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Remploy does some very good work. We have been in office only three weeks, so there is still a lot of work to be done, but we recognise the importance of Remploy. In particular, I pay tribute to Remploy for doing some of the work that the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Miss Begg) would like to see, such as
getting people who have various forms of disability routinely into workplaces alongside members of society as a whole. That is particularly important. I want to see as many people as possible with either mental health problems or physical disabilities in workplaces as a matter of routine, and Remploy's work in getting more people into work has been extremely valuable.
May I also welcome you to your Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker? This may or may not be your first session, but it is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair today. If you will forgive me, I shall move on quickly and make way, because many Members want to make their maiden speeches.
On pensioner poverty, we are concerned to see that older people enjoy dignity and security in their old age, and that means ensuring that those in work are able to put money aside for their future. We have far too many pensioners living in poverty today, about 1.8 million people, so we need a system that works for our pensioners. We need a fair, decent and simple system that is supported by a vibrant private pensions landscape, too.
As a first step in doing the right thing for our pensioners, we will from April next year restore the earnings link with the basic state pension, and there will be a triple guarantee that pensions will be raised by the higher of earnings, prices or 2.5%. That is a big step forward for state pension provision, and I am very proud to be part of an Administration who intend to deliver that change.
We will also do everything that we can to ease the burden on pension funds, to encourage companies to offer high-quality pensions to their employees and to stop drowning pension funds in the red tape that has been symptomatic of the past 13 years of government. We also need to put people back in control of achieving their retirement aspirations, instead of being reliant purely on the state, and that involves creating the savings culture that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has talked about.
We need to address another area-debt, the single biggest challenge facing the UK. This week we have talked extensively about the national challenge that we face, but we should not forget the challenges that individual families face with debt. People in lower-income families are the most vulnerable; they have nothing to fall back on in an emergency; and the debt that they have to take on is twice as expensive as that for most other people because of the risk that they are perceived to represent. Debt creates tensions in families, it can be a disincentive to work and it leads to worry and stress-related illnesses. We will consider ways of alleviating some of the credit and debt challenges that our poorest communities face. That is essential if we are to deal with some of the issues in those communities, and we hope to bring forward thoughts and ideas in due course.
Drug and alcohol misuse and addiction is closely linked to some of the biggest challenges that we face, whether they are social challenges, educational failure, family breakdown, or even crime. Problematic drug and alcohol users are frequently unable to hold down a job or form relationships that do not revolve around their habit, and such addiction can ruin lives and destroy families, often leaving little room for anything else. Poverty and deprivation are a cause and effect of addiction, born out of the fact that 80% of problem drug users are
in receipt of benefits, often for many years, with little realistic prospect of finding employment. Addiction in the home can do huge damage to children too, so as we design the work programme's detail, we will also be mindful of how we address the deep-rooted problems of addiction in our welfare state and our most deprived communities.
The past decade has been a wasted opportunity for this country. Promise after promise was not kept; hopes and expectations were dashed; and the jobs that were created went to people entering the country from overseas, not those on benefits. The reality is that billions and billions of pounds were spent to relatively little effect. We are determined to ensure that our most deprived communities are not left behind as they were over that decade. We will strive to get people back into work as the economy recovers; we will strive to improve the chances of those people getting a good education; we will work to strengthen families; we will work to break down the barriers between our richest and poorest communities; and we will work to raise the aspirations in those communities.
This is a Government who believe in opportunity, and we will work tirelessly to deliver it for all our citizens.
I welcome the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), to his new post. I know that on 5 May he thought he would become the Home Secretary, but the Department for Work and Pensions is a great Department, with excellent officials and a fantastic network of dedicated public servants throughout the whole country, and I hope he enjoys his time there as much as I enjoyed mine.
I have been trying to picture how the new ministerial team meetings are going, and I guess that the right hon. Gentleman has a pivotal role in mediating between the Secretary of State, who believes that family breakdown is a key issue that must be addressed, and their new colleague, the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb), who said:
"To hear Conservative Front Benchers suggest that they even care about this subject...is...unbelievable."- [ Official Report, 20 July 2009; Vol. 496, c. 625.]
I was wondering why the right hon. Gentleman had been given that job, and whether it was because of his famed diplomatic skills, but then I remembered that it was in fact because he used to be a member of the Social and Democratic party-until he was swallowed up by the Conservatives. So he really is the prototype for the new coalition politics.
