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18 Dec 2008 : Column 1309

I welcomed the Prime Minister’s announcement today on withdrawal from Iraq. As the Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow), is present, I wish to tell him that the tone of the response of his leader, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg), was regrettable. The right hon. Gentleman was not a Member of this House when we debated going into Iraq; many Members on both sides of the House voted against the war but it was a difficult decision—at the time, it was not black and white. The idea that the Conservative and Labour Members who voted for the war were being gung-ho is erroneous, and I think that the right hon. Gentleman might, on reflection, come to regret his tone.

We have in our debate talked about uncertainties in many areas, and I must mention another one. My friend the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington would have mentioned it, but his speech was limited to 10 minutes. He wanted to discuss Southern Cross, so I shall mention the other issue on his behalf now. We hope to have the decision on Heathrow in January. It has been put off, but many people, not only in our constituencies but across west London, are again thinking this Christmas that next year they will be told that they have to leave their homes and that they have no future in their area.

John McDonnell: They will also be undertaking direct action training, just in case.

Mr. Randall: I will not follow the hon. Gentleman down that line, although, as he knows, I have promised to stand in front of a bulldozer, and despite the entreaties of the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), I think that I should bulk up a bit to make sure it is a fair contest.

Yesterday, I was able to have a little go at the Government about the reduction in VAT from the position of being a shop owner—and shop worker, too, in fact—so I will not reiterate why it is not a good idea. At this time of year, we always talk about the emergency services and pay tribute to their staff, which is perfectly right, but we should also pay tribute to shop workers, who will have to go out there from Boxing day onwards. I can say from personal experience that customers at sale time are not always the nicest, and as we are being told on the television to barter, it is actually quite an unpleasant experience and some people get quite aggressive. I pay tribute to all shop workers, and I ask Members, and all our constituents, to bear in mind that the person on the other side of the counter is a human being as well.

However, so that I do not always get accused of being like Scrooge and being miserable and Victor Meldrew-like—although I must admit that I said Scrooge was a disgrace, because he gave in at the end—let me say something on the jolly side of things. I went to a performance of “Hot Mikado” by Bishopshalt school. We all go to lots of such events, and it might be invidious to mention just one, but when we see how well children perform in such school productions—they put everything into them, and give so much joy to themselves and many others—we realise that it is all worth it, and that young people, apart from the tiny minority whom we mostly talk about here in this place, are a great tribute to their own generation.

I have received some wonderful letters from pupils at Highfield primary school, who came to the House on
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an educational visit. After I had seen them, they wrote to me asking me to come to the school—I cannot quite understand why, but perhaps they thought I look like Father Christmas. Interestingly, some of them said they were interested in hearing about the role of an MP because they want to be an MP. Despite what we hear—the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) mentioned some wonderful things, but, sadly, I do not even have a link from the luddite website—if we just talk to people about politics it can be made interesting, and that will get them involved.

Finally, I wish everyone a happy Christmas. I wish a happy Christmas to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, to the other Deputy Speakers, to Mr. Speaker, to all the staff and to the civil servants who work in the Opposition Whips Office, who have to put up with us and do so admirably. This is perhaps not following protocol, but I wish a happy Christmas to one person who, more than anyone else, allows me to do my job to the best of my ability. I am talking about my wife, and I thank her.

4.5 pm

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): I want to say a few words about welfare reform. I had hoped to deliver this speech during Monday’s debate on the Queen’s Speech, but after hours of sitting on the Benches, and as the time available got shorter and shorter, it seemed that it would not be possible to do justice to the subject. I suspect that will be the case again today, so I offer just some preliminary thoughts.

What concerns me at the moment is the criticism of the Government’s proposals coming from two, probably opposite, sides of the political spectrum. Both have quite a distorted take on what we are doing, and neither helps to take the debate forward. The criticisms do not help the people whom the welfare reform proposals are intended to help. A great deal of scaremongering is going on, and some very vulnerable people could be distressed by it.

The first viewpoint, to which I do not subscribe, says that the Labour Government have, by their support for the welfare state over the past 11 years, fostered a welfare dependency culture in this country. That view states that it has almost become the norm to be unemployed, people can have quite a comfortable life living on benefits and we have bred what I tend to call the Jeremy Kyle generation—other people call it the underclass—whereby people have no ambition or aspiration, and there are inter-generational cycles of poverty and worklessness. That has most recently been thrown into the spotlight by the cases of baby P and Shannon Matthews, where the parents or adults involved have been presented as typical examples of the people who have been bred by that sort of culture.

The other take on our proposals is that the Government have become bullies. People say that we are almost dragging people from their sickbeds, and that we are forcing people who have very serious disabilities and mothers who have just given birth down to the job centre to take on work that might be completely unsuitable with the threat of benefits being taken away if they do not comply. Neither view is helpful, and I shall say a bit more about that in a moment.

