HC Deb 14 October 2003 vol 411 cc80-96

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Ms Bridget Prentice.]

7.11 pm
Mr. George Mudie (Leeds, East)

I very much welcome this opportunity to debate the real challenges stemming from inner-city poverty in Leeds. The problem is especially severe in my constituency of Leeds, East, although I am sure that those of my colleagues who are present will present their own experiences to the House if time allows.

I thank Mr. Speaker for allowing me to initiate this debate. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for telling the recent party conference that No. 10 is now in listening mode. Many people hope that that is true, although many are cynical about it. I raise this topic in the belief that my right hon. Friend is prepared to open up debate, especially on domestic policy—as long as sensitive matters such as tuition fees are avoided. I hope that the time is right to raise pertinent questions about inner-city poverty, and about how we are dealing with it.

There is no argument about the problems caused by poverty in the inner city. Leeds is one of the most prosperous English cities, but great poverty and deprivation exist there side by side with wealth and material success. The scale of the deprivation is debatable, but a few statistics will give the House an idea of the size of the disparities that exist between communities.

In Leeds, 25 per cent. of households claim some sort of means-tested council benefits. That figure of one in four rises to 40 per cent. of households in some inner-city wards, and reaches 60 per cent. in smaller neighbourhoods. Although recorded crime is decreasing in Leeds as a whole, the rates vary. The lowest level of domestic burglary is 11 per 1,000 households—I am tempted to think that that is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet (Colin Burgon)—but that figure rises to more than 126 per 1,000 households. Where someone lives therefore has a very clear effect on the burglary and crime rates they experience.

Death rates from heart disease also vary, rising from a low of 180 deaths per 100,000 people to a high of 320 per 100,000. That gives some idea of the effect of diet and poverty. Similarly, the rate of teenage conception—among girls aged between 15 and 17—is zero in some wards, but rises to 102 per 1,000 in other wards.

Figures show that in some schools, 40 per cent. of school leavers achieve the magic five GCSEs at grades A to C. Some schools achieve an average of 70 per cent., but in some inner-city schools the level is as low as 4 per cent. Unemployment averages 3 per cent. for the city. In some wards, the level is 1 per cent., but in some inner-city wards the rate is as high as 12 per cent. The ethnic groups do even worse, with those in the Afro-Caribbean community suffering an unemployment rate of 24 per cent.

Housing is also very important. I am delighted that the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) is to respond to the debate. Although I would prefer her constituency to be called Castleford and Pontefract, I have the greatest respect for her and I hope that she will communicate to her colleagues the seriousness of some of the housing problems in Leeds. My predecessor was Denis Healey, who noted in one of his books that the Harehills area had the second highest population density in western Europe. I think only Milan has a higher density.

In Harehills, the accommodation consists of back-to-back houses or through-terraced houses, with sloping streets and no gardens. Even so, families have raised generations of children there, despite the lack of open space—there is no full-sized football pitch in the area, for example. The housing is disgraceful and a blot on the city, built the century before last for working men. It has been refurbished time and time again, but kids are still being raised and families are trying to lead normal lives there.

I remember Chris Patten when he was Minister with responsibility for the environment coming to a meeting in my constituency—although he did not come to meet me, I hasten to add. He was so intrigued and shocked by what he saw that he had his driver take him round the area twice. He simply could not believe what it was like, but I suppose that the experience was good training for what he eventually encountered in Hong Kong.

North of my area lie two large council estates that were built on either side of the second world war. They have their good pockets, but they are largely unattractive. They need either to be modernised and refurbished, or demolished and replaced. The scale of the problem is tremendous.

I shall refer to this again, but so far nothing has happened to improve the housing deprivation in Leeds. That deprivation exists alongside the quality housing to be found in areas such as Elmet, where there are houses to die for. The disparity shows how different are the communities that exist in the one city.

I want to mention too the bizarre behaviour of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in respect of arm's-length management organisations. The Minister is thoughtful and sensitive, and therefore unlike many of her colleagues. The Department forced ALMOs on Leeds city council. I fought the imposition, and lost, but I was a lone voice, and such things happen. The Department said that ALMOs would bring in money to refurbish housing and resolve all the city's housing problems. The council did as it was told, and broke up its housing department into six ALMOs.

