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Of course, work must be made to pay, which is why the Government introduced the tax credit system and the national minimum wage in spite of the siren voices on the official Opposition Benches who told us it would cost millions of jobs and in spite of the sleepy heads on the SNP Benches who could not even stay up to vote for it. We know, too, that children living in workless families are much more likely to be poor. [Interruption.] I do not think that the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar would have stayed up all night, but perhaps he should comment on whether his colleagues were capable of staying up to vote on an important issue that meant a lot to many low-paid families in Scotland. Worklessness disadvantages not only parents, but their children, so to secure progress on employment is to secure progress on child poverty.
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A Government can do few better things than help a parent to get a job, which will not only help them, but help provide for their children. In lone parent households, or families in which an adult is disabled, employment support is particularly needed. That is why the new deal programme has been so important and successful, helping thousands of people in Scotland into work.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the best qualities of the Scottish people is that regardless of their poverty problems at home, they still recognise that people in other parts of the world are worse off than they are? Will she therefore join me in recognising the good work of the previous First Minister, and the previous Scottish Executive, in Malawi?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I hope that we will not go wide of the debate on Scotland and include Malawi. We had better concentrate our remarks.

Mrs. McGuire: Obviously, I take your advice, Madam Deputy Speaker, but solidarity in recognising poverty can have a resonance for many people in Scotland. I promise that I will not stray much beyond the terms of today’s Order Paper.

The new deal in Scotland has supported many disabled people into employment. For example, the Department for Work and Pensions manages a number of employment schemes in Scotland aimed at helping disabled people to start and retain work. Those include pathways to work, the new deal for disabled people, work preparation and access to work programmes.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): My hon. Friend is an outstanding Minister for the rights of disabled people. Keeping within the remit of our debate, may I refer to paragraph 42 of the Scottish Affairs Committee’s report, which is specific about the need to focus on disabled people, including disabled children, not least because, sadly, they experience more poverty than most other groups? I know that my hon. Friend will wish to address that matter.

Mrs. McGuire: I understand my right hon. Friend’s point. As a result of his parliamentary hearings into the lives of disabled children and their parents, he and many organisations in Scotland have expressed grave concern that some of the resources allocated at UK level, and Barnetted into Scotland— [Interruption.] Do not worry, it is a new word; it will appear in a dictionary in 10 years’ time. The worry expressed was that those resources will not be as focused on disabled children and their families as my right hon. Friend and his Committee identified during those hearings, and as many of the parents from Scotland who addressed that Committee and spoke to its members had hoped. However, that is a matter for the Scottish Executive under the devolution settlement.

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): Surely the Minister realises that the money is part of the settlement, or concordat, with local authorities. Does she not trust
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local authorities, particularly Labour local authorities, to use the money for the correct purpose? Even the Scottish Affairs Committee recognises the need to end ring-fencing.

Mrs. McGuire: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should listen to my words rather than anticipate them. I said that my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) and many organisations had expressed concern that the money might not be as focused, but that it was a matter for the Scottish Executive—the Scottish Government—to determine. As the party that led the campaign in Scotland for a Scottish Parliament with devolved powers, we have a confidence in the devolved settlement that is not shown by the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir).

Mr. Weir: Is the Minister not missing the point? The money went to local authorities—including Labour local authorities—and they will make the decision at the end of the day.

Mrs. McGuire: The hon. Gentleman is missing the point, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill has made time and again. Notwithstanding the fact that the matter is within the remit of the Scottish Executive and their relationship with local authorities, the concern about that money came out of a UK parliamentary consultation, which included parents from Scotland— [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Hon. Gentlemen know the rules of debate of the Chamber, and should observe them.

Mrs. McGuire: I am not making this up—ordinary people in Scotland, and members of organisations representing disabled people in Scotland, have addressed the issue and are deeply concerned about it. It is a matter for the Scottish Executive to answer. The hon. Member for Angus and his party cannot wash their hands of responsibility in this respect. For them, as my hon. Friend the Minister of State says from a sedentary position, it is always somebody else’s fault.

Let me return to the issue of employment in Scotland. I am clear that there is a connection between employment and the alleviation of poverty. Scotland used to have a lower employment rate, but Scotland now has a higher employment rate—1.8 per cent. higher than the UK average. I am not sure whether representatives of the Scottish National party want to accept that statistic, but it is true. Across the UK, the number of lone parents on benefit has fallen by 19 per cent., yet in Scotland it has fallen by 27.7 per cent. That advantage in Scotland has arisen from the strong partnership within the United Kingdom.

Having a job brings self-respect, financial autonomy, wider social relationships and better health prospects. Those benefits are not only for parents; they feed directly into the lives of children. The DWP will continue to be committed in Scotland to helping parents to find work and to balance work with their caring responsibilities. We recognise that work must help to build a sustainable future for them, their families and communities.

