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If we cast our mind back to the then Prime Minister's objective to abolish child poverty by 2020, we can only exclaim that it was one of the most audacious targets set by any Government. I happened to be a Work and Pensions Minister at the time, and I learned about the
target for the first time when I went into my room at the Department and saw Sky News on the television. That is when I learned that the Government's objective was to abolish child poverty by 2020, even though I was a Minister with some responsibility for it. Others will have shared my sense of awe about how decisions came down to us-lesser Members-from Mount Sinai.
Had I been consulted beforehand, I hope I would have advised the then Prime Minister that although we should commit ourselves to the objective, the formula was one that no other country in the free world had achieved. We should not set targets for people, nations or Governments to fail; we should set targets they can achieve. It was thus immensely important before we fought the general election that we not only set out attempts to broaden our understanding of how we might measure poverty but put them in an Act of Parliament. That process is being developed and possibly taken a stage further in the review that the Prime Minister has asked me to undertake.
It gives me considerable pleasure that I have been asked to carry out the review, but it would have given me even more pleasure had my own side asked me to undertake that activity. The terms of reference took some time to agree-about seven times as long as the coalition agreement. They are public-they are certainly on my website-and I shall set out what I hope the review will achieve by Christmas.
In interviews, I have cited just one study, although there are many others that we could cite from our constituencies. The study relates to the work of the Prince's charities in Burnley. It is a wonderful project, where volunteer mothers make sure that children are up in time for school. The children are taken to school. If need be, they are washed at school, fed breakfast and made ready, with all the other children, to start their day's activities and endeavours.
My plea to the House is that if anyone thinks that those projects will be made irrelevant simply because we increase household incomes, however necessary basic income is, they are doing a disservice to poorer families and to the poor generally. Indeed, one of the great purposes of the review, if it fulfils its ambitions, is not only to run alongside the monetary definitions of poverty considerations of what non-financial aspects push children into poverty but, more importantly, to move the debate on. Until now, it has been obsessed with inputs-what we put in, and how much money is at stake, crucial though that is-and we need to consider outcomes. Therefore, part of the review will consider how we can together construct an index of what determines children's life chances, how we can extend those life chances and, more importantly, how we can measure that, so that we can report back to our constituents on whether we have been successful during each Parliament.
I should like my right hon. Friend to be specific. I am not sure whether we were at cross-purposes earlier. My concern is that we do not redefine the poverty level. That is the major concern among Labour Members. We should not say, "Oh, 60% of median income is far too high. We want to go to 40%." I draw his attention to the full definition that we put in the Child Poverty Act 2010. We now take into account a wide range of things: outdoor space in which to play, celebrations on holiday and at Christmas and swimming
at least once a month. Those items are under a continual process of renewal, because that index is based on surveys of the whole population and what the whole population thinks it is reasonable for a child to have.
Mr Field: I am happy to give assurances to my hon. Friend. The law is quite clear about the objectives. I have no idea what the report will contain, but those objectives that we have are ones that we should achieve. The primary definition that we used before the 2010 Act was not only difficult to achieve mathematically, but has not been achieved in any country in the free world-hence we asked in the document that we published whether we should use an average of those countries that do best in achieving that definition in setting our target.
Time is scarce, and I obviously do not want to be delayed by a narrowly focused, technical debate on definitions-I hope there will be plenty of time for that-but my hon. Friend says that other aspects of the 2010 Act that are used to define poverty are important. Of course they are important, but I want to focus much more clearly on pathways out of poverty and on increasing life chances. I hope that those Members of Parliament who have views-they clearly have, given today's maiden speeches-that will add to that side of the review, as well as to the debate on the technical definition of poverty, will contribute to the review.
Chris Williamson (Derby North) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that measures such as the future jobs fund, tax credits and the increase in child benefit provide an important pathway out of poverty? I hope that he will touch on that-I see from his notes that he might-because I am very concerned about the coalition Government's proposals to undermine those schemes.
There will be two tasks for Opposition Members as the Government begin the necessary task of reducing public spending towards the level of what people in this country are prepared to pay in taxes. We will no doubt have a rigorous debate, but even when the details are decided, I hope that stage 2 will be to argue whether any cuts are being made in the right areas. My plea to Ministers is that they look most carefully at their choice of making initial cuts to the new deal jobs fund programme. When I sat on the other side of the House, I was clear in my criticisms of the new deal. One has only to look at the outcomes regarding levels of unemployment, levels of NEETs-those not in education, employment or training-and levels of retreads to conclude that that huge area of expenditure clearly needs to be examined.
The one thing that I hoped we would do in our first year in office-we got round to it only towards the end of our time-was to ensure that we could give some job guarantees to our constituents, including our younger constituents. That is important for two main reasons, the first of which is that, as we all know from our constituencies, many people try desperately hard to get jobs yet fail to do so, and the cumulative effect of that failure has an enormously crushing effect on them. The jobs fund was beginning to offer concrete jobs for people to go to, and that was a lifeline that had never
been offered by any amount of new deal, any amount of retreading the new deal, or any amount of rhetoric from our side. The fund was one of the most precious things with which the previous Government were involved.