The other thing that surprises me is the number of people who seem to regard what the Government have
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been saying lately as something of a departure from what we have been doing since we were elected in 1997. It has been said that my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) was entrusted with thinking the unthinkable, but the Government subsequently lost their nerve and did not go down that path. These welfare reform proposals are very much a continuation of what we have been trying to do since 1997—helping people to make the transition from welfare into work. It is frustrating to have to reiterate that in this debate, but I wish to reiterate it briefly.

First, our approach is about the financial side of things: ensuring that people would be better off in work, which involves measures such as tax credits and the minimum wage. Secondly, it is about being able to facilitate working, which means making affordable child care available to people, having flexible working so that people can juggle their other responsibilities and giving the necessary personalised support and encouragement to job seekers through things such as the new deal and Jobcentre Plus.

I met Jobcentre Plus staff in Bristol last Friday. We talked in detail about what would really help the welfare reform proposals to work, and we found that it comes down to small things, such as the availability of child care. One of the things that those staff told me—I have been banging on about poor public transport in Bristol ever since I got elected—is that the most important thing for those people, and for lone parents in particular, is how close their jobs are to the schools and their home. People do not want to travel for longer than 20 minutes or half an hour, because when someone is on a tight schedule and they have to drop the kids off at school, go to work for a few hours and then get back to the school gates to pick the kids up or get to the childminders’ place, having to use unreliable, expensive buses or having to travel to the other side of the city means that things do not stack up for them.

As we introduce personalised support, it is important to remember that it is not about a back-of-the-envelope calculation that someone would be financially better off back at work, because work has to fit into their lives and be practicable and doable. Otherwise, people will try working, give up and fall foul of the new sanctions regime, and their children will be the ones to suffer.

The Government deserve credit for approaching this issue in terms not only of adults who are already in the system, but of children. We hear a lot about apathetic, good-for-nothing youth, but I have met phenomenal young people in my constituency, and they certainly were not born with silver spoons in their mouths. I was at an awards ceremony in Bristol the other day for young achievers. They do community work and make a real difference to people’s lives through their voluntary activity. Part of that is down to changes in the school system. One of my sisters has three children and has just returned from living in Spain. It is amazing to talk to her kids, because they cannot believe that the schools in Kent that they now attend have laptops, interactive whiteboards and independent learning. In Spain, the schools are much like they were when I was at school, with learning by rote, copying things off a blackboard and no stimulation or incentive to take an interest in what is being learned. They have only been back a few
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months, so the feeling may wear off, but at the moment they are delighted to go to school.

I have many sisters, and I could probably keep the debate going until 6 o’clock talking about various aspects of their lives, but one of them has two sons, one aged 18 and one aged six—quite a gap. She tells me that the difference between when the 18-year-old started school and when the six-year-old started school is phenomenal. She has seen the years of change under this Labour Government, which shows that we have made a real difference and that what we have done is working.

However, we still have a long way to go. I was struck by what one of the Jobcentre Plus staff said to me on Friday. I presented her with a Remploy regional award for her work with people with disabilities—she went on to win the national award, too. Her name is Julia, and she talked to me about people who have been put on the new employment support allowance regime since October. She said:

That might sound like a threat, but it was not. She knows that people are sometimes very nervous when they come to see her. People think that they cannot possibly work, that their disabilities or illness are too great, that they have not worked for years and that they have no qualifications or skills. She knows that she can work with people like that and, with support, encouragement and the right training courses, she can help to turn their lives around. She is not a box-ticker or a bureaucrat, nor is she interested in forcing people into work just for the sake of saying that she has met her targets, but she is passionately devoted to her work. I met some of her colleagues who are working on the new deal for lone parents, and I was impressed by just how seriously they take their work. They welcome what the Government are doing.

People talk about an underclass. In one way, I am reluctant to dwell on this issue, because the danger is that it distorts the picture of the majority of those on benefits or who rely on the welfare state as a safety net, the vast majority of whom want to work. It is easy to present a stigmatised and stereotypical image of a lone parent, but the truth is that only 2 to 3 per cent. of lone parents are teenagers, and only 15 per cent. have never been married to or lived with the father of their child.

We cannot deny that some families have a multitude of problems and lead dysfunctional and chaotic lives. We need to look at them almost as a separate category, because they will not benefit to such an extent from the new proposals. We have to consider, for example, family intervention projects—we have Sure Start, and the Home Office has a family intervention project. The danger is being accused of interfering too much in people’s lives, but when such families have children, the problems can be passed on tenfold, so we have a responsibility to intervene.

