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20 July 2009 : Column 600

Parker Pen Factory, Newhaven

Application for emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)

4.31 pm

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): I rise to propose that the House should debate the matter of the decision to close the Parker Pen Factory, Newhaven.

This is a specific and important matter that should be given urgent consideration. The decision to close the factory, taken by the American parent company, Newell Rubbermaid, will result in the loss of 180 jobs. This will have a terrible effect on the population of Newhaven, which is already suffering far more from the effects of the recession than other nearby towns such as Lewes. There has been a pen factory in Newhaven since 1921 and it has been Parker since 1945. Indeed, Parker Pen is the flagship employer in Newhaven, but the keystone of the bridge is now being removed.

The factory was visited by Mrs. Thatcher when she was Prime Minister, and it has a loyal work force in Newhaven, which has done its best to support Parker Pen over the years. There is a suspicion that the factory is being closed because the much stricter French employment laws make it more difficult to close the factory in Nantes-to which the jobs are being transferred. In other words, the employment laws in this country, which are supposed to encourage employment, will have the opposite effect on this occasion.

Whether you allow a debate or not, Mr. Speaker, I ask Ministers on the Treasury Bench to note the need for an urgent support package for Newhaven, which has suffered grossly from the recession, with a significant unemployment problem and the town centre being in a poor way. The support-or even rescue-package for the town should be put in place through the South East England Development Agency, with Ministers from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and help from Jobcentre Plus to deal with the 180 employees who will, sadly, lose their jobs. I ask Ministers to work with me for the benefit of my constituents.

I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for the opportunity to make this case for my constituents.

Mr. Speaker: I have listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman has said, and I have to give my decision without stating any reasons. I am afraid that I do not consider that the matter that he has raised is appropriate for discussion under Standing Order No. 24, and I cannot therefore submit the application to the House.

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Points of Order

4.33 pm

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to raise a point of order that may sound trivial, but is a matter of serious disappointment for young people in my constituency. For the last four years in the run-up to Christmas, choirs from my constituency have entertained parliamentarians, staff and other members of the Palace authorities over lunch. Last week, out of the blue, an e-mail arrived at my office saying that this would be banned in the future, as it was inconveniencing Members of the House during their lunch. Were you aware of that, Mr. Speaker? Surely we should be encouraging young people to come to this House, not barring them.

Mr. Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the point of order that he has raised. I confess that I was not previously conscious of it, as will probably be apparent to him and the House by the rather measured terms of my response. Suffice it to say that, on the face of it, he and his constituents have reason to be disconcerted, and I will certainly look into the matter. I am happy to revert to the hon. Gentleman when I have done so.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You recently made it clear to Ministers that you expect substantive replies to parliamentary questions before the summer recess, which is a little more than 24 hours off. May I draw this to your attention and seek your support? Frankly, the biggest offender, in my view, is the Prime Minister himself. To buttress my argument, and to illustrate the point, I point out that I asked a question of the Prime Minister about his meeting with President Gaddafi, at the margins of a recent summit, in relation to matters raised by the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) and me about compensation for the victims of IRA Semtex whose provenance was Libya. The Prime Minister sent me a letter saying that was referred to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but the only person who could answer my question was the Prime Minister himself-not even the Foreign Secretary. I also asked about the per diem remuneration for members of Chilcot, and the Prime Minister said that was a matter for Chilcot. He refuses to answer a simple question.

Mr. Speaker, will you, first, ensure that there are substantive replies from all Ministers by tomorrow and, secondly, look at the Prime Minister, who dodges the question time and again? I am certainly not prepared to put up with that.

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Mr. Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order, which was put to me and the House in the characteristically blunt terms that the House has come to appreciate. I know that the hon. Gentleman would not seek to inveigle me into an argument between him and the Prime Minister, but what I would say to him is that who answers a question that the hon. Gentleman or any other hon. or right hon. Member poses is a matter for the head of the Department or, in this case, for the Prime Minister. Similarly, the content of such answers is a matter for Ministers and I cannot get into that.

What I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that the exhortation I issued to all Ministers to ensure that substantive replies were provided before the summer recess was an exhortation that extended to the Prime Minister as well, because he, of course, is a Minister. Moreover, I think I can gently say to the hon. Gentleman, who is an extremely experienced Member of the House, that he might feel tempted to try to give voice to some of these concerns in a little more detail in the Adjournment debate that will take place immediately prior to the summer recess tomorrow.