We have said that we want to be a constructive Opposition, supporting when we agree and criticising when we do not, and I must say that the Minister has not given a fair or accurate account of the Labour Government's achievements in tackling poverty. Over the 13 years in which we were in power, we reversed the trend of rising poverty and lifted 900,000 pensioners
out of poverty and 500,000 children out of relative poverty. On the statistics published only last month, we see that 2 million children were also lifted out of absolute poverty.
Bob Russell: Is the hon. Lady aware of early-day motions 61 and 62? The first is on the Joseph Rowntree Foundation audit of poverty, which shows that poverty is at the same level as it was in 2000. The second is on a study by the Fabian Society and the Webb Memorial Trust, which shows that 20% of the population lives in poverty. Is that really a triumph of new Labour's 13 years?
Helen Goodman: The latest year for which we have figures is 2008-09, and the hon. Gentleman must take account of the fact that since then two things have been going on: first, we have had to face the global recession; and secondly, the Labour Government have put in train all the measures from the 2007 Budget. Our calculations were that they would lift a further 500,000 children out of poverty, so the hon. Gentleman slightly overstates his case.
Helen Goodman: No, I do not suggest that at all. I suggest that those statistics are selective and that, if we take the decade as a whole, we see an extremely positive record on poverty across the board.
Mark Tami: Will my hon. Friend express a view on the comments of the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill)? I asked about them earlier and did not receive an answer, but the Under-Secretary said that the poorest would bear the brunt of the cuts.
Helen Goodman: That is the big worry, and if even Government Back Benchers can see it, I hope that Government Front Benchers will take that concern very seriously. As my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) said earlier, the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies also stated that Labour's tax and benefit reforms have reduced income inequality. If we had maintained the policies that we inherited in 1997, there would have been a much greater degree of income inequality.
The Minister before us this afternoon also overstated his case on worklessness. In fact, the number of people on inactive benefits is now 350,000 lower than the number that we inherited, and the number of lone parents in work has increased substantially from 46 to 58%, because of the positive measures that we took. I hope he does not mind my saying that he will find the problems rather more intractable than he implied in his speech.
We welcome the commitment to restoring the earnings link to pensions, and we are extremely pleased that the Government have decided to maintain the winter fuel allowance and free bus passes, which we introduced. As the Minister said, encouraging a savings culture is obviously
important, but Labour Members cannot quite marry that with the halt that seems to have been put on the auto-enrolment programme.
The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr Iain Duncan Smith): May I, for the record, ensure that the hon. Lady understands that there is no such halt? We are committed to auto-enrolment, but we are reviewing how it is done within the whole NES-new entrepreneur scholarships-programme.
The Minister talked about the importance of the problem of debt facing the very poorest people, and the Secretary of State mentioned credit unions in his speech on Tuesday night. The Labour Government introduced a growth fund for credit unions, and we put £86 million into credit unions across the country. I very much hope that the new Government will maintain that level of support in the public spending round that they are going to undertake.
Mark Tami: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is very important that we keep that support for credit unions, because if they are not there, such people will, yet again, have to turn to loan sharks and others who demand very high interest rates, often with menaces?
Mr Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): Has my hon. Friend had the same experience as I have in my constituency, where the Financial Services Authority is regulating credit unions in the way we wish it had regulated the big banks, thereby putting their future at stake? As my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) said, credit unions play a vital role in giving poorer people an alternative way of getting cheap credit.
Helen Goodman: I do not know whether my experience in my constituency has been exactly the same as that of my right hon. Friend, but he reinforces the significant role that credit unions can play, and we urge the Government to maintain support for them.
Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): In my constituency and around the county of Gloucestershire, the three credit unions that still exist-in Stroud, Forest of Dean and Gloucester-are all very small and only scratch the surface in trying to reach those on housing estates who are most vulnerable to loan sharks. Under this Government, we will try, with the help of a community foundation and social enterprises, to consolidate those three credit unions into a county-wide credit union that will be bigger and more solid and sustainable, and will reach more of the most poverty-stricken people.
I am of course interested to hear about what is going on in Gloucestershire. I do not know whether DWP Ministers have yet had time to engage with their colleagues at the Department for
Business, Innovation and Skills, but the regulatory issues mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) clearly need to be addressed in conjunction with that Department.
I should like to turn to the issue of free school meals, on which I hope to be able to offer the new ministerial team some constructive advice. I do not know if they have seen the letter that the Secretary of State for Education sent to my right hon. Friend the shadow Education Secretary on 7 June, in which he says that he plans to discuss the whole issue of free school meals with DWP colleagues. Labour Members are disappointed that the Secretary of State has decided not to go ahead with extending the eligibility of free school meals to the 500,000 children in primary schools whose parents are on working tax credits. He says in his letter:
"I am sympathetic to the arguments for extending eligibility-though surprised that a decision to do so was taken before any evidence on the impact on attainment could be collected from pilots."
