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while UK and Scottish Government policies have succeeded in lifting many children out of poverty, current policies are having no effect on the very poorest children and their families.
More than two contributors to the Committee highlighted the different experiences of other groups in the benefit system. Compelling evidence from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said that although the tax system helped lone parents with children, lifting nearly all of them out of poverty in Scotland, which is of course welcome, it helped to entrench working couples with children in poverty. I was glad to see that the report recommended that the Government look into trying to make sure that couples with children get at least equal treatment. That point was echoed in the evidence from Barnardos.
Todays debate is entitled Child Poverty in Scotland, although given the contributions of some Scottish National party Members, one could easily have been confused about that, as we wandered on to fairy tales. However, we must not forget the other people who live in poverty. It is worse than a shameit is almost a disgracethat the number of working adults in poverty who do not have children has risen to its highest level since 1961. Some 4 million such people are now in poverty; that is 800,000 more than in 1998. If tomorrows parents are in poverty, what chance will their children have?
I believe that we are approaching the time when the tax benefit system in its current form will have run its course. Yes, it has been a success in pump-priming the situation since 1997there have been some positive resultsbut if we are to progress, we must address the underlying roots of poverty. I was delighted to see that the Committee focused on and recommended stronger measures on child care. One of the biggest challenges for all of us in Scotland, and not just the low-paid, is finding proper child care so that we can take advantage of economic prosperity, and so that those on low incomes can work themselves out of poverty.
However, it is worrying that some of the contributory factors in Scotland are going in the wrong direction. Many of them are in devolved areas. If education is the solution to poverty, it is worth stating that in 15 per cent. of the most deprived areas in Scotland, pupils standard grades are two grades behind the average. When my great-grandfather left being a farm labourer in Fife, it was because his education allowed him to make the leap from farm labourer to railway porter. That is the real future for all of us in this country. We must invest in education as the No. 1 priority to help solve poverty for the long term.
Unfortunately, drug abuse in Scotland is up, drug crime is up and methadone prescription is up. We should not debate child poverty in Scotland without talking about the role of the family. I recognise that families cannot be forced together, but the facts are clear. Where children are brought up in stable homes, they have less chance of growing up in poverty and have better chances in life. The Government can at least try to encourage families and should do nothing to penalise them.
During the debate the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) spoke of her fears about the changes to the NHS in Scotland under the SNP Administration. She said that her party would have to go back to being the party of the NHS. Having served as a shadow Health Minister in the Scottish Parliament, I point out that that comes from a member of the party that has increased the role of the private sector in the NHS more than any other party in its history. We will be interested to see whether the hon. Lady supports a reversal of that policy.
The hon. Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar) chairs our Scottish Affairs Committee. I congratulate him on being an excellent, patient and inclusive Chairman. The report does justice to him, and I hope he will be around for the next few years as our Chairman.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid), not surprisingly for a Liberal Democrat, made many spending commitments, such as cuts in fuel prices and a jobcentre on every island, amounting to a £2.5 billion increase in spending.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute criticised the Governments extra £1 billion to eradicate poverty, saying that an extra £2.5 billion was needed. As ever, spend, spend, spend from the Liberal Democrats.
The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) made some genuine points, as did the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) in relation to local government and money coming from Westminster. I should tell the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South that we might not like the way in which the block grant is spent, but that is devolution. The Treasury could, if it wished, try different mechanisms to ensure that funding was ring-fenced, but hopefully the electorate will make that judgment at the next election. If the local papers carry headlines about that spending, the SNP administration in Aberdeen will not be in office much longer.
The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) referred to the fairy tale. I shall merely say that the Scottish National party knows more about fairy tales than Alice in Wonderland, and leave it at that.
As usual, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson) made a robust and frank contribution. He would probably be surprised to know how much I agree with him on many of the issues that he raised. He has at heart the real interests of his constituents, and perhaps one day we will see where we agree.
We have had a good debate and a long debate, although many might have predicted that it would not go the full time. We all believe in trying to eradicate poverty, no matter what our party allegiance, and no matter what the party of government would like to portray. I went into politics because the soldiers whom I worked with from the Scots Guards, from Bellshill, Castlemilk, Easterhouse and Govan, grew up in poverty and I felt that they deserved better government.
The Minister of State, Scotland Office (David Cairns): It is an honour to respond to this debate. I thank all who took part; they made important contributions. I was to have had 15 minutes, then 10 minutes, then eight minutes for my speech. Now it turns out that I am allowed 16 minutes, and I shall try to do justice to and respond to some of the important points that have been made.
