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10 Jun 2010 : Column 487

Here in Westminster, for example, we have the largest difference in life expectancy of any London local authority. In areas such as Knightsbridge and Belgravia, people can expect to live into their mid-80s, but just up the road in Queens Park life expectancy is just over 70-a gap of nearly 15 years. For every two minutes on the tube between Knightsbridge and Queens Park, the life expectancy of the communities through which one travels drops by a year.

Ms Karen Buck (Westminster North) (Lab): As a resident of Queens Park, this is an opportune moment to seek to intervene.

On the issue of health inequalities, poverty has to be understood as a relative as well as an absolute issue. Before the right hon. Gentleman goes too far in dismissing everything that the Labour Government were doing, does he agree with the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which said:

What measures that the Conservatives took-or failed to take-in those years will he now say will not be reintroduced if we are to make further progress?

Chris Grayling: Of course, we have not been in office since 1997. One of the tragedies of the past 13 years is seeing the amount of money spent leading to so little in the way of results. The point made by the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside about poverty of aspiration is a crucial one. I shall come on to discuss worklessness, but a lack of experience of work or educational achievement in a household, and other factors, can make such a difference. The divides are enormous. If one goes to a city such as Liverpool, one only has to walk for 20 minutes from one of the smartest, newest shopping centres in the country to streets where almost no one is working. Worklessness is central to the challenges faced by many of our communities.

Mark Tami: What are the right hon. Gentleman's views on the comments made earlier by the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), who said that local authority cuts will fall hardest on the poorest areas?

Chris Grayling: We have to look at this in a far more three-dimensional way. It is about changing educational achievement, which is why we have said that it is important to focus on a pupil premium for the most deprived areas. It is also why we have said that it is important to ensure, as the economy recovers and as the employment market picks up, that we do not make the mistakes of the past 10 years. Too many of the jobs that were created went to people coming into the country from overseas, as the right hon. Member for Birkenhead has identified on more than one occasion. We have to make sure that we break down the culture of worklessness and educational failure, which is as essential to dealing with poverty as any other factor.

Ms Buck: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way again. To approach the question that I asked earlier from a different angle, the IFS confirmed
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that Labour's measures had largely halted the rise in income inequality, which increased dramatically under the Conservative Government. Does he accept that the measures that he has to put in place must not repeat the errors and mistakes, with deep roots in unemployment and social breakdown, that characterised the Conservative years and led to rising income inequality and poverty?

Chris Grayling: We should always seek to learn from the past. We will seek not to make the mistakes of the past 10 years, when billions of pounds were spend on employment programmes that failed to break down the culture of worklessness in many of our communities.

Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con): My right hon. Friend is speaking very well about the inequalities between rich and poor, mainly in an urban context. Does he agree that nowhere is that difference more stark than in rural locations? Despite their rhetoric on rural-proofing over 13 years, the Opposition did absolutely nothing to narrow that divide. Will he provide an assurance sought by my constituents, and confirm that the plight of the poor in rural locations-they tend to be among the poorest in our society-will be addressed during our coalition Government?

Chris Grayling: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. As we prepare the Work programme, I shall seek to ensure that it includes scope for the voluntary sector organisations that specialise in local communities and individual groups in our society that can make a difference. Groups that best understand rural areas can make the biggest difference to ensure that we help people in rural communities into prosperous and successful working lives, and not leave them stranded on benefits. I certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance.

We have a moral duty, even in difficult times, to do what we can to break down the cycle of deprivation that affects many of those communities. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and his team have committed years to identifying the challenges that face those deprived communities and how to solve them. We have demonstrated a willingness to look at ideas across the political spectrum. I am delighted that we can take advantage of the expertise of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead in his review. He is highly regarded in all parts of the House for the knowledge and insights that he has built up, and we look forward to seeing his conclusions, particularly on how we measure poverty and capture a more accurate understanding of it in all its forms. That work enables us to understand more clearly how to develop solutions for the problems that we face.

I hope that we can maintain dialogue with Members such as the hon. Member for Nottingham North, who is a leading thinker on how to use early intervention to tackle deprivation. He has worked closely with my right hon. Friend who is now the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and we believe that this is an issue that should capture expertise wherever it lies. In addition, we have established for the first time a cross-departmental Cabinet Committee under the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend to ensure that we join up all the thinking and work that we do on social justice across government.

