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Before I was elected to the House, it was my privilege to work as a lawyer specialising in cases concerning children and their welfare. The consequences for children of a life in poverty were all too clear in my daily work.
Family breakdown, substance misuse, personal debt and educational failure can all too easily follow, and the consequences for children can be far-reaching and devastating. I will contribute in any way that I can to the ongoing debate on protecting children and ending the cycle of poverty that can perpetuate.
I am extremely grateful to the voters of Erewash for putting their trust in me to represent them here. Like many of my new hon. Friends, I am already enjoying attending events, dealing with constituency case work and tackling problems. I particularly enjoyed opening the local Riverside football festival recently. I made it quite clear to the organisers that although I would do anything that I could to help their club and the festival, I would perhaps draw the line at wearing a small pair of football shorts.
On arriving in Westminster and this magnificent building, the responsibility of one's duty to serve becomes more acute. I am sure that many of my new hon. Friends feel the same way. It is a privilege and a duty to be here. My family and schooling have taught me the value of service and helping others. Now, I continue with those principles as I commence my journey of serving the constituents of Erewash and speaking for them in this House.
Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): This is my first outing at the Dispatch Box. I know it is customary for Front Benchers to start by saying what an excellent debate it has been, regardless of whether that is true, but I can in all sincerity say that today's has been an excellent debate and I have been pleased to be able to sit here listening. Members on both sides of the House have spoken with conviction and passion about the fight against poverty, which blights so many lives and communities. Of course, we have also heard many excellent maiden speeches, in which new MPs have demonstrated their determination to do their utmost for the people they represent and the constituencies they serve.
The hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) disappointed the House by telling us that he had turned down an invitation to join MP4, but given that the current membership consists of one Tory, one Scottish nationalist and one Labour Member, perhaps in the new politics we should be looking for a Lib Dem to join them.
The hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) confirmed that she is not related to Stanley Baldwin and dwelt in some detail on the wonderful food produced in her constituency, which I think was rather unfair to those of us who were trapped in the Chamber all afternoon and not able to get out to have some lunch.
Oh, I wrote it down wrong. It is not my pronunciation that is wrong but my literacy. My hon. Friend told us that he was better looking than his
photo in the parliamentary guide- I shall have to check that out-and spoke eloquently about the poverty in his constituency and the previous Government's progress in tackling it.
The hon. Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) told us that he is not better looking than his election photo, much to the disappointment of his constituents who met him on the election trail. He also told us that one of his predecessors had, as a lawyer, defended the Kray twins and then, on being elected to Parliament, defended the Governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major. I am not sure which was the most difficult task.
The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) talked about her great love of football, of which I am already very much aware, having attended a Chelsea-Arsenal game with her. Perhaps she could have done a little more to endear herself to the Press Gallery: pointing out that one member of it, Nigel Nelson, was writing articles before she was born might not be the best way to get into their good books.
I missed the speech of the hon. Member for Warrington South (David Mowat)-I popped out to take a phone call-but I am told that he spoke without notes and with great eloquence about issues such as social mobility and worklessness.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer), making his second maiden speech after returning to Parliament, delivered a passionate speech about the need to protect Sure Start and child trust funds, and about his support as a committed trade unionist for the agency workers directive.
The hon. Member for Corby (Ms Bagshawe) did not quite live up to the romance of her previously published works-novels such as "Passion" and "Sparkle". I am the proud owner of an autographed copy of "Passion", which she sent to me-we have never met, only communicated through Twitter. Perhaps an autographed copy of her maiden speech should follow.
My hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) confirmed that she is taller than her predecessor, Ian McCartney. I want to place on the official record the fact that I too am taller than Ian McCartney, although it is perhaps a slightly closer match. She spoke with great passion about her interest in financial capability and the need to promote it, as well as her work with credit unions. I look forward very much to seeing her promote those agendas in the House.
The hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore), who is my neighbour, although we have yet to meet-he should get on Twitter; that is how I make all my friends-praised the work of his predecessor. I have to say that, in Roger Berry, he has a very hard act to follow, but I wish him well.
My hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) will not, I suspect, be glued to the television watching the new series of "Big Brother", but she raised an important issue. Tackling poverty is not just about putting money in people's pockets and a household's immediate resources, but about things such as transport. The poor transport links in her constituency make it difficult for people to gain access to jobs.
The hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) praised his constituency, and discussed the need to promote more green jobs there. I was pleased that the
hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) discussed her support for international development, and I hope that she puts pressure on her colleagues in the Department for International Development to carry on its good work linking international development with work in schools. The hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), as is almost customary for Members making maiden speeches about Swindon, mentioned the magic roundabout, and perhaps persuaded me that I ought to get off the train more often when I pass through Swindon on the way to London.
The hon. Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) discussed his experience as the lead member for children's services when he was a councillor. I was pleased that he expressed support for his local Sure Start scheme. The hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod) said that she was pleased to see more women in politics-I am too, and I am glad that we are no longer looking at a row of men in suits on the Government Benches. Perhaps the Front Bench has a little more work to do, although I am glad to welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), to her ministerial position.
The hon. Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) tried to tempt us with the delights of Bury black pudding, which I shall pass on. The hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) gave us a cultural tour that ranged from George Eliot to Larry Grayson-quite a wide span. The hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) discussed how she wished to support members of the armed forces in her constituency and their families, and I wish her all the best with that. The hon. Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) explained to a bemused House exactly where his constituency is. We are all very much in the picture now-somewhere around the Winchester area, I think. The hon. Member for Erewash (Jessica Lee) discussed the importance of volunteering and the experience that she will bring to the House as a lawyer who has worked on child protection issues. I am glad that she will pursue those interests in Parliament.
We also heard speeches that were not maiden speeches, including from my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field). I was pleased that he described Labour's job guarantee as precious, and I hope that in his new role he can do something to protect our future jobs fund. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Miss Begg) on her election to Chair of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions. I am sure that she will do an excellent job.
My hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) made an excellent speech in which he rightly highlighted the progress made by the Labour Government in tackling pensioner poverty, for which we did not get enough credit. We heard two speeches from people whom I had the pleasure of working with on child poverty issues in the last Parliament: my hon. Friends the Members for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) and for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green). My hon. Friend the Member for Wigan spoke from her experience at the Children's Society and discussed the legacy of communities that have been ignored and suffered from a lack of investment going back to the 1980s. Once that intergenerational cycle of poverty and worklessness is created, the issue cannot be solved overnight; it is a difficult problem to crack. I thought that she spoke incredibly eloquently
about that. My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston, who was chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, impressed us all with the experience and knowledge of the issue that she brings to the House. I hope that Ministers listen closely to what she has to say.
In the short time remaining-I appreciate that we do not have long, given that many Members wish to speak-I should like to ask the Under-Secretary a few questions. I am pleased that Ministers managed to secure a debate on poverty, as it at least suggests that it is an important issue for the new Government. However, I have heard very little to convince me that the reality will match the rhetoric, and that their professed desire to tackle poverty will triumph over their desire to implement savage cuts. It was notable that when the Secretary of State replied to the Queen's Speech debate on Tuesday there was barely a mention of any policy at all. I hope that we can hear a little bit more from the Under-Secretary today.
The Labour Government did not just talk about poverty but acted to tackle poverty. We acted to lift 1 million pensioners out of poverty with our pensions guarantee, the pensions credit, the winter fuel allowance, free bus travel and eye tests, and by cutting fuel poverty by insulating pensioners' homes. We lifted half a million children out of poverty, not just by putting more money into their families' pockets, but by helping their families move from welfare into work. It is a complete fallacy to suggest that the Labour Government did not try to move people from welfare into work. The suggestion is that we were quite happy to leave people languishing on benefits and that we did not address that. That is exactly what we were trying to do with nursery places, tax credits, and making work pay to ensure that people were better off in work. I could list a range of other policies that were all intended to address that issue.
When the Minister replies, will she say how, in terms of looking at the bigger picture, the Government can claim to be serious about tackling poverty, when, through their planned programme of cuts, they will undermine the package that the Labour Government tried to put together in the last 13 years to support people on their route out of poverty? How can they claim to be serious about tackling poverty and yet axe the future jobs fund, which aims to break the intergenerational cycle of unemployment that the Government claim to deplore? How can they say that they want to enhance the life chances of children growing up in poverty when they are scrapping child trust funds, and cutting tax credits, and when they will not confirm what is meant by their proposal to streamline benefits? Does that mean cuts in benefits for people or not?
How can the Government claim to care about so-called broken Britain-a phrase that I reject-when they fail to support Sure Start and family intervention projects, which work with families with the most difficult problems, when they oppose things like compulsory sex education in schools, which would have helped to address the issue of teenage pregnancy and lone parenthood, and when they are slashing public sector jobs and public services without a thought for the consequences?
