Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

The coalition agreement, which I draw to the right reverend Prelate's attention, states:

"We will take Sure Start back to its original purpose of early intervention, increase its focus on the neediest families and better involve organisations with a track record of supporting families.

15 Jun 2010 : Column 944

We will investigate ways of ensuring that providers are paid in part by the results they achieve".

How will they know, as Sure Start is intended to be a long-term investment in the future of those children, so the results of the success of a Sure Start programme are known not within a year, two years, or three years, but after 10 years, 15 years or 20 years? We know that from the experience of the United States. I also ask the Minister about the intention not to fund free school meals. Again, that is a direct investment in the health and welfare of our children.

Clearly, it is important that we take care to disentangle the causes and consequences of poverty, and some of what I have heard from those on the Government Benches during the Queen's Speech debate and last week during a debate on these issues in another place suggests not a little confusion on that front. As my honourable friend Kate Green MP-a new and very knowledgeable addition to the Opposition Benches in another place-said:

"It is certainly true that lone parents face an exceptionally high risk of poverty, but it is also the case that poverty and the stress of trying to make ends meet can contribute to family and relationship breakdown. It is important that we help to sustain relationships and keep families together, and ensure that they have adequate resources to remove that stress and concern".-[Official Report, Commons, 10/6/10; col. 544.]

The Government must demonstrate that they have taken account, for example, of those who face a particular risk of poverty and why they do so-disabled people and people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, with their unequal access to the labour market and unequal experience within it. Those are the structural drivers of poverty and it is important that public policy addresses them.

My concern is that both my honourable friend Frank Field, for whom I have the utmost respect, and the Minister, Mr Iain Duncan Smith, sometimes give the impression that they have a view of the "deserving" poor and the "not so deserving" poor, as already mentioned by the right reverend Prelate, which sometimes does not take account of the fact that life for those out of work and on benefits is not a life of luxury. I challenge the House to consider how any of us would manage on a disposable income of £65.45 a week. I suggest that when the axis of the noble Lord, Lord Freud, Frank Field and Iain Duncan Smith are creating their policy they learn from what has and has not worked in the past. I am sure that they will want to do that.

As I said, during the 1980s and 1990s, child poverty doubled, but since 1999, the number of children in poverty has been reduced by 500,000. That is not by accident. Child poverty reduced in the years in which the Government invested in family incomes through benefits and tax credits, and increased in the years in which Governments have not. The Labour Government's policy of seeking to reduce poverty through increases in tax credits and benefits is not a failed policy.

I therefore caution Ministers carefully to consider what the evidence tells them and to take careful account of the significant expertise that exists outside the House and on the Benches in this House. I refer to the noble Lords, Lord Kirkwood and Lord Adebowale, and my noble friend Lord McKenzie. I was pleased by

15 Jun 2010 : Column 945

the almost entirely cross-party support that the Child Poverty Bill secured during its passage through the previous Parliament. The Child Poverty Act 2010, as it became, put in place a recognition of the need to sustain the poverty reduction targets, confirmed the importance of the relative income poverty target and set it once more at the 60 per cent median line.

What are the Government going to do to redefine poverty? Will they, for example, be taking the definition of the Prime Minister when he said that he was concerned about a definition of poverty as,

or "severe poverty"? That definition excludes 2.5 million children from targets of child poverty. The independent Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that such a definition is "not particularly accurate" because some people might have low incomes but enough wealth to have a purchasing power well above the poverty line. Indeed, the Child Poverty Action Group called the statistic "dodgy" and pointed out that under that definition poverty increased by nearly 500 per cent under the previous Conservative Government.

The coalition Government appear set to water down our commitment to end child poverty by 2020 by changing the current definition of poverty. It is clear to us that this will be a disaster for low-income families who need help and support so that they are not left behind and will condemn some children to falling further and further behind their peers. The Government have already announced the abolition of child trust funds and have hinted that they may cut tax credits and other benefits further than was promised in their manifesto. Will the Minister comment on whether that is the case?

Everyone in this House is very concerned about the effect of the Government's proposals on the most needy and vulnerable in our society so, along with many noble Lords around the House, I suspect we will be watching carefully and will be returning to this vital issue.

6.05 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord Freud): My Lords, I thank noble Lords who made such excellent contributions and, in particular, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, who brought up this important topic for debate in this House. I welcome the opportunity to set out this Administration's approach to poverty.

