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It has also been said that the Government seem to be more concerned with targets and how many people enter treatment than with outcomes and trying to achieve positive results—that they are more concerned about numbers than freeing people from drugs.

There is a concern that we might be addressing drug addicts simply as statistics—that we are thinking only of targets and ticking boxes, and of removing addicts from the criminal justice system. There is a worry that we have a top-down approach that does not enable them to be freed from their enslavement to drugs and to take part in society, and that that does not enable us to deal with them properly as individuals. The Government’s drugs strategy is under review and we might hear more about that later this month. The worry is that that might culminate in the adoption of a paternalistic “we know best” approach that disempowers local people, communities, service providers and commissioners. The best providers are voluntary ones—those offering residential treatments.

Let me sum up by quoting someone called Leanne. She said:

She managed to break out of her cycle of abuse and addiction because those who cared—particularly voluntary and faith-based providers—did not treat her merely as a statistic.

6.31 pm

Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): Although I welcome the Opposition’s late conversion on this important matter, I also have reservations about it. Although the Conservatives will never be in power in the coming decades, if they ever are I hope that they will build on the work done by the Labour Government.

I want to draw attention to the great work being done in my constituency to improve the lot of children and young people from all backgrounds and the danger of any policy that might put that work at risk. Swindon is not a broken society; we face serious challenges, but our society is good, whole and can embrace those who are not currently playing a full part in it.

Extra Government funding for children—for every child—makes a huge difference. Government funding is helping us to realise the dream that every child should get the best start in life and the support that they need to make the most of their talents. Yesterday, there was a community cohesion meeting at the Drove campus in my constituency. The campus includes
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Drove primary school, Drove children’s centre and Drove social hall, and it is a shining example of what can be done with Government funding. I hope that a Minister will visit the Drove centre to see the great work being done by Nick Capstick and his team. Solutions come from the local community, not from national Government. National Government provide the resources and set the framework, but local people must find solutions to their local problems.

Swindon has a good reputation for community cohesion, but there are tensions—as there are in all our towns and cities. Children and young people from the black and minority ethnic community need to know that the authorities will provide them with support, development and safety.

In a briefing paper prepared for yesterday’s meeting, one young person was quoted as saying:

It is true that the council could do a great deal more for young people and adopt a more proactive stance on community cohesion. I hope that the council will look at what Nick is doing at the Drove centre and work with him— in the past it has not shown much interest in doing so.

Because of Government funding, children’s centres such as the Drove centre exist and are starting to have the resources they need to reach out to the whole community. I was a county councillor under the previous Tory Government and I remember that we had to scrimp and save to open 20 new nursery classes across Berkshire in the teeth of Conservative opposition. Although I welcome the Conservatives’ conversion, I have that memory and I use it as a warning to myself that they might say things but not follow through in the future. The steps towards a solution to the tensions in our society should include building on examples such as Drove primary school’s excellent community outreach work and reputation. That includes early intervention in problem families in which there is a cycle of deprivation over several generations. They are the most difficult families to reach.

The children’s centre services include early learning combined with day care, adult education and links with Jobcentre Plus for parents and carers who wish to consider training or employment. None of that would be possible without the Government’s policy framework, and I am disappointed that the Opposition do not seek to build on that in their report.

I have a particular problem with the phrase in the Opposition’s motion about

We should not conflate family breakdown with marriage breakdown: they are not the same. Many families remain strong despite the sad occurrence of marriage breakdowns. Family breakdowns can occur in marriages, and we need to bear that in mind. I do not know whether the Opposition meant family breakdown or marriage breakdown, but I suggest that they need to do a little more serious, in-depth thinking about families and marriage.

I have been happily married, I am glad to say, for 29 years. As my husband subscribes to, I am just giving him notice that it will be our 30th anniversary next year. We have many friends who have been happily married for many years. We also have
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friends whose marriages have broken down, but they have made a tremendous continuing commitment to their children and their extended families. Other friends of ours have not married, but have very strong families. Marriage is important to me, but it is not for me to dictate how other people should lead their lives. It is certainly not for me, as a married person without any children, to take £20 every week. I want that money to go to families with children who need it, whether they were born in or out of wedlock. It is not the children’s fault what their parents decide to do.

