HC Deb 19 March 1996 vol 274 cc160-1
5. Mr. Mackinlay:

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what action he has taken to ascertain the extent of family poverty and low pay; and if he will make a statement. [19703]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Andrew Mitchell)

The key to helping people out of low income is to create opportunities and incentives to work. We have looked closely at the difficulties that families face in moving into work and we have introduced a wide range of practical measures to help overcome those barriers.

Mr. Mackinlay

Why has no Minister from the Department of Social Security attended the hearings that are being held at Church house, Westminster? The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, many politicians and prelates are attending the hearings of the Church action on poverty to listen to people who are low-paid and homeless. Is it not time that Ministers went with some humility and listened to people who are in utmost deprivation, and explained to them how poverty has increased since 1979 from 4 million to 15 million people? Why are 4 million children in this country in poverty? How is it that the United Kingdom has one quarter of the people who are poor in the European Union?

Mr. Mitchell

Ministers will take a close interest in the results of today's seminar at Church house. The Prime Minister sent a personal message to the seminar, as the hon. Gentleman will have heard. Why does he not tell the House that unemployment in his constituency has fallen by 23 per cent. in the past 24 months? Why does he not tell the House that it has fallen by 750,000 since 1992? Why does he not tell the House that unemployment in the United Kingdom is well below the European average and below the level in Germany? Why does he not take account of the fact that the way to improve living standards, as the Prime Minister said in his message this morning, is to get people back into work? The Government have been improving and expanding into-work support, as my hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People said, and we are now helping 630,000 families on family credit.

Mr. Bill Walker

Can my hon. Friend confirm that the more public money that is used to give support to families in need, the more families will register as being in need of help and therefore be named as being in poverty? "In poverty" is hardly a description of people who have received substantial sums. It is the way that money is spent that is important.

Mr. Mitchell

My hon. Friend is right. The vast majority of our fellow citizens are a great deal better off than they were in 1979. Average incomes are up for all family types. Average incomes are up on average by a third since 1979 and pensioners' income has increased by about 50 per cent. We can therefore be proud of the Government's record in those areas.

Mr. Chris Smith

Is it not the case, however, that, after listening to the Minister and the hon. Member for North Tayside (Mr. Walker), one would suppose that poverty did not exist? It does, and it is growing. If the hon. Gentlemen had been to Church house today, they would have heard the evidence at first hand. Does the Minister realise that one in three children are growing up in poverty, compared with one in 10 when the Government took office? Is that not a standing indictment of the damage that the Government have done to our country?

Mr. Mitchell

We are all looking forward to 8 May, when the hon. Gentleman will have finished his six-month review and when he can explain to the House whether, if he believes what he just said, he intends to increase payments for welfare as he suggested.

If the hon. Gentleman is serious about what he says, however, why does he back the Labour party's decision to impose a national minimum wage and to sign up to the social chapter? If he were serious about that, he would acknowledge that the national minimum wage would reduce jobs and put people out of work, while destroying future job opportunities.

We have discovered from recent surveys that the richest 30 per cent. of those affected by a national minimum wage would gain far more than the poorest 30 per cent. If the hon. Gentleman is serious about those matters, as part of his review of thinking the unthinkable he should change his party's policy on a job-destroying national minimum wage.

Forward to