HC Deb 29 January 2001 vol 362 cc17-9
18. Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

What assessment he has made of the effect of measures taken by his Department since May 1997 in tackling poverty in (a) the UK and (b) the north-west. [145976]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Hugh Bayley)

Full details of our policies and the indicators that we use to monitor them can be found in the "Opportunity for All" reports. Some of our indicators can be broken down to look at the regions. These show, for example, that the north-west has benefited from the increased educational achievement for 11-year-olds. Now 73 per cent. of 11-year-olds reach the required standard in maths, rather than the 63 per cent. who did in 1997. We are also seeing a reduction in the proportion of children living in workless households in the region. It is down from 22 per cent. in 1997 to 18 per cent. last year.

Mr. Pike

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. I have been involved in politics in Burnley for 38 years, and the Government's record in social security and taxation matters has done more to tackle poverty in my type of constituency than that of any previous Government. Will he make sure that, at the election, the people of this country know exactly what we have done to tackle poverty and what we intend to do when we are re-elected at that election?

Mr. Bayley

We seek to tell the public what our strategy is in the "Opportunity for All" reports and what our performance has been in the indicators. As each year passes, the poverty figures improve. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State pointed out, under the Conservatives the number of children living in poverty trebled. That policy trend cannot simply be switched off overnight. It is like a supertanker—it has to be slowed down, which we have done, and then turned. We are now seeing the benefits of fewer children in poverty in Burnley and in the rest of the country

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South)

I wonder whether my hon. Friend has seen a letter in The Herald today from a volunteer in a citizens advice bureau in Aberdeen. It makes very interesting reading with regard to the figures of pensioners living in poverty. The gentleman worked out that, from this April, a pensioner couple on the minimum pension guarantee has the equivalent disposable income of someone in work on £16,000 a year. That figure is arrived at because those in work and on that kind of income do not qualify for housing benefit or council tax rebates, but must pay national insurance contributions, must pay into a pension fund and pay for all the other things that a working person has to pay for but a pensioner does not. Does that not illustrate clearly how the Government are tackling the basis of pensioner poverty?

Mr. Bayley

I regret that I have not seen the letter in The Herald, but I shall look for it. It clearly illustrates the point that my hon. Friend made. Opposition Members crow that all that we have achieved for pensioners is a levelling-off of the number in poverty, according to the latest "Opportunity for All" report. However, they omit to mention that the figures in the report relate to 1999, before the introduction of the minimum income guarantee.

We introduced the minimum income guarantee to tackle the problem of pensioner poverty and, as a result of its introduction, we are doing so. I am pleased that some people in the citizens advice bureau in Aberdeen realise that it has made a big difference to the standard of living and the feeling of security of the poorest pensioners.

20. Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)

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. [145979]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Hugh Bayley)

Our first "Opportunity for All" report outlined the extent of poverty that we inherited in 1997. Our second report, published in September 2000, shows the latest information available.

Mr. Loughton

We heard the same rather flimsy excuse from the Secretary of State in response to question 12 a short time ago. If the incidence of poverty is not declining at a time when we are constantly being told that the economy is booming, what hope will we be able to hold out when the economy starts on a downturn? The hon. Gentleman's answer is in strict contrast to the studies carried out by the Joseph Rowntree Trust, which show a great increase in poverty.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that many of my pensioner constituents in Worthing are among the 500,000 extra people who are now, according to the trust, living in poverty? Is he also aware that many of them are missing out on the benefits to which they are entitled because the Government have enormously complicated the way in which benefits are administered through the Benefits Agency and local authorities? When will the Government do something serious to make the system more transparent and accessible to the most vulnerable, especially pensioners?

Mr. Bayley

If the hon. Gentleman was doing as much to help pensioners in poverty as some Labour Members, he would know that the number of pensioners living in poverty has substantially decreased as a result of the introduction of the minimum income guarantee. If he did his homework, he would know that the figures in the "Opportunity for All" report—which show a static position—are two years old, as are the figures in the Joseph Rowntree Trust's report. Had he read the "Opportunity for All" report, he would know that. I suggest that he read it, so that he may come better informed to Question Time next month.

Mr. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby)

My hon. Friend knows my constituency well. I have been doing my homework: I was with representatives of Age Concern on Friday. They told me that about 700 pensioner households in the Scarborough area are still, for whatever reason, classified as being in poverty, on the measures that they use. The main problem is that households do not claim payments to which they are entitled. Will the Minister offer me and the field-workers from Age Concern some advice on how to persuade those 700 households that they are entitled to this help, and that it would not constitute a handout?

Mr. Bayley

The Government have run the largest ever take-up campaign for pensioners. Record numbers of pensioners have applied for the minimum income guarantee and are getting it as a result. I hope that that has made a difference in my hon. Friend's constituency.

I join my hon. Friend in wanting to ensure that the message gets across that the minimum income guarantee is not a discretionary payment but an entitlement for pensioners on low incomes, and we are determined that such pensioners should receive it. I should be more than happy to visit my hon. Friend's constituency to talk to the representatives of Age Concern about how we can ensure that the campaign is a success.