Nick Capstick of the Drove campus says that he is grateful for the resources given to him for children’s centres, but that there is a case for improved, targeted and additional funding, above and beyond the usual children’s centre funding, from which hard-to-reach communities could benefit. He asks me to congratulate Ministers and the Government on his behalf for what they have done so far, but calls for even greater vision in developing bespoke solutions for certain communities.

When we make change, we need to do so in a considered and costed way, so that local economies can continue to grow and create opportunities for all of our society.

6.38 pm

Mr. Douglas Carswell (Harwich) (Con): There is a pressing need for us to rethink how we relieve poverty in this country and how we tackle social injustice. At present, 5 million people of working age in Britain are not working. There has been an alarming increase in the number of young people who are not in education, employment or training, and others have spoken about the impact of family breakdown. The most disturbing statistic of all, to me, is the appalling fact that 55 per cent. of families with a disabled child live in poverty.

We are not the first politicians to talk about the need to tackle poverty. My own party, in 1911, introduced measures and Labour implemented the Beveridge report and created the post-war welfare state, but the past half century has seen social security budgets balloon, ad hoc benefits become permanent and measures that were meant to be transformative become permanent.

I suggest that we take a new approach. Rather than having another Government initiative, we should learn the lessons from Bill Clinton’s America. I am not someone who has a natural empathy with Bill Clinton, but his 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act had such a positive impact on the fight against poverty that we need to draw some lessons from it.

What did Bill Clinton’s Government do? What magic wand did he wave? In short, he did less—or rather, he got central Government to do less, so that local state government could do more. He devolved; he de-federalised; he localised responsibility for welfare. It was so successful that the number of families on welfare fell from 5 million to 2 million. Some 1.6 million fewer children were in poverty as a result, and minority groups, particularly African-Americans, benefited from the changes. Bill Clinton’s changes created pluralism and enabled local state innovation.

I have been impressed by many things that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) has said, but I was particularly impressed by his suggestion that we
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should devolve control of welfare to local welfare officers. Is there a need to reassess the assumption in the Beveridge report that the welfare state should necessarily be built on universality? Does that not create centralism? Does universality not preclude flexibility and the need to take into account the different conditions of individual people in this deeply imperfect world? As it is centralised, the current system is all too often devoid of compassion. Applying Mr. Clinton’s logic, could we not localise control over welfare? Could we not give local budgets to local agents and give them discretion? Politicians in this place constantly talk the talk of localism—of giving local government a greater role. Why not do it? Why not pilot some welfare projects that give them responsibility?

Time is short, but I would argue that if we are to be serious about welfare reform, we should look to decentralise control and give local government and local agencies a greater role.

6.41 pm

Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): I begin by congratulating all three Ministers on their new appointments. I know that the two Ministers responsible for today’s debate have a long-standing and genuine interest in the matters under discussion. I am an optimist about our society. For many years now, our society has been getting better for most people. We are generally more prosperous, and people have opportunities they used not to have. Our culture is now such that racism, sexism and homophobia, for example, are increasingly unacceptable, which has meant a material improvement in lives that were previously subject to harassment and misery. In many ways, we are becoming a gentler and better society.

However, that is not true for everyone. Too many people in our society are breaking away from the mainstream and are being left behind. Given that most of us are experiencing improvements in our life chances, we have a particular obligation to take account of those who are struggling and being left behind. I am not going to trade statistics, of which we have heard plenty in today’s debate. The report of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) contains many expert and erudite analyses of the problem.

Even in my own constituency of Tunbridge Wells, which in many ways is a byword for comfort and prosperity, I have had some shocking experiences. One of the most shocking occurred when I was on patrol with the police on a Friday night. It might surprise you to hear, Madam Deputy Speaker, that Friday night in Tunbridge Wells can be as rowdy as Friday night in other places. [Interruption.] I invite the hon. Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron) to experience it; it is quite good fun, as well.

