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We serve on a friendly Committee, under the good chairmanship of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar), to whose work I would like to pay tribute. He does a good job, his approach is very inclusive and he is most kind to all Members, regardless of party or political persuasion. That is important to note.

I would like to say that it is a pleasure to be taking part in this debate—but I would much rather not be taking part in such a debate. Such a debate should no longer be necessary, just as debates about children sweeping chimneys need no longer occur. Those are things of the past, and I wish that child poverty, too, was a thing of the past.

Child poverty in Scotland, or in any European or first-world state, should be a thing of the past. Perhaps if international prestige were measured by the equity of society, or by low levels of child poverty, the nations that currently vie for influence on the world stage might be higher in the UNICEF table covering the well-being of children in rich countries. I refer, of course, to the United States of America and the United Kingdom, which prop up that table, just below some former eastern European bloc states. The Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark lead the table, incidentally.

The conclusions of the report by the Scottish Affairs Committee might be a good place to start. Progress has been made since 1997, and we all recognise and welcome that. Progress continues to be made, although its pace may be slowing. The report states, on page 29, that the 2010 target of lifting 50 per cent. of children out of poverty will be missed, even if the uptake of tax credits improves. We all know about the difficulty of ensuring that targeted benefits hit their target.

The first recommendation of the report shows concern because there is a slowdown in poverty reduction in the UK, but it should be noted that Scotland is doing a little better. However, much of that apparent success may well be attributable to the poorer baseline from which Scotland started. It is still notable that the rate of child poverty in Scotland is still higher than the average for the UK.

It is also clear that the main levers to address child poverty are held by the UK Government. That was emphasised by numerous witnesses to the Committee, who said that the UK Government held all the cards. Among those witnesses was Guy Palmer from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, who said:

That was echoed by Joe Connolly from NCH, who said:

Nevertheless, the Government of Scotland, not content to wait for the adjustments of a lumbering ship of state to deal with the matter, have their own plans to tackle poverty, inequality and deprivation. To be fair to the previous two-party Government in Scotland, they did much the same—or at least tried to. Governments everywhere are united in efforts to reduce child poverty, which is a blight on any society, especially Scottish society. That more than 20 per cent., and perhaps even 25 per cent., of children live in poverty is surely a challenge for us all, regardless of political persuasion and regardless of where we live. This is a problem for nations throughout western Europe.

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Perhaps if we all believed in reincarnation, so that we would have a one in four chance of being caught up in poverty in the next life, we might make more urgent and pressing efforts to address it. I shall leave that for others to ponder—

Mr. Carmichael: It is a bit wide of the report.

Mr. MacNeil: That is true.

The Scottish Government’s aim, as part of their economic strategy, is to raise the proportion of income earned by the bottom 30 per cent. by 2017. That is a radical step and would put Scotland at the forefront of efforts to tackle poverty and inequality.

Jim Sheridan: The hon. Gentleman identifies an aim, not an objective. Having read the report, I did not see any suggestion that an independent Scotland would reduce child poverty. Given that he is a member of the Committee, does he accept that, and if not, why not?

Mr. MacNeil: I am sorry, but I missed the hon. Gentleman’s last point. Perhaps he would repeat it.

Jim Sheridan: I did not see anywhere in the report the suggestion that an independent Scotland would improve child poverty. As a member of the Committee, does the hon. Gentleman accept that, and if not, why not?

Mr. MacNeil: The UNICEF table might provide some help to the hon. Gentleman. Ireland, which has become independent from the United Kingdom, is in the top 10, whereas the United Kingdom is in 21st place out of 21. Perhaps independence would be a useful and successful tool in fighting child poverty.

As I was saying, the aim is to increase the proportion of income earned by the bottom 30 per cent. We could glibly say that one of the most important factors in fighting poverty is wealth. The relationship between the two came up in a book that was given to me by a lecturer in public health at Aberdeen university, “The Health of Nations: Why Inequality is Harmful to Your Health” by Ichiro Kawachi and Bruce P. Kennedy. The book demonstrates what we all instinctively know: generally, the greater the income inequalities in any country, the worse the health expectancy and life expectancy are in that country. Those problems are, of course, results of poverty.

While the Scottish Government are aware of the need to increase GDP per capita to that of other countries similar to Scotland, we are also aware that the creation and sharing of wealth need to go hand in hand. If we are to have a society at peace with itself, with optimal health outcomes and the lowest possible poverty rates, that is a laudable aim.

