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Mr. Duncan Smith: As my right hon. Friend was rising to answer the previous intervention, there was the usual commentary about an expenditure commitment. I understand that. We have a lot of fun and games about that in this place. However, one of the problems is that we have continued to debate the drugs issue in the House like children. I did not include in the report the costs that we calculated for the deaths due to drug addiction in this country or the unknown number of lost lives. We should rise above the ludicrous games that are played. The Minister may look at the matter from the party standpoint and whether the Government can incorporate it, but I hope that the whole House will think carefully about it. People are dying out there while we play games. It is time to treat the problem as adults, not as children.

Mr. Letwin: I entirely agree with that. Throughout the work on the report and our consideration of the issue, we need to take into account that the phenomena that I am describing do not just have a social cost and a cost for individuals and families—they also have huge economic costs. Drug addiction is among the largest causes of economic cost, and we ought to be able to balance that in a mature way.

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): Before the right hon. Gentleman moves on, will he expand a little on a fundamental point that he slipped in, which is mentioned a number of times in the section of the report on addictions—that treatment should be carried out by people who have direct experience of addiction? He said so a moment ago and it is specified in the report. Can he give an example of another country that bases its drug treatment system on that premise? How would it affect the 400 former addicts in my constituency whose treatment has been through GPs and the NHS, none of the GPs having had a prior addiction problem with the substance?

Mr. Letwin: No, the hon. Gentleman misunderstands. I am not saying, nor is the report, that no good can be done by people other than those who have previously been addicts. What I discovered when I went to the Netherlands—it is echoed in many parts of the report—was that what is true in some rehabilitation centres in the UK today is true there. Alongside medically qualified professionals work people who have been through the experience and come out on the other side. That combination is an enormously powerful tool for enabling the addict to find a way of reaching genuine rehabilitation, but we are not suggesting that it is the only tool. I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not still think, as I noticed him saying at an earlier stage on the radio or in a newspaper, that this is somehow an attack on GPs—it is not. It is a question of trying to add a layer of rehabilitation that is not currently available.

John Mann rose—

Mr. Letwin: I will give way once more, but then I am going to stop doing so.

John Mann: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for allowing the debate to continue. The report is absolutely explicit in saying that the way forward for drug treatment should be by using people—
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professionals—who had previously had a drug addiction. As he says, the Netherlands has tended to use that system. Will he confirm that the Netherlands is the only country in the world to have adopted what it describes as the “liberal” approach to drugs, and that in Sweden, the other country cited in the report, exactly the opposite is done and medical professionals, not those who have had a prior addiction problem, treat drug addiction and do so exclusively?

Mr. Letwin: By taking two countries with spectacularly better results in terms of addiction levels than ours, one with one approach and one with another, the hon. Gentleman is proving that there is no absolute truth in such matters. However, there is good reason to suppose that the Netherlands, which happens to have the lowest rate of addiction in the sample that we are talking about—three or so per 1,000—has a method that is worth pursuing. [ Interruption . ] The figures that I am citing have been carefully calibrated to include problematic drug users on a consistent basis.

John Mann rose—

Mr. Letwin: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to speak later.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Letwin: I will, but then I really am going to stop.

Angela Watkinson: I thank my right hon. Friend, who is being extremely generous. Will he take on board the importance of drug use prevention? No amount of drug rehabilitation treatment and harm reduction will work unless it is balanced with prevention. Otherwise, for every addict who is cured another one will come along—it is like pouring water into a hole in the sand.

Mr. Letwin: My hon. Friend is obviously right that drug use prevention is enormously important—the report deals with that at some length—but we should not delude ourselves that it will ever be enough. The truth is that rehabilitation is critical to any strategy, and it is of course the more expensive and difficult bit.

There are other factors. The report deals pretty thoroughly with the question of how indebted our nation is, with not only many people who can afford to be in debt but, unfortunately, many who cannot. On survey evidence, some 7 million to 9 million people in Britain today report themselves as having a serious debt problem. That is a bad situation for the country to be in. By most measures, social mobility is lower in Britain than in Denmark, Norway, Finland, Germany, France or the United States, while family breakdown is higher than in almost any other European country.

I will bore the House if I go on and on. The picture is clear: there are serious problems with our society that are visited on groups of people who are concentrated in certain neighbourhoods and who suffer from multiple deprivation, rather than from simply one or other of the problems that we are discussing. That nexus of multiple deprivation, so tellingly portrayed in yesterday’s report and in its predecessor, “Breakdown Britain”, is the
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problem that we need to grip. I do not know, but I hope that that, too, is a shared analysis. I hope that the Government accept that the problem is not just one thing or another, but a combination of things and the cycle of deprivation that they create. Addiction, indebtedness, worklessness and family breakdown all combine to create not just poverty, but entrapment.