That argument is not wholly unfamiliar to us. However, I would like the Minister to understand that we decided to go ahead with extending eligibility to those 500,000 children not only because we expected it to have a beneficial impact on their performance in school but because it is estimated that it would lift 50,000 children out of poverty and would be a serious improvement to the quality of work incentives. I strongly urge him to ask his officials if he could look at the analysis of the most cost-effective measures for addressing child poverty, because I believe he will see, as we did, that this is one of the most effective things that could be done. As the Education Department team are not here, I point out that another advantage of the measure is that it does not come off the DWP budget. This delay will be seriously disappointing for large numbers of families across the country. I urge the Government not to begin their tenure by repeating Mrs Thatcher's snatching of the milk.
Bob Russell: I have considerable sympathy with the hon. Lady's point, but I have to tell her-I researched this for an Adjournment debate that I had in the last Parliament-that it was the legislation of the last Labour Government that paved the way for the withdrawal of school meals services. Certainly, the Tories in Essex used that legislation to go down the route of removing the school meals service. Perhaps she should look at the Education Act 1944, and then she will see what a proper Labour Government used to do.
I said earlier that in our 13 years we had a political objective of decreasing poverty together with the policies to make it happen. I welcome the fact that the coalition has said that it will maintain the objective of ending child poverty, and that those living in poverty will be protected as the Government deal with the deficit. Indeed, the Prime Minister has said:
"The test of a good society is how...you protect the poorest, the most vulnerable, the elderly, the frail."
Kate Green: Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Child Poverty Act has provided for the relative poverty measure to continue to be an element of the way in which we measure success and progress on poverty? Does she agree that that is the most meaningful measure for determining that we are ensuring that living standards for all, including the poorest, keep up as society's wealth improves?
As I was saying, the omens are not good, and I fear that the rhetoric is not matched by the reality. Only this morning, the independent Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development forecast a rise in unemployment to almost 3 million as public sector workers, mainly women and the low-paid, are thrown on to the dole. In fact, it is difficult to see exactly what the strategy of Her Majesty's Government is. So far, the two coalition partners can agree on getting rid of the child trust fund and the future jobs fund, but what will be the effect of those cuts? The child trust fund was the first serious attempt to tackle intergenerational poverty by enabling low-income families to build up assets for their children. As the Minister said, it is vital to encourage a culture of savings, and it was designed to do precisely that, but it is going to go.
The coalition Government were also able to agree to cut the future jobs fund, despite the fact that before the election both coalition parties said they would continue it. That means that 80,000 young people will lose their chances of work this year, and perhaps 150,000 next year. The whole reason why we introduced the fund was that we saw the scarring effects of youth unemployment in the 1980s and '90s. Because we took measures over the past 18 months during the recession, long-term youth unemployment is now one tenth of the level that it was then. However, the coalition parties have clearly learned nothing and care less. One must ask oneself why that is, so let us examine where the cuts in the future jobs fund will fall most heavily-the west midlands, the north-west, Wales and Scotland. The future jobs fund is about real jobs.
Chris Grayling: May I point out to the hon. Lady how proud I am to have many new colleagues on our Benches from the west midlands, the north-west, Wales and so on? Will she confirm to the House that a couple of weeks ago, this Administration announced tens of thousands of new apprenticeships, which are likely to have a much longer-lasting impact on securing proper careers for the future for young people?
Of course Members from the coalition parties could be elected in those areas, given that they did not say before the election that they would cut the future jobs fund. They promised that they would continue it, and now they have cut it. That is the problem. I suspect that the Government's real agenda is to make young people do the same work that they were doing under the future jobs fund, but whereas everybody was paid at least the minimum wage through that fund,
under the schemes that the Minister and the Government are proposing they will have to live on benefits. What will that do for poverty levels, and where does it leave the Liberal Democrats' commitment to raise the minimum wage for people under the age of 24?
It is ironic that the one thing the partners in the coalition really cannot agree about is the role of the family. The Tories want to reintroduce the married couples allowance, but that is one of the few matters on which the coalition agreement allows the Liberal Democrats to abstain. Who will benefit from it? Not the widow, the abandoned mother or the woman who has left her husband because of domestic violence. The Liberal Democrats should have the courage of their convictions, and they should vote against it. It is a wholly regressive and retrograde step. As the Deputy Prime Minister said during the election campaign, it is
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