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House of Commons

Wednesday 16 May 2007

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Duchy of Lancaster

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked—

Social Exclusion

1. Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): What assessment she has made of the trends relating to social exclusion identified in the Households Below Average Income 2005-06 report. [137262]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Pat McFadden): Since 1997, the Government have lifted 600,000 children out of relative poverty. That is a major achievement and represents significant progress towards our child poverty target. We are responding to the Households Below Average Income report in part through recent announcements in the Budget, which are expected to lift a further 200,000 children out of poverty.

Simon Hughes: I am grateful for the Minister’s answer, but I could not tell from that whether he accepts that the number of children in severe poverty has risen, and that therefore the target looks unlikely to be met. Can he share with us what role his Department has in banging heads together across other Departments, so that the Government can get back on target and youngsters in boroughs such as mine, and also all over the country, can have the prospect of opportunities in the future, and not be held back by the poverty of the past?

Mr. McFadden: We have always accepted that the target is challenging. That is why the Chancellor announced measures in the Budget to help lift more children out of poverty. Those include, for example, lifting the child element of the child tax credit by £150 above indexation from April 2008. Child benefit for the eldest child will become £20 per week by April 2010. Together with other measures, that will mean that households with children will be, on average, £200 per year better off, and households with children in the poorest fifth of the population will be £350 per year better off. In addition, the Department for Work and Pensions has announced specific measures for London, also aimed at lifting more children out of poverty.

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Jessica Morden (Newport, East) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a stark contrast between the measures announced in the Budget to lift 200,000 children out of poverty and the record of the Conservatives, under whom child benefit was frozen for three years running and we had one of the highest child poverty rates in Europe?

Mr. McFadden: My hon. Friend is right. Had we continued with the package of measures in place in 1997 and simply uprated them in line with inflation, child poverty would have risen by 800,000. At that time we were around the bottom of the European league, but because of the measures we have taken we have lifted 600,000 children out of poverty and, as I said, it is hoped that the measures announced in the Budget will lift a further 200,000 children out of poverty.

Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): The same figures show that there are 400,000 more people in severe poverty than when Labour came to office, and it has become more difficult to escape from poverty. When I went to university, someone from a poorer background was three times less likely to go to university than someone from a wealthy background. Today, such a person is five times less likely to go, so social mobility is declining. Does the Minister believe in social mobility? If so, why does he think it is falling under Labour?

Mr. McFadden: I certainly believe in social mobility. A child born in this country today has far less chance of living in poverty than if the hon. Gentleman’s party had continued in power. There are 440,000 fewer children in workless households today. Absolute poverty for children has fallen by 1.8 million. The risk of absolute poverty has halved. By any measure that one cares to use, the life chances of children born under the present Government are a lot greater than they would have been if the hon. Gentleman’s party had stayed in power.

Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): The figures show both rises in child poverty and rises in income inequality. The Minister is responsible for joined-up government in these matters, so how does he explain the fact that the joint ministerial committee on child poverty, bringing together the devolved Governments and the UK Government under the chairmanship of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, has not met since 2002? Does he think that the next Prime Minister will do any better?

Mr. McFadden: I believe that the next Prime Minister will continue the battle to ease relative poverty. The Chancellor has shown in his time in office that he has a deep commitment to combating child poverty. Families with children are on average £1,500 a year better off since 1997, taking all changes into account, and the poorest fifth of families with children are, on average, £3,400 a year better off. What matters is the outcome for families in those circumstances, rather than whether or not a committee has met.

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Social Exclusion

2. Mr. Siôn Simon (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): What estimate she has made of the cost of intervening in the early years of a child's life to prevent social exclusion. [137263]

4. Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): What assessment she has made of the balance of costs and benefits of intervening in the early years of a child's life to prevent social exclusion. [137265]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Hilary Armstrong): Early intervention is a guiding principle of the social exclusion action plan. The report highlighted the relative costs and benefits of the rigorously tested nurse-family partnership programme from the United States that provides intensive home visiting services by health visitors to disadvantaged mothers from pregnancy until a child is two years old. The evaluation showed that for every $1 invested in the US, $5 was saved down the line. The Government are considering what can be learned from that early intervention approach, with pilots of the programme being launched in 10 sites across England.