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All of that will require radical reforms. It is about stimulating economic growth by moving more people into work; providing more effective routes into truly sustainable jobs; establishing clearer links between work and reward; and helping people to make responsible choices and save for their retirement. And ultimately, in these straitened times, we must ensure that we are using the money available to the best possible effect, both for those individuals and the taxpayer.

Kate Green: I agree strongly with the Secretary of State that leading people to, and enabling them to sustain, well-paid jobs is an important route out of poverty, but with only about 0.5 million vacancies-and, as his Government have said, about 5 million on inactive and unemployment benefits-can he confirm that an adequate safety net for people who cannot be in paid work will be sustained, and in particular, that there will be no freezing or cutting of benefits on which families who are out of work rely?

Chris Grayling: I am not going to announce the Budget today, but it will remain a Government commitment to provide a security or safety net for people who find themselves in difficulties. That safety net must not be a place in which people simply live their lives. No one benefits from sitting at home on benefits doing nothing, whether it is people with incapacities, people with disabilities or lone parents. There is general agreement-between ourselves, and between representative groups outside-that if we can help people into work it gives them a more fulfilling life, and it provides a job for their families. We regard breaking down the culture of worklessness as a huge priority.

The hon. Lady is right about the economic situation, but we must not make the mistake that has been made over the past 10 years. The previous Government presided over a situation in which jobs that were created tended to go not to people who were stranded on benefits in this country but to people moving here from overseas. That must not happen in the coming decade.

Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): Further to the Secretary of State's comments on the balance between work and benefits, will he take into consideration a letter from a constituent that I received this morning? She is a single mother trying to support her children, but she pointed out she was not eligible for a grant for a uniform for one of them because she works.

she writes,

I urge the Secretary of State, in reshaping policy, to take into consideration people such as my constituent who are trying to do the right thing but who find that people on benefits are better off.

Chris Grayling: My hon. Friend is right. We have to make sure that people benefit financially from going back to work. We will do everything that we can as an Administration to ensure that people who do the right thing genuinely benefit from doing so, and that no one
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is incentivised to say, "There's no point in getting a job. I'll stay at home." That does not do them, or any of us, any good whatsoever.

We are talking not just about individuals but about whole families: two or three generations of the same family who not only do not work but have never worked. That is not simply the result of a lack of opportunity. In many of our most deprived and challenged communities, the culture of dependency and the sense of exclusion from mainstream society has resulted in a sense of hopelessness and poverty of ambition, as the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside said, which we have to break down. We will do everything that we can to meet that challenge.

I want to set out five key areas that are central to helping people to escape from that poverty trap. First, all the evidence shows that early-years experiences are crucial in determining life chances. A stable home life can make a huge difference to the health and well-being of our children. Family breakdown has been linked to mental health problems, addiction and educational failure, and there is no doubt that the impact of families on life chances seems to be more pronounced in the UK than in neighbouring areas. The earning potential of a child in the UK is more closely related to that of their parents than it is in countries such as the United States, Germany or France. The rate of family breakdown is much higher in the UK than in other major countries, and we have one of the highest proportions of single-parent families in the OECD and the highest rate of teen pregnancies in the EU.

The reality of the links to poverty is clear: 34% of children in families with just one parent in their home were in poverty in 2008-09-a much higher proportion than the national average, which is 22%-and we know that a family with just one parent is twice as likely to have an income in the bottom 20% as families where there are two parents. We want to create a system that supports families, creates a stable environment for children and improves social mobility. That is why we will work to strengthen families by investing in effective early-years provision, including expanding the availability and accessibility of health visitors, so that all parents have access to expert support and advice in the crucial early days of a child's life. We will recognise marriage in the tax system, and, as soon as we can we will tackle the couple penalty in tax credits. We will encourage shared parenting from the earliest stages of pregnancy, including the promotion of a system of flexible parental leave. We want to restore aspiration, allowing parents to hope for their children and children to dream for themselves. Education plays a central role in that, and it is the second key area that we wish to address.

Education is vital. We know that people with five or more GCSEs at grades A to C earn more than those without, and they are around 3% more likely to be in work. But we also know that of the 75,000 children who receive free school meals every year, almost half do not get a single grade C at GCSE-more than a thousand classrooms of children each year let down by the system. We have some of the most disadvantaged children in the UK. Of the 6,000 children leaving care every year, only 400 are in higher education by the age of 19. Children in care should be a particular priority for us. Every child should have access to good quality education. Too many of the poorest children are stuck in chaotic classrooms
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in bad schools, so we will give teachers more power over discipline, bring in a pupil premium and provide extra funding for the poorest children so that they go to the best schools, not the worst.