The recently published State of the Nation Report sets out in stark terms the challenge that this Government face in combating poverty. It shows that the UK is a country where worklessness and welfare dependency are much too prevalent. A higher proportion of children live in households where no one works than in any other EU country. In total, more than one in four adults of working age are out of work. That fact underpins the concern expressed by my noble friend Lord Sheikh. Furthermore, around 1.4 million people have been on out-of-work benefit for nine or more of the past 10 years and at least 12 million working-age households receive financial support from the Government each week. This costs no less than £85 billion a year.

15 Jun 2010 : Column 946

I bring noble Lords' attention to the National Equality Panel's report that was published in January and found that in England the median total household wealth in the most deprived tenth of areas is £34,000, while in the least deprived tenth of areas it is £481,000. Those statistics emphasise the concern that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn expressed about inequality.

However, poverty is not merely about inequality of income or assets. The previous Government spent £28.5 billion on tax credits in 2009-10, yet child poverty has fallen woefully short of the target of halving it since 1997. It therefore seems that simply increasing incomes will not improve the position that this country finds itself in. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, that we are maintaining the timetable on the child poverty commission, and that it will be set up, as planned, over the summer. It is equally significant that the health gap between those from high and low socio-economic backgrounds is wider now than in the 1970s and that the gap in educational attainment between children from wealthy and deprived backgrounds remains high.

Neglecting the interconnectedness of the causes that drive poverty is a recipe for failure. It is with this in mind that I welcome the Prime Minister's announcement of an independent review of poverty in the UK to be led by Frank Field. The review will look at how we measure poverty and how the home environment can influence educational achievement. Crucially, it will also stimulate debate on the nature and extent of poverty in the UK and make recommendations on how we reduce poverty and enhance life chances for the least advantaged. Without wishing to second-guess the outcome of that review, I am glad today to play some part in that broader debate.

I want to outline four of the most important causes of poverty and give a flavour of the measures that this Government will take to combat them. At the same time I will address the concerns that were so well expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, about a purely income-driven approach.

First, we know that a stable home life can make a huge difference to the health and well-being of our children, which is why this Government will, among other things, bring forward reforms to the current tax credit system, removing the material penalty for claimants who live together. I can assure the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn and the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, of the coalition Government's plans to take Sure Start back to its original purpose of early intervention, to increase its focus on the neediest families and to better involve organisations with a track record of supporting families.

I should also like to take this opportunity to refer to the early involvement issues raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe. At this important point of reform, we should take the opportunity to ask fundamental questions about the care system we want for children. We know how important the early years of a child's life are to their cognitive and social development. We should be committed to meeting the challenge of giving the best possible start in life particularly to those vulnerable children who come into care.

15 Jun 2010 : Column 947

Secondly, it is clear that addiction to drugs and alcohol is one of the most damaging causes of poverty. Estimates suggest that almost 80 per cent of problem drug users are on benefits, often for many years and with no realistic prospect of either recovering or finding employment under the current system. My department will bring forward proposals for a refreshed substance misuse strategy that will move away from focusing solely on heroin and crack cocaine and include all drugs and alcohol. These proposals will more effectively support addicts to sustain a drug-free recovery and employment.

Thirdly, a lack of education and skills traps many people in poverty. Improvements in skills can help to reduce child poverty and crime, and improve health and job satisfaction and the ability to perform non-work-related tasks such as managing household finances.

Fourthly, the Government's work strategy needs to be aligned with the job outcomes we want. Let me assure the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, on the way in which we are accelerating the work programme, which has been welcomed by the industry. The work programme will offer stronger incentives for providers to work with the harder to help. They will be paid out of the benefit payments that will be saved as a result of placing people in sustainable work. It implies that those providers will look for a holistic approach to tackling the problems of those people and they will bring much higher resources to solving some of those problems.

The concern expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Adebowale, who I am pleased to see in his place, is one of the things that I hope we will see addressed in our approach, which will start to address the complex needs of many people who need support in getting back into the workplace.

Disabled people are at a substantially higher risk of poverty than non-disabled people. Nearly one in four families with a disabled member live in poverty, compared with less than one in six families where no one is disabled. We want to make sure that work is the best route out of poverty for disabled people and non-disabled people alike. Our plans will help more disabled people to find sustainable jobs and thus regain their independence.