Mr. Simon: As the nurse-family partnerships have been tremendously successful in America and are acclaimed by midwives and nurses in this country in working-class communities such as mine, does my right hon. Friend agree with the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), who has dismissed them as foetal ASBOs, or does she think that he should stick to what he knows: well-paid nannies, interior-designed home nurseries and silver spoon—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Hilary Armstrong: The Tory party knows that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) made a mistake and it is looking at the matter again, and I hope that today it will give us its commitment to work with us on this. I met some mothers and nurses yesterday in Slough and I met David Olds with the Prime Minister this morning. It is an incredibly successful programme that is being embraced with real enthusiasm by health visitors and midwives here, and I hope that we can demonstrate that by working with the most disadvantaged we can help them to turn round their lives and the lives of their children.

Anne Snelgrove: As antisocial behaviour is a product of social exclusion, which is causing many problems in my constituency and throughout the country, what examples of good practice could my right hon. Friend give my local council in Swindon to help it to learn from that and so tackle antisocial behaviour through social exclusion?

Hilary Armstrong: The nurse-family partnership has been used in America for almost 30 years and has demonstrated that by the time children who have participated in the scheme are 15, they are between 50 and 60 per cent. less likely to be involved with the criminal justice system in any way. The programme has been well evaluated and we are working hard on the pilot schemes to see what we can learn. I hope that my
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hon. Friend’s constituents, local authority and primary care trust will look at what we will be able to achieve and help us to mainstream the programme so that towns such as Swindon can benefit.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): One way in which the Government are intervening in early years to help social exclusion is through children’s tax credits and the working family tax credit. The right hon. Lady must recognise that Members of Parliament are still receiving significant numbers of parents at their surgeries who have problems with those tax credits. May we copy those cases to the right hon. Lady, not because we expect her to solve them, but in the hope that, being a fair-minded Minister, she might start to recognise that there are some generic issues that she might take up with those of her Cabinet colleagues who are responsible for such tax credits?

Hilary Armstrong: I frequently have conversations with colleagues in the Treasury and I know that there is the occasional problem, but that overall the scheme massively benefits those parents who are obtaining work, many of them for the first time, and can now earn sufficient money to make work pay so that they can do the best by their children. Those programmes will help parents to obtain the confidence and skills to get back into work so that they, too, can do the best by their children.

Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): My right hon. Friend has spoken well about the impact of the nurse-family partnership scheme, but given that Tower Hamlets, my neighbouring borough, has been lucky enough to have one of the 10 pilot schemes, when might we see an equal amount of assistance and help for my constituency?

Hilary Armstrong: Many hon. Members, and certainly their constituents, are asking that question. We have overwhelming interest in this pilot programme, with more than 40 per cent. of the country applying for it. We are determined that we will learn the lessons as quickly as we can about what changes are needed within our systems. The Department of Health, which is leading on the implementation of the programme, is considering health visiting and midwifery services to see how they can mainstream the important aspect of ensuring that we pick up, at the earliest stage, those parents who are vulnerable and give them the support they need.

Local Government/Third Sector

3. Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): What recent discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government about the local government White Paper and its impact on the voluntary sector. [137264]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Edward Miliband): We have worked closely with the DCLG to prepare and implement the White Paper. It contains important commitments to help the voluntary sector: making key parts of the compact such as multi-year funding part of local government inspection and financial codes; encouraging the transfer of community buildings
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to the voluntary sector; and ensuring that local authorities involve community organisations in decision making.

Ann Coffey: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. In my constituency, voluntary organisations and volunteers make a huge contribution to the community life of the town, but one of the problems that they face is that they have yearly funding, which makes it difficult for them to plan. Does he agree that in order to have a real partnership between voluntary organisations and the statutory sector, those organisations need to get three-yearly grant programmes from primary care trusts and councils to provide some stability for the voluntary sector?

Edward Miliband: I agree with my hon. Friend. I am looking forward to my visit to Stockport next month to see at first hand the excellent work that the voluntary sector does there. The key thing about the local government White Paper is that, for the first time, councils will be assessed on their commitment to multi-year funding under the local government inspection framework and the financial codes. That progress has been warmly welcomed in the voluntary sector, and I hope that it will make a difference not only in Stockport, but around the country.

