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27 Feb 2008 : Column 297WH—continued

The hon. Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) made some interesting points about the need for all our policies to be child focused. The hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) said that the Government have reversed a long-term trend. I fear that the reality is far from agreeing with that supposition. The Government promised to reduce by a quarter the number of children in poverty by 2005, but have failed to do so; after housing costs, they missed the target by a
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whopping 300,000. Last year, the number of children living in poverty actually rose. Again, using the housing cost figures, it rose by 200,000 to 3.8 million.

If we take the 10 years between 1996 and 2006—the last year for which figures are available—the number of children in poverty has barely shifted, after 10 years of a Government who supposedly made it a priority and pumped an awful lot of money into it. In reality, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Slough, those in the most severe poverty have not been helped at all. In fact things have got worse and that group has actually expanded. However, there has been much tinkering around the margins. Many children in poverty have been lifted to just above the poverty line and in many cases are in danger of falling back below it after a short time. The Government point to some shifts in numbers that do not reflect a significant shift in the fortune of those involved.

It is extraordinary that, under this Government, the number of people living in severe poverty has actually increased by 600,000—from 2.5 million in 1996-97 to 3.1 million in 2004-05—according to a report published last year by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which has been cited already. Social mobility in the UK is lower than in Canada, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland. Although the gap in opportunities between the rich and poor is similar in Britain and the US, in the US it is at least static, while in Britain it is getting wider, according to the London School of Economics. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the number of poor households has grown in the last 15 years and the gap between rich and poor is the biggest it has been for 40 years.

Are the Government backtracking from their target to reduce child poverty by half by 2010? Everyone else seems to think so. The Treasury Committee report on the 2007 comprehensive spending review stated:

Will the Minister reassure us that that is not the case? Will she also tell us why, as the Treasury was forced to admit, the Joint Committee on Child Poverty, which was chaired by the then Chancellor, now the Prime Minister, and was supposed to facilitate liaison between Westminster, the Scottish Executive and the Welsh Executive on the Government’s child poverty strategy, held its last meeting on 18 September 2002? The Government have apparently forgotten what they set out to do and cannot set up even the most essential of meetings.

Why is child poverty so important? A number of Members have touched on many of the issues. More than 2.2 million British children—one in five—now live in households dependent on state benefits. In some inner-city areas, almost half the children are growing up in entirely benefit-funded homes, as the hon. Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) mentioned earlier with respect to London. Britain has a higher proportion of its children being brought up in workless households than any other nation in Europe, including countries in eastern Europe. In fact, in the past 10 years the number of people aged 16 to 18 estimated to be not in education, employment or training has increased by more than 50,000 to 206,200. The number of homeless families with dependent children in temporary accommodation in England has increased
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from 54,660 in 2002 to 71,560 in 2006. The instability and inadequacy of bed-and-breakfast accommodation is hardly a way out of poverty.

As we have all said, early intervention is crucial. By the age of three, being in poverty makes a difference equivalent to nine months’ development in school readiness. Children living in poverty lag two years behind their peers by the age of 14 and if they do badly at primary school are less likely to improve at secondary school. Families living in poverty have less than £10 per day to buy everything they need, such as food, heating, toys, electricity and transport. One third of children in the UK are forced by their parents’ poverty to go without at least one of the things that they need, such as three meals a day, essential clothes or adequate heating in the winter, as we have heard. Furthermore, children from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to stay on at school and are 10 per cent. more likely than their peers to leave school with absolutely no qualifications.

As we have seen, poverty has an impact on all aspects of children’s lives, from their educational achievements to their personal and social interactions. For a child born into poverty, it is very difficult to escape from the poverty cycle. In fact the chance of escaping from poverty more or less rapidly differs largely in Britain compared with other countries such as Denmark, where between 70 and 75 per cent. of children in poverty do not experience poverty for longer than two consecutive years. That compares with the UK where a lone parent with two young children can expect to spend an average of 4.2 years in poverty—more than double.

When a child lives in poverty their aspirations and expectations for their later life can be so low that their potential goes unexplored and the cycle of poverty is repeated for generation after generation. As Save the Children commented, the extent of the poverty suffered by children in Denmark is considerably less than in our country—that goes back to the severe poverty definitions. The particular impact on families with disabled children has been mentioned. They are more likely to live in debt, face higher child care costs and are more than twice as likely to have no educational qualifications.

That simply is not good enough after 10 years of hearing constantly about how child poverty is a priority for the Government. Reducing child poverty must be a reality in practice, not just in soundbites and manifestos. It will be a priority for the next Conservative Government. We endorse and share the widely held aspiration that child poverty in Britain should be eliminated by 2020, but are profoundly worried about the lack of progress made by the Government. We will reform our welfare state; we want a US and Australian-style back-to-work initiative with special centres across the country, where people on benefits will have help with job applications, IT skills and interview techniques. We also want to increase the support we give to families who are in work but on low incomes, which involves using the savings generated by our welfare reforms to abolish the couple penalty in the tax credit system—mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean—that leaves many couples better off if they live apart. In doing so, we will be directing an additional £3 billion a year towards many of Britain’s poorest families and helping to reduce family breakdown, which is one of the key
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causes of child poverty. Indeed, children who live with a lone parent have a 48 per cent. chance of living in poverty compared with a 27 per cent. chance for all children. That is not good enough. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies says, that change alone will lift at least 300,000 children out of poverty, and we believe that our radical welfare reform plans will help take the figure towards 500,000.

