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13 Jan 2009 : Column 13WH—continued

If the two cohorts of children are compared, we can figure out the percentages for fewer crimes, fewer demands on the health service, more time spent in employment, and so on. Of course, making such calculations is a formidable challenge and will involve a great deal of hypothesising, but making them will become easier if we build in this system of comparison over a generation,
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as we develop more knowledge of the detailed benefits of early intervention programmes. Indeed, the Treasury has already got past first base on this issue as a result of the work that it did prior to the last comprehensive spending review. There are also possibilities for involving the insurance industry, so that it may contribute its insight to the task of assessing rewards that only emerge over the long term.

I have taken some time this morning to make my case. I hope that I have left enough time for the Front-Bench spokesmen to make their contributions. I have deliberately encouraged people to participate in a genuine debate and it has been an extremely good debate this morning. I have just touched on some very complex technical territory. A lot of hard work needs to go into examining this issue and I hope to return to it towards the end of the year, to see how far we have got.

There are basically three fundamental truths in this area. First, the rewards of early intervention are far-reaching and the costs of late intervention are becoming prohibitive. Secondly, early intervention programmes must be long-term programmes and they are always at risk if they are compelled to rely on short-term financing from current revenues. Thirdly, it is both prudent and practicable for Her Majesty’s Treasury to help us to devise new forms of investment finance for early intervention that will meet the demands of lenders and allow the nation to improve its stock of human capital as efficiently and rapidly as it meets its other capital needs.

Bob Spink: I would encourage the hon. Member to accept a fourth fundamental truth in this area. It is that if we get housing right, then social stability, health, education and finding employment for parents become so much easier and more achievable. Conversely, without decent, longer-term housing prospects, the young families that we are discussing will not move forward in these ways and any money that is spent will be less effectively spent.

Mr. Allen: The hon. Member is a great advocate for the causes that he believes in and I know that his words will be taken seriously.

Thank you for the way that you have allowed us to have a genuine debate this morning, Mr. Martlew. There is a great deal more to say about this issue and I would hope to say it, with some positive conclusions and some really concrete proposals, later in the year. All I ask of the Minister is that he keeps an open mind and helps us, where possible. Specifically, I hope that he will undertake to meet me and any colleagues who have participated in the debate this morning at some point in the not-too-distant future. Thank you again for your tolerance this morning, Mr. Martlew.

Mr. Eric Martlew (in the Chair): I normally start the winding-up speeches at this time, but I shall call Mr. Iain Duncan Smith first.

10.30 am

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con): I am grateful for that, Mr. Martlew, and I shall keep my speech to about one minute.

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), whom I can legitimately call my hon. Friend in relation to these matters, as we have had so many conversations on it and have done so much work together. I have enormous respect for his work on
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this issue. He has mentioned the Wave Trust and George Hosking, who put me on to this issue and eventually to my hon. Friend. That is how we came together in what I hope has been a positive way. I thoroughly enjoyed working on the book that we worked on together. We continue to work together—I say this to all colleagues in the House—because we want to drive this matter forward as our No. 1 priority.

Let me quickly welcome the Minister. We have faced each other on many occasions, and have had plenty of private conversations, and I know that in his heart of hearts he agrees with all of this; I am sorry if that destroys his career prospects. I believe that he is headed in the right direction, personally, on this issue. The Government and Government spending are other issues, but I ask him, in this case, to let his heart drive his instincts and to let his instincts drive the Treasury, which sometimes lacks both.

I want to address a few elements before I sit down. First, it is critical that we understand early intervention, which my hon. Friend has discussed. The media often come back to crime and sentiments such as “lock ’em up” or “bash them, bang them up, do whatever—it is not hard enough,” but the prison population has risen and we know, mostly, who will be committing crimes tomorrow. For the most part, we know where those people will be drawn from, and they are mostly from the group we are discussing.

About 60 per cent. of all those in prison come from broken and often dysfunctional homes, and they have average reading and numeracy ages of a child of 11. More than 30 per cent. of those in prison come from care homes, although only about 0.6 per cent. of all our children have ever been in care homes. The vast majority of those children are drawn from that same community, and they dramatically furnish our prison population and crime figures. About 60 to 70 per cent. of prisoners have major drug or alcohol problems, and many have mental health issues. All that is drawn from the start that they got in life and what has happened to them.

Schooling is critical, because such children will never stay in school until they are 18. It is a nightmare to get them to make it to 12, 13 or 14 before they decide arbitrarily to leave the schooling system and end up on the streets. Their role models are in the communities of what has been referred to as the underclass. Those children rarely see anyone go to work, and they are often from families with two or three generations of worklessness. They may be from broken homes and have lone parents. The society that many such people experience is completely different from that experienced by those of us who dictate the debate on these matters. We need a better understanding of why these problems exist.