Bill Presented

Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. Secretary Straw, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary David Miliband, Secretary Alan Johnson, Tessa Jowell and Michael Wills, presented a Bill to make provision relating to the civil service of the State; to make provision relating to the ratification of treaties; to amend section 2 of the House of Lords Act 1999 and make provision relating to the removal, suspension and resignation of members of the House of Lords; to repeal sections 132 to 138 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 and to amend Part 2 of the Public Order Act 1986; to make provision relating to time limits for human rights claims against devolved administrations; to make provision relating to judges and similar office holders; to make provision relating to the Comptroller and Auditor General and to establish a body corporate called the National Audit Office; to amend the Government Resources and Accounts Act 2000 and to make corresponding provision in relation to Wales.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 142) with explanatory notes (Bill 142-EN).

20 July 2009 : Column 603

Child Poverty Bill

[Relevant Documents: The transcript of oral evidence taken before the Work and Pensions Committee on 17 June 2009 on Child Poverty, HC 702; Second Report of the Work and Pensions Committee, Session 2007-08, HC 42-I, on The best start in life? Alleviating deprivation, improving social mobility and eradicating child poverty; and the Government response, Second Special Report of the Committee, Session 2007-08, HC 580.]

Second Reading

4.37 pm

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Yvette Cooper): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I hope that the Bill will have support from all parts of the House. I believe it is one of the most radical Bills we have debated in this Parliament. It sets out a vision of a fairer society that is bold and ambitious-a vision of equality and opportunity for our children that goes further than any other European country currently achieves. It entrenches that vision in our legislation for the long term.

We know that no law alone can end child poverty, but the Bill will help to hold the Government's feet to the flames in pursuit of a fairer Britain. It will demand of Governments, now and in the future, determined action to cut child poverty and to stop children being left behind. Those are bold ambitions, but they are the right ambitions.

The Bill does more than simply set out targets; it embeds a set of values in our primary legislation. For a start, it is the chance for Parliament to make it clear that children in the 21st century should not grow up suffering deprivation, and that they should not grow up lacking the necessities that most of us take for granted, and which allow them to participate fully in society-things such as keeping the house warm, being able to go on a week's holiday or being able to afford a bike to get out and about with friends. We are setting a clear target to cut the number of children growing up in low-income and material deprivation.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Why then have inequalities of income grown over the past 12 years? What will the Government do now to make that different in their final year in office?

Yvette Cooper: As the right hon. Gentleman will know, the figure on child poverty has in fact dropped over the past 12 years, in contrast to its having doubled over the previous 12 years. He will know too that our measure of child poverty is a relative poverty measure-it is an inequality measure. It is one of the most important things the Government have done to stop the inexorable rise in child poverty that his party and the Government of whom he was part presided over, and indeed encouraged when they chose to freeze child benefit three years in a row, so that, shockingly, in 1997 the level of child benefit was lower in real terms than it was in 1979. That is why it is so important that we have taken action to cut the number of children in poverty by half a million, with other measures in place to reduce it further.

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Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): The right hon. Lady talks about the values that underpin the Bill, and I certainly welcome those. Clause 8(5) lists a number of things that have to be taken into account in assessing and measuring progress once the Bill becomes law, including considerations relating to skills, employment and housing. Why is there nothing about the stability of the family environment? Surely that is one of the most important things for any child, is it not? Why is the Bill silent on that?

Yvette Cooper: It is right that we support families, and we should support families of all kinds, whatever their circumstances. That includes helping them to have stability in their lives-stability for children as they grow. It is also right that we recognise what the Government can do and where the Government can take action to support families. That is why there is also a serious vision of equality embedded in the Bill. Labour's child poverty targets have never just been about poverty; they have always been about narrowing the unfair inequalities that can haunt children throughout their lives.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I entirely support the right hon. Lady's contention, but I am puzzled because the Government's position on this Bill, which sets out targets and makes it a duty on the Secretary of State to meet them, is different from the one they adopted on my Fuel Poverty Bill, in which I set out targets and placed a duty on the Secretary of State to meet them. I was told:

I was told that it would be opposed at all costs. Have Ministers changed their minds about the appropriateness of such a step?

Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman is right in that it is indeed a radical thing for us to set Secretaries of State a duty to meet targets to cut child poverty and to abolish it by 2020, as set out in the Bill. We considered long and hard how best to embody the targets and the duty in the legislation because we think that ending child poverty is serious and will have an impact throughout the country.

Concerns about fuel poverty are reflected in the assessment of material deprivation, so we take the issue very seriously. The hon. Gentleman will realise that, for example, there are families who are concerned about being able to pay their fuel bills this winter, which has an impact on their children. We have taken an overarching approach to child poverty which looks at a series of separate targets because this is about opportunities for every child for many generations to come.

