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1 May 2007 : Column 435WH—continued

We also need more specific measures to accommodate specific challenges; I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is aware of my views on that. I put in a further plea for extending measures to boost work incentives among such vulnerable groups as homeless
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families in temporary accommodation. I am very aware of the “Working Futures” model in Newham, and it is a sensible one. It treats the higher rents for families in temporary accommodation through block grants, as if they were paying a comparable rent in social rented housing, and thereby removes the benefits trap that catches people in high-rent accommodation.

Given that there are 3,000 households, many of them lone parent households, in temporary accommodation in my borough, and that research demonstrates that unemployment is at 90 per cent. among families in temporary accommodation—compared with 60 per cent. among social housing tenants as a whole—the case is made to extend “Working Futures” swiftly and extensively across the whole capital for households in temporary accommodation. I am completely baffled about why—I see no sensible argument for it—we should run merely one very small pilot in one low-cost area of London and wait for two years to evaluate the results.

We also need to consider how to boost part-time work opportunities at reasonable pay rates in London. Of course, our ability to influence that in the private sector is limited, but we do nothing like enough to examine job opportunities in the public sector, particularly in respect of contracted services, which provide us with a useful opportunity. In that context, we need to consider again the implications of the Gershon review and the movement of public sector jobs out of London. A recent story, linked not to Gershon but to some of the year-end pressures on the health service, revealed that part-time jobs in health care had taken the brunt of job losses in the health service. That is exactly the kind of thing that has a differential impact, particularly on lone parents and particularly on lone parents in London; they need such jobs to have any real prospect of entering and staying in the labour market.

Despite the achievements in improving employment rates for lone parents across the UK as a whole, there are still serious problems in London and in job retention rates generally. There are well documented examples of discrimination against parents in the work force generally. The recent report by the Equal Opportunities Commission demonstrated the impact of such discrimination. The situation demands yet more action from the Government and employers in getting real about the importance of the work-life balance and developing family-friendly employment policies. It is no one’s interests—not those of employers, taxpayers or the Government—to trap hundreds of thousands of people out of sustainable employment, with all the social and economic costs that such unemployment puts on the state. If further changes were made to make employment family-friendly, we would be able to draw such people back into employment.

As was devastatingly demonstrated in the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report released yesterday, there is plentiful evidence of discrimination against particular groups of black and minority ethnic communities. Bangladeshis were found by the report to be most discriminated against in employment terms and most likely to be trapped in poverty. It is reasonable to say that Bangladeshi women and Muslim women generally most need targeted support to help
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them come back into sustained employment. The work done by Jobcentre Plus and the contracted providers needs to continue to bear down on those hard-to-reach groups, and we need to continue to bear down on the discriminatory practices that lock people out of work.

Fundamentally, the issue for lone parents is one of making work pay, and that applies in London more than elsewhere. Without sustainable job opportunities, we have no chance of making inroads into London’s deplorable levels of child poverty, and without improvements in London, we cannot hit the target for the country as a whole. There have been real achievements country-wide and recognition of the special factors in London. However, I am afraid that, on the evidence so far, there is no sign of policies likely to lead to the breakthrough that we require.

The Government have a target of halving the rate of child poverty that they inherited by 2010, but we are simply not going to reach it unless we build on what we have achieved and take further radical steps—some small and modest such as “Working Futures”; others more radical such as changes to the tax and benefit system—to raise those employment rates.

1.16 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) on securing this important debate. Her work on the London Child Poverty Commission means that she has a particular insight into the challenges facing families on low incomes. She has amply demonstrated that in how she has spoken this afternoon.

The report that my hon. Friend helped to launch in February stressed, among other things, the importance of increasing employment among parents on lower incomes as one of the essential measures for reducing child poverty in London. She raised important points about job retention among lone parents who have moved into employment and, rightly, she focused on the issue of the relative disadvantage in London in terms of costs and earnings. She also raised her concerns about the extent of the “Working Futures” pilot, on which she and I have already corresponded.