While I was on patrol with the police, they stopped a group of youths to make an arrest for the suspected theft of a bottle of wine from an off-licence. Observing what went on during that interaction was both shocking and instructive. One of the youths—a young man probably aged 17—was very loud and full of Friday-night brash self-confidence, until he was
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presented with the stop-and-search form that suspects questioned by the police now have to fill in. When confronted with that form, his behaviour changed completely. Having been aggressive and self-confident, he became embarrassed, almost furtive in his behaviour.

I thought that something more serious had happened—that he had drugs on his person, and that a relatively trivial incident had become something more major. I drew closer, and discovered that the young man could not deal with a simple form of the sort that we fill in every day of our lives because he could not read or write. He was not proud or complacent about something that was clearly the source of acute embarrassment. He did not want his mates to see that, and so he moved away.

I mention the incident because, if something like that can happen in Tunbridge Wells, I cannot see how a young man who does not know how to read or write after 12 years of education can ever prosper economically, anywhere in the world. Clearly, the education system has let him down, but that is not because of teachers’ personal failure. They say that we must look at the home life of young people, because the problem is deep and has many facets. As a result, reports such as that compiled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green are exactly the right way to proceed.

Therefore, I welcome the tone adopted at least initially by the Minister and his colleagues in responding to the debate. We need to approach this matter seriously and in an attempt to achieve consensus.

I turn now to some of the speeches that have been made. I was a little disappointed by the Minister’s speech. I know that he thinks seriously about these matters, but his remarks were defensive of the Government’s record and his policy suggestions were cautious. He was inclined to niggle at points that had been made constructively.

The Minister should not be so defensive and cautious. Where is the ambition that once characterised the Government’s approach to these matters? The Labour party set up the first Commission on Social Justice, but no one on the Government Benches spoke with the zeal and energy displayed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green. That is unfortunate, because not all the ideas can come from this side of the House. I had hoped for greater energy from Labour Members.

In addition, what is the Government’s action plan? The Minister spoke about the Government’s actions, but we know what they have done. I am holding the Government’s document “Reaching Out—An Action Plan on Social Exclusion”, which was published late last year. I do not wish to be rude, but it bears no comparison to the serious piece of work produced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green—and as my right hon. Friend relied on people donating their time voluntarily, that is a sad reflection on the Government’s level of ambition.

The Minister made great play of the tax allowance proposal, but I fear that he has got himself into some confusion on the matter. No less a personage than the Prime Minister has told us that the Government’s policy is to support marriage through the taxation system. As we learned from the “Today” programme
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this morning, and from the Minister yesterday, their plan is to do that through inheritance tax. If the Government’s policy is to support marriage through taxation, I suggest that to do so through inheritance tax—at the very point when a marriage ends, sadly, through death—is probably not the best targeted intervention.

The Minister needs to think carefully about that, and he did not answer my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green, who asked whether he supported the argument put by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) that the Government should correct the anomaly in the benefits system that imposes on couples a real disincentive to stay together.

The Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), made the important point that international comparisons that show us falling behind are, paradoxically, a cause for great optimism. They show that things can be done so much better, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green has shown that the fact that places such as Sweden and the Netherlands can tackle drugs so much more effectively means that we can do the same here. The title of my right hon. Friend’s report—“Breakthrough Britain”—correctly conveys the optimism that Opposition Members share.

I do not have time to go through all the speeches in the debate, yet I cannot help but comment on the ludicrous contribution from the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman). It is rather sad that he seems to be so lost in the past. The contrast with the intellectual energy and application that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green has brought to the subject could not be greater. I think that we are all sad that the right hon. Gentleman cannot apply his great intellect and experience of Government to the serious problems, instead of rehearsing the battles of the 1997 election. That is a loss to the debate and a loss to the country.

We have had a vigorous debate. We started with consensus, which deteriorated somewhat during contributions such as that from the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton. I end on a note of consensus, however, by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green on a report that will be debated for many years to come. I am certain that it will shape many of the policies of the next Government.

6.50 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Phil Hope): We have had a short but important debate. About 20 Members on both sides of the House spoke and intervened with great passion, offering their experience of the needs of children, young people and families in their constituencies. Members—at least those on the Labour Benches—described the great progress that Labour has made in tackling the Conservative legacy of economic and social failure from the 1980s. They described the tremendous work of voluntary organisations and social enterprises in championing the most vulnerable and meeting their needs.

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