HC Deb 21 April 1998 vol 310 cc583-5
7. Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

What proposals he has to reduce social exclusion in rural areas and communities in Scotland; and if he will make a statement. [37620]

11. Mr. Frank Roy (Motherwell and Wishaw)

If he will make a statement on the level of response to the consultation process on the social exclusion unit. [37624]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Calum Macdonald)

The consultation paper on social exclusion has now generated over 200 responses. The Government are determined to tackle social exclusion in rural and urban areas through a range of policies, including welfare reform, education and training, health and housing policy.

Mr. Kirkwood

Has the Minister had a chance to study the recently published Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on poverty and exclusion in rural Britain? It shows that, by 1995, the proportion of those unemployed in rural areas was identical to that in non-rural areas, and that applies to men and women. It also reveals that poverty is prevalent among the self-employed, particularly in rural areas, and that the incidence of low pay is more common and more persistent in rural Britain than elsewhere. Can the Minister give the House an absolute assurance that the social exclusion unit will make rural conditions a central part of its study and work in the coming weeks and months on the ground that confining attention to cities and peripheral estates is not justified simply because rural poverty is less visible? Action needs to be taken.

Mr. Macdonald

The hon. Gentleman is quite right, and I can give him the reassurance that he seeks. He rightly said that social exclusion occurs in rural areas as well as in urban areas and that rural areas may have a special dimension in respect of remoteness and difficulty of communication. The network will take all those factors into account. I have encouraged people who want to contribute to the consultation process to write to the Scottish Office.

Mr. Roy

May I remind the Minister of why we need a social exclusion unit? Yesterday afternoon, a 19-year-old man was brutally murdered 100 yd from my home. He came from a loving family, but he did not have the best breaks in life. The social exclusion unit addresses school truancy, drugs and crime. Will the Minister bear it in mind that it is needed to tackle those problems and ensure that all our young people have the safe life that they so richly deserve?

Mr. Macdonald

I do not think that I can add much to what my hon. Friend said, except to say that the whole House will share his sentiments. He makes the point powerfully that social exclusion is not an abstract concept or a theory—it has a direct impact on real people in real communities.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

Does the Minister agree that nothing more quickly creates social exclusion in rural areas than a collapse in farm incomes such as that which has occurred under this Government—a collapse caused as much by their mishandling of the economy and the pound as by their lack of understanding of farming issues? What does the Minister intend to do about that? Or is rural despair part of his policy for the nationalists and the midges to feed on?

Mr. Macdonald

The hon. Gentleman will know that rural incomes go up and down according to fluctuations in prices, and that happened when he was a member of the previous Government. I am sure that he would be the first to acknowledge that we are putting more investment into the farming community than any previous Government. We are supporting farming communities in what, as we appreciate, is a time of real difficulty.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West)

I am surprised that my hon. Friend did not take the opportunity to remind the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) that it was his right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) who claimed, as Secretary of State for Social Security, that no such thing as poverty existed in this country. That is why we need a social exclusion unit. Does my hon. Friend agree that, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has responsibility across education, health and housing, the Scottish Office is uniquely placed to deal with social exclusion in Scotland?

Mr. Macdonald

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are the first Government to put tackling social exclusion right at the heart of our policies, and we are putting money where our mouth is. Since 1 May, more than £900 million has been dedicated to programmes which will help to tackle social exclusion in, for example, education, health and housing.