HC Deb 29 January 2001 vol 362 cc13-5
12. Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

If he will make a statement on the number of households living in poverty (a) in 1997 and (b) at the latest date for which figures are available. [145970]

The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Darling)

This Government are committed to eradicating pensioner poverty and, as I said a moment ago, child poverty. Our first "Opportunity for All" report outlined the extent of the poverty that we inherited in 1997. In the first two years, the number of households defined as living in poverty stabilised at about 18 per cent, but we expect the numbers to fall as the rises in the minimum income guarantee, the working families tax credit and the increase in benefits for the poorest children take effect. As I said a few moments ago, by the end of this Parliament about 1 million fewer children will be living in poverty.

Mr. Baldry

By the Secretary of State's own acknowledgement, the best that he can say is that the number of families living in poverty has "stabilised"—that was the word that he used in his answer. However, that hides the fact that, quite often, concentrations of families live in poverty in particular wards and areas. In Oxfordshire, for example, those areas include Blackbird Leys in Oxford and Bretch Hill in my constituency. There is a concern that measures are not sufficiently targeted on concentrations of poverty in areas outside the inner city. Will the Secretary of State discuss with colleagues from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and other Departments how more resources can be directed at concentrations of poverty in wards outside the city areas?

Mr. Darling

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, which contrasts his position with that of some of his colleagues. I take issue with just one point: yes, the number of households defined as living in poverty had stabilised, but the most recent figures available cover the period up to March 1999. Most of the measures that the Government have introduced came into effect after April 1999, and we do not yet have the figures for that period. As I said, we expect the number of households living in poverty to fall gradually, which contrasts with the earlier figure that I gave, reflecting a trebling of child poverty in the 20 years up to now.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there are areas where there are concentrations of children living in poverty. Usually, they are characterised by high levels of unemployment, few employment opportunities, very low skills and schools where children do not attain the standards achieved by comparable groups elsewhere. That is why we introduced the new deal for communities and employment zones—some of the many schemes criticised by the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) a moment ago.

All the evidence suggests that the Government should concentrate the help that they are giving to deal with low income, to make sure that people get into work, to raise educational standards and to tackle health deficiencies and housing problems. All those must be dealt with at the same time, and I am glad that at least one Opposition Member realises that that is how we must tackle the problem.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

What is the best way to tackle poverty among households that include people of working age?

Mr. Darling

The best way is to make sure that those people can get into work. The problem that has caused so much poverty is that far too many people who could work were not able to work. Many hon. Members know that during the 1980s, large parts of the country—whole communities—were laid waste. They were given no help whatever to cope with the huge industrial changes taking place and, as a result, too many children were living in houses where no one was in work. That is why the Government introduced measures to make work pay—the working families tax credit, underpinned by the national minimum wage—and to make work possible—help with child care and the new deal. All those measures were bitterly opposed by the Conservative party. Every single one of those measures would go if the Conservatives ever got back, and that would mean more children and more households living in poverty. That is not just economic madness, but morally wrong.

Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives)

Is the Secretary of State aware that 22 allegedly illegal immigrant workers doing short-term work on flower and bulb farms in west Cornwall were arrested at the weekend? Although that raises concerns about the poverty and quality of life of the immigrant workers, it took place in an area with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, not because the people there are workshy—far from it—but because of the complexities of a cumbersome benefits system, which discourages people from taking up short-term work. What will the Secretary of State do to address the problems that prevent unemployed people from taking advantage of short-term work?

Mr. Darling

I am not aware of the detail of the case. I saw press reports at the weekend, but I have no detailed information about it. From what I understand and from what the hon. Gentleman said, it seems that the problem there is unscrupulous, collusive employers taking advantage of people, getting them to work for them and presumably paying them in cash, rather than employing people in the proper and usual way. The hon. Gentleman is aware that the Government are taking additional powers through the Social Security Fraud Bill, currently in another place and shortly to come before the House. The Bill will tighten up the powers available to us to stop such exploitation. The other problem highlighted by the case is the need for the Government to make sure that they do everything possible to stop people entering the country when they do not have sufficient authority to do so.