We believe that every child should get a fair start in life, and every child should have the chance to get on, to develop their potential and to chase their dreams. We believe in equality of opportunity for children as they grow, but we can make those opportunities real only if we also tackle the poverty and inequality that holds children back today. We know that children from low-income families do less well at school. We know that children on free school meals are only half as likely as the rest of their class mates to get five good GCSEs. We know that being left behind can be about missing out on
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educational school trips or music lessons, or not being able to get on the internet at home to research homework. It can mean cases such as those in the Barnardo's report out today of the 14-year-old boy Jelani who got nothing at all for his birthday-except for £10 from a friend that he gave to his mother to help towards the cost of his school uniform. Children get left behind for years to come if their family get left behind today.

John Howell (Henley) (Con): Given the case that the right hon. Lady started to make-that there are many factors involved in deprivation-can she tell us why the targets that she has chosen are simply income-based? Surely they should be broader.

Yvette Cooper: In fact, as I have just explained, the material deprivation target looks more broadly at the kinds of material circumstances in which families can find themselves. However, we have been clear that it is right to look at the relative poverty target because of the impact that that has on other aspects of children's lives, and for all their lives.

We also know that if we are concerned to increase family income, often the best way of doing so is by looking at how to get more parents into work and increase their skills and employability, so that they can get better-paid jobs in future. However, we also know that family income can have a significant impact on children's chances throughout their lives. It is simply unfair that some children should fall so far behind others and lose their chance to get on in life and properly fulfil their potential because of their family circumstances in early childhood.

Our main child poverty target has always been a relative poverty target and it must stay so. It means that as society becomes more prosperous, all our children must share in that prosperity. As the incomes of better-off families grow, the poorest families must not get left further behind, because if they do their children will fall further behind-and not just today, but potentially for decades to come.

The Bill goes further, because for the first time we are highlighting the importance of tackling persistent poverty. That, after all, is where the greatest harm for children lies. In the end, no Government action can prevent everything that goes wrong in families or causes problems for the children. However, we can work to help to get people the support that they need as soon as possible, so that the family is not trapped in poverty for years at a time.

Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): It is clearly an evil for a child to be persistently poor. Likewise, it is an evil for a pensioner to be persistently poor, year in, year out. We welcome the Bill but, having legislated to eliminate child poverty, does the Secretary of State have a time scale in mind to legislate to eliminate pensioner poverty, or is that a second-order priority?

Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman will know that we have made substantial progress in cutting pensioner poverty, lifting pensioners out of poverty through measures such as the winter fuel allowance and the pension credit in particular, which has provided substantial support for pensioners. Therefore, the chances of being in poverty are now much higher for children than they are for
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pensioners. That is why we are saying now that the target to end child poverty in a generation is sufficiently important to embed it in legislation and make clear progress on it in future years.

We have seen significant changes over the past 12 years. When we started in 1997, child poverty had been rising for 18 years. In fact, child poverty doubled between 1979 and 1997.

John Battle (Leeds, West) (Lab): I welcome the Bill, which I think will prove to be a significant milestone in tackling poverty in our country. I particularly welcome the provisions on local government. In order to meet the targets, can we encourage and support local government in all parts of the country to make rooting out poverty a top priority?

Yvette Cooper: My right hon. Friend is right to suggest that local government often has considerable ability to make a genuine difference in local communities, tackling the estates with the highest levels of child poverty, helping parents into work or tackling problems that children in certain communities can face. That is why we have set out duties on local government in the Bill, including the duty to work with other agencies, such as the local police, the local health service and other organisations across the community. Tackling child poverty cannot be about just national Government; it cannot be about just local government.

The number of children in absolute poverty has halved since 1997 and the number in relative poverty has dropped by 500,000. We expect the measures that were recently introduced, including increases in the child tax credit, to lift a further 500,000 out of relative poverty. More than 600,000 more lone parents are in work, while the minimum wage has helped to tackle poverty pay. Some 3,000 Sure Start children's centres are helping 2.4 million young children and their families, while £20 billion of support for families is being provided through the tax credit system-measure after measure sadly opposed by the Conservatives. Yet if we had not done that-if we had followed the Conservative approach and simply uprated the tax and benefit system by inflation each year since 1997-2.1 million more children would be in poverty today.

John Mason (Glasgow, East) (SNP): The Minister mentions the minimum wage and relative income, on which I completely agree with her. However, is there also a place for absolute figures? Does the minimum wage perhaps need to be higher, or do we need some kind of minimum income standard?

Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman will know that we take advice from the Low Pay Commission on the level at which the minimum wage should be set. We have also introduced tax credits, including the working tax credit and the child tax credit, to provide additional income for families. That has made a substantial difference of thousands of pounds a year to many families, without which many more would be in poverty today: it is transforming families' lives.

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