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What action have we seen from the SNP in the year since it took power in Holyrood and in Aberdeen city council, both of which have been mentioned this afternoon? Holyrood and local government both have a role to play in reducing poverty. We know, from all the reports that have been done, that early intervention is incredibly important to the alleviation of child poverty. We need to reach children at a young enough age and work with their families. In England, in particular—but, not quite so obviously in Scotland, unfortunately—we have seen from Sure Start that early intervention clearly works. That involves making sure that children have nursery places, which is why I am so
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disappointed that the nursery places for vulnerable two-year-olds in Aberdeen have been scrapped under the SNP and Liberals.

It is not just a matter of nursery places, but of good local schooling, so I am sure that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, can imagine my disappointment when only yesterday the SNP and Liberals on Aberdeen city council voted to close Victoria Road primary school which is in the most deprived part of my constituency. That school is a well loved part of the community, and parents and children have mounted a campaign to save it, but it has fallen on the deaf ears of the Scottish National and Liberal councillors who have hard-heartedly said that the school has to close by August. We are trying to tackle child poverty, but that will not help the children in my constituency.

Mr. Weir: The hon. Lady mentions closures, so will she condemn the Unionist coalition on Angus council, of which her party is a member, for its proposals to close schools such as Eassie primary school?

Miss Begg: If I remember correctly, when the SNP was in control in Angus, it was also closing rural schools— [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. We really do not want a battle of this kind going on if we can help it. We do not want to talk more about education than child poverty either, although I understand that the two are related.

Miss Begg: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Much of this afternoon’s discussion has been based on the report of the Scottish Affairs Committee, but I am sure its Chairman will not mind my mentioning that a month later a report was published by the Work and Pensions Committee on which I sit. It was called, “The best start in life? Alleviating deprivation, improving social mobility and eradicating child poverty” and it looked at the issues across the whole of the UK. What came out clearly in our report was the close correlation between poverty and disability. My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) has already mentioned that, and there is indeed such a correlation. People living in households in which there is a disabled adult or disabled child are more likely to be living in poverty than people living in households without disability, so what is done to provide services for adult disabled people will have a direct relationship with the poverty levels experienced by the children of that family.

Once again, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you can imagine how upset I was to discover that £27 million was being cut from the SNP-Lib Dem Aberdeen city council’s budget of 14 February in what is now known in the city as the Valentine’s day massacre. That might have something to do with the disappearance of the money that my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill talked about. Included in those £27 million of cuts were services to disabled adults, so they will have an impact on the children in those families and may well make child poverty in Aberdeen worse.

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Mr. Carmichael: I am not particularly familiar with the situation in Aberdeen, but will the hon. Lady tell me what proposals were in the Labour alternative budget for Aberdeen this year?

Miss Begg: It has turned out to be terribly difficult for us to find out exactly where all the figures came from. Only four weeks after the budget was passed were we able to work out the figures on the various lines in it. Given that the Liberal Democrats—and, indeed, the SNP—did not propose an alternative Budget to the one presently going through the House, it would have been foolhardy indeed if the Labour group on Aberdeen city council had proposed an alternative budget when we could not even find out what the figures were. The figures are so bad that the Accounts Commission is about to hold a public inquiry in Aberdeen in two weeks’ time to find out what has gone so seriously wrong with the council’s finances. [Interruption.] If the Accounts Commission cannot work out exactly what has gone on, it shows that— [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. We cannot have all these sedentary remarks being made across the Chamber, as it really hampers the debate.

Miss Begg: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I suspect that I am getting off the subject as well, so I shall move back to the issue of child poverty.

I was never among those politicians who have said this afternoon that they advocated the removal of ring-fencing. I always thought that ring-fencing was a perfectly legitimate thing for central Government to do when disbursing funds for particular projects or policy areas. I am very disappointed that the SNP Administration in Holyrood have removed ring-fencing, because, as we have seen in Aberdeen, services for the vulnerable and disabled are the first to get cut when there is any kind of budgetary pressure, as there obviously has been.

Mr. MacNeil: The hon. Lady mentions the vulnerable and disabled, but is she confident that all those who were affected by the doubling of the 10p tax rate will be compensated fully?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. That is barely related to the topic in question.

Miss Begg: Indeed, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and those with children will have been compensated by the child tax credit. If only such people were in work and anywhere near paying the tax rate, they would have an income far in excess of their current one.