But we are concerned not only about preventing the next generation falling into a cycle of poverty and worklessness. We also have to deal with the challenges that are there right now. So the third area that we will address is the problem of worklessness and welfare dependency. Each week, if one includes tax credits and child benefits, 12 million working-age households receive benefits at a cost of around £85 billion a year. About 5 million people claim out-of-work benefits, and around half of those have spent at least half of the last 10 years on some form of benefit. We know that many of those on out-of-work benefits cannot work for reasons of health, but many with the right help could get back into work.

At its worst, the current system divides people and assigns support based on the type of benefit claimed rather than need. It fails to recognise people who need extra help and it refuses up-front support, allowing people to become so entrenched in the benefit system that they cannot see a way out. Many Members who represent some of the most challenged communities and talk to those people know that we must help them to break out of the environment in which they live, raising their aspirations and showing them that there is a better way forward.

During the last 10 years, an array of programmes was set up by the last Government. They believed that the answer was to create top-down, closely designed programmes, which they imposed on the system. That did not work, so we will do something different. When we introduce our single work programme next year, it will create an environment in which the support that we offer will be tailored to the needs of individuals, not designed in Whitehall by Ministers and officials. Everyone who can work should get the help and advice that they need to get a job and move into sustainable work. That will be our focus and those who deliver that support will be paid on the basis of the success that they have in delivering that support and getting people into work.

Britain is a nation of opportunity. It must be a nation of opportunity. As we tackle the deficit and get the economy back on its feet-I keep returning to this point-we must ensure that the jobs that are created in the next few years go to those who are in the most need, who can get off benefits and make more of their lives. We cannot make the same mistakes all over again. That is what our welfare reforms are all about.

I want to talk briefly about another group-those on incapacity benefits. More than 2 million people claim incapacity benefits, nearly half of whom have been out of work for the last 12 years. They, in particular, need fresh opportunities. Not all will be able to work, but very many can work, and very many would be much better off in work. All of those who work with people with incapacities and disabilities say that if we can get them into mainstream employment, return them to a normal working life, it will do them a power of good, improving their quality of life and making a real difference to them. That can and will be a big priority for us.

As we design the work programme, we will ensure that we have a system and a structure in place that encourages the people who deliver that programme to
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provide the specialised, tailored support that we need to steer those people who have been on incapacity benefit for so long down a better path and get them into employment. In particular, we recognise that the most disabled, those who have the biggest challenge in their life, will need additional help and support to get into work. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), will no doubt be talking later about some of the ways in which we hope to deliver the best possible support to those people.

Kate Green: Many disabled people would welcome the opportunity to be in paid employment. What efforts are being made not just to concentrate on supporting them to find suitable work, but to work with employers to ensure that they respond to the particular needs of disabled people in the workplace?

Chris Grayling: That is an important point. We must encourage and work with employers, and we should start at home. Whitehall and Government Departments and agencies should be at the forefront of finding the best ways to provide opportunities for people with disabilities, and that will be a priority for my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. If we do not lead from the front, no one else will, and that is something that we certainly want to see happen.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen South) (Lab): How will the Minister encourage employers to employ people with mental health problems when the stigma is so great? We have had recent examples of discrimination against people who have disclosed mental health problems.

Chris Grayling: First, I congratulate the hon. Lady on her election to the Chair of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions. My colleagues and I look forward to being grilled by her in the months ahead, but I hope that we will have a constructive relationship. I hope that we can listen openly to the ideas that come from her Committee and that we can work together to make a difference on some of these issues.

I very much agree with the hon. Lady on mental health issues. One thing that I hope will come through the Work programme, where we have established providers with specialist skills working with employers and people who have had mental health challenges in their lives, is that we will have the kind of partnership that will break some of these barriers down. Once a provider starts to work with a group of employers, starts to bring good people to them, and that works well, more doors will be opened. The hon. Lady makes an important point; more than 2 million people are on incapacity benefit and many have supplemental health problems, and they must be looked after in the Work programme and we must ensure that it delivers opportunities for them.

John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): Can the Minister explain what the future holds for Remploy?

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