We must also ensure that people can enjoy dignity and security in their old age. The legacy we have inherited includes 1.8 million pensioners living in poverty today. As a first step, we will restore the earnings link with a basic state pension from April 2011 with a triple guarantee. In other words, pensions will be raised in line with earnings or prices, or by 2.5 per cent, whichever is the higher. In the long term, this legacy can be remedied only by cultivating a savings culture in which people have access to a good workplace pension scheme backed by employer contributions.

Let me turn to the many questions that have been asked. There were at least 30 of them, so while I will not be able to handle them all, I shall do my best. The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, urged me to provide information on the shape of the Budget and where the financial cuts, if any, might fall. I regret to have to tell

15 Jun 2010 : Column 948

him that I cannot pre-empt the Statement next week and urge him and the lobbies to which he referred to be a little more patient.

On Frank Field's review and his approach to child poverty and the recommendations he will make, all I can say is that he is due to report in December. We await his recommendations with great interest and will take them very seriously indeed.

The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, also pressed me on benefit reforms. This is another area where I would not wish to pre-empt later Statements. We are looking closely at ways to unlock what has been called the "unemployment trap" or the "poverty trap" in order to try to put in place a more coherent system so that we can have what my noble friend Lord Sheikh referred to: incentives to work. We will also look to make the system much more flexible, as the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, urged us to do. She referred particularly to micro-jobs, those stepping-stone jobs that are so difficult for people to take on under the current system. We want to make that much easier.

I turn to another leading question from the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood. He asked whether any cuts next week, if there are any, will affect the most disadvantaged and whether we will look at fraud and error costs. We are committed to helping the most disadvantaged and I hope that some of the measures that I have just discussed, such as the pensions triple guarantee, have reassured him that we take this issue seriously.

I have to draw my remarks to a conclusion. As I have said, I will write to noble Lords in response to as many of the other questions that have been put to me as possible.

Drugs and Crime

Question for Short Debate

6.18 pm

Tabled By Baroness Meacher

Baroness Meacher: My Lords, I rise to ask the Minister about the Government's response to the remarkable draft discussion paper issued on 2 March this year by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime entitled From Coercion to Cohesion: Treating Drug Dependence through Healthcare, not Punishment. For nearly 50 years, ever since the first UN Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961, the UNODC has operated as the defender of the punitive approach to drug addiction as well as to drug trafficking. Some 186 countries have signed up to the three UN conventions, all of which promote a criminalising philosophy. Until relatively recently, virtually all of those countries have followed the criminalising approach without question. For those of us who believe that the war on drugs is misguided and destructive both for individuals and communities, this new UNODC document is indeed a major milestone for the UN and hence for the world drug policy regime.

15 Jun 2010 : Column 949

What does the new document say? A quote from the foreword, signed by none other than Antonio Maria Costa, the executive director of the UNODC, makes clear the radical shift of policy. Mr Costa himself has for years promoted criminalisation. The fact that he now feels it is right to challenge 50 years of UN dogma must be something of a turning point. Mr Costa now says:

"The aim of this draft discussion paper, 'From Coercion to Cohesion' is to promote a health-oriented approach to drug dependence".

The paper quotes the narcotic drug conventions in support of the health-oriented approach. One of the great strengths of the paper is that it argues the scientific case for treatment as an alternative to criminal justice sanctions, suggesting that the health approach,

including epidemiological, clinical and neurobiological.

Many across the world have said these things, but not the UNODC. The paper argues that,

By the same token, imprisonment often worsens the problem in a variety of ways. In my view, no serious policy-maker can ignore this paper.

There are two explanations for the change of heart by the UNODC. First, the sheer cost and level of destruction caused by the war on drugs has become a significant world problem. Secondly, more and more countries have become disenchanted by the UN conventions as interpreted-until now-by the UNODC and they have taken unilateral action. I would add a third explanation-action by 30 Peers from this House. I shall say a little about each of these.