I want to touch briefly on another aspect of money from Westminster going into a black hole, and ask the Minister to look into the matter. In Aberdeen, individualised budgets and something called “in control” have been proposed for disabled people. Aberdeen is the only local authority in Scotland going down that route, but the programme has begun to be rolled out across local authorities in England, where half a billion pounds has been made available to local authorities for implementation. The Barnett consequential of half a billion pounds is £55 million; I can only assume that that £55 million has gone into the Scottish block grant—we know that lots
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of money has, because the Scottish block grant has more than doubled in size from 1999 to 2008.

That £55 million is not being used for the purposes for which it was allocated in England and Wales. Before SNP Members start jumping up and down, I accept that it is up to the Scottish Executive to decide how to disburse the block grant, but that money is specifically geared to helping disabled people to manage their own budgets and perhaps assist with their social care. As Aberdeen is the only Scottish council that has gone down that route, it is interesting that it has not had access to any of that money; if it had, it might help to fill some of its £25 million gap in funding. Perhaps the Minister can look into that new issue.

Although the Labour Government, working in consort with the Labour Executive in Holyrood, made worthwhile strides in reducing child poverty, what has happened in the past year? On the evidence of my local authority and what the SNP has done in Holyrood, if only the warm words were followed by actions, we would not be where we are. Actions to alleviate child poverty have been lacking, and many of the actions and policies pursued by the SNP have been to the detriment of those living in poverty. My fear is that instead of the child poverty figures continuing to come down, they might go into reverse and go up. I hope not, because we are talking about vulnerable individuals who deserve our help.

4.59 pm

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): As always, it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg), who turns to consistent and familiar themes. SNP Members are going to start dedicating a song to her, “The Fairy Tale of Aberdeen”. It is a pleasure to take part in the debate.

David Cairns: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Pete Wishart: I have only been on my feet for a minute, but yes, of course.

David Cairns: Given that the hon. Gentleman has made about a million interventions, I am surprised that he does not want to take one. He accuses my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) of telling a fairy tale. In that case, why does he think that the local Aberdeen newspaper, which is no friend to my party, plastered all over its front page on the day that his party put through its budget, “Will the last person to leave Aberdeen please put out the lights”? Is the local newspaper perpetuating a fairy tale too?

Pete Wishart: I cannot say that I am grateful for the Minister’s intervention, which is the usual pile of rubbish that we have consistently heard on this issue. We have been here again and again. The fairytale of Aberdeen has several choruses and verses, and he has just added a further verse.

It is good to take part in this debate, and particularly good to be able to discuss the report by the Scottish Affairs Committee, chaired by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar). When I hear all the references to his fine chairmanship of that Committee,
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I sometimes wish that I could experience it, but I guess that my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) is in that position for us just now.

It would be churlish of me not to say that yes, of course, the situation concerning child poverty has improved since the election of a Labour Government in 1997. There is absolutely no doubt about that, and it would be foolish to try to pretend otherwise. However, we should look at what they inherited—the scorched earth policies of the Conservatives. Even Attila the Hun wearing a red rosette would have had to have improved on the situation that new Labour inherited when it took over from the Tories and their disastrous policies on employment and poverty. We are still in a situation that leaves 18 per cent. of our population in relative poverty and 130,000 Scottish children in absolute poverty. Worse than that, Save the Children reckons that some 90,000 Scottish children are still in what is regarded as severe poverty. After 11 years of a Labour Government, that is not good enough. We have to do much more to tackle this, the most pernicious of our social problems.

I remember those days in 1997. I remember all those warm words—the almost missionary zeal with which the Labour party was going to tackle child poverty. We heard fantastic statements from the former First Minister—the late, great Donald Dewar—about what he was going to do. Child poverty was to be halved by 2010 and major targets were to be taken forward to deal with it.

Mr. Wallace rose—

Pete Wishart: I am conscious that other Members want to speak, but I will take an intervention if is it brief.

Mr. Wallace: What is the SNP’s target on reducing poverty now that it is in charge of the Scottish Government?

Pete Wishart: Unfortunately, all that the SNP Government can do is deal with the symptoms of child poverty—the cure lies in the powers and mechanisms that unfortunately rest with this place. If the hon. Gentleman wants to join me in a campaign to have those powers repatriated, I would welcome him as a new recruit.

I remember all the warm words about how new Labour was going to approach this. If I had not known that shower better, I would almost have been carried away by it myself. I was prepared to be dazzled, knocked out and totally impressed by what they were going to do. It has not quite worked out like that, and now we can see that there has been disappointment about what this Government have achieved. The promise to eradicate child poverty within 20 years will not be met, and the goal to halve it by 2012 has more or less been shelved.

