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I can remember standing outside jobcentres in the ’80s, gathering information on jobs advertised at 80p an hour, in the fight against low pay. In 1997, my predecessor Phil Gallie said that it was okay for someone to be paid £1.50 an hour if that is what the market
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dictates. That is why it was no imposition for me—unlike some other hon. Members—to stay up all night to see the national minimum wage passed through the House. But I also say to the Government that that is why there is unfinished business such as the Temporary and Agency Workers (Equal Treatment) Bill, which practically all Labour Back Benchers were here on a Friday to support. We all look forward to its being passed, because it is part of the jigsaw—it is about not just fairness but tackling child poverty. As the Committee says in its report, where work is of poor quality, low- paid, short-term or seasonal, in-work poverty is a real prospect.

I remember when, as a young mother, a pre-school nursery place in Scotland could not be got for love or money. There was not one recognition from the then Government that child care or nursery provision had anything to do with them. The Tory Government thought that it was all down to the family—of course, they could all afford nannies. It is a proud achievement that pre-school education is now a statutory obligation; it is just as well, because otherwise it would be likely to be cut, as happened in the past.

I was disappointed to read the comments yesterday of my Labour colleague, Scottish MSP Rhona Brankin, that the Scottish Government look set to water down a commitment to the provision of more nursery teachers. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) has said, the money for nursery places for vulnerable two-year-olds will not now be found.

We all know that poverty is also gender-specific. While we support lone parents back into work, we should also remember that women and men are still paid on an unequal basis. It has been shown that equal pay will not happen on a voluntary basis, and we now need statutory equal pay audits. Equal pay would go a long way towards helping with child poverty.

As the Committee said, there is more to do, and its report outlines several recommendations that are well worthy of consideration if the target to halve child poverty by 2010 is to be met. I agree with its finding that we should consider the equalisation of child benefit for all children and families, as suggested by the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid), especially given the impact that that would have in lifting a further 30,000 children out of poverty. However, that prompts the eternal question of targeted benefits versus universal benefits. As we are all aware, everybody gets child benefit but it does not necessarily target resources in the best way. Contrary to what I have heard in this House several times recently, take-up of tax credits for families with children is higher than under any previous system of income-related support for in-work families, with take-up among those with incomes of less than £10,000 now at 97 per cent. in the UK, according to the Government’s figures. It may be that increasing tax credits would be the best way to tackle poverty by releasing resources to those who need them most.

Last week, the church and society council of the Church of Scotland met us in the House. The council has made proposals on tackling debt, focusing on the need to find alternatives to the high-interest doorstep lenders who often target families with young children. It calls for an effective, flexible alternative through the
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social fund and supports the Committee’s recommendation of empowering courts to fix a reasonable cap on interest rates, as in many other European countries. I know of other areas where such help has been extended through the voluntary sector by a crisis loan facility for priority debts paid through the local credit union. That has proved to be a very effective mechanism, and I would like the Government to give consideration to how it can be promoted.

We need to heed the Save the Children report, which shows that the poorest families pay £1,000 per year more for services because they do not have access to low-cost credit, fair banking or direct debit; and we are only too well aware of the extra costs of prepayment meters for fuel. I welcome the fact that Ofgem is considering that, and we all hope that this unfairness will be ended. We also need the restoration and expansion of free-to-use ATMs, not just the offers made in recent times by the very banks who removed them in the first place.

We must take seriously evidence from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that the present system of uprating tax credits, benefits and allowances lags behind average incomes every year. That is reinforced by the Child Poverty Action Group’s view that the minimum wage, in-work tax credit and benefit support must be raised so that no child in a working family is left in poverty. Most of the charities have endorsed the Committee’s view that the tax and benefits system must, at a minimum, ensure that no one in full-time work is living in poverty. Almost half the children in poverty are in families in paid work. I welcome the pilots that will start in the autumn of the better off in work credit to ensure that everyone who has been claiming benefits for at least six months sees a gain from working of at least £25 per week. That is a modest measure, but it is a recognition that work, as the best route out of poverty, will be of benefit only if it is worth while working in the first place.

The Government have laid the foundation for the eradication of child poverty, and the direction of travel is now well established. However, I would like to raise with the Minister a couple of issues that have arisen in my constituency and are pertinent to the debate as well as to those living on a fixed income throughout the country.

First, I am grateful to Dr. Calum McCabe, one of our local GPs, who has brought to my attention a problem experienced by some of his patients in accessing benefits by phone. As we all know, many people on fixed incomes do not have landlines and instead use pay-as-you-go mobile phones. They may be more expensive in the long term but, like prepayment meters, they are used because they mean that people on fixed incomes do not run up bills. Many Government-run helplines—such as the ones for tax credits, benefits inquiries and the social fund—use numbers with the 0845 prefix that are assumed to be free or local-rate numbers. However, mobile network operators connect customers to the services at premium rates, with the result that low-income users who have no access to a landline incur disproportionate costs in accessing taxpayer-funded services.