First, as to the cost, the criminals and gangsters involved in the drugs trade are benefiting to the tune of about £320 billion a year, and I know that a lot of people in this House are aware of that. The most severe consequences of course have been in Latin America and Afghanistan. In Mexico, for example, drug trafficking employs some half a million workers and has involved some 5,600 killings a year. The profits to Latin American traffickers have financed 25 years of civil war in Colombia and devastating social disruption in Mexico, Peru and Bolivia. These profits are aiding the Taliban in Afghanistan and, indeed, funding the killing of British soldiers. That is what we are talking about here. The US spends some $40 billion a year trying to eliminate the supply of drugs; it arrests 1.5 million of its citizens each year; it imprisons half a million of them. We in Britain spend £19 billion or so on the criminal justice system responding to drugs and drug-related crime, most of it a consequence of the criminalisation of drug use.

The second explanation for the 180-degree policy shift of the UNODC is the growing disenchantment with the UN conventions. For some years a number of countries have made it clear that they are not happy with the criminalising consequences of the UN conventions-notably Brazil, Mexico and Bolivia in South America, but also Italy, Spain, Portugal, the Czech Republic, the Baltic states, Switzerland and others in Europe, and, indeed, a number of states in Australia and the US. They have explored more civil

15 Jun 2010 : Column 950

or health-oriented approaches to drug addiction and have in many case removed criminal penalties for the possession of cannabis or, indeed, for the possession of all drugs. These initiatives have not led, as feared, to increased drug addiction. Rather, countries such as the US and UK, with tougher policies on drugs, have levels of narcotic drug use at least as high as those countries with more liberal policies.

On the role of the House, in 2009, 30 Members of this House signed a letter to the UN Secretary-General, Mr Ban Ki-Moon, urging him to establish an inter-governmental panel charged with the task of examining all possible alternative policies for the control of the drugs trade, including an evaluation of the experience of countries that have experimented with alternative policies despite the UN conventions. In his reply, Mr Ban assured us that the commission on narcotic drugs had on its agenda a review of current policies. We responded saying that we were not aware of any resources devoted to any such review, and so the correspondence continued. It seems reasonable to suppose that interest in an area of failure by the top man in the UN may have been helpful in strengthening the arm of the forces of reform within the UNODC.

I was subsequently invited to the UN Commission in Vienna in March this year and met Mr Costa. Certainly he was well aware of the activities of 30 Members of this House. Since then, Mr Gilberto Gerra, a health policy chief at the UNODC, who was involved in my meeting with Mr Costa, has asked us to do what we can to achieve endorsement of the discussion document by as many Governments as possible across the world-a slightly daunting task, I have to say. I am hoping that our coalition Government will be the first formally to endorse From Coercion to Cohesion. There are strong reasons why they may want to do just that.

As I mentioned earlier, this country spends more than £19 billion on the criminal justice system due to the criminalisation of drugs. The Government want to cut all wasteful public expenditure. There is no more obvious public service area of waste than this-waste of resources on prisons, police officers, court officials, judges and the whole paraphernalia of the system. I should assure the Minister that, by endorsing the UNODC document, the Government would be committing themselves neither to any specific policies nor to any change in the treatment of drug traffickers. This is, not surprisingly, a purely pragmatic document where recommendations, if implemented in some form, would lead to major savings in public spending and to benefits for hundreds of thousands of individuals, for communities and for our whole society.

Let us take just one example of a good policy. The UK's randomised injecting opioid treatment trial programme showed that heroin-injecting addicts reduced their crimes by more than two-thirds as a result of the programme. Taking heroin-injecting addicts substantially out of the criminal justice system would provide enormous savings to the taxpayer, albeit that some of that money would need to be reinvested in health services. Yet even more savings would be achieved through cuts in the benefits bill as users engaged in therapeutic programmes to help them reduce their drug use, organise their lives and in time return to employment. They

15 Jun 2010 : Column 951

might remain intermittent drug users, but if drug use were decriminalised, they could become contributing members of society.

On the supply side, the heroin addicts involved in the RIOTT programme reduced their spending on street drugs by £250 per week, from £300 to £50. It is clear that if countries across the world adopted similar programmes, drug traffickers would lose the bulk of their opium sales. This approach would massively dent the billions of pounds currently earned by the gangsters, who rely on addiction and illegality.

This QSD does not pose an idle question. It represents a real plea for the Government's endorsement of the UNODC's most important paper in 50 years. Although many would have liked it to go further, I was delighted to see reference to a review of drugs policy on page 23 of the coalition Government's programme. They now have UNODC support for such a review. We have the biggest opportunity in 50 years to begin to resolve one of the world's most challenging and destructive problems. I await the Government's response with interest.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page