The Government say that they want people to stand on their own two feet, but how can they do that if the Government pull the rug from under them? I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Miller): I warmly welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was a firm supporter of yours in the recent elections. I also warmly welcome the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) to her position. She has been sitting in the Whips Office for a number of years now, and I am sure that standing at the Dispatch Box beats that any day of the week. I congratulate those hon. Members who have made their maiden speeches today, which I will come to in a bit more detail later.
First, I want to pick up on some of the points made by the hon. Lady in her closing comments. The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), began the debate with the bleak picture of poverty that the country faces. Despite record levels of spending on benefits in the last 13 years, we have more working-age adults living in relative poverty than ever before. The hon. Lady said that the Labour Government acted to tackle poverty, but I am afraid that her rhetoric does not match the facts. Income inequality is at its highest since records began, and a higher proportion of children grow up in workless households in the UK than in any other EU country. That is a damning indictment of the previous Government's legacy, a legacy that I am afraid was absent from the opening comments of the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman). The facts could not be clearer. The tired old ways of continually throwing money at the problem, no matter how deeply entrenched or seemingly intractable, lie discredited.
Yvette Cooper (Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford) (Lab): I welcome the hon. Lady to her position. I am sure that she will do some very important work in the Department. Will she confirm that the number of children living in workless households has fallen significantly since 1997, having previously risen substantially?
Maria Miller: The shadow Secretary of State fails to point out that the previous Government completely failed to tackle the level of poverty in this country in the way that they set out that they would, and they did not hit their child poverty targets. They have left us to put in place a firm strategy to address that issue. The right hon. Lady should not be too selective with her facts.
It could not be clearer that we need fresh ideas if we are to reverse the dreadful situation that we face; and it could not be clearer that, if new approaches to tackling poverty are to have any effect, they require new, clear thinking. That is exactly what our coalition Government are able to offer: a new vision and a new strategy to tackle the root causes of poverty. Family breakdown, educational failure, addiction, debt, worklessness and economic dependency are the pathways to poverty and the underlying problems that can lead to a lifetime-even generations-of worklessness and welfare dependency.
As my right hon. Friend the Minister said, such a multi-faceted problem demands an holistic solution, and many contributors echoed that point. The problem requires supporting families in order to give children the right start at home and in education; it requires the reform of our welfare system, by simplifying it and removing disincentives to work; it requires supporting disabled people effectively to give those who need it the specialist support that will help to prepare them for work; it requires supporting a savings culture, helping those who try to get back on their feet and encouraging families to take responsibility for their debt; and it requires all of us throughout all Departments, the Government and the House to work together.
Before I pick up on today's maiden speeches, I shall draw the House's attention to a couple of other contributions. I am sure that the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland did not mean to sound complacent about Labour's record on poverty, but she did, and she needs to think about that if she is to rebuild Labour's credibility in the eyes of the country. She picked up on several issues, including the future jobs fund and free school meals, on which I should like to give her some clarity.
All pupils who currently qualify for free school meals will continue to be eligible, and we will continue with pilots in Newham, Durham and Wolverhampton to see whether there is a robust case for extending free school meals. Taxpayers would expect us to do that. On the future jobs fund, recent statistics show that only 9,000 out of the 25,000 jobs that were promised are being delivered. The Government want long-term job opportunities and sustained employment, and that is why we are putting our faith in 50,000 new apprenticeships and the Work programme that will help to fill that gap.
The hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Miss Begg) made an important contribution to the debate, and I congratulate her on her new role as Chairman of the Work and Pensions Committee. I look forward-at least I think I do-to having detailed conversations with her, including in the Committee's sittings, I am sure. I would have liked to pick up on some of the issues that she raised, and particularly on Sure Start and its effectiveness, but I fear that time does not allow me. Suffice to say, I hope that she will look at the Office for National Statistics data on Sure Start and, in particular, at how we can make that programme much more effective at tackling poverty.
The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), who is not in his place because of a prior engagement, spoke with great authority about the importance of the non-financial support that we give children and families who live in the most difficult circumstances, and I look forward to his independent report and the contribution that he will undoubtedly make to this debate in the coming months.
The maiden speeches were, in the great tradition of this House, independent and spirited. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) spoke powerfully about the importance of supporting excluded children. He also stressed the fact that he will be an independent-minded Member, and I am sure that the Whips will have taken special note of that.
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