I draw the Minister’s attention to early-day motion 1285, which has been signed by 65 hon. Members of all parties. It calls on the Government to bring in
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legislation so that the numbers are genuinely free to all users. It also asks the Government to look into providing free of charge at the point of use all essential Government-run helplines for which no alternative face-to-face service is provided.

Secondly, I want to refer to a constituent who lost her partner of 24 years in a tragic accident. They had two children, who are now aged seven and two. Although they were not married, they had been together since schooldays and their relationship outlasted many marriages. She sought financial help from the Government through the bereavement payment and the widow’s parent’s allowance. In a very blunt telephone call, she was informed that she had a very slim chance of success, as 99.6 per cent. of claims fail. She was told that, if she wished to proceed with the claim, she would be interviewed by two assessors. She would also have to furnish them with cards that showed that she and her partner had been related as husband and wife. Finally, three witnesses would be questioned about their belief that the couple were married.

It beggars belief that anyone should be subjected to such an insensitive, intrusive and discriminatory process at such a vulnerable time in her life.

Mr. Carmichael: A constituent of mine has been in exactly the same position and has experienced exactly the same treatment. The test that is applied was used in the past to establish whether a marriage under Scottish common law—that is, marriage

It is nonsensical to use that as a test for a benefit. Will the hon. Lady join me in encouraging the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), to take an urgent look at that test? It is out of date, and it causes severe anguish and embarrassment to many constituents.

Sandra Osborne: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I was going to say that I am aware that only people in Scotland can apply for those benefits, thanks to the provisions of Scottish law. People in England cannot do so.

My constituent feels that a mockery has been made of her family, even though she and her partner worked all their lives and had no recourse to public funds. It is all very well to talk about marriage, but we all know that many couples live together. There are many different family forms in society today, and this debate is about addressing child poverty; it is not about making moral judgments about whether people are married or not. The problem that I have described has lasted a long time, and I do not expect the Minister to solve it today, although I hope that it can be addressed urgently. However, I shall seek the support of colleagues on all sides of the House to try to get the system changed.

The problem faced by my constituent illustrates how poverty affects people in different ways. It can happen to anyone at any time. People struck by poverty are treated differently, and their children suddenly become vulnerable. Their right to live as they choose can be undermined or taken away. That may seem a small matter in the grand scheme, but life is not all about money—it is also about dignity and respect. Those two qualities deserve more attention from the Government,
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as in different ways the lack of either can make vulnerable people poorer, whether they are adults or children.

Generally speaking, however, I believe that the Government have laid the right foundations for tackling poverty, both in this country and, thanks to the work carried out by the Department for International Development, around the world. Part of our core belief is that poverty is an enemy to be taken on and defeated wherever it can be found. I had intended to elaborate on that point, but as a colleague was pulled up earlier for straying too far from the subject, I shall not do so.

In the past five years, Scotland’s health spending has increased by 50 per cent. under Labour. Waiting times are down from 18 months to 18 weeks, and the number of deaths from heart disease has fallen by 30 per cent. With a new emphasis on prevention and a focus on community services, Scots are just as likely to be kept alive and healthy by the paramedic’s emergency treatment, the primary care worker who identifies high cholesterol, the teacher who gives a child the basics of a healthy diet, or Government legislation such as the smoking ban as they are by the skilled work of a surgeon.

Scotland has seen improved services for all, but with a focus on those who need them most. Underpinning all our policies on health is a clear understanding that good health needs good housing, good health needs good education, good health needs full employment and shared prosperity, and good health needs people to be lifted out of poverty. The good health of our children depends on the progress that we make on all those fronts. Year on year, we have invested in health. In fact, Scotland has been ahead of the United Kingdom in terms of health spend. But now, in the short time during which the Scottish National party has been in charge in Scotland, we are falling behind. The SNP’s increase in health spend is half that of Labour.

An issue that concerns me at present is the impact of the new report on national health service resource allocation in Scotland, which was produced by the NHSScotland resource allocation committee and is now with the Scottish Government. It proposes replacing the Arbuthnott index, which takes deprivation and poverty factors into account when determining resources, with a new formula that will not take unemployment rates into account as an indicator for the additional-needs element, with the result that in my area, Ayrshire and Arran, the NHS stands to lose £5 million in its annual allocation. That was challenged in evidence given to the committee by the Scottish directors of public health, who argued that unemployment rates were a relevant factor in themselves in the assessment of health needs in an area—not just for those who are unemployed, but as an indicator of additional need throughout the geographical area. They have been ignored.