I particularly want to reassure my hon. Friend that when we consider broader issues of labour market reform and further steps in reforming the welfare system, we Ministers at the Department for Work and Pensions are fully apprised of the specific set of factors that bear on London. I assure her that we have clearly identified the London-specific issues that we must consider. If we are to succeed in meeting our child poverty reduction targets, as my hon. Friend wants us to, we have to think specifically about certain things that need to happen in the capital, where the problems are tough. We are very focused on that.

We all know that children in lone-parent households are almost twice as likely to live in poverty as those in couple households, and that they make up 40 per cent. of all children living in poverty. The best way to tackle that is to support lone parents into work, which we do through work-focused interviews and the new deal for lone parents, which has already helped more than 482,000 lone parents into work, including more than
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55,000 lone parents in London. Furthermore, the vast majority of those who have gone through the new deal for lone parents and into work have moved into sustainable employment. None the less, we are realistic about the challenges that lone parents face in getting back to work—and, as my hon. Friend says, in staying in work once they get it. We know that those challenges can be even greater in London, given that, as she rightly pointed out, housing and living costs are higher.

The present set-up means that many lone parents can exist on benefits for many years without any experience of being in work or developing any of the new skills that they will require when they return to work. That makes it hard for them to compete for jobs and may mean that some of those who enter jobs do not have the skills base to sustain employment once they have made that move.

The UK is out of step with many other countries in what we expect of lone parents who claim benefits when they have older children. That is why we will consider whether a switch to jobseeker’s allowance for that group, with its increased focus on looking for work, will improve the chances of their getting back to work and of that work being sustainable. My hon. Friend mentioned the Freud report. Let me reassure her: Freud has suggested we ask lone parents to start looking for work when their youngest child is 12. We are considering that recommendation and will report our conclusions in the summer.

As my hon. Friend said, we have achieved a good deal so far. Ten years ago, more than 1 million lone parents nationally and around 190,000 in London were on benefit. Those figures are now down by 230,000 nationally and by more than 27,000 in the capital. Fewer than 700,000 lone parents nationally were in work 10 years ago; now more than 1 million are. In London, fewer than 85,000 lone parents were in work 10 years ago and now nearly 130,000 are.

The national employment rate among lone parents 10 years ago was about 45 per cent. It is now about 56 per cent. In London, that employment rate has risen from a much lower base—about 37 per cent.—to about 45 per cent. There is still a considerable gap between the rate of improvement in the country as a whole and that in London. That is why we have to address specific policy challenges in the capital.

Overall, there has been an achievement. However, we aim to increase the lone parent employment rate to 70 per cent. by 2010 and to do that we would need about 300,000 more lone parents in work across the country. We can do that only by helping to create conditions which make work pay, make it possible to attain and make it easier to sustain. We are rolling out more work-focused interviews for lone parents, which will give them the chance to talk to experienced advisers about the problems they face in getting back to work.

No parent is going to work if they are not certain that their child or children are in safe care. That is why Freud—and Lisa Harker in her report—highlighted the importance of wraparound child care provision. That is one of the most significant concerns for all working parents and it is raised continually with us by lone parents when we discuss what else needs to happen to reduce further the barriers to employment.

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By 2010, there will be a Sure Start children’s centre for every community—3,500 in total. For parents with older children, we have the extended schools programme, which by 2010 will be available from 8 am to 6 pm throughout the year, including school holiday periods. We are also making work a more realistic financial option. From April last year, we increased to 80 per cent. the proportion we pay towards child care costs for parents on a low income That increases child care affordability for vulnerable groups, particularly lone parents. Support is available to meet the costs of child care at rates of £87 a week for one child and £150 a week for two children or more.