I have one plea to make and then I shall sit down. Together, we have been to all the party leaders, and we have received a good response from all of them, but I ask the Government to initiate the next stage. That has to be drawing in the other party leaders and people such as the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman, my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke), whom I welcome, to thrash out these issues and reach consensus. If we do not get consensus, things will change every time a new Government come
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in and cut programmes because they are too expensive. We will get nothing out of this debate if we do not get consensus.

The key is getting a 20-year programme of change that we agree on. We need not agree on all the mechanisms to be used, but we should at least agree on the objectives. If we do that, we will have achieved something that is about good government. We go on about the nanny state, but we are already the nanny state in these areas, and an ineffective one. The costs of that are enormous and we still fail to change people’s lives. This is not about having no government or smaller government, but about having effective government, and I welcome that.

10.34 am

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): It is a great privilege for me to congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) on securing the debate and on speaking so eloquently on this subject. It is also a privilege for me to follow the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), who also has a long-standing and admirable interest in this field. We have the added context of the fact that the right hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn), who could not be present today, has been asked by the Prime Minister to do additional work on social mobility. That subject matter is not identical, but it overlaps with what we are discussing.

The problems are familiar to us all as constituency MPs, but it is worth touching on some of them, one of which is educational underachievement. I take the point that once children have reached formal education, much of the mould has already been set and the problems are already in train. Nevertheless, this issue is indicative of a wider malaise.

In the most deprived areas, 44 per cent. of schools achieve the requisite Government target GCSE pass rates, compared with 97 per cent. in affluent areas. So, children reach that level of attainment almost across the board in affluent areas, but in less than half of schools in more deprived areas. Only 21 per cent. of children who receive free school meals achieve five good GCSEs. To touch on the points that the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green has just made, many people who find themselves, in adult life or adolescence, in prison or otherwise severely disadvantaged have failed to reach those basic levels of attainment much earlier.

Relative financial poverty is another factor. The Government deserve some credit for seeking to address that systematically by targeting money, through one-to-one tuition, to equip people with greater skills in the workplace. There are also schemes such as Home-Start—I am familiar with Home-Start in Taunton—which is an excellent organisation. Under the scheme people, mainly mothers, mentor new mothers who are in less fortunate circumstances and try to pass on mothering and life skills.

We have touched on the cost of failing to intervene in terms of prison places and drug rehabilitation programmes. We can all agree that considering the matter simply in statistical terms of financial cost, education and Government programmes may mean neglecting the biggest aspect—the emotional and spiritual poverty in many
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communities. This is not simply about financial poverty; it is about deeply entrenched unemployment, about people living lives that lack structure or focus and about all the social ills that arise from such circumstances.

What about the solutions, inasmuch as we can readily arrive at solutions, and ideas for improvement? I agree with what the hon. Member for Nottingham, North said about the role of local government. We should encourage local communities, not only through local government but at lower and more immediate levels, to be imaginative in their solutions and to take responsibility for their own neighbourhoods. People should not see this as entirely an exercise of initiatives that are devised in London and passed down for implementation.

I agree that the private sector has a role to play. The hon. Gentleman’s thinking is extremely radical in that regard. Although the implications might be alarming for his colleagues and others, including some people in my party, we ought to explore that area.

Education is clearly important, and more could be done to help children before they get to school. That would be a better use of Treasury money than the baby bond that matures when children reach 18, when, I think we all agree, the direction of travel for their lives has mostly been determined. My party, as well as the Conservatives, and perhaps the Government, have talked about the so-called pupil premium to target extra financial resources at children who are falling behind in the primary school years of their education. In the past day or two, the Government have made announcements about giving incentives to teachers to stay in schools where the cohort of children is harder to teach. I welcome such initiatives.

The nanny state has been mentioned, and I think that agencies of the state have difficulties. For example, there was clearly a need for greater intervention in relation to Baby P. However, the newspapers that were critical of Haringey social services—I do not say that they should not have been critical—also criticise social services departments for confiscating children and say, “How dare the state behave in such a heavy-handed way?” There is a difficult balancing act to be achieved.

I admire the work of the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green. The latter talked about the prison population, which is a stark demonstration of the points we are discussing. However, I am slightly cautious about the risk of confusing cause and effect, and have some reservations about adopting a prescriptive approach—for example, financially penalising people for not being married. My parents are married and I went to university, but it is likely that I would have gone to university even if my parents had not been married. Sometimes inferences that might apply in general terms can be made, but they do not always apply in specific terms, and we ought to be cautious about that.

I conclude with this observation: aspirational poverty is the greatest danger that we must tackle. I think that the hon. Gentleman talked about liberating the capacity for people to help themselves. Dealing with this issue is not just about providing facilities. Since the Victorian era, free education has been provided by the state and we have had free libraries for anybody who wishes to go and read the complete works of Shakespeare or the day’s newspapers. Those services exist, but people need to want to access them so that they can realise their
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potential. It is not just about equality of wealth; it is about everyone being able to enjoy the full richness of life. I welcome this debate and, in the spirit of our contributions, I hope that the Minister will try to see this as a long-term, cross-party issue. We are all keen to achieve the objectives discussed. Those objectives will no doubt be further mentioned in the final two speeches.