Within six months of being set up, the ALMOs were inspected. Some of the officials in the ALMOs did not know the location of the areas that their bodies covered. They were inspected days or weeks after being appointed, and they were found wanting. In its wisdom, the Department has said that the ALMOs will not be given the money needed for capital spending. As a result, no refurbishment will take place. Is that not wonderful?

None of the local government officers I know will have sleepless nights as a result of that. Some will even say, "So be it, it will save us a lot of work." It is not the ALMOs that are being punished, but the poor tenants who live and raise their families in substandard housing. What is the sense in penalising tenants because of the A LMO? In some circumstances, that might make sense, but to inspect the ALMOs within six months of their establishment and penalise them after some doubtful reports is extremely strange and I should love the Minister to raise the matter with her less sensitive colleagues.

Mr. Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell)

As my hon. Friend knows, I disagreed with his view about the creation of the ALMOs, but I agree 100 per cent. on his latter point. As a supporter of the concept, I perhaps wrongly did not anticipate that ALMOs would be inspected so soon after their creation. It was an unrealistic target to expect the ALMOs immediately to perform and gain stars so that they could obtain money. No one voted for them on the basis that they would be cheated—if that is the right word—out of their money owing to a bureaucratic inspection regime that they never understood.

Mr. Mudie

My hon. Friend makes a good point and I am glad that he has now seen wisdom. He gives me an opportunity to discuss something about which there are many stories in Leeds—choice-based letting, which is badly harming ordinary people. So far, despite heavy pressure, my area is the only one to refuse to accept that lunatic system for allocating houses, which is causing real distress in Leeds.

In Leeds—except on my patch—people are not offered a house, they have to bid for one. How can a blind lady on the housing list understand such a system? How can she see houses to make a bid? Last week, I visited the house of a poor lass who suffers so badly from Parkinson's that she cannot get out of her house because the stairs are so difficult. The last time she tried to go downstairs she fell. Yet presumably to get another house she has to get out to see the list. As she was in such a bad physical state, she was simply going to pen a letter.

A woman who visited my surgery had raised her kids in a five-bedroomed house but she now lives there alone and wanted a one-bedroomed flat: impossible under choice-based letting because she did not have priority. In another case, a boy and girl at the sensitive ages of 13 and 11 were sharing a bedroom in a two-bedroomed house, yet there was no priority for overcrowding. The system has been forced on people on the ground: if they do not accept it, they will not get the money. We have set up ALMOs and changed our letting system, adversely affecting already disadvantaged people, yet we still do not get the money.

As the time arrangements are propitious, I shall take this opportunity to raise another housing matter: equity release. I have dreamt of, sponsored, fought, argued and cajoled for an equity release scheme in my constituency. We have vacant land and a builder who specialises in building good houses cheaply. We have engineered a system whereby building societies will give mortgages that relate to rents. It is an honest attempt to move people from rented accommodation to homes of their own at very good rates. They can walk into a three-bedroomed semi that costs just above £50,000. Where could anyone get a new, three-bedroomed semidetached house for about £50,000? Houses like that are worth £70,000 the minute people walk through the door, yet the Department would rather spend £15,000 doing up a council house that nobody much wants than give half that sum as a subsidy to persuade people to move from rented housing.

On a series of points—welfare benefits, recorded crime, death rates, health, education, employment and housing—we can see disparities and problems.

Colin Burgon (Elmet)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's standing in Leeds. He is an outstanding Member of Parliament who is well rooted in the locality. I am lucky enough to know his constituency fairly well as I was born on the Gipton estate and taught for about 16 years on the Seacroft estate. Did not both those estates represent radical solutions to the problems that Leeds faced at the time? What gave them cohesion was common employment in engineering and, especially, tailoring. But given that times have changed, does my hon. Friend not agree that we need radical solutions to give people the type of homes that they want to live in and to make those places attractive? Does he agree that local government should be the agency to deliver that, but that unfortunately, far too often, the Government—our Government have been too critical of local government? Does he agree that they should adopt a far more positive role to enable local government to pursue radical solutions, as it did in the 1930s and 1940s?

Mr. Mudie

That was an excellent contribution; my hon. Friend did not even take a breath. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) is a great admirer of Rev. Jenkinson, who designed and steered through the building of a number of such estates. They were seen as a great thing in the 1930s, because they got people out of the slums of inner-city Leeds. The difficulty is that 70 years have passed, and time and people have moved on. We have to move on, too, with solutions that are relevant to people. I cannot understand the Department wanting to put money into rented housing when for half the sum it could put people into owner occupation, bringing money to constituents of mine who would never have thought that they would receive such an amount of capital. Such a sum would not only offer them support but would give them something to hand on to their families.