In my view, we will need powers additional to those that Scotland independently controls. That means that more powers would need to be devolved from Westminster to Holyrood. I am sure that the national conversation and the Calman commission will both be useful to that end. Perhaps a laudable aim for those two bodies might be to identify what new powers would help Scotland to tackle its terrible levels of child poverty, which, we have to remember, are above the UK average, while the UK is bottom of 21 nations in the UNICEF table.

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We need to look, at course, at the devolved levers. I think that the Scottish Government are using those. These are the slow-burn issues: health, education, skills and housing. Many of the witnesses who appeared before the Committee told us that the levers controlled by the Department for Work and Pensions were the most instrumental in tackling levels of child poverty.

Mr. Weir: Before my hon. Friend moves on to the subject of the DWP, does he agree that the decision by the new Scottish Government to start a council house building programme will go a long way to tackling the housing problem that is at the root of such poverty, as there is a severe shortage of affordable housing, especially for rent, in Scotland?

Mr. MacNeil: My hon. Friend is correct. When I taught on the Isle of Mull in the mid-1990s, housing was a particular problem. Children oscillated between various abodes during the year, spending six months in a winter let and then, when the summer season came, moving to a caravan for the summer. I hope that that situation will now come to an end. This subject hits all parties. We can easily throw insults around and say that this lot or that lot are to blame, but such things happen, and we have to do something about them.

Poverty is a big issue. In this speech, I can only throw a few shafts of light on it, when it requires floodlights— [ Interruption. ] Cruelly, the Minister of State, Scotland Office, tells me that I am not even doing that. I strive to do it. Charities, PhDs and professors are working on the subject, but the Scottish Affairs Committee has played its part. It has made at least 20 recommendations, which have been welcomed by many bodies. Barnado’s Scotland estimates that 250,000 children live in poverty and 100,000 live in fuel poverty in Scotland. I shall return to that point. The Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, like many other groups, has provided an excellent brief for MPs that draws attention to some of the 20 recommendations in the Committee’s report.

Recommendation 6 says that

A quarter of children living in poverty have an adult in the family who is in full-time work. The Committee suggested that the minimum wage and tax credits should be raised to address that problem.

That reminds me of the evidence given to the Committee on 16 January 2007, 15 months ago, by Professor John Veit-Wilson of Newcastle university, who talked about the working poor. He said that, unfortunately, the UK leads Europe in the average percentage of people leaving low-quality jobs to go back into other low-quality jobs. The working poor remain the working poor. However, he also pointed out—this may help the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) with his question about independence—that Ireland is at the opposite end of the table. It is in the very fortunate position of having the highest proportion of people moving from low-quality jobs into high-quality jobs. It is important that we recognise the failures in our society and accept
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that there are better ways of dealing with the problem. Ireland clearly has some ability to improve things that Scotland does not have.

The next recommendation in the report is that we should be careful about forcing people into work. Recommendation 10 highlights the fact that the parents pushed into work could be entering low-paid work. They could go from low-paid job to low-paid job to low-paid job. Although work is of course an important route out of poverty, we must ensure that people do not leave socially valuable work. The report points out that much of the work that many people do in the home is not recognised. The work of carers and those who look after children is not fully recognised, and we should be careful about forcing people into work of low economic value.

Recommendation 12 calls for more resources. The Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland welcomes the £1 billion extra from the Chancellor, but it points out that this is only a quarter of what is needed. If we consider that we are fighting £1 billion a year wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan, perhaps we should take another look at our priorities.

Recommendation 15 is important, and offers a step that the Government can manage relatively easily. The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) picked up on this point, too. The equalisation of child benefit would remove the discrimination against larger families and would make sure that the state values all children the same. Child benefit should be £18.80 for all children, not £18.80 for the oldest child and £12.55 for subsequent children.

As I said, I want to touch on fuel poverty and how it impacts on one in 10 children. The memorandum submitted by the Highland council to the Committee in October 2006 marked out the low wages in rural economies and, as the Member representing Na h-Eileanan an Iar, I particularly recognise the higher costs of rural living. The current Scottish Government are trying to help with transport costs on the islands in my constituency through the road equivalent tariff, and a pilot project extended this to Coll and Tiree. However, as Edinburgh gives with one hand, London takes away with the other: the price of diesel was £1.34 a litre only a couple of days ago, and it could be higher now. The proportion of tax paid on fuel is higher in my constituency than in probably any other in the land.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) touched on an important point when he said that the cost of central heating oil was rocketing for his constituents. The position is the same for my constituents, and the percentage of household income spent on fuel oil and other fuels, and the distances that people have to travel, must mean that far more people are being plunged into poverty. As has been said, it is sometimes not worth while for people to take a job if they have to travel 20 or 30 miles in what may well be a poor third-hand car, and face the costs associated with that travel.

