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9 Feb 2010 : Column 208WH—continued

One issue in London that has been mentioned by several hon. Members-helpfully, it is addressed in the London Child Poverty Commission's report "Capital Gains", which was published in February 2008-is the shortage of part-time jobs, job-share opportunities and flexible working in the capital. Part-time work is absolutely key for parents with caring commitments and is often the first step to help them get back into the labour market. Although some employment practices of the Department for Work and Pensions are quite good, the Government have failed to lead by example in that area,
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as many Departments have shockingly low levels of part-time and flexible working. The Government are a major employer and should be leading by example in that area, if they expect private employers to do the same.

Several hon. Members have rightly touched on the need for reform of the benefits system. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) has undertaken a major study in that area and produced a report, "Dynamic Benefits", the two principal conclusions of which are that we need to look much more carefully at earnings disregards and that we need to reduce withdrawal or taper rates, particularly for housing benefit. I was glad that the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington mentioned that point in her speech. We have proposed a reform to housing benefit that would allow tenants to choose to whom they pay their local housing allowance. That might seem a technical matter, but it is important, because it would increase the number of landlords who were prepared to offer their properties for social renting.

I was glad that the Olympics were raised in the debate. It is a scandal that young, indigenous Londoners of all backgrounds do not have more jobs on the site. Frankly, that is a missed opportunity. The hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) mentioned that many young people in his borough did not look to the City for work, either because there are barriers in place, or because it is just not somewhere they consider going. That is a real issue within London. I talk to many groups working with out-of-work families, and it seems that sometimes people put constraints on where they are prepared to look for work, so anything we can do within schools to encourage children to have broader horizons physically-with regard to where they work-is incredibly important and will secure great benefits. We must also ensure that people in work, particularly in low-skilled jobs, have the means to improve their skills to advance themselves through what I call the ABC approach-a job, a better job, a career-so that they do not get stuck in low-paid jobs.

Skills are obviously an aspect of that, and I was delighted to read some comments made by the Mayor of London about skills at the London schools and the black child conference in 2009. On black and minority ethnic issues, to which we referred earlier, he talked about the importance of recruiting more teachers from the black and Asian communities, keeping children in school, tackling truancy and dealing with exclusions. I note, in particular, that the Mayor's fund for London is working to inspire young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to stay on in education and have role models so that they can aspire to jobs that are perhaps better than those that their parents or grandparents have had.

We also know that within London there have been huge levels of immigration, and it is important that we bring immigration under control and improve the education and training of British workers. It is an irony, as I mentioned earlier, that London has sucked in workers and that jobs have been created here, but that they have bypassed many people who have remained on the welfare system-frankly that is not good enough. I want the children in the boroughs surrounding the Olympic park to benefit this year from the great opportunities there in construction and elsewhere.

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There has been no mention of enterprise or business in the debate, which is a great omission. The hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington was right to pay attention to the important role of the public sector in providing jobs, but there must be a balance. We have to get London's small and medium-sized enterprises creating more jobs, because otherwise there will not be the money to pay for the decent public services that she and I want in London.

I am therefore pleased by several actions that the Mayor is taking in his economic recovery plan to help business and to create jobs within London so that we deal with the poverty that we are talking about. He is looking at providing greater flexibility in the range of funds available for small businesses. He has created an economic recovery and investment fund to provide debt and equity finance to small businesses that cannot get that money from the banks. He is ensuring that small and medium-sized enterprises are paid by London public bodies under his control within 10 days, because cash flow is vital to ensuring that people keep their jobs. He is ensuring that contracts are open to SMEs in London, and he is speeding up planning permission.

Mr. Eric Martlew (in the Chair): Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would like to leave the Minister some time to respond to the debate.

Andrew Selous: I will conclude in one minute, Mr. Martlew.

The Mayor wants to see tax relief on travelcards. That is already in place in Nottingham, Bristol and Edinburgh, so why not in London? He is also ensuring the roll-out of the London living wage, which is currently £7.60, and that even premier league football clubs in London pay that to the staff on their premises. He is developing an empty property scheme for small and start-up companies in addition to pop-up shops.

Finally, on the issue of single parents, which was touched on earlier, I would like to refer briefly to The Economic Journal report by Richard Dickens and David Ellwood that shows that reducing the number of single parents and increasing family stability are critical to reducing child poverty. Lord Giddens said that he did not think there were academic studies on the subject, but I point him to that report, which is important as far as defeating child poverty in London is concerned.