The Yorkshire Evening Post, thanks to the social awareness and concern of its excellent editor, Neil Hodgkinson, has been running a serious campaign, entitled "Life in Leeds". I have a copy of the paper and when I have held it up for the camera, I shall pass it to the Minister so that she can see how it approached and understood the issue. The paper stated that its campaign was A major YEP investigation into the thousands of lives blighted by fear, crime, violence and poverty. Especially interesting was the headline, "People A City Forgot". That is how the Yorkshire Evening Post started its campaign on two-speed Leeds: inner-city Leeds, with all its deprivation, side by side with the affluent areas. There are four pages of stories from individual people all over Leeds—not only from my constituency but from those of other hon. Members—whose lives are being blighted by conditions in inner-city Leeds.

Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for leading this debate and, to some extent, leading our city in the debate, as he led it when he was leader of the council.

The economic question in Leeds is massive. Leeds was not just divided in the past; it is still dividing. Unemployment rates in some pockets are increasing, despite the fact that the overall rate is going down. We still give common assent to a trickle-down theory; if the city as a whole does well, we think that that will infiltrate all the nooks and crannies of unemployment. But unless we radically tackle unemployment and the life chances of the people in those corners, nothing will ever happen: the economy will turn down again and they will be completely left out. To echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet (Mr. Burgon), as well as looking at housing, is it not time to look at radical community economic developments, including local provision of neighbourhood services, and radically to decentralise the provision of goods and services? I do not believe that 25,000 people will be working in call centres in 10 years' time. Voice chips will have replaced those jobs and people currently in low-paid work in our inner cities will be looking for alternative employment.

Mr. Mudie

I totally agree with what my hon. Friend says, and I am glad that he put it in those terms because I am trying to make the point to the Minister that we must deal with inner-city problems urgently. Those problems fall into two categories: first, housing and, secondly, employment and skills—in other words, buildings and people—and unless we deal with them urgently, we will fail and we shall pass the existing inner city on to the next Government, who will have no interest in such things.

If we had the political will, there is no reason why anyone should be unemployed in Leeds. Only 12,000 people in the whole city are registered as looking for work, but the city is supposed to gain 30,000 additional jobs in the next eight years. If we set our minds to it, we could improve training and skills. In fact, discussions are going on with the jobcentre, the Regional Development Agency and the hospital, which has a new cancer block, to find out whether we can start such a training scheme.

It is we who are taking the initiative—not the Government—and we are so hopeful, optimistic and ambitious that we are looking to my hon. Friends' constituencies and to Batley and Bradford because we feel that, if we have the political will, we can not only wipe out unemployment in Leeds, but become an economic engine for the surrounding areas.

Mr. Harold Best (Leeds, North-West)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing this subject before the House. I should like to say something about the elements of poverty that exist in the city of Leeds. It is often not understood that poverty exists in the greener areas. I represent a constituency with some of the greenest and most wonderful, spectacular views, but with some of the most horrendous poverty, especially in housing. People tend to forget that Leeds is a two-river city. My constituency includes the River Wharf—a magnificent river—and some of the houses in that area were built earlier than those that my good friend referred to in his part of Leeds, and those houses are in desperate need of repair and rebuilding. We as a Government ought to be tackling such problems as a major priority, and putting people's needs at the centre of our agenda.

Mr. Mudie

I totally agree with my hon. Friend.

I want to return to the Yorkshire Evening Post campaign, which was praised by the Prime Minister, to whom Neil Hodgkinson presented a collection of the articles and analysis concerning the blighted lives faced by ordinary, decent people in Leeds. I have a copy, which I shall give with pleasure to my hon. Friend the Minister at the end of the debate. The Prime Minister is on record as thanking the YEP for its initiative, and he also conceded that there is a mountain to climb. It is very interesting that, only six months ago, the Prime Minister came to Leeds, after five years of Labour Government, and conceded that there is a mountain to climb. If there is a mountain to climb after five years, I wonder how much time we feel we have left to get to the top of it.

The Prime Minister went on to say: There are too many people in the city missing out on the new opportunities and prosperity … and there are too many communities—some within a stone's throw of the thriving city centre—still crippled by multiple and inter-linked problems which remain among the deprived in the country. Those words from the Prime Minister should set the scene for this debate. The disparities and blighted lives that exist in the inner city are acknowledged by the Head of Government. There is no need to bandy statistics about: the problem is agreed, and the debate is about how we are dealing with it and, above all, about how quickly it will be resolved.