We have recently announced the continuation of in- work credit, which helps eligible lone parents to leave benefits for employment with the payment of an extra £40 a week for a year. More than 40,000 people have already taken up the in-work credit, including more than 12,500 in London. We are also rolling out our pathways to work programme across the country to give even more help to those on incapacity benefit—like lone parents, that group was not given the help that it needed in the past.

London has particular issues that need to be addressed and we have already begun to do that. The new deal for lone parents has helped more than 55,000 lone parents in London into work. In April 2004, employment zones for lone parents were introduced in Haringey, Newham, Brent, Southwark and Tower Hamlets. They have helped 3,300 lone parents in those boroughs back into work. However, as my hon. Friend says, there is still a great deal more to do. We will roll out the new deal plus for lone parents to all London districts by April 2008. That will test whether a package of measures combining good, affordable child care availability with a work focus and a strong financial incentive, like the in-work credit, will move lone parents closer to the labour market and into work.

From July, we will increase the in-work credit payment in London to £60 a week when lone parents
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leave benefits for employment, as my hon. Friend has mentioned. The Government will also contribute £11 million in funding to the child care affordability pilot to offer 10,000 new child care places across the city. The pilot is the largest region-specific initiative for a subsidised child care programme of its kind in the country.

In addition, London is benefiting from our city strategy of investing more in deprived areas to tackle worklessness and child poverty. I hope I can demonstrate to my hon. Friend that we agree with her about the challenges in London, particularly in some—albeit not necessarily all—of the boroughs. Those challenges include the cost of housing and living, and issues to do with skills and child care. We can see from the Department’s analysis of all aspects of the London labour market that London has distinct characteristics. We understand that that means that reforms designed for national application will not necessarily have the same bite or impact in the capital.

As we work through our assessment of the circumstances that pertain in the capital, we will take on board many of my hon. Friend’s points, which will inform our thinking on how we can go forward through our policies in London. We have seen the report that she helped to publicise in February, which raised many of the same points. The recent reports from Freud and Lisa Harker have also highlighted London-specific issues.

I hope that I have reassured my hon. Friend that the important issues that she has identified about London are on the Department’s agenda. The work that we are doing to reform welfare and the labour market needs to be combined with policies to ensure that we continue to have a strong economy, which will be important for the capital as well as the rest of the country, so that they result the continued creation of more employment opportunities for lone parents, more children being lifted out of poverty, and a prospect of ensuring that the cycle of deprivation that runs through generations is not extended any further than it has to be in London and the rest of the country.

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Leeds Children’s and Maternity Hospital

1.29 pm

Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): I am grateful for the opportunity to debate a crucial issue for Leeds, West Yorkshire and beyond.

A stark fact, which we are not at all happy about, is that Leeds is the only major city in this country without a dedicated children’s hospital. The experts have said for 18 years that we need one; leading consultants have made the case for 15 years, and parents have campaigned relentlessly in recent years. The city and its people want to change the situation and the campaign for a new hospital has the support of all Leeds and regional MPs, the city council and councillors of all parties. Yet, on 17 March this year, the parents and children of Leeds received a terrible blow. The development of the dedicated children’s and maternity hospital for which they had campaigned so hard only a few years before was to be shelved, possibly indefinitely.

The Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust’s official statement confirmed that plans for the hospital will be severely delayed, blaming a lack of money, as well as the rising costs of the project. The trust stated that the project’s affordability had not been proven, and that it felt that it would be unable to make the required repayments for the hospital under the proposed private finance initiative scheme. As the news reverberated around the community, it confirmed many people’s fears that the appalling NHS situation in Leeds has had a devastating impact on health services and has led to the hospital being cancelled.

Geoff Stagg, father of 14-year-old brain cancer sufferer Craig and campaigner for the new hospital, summed it up:

to the hospital;

The Leeds children’s and maternity hospital was due to open its doors in 2012, as a dedicated state-of-the-art, 370-bed facility for treating children and providing maternity care. It would have centralised services for children that are currently provided predominantly by two sites, as well as others, across the city. It was also due to include one of only three children’s liver units in the country and to become the biggest centre for transplants in England. Now it is unclear when—or, crucially, if—the facility will open, and children in Leeds and the wider area are left without the dedicated facility that they so urgently require.