Furthermore, a report last year by the Frank Buttle Trust found that nearly half the children surveyed who lived in poverty had no grandparents involved in their lives—something not mentioned by Members thus far. Grandparents can make excellent support networks for disadvantaged children, especially after a family split. Why, then, did the Government reject our extended family amendments to the Children and Adoption Act 2006, which would specifically have addressed that problem?

I am keen to hear from the Minister how realistic she thinks her Government’s plans are for reducing child poverty over their remaining years of office. Their plan on child poverty is so far off track as to lack credibility. It was less likely in 2006 that a child of parents in a low income bracket would rise to the top income bracket than it was in 1970. All that despite the fact that the Government have made reducing child poverty one of the main planks of their policy statements. Have all their targets and warm words been merely a gimmick, or is the truth that their approach to child poverty has failed to deliver the significant results that we were promised?

All the evidence suggests that child poverty is at the start of a cycle from which it is difficult to escape. It is a false economy not to tackle it now as a priority, with policies that work at the sharp end and impact on the poorest families most of all. It is not just about ticking boxes or shifting imaginary numbers, but about bringing lasting and practical benefits to the most vulnerable people in our communities, who need them most of all.

3.49 pm

The Minister for Children, Young People and Families (Beverley Hughes): I am delighted to see you in the Chair for this important debate, Mr. Bercow. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) on securing the debate. With her usual effectiveness, she has secured it at an important time—just before the Budget. She has been a passionate campaigner for the ending of child poverty, as have my other hon. Friends who are present in the Chamber. Many Members have made important contributions to the debate.

There is consensus, at least in this room, about the debilitating effects of poverty, about how early those effects start and how quickly they can become entrenched and affect many dimensions of a child’s development and well-being. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Slough and other hon. Members that my colleagues in the Government and I need no convincing of the need not just to tackle child poverty, but to work vigorously to end it. That is what we are determined to do.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) and to the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) for reminding us about the context for the debate. In the two decades preceding 1997, we had
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become the worst country in the European Union for child poverty, which more than doubled between 1979 and 1997. By 1997, 3.4 million children were living in poverty and one in five families had no one in work.

I am sorry to have to tell the Conservative Members present that that eventuality was not an accident, but a direct result of the policies of the Conservative Government during that period. Although I accept that we want to go further and faster, we are the first ever Government who have had the ambition to reduce and eradicate child poverty. We reaffirmed that ambition recently in the child poverty public services agreement that was reached during the latest comprehensive spending review.

I want to correct some of the claims that were made in an article on the issue in The Sunday Telegraph this week by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling). He wrote that one in five poor children is still in a workless household. That was the case in 1997, but there has been a reduction of 400,000 in the number of children in workless households. There is confusion about workless households and people claiming out-of-work benefits. The hon. Gentleman also said that 3 million people were living in poverty in 1996-97.

Mr. Harper: On that point—

Beverley Hughes: I shall finish the point, if I may. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell said that 3 million children were living in poverty in 1996-97— 10 years ago. However, the figure was as I have just said—almost 3.5 million children—so that claim is not true either. The figure has now fallen by 600,000. Absolute poverty has reduced by more than half and we expect a further 300,000 children to come out of poverty as a result of the measures in the last Budget.

I understand completely that the Conservative party has a real credibility gap in its record on child poverty and in its current policies. Policies over the 18 years of Conservative Government caused the huge rise—

Mr. Harper: Will the Minister give way?

Beverley Hughes: No, I shall finish this point. The Conservatives’ policies caused the huge rise during that period. On current policy, it is clear that we cannot trust what the Conservatives are saying because they are committed to using at least half the proceeds of growth for tax cuts, so I am not clear how they can possibly afford even—

Mr. Harper: rose—

Beverley Hughes: I shall finish the point. It is not clear how the Conservatives can possibly afford even the £1 billion that it would cost to improve the couple premium to which they claim to be committed. I give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Harper: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, as she has made some very direct points, which I shall deal with briefly. The UK now has a higher proportion of children in workless households. We did not say that—the Joseph Rowntree Foundation did. My hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell made it clear that the last set of figures for child poverty were for 2005-06 and they showed an increase.
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Ten years before, there were 3 million children in poverty, so there was a fall of just 200,000 in that period.

Beverley Hughes: That intervention shows how the Conservative party is prepared to play around with figures. The number of children in poverty when the Conservatives lost office—

Mr. Harper: Year zero.

Beverley Hughes: Yes. The number was 3.4 million. That was the high point for the number of children in poverty. If the hon. Gentleman is trying to play around with figures and say that a little before that there were only 3 million children in poverty, he is simply pointing out that in the last year of Conservative Government the figure rose by almost half a million children as the cumulative effect of their policies. He has, therefore, not made his point very effectively.