The link between health and poverty cannot be taken for granted. Many of us remember how hard we had to fight for it to be recognised in the first place. We should not accept anything that dilutes that link when we still have a Scotland where twice as many children in poorer areas die in infancy or fall ill as do so in more affluent areas. There is already plenty of evidence that the SNP
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will talk a good game about the priority of health, but ultimately constitutional wrangling will always be their chief end. Good health, better housing and better care services are pawns in their game of picking fights with Westminster. In Scotland, Labour will have to take up again the role that it played in the Thatcher years, and be there for the NHS. We cannot assume that it will be safe in the hands of the SNP.

As many have said today, tackling poverty in Scotland requires a partnership between the United Kingdom Government, the Scottish Government, local authorities and the voluntary sector.

Mr. MacNeil: Does the hon. Lady welcome the fact that accident and emergency units were saved by the SNP Government?

Sandra Osborne: I do, but unfortunately they were saved at the expense of a new cancer care unit and two community health facilities which were supposed to bring health care much closer to the community. I certainly do not welcome that loss incurred by my constituents.

As was acknowledged in the Committee’s report, under a Labour leadership we have been able to make real advances in recent years, but with an SNP-led Scottish Government, that has already been put at risk and is starting to unravel in many places. Making a cut in business rates and giving nothing in return may appeal to the Tories as a sensible flagship policy, but it has not given me the sense of an SNP Government prioritising social justice and committed to eradicating poverty. Twinning that with proposals to freeze the council tax without a proper and serious strategy to ensure ongoing support for groups who rely on local government funding may also seem perfectly sensible to the Scottish Tories, but it puts at risk a very successful partnership between national and local government and the voluntary sector to tackle poverty.

David Mundell: I am interested to hear what the hon. Lady is saying, and some of her points are very relevant. Perhaps she would explain why her colleagues in the Scottish Parliament abstained on the SNP Government’s Budget.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I hope that the hon. Lady will not go down that road. I have not heard too much on the specific subject of child poverty in the past few minutes of her speech. I hope that she will bear in mind the fact that other colleagues are anxious to participate in the debate.

Sandra Osborne: I take your point, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I shall try to be as quick as possible, so that other hon. Members may speak.

Councils in Scotland are already having to make cuts in budgets and services to balance the books, and such problems are worse for councils whose areas have high levels of poverty and population decline. They receive the lowest increase in core grant funding. I am talking about authorities such as East Ayrshire council.

I understand why councils have welcomed aspects of the concordat, for instance the reduction in ring-fencing, for which many of us have argued over the years.
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However, a settlement that cuts finance year on year and is some £400 million less than the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities estimated it required will inevitably mean that councils will have to preserve statutory services at the expense of other priority services that are not statutory—services such as welfare rights and debt advice, and services commissioned from the voluntary sector. Such services together provide vital anti-poverty work that complements the UK’s anti-poverty measures. Many of the most innovative projects are in that field—for example, providing support to credit unions, financial literacy activity and providing families with extra form-filling support.

Parts of my constituency need a major expansion of basic welfare rights and advice services, rather than for those services to be put under threat. For example, South Ayrshire’s welfare rights service have been cut, and what is left is under threat. That is hardly the way to ensure income maximisation.

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): My hon. Friend is listing some of the cuts that are occurring and will affect the most impoverished. Does she realise that just this week I have been contacted by the adult learning partnership in Scotland, which has been told that it is not going to be funded—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman has come into the debate just at this juncture, and he makes an intervention when we are talking about child poverty. I do not think that adult learning is directly connected at this particular point.

Michael Connarty rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I so rule.

Sandra Osborne: In conclusion, may I cite the introduction to “Scotland the Real Divide”, which was published 25 years ago? It states:

That publication was of course edited by the Prime Minister and the late Robin Cook. Our strength in achieving what we have already achieved in tackling child poverty and our confidence in our ability to achieve much more—ideally, our target of eliminating child poverty by 2020—is rooted in our values and our analysis. We do not tackle poverty, be it at home in Scotland, in the UK or on the world stage, as a by-product; we tackle it as a priority.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The average length of Back-Bench speeches is running at 22 minutes. There is a limit on our time, and I believe that seven hon. Members are still seeking to catch my eye. If we go on at that rate, clearly many people will be disappointed. I hope, therefore, that hon. Members will hold to the forefront of their minds the fact that this debate is about child poverty.

3.58 pm

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): I hear your words clearly, Mr. Deputy Speaker: this debate is about child poverty. I hope that my contribution will be brief, succinct and to the point.

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