If we accept that analysis and accept that, while the vast majority of our population is of course mercifully free of that trap of deprivation, we have a moral, social and economic duty to do something about that deprivation, the question then becomes—what? The analysis ought to be shared up to that point, but now we come to the difficult question of how we get at the problem. I certainly do not say, and I never will say, that the Government have not sought to address the problems. It is manifest that they have sought to address them. Therefore, I take comfort from the thought that we share much of the analysis. However, it is equally manifest that the Government’s actions have not produced the hoped-for results, because if they had, the picture would not be as it is today, but as it was some years ago.

To a rational observer, that suggests either a pessimistic conclusion—that it would take almost incalculable efforts of the kind that the Government have been making to achieve those results, or that they or any successor Government will not be able to achieve them—or a much more optimistic conclusion: that there is something deficient about the Government’s approach that, if changed, could change the situation. That is the analysis of the report. I hope that I shall not embarrass the right hon. Member for Birkenhead if I say that much of the thinking that lies behind the report is thinking that he was doing 10, 15 or 20 years ago. There has been a long chain of thought about the issue that has not been translated into action.

I would characterise that thought like this. Approach A says, “Let’s do a series of discrete things. Let’s spend money on those things and let’s ensure, above all, that we get money to people who haven’t got it.” The Government have tried to do that, nobly and necessarily, but it has not produced the hoped-for results. The alternative approach is to say, “Okay, we’ve got to do that, but we’ve got to do more. We’ve actually got to change the way people feel about themselves and their lives, and how they conduct their lives if they’re entrapped.” Like a judo player, we have to use their weight, so to speak, to achieve the hoped-for result, rather than assuming that top-down action by the Government will achieve it by itself. That is a fundamentally different perspective, and it might be one on which the Minister and I profoundly differ.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): I think that I am with the right hon. Gentleman so far on much of the analysis, but he is coming to the interesting bit about the policy prescriptions and whether his are better than those that are marketed elsewhere. On the vital issue of the family, does he think that the one of the principal proposals of the report that was published yesterday, on the transferable personal tax allowance, would increase the proportion of people over time who choose the married option?

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Mr. Letwin: I do not speak for the specific options put forward in the report, which we shall consider along with other options. However, I do speak for the principle that if the state, representing society, makes it clear that it recognises the value of stable relationships to society and does that by recognising marriage in the tax system, over time that will have an effect on people’s conceptions—albeit not in a way that we can calculate with certainty and project on computers—and will therefore help us to move in the right direction. Personally, I believe that the removal of the couple penalty that I spoke about earlier is even more important, because that involved a direct disincentive to people, who could not afford such a disincentive, to stay apart.

I have long believed that changes in culture, even though much slower and less direct, are more important than direct measures. An example is drink driving. Of course, there are laws against drink driving and enforcement mechanisms in place, but the fact is that over the past 20 or 30 years the culture in regard to drink driving in this country has utterly changed. There was a time when journalists—to pick a particular profession—would wander out of the King and Keys in Fleet street, having drunk I do not know how much, and think that it was a fine thing to get into their cars and drive away. Nobody thought the worse of them for that. Today, we would think that that was the wrong thing to do. We are right, and they were wrong then. Whatever the truth of the matter, there has certainly been a culture shift, and it has been much more powerful than all the policemen and breathalysers in the world put together. We are talking today about achieving direct results and cultural shifts, and I believe that the cultural shifts matter.

Mr. Laws: I have some sympathy with the right hon. Gentleman’s points about tax credits, as he knows. Nevertheless, I thought that his support for the transferable allowance was somewhat conditional, if I can put it like that. Does he have in mind the fact that when the married couples allowance served as a recognition of marriage, it was notably unsuccessful as a signalling mechanism in relation to encouraging marriage?

Mr. Letwin: The report makes the point that, for various reasons, the married couples allowance was not a very successful device. It puts forward various options for a different model of transferable tax allowance, and we will consider them. We are committed to some form of recognition of marriage in the tax system.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The report is quite clear about the married couples allowance. It was a hopeless device. It was cobbled together at the last moment, and the reason why it had no effect was that a lone parent could get exactly the same amount through another device, which negated any effect that the married couples allowance had. It was a hopeless device and we would not return to it.

Mr. Letwin: I shall let my right hon. Friend speak for himself on that matter.

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Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): I think that the right hon. Gentleman is feeling his way towards a view—and I hope that it is a consensual view, in a way that it was not a few years ago—that all well-meaning Governments have failed because they have looked to remedial policies and sought to cure the symptoms. I hope that we all—including the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) in his excellent contribution to the debate, which was published yesterday—now understand that the problems that we face are inter-generational and cannot be solved by a specific programme to cure particular individuals.

Does the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) accept that we need at least a 20-year prevention programme, or early intervention programme, as we are calling it in my city? Only if we do that will we be able to break the inter-generational cycle. Also—I address this remark to those on both Front Benches—this will have to be an all-party programme. There will have to be national consensus to pursue such policies, otherwise, at some point in the future, we might find ourselves on the other side of the House, criticising and nit-picking over statistics as another set of policies fails to deliver.