Those are the reasons why I asked for the debate. We have been in government for six years. I acknowledge that various excellent initiatives have been taken—I guarantee that we will hear about them—but, as someone who lives in their constituency and spends all the recess and every weekend there, I have to say that they have only marginally improved the lot of my constituents, and my colleagues can speak for their own patches. Indeed, in preparing for the debate and trying to get the balance right and to be absolutely accurate, I spoke to everyone I met in my surgeries and as I went around the community, and they overwhelmingly think that things are getter worse, not better. After six years, I find that very worrying.

The worrying thing is this. In the same papers, the Prime Minister acknowledges the problem, says that there is a mountain to climb, sees the problem first hand in Lincoln Green, but what does he do? As the booklet shows, the Prime Minister lists all the initiatives and the huge sums that are being spent—I fear that the Minister will do the same thing—but the worst thing that people can do is believe their own publicity. We in politics are always told that, and it is true. We cannot feed the hungry with statistics on national prosperity. We cannot tell a kid that he is well off because we have invested £1 million, or even £100 million. If the kid is hungry, he is hungry regardless of what the Government say they are spending.

I should like the Government to listen. I do not exaggerate. I am talking about my constituency, and my constituents are hurting and their lot is not improving after six years. I thought we had a common objective of getting rid of inner-city poverty, but if we are still so far behind after six years, I wonder whether we should not be considering a change in direction.

Mr. Fabian Hamilton (Leeds, North-East)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on initiating the debate. As he says, many parts of Leeds are extremely prosperous and unemployment is very low; indeed, my constituency was recently voted, on a league of altered data, one of the wealthiest in the entire country. But there are pockets of unemployment and deprivation that would match those anywhere in Great Britain or the rest of Europe. I am talking mainly about the Chapeltown area, and antisocial behaviour and crime blight the lives of people there, so I congratulate the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister on today's initiative. The problem involves crime related to crack cocaine, heroin and street gangs that use firearms and the most appalling violence against one another, but innocent victims get in the way. Does my hon. Friend agree that one way in which we can most improve the lives of the very poorest—apart from all the issues such as housing, job opportunities and training that he mentions—would be to ensure that the crackdown on crime really works and that the kind of antisocial behaviour that blights people's lives is removed?

Mr. Mudie

I will certainly spell out later the effect of crime on ordinary people in my constituency, but the problem goes deeper than crime. I remember the Prime Minister once saying, "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime," but I wonder whether we are getting the balance wrong. We have enough sticks and we are adding more sticks to the armoury, but I wish there were some carrots. I look at some of the kids on the estates and I cannot defend their behaviour. I attack their behaviour and I want them to be dealt with, but I look at the houses they come from, the peer pressure and the parents' behaviour, and I worry for the kids. I was proud to be a member of a Labour Opposition who made such statements, believed them and wanted to operate those policies. All the rhetoric about sticks and prisons came from the other side. That is part of the solution, but locking up a youngster should be the last recourse. I wish we had a more balanced policy of working with youngsters and offering them alternatives to running with their peers, misbehaving and being put under pressure to do drugs. I would like some balance to be put back in our criminal justice policy.

After six years, with a lack of major physical and financial improvements in the lives of my constituents, we should have the humility to accept that a reappraisal of the strategy is required. If that does not happen, when we eventually leave office, we will leave the inner city much as we found it, and, by our policies, we will have failed to empower the bulk of our poorer constituents. We will therefore have failed to let them share in the general prosperity.

I want to propose two things to the Minister. First, I invite her to visit my constituency, walk the streets, talk to the people and see whether I am exaggerating. Throughout the recess, I have been on the streets knocking on doors—not canvassing but speaking to people to find out whether they have anything to say, what their problems are and whether I can be of any help. Last Sunday morning, I met a lady who was washing her car in her drive. I asked her whether she had any problems. I quote her response: Look at the tyre marks on the road. That's where the lads joyride in stolen cars each night. Over there is the barrier to divide the street. That is where they run the cars onto and then burn them out"— beside her house. She continued: Let me show you the back kitchen window where at 6.30 in the morning when I was getting breakfast before leaving for work a brick came through"— thrown by people who were going to burgle her house whether she was in or not. She continued: This is my car that gets damaged regularly. This is my house I hesitate to leave because I fear coming back to a burgled property. She went on to tell me that when she comes back with her groceries, she hurries inside the house because she fears that people are watching to see how many groceries she has, and that they will come in the house to get them.