The second reason why the scheme was valuable was because we all have individuals in our constituencies, especially young lads, with no intention of working, although this is not the time for us to delve deeper into why that is so. If we are telling people that their benefits will be time-limited, cut or ended, we will carry the electorate with us only if we can definitely offer someone a job. Those young lads who have worked out how to fiddle the new deal and know that, if they turn up in a certain state, no employer in their right mind would ever give them the job on offer will know that it is decision time for them if, through the jobs fund, we can guarantee to offer them jobs irrespective of how they turn up. As I said, the fund was one of the most precious initiatives that the Labour Government introduced, so although I am not arguing with Ministers against their cuts, I ask them to think differently about how the cuts are distributed among people on benefits whom we would hope would be seeking work.
I am grateful for being called to speak, and I am even more grateful for the interventions because they have given me a bit of extra time. I look forward to hon. Members' contributions to both this debate and the review.
David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con): It is a particular honour to be following the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) in a debate on poverty, and I congratulate you, Madam Deputy Speaker, on your new role.
We are in the season of maiden speeches and have heard a good many today. I congratulate in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch). She spoke with great passion and conviction about her constituency and we will all have learned much from her.
I wish to pay tribute to my predecessor, Helen Southworth, who represented Warrington South for 13 years. She was a Treasury Parliamentary Private Secretary and, for about four years, a member of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. She made her biggest mark in the House, however, through her more informal campaigns. As chair of the all-party group on children who run away or go missing, she did a number of things that will have changed many lives for the better. I did not know Mrs Southworth well, but whenever I met her I was impressed by her compassion and dignity.
The history of Warrington and the Warrington South constituency is carved out of water. The town was founded by the Romans on the banks of the Mersey-it was the first place they could find to cross that river. Later we were bisected by the Bridgewater canal-the first to be built in this country-and subsequently the Manchester ship canal, a huge engineering triumph that says much for the people of Warrington, their entrepreneurial flair and their persistence. Even to this day, large boats travelling along the canal stop the traffic in Warrington, which can be something of a problem. The canal still carries freight-6 million tonnes are carried right now.
The major landmark in Warrington is the golden gates, which stand in front of our town hall. They are a magnificent feature. The town hall, also built by the Victorians, is a beautiful building, and I am pleased to be making my maiden speech in front of a former Warrington borough councillor, the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue). The gates themselves were not constructed for Warrington: they were made as a gift to Queen Victoria, for the front of the Sandringham estate. When the Queen came to the town to receive the gift, however, she was somewhat disappointed to see a large statue of Oliver Cromwell in the centre; she declined the gift and Sandringham's loss became Warrington's gain.
The statue does not imply disloyalty, but it is true that Warrington has close links with Cromwell. He kept an army there during the civil war, and during the war Warrington was something of a fulcrum. We have a slightly less controversial relationship with Lewis Carroll, the creator of "Alice in Wonderland". There are many monuments around Warrington in tribute to Lewis Carroll; in particular, Daresbury parish church still has the Cheshire cat emblems standing in its grounds. Over the past few weeks, as I have become more accustomed to being an MP and struggled with procedure and process in this House-particularly with getting an office-I am reminded of Alice's comment as she burrowed around: "Curiouser and curiouser!"
I pay tribute to a prominent citizen of Warrington, Helen Newlove, who has recently been created a life peer. Members will be aware of the tragic death of her husband three years ago. They will know of the courage and fortitude that she has shown since then and of her campaigning zeal. She will be a tremendous addition to the other place and give immeasurable assistance to debates there.
Before I leave Warrington, I pay tribute to our rugby league team, winners of the Challenge cup last year. I have never tried to hide the fact that my background in rugby, such as it is, is in the other code. None the less, slowly but surely I am coming to grips with rugby league, and I am proud to be the only Conservative Member of Parliament with a super-league rugby league team in his constituency.
I shall now say a little about the subject of the debate. Warrington South contains some wards that are among the most affluent in the country and some that are among the most deprived. Four of our inner-city wards are in the bottom 20% by income, and in both Bewsey and Latchford East, one in four children are being brought up in workless households. The existence of such disparities is troubling. I acknowledge that the previous Government, through pension credits and in-work credits, tried hard, but it is a fact that throughout the last Parliament, levels of both absolute and severe poverty increased.
To make progress, I believe that we have to address two issues: first, our country has 8 million people who are economically inactive; and secondly, our country is the worst in western Europe in terms of the number of children growing up in workless households. The best way to help many people out of poverty is to create the well-paid, sustainable jobs that will make a difference. We have to do so over the next few years in a period in
which we are going to reduce our dependence on financial services and on unsustainable public sector jobs. In my opinion, the only way in which that can be done is through increased investment in applied science, engineering and innovation.