Child poverty, the subject of this debate, goes right to the heart of why so many of us came into politics in the first place. It goes right to the heart of why my party came into existence more than 100 years ago and what the Labour Government, elected 11 years ago today, are all about. The struggle against child poverty has consumed generations of campaigners and given birth to countless movements, societies, trade unions and moral crusades. In my party, and in our country, the struggle has been led by titanspeople such as John Wheatley, James Maxton, John Smith and, of course, Keir Hardie.
The desire to eradicate the scourge of child poverty from the land has had no stronger champion than the Prime Minister, who has devoted his entire adult life, with energy and unwavering commitment, to ensuring that every person in this country benefits from the opportunities enjoyed for too long by only a few. In the past 11 years, that drive against poverty has been the constant theme of our politics. It is why we introduced tax credits to help the poorest paid, especially those with children. It is why we raised child benefit above and beyond inflation and why we introduced the first ever national minimum wagein the teeth of opposition from those who claimed that it would cost 1 million jobs and from those who could not be bothered to get out of bed to vote for it. The drive against poverty is also why we set the extraordinarily ambitious target of halving child poverty by 2010 and eradicating it by 2020.
That target is no idle boast or vague aspiration, but a commitment made during our long years as the Opposition, when we stood impotent as child poverty
doubled in Scotland between the late 1970s and mid-1990s. The results of all that effortthe tax credits, the new deal, the minimum wageare there for all to see. Ninety thousand children have been lifted out of poverty in Scotland, a greater rate of decline than in the UK as a whole. More people are in work today than at any time in our nations history. Families in the poorest fifth of the population are £4,500 a year better off.
Behind every one of those statistics are real people, whose lives have been changed and aspirations raised. Families and communities now have the prospect that tomorrow can be better than yesterday and that years of decline and decay can be reversed. That is why so many of my hon. Friends who spoke this afternoon took the opportunity to remind the House of the progress that has been made; to be fair, Opposition hon. Members also acknowledged that. However, my hon. Friends did something more: they spoke of a genuine, passionate desire to go further, do more and make deeper inroads into the problems that still beset so many of our communities. I share that desire. Our achievements are real, and in some areas progress has been nothing short of remarkable, but much more needs to be done.
Before I turn to some of the comments made today, I should like to thank those who have made a significant contribution to the debate, inside and outside the Chamber. First and foremost, our thanks go to the Chairman and members of the Scottish Affairs Committee for producing an excellent and thoughtful report. I particularly thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar), the convenor and, ultimately, the author of the report.
In part, todays debate grew from a round-table discussion, convened by the Scotland Office, that brought together many organisations involved in the day-to-day reality of helping those still affected by poverty. Many of those organisations have taken a great deal of time and effort to draw up detailed briefing papers in order to inform our deliberations better. I would like to add my thanks to Barnados, the Church of Scotland, the Child Poverty Action Group, Citizens Advice Scotland, NCH and Save the Children. I assure them that their contributions have been studied by the Scotland Office and the Department for Work and Pensions. We shall continue to work with those organisations towards our common goal of eradicating child poverty.
The shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell), said that he did not want to talk about the past. I wonder why. He did not make an apology for the fact that child poverty doubled when the Conservatives were in charge, although, in fairness, for much of that time he was in the Social Democratic party, so he does not bear personal responsibility. He spoke about the new Conservative approach of making poverty history. It stands in sharp contrast to their old approach, which was just making poverty. He launched his usual attacks on tax credits, then said he would keep them. He condemned clawbacks, but dodged the chance to set out his views on clawbacks. He attacked the definition of poverty as being 60 per cent. of median income, despite the fact that that is the acknowledged international standard, used around the world and certainly throughout the European Union.
The organisations that I mentioned earlier said, in the submissions that they put to us, that we should be working to that standard.
The hon. Gentleman did not mention the fact that in the document Making British Poverty History, a new target emergednot 60 per cent. of median income, but 40 per cent. That is now going to be the aspiration that the Conservative party will address. I think that I hear the sound of goalposts being moved. I think that I hear the sound of targets becoming aspirations. I think that I hear the sound of a Labour Governments definition of poverty at 60 per cent. of median income being downgraded to 40 per cent. I think that I hear the sound of a return to the bad old days. The hon. Gentleman quoted Churchillanother famous convert from Liberalism to Toryismwho also said, you can rat, but you cant re-rat.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central, the Chairman of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, spoke in detail about his Committees excellent report on poverty. He said that good progress has been made, and he welcomed the new consensus of all parties, which is welcome, if a little late. None the less, his Committee worked collegiately on the report, and it reached out to all parts of Scotland in making its final recommendations. We have responded to the report. We do not share all of its analysis or accept every one of the recommendations, but we acknowledge the tremendous contribution that the report has made in furthering this important debate.