What did I say in response? I know the policies and the script, but we live in a verbal world of promises and policies, whereas that lady lives 24 hours a day in reality, and reality is nasty.

In that one street, I met two pensioners who had lived there all their lives. It was a bit cold, but it was a sunny day, and, looking past them, I saw a beautiful back garden alive with flowers. Looking around, however, I saw shattered windows, damage, graffiti, and rubbish thrown in gardens. What did they say to me? They were bewildered at the violence, the neglect and the number of asylum seekers. In that one street, I have more asylum seekers than my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet has in his whole constituency. What does that do to relationships in that street and in that area? Above all, that lovely pair of pensioners, who have lived in Gipton all their lives, feel the indifference of anybody to their concerns. That is what they are faced with in their advanced years.

With another pensioner and his wife—the Minister will be proud of me—I talked about pension credit and heating under the warm front arrangements. Wonderful stuff, to the script—the Prime Minister would be proud of me. As I went to their door, however, the fellow said casually to me that the doctors had sent him to St. James's to see a consultant about tumours on his bladder. He was sent within two weeks—good for the doctor—but the consultant bizarrely sent him back to the doctor. Does anyone on these Benches see any sense in that? The worrying thing was that he sat with me for 20 minutes having a conversation about pension credit and central heating and did not raise it. He only raised it casually, in conversation, as he was showing me out. That was the level of his expectations—he had not come to complain about it; he accepted it as one of those things. That is the stoicism of pensioners and ordinary, decent people who are being put through such things every day, week and month. That is all in one street.

To take a different case, I met a young lad in his 30s whose wife had left him and who was raising three boys. He had been burgled twice—not only burgled; his house had been trashed. He was not in work and was very poor. He wants work, and the issue that I would raise is this: why on earth would he work when somebody in the street will burgle him if he spends his hard earned wages on anything? What does he make of it? He is brokenhearted. He does not know what he will do. He has to deal with poverty, bad housing, insecurity and raising three kids with decency.

Again, that was in just one street. The sad thing is that on each of the Sundays on which I was out, although I was in different parts of the constituency, I heard the same tale. After all this time, that should not be happening. My colleagues and I, after all our years in local government, came here to put an end to that. Six years on, under a Labour Government, people are still living like that.

What can we do? Let us understand that we may be spending enough. On that, I have no quarrel with the Chancellor or the Prime Minister. The Chancellor has put record sums into the spending Departments. What I want to know is whether we are spending it efficiently. Is the money coming through to the areas in need and being spent in the relevant way? I am suspicious of the Government's preoccupation with innovation. Anybody with feet in the community and any history of involvement in politics knows that the previous Government deliberately ran down the public services for 18 years. When we came to office, we did not need innovation. We needed more teachers, more doctors, and more police. Those are mainstream things—they are not glamorous or new, but they are what our constituents want. Youngsters would be taught better if we had more teachers, we would sleep safe in our bed if we had more police, people would be better looked after in hospitals if we had more nurses, and we would be seen more quickly by doctors if we had more of them. Those are all great things, but we are told, "No, it must be new; we must have innovation."

Services and morale have suffered over the past few years. Instead of offering money to anyone and any organisation with a new idea, why was it not just piled into mainstream services? Why do we have to dream up a third way—a different way—of delivering public services? In my view, a lot of people are making a good living out of funds designed to get people out of poverty. We saw it over the years with the Tories, but it has been exacerbated. This week, I received a letter from a black and ethnic education group that has been set up, with a manager, project manager and assistant manager listed on the letterhead, all of them receiving good salaries. I would have preferred three black teachers in schools being good role models and providing an additional pair of hands, but somebody in some Department will have said, "No, this is new, it presses all the buttons, why don't we do it?" That has not helped and will not help any black kids—well, it has helped three, because they have got jobs. My people are still poor, but they are better advised on their poverty than they have ever been.

The Government have lost interest in joined-up government. The rhetoric of our first few years has disappeared, as has the thinking behind it. My hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) knows that each organisation defends its budget and tends to put its own interests in survival before the customer. Our rhetoric was about coming together, pooling funds and deciding how to deal with a common problem it was good rhetoric in which we believed. However, joined-up government has not happened. Each organisation comes to the table to get its nose in the trough and to ensure that it gets money so that it is secure, while the customer comes way down the list.