It is one thing to ask a parent to consider work, and quite another to expect them to take up such opportunities
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when barriers are in their way. The DWP must therefore work in partnership with the devolved Administrations to break down those barriers, and we do so. Undoubtedly, one of those barriers is the lack of accessible child care, and significant investment in Scotland and other parts of the UK has helped thousands of parents, especially lone parents, to get back into work. Funding for the then Scottish Executive’s child care strategy rose from £29.75 million in 2004-05 to more than £43 million in 2005-06, to continue to provide affordable, accessible, quality child care places for children from zero to 14 years of age in all neighbourhoods.

Miss Begg: Part of the package of child care is the previous Scottish Executive’s commitment to nursery places for all three and four-year-olds, as well as for two-year-olds in vulnerable groups. In Aberdeen, that provision has been wiped completely off the map by the SNP-Liberal Administration’s budget cuts last month.

Mrs. McGuire: It is perfectly legitimate for those of us who hold part of the partnership in delivering jobs and a better future for parents and their children to ask why that has happened in my hon. Friend’s local authority. If such questions need to be directed to the Scottish Executive—the Scottish Government—then so be it, albeit within the rules of debate and order in this House.

Jim Sheridan: I remind my hon. Friend that the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) is not an isolated case, as the SNP-Lib Dem administration in my own part of the world is also closing nurseries.

Mrs. McGuire: We are in partnership with the devolved Administrations in Scotland and other parts of the United Kingdom to work in the best interests of the people of Scotland and the people of the United Kingdom. [ Interruption. ] If the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar finds that funny, then I am sorry, but I do not agree when I hear stories such as those of my hon. Friends about child care packages in some parts of Scotland being cut. That funding is necessary because it provides affordable, accessible child care places, giving parents in deprived areas access to education, training or employment.

Mr. Carmichael: Much of the support for child care that the Minister’s Department has provided in recent years for people wanting to go back to work has been contingent on the availability of registered child minders. In many communities, such as the small islands that I represent, there are no registered child minders, so people do not have the same access to help from her Department. Will she consider that?

Mrs. McGuire: We are not in total control of the agenda, obviously, but as I will say later in my speech, if I ever get there, we are working with the Scottish Government to examine ways in which we can co-operate to ensure that we meet what is, in fairness, a shared objective on the abolition of child poverty by 2020.

My next comment may help the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart). In successive
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Budgets, we have used the tax and benefits system to work in ways that support the most vulnerable but retain incentives to work. We have targeted our financial resources to ensure that work pays, as well as to help families who, for whatever reason, cannot work. Those tax and benefit initiatives have also been key to alleviating child poverty and directly supporting needy families. I am therefore delighted to be able to advise the House that from April 2010, when the latest changes come into effect, the average Scottish household with children will be £2,000 better off in real terms since 1997—and low-paid families have benefited disproportionately. Scottish households with children in the poorest fifth of the population will be £4,100 better off.

I also ask the House to note that take-up of tax credits for families with children is higher than under any previous system of income-related financial support for in-work families. In 2004-05, take-up of child tax credit in Scotland rose to 82 per cent., with 94 per cent. of the money claimed. Take-up among those with incomes of less than £10,000 is now 97 per cent.

All those reforms have been key to alleviating child poverty. Had the Government done nothing other than merely to uprate the 1997 tax and benefits system, the number of children in poverty might be 1.7 million higher than it is today.

Pete Wishart: Will the Minister give way?

Mrs. McGuire: No.

The result of all these reforms, from employment support to child care to the tax and benefits system, has been significant. We can be proud that, while progress in tackling child poverty has been successful across the UK, greater progress has been made in Scotland, as my hon. Friends and the Select Committee have identified.

However, there is still a long way to go, and we are certainly not complacent about the need to do more to meet our targets for 2010 and 2020. With 2.8 million children still living in poverty in the UK, including 210,000 in Scotland, we cannot afford to relax. There are particular challenges ahead, including reaching more effectively children in large families, with disabled parents, or from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. Poverty still has too great an impact on the life chances of children for us to relax our efforts, and Labour Members have no intention of doing so. Child poverty is neither acceptable nor inevitable. We must therefore remain completely committed to the targets that we have set—targets, not the aspirations that the Conservatives talk about. They have aspirations, or empty words in documents and speeches, while we have targets that we aim to achieve.

Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con) How does the Minister reconcile the fact that poverty rates for working-age adults without dependent children—tomorrow’s parents—have risen to the highest level since records began in 1961 and now stand at 800,000 more than in 1998 with her optimism on her child poverty targets?

