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Baroness Thornton: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply and congratulate the Government on their aspiration to eliminate child poverty. I am sure that no one here can doubt the importance of a programme which aspires to eliminate child poverty. However, many children and families have yet to be reached. They are isolated, in difficulty and still living in poverty.
The Sure Start programme is one of the ways in which the Government have sought to alleviate the problems for such children. How is it being integrated into the Government's poverty programme? In particular, are voluntary sector and community organisations involved in other programmes, as they have been in the Sure Start programme?
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, we all know that poverty is multi-faceted. It is not just about low income, but has repercussions in loss of life chances, health and education that flow from it. That is why I am pleased to tell the House that in this summer's spending review the number of Sure Start programmes was doubled, from 250 to 500. As a result, about 30 per cent of all disadvantaged children will be within a Sure Start programme by 2004. Many of those programmes are being led by voluntary and local authority consortia. I hope that as a result we will give those children the head start that they desperately need and are currently denied.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Yes, my Lords. The Chancellor was saying that as a result of the four Budgets that he has already delivered, 1.2 million children will be lifted out of poverty. On the second point, the definition of poverty can be either 50 per cent of mean average earnings or 60 per cent below median earnings. The Government use the latter figure for assessing poverty in relative terms. It is also used for European poverty statistics, because the results are not skewed by a few high incomes at the top.
Earl Russell: My Lords, I congratulate the Government on reducing the proportion of children in households earning less than 60 per cent of median income, but I invite the Minister to comment on the figures on other low income thresholds on page 200 of the Government's report. Does she agree that the figures for those below 50 per cent of median income are much the same as before and there has been an increase in the proportion of children in households earning less than 40 per cent of average income? Does she agree that those figures show either no significant change or that the rich are growing richer and the poor are growing poorer? Can she give any objective reason for preferring the indicator that the Government have chosen over the collective indicators?
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, the Government use the 60 per cent below median earnings figure because it is used in most European definitions of family poverty. The noble Earl's figures are correct. If he looks at page 200, he will also note that the figures are for 1998-99, which are the most recent figures available. They therefore record the situation before the Government's measures kicked in. For example, income support rates for children under 11 have virtually doubled since April 1997, but most of that increase has occurred since the statistics in the report were collected and recorded.
Baroness Crawley: My Lords, perhaps I may press my noble friend to expand on what is being done to help the more than 1.5 million lone parent families in this country? As we know, the poorest children in this country are those of lone parent families. I am sure that we all agree that the best way to take children out of poverty is to reconnect their parents with work. I acknowledge that the Government have presided over a decrease to only 17 per cent of workless families, but will my noble friend tell us what the Government are now doing to assist lone parents?
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, we know that 20 per cent of all children live in lone parent families, but we also know that 50 per cent of all children who are poor live in lone parent families.
Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, it is only a matter of days since the director of the Child Poverty Action Group was quoted as saying that the number of children in poverty has increased by 100,000 to 4.5 million since this Government came to office and that our child poverty rate is the highest in Europe. Is that true?
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I know that the Conservatives do not find that information particularly comfortable, but we inherited a situation in which we had twice as many children in poverty as France or Germany. That is why we have taken initiatives such as the working families tax credit and the Sure Start programme. Had the noble Lord listened to the reply that I attempted to give to the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, and to the noble Earl, Lord Russell, he would have heard that there are two figures for testing child poverty: the Child Poverty Action Group uses the figure of 50 per cent below mean income, whereas the Government use the figure of 60 per cent below median income, which avoids the statistics being skewed by a few at the top. Under those figures and under the Government's programme, not only are 250,000 fewer children living in poverty, even more importantly, 200,000 fewer children are living on benefits for more than two years. As we all know, it is not just how many children are on benefit, but how long they persist on benefit that determines their life chances.
The Minister of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now make a Statement on the recent fuel protests, the resultant shortages and the Government response.
At the end of the first week of September, following extensive action by French protestors to block roads and ports and protest about high fuel prices, small groups of farmers and lorry drivers began blockading oil refineries in Britain, thus threatening essential services.
From the start the Government made it clear that this was not the British way and that no government could allow policy to be dictated by demonstrators threatening to choke off fuel supplies while disrupting national distribution systems.
The Government therefore made clear their determination to put procedures in place to protect essential services and return supplies to normal as soon as possible because of the threat to employment, the disruption to services and indeed the risk to lives. The necessary Order in Council was made under the Energy Act 1976 to give us precautionary reserve powers.
The ministerial Civil Contingencies Committee was convened to receive reports and to co-ordinate emergency action being taken around the country. The oil industry's standing emergency committee monitored the changing situation in the refineries and throughout the fuel distribution system.
Some 3,200 petrol stations--about one in four--together with 2,500 fuel depots were designated priority suppliers. Oil companies were requested to direct available fuel to keep those pumps and depots supplied. Additionally, 300 outlets were designated to supply essential users, including a range of vital business sectors, such as the food industry, as well as the emergency services.
Guidance about these measures was published on government websites and distributed through police statements, local authorities and the NHS. Two call centres were set up to give information to essential users and to the general public.
Although powers had been taken to issue legally binding directions regarding fuel distribution, the arrangements were in fact implemented on a non-statutory basis. Common-sense decisions were made at local level by local authorities working with their local police forces with links across each region to the government offices. Noble Lords may wish to join me in thanking our public servants and those tanker drivers who braved the blockades for the crucial role they played in sustaining and prioritising fuel supplies in difficult circumstances.
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