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The £34 million was never allocated exclusively for local authorities, important though many of their services are. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland
the money is being spent by local authorities, but also by the NHS and other agencies. How could it be otherwise, in view of what we were told in the review? To say that the money has been given to the local authorities, with no accountability whatever, is entirely inconsistent with the recommendations that we made. [Interruption.]
I shall deal, if hon. Gentlemen allow me, with the response that has come from the First Minister. Following the debate in Westminster HallScottish National party Members would have been welcome to come and participate, but they did notI wrote to the First Minister. I wrote in the knowledge that Mr. Ingram, the Minister for Children and Early Years in the Scottish Executive, had written to my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown).
Mr. Clarke: I have to say that, frankly, that is the conclusion that the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families has reached and expressed in the House. [Interruption.] Instead of heckling when they have not done their homework, Scottish National party Members should realise how much damage the issue is doing to their colleagues in Holyrood and to the whole process of devolution.
I want to be fair, as I hope I always am. I thought that something was going awry with the whole issue and knew that the money was not allocated exclusively for local government, but I accepted the argument on ring-fencing. The report that came out under my chairmanship said that if ring-fencing was not acceptable, we would welcome a mechanism for identifying where the money had gone. That is all that we asked for.
Obviously I have given this matter a great deal of thought on the basis of my having said on a number of occasions that I have no wish to see such an important issue becoming a game of political football.
I am writing because I am moving towards the conclusionencouraged by Mr. Ingrams letter
that there is a substantial misunderstanding relating to the Treasurys intentions as to the impact on disabled children and their families in Scotland.
Our Concordat with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities...includes a commitment to make progress towards delivering an extra 10,000 respite weeks per year. This is for all care groups, including disabled children.
Scottish National party Members want poverty to be challenged, especially for children in Scotland. Do they
really believe that I was such a threat to the First Minister that we could not have had a meeting? The right hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) talks about money going to local authorities, but we do not know how it will be spent; it could be used for repairing roads. I would have asked him where the answer was to our recommendations about the health service, including about children who suffer from brain damage.
Pete Wishart: I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on the tenacious way in which he has gone about dealing with this issue. I do not want to accuse him of scaremongering and giving the wrong impression.
We all accept that the money has not been lost, but passed on to local authorities. Why does the right hon. Gentleman not trust the local authorities to make the right decisions on such vital issues on behalf of their communities? We trust our councillors. Does he not trust his?
Mr. Clarke: I do trust local authorities. As a former provost and former president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, I have every reason to do so. I urge Scottish National party Members to read our report; they clearly have not. It acknowledges that local authorities offered excellent examples of best practice. However, in summary, that money was never meant to go exclusively to local authorities. Why are we not being told about the non-provision of extra funding to the health service? I had representations from Scottish organisations that deal with specific disability needs. There are children who need wheelchairs, provided by the NHS, that are adapted for their purposes. Why are they able to feel that more money is being devoted to such things in every part of the United Kingdom other than Scotland?
Michael Connarty: On the link between poverty and wheelchair use, the chairman of one of the wheelchair users campaign groups lives in my constituency, and he has a daughter with muscular dystrophy. He wrote to me recently to say that he is deeply concerned that resources are inadequate, because families who need specialist wheelchairs have to find extra money from their own limited budget. I can pass that letter on to my right hon. Friend; it shows that what he is saying is perfectly accurate. Money was intended for such users and it is not going to the health service.
Yes, undoubtedly. Our report said that they happen throughout the United Kingdom, which is why we argued that there had to be additional funding and resources, and in the absence of ring-fencing, there
should be accountability about where the money is going. That is happening in places other than Scotland. That is my argument.
I urge hon. Members opposite to think again; I do not think that the First Minister would lose out if he had a meeting with me in which we discussed our report and what we hope to achieve. One of the reasons why we have to argue to ensure that the money is spent where it is meant to be spentlocal government, the health service and other agenciesis that more funding is being made available. On 28 April, the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), announced an additional 5.5 per cent. increase in funding for care trusts, which will be spent on disabled childrenpalliative care, community equipment, short breaks and wheelchair services for those children.