Another key commitment from those early days was to reduce the number of children in poverty by at least a quarter by 2004. That target has not been met. I have seen the figures. There was a reduction in child poverty between 1998 and 1999, and again between 2004 and 2005. However, figures released by the Department for Work and Pensions suggest that there was an increase in child poverty in 2004-05 and 2005-06. This year, there will be progress in dealing with child poverty
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because in their Budget the Government committed to putting £1 billion of extra spending into areas such as child benefit and tax credit. I welcome that. However, that figure is completely inadequate to meet the targets and goals. It is reckoned that £3 billion-worth of investment—

Mr. Sarwar rose—

Pete Wishart: Of course I give way to the Chairman of the Select Committee.

Mr. Sarwar: I can see that the hon. Gentleman cares about child poverty. The reduction in prescription charges from £6 to 80p, which will benefit almost every Scottish Member of Parliament and councillor, will cost almost £100 million. Could a fraction of that have been used for disabled people, making a big difference to their quality of life?

Pete Wishart: I am very disappointed by the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. I hope that he is not suggesting that there is no place for universal benefits. The scheme has been welcomed by practically everyone in Scotland, and he should do the same.

It will cost £3 billion to get the Government back on course to halve child poverty by 2010, but that figure needs to be put into perspective. It is one third of the £9 billion that the Government will spend on the infrastructure for the Olympic games in London. This week, The Sunday Times published its “Rich List”, and it shows that the wealthiest 1,000 people have seen their income quadruple under new Labour. Even under the brief premiership of the current Prime Minister, their fortunes have soared by a massive 15 per cent.—just when the financial squeeze kicks in for the rest of the community, with faltering house prices and people in poverty being hit especially badly.

The abandonment of the 10p tax rate represents an appalling attack on the poor. Labour Members should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. The Government have proposed various spurious concessions, but I have no clue as to how they will get around the problem. I have seen a ridiculous suggestion that the winter fuel allowance could be used to compensate for the loss of the 10p starting rate of tax. It is totally ridiculous, and there will be a massive impact on the poorest in our community.

The cost of child poverty to Scotland is absolutely massive. The Scottish Government have estimated it at between £.5 billion and £1.75 billion, but we know that, in terms of its impact on our society, the cost is almost incalculable. It will lead to poor levels of health and educational attainment, and the lost potential of every Scottish child who is in poverty. The Scottish Government produced a well-researched paper on child poverty in Scotland. It concluded:

That is the true economics of poverty. It shows that, if we were prepared to apply the resources, we could really start to deal with it.

What are Labour Members of the Scottish Parliament doing while the Scottish Government get on with tackling and challenging child poverty? They had an opportunity to debate the problem in the Communities Committee,
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but they preferred to talk about golf courses. That shows what their priority for Scotland is. It is an absolute disgrace, and they should be ashamed.

It is a pity that the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace) is no longer present, as we could have recruited him to the campaign. We can deal only with the symptoms: it is up to the Government in Westminster to resolve the problem. They have the powers but, if they are not going to use them, they should get out of the way and give them to the Scottish Parliament so that we can get on with dealing with what is a very real problem.

Mrs. McGuire: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, in my speech, I said that child poverty is not a matter for the Westminster Government alone? I said that we had to work in partnership with the devolved Administrations, charities, voluntary organisations and business across Scotland. That is how we will alleviate poverty, and the tone of the hon. Gentleman’s last few words are at odds with that approach.

Pete Wishart: Of course I accept that we have to work in partnership, but the main powers and responsibilities for tackling child poverty reside with the Government. I maintain that they are not fulfilling their obligations in that regard, and that they should be doing much more.

I want to deal briefly with a couple of recommendations in the report from the Scottish Affairs Committee. Recommendation 6, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar referred, states:

Currently 25 per cent. of children are living in poverty with an adult who is working full time. That suggests to me that there is something not quite right about working family tax credits and child benefits. It is surely a basic assumption that if a child lives with a working parent there is no excuse for that child to be in poverty.

Recommendation 10, to which other Members have referred, states:

We must be careful about how we proceed. I am sure that I am not the only Member of Parliament who sees a large number of anxious people making their way to his surgery to express their feelings about being forced back into work and the impact that that will have on their child care arrangements. I am very concerned about the Government’s policy. We must ensure that support is available for lone parents returning to work. Returning people to work should involve more carrots than sticks, and certainly there should be no use of sticks when children are involved.

Above all, we need resources. We now know the cost of failing to fulfil our obligations and to meet the targets and goals set by the Government: it is £3 billion a year. That is what the Government need to invest in order to deal with this problem, and if they were serious about it, that is what they would invest.

5.11 pm

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