Three years ago, the go-ahead for the hospital was finally granted, marking the culmination of a long and hard-fought campaign, led since 2002 by parents Jonathan Abbott and Carol and Dean Maddocks after they witnessed the conditions in which the dedicated and excellent staff on ward 10 of St. James’s university hospital in Leeds were forced to treat young children. Jonathan Abbott has described the crowds of ill, grey adults standing around the entrance of the hospital smoking, as he wheeled in his young son Josh, who suffered from a rare form of cancer, and the complete absence of privacy on the ward. At the end of Josh’s
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treatment, he removed his son from the ward, so that he could die in a place where he felt comfortable.

Carol Maddocks talks of similar problems when her daughter, Alice, was being treated in 2002 for aplastic anaemia, now thankfully in remission. Carol’s memories of that time are of cramped conditions and of having to take Alice, already suffering from the after-effects of her treatment, on long and draining journeys across Leeds between St. James’s and the Leeds general infirmary, so that her treatment could continue.

Jonathan Abbott and Carol Maddocks made a promise that they would not let other children go through what their children had experienced. With Carol’s husband, Dean, they launched the campaign to improve children’s facilities in Leeds. Their campaign was taken up by other parents and local organisations, such as Candlelighters, which does so much for children with cancer in Leeds. Politically, it gained the full support of Leeds MPs and Leeds city council. It was backed by the Yorkshire Post, the Yorkshire Evening Post and other local media and, most importantly, received huge support from members of the local community, 3,000 of whom signed a petition.

Despite what has happened, I must take this opportunity to praise Carol, Dean, Jonathan and all the extraordinary people who led that successful campaign and inspired Leeds and its citizens to stand up for our children. It was a remarkable campaign, and on 27 July 2004, it finally reached a conclusion when the former Health Secretary, the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid), gave the green light for funding for a new dedicated children’s and maternity hospital in Leeds. The decision was greeted with joy throughout the city. Trust executives issued a statement heralding the development as vital to providing children across Yorkshire with the care that they need. Neil McKay, chief executive of the trust at the time, called it “fantastic news”. It is not surprising that Jonathan Abbott, Carol and Dean Maddocks and everyone else who fought so hard have been utterly shattered by the news that the children’s hospital will not be going ahead as promised.

Why, with all that support and political will, has the project been shelved? According to the trust, the major reason for the delay in the development of the hospital, which was due to commence at the site of St. James’s university hospital, is the trust’s current and projected debt. The trust also says that the projected costs have spiralled from £230 million to £650 million—an almost threefold increase. It is unclear why costs have risen so dramatically. However, when questioned, sources at the trust have pointed to a need to refurbish existing adult facilities, a need for new facilities not included in the original plans, such as a car park, and the fact that the required contingency fund for the hospital has risen to £213 million—almost the entire cost of the original plan. That raises questions about the suitability of the original plans. Jonathan Abbott has questioned why there was a three-year consultation period costing an unknown sum if the plans were simply to be shelved. There have also been suggestions that the trust has proposed a top-of-the-range option, including the car park and rebuilt trust headquarters. The matter must be clarified as soon as possible.

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How did the trust suddenly arrive at the hugely inflated figure of £650 million? Is it indeed the most expensive option and, if so, can less costly options be brought back to the table that would still deliver the necessary fundamental change in care? But the key question for the Minister and her colleagues to investigate and answer as a matter of urgency is why there is such a significant difference between the figures presented originally, which were current until a few months ago, and the costs now being presented by the trust.

How the decision was taken and announced has also caused an uproar. Very senior medical representatives were not told until after the news leaked out, and campaigners found out from newspapers. It was described by Dr. Richard Vautrey, medical secretary of the Leeds local medical committee, as

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