Mrs. McGuire: As the hon. Gentleman would recognise if he had listened to what I have said about the work that we are undertaking and to the statements made in the Budget by the Chancellor—not just the
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current Chancellor but the previous one—we know that we still have a long way to go. Let me throw this back at him. Given that he comes from a party that did not even recognise that there was an issue with child poverty and now uses warm words in a document published only a few days ago, which is still light on what it is going to do about tackling the problem, there are more questions for him than there are for us.

In spite of the tight fiscal climate in the 2008 Budget, we demonstrated our ongoing commitment, with £950 million of additional spending to tackle child poverty. The Budget set out the next steps, with measures that will make significant further progress towards the target of halving child poverty by 2010. Those included a further £50 increase to the child element of child tax credit from April 2009, an increase in the first child rate of child benefit to £20 from April 2009, and the introduction of a child benefit disregard for housing benefit and council tax benefit purposes. Those measures alone will lift up to a further 250,000 children out of poverty and towards our final goal of abolishing it altogether.

We recognise, however, that abolishing child poverty can be achieved only by working in partnership. That was recognised in the title of our 2008 Budget document, “Ending child poverty: everybody’s business”, which sets out the next steps that we will take, including new pilots and further areas of work to achieve the 2020 target. One expression of that partnership is the joint child poverty unit, supported by the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Children, Schools and Families. That unit brings together child poverty policy officials and analysts in the two Departments, along with a secondee from Barnardo’s, to provide a co-ordinated and focused approach. The unit will regularly meet its counterparts in the devolved Administrations through the four countries policy forum. The aim of the meetings is to share understanding, data and good practice and to drive forward the UK child poverty strategy. The forum had its first meeting on 22 January 2008. Beyond that partnership, the UK Government are open to further practical suggestions in working with all our Scottish partners, including the Scottish Executive, local authorities, charities and businesses.

As I said, we welcome the second and third reports of the Scottish Affairs Committee, Session 2007-08, on poverty in Scotland and child poverty in Scotland. The Committee identified a number of issues that it believes need to be addressed, and we want to respond by being part of the coalition within and outside Government that will continue to work together to build on the progress already made.

Back in 1999, this Government had the courage and vision to set targets to halve child poverty by 2010 and eradicate it by 2020. Today, almost a decade on, we are as determined as ever to meet those challenging goals. However, Westminster and Whitehall cannot achieve those objectives alone. Ending child poverty requires a sustained national, regional and local effort that involves the devolved Administrations and all agencies, service providers and professionals, including communities and businesses. We set out the beginnings of a contract in “Ending child poverty: everybody’s business”. It was a
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pledge that all parts of society would do their bit to tackle this blight on children, communities and future prosperity.

The Government will work closely with all stakeholders, including through a series of workshops and debates this summer, to develop the UK’s longer-term strategy to eradicate child poverty by 2020. The UK Government want to continue to work with the Scottish Government. That working relationship is vital if we are to make progress on our shared goal to eradicate child poverty in Scotland, but it needs to be based on a mature partnership. We cannot allow this vital issue to become a political football on the constitutional pitch.

We have to increase the pace of change, but the political will is there to do exactly that. That is something that we will see coming through clearly in the months ahead.

Mr. Weir indicated dissent.

Mrs. McGuire: Does the hon. Gentleman want to intervene about the constitutional issue? I thought that he was making a comment about it.

Mr. Weir: I am surprised at what the Minister has said. The Scottish Government are very keen to make progress on child poverty, but I remind her that all the briefings and reports that we got for this debate point out that the benefits system for which this House is responsible plays a huge part in causing child poverty in Scotland. This Government have to take action on putting in the £4 billion needed to tackle child poverty in the UK. That amount needs to be compared with what is being spent on the Olympics.

Mrs. McGuire: There is sometimes political amnesia. I regret offering the hon. Gentleman the opportunity to intervene, but I thought that he was going to say that the Scottish National party MPs in this House would do all that they could to ensure that we have a mature and robust relationship with the Scottish Government. Interestingly, question No. 10 in the consultation document recently sent out by the Scottish Government asks whether there should be extra powers under devolution. What on earth has that got to do with the task in hand? I hope that we do not get bogged down in a political football game on an issue that is too important for that. We have to increase the pace of change and we need the political will to make something happen.

We are committed to building an inclusive, cohesive and prosperous society, with fairness and social justice for all. Ending child poverty will not be an easy task, but it is the right thing to do. It is not just about fulfilling an historic mission; it is about building a future in which every child can grow to fulfil their true potential and where no child grows up blighted by poverty.

Given the Government’s commitment on this matter, and the commitment of people and organisations in Scotland, I believe that we can—and must—end child poverty once and for all.

2.23 pm

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