People everywhere except Scotland realise that the report we produced was sufficient to persuade the Government to give extra funding and to ensure that it went to disabled children and their familiesthat remains a priority. We find it absolutely unacceptable if people fail to consider the arguments, not just the views of Members of Parliament, while knowing that money is not going where it was meant to goonly to local councils, with no accountability. I urge them not to do that. The challenge of poverty among children will remain, and on these Benches, we shall fight and fight again until we remove it.
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): It is genuinely a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke), who made a reasoned and knowledgeable contribution. It is fair to say that as long as the right hon. Gentleman remains in this House, people with disabilities will always have a champion.
On the right hon. Gentlemans latter point, I make only one observation. Ultimately, the issue will be resolved when disabled people see the services with which they are provided in Scotland. However, there is a larger point at issue, which is a classic illustration of the need to revisit the funding formula for the Scottish Parliament and of the need to give the Scottish Parliament greater control over the raising of its own budget. The Government in Westminster control finances and have a deliberate and entirely laudable aim, with a ring-fenced policy, but there is no guarantee of how money will be spent when it goes to Scotland. That is why we need to examine the wider issue, and the right hon. Gentleman has done us a service by giving a good example of the work that needs to be done by the Calman commission.
I am delighted once again to be a member of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs. I was a member in the first Parliament in which I served and I have just rejoined. I was not a member when the Committee took evidence for the report but I joined it just before the reports publication and I could hardly have improved on its terms. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar), who is an excellent Committee Chairman, on focusing the Committees work in this Parliament on poverty in Scotland. It is an exemplar of how such a Committee can be made to work post-devolution and I commend him for his efforts.
The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) cited a couple of statistics on child poverty in Scotland that especially struck me: 250,000 children live in poverty and 100,000 children are in fuel poverty. I do not make a partisan point. Anyone who is a citizen of one of the worlds richest nations should find that a source of profound shame and embarrassment. That is why the work of the Committee, the Government in Westminster, the Government in Edinburgh, local authorities, non-governmental organisations and private business is crucial in tackling that scourge.
I congratulate the Government on their progress since 1997. They have put a focus that previously did not exist on reducing child poverty, and there has been some benefit. Like many who gave evidence to the Committee, I am concerned that progress has stalled. If we approach the subject on a less partisan basis, acknowledging that stalling becomes less difficult.
The danger is that we are left with the very poorestwhat might, if one were pessimistic, be perceived as an irreducible core. That is why partnership working, focusing on so many different levels, is supremely important. Let me pick up on a few matters for which special effort is needed.
The hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson), who is not in his place, identified education. He is right that education knows no equal as a driver for social mobility. As the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) said, work and training constitute other opportunities for getting out of poverty. As my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) said, transport is also important. Transport opens up, especially for young people and those in rural communities, a range of opportunities for education, social inclusion and developing talents, which would otherwise be denied them.
I hope that, by the time the Minister responds, he will have had an opportunity to get a reply to the question that I asked the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire). What assessment has the Department for Work and Pensions made of the impact of the remarkable recent increases in the price of basic foodstuffs and fuel? Many people in rural communities rely on a private car for transport and need fuel for that as well as for heating their homes.
We believe that rural poverty presents its own challenges, which will not be solved by an approach tailored to the small pockets of deprivation characteristic of urban poverty. It is vital that the Governments anti-poverty policies are subject to rural-proofing. Witnesses have suggested that the establishment of a Commission for Rural Scotland might be a way to give rural communities a stronger, unified voice and we hope that the Government and the Scottish Executive will consider this proposal. Greater investment in outreach is needed to ensure that geographically dispersed communities have equal access to services.
That is a cause close to my heart and that of my constituents. In many ways, poverty in urban areas is much easier to identify. One can sometimes identify urban areas that have a problem with low income and social deprivation just by walking around the streets. Rural areas often do not have the same critical mass of population and poverty is not so obvious. One might see a bonnie wee cottage with a well-kept front garden,
but behind the front door one is still as likely to find two or even three generations living in a house that was built for one family. That is a graphic illustration of the lack of affordable social housing that blights Scotland.