The issue is not about judging people by their family structures, which is very wrong. We can talk about whether marriage is the best state in which to bring up children, but we must accept that many people do not grow up in that sort of situation. I do not judge people by whether their parents are married to each other, cohabiting or divorced, or by whether they live with a single parent or stay with their dad at weekends. We
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should judge people by their relationships, their parenting, their values and their behaviour. I do not think that the financial levers in the welfare reform Bill are enough. We need to have a good hard look at what else we can do to break the cycle with those people.

I do not think that Karen Matthews is at all typical of the single parents out there. We have to tell people over and over again that she is not typical, because otherwise it will undermine the whole consensus on which the welfare state is built. However, I do not think that we can turn our backs on people like that and just write them off, either.

I just have time to say merry Christmas to everybody, especially you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

4.16 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I am delighted to be able to catch your eye in this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker. Christmas and new year are a good time of year to reflect on what has happened in the last year and to make resolutions for the next year.

This year has been a very mixed year for my constituents and in the few minutes I have available, I want to concentrate on the loss of services in rural areas. Indeed, the Government’s own Commission for Rural Communities estimates that about one in five people live in rural areas, of whom half live in small rural towns. It also states that between 2004 and 2007, life in rural areas compared with that in urban areas has declined. Indeed, its director for analysis, Nicola Lloyd, said:

As my speech will show, it is very difficult for those who are vulnerable and who lack basic services and public transport, particularly elderly people, to live in rural areas.

The demographics in my constituency have been particularly sharp in relation to recent Government policy. The number of young people in the Cotswolds is declining and in that respect the Government’s spending on education is particularly worrying. We have a lot of small rural schools and when the local education authority is at the bottom of the expenditure league per pupil, it makes those schools difficult to sustain. Indeed, I think it is very unfair that a child of equivalent family, degree of vulnerability and IQ is substantially disadvantaged in terms of funding from the Government simply because of their postcode. Let me cite the recent figures from the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Spending per pupil for children aged between three and 19 in Hackney in 2005-06, the latest year for which figures are available, was £6,740. In the Cotswolds, the figure was only £3,980. That is almost half. For that to be the case for an equivalent child just because of their postcode is not fair.

That inequity was perpetuated over the past 10 years, because whereas Hackney received a 39.8 per cent. increase over that time, the Cotswolds received only a 36.8 per cent. increase. The inequality was therefore perpetuated and in the recent Telegraph league table, published in January, Gloucestershire was cited as 16th out of 149 LEAs. In other words, it was one of the nearest to the bottom. If Gloucestershire were even brought up
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to the average, that would mean another £200 per pupil. As many of my primary schools have pointed out to me, that £200 would make a huge difference to how they could spend.

In Gloucestershire we are finding—the figures from the Department of Children, Schools and Families prove this—that the number of statements issued in schools has declined over the past 10 years. The number of children with special needs has increased, but more worryingly the increase has come at secondary level. In other words, people who need special assistance and who need statementing are not being picked up at an early enough stage. I have seen several cases recently where parents have tried to get their children special needs help or statementing and have had a huge difficulty in doing so. Even parents with very poor levels of income have had to go and get their own private educational and psychological reports in order to be able to prove their case. I do not think that that is acceptable.

While there are fewer children as a proportion of the population in our constituencies, at the other end of the scale there are more pensioners. One of the scandals in this country is that 1.3 million pensioners do not claim pension credit, and the total loss is £2 billion, or about £13 a week for each pensioner who does not claim. About two thirds of all eligible pensioners claim pension credit and council tax benefit, while almost 90 per cent. of those eligible claim housing benefit. The Department for Work and Pensions needs to look at the matter, as it is unacceptable in our society today that we hide these benefits away. Everyone entitled to them should draw them—that should be what happens.

I turn now to a point made by several hon. Members this morning. In this financial tsunami, as I call it, pensioners and savers are being disadvantaged by the fact that interest rates have fallen to very low levels. I do not want the Government to cite this as an Opposition expenditure pledge, but we should look at introducing special measures for pensioners. For instance, pensioner bonds could be delivered through the Post Office, thus giving pensioners a better deal and providing more work for post offices.

In the short time that I have left, I want to say something about post offices. This year, 12 of the 32 offices in my constituency have closed—a total almost unprecedented in any other constituency—and all the closures were done purely by Government diktat, according to the criteria that had been laid down.

One of the two post office on the outskirts of Cirencester turned over £500,000 in the month of January. It was highly profitable, yet both offices were still closed. Now, 19,000 people all have to get into their cars—or try to use non-existent public transport—to get to the centre of the town. The 21 villages that they live in cover 100 square miles, so the decision to close the two post offices on the outskirts of Cirencester was absolutely crazy.

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