I will look at some of the more constructive points that Members have made. Many Members suggested refining how the welfare state looks after the poorest families and that is right. We need to uphold people’s right to a decent standard of living, particularly if they are in work. There must be an active responsibility for people to take steps to find work and to safeguard their children’s futures.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) is right to say that we can see clearly from our current work that although being in work is not a guarantee against children being in poverty, it significantly reduces that risk. Work is an important component and we believe that it is the best route out of poverty. However, we must also recognise that some families face additional barriers to work. Some Members rightly said that disability plays a big role in that regard. We must ensure that we can support such families. Achieving a balance between supporting the vulnerable and encouraging the able to return to work is the key, and it underpins our strategy.

We must ensure that measures to end child poverty are sustainable and effective over the long term. It would be a hollow victory if we were to lift children just over the poverty line, only for them to slip back into poverty a generation later. That is why the strategy that we have been pursuing has four important strands, which Members have identified. First, there should be work for those who can do it and we must make work pay. Secondly, there must be direct financial support for those in the most need. Thirdly, there must be a real improvement in public services, particularly for the earliest years and for families, but which goes right the way through the age range for children to ensure that we address issues such as poor educational attainment and general health and well-being, which can be consequences of poverty. We must do all those things at the same time. Fourthly, there must be direct support to help parents to look after their families.

Four recent developments are helping to galvanise our efforts. The creation of the Department for Children, Schools and Families, with its joint responsibilities, is extremely important. As I mentioned, there was a new public service agreement in October, which set a series of tough targets that are laying the foundations for breaking the poverty cycle. Through that PSA, there is
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real collaboration at the heart of Government between the Treasury, the Department for Work and Pensions and my Department, which includes focused work on how we can narrow the gap between the poorest children and the rest.

Last but not least, there is the children’s plan, which my hon. Friend the Member for Slough mentioned. It is taking the focus on a holistic view of children’s well-being a stage further. My hon. Friend referred to play and I agree about its importance. I commend what she has done in trying to get her local authority to take that issue seriously. I am glad that it will be bidding to be a pathfinder.

My hon. Friend mentioned the £4 billion question. That has now been recalculated as £3.4 million through various stages to help us reach the 2010 target. The Government are actively examining the options and doing a lot of analytical work to understand the various groupings of families with different characteristics and problems.

It is evident that there is no single mechanism that can help all families. We have to respond to the different circumstances of different groups, whether they are in or out of work, whether there is disability or whether there are other barriers to work. We are making a careful analysis and looking at a wide range of options. My hon. Friend mentioned seasonal grants and they may be an option, but we have to look at whether they are sustainable and at how well targeted they will be.

My hon. Friend talked about a severe poverty measure. There was some misunderstanding. The poorest children have been helped the most. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham pointed out that they will be £4,000 a year better off by April 2009 and that their weekly income has risen faster than anybody else’s. We need to keep the focus on the poorest children.

Finally, the fight to end child poverty does not end in Westminster and Whitehall. It involves local authorities. We need concerted action across local government, the third sector and business, but I hope that over the coming months Members will not just have to take my assurances of today, but will see real commitment put into practice.

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Air Ambulances

4 pm

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): We meet again, Mr. Bercow, under the fortunate circumstances of having a debate that can make a contribution to discussing a serious problem in the national health service.

On average, an air ambulance takes off every 10 minutes in this country, and air ambulances fly 365 days a year. To put it another way, there are seven air ambulances attending accidents and medical traumas every hour of every day. Medical trauma is defined simply as a physical injury that may result in permanent disability or death. There is a long history in war zones of helicopters taking troops to hospitals as quickly as possible, and there is the famous Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia, which was the first national air ambulance programme and involved a pilot, a nurse and a doctor. The idea is not new; it has been around and is well tried, and it has been pretty effective and can be even more so.

Of course, helicopters are generally more manoeuvrable and flexible than they were and can land practically anywhere, including on many occasions in places that land ambulances cannot get to. They are used in all kinds of air rescue work. Emergency medical service helicopter programmes are established in the United States and in countries in western Europe such as Italy and Austria. Germany has a successful helicopter-based emergency service, the benefits of which have been well documented. A network of helicopters has evolved in the past 20 years and covers the whole of Germany, and the statistics show a dramatic improvement in patient outcomes, particularly in cases of trauma. I shall speak about that later.

The first civil helicopter-based EMS in Britain was opened in Cornwall in 1987, and one can see why: the beaches, inaccessible cliff tops, acres of moorland and farmland and roads that are congested, particularly in the summer, make the work of land vehicles more difficult and time-consuming. The distance to the major hospitals from many parts of Cornwall means that the air ambulance has become a vital, life-saving mode of transport.

The idea was picked up by our national medical institutions, and in 1988 a report by the Royal College of Surgeons recommended setting up a network of trauma centres geared specifically to dealing with the types of injury sustained in major accidents, to which patients would be flown directly by a national fleet of EMS helicopters. That recommendation has not come to fruition, but many counties and authorities have set up their own air ambulance programmes. After Cornwall came Kent, Scotland, the west midlands, London, Devon and many more. Nearly all the schemes are funded by charitable donations from the public, and whopping big donations they are, too.

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