10.50 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Helen Goodman): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr. Martlew.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) on securing a debate on this extremely important topic. She is absolutely right: child poverty is a serious problem in London, where it is 27 per cent., compared with the national average of 23 per cent. Given the extremes of wealth and poverty in the city, such a huge gap is a particular disgrace. Other hon. Members said that one of the main reasons for it is that parental employment in the capital is 8 per cent. lower than in the rest of the country and there is a particular shortage of part-time jobs.

My hon. Friend spoke about the Save the Children report, which suggested that the problem was getting worse for those on the lowest incomes. I would like to point out that the figures that it used were from 2007,
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and that the measures that we have taken since then will have reduced the number of children in poverty by a further 550,000. We are waiting for more up-to-date figures to see what the position actually is. At one point, I thought that she would come out as a one-nation Tory, but she held back from that conversion.

In the recession, as my hon. Friend said, the working tax credit acts as an important stabiliser, and, crucially, we are supporting the labour market. We have put £5 billion into new programmes, particularly the future jobs fund and Backing Young Britain. Such measures are designed to maintain family incomes and to avoid the kind of desperately high unemployment that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) said existed in his constituency 20 years ago.

One of the important things in the Child Poverty Bill is part 2, the whole of which is about the contribution of local authorities. It will mean that local authorities in London can work to design strategies that are particularly suited to the needs in their area. I shall give my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington a copy of a big research report that we just published, "Ethnicity and child poverty", which shows that a particular penalty is faced by members of ethnic minority communities. We must also address that.

Hon. Members spoke about the housing benefit system. They will know that we have just produced a consultation document, which has as one of its central objectives shifting work incentives by introducing fixed period awards and run-ons when a person moves into work. I remind hon. Members that housing benefit is an in-work benefit, which means that it should not disincentivise people from taking work.

One of the important things that we have done is set up a large, multi-party group called the London child poverty delivery group. In January, a group on part-time working was launched to promote part-time working in the city and to address the real problems faced by people in part-time work.

My hon. Friend spoke about the high costs of child care in the city. We are running important child care affordability pilots to look at the impact of changing the amount of money that is reimbursed from 80 per cent. to 100 per cent. and to examine actual costs. We will be able to see what impact that will have and then develop public services that actually do the trick.

My hon. Friends the Members for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington and for Islington, North both spoke about the importance of free school meals, and I could not agree more. I was delighted by the Chancellor of the Exchequer's announcement in December about extending free school meals but appalled to hear that a Liberal Democrat council is proposing to cut entitlement to them. I cannot understand why, in a borough such as Islington, that is being proposed by a party that aspires to be taken seriously. I hope very much that we can address the bureaucratic problems that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North raised.

I continue to be surprised by the position of the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who is the Opposition spokesman. He purports in all the debates that we have on child poverty to be extremely
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concerned about the issue, yet he belongs to a party that proposes to divert resources from Sure Start and health visiting, and to cut the number of people who can get child tax credits and child trust funds.

Andrew Selous: Will the Minister give way?

Helen Goodman: No, I am sorry. I do not have time because the hon. Gentleman did not leave me enough.

I understand why the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) raised questions about the main Opposition party's commitment to the income targets in the Child Poverty Bill. For example, only yesterday, the noble Lord Freud said:

That is an extraordinary statement from a party that purports to be interested in the family.

Lord Freud also said in an earlier Committee debate on the Bill:

What direction is that? What direction would he prefer? We know that Her Majesty's Opposition are proposing to reintroduce a married couple's allowance. The direction that that would take us in would give the bottom decile-the poorest people in this country-an extra £30 a year while giving the top decile an extra £380 a year. That is the direction that the Opposition want to take, and it would obviously have a serious and severe impact in London.

The Economist says this week that the proposal

I could not agree more. It seems utterly perverse to go down such a path when we could spend the same amount of money lifting 750,000 children out of poverty.

Let me return to housing in London. All hon. Members pointed out how significant the lack of affordable housing is. The Government have pledged £2.8 billion over the period 2009-11 as part of the £7.5 billion that we are spending to produce 112,000 affordable homes across the country. It is therefore extremely unfortunate and disappointing that the Mayor of London is stretching the 50,000 target for affordable homes that we had previously from three to four years.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington raised an extremely important issue this morning. She discussed lone parents and the need to get them back to work, and I very much hope that she will take part in debates on a statutory instrument that we will introduce to ensure that lone parents are required to work only during the hours when their children are at school.

