty, and secondly, because the issues reflect much more than economic problems or the amounts of money in particular households. They reflect many social problems that have emerged in the past 20 or 30 years with which any Government would have to struggle.

I recognise the UNICEF report’s conclusions from what young people who have come to my constituency from abroad to help in Yeovil’s schools have told me. They are from a pretty diverse range of countries—Brazil,
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Canada, the United States and European Union countries. When I met them a few months ago, they told me that they were shocked not so much by the levels of economic deprivation—actually, compared with those in many of the countries from which they came, British youngsters looked fairly affluent, with their television sets and all sorts of things that are not possessed in other countries—as by the level of deprivation in respect of family relationships, the use of alcohol and illegal drugs, violence and the unfriendly nature of many communities and youngsters, all of which are picked up well in the UNICEF report. Those young people felt that such deprivation was a particularly striking indictment of our country. We cannot easily deal with such problems simply by spending extra money on benefits or tax credits. Those things may help, but they will not solve the problems overnight.

Undoubtedly, one of the underlying problems of child poverty and some of those social issues has to do with the breakdown of family life in the United Kingdom in the past 20 or 30 years. UNICEF had interesting things to say about that. First, its report acknowledges that plenty of children in single-parent families and step-families are growing up secure and happy. The hon. Member for Manchester, Central made that point, but the report said:

It went on to say that that relationship persists even if one adjusts for poverty, which tends to push those things up anyway. That makes sense to me and matches what I see in my constituency. However, I am not sure that I draw the conclusion that others do: that we should go back to the days of tax allowances and other such incentives for marriage.

Some years ago, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) put his finger on it when he said that he knew of many reasons why people married, but the existence of the married couple’s allowance had never been one of them. Given that the married couple’s allowance was in operation for a huge part of the time during which there was enormous family breakdown, it was clearly not very effective in that previous form.

Other than making speeches berating people and saying that they should marry, there are probably only two things that we can do on family issues. We should be very careful about erecting barriers against marriage and partnership. There is concern that incentives in the tax credit system give powerful reasons for people either to misrepresent their circumstances or, when they form relationships and live in two separate properties, to move in together. If the purpose of tax credits is in part to give powerful economic incentives to people on low incomes, we should be careful not to assume that they will not respond to such incentives in ways that we do not intend.

The other thing that comes out powerfully from the UNICEF report is why so many young people end up at an early age with children—often, therefore, becoming lone parents. Page 31 of the UNICEF report states:

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