Mr. Letwin: I have an enormous amount of sympathy for the hon. Gentleman’s point. This is an inter-generational matter, and it will take an enormously long time to change. I do not know whether his estimate of a 20-year span is right; it might take longer. We could achieve significant effects quite soon, but there is no doubt that the greatest effects will take time to materialise. Yes, we need a shared analysis, to the extent that we can get one. I also agree that this is a question of tackling causes, not symptoms; we need to have that as a shared principle. It is inevitable that some of the views on the mechanics of addressing the causes will differ between the parties; that is a tolerable position for the country to be in. It would not be tolerable if there were no agreement on the need to tackle the causes, or on the centrality of the issue, because that would result in the matter simply flip-flopping and our never achieving the consistency required to make real changes over a long period. So, broadly, I agree with the hon. Gentleman.

Finally, if we are to help people to help themselves, and put our faith in that process instead of in things from outside that are intended to make people’s health and relationships better—to avoid a top-down approach and instead help people, families and neighbourhoods to help themselves—we must place an entirely different amount of emphasis on community groups, social enterprises and voluntary bodies than we have to date. I hope that the political classes—us, councillors in council chambers and so on—will consider this report and its deep implications, but as the debate continues throughout the country I also hope that it will be recognised that one of the most important things it says—

Mr. Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Letwin: I am terribly sorry, but I will not; I am going to try to finish my speech.

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One of the most important things said in the report is that the state in Britain is paying nothing like enough attention to the ability of civil society to help people to help themselves out of the traps of multiple deprivation. I strongly believe that there is a parallel with the argument we all had in the 1970s and 1980s about whether the route to prosperity was through planned economies or free markets. That debate has passed. We all agree that the regulated free market is the engine of prosperity, and thank God for that. It is a huge advance for humanity and for this country. We have to get to a similar position in this case, where we recognise that we are talking about the liberation of energies far beyond those that currently exist, however brilliant a group of Ministers and civil servants there is in Whitehall. If we achieved that transformation, much else that I, and the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), with his mention of long-term plans, want to achieve could be achieved on a sustainable basis.

My argument is not merely that there is a problem, that we have to address the causes rather than the symptoms, or that in order to address them we have to find ways of helping people to help themselves rather than simply telling them what to do and how to do it—it is that we must release the energies of a vast centre of activity that is underrated in Britain today. It is impeded unnecessarily, unconsciously and unintentionally by the Government, and we can do much more to liberate it and make it effective.

4.52 pm

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Edward Miliband): I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

I start by saying that it is a pleasure to have the chance to speak opposite the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin). We will not always agree in this debate, but I have great respect for him and his ability to think deeply about many issues, which he showed in his speech. It is worth acknowledging that he has pushed his party to focus on such topics, and for that he deserves congratulation. I know that the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), too, has thought about these issues for a number of years, as leader of the Conservative party and since then. We need to think
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seriously about many of the proposals in his report, and we will do so. Any contribution that can be made to tacking the issues we are addressing today is welcome.

I want to try to take a little further the consensus that is breaking out, but to do that we need to do three things. First, we need a shared analysis of the condition of Britain. I fear that the analysis offered by the right hon. Member for West Dorset does not represent a completely true picture, and I shall explain why. Secondly, we need a strategy for the future, and I want to explain briefly the way in which we would like to approach that. Thirdly, we need an honest debate about where and why we disagree. That is especially relevant to the role of the state—I want to consider that—and perhaps to the way in which we support families.

Let me begin with the condition of Britain. Serious social challenges face us, and we should all acknowledge that. However, my problem with the right hon. Gentleman’s speech, and to some extent with the document that was produced yesterday, is the lack of a proper sense of balance about the genuine state of Britain. The report rightly states that the way out of poverty is work. However, worklessness has not increased but decreased in the past 10 years. The number of children who live in workless homes has decreased by 400,000 and the number of people in work has increased by 2.5 million since 1997.

Mr. Laws: Does the Minister acknowledge that the distribution of employment in the past 20 years has become much more unequal? Although the statistics that he cited are accurate, it is also true that more children live in poverty in workless households in this country than almost anywhere else in Europe.

Edward Miliband: The hon. Gentleman makes the comparison with Europe, but the right hon. Member for West Dorset talked about the number of workless households. They have decreased from 18 per cent. in 1997 to 15 per cent. today. Progress has been made.

The report also states that the Conservative vision for society is one in which there is less poverty. I would support that. However, poverty has decreased not increased since 1997. The number of children who live in poor households where income is below 60 per cent. of the median has decreased by 600,000 since 1997.

The right hon. Member for West Dorset repeated a claim that Opposition Members have made for some time, and I want to correct it. He said that we have lifted some people from just below the poverty line to just above it. Let me give him the figures for those who receive below 50 per cent. of median income, because if we had lifted some people from just below 60 per cent. to just above, the figures would not have changed. In fact, the number has decreased from 1.8 million to 1.4 million—a bigger fall than for the number of those receiving below 60 per cent. of median income.

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