Let me say a few words about tax credits. There is a rural perspective to tax credits, too. The Government place a great deal of reliance on tax credits, but I am sure that every hon. Member has encountered the same problem as I have: the hardship suffered by those who can least afford it that is caused by tax credits being overpaid and the overpayments being reclaimed. Tax credits seem to work best for people who work for a defined 36 or 40 hour week, with little overtime or fluctuations in their family circumstances. As soon as the family unit breaks up because of a separation or somebody gets a lot of overtime and their income increases, problems arise. However, a lot of people in areas such as the one that I represent are self-employed. Their incomes fluctuate throughout the year; indeed, their incomes for the previous financial year are often not known until the next financial year. Tax credits can hardly cope with that, which causes financial hardship for those least able to deal with it.
There is another phenomenon experienced in my constituency, whereby a number of people have two or three part-time jobs to make up one equivalent full-time job or are in seasonal employment, making a lot of money in the summer months but not so much in the rest of the year. They need the help given by the tax credits system, but it does not seem to be able to cope with their situation. The Minister pulls a faceperhaps he does not agreebut that is my experience as a constituency Member of Parliament. We have a higher number of people in self-employment and one of the lowest wage economies in Scotland, but we also have a low level of unemployment. I fully accept that those cases are not easy to deal with. However, because of the highly bureaucratic nature of the tax credits system and the inefficient way in which it has been administered, those people are being hurt most.
Mr. MacNeil: If I could jump to the Ministers aid, I know that her son is a share fisherman in Barra. As you will be aware, share fishermen face particular difficulties with tax credits, because of the seasonal nature of their work and changing catches. Fishermen frequently come to me with the difficulties that the hon. Gentleman is describing.
The Government ought to be focusing on two opportunities: the equalisation of child benefit, which has been referred to, and the introduction of seasonal grants, which, Save the Children UK predicts, would lift an extra 440,000 children out of poverty and would go a long way to ensuring that that irreducible core, as some might see it, can be tackled.
Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): Given the time constraints, I shall simply refer to some of the points that I was going to make, which have been covered by many speakers already. I was going to discuss in detail the Governments successes in alleviating child poverty. The increase in child benefit has been mentioned, as have the introduction of tax credits and the fact that they have gone up ahead of inflation. We have also heard that we have got more lone parentsindeed, more parentsinto work. Those measures are all important for the reduction of child poverty. For most people, work will be the main route out of poverty. If we do not get people of working age into work, the poverty that they and their children experience will continue for generations.
I have been slightly disappointed by some of the comments made by SNP Members. A simplistic view has been taken of the consequences of child poverty and the measures that are needed to alleviate it. Child poverty is not just about benefits, although they are important. The issue is much more complex than that. My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) amply illustrated the interrelationships and complexities that can often gather in a familys life to make the poverty that they experience long and enduring.
No single policy, whether from Westminster, Holyrood or local government, will alleviate child poverty. It will be a combination of such policies, working together, that will lift people out of poverty. So far, the Government have been very effective in lifting children out of poverty, although we know that those efforts will have to go further. As has been mentioned already, Scotland has done better than the UK, proportionately, in lifting people out of poverty. The figure for the UK is 600,000, whereas for Scotland it is 90,000, which is far better, proportionately, in relation to Scotlands population.
If the Governments success is illustrated by any one thing, it is the fact that all political parties now say that they want to end not only child poverty but poverty. Things were not always that way. Poverty was not on the political agenda until the Labour Government put it there. Perhaps it is a mark of their success in engaging with the general population that poverty is now seen as something that needs to be tackled and as a measure of the Governments success. It is easy to say that we should end poverty and child poverty, but saying it does not wish it away. Warm words are easy to say, and we have heard warm words this afternoon, but whether a political party is able to back up its words will be illustrated by its actionsby their actions shall we know them.
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