10.42 am

Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr. Martlew, and I congratulate you on the way in which you have chaired the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) not only on securing the debate and on setting out his thoughts so eloquently—and, indeed, on bringing in contributions from a number of right hon. and hon. Members—but on shaping debate on the subject more broadly. He mentioned that he has held a number of Westminster Hall debates and has raised the issue of early intervention in a number of contexts, inside and outside Parliament. In doing so, he has contributed hugely to developing political parties’ understanding—not just his party, but all parties—of the advantages of early intervention and has contributed to the wider debate outside.

I also congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith). He has made an enormous contribution to increasing the understanding of some of the difficulties that we face in society and some of the ways in which we can address those concerns. My right hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman have worked together on the publication of their book “Early Intervention: Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizens” and have provided an example to all parliamentarians. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) had another engagement and is no longer in the Chamber, but he mentioned that it was the most important report that he had read during 30 years in Parliament, which is praise indeed. At a time when there is great cynicism about politicians, if the public were to see the way in which my right hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman have worked together and brought forward the debate, they would be hugely impressed.

The central argument is that a section of society suffers from low aspirations. That important point was made by the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne). Often, the problems of drug and alcohol abuse, family instability, crime, and worklessness are passed from generation to generation. That creates neighbourhoods in which those characteristics become the norm and are prevalent. Sections of society therefore live a life of hopelessness.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green and the hon. Member for Nottingham, North have made the case that, although Governments of both parties have responded by trying to tackle the consequences, such as crime and poverty, they have not tried to tackle the causes to the same extent. The emphasis needs to be put on the early years, particularly between nought to three years old, which is the time when a difference can be made. The right hon. Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong) made an important point about understanding more about the development of the brain. So there is a great opportunity during those early years.

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Clearly, dealing with this issue will benefit the poorest families, who will receive help directly, but it will also benefit wider society by reducing crime and antisocial behaviour. In the long term, demands on the taxpayer will be reduced. To use the terminology that my party tends to use, if we can tackle the problems of a broken society, we can reduce the demands on the taxpayer in the long term. Effective early-years intervention is a vital component of achieving that. The hon. Gentleman used evidence of studies in the US—for example, the nurse-family partnership’s home visiting programme—to demonstrate how effective that can be.

A corollary of the focus on early intervention—the hon. Gentleman teased out this point effectively—is the requirement for greater diversity in the provision of services. We need experimentation and for people who are close to the ground to be prepared to try something different to find out whether it works. That, of course, is an argument for greater localism—a point that the hon. Gentleman made—for trying to give greater powers back to local authorities and for moving away from over-prescriptive targets. That is vital, because doing so allows for greater involvement of the voluntary sector—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) and mentioned by the hon. Member for Taunton. Greater localism provides greater scope for the voluntary sector to play a role. Perhaps for understandable reasons, that sector shows greater initiative and experimentation in addressing some of these issues. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green made an important point about the need to enlist the voluntary sector, and my party supports doing so.

How do we ensure that we maintain the focus on early-years intervention? The key point in this debate has been about financing. The hon. Member for Nottingham, North is clearly thinking imaginatively and radically about ways in which we can deal with that, and we certainly encourage him to continue to do so—it is incumbent on all of us to do so. The key problem is how to capture the benefits. The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) made a good point about the difficulty of some of the expenditure being incurred in one area and some of the savings in other areas. We need to think about that.

May I just raise a small note of caution? The hon. Member for Nottingham, North argued that the current climate has made us think more radically about borrowing, but I do not think that he will be surprised to hear me say that we need to be a little cautious about that. One of the arguments for early intervention is that it will lead to long-term benefits. I am not going to get into a debate about the current state of public finances, but there are long-term difficulties with the borrowing that we face, and I am nervous about that. There is clearly scope for reprioritising within the existing budget, to find savings that enable us, for example, to abolish the couple penalty in the tax credit system and to provide more health visitors. All that is possible within existing budgets, but I shall end on a conciliatory note, because we have had an excellent debate. The hon. Gentleman deserves to be thoroughly congratulated on pushing the agenda; it has support certainly from my party and, I believe, from all parties.

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10.50 am

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Stephen Timms): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) for securing the debate and for the way in which he has pursued the issue over such a long period. He has followed an unusual and possibly unique path by taking on executive responsibility, as chair of One Nottingham, for programmes in his constituency, while pursuing Ministers and policy issues in the House. He has pursued a very fruitful programme, and I echo other hon. Members’ tributes to him and to the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) for the contribution of their pamphlet and for other collaborations on thinking in this area. We have had a remarkably consensual debate, and I, like others, hope that the cross-party consensus will endure.

My hon. Friend referred to this morning’s White Paper, “New Opportunities: Fair Chances for the Future”, which was published more or less at the moment when he stood up to speak. I have been able to obtain a copy, and I draw his attention to one paragraph that touches in particular on our debate this morning. Paragraph 8.42 states:

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