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Conflict Prevention

10.59 am

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for selecting the debate on conflict prevention.

I am pleased to see in this Chamber my colleagues the hon. Members for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) who, with me, are proud to be co-chairs of our all-party parliamentary group on conflict issues. It is out of the work of that group, which was formed in 2006, and out of the work of lots of other colleagues in this Chamber and elsewhere in the House, that this debate is born.

It is a fact that, not just in this Parliament and this country, but in all democracies, people are realising that unless we become better at conflict prevention we will commit the world to a continuing succession of terrible conflicts that take their toll, and that conflict prevention is a wonderfully useful investment. The money spent on conflict prevention is repaid many times through avoiding the conflicts that might otherwise follow.

Out of the all-party group, the Parliamentarians Network for Conflict Prevention and Human Security was formed in Brussels about a year and a half ago. The United Kingdom launch of that group happened in March last year: the Archbishop of York gave the keynote address and the Foreign Secretary sent a welcome message. It was not accidental that that group met here on the eve of the G20. We recognise and pay tribute to the G7, and later the G8 and the G20-including significant input by our Prime Minister-which have ensured that conflict prevention has been on not just the UK but the international agenda.

I am encouraged that a significant number of colleagues in the House in many different parties signed early-day motion 81, which I tabled on behalf of our group. I thank colleagues for signing it.

I am happy to see the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office in his seat. His Department takes the lead on delivering these matters across three principal Departments: the Ministry of Defence, the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I know that the Minister will want to be honest with the House and robust in setting out the Government's commitment to this agenda.

I pay tribute to the Government for the work that they have already done. It was clear from the time that they came to office that conflict prevention mattered to the Labour Government. Conflict prevention featured clearly in each of the Labour party's manifestos since 1997. I acknowledge and pay tribute to that fact. I acknowledge also, in the presence of the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) who speaks for the Conservative party, that this year, as shown in the document produced by his party on these issues, his party has understood and has now made it clear that conflict prevention will be an important part of its foreign and defence policy agenda. I pay tribute to those who helped produce that document.

It is not accidental that this debate is happening now. One of our objectives-I am direct about this-is to ensure that when each of our three major parties, and
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other parties, write their manifestos, conflict prevention is there clearly for all to see. Now is exactly the time for such a debate, when we are seeking to influence the agenda for the next Parliament and the next Government, whatever their composition. I hope that all parties will make it clear that this matter should not divide us when we need to be united and strong in making strong statements.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): As the hon. Gentleman is moving away from his introductory remarks, I warmly congratulate him on bringing this matter before the Chamber. He mentioned at the beginning of his speech the importance of the cost-effectiveness of conflict prevention. Does he agree that cancelling the massively expensive and eventually wasteful Trident project could be a cost-effective, sound step towards a safer world?

Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman is right to ask that question, because it is on everybody's agenda. I can give him a clear answer to that. My party is committed to ensuring that we do not have a like-for-like replacement for Trident. We made that clear some years ago, not just because we believe that we need to find savings in those parts of our Budget that are hugely expensive, relatively, but because if we are seeking the safer world that we all want, multilaterally, we need to take the initiative. We in the United Kingdom-historically one of the world's great military powers-need to be leading, not following. I am conscious that this is the year of the multilateral negotiations on defence. Our position is clear and we will repeat it in the manifesto whenever the general election is called.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Ivan Lewis): I seek clarification from the hon. Gentleman and thank him for his kind words about the role that we have tried to play. In previous debates on this issue in recent times we have been told by his colleagues that the Lib Dems are conducting a review on what they are to do about Trident. The hon. Gentleman has just announced that we are not to have a like-for-like replacement. Will he be clear and say what that means? How does that fit with his colleagues saying, "We haven't made our mind up yet. No decision made. We're in the middle of a review process"?

Simon Hughes: I can do that, although I do not want to be distracted into turning this into a debate about the future of Trident.

Mr. Eric Martlew (in the Chair): Order. That would not be appropriate.

Simon Hughes: Thank you, Mr. Martlew. I shall try to give a short answer and then return to my central focus. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) has been asked by our party leader to conduct a review. I will not pre-empt his announcement. But the party has already made it clear-my right hon. and learned Friend made it clear when he was leader, and I spoke in the debate at our party conference that addressed this issue-that we are not in favour of a like-for-like replacement for Trident. Therefore we do not take the same view as the Government, who announced their position some years ago, long before they needed to, or the Conservative party. The detail of the review will be announced by our party in due course.

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