Perhaps we could throw party arguments to one side and aim to get child well-being higher on the agenda; our position in the UNICEF table should be a lot higher. Interestingly, in “The Health of Nations”, the authors point out a fact that surprised me. The Swedish Government face the most unequal income distribution pre-tax, but the most equal post-tax. As one of the
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contributors to the Committee’s report pointed out, before the first world war a commentator said that where a thinking rich man might see a problem of poverty, a thinking poor man might see a problem of wealth.

4.14 pm

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): I trust that the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) will forgive me if I do not follow up on exactly the points that he raised, particularly as I have been encouraged to make a shorter speech than most hon. Members have made so far in the debate.

I sincerely congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar), who chairs the Scottish Affairs Committee, on presenting his report, and on his excellent speech. In order to avoid your strictures, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to try to keep within the guidelines of our debate, I will base my speech on paragraph 42 of the Committee’s third report, which says:

It then says, in bold:

I welcome that recommendation, and that is why I want to concentrate exclusively on those views and on the issue of children and disability in Scotland.

The focus on disability is real and necessary. In the Leonard Cheshire report, “Disability Poverty in the UK”, it was confirmed that people who are disabled are twice as likely to live in poverty as those who are not disabled. The extra cost of having a disability can be a huge challenge. Some estimates indicate that disabled families have to pay about 24 to 35 per cent. in addition to their normal spending. Yesterday, when I spoke to representatives of Contact a Family in Edinburgh, they reminded me—my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central made this point—that debt is a much bigger problem for such families, who are four times more likely than other families to owe in excess of £10,000. Only 16 per cent. of mothers of disabled kids are able to work.

Behind all that is the realisation that in Scotland, as elsewhere in the United Kingdom, the population of disabled people, and therefore disabled children, is growing, so even if we are to keep public services at current standards, it is vital to increase resources. That was one of the reasons why I was delighted to be invited by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families to chair a review that dealt exclusively with disabled children and their families, to which all parties contributed, as I have already acknowledged; we acted in an all-party spirit. My colleagues will understand what I mean when I say that what was important was not so much the views of Members of Parliament, but the evidence that people gave in our hearings in the House.

If Parliament is to mean anything, no people in the United Kingdom, whether from Scotland, Wales, England or Northern Ireland, should ignore the views
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of the parents who came to see us—parents who might be dealing with disabled children 24 hours a day, seven days a week—or of the disabled children who came and spoke about the real issues that they have to face daily.

I do not apologise for being passionate about the subject. I have been accused by a list MSP of scaremongering, but I genuinely do not want to make the issue a political football. I think that I am entitled to claim that I have tried to pursue disabled people’s rights for a very long time in this House, and I will not change now. When we had evidence, as we did then, that was overwhelming, extremely moving and touching, about the need for much, much more support than we were giving, we were entitled to listen. When, in the event, we made our recommendations about short breaks, the crucial problem of transition when young people leave the educational system and go—sometimes we know not where—and the need for support to complement what the health service can provide, those issues became very real.

I was therefore delighted when, several months later, the Government issued the document, “Aiming high for disabled children: better support for families” and not only responded to the priorities that we as an all-party group set, based on what we had heard, but announced that they were making an additional allocation of £340 million to deal with most of the suggestions that we made.

I want to be clear. The Government did not accept everything that we wanted. Some of the recommendations —for example, on fuel poverty—have not yet been endorsed, but the vital issue is the £340 million and what happened in Scotland. Because of the Barnett formula, the contribution to Scotland amounted to £34 million. We expected that to be spent on the issues that we identified.

Mr. Weir rose—

Mr. Clarke: I wanted to take on board the point that the hon. Gentleman made earlier, but I am happy to give way.

Mr. Weir: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. I have great respect for him and his work on disabled people. I have personal knowledge of some of that. I will not accuse him of scaremongering, but he and some of his colleagues give the impression that the money has somehow disappeared, when it has not. Against the backdrop of tight financial settlement, the Scottish Government increased council funding by 12.6 per cent. above the spending review figure to more than the £34 million. That money did go to local authorities. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman would agree that local authorities must have the opportunity of spending the money in the best way possible to help disabled families in their areas.

Mr. Clarke: I am genuinely glad that the hon. Gentleman made that point. I tell him in all candour, and I hope humility, that he is absolutely wrong, and I hope to persuade him.

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