Deputy Prime Minister

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

Climate Change

11. Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with his counterparts in other European states on climate change. [137237]

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott): In April, I launched the British Council climate change campaign, “Opportunity through Action”, in Prague, with keynote speeches at a dinner debate and a youth conference. I engaged the Czech Prime Minister and two Deputy Prime Ministers on the subject of climate change during separate bilateral meetings. Later that week, I discussed similar issues with the Maltese Prime Minister and President.

Natascha Engel: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. As he will know, not only is the UK one of the only countries to meet its Kyoto targets, but we are set to double our commitments. Unfortunately, greenhouse gas emissions and carbon dioxide do not respect national borders, so what is he doing to ensure that our European colleagues meet their Kyoto targets?

The Deputy Prime Minister: That is a good question. I am pleased to confirm that Britain is one of only two countries in the European Union to have achieved their Kyoto targets. Indeed, as my hon. Friend says, we will achieve about 23.6 per cent. below the base level—almost twice the level set for Kyoto. As she knows, the Prime Minister is talking to the EU President today about the G8 proposals for improving the situation. Indeed, the European Union will meet in the autumn
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to discuss further proposals so that it is on target to reach the Kyoto target by 2010-2012. The point is that the United Kingdom has already achieved it and has shown that we can have economic growth and achieve environmental targets at the same time.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): As the Deputy Prime Minister has announced his retirement, perhaps I should start by genuinely thanking him for his contribution to British public life, especially on behalf of those groups who owe him a special debt of gratitude—I am thinking of the parliamentary sketchwriters, British amateur boxing, and the makers of Jaguar cars. On the contribution that cars have made to global warming and climate change, he once famously said that he would have failed if car use failed to decline. What, in retrospect, does he now feel that he could have done differently?

The Deputy Prime Minister: Our policies on climate change show that we can achieve the Kyoto targets and lead the world. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks about me. He was a member of my party for a while—indeed, he has gone through more parties than Paris Hilton. Nevertheless, I am grateful for his remarks and proud to have been in a Government who, for 10 years, have realised major achievements on the environment and the Kyoto targets.

Office Budget

12. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): When he next expects to meet the Treasury to discuss the budget for his office. [137238] [ Interruption. ]

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott): I hope that the hon. Members understand that the only way I can get through is by delay.

I meet my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and other ministerial colleagues on a regular basis to discuss a wide range of issues.

My Department is participating in the current comprehensive spending review in the same way as all other Departments, and my Department’s annual report, which I will publish shortly, sets out the important contribution that it has made in the past 12 months.

The Government are committed to improving delivery of public services and ensuring maximum value for money for the taxpayer.

Mr. Bellingham: I am grateful to the Deputy Prime Minister for that response. Will he give the House four specific achievements or successes that he attributes to his occupancy of his present office?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I am happy to say that I contributed to achieving some of the best general election results—three times. In those 10 years, I am pleased to have been in a Government who have not only produced 2.5 million jobs, but proved that there can be economic prosperity and social justice. I am pleased to have played a key part in the Kyoto negotiations, which are a major achievement. I am especially delighted to have rescued the channel tunnel rail link, which collapsed under the Tories, and will
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now be open in November on budget and on time. It is the first modern rail system in Britain. Those are only a few achievements, but if the hon. Gentleman has more questions, I shall answer them later.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): On the subject of delay, I wonder whether we have been too hasty in assuming that the right hon. Gentleman will move on. There was a briefing in the Sunday newspapers about a new official post for him as an international diplomat, probably based on all those years of conflict resolution between No. 10 and No. 11. Has he had discussions with the Treasury about continuing to be bankrolled by £3 million a year?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I am proud of what I have done in government and of what the Department has achieved. Conservative Members will see that the annual report, which will be published shortly, justifies the work in which I have been involved in the past 12 months. It is more justified than that of Tory Deputy Prime Ministers if the records are compared. We get value for money.

As for the diplomatic point, the achievement of Kyoto—bringing 100-odd nations together to agree something—is a measure of our success. I doubt whether the hon. Gentleman could have done it.

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