I was particularly pleased that the Gracious Speech made reference to measures to create a large number of apprenticeships, but it is important, too, that we make sure that we create enough professional engineers to make a difference. It is a particularly sad fact that over the past three decades, in spite of the increase in higher education, the number of engineering graduates from our universities has decreased. That is not the case in India or China; indeed, it is not the case in any other country in continental Europe.
On the fringes of Warrington is Daresbury science park, which is a brilliant place that takes some of the best ideas produced in universities in the north-west and combines them with marketing skills and venture capital. Such places are going to create the jobs that we need in the medium term to fight the battle against poverty. In my view, social mobility is a hallmark of a civilised society. It is sad that in the past decade, social mobility fell in this country. I believe that the coalition, of which we are all part, will be judged, at least in part, on our ability to reverse that decline in social mobility.
John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): May I welcome you to the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker? I congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) and other Members who have made maiden speeches this afternoon.
I am grateful for the opportunity to make my second maiden speech, which might sound like a contradiction in terms. I can say one thing with certainty: I do not intend to make a third. I am delighted to represent Leyton and Wanstead in the House, having represented Hornchurch for eight years until the last election but one. Leyton and Wanstead which, like Hornchurch, is in east London, is a great place. I shall observe the traditions of the House by paying tribute both to my predecessor and to my constituency.
Harry Cohen built a reputation over many years as an assiduous and hard-working constituency MP. He championed certain causes over many years, including Tibet, for which he fought-although I do not mean physically. He represented Tibet in the House, and he was a leading light in the all-party Tibet group, which I joined this morning. He fought, too, for asylum seekers-some of the most persecuted and vulnerable people in the world, and he did a great job on that. He led the campaign to save Whipps Cross hospital in the constituency, which was under threat of closure from the Tories for many years, but whose future was secured under the Labour Government. Whether it will be secure from now on remains to be seen.
Leyton and Wanstead is one of the most diverse communities in Britain, with a huge range of religions, races, languages, beliefs, persuasions and outlooks. Across all those communities there is a high level of tolerance. People with widely divergent views and backgrounds can live together in harmony most of the time-recently, in fact, all the time-which is one reason why I like it so much. There have been one or two notable MPs for
Leyton and Wanstead. Winston Churchill was MP for the old Wanstead and Woodford seat to the north of the constituency, until he retired in 1964. In the 1960s and '70s, Patrick Gordon Walker was the MP. He fought an infamous by-election after he had lost his seat unexpectedly in the 1964 general election. A vacancy was created in the old Leyton seat by putting the sitting MP, Reg Sorensen, into the House of Lords, so that he could fight it at the election, but he lost the seat. He regained it at the next election, but for a short time he was the unelected Foreign Secretary in Harold Wilson's first Government. These days it is unimaginable to think that somebody who was unelected could hold such high office, but there we go.
I want to touch on three key local issues. The first is Whipps Cross hospital, which, as I said, was under threat for many years under the Conservative Government. Under the Labour Government, £30 million was spent on it, but it needs more investment. Whether that will be forthcoming, whether the hospital's future will be secure after all the threats of cuts that we have heard from the Treasury Bench in the last few weeks remains to be seen, but I and others will fight tooth and nail for its future.
The second issue concerns the safer neighbourhood teams, which come under the aegis of the Metropolitan police. They face cuts. We have a Conservative Mayor, Boris Johnson, and a Conservative Government, both of whom, particularly the Mayor, have promised cuts. Those teams have made a significant impact across wards in London, particularly in Redbridge and Waltham Forest in my constituency, and to start reducing community officers in those teams would reverse that impact on our communities.
An issue that is particularly close to my heart is that of the Sure Start centres. We are not quite clear where we are with Sure Start. Before the election, the Conservatives said that they would cut them pretty extensively. [ Interruption. ] This is a maiden speech so hon. Members should pipe down. I do not think that the Lib Dems have quite discovered what Sure Start is yet, but they probably will in due course. However, cuts seem to be in the pipeline.
Sure Start has made an impact in some ways in alleviating child poverty, which brings me to the subject of today's debate. The Minister got very excited about the idea that child poverty increased under the Labour Government. It is slightly difficult to put the words "the Minister" and "excited" in the same sentence, but he did get a bit worked up about it. The fact is that in 1997 when Labour came to power, the number of children living in poverty was 3.4 million. In the first two terms of the Labour Government, the number fell to 2.4 million, so we took a million children out of poverty. The figure went up to 2.8 million and then levelled off.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) mentioned, the most recent figures that we have cover the year 2008-09, the penultimate year that Labour was in power, and they demonstrated that during that financial year, 100,000 people were removed from poverty and the increase in child poverty started to level off.
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