I look forward to working with my hon. Friend and other members of the Select Committee because the problem of poverty, which has taken generations to build up, cannot be eradicated overnight, even with 11 years of progress. That is why we are aiming to meet the target in 2020. It is a tough targetan immensely challenging oneand as the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) rightly said, external factors are now making that target even more challenging. I shall say a word about that in a moment. However, we are not resiling from it or backtracking. We want to hit those targets in 2010 and 2020, but we know that we will have to work, as the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions rightly said, with the Scottish Administration, non-governmental organisations, charities, faith groups and all of those working in Scotland to eradicate poverty, or we will not hit the target. We cannot do it on our own, and the Select Committee report highlights ways in which we can make definite progress.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) stressed the need for us to work together, and graciously acknowledged that much progress has been made. I am afraid, however, that he fell into the trap that often affects individuals who consider these problems. He piled up more and more spending commitments with no real ability to say how much anything would cost, or to say whether spending much more on administration, which was his solution, would divert money from those who need it in the fight against poverty. It is right that the Department for Work and Pensions has tough efficiency targets. Hon. Members from all parties know that sometimes local jobcentres are asked to make challenging efficiency savings. However, we are doing that so that the massive amount of extra money that goes towards the fight against child poverty gets through to the front
line and those who need it most. The hon. Gentlemans vision of a series of super first steps centres in every community, combining Jobcentre Plus and Revenue and Customs functions, was presented without any idea of how much it will cost, let alone how much the Liberal Democrats will pay for it.
Mr. Reid: The Ministers description of the policy is at variance with what it actually is. We propose using existing jobcentres, which are half empty because staff have been transferred from them to call centres, and employing staff who can give local advice to local people rather than expecting people to phone a call centre, where local circumstances are not understood.
David Cairns: I think that the hon. Gentleman went further than that in his original contribution. We need to consider what the benefit processing centres do. There is one in Greenock in my constituency. Bringing together benefit processing activities can create greater efficiency, leading to peoples benefits being processed much more quickly than when functions are disaggregated throughout the country. It means that money gets to people who need it more quickly. That is why we are making efficiency savings and I do not believe that those who work in the call centres, whom the hon. Gentleman has callously dispatched to the dole queue, perceive their job as having no interest in peoples local circumstances. That is grossly unfair.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) made an excellent speech. She reminded us that poverty is not simply about material deprivationlack of stuffbut the crushing of ambitions and condemning communities to never being able to better themselves, dream that life can be better or aspire to something beyond the circumstances in which they grew up. The crushing of ambition is part and parcel of poverty. Unlocking peoples potential and realising their ambitions is as much part of the target to eliminate child poverty as any specific indicator of material deprivation.
My hon. Friend raised an issue to which many hon. Members reverted during the debatethe age-old quandary between universalism and targeting. It is as old as the welfare state and no Government will ever say that they have completely solved it. However, in the past 11 years, we have been able to increase universal benefit such as child benefit and the winter fuel payment at the same time as increasing targeted benefits such as tax credits and pension credit. We have managed to do both: increase universal benefit and target most help at those who need it most.
I have been practising. However, I am afraid that that is as good as it gets for the hon. Gentleman. He paid lip service to the issue at hand and moved quickly to the nationalist comfort zonethe consuming obsession with constitutional wrangling, in
contrast with my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke). It is shameful that the First Minister has not found time to meet my right hon. Friend to discuss child poverty, but has found time to write to Robert Mugabe and President Ahmadinejad of Iran, attempting to form some sort of coalition with them.
The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland rightly said that the current huge external challenges make the targets harder to achieve. That is why we have to keep down inflation and unemployment and avoid the return to boom and bust, which occurred whenever those external shocks happened in the past.
I regret that I do not have time to go into detail about the important contributions of my hon. Friends the Members for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Ms Clark), and the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart).
As I said at the outset, this has been a significant and timely debate. It has involved important contributions from beyond the House, from those on the front line of the campaign against the scourge of poverty. The debate has allowed us to reflect, 11 years to the day after our election, on the tremendous progress that has been made on reducing poverty and tackling low pay. The debate has also given us the opportunity to reflect on what still needs to be done. The Labour party came into being to combat poverty. It is our historic purpose and one to which we are as committed today as we have ever been
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