The Government should focus more fiercely. If their objective is to get rid of the inner city and the problems that characterise it, each locality should have a coordinated approach. All spending should be examined and it should be determined whether it helps to achieve success. In Leeds, different departments and agencies do things that cut across objectives and, occasionally, damage achievements. My colleagues will understand why I mention the magic words Education Leeds. We were unable to handle our education service, and following some colonial behaviour by the now Home Secretary, our education system was handed over to a private firm that sees politics and politicians as dirty words. It will not speak or listen to politicians and if it does listen, a behaviour pattern is triggered meaning that it does the exact opposite of what has been asked.

My next point is something I do not joke about. The Government will deny it yet it has hampered their chances of achieving proper co-ordination, effective focusing and accountable joined-up thinking. The Government have a dislike and disdain for local government. Right from the start, they have been determined to avoid using it as a key player. Powers have been given to quangos and organisations that were dreamt up to circumvent local government. I talk from personal experience because although you would not believe this, Madam Deputy Speaker, I spent a brief period as a Minister—it was far too long in No. 10's eyes.

I remember my first conversation with the permanent secretary at a dinner. I was responsible for training and enterprise councils, which were considered obnoxious organisations that spent funds along the lines that I suggested. I said that TECs should get in partnership with local government because, given that local government was responsible for the economic area and that skills training was important, the two should work together. I do not know whether I was more surprised by the permanent secretary's attack on local government when he took me outside and said, "You can't do that. You mustn't do that. That is not on the agenda", or by the fact that he dared to speak to me in such a fashion. I thought it strange that a permanent secretary should lecture a Minister that No. 10 did not like local government and say that I should not dare suggest that local government should take an interest in, and be worked with on, the local economy, because I thought that that was central to getting everything right in a vibrant local authority.

Local government has been treated badly right from the start. All one gets from senior figures in the Government is derision of the ability of local councillors in general and local government as a whole. Perhaps someone should whisper in their ears the general view of the competence of Cabinet Ministers and national Government as a whole. That view might be slightly similar to the general view of local government. We need a bit of humility. The fact that local government has not been used as the co-ordinating force to bring everyone together to achieve joined-up thinking has damaged our move toward dealing with inner-city poverty.

Where does this leave us? I do not expect, or want, even such a sensitive Minister as my hon. Friend to spend any time refuting my suggestions. I recognise that it is immodest impertinence for me to make suggestions even to a newly declared "listening Government". I would be delighted if the Minister left those parts of my speech alone, because it is not becoming for a Back Bencher of my standing even to put forward those suggestions. However, I want her to think about the reality of the impact that we have made in six years, because it is a serious matter.

When I was leader of the council, I had a good nursery chairman and we had one of the best nursery building and child care programmes in the country—we were years ahead of even Newcastle, although we have always been ahead of Newcastle. I remember saying to my delightfully hard working colleague, "It's not working." She asked me what I meant. I said, "Well, after two or three years of spending a lot of money"—the objective was to get all youngsters into proper child care or nurseries, if their parents wished—"if we want to make it available to everyone, at the present rate we will not do that in our lifetime." She said, "I can't work any harder." I told her that I was not suggesting that she worked harder but that she stepped back. If that is our objective and the mountain that we are climbing—to use the words of the Prime Minister—yet after six years we are still in the foothills, it would be fine to get the oxygen masks off and take a bit of time to think that in the lifetime of even our optimistic Government, we will not get to the top. That might sound flippant, but there are 200,000 people in the inner city in Leeds—they are pensioners, the lad trying to find work and the lass living in fear in a low-paid job.

I did not come into Parliament or politics to attack poverty on the margins. Neither my colleagues nor I came into politics to make poverty more comfortable. I wanted to eliminate poverty, which is do-able, and certainly do-able in a city such as Leeds, given the jobs that we have. I say to everybody concerned that if after six years we are nowhere near that aim and people are still living in such conditions, we must start to look at ourselves. We must have the humility to say that we owe it to the people out there to reappraise what we are doing, how we do it and how fast we do it. It is no joke to live in poverty, it is no joke to live in fear and it is no joke to raise kids yet realise that they will not get the same chances and standard of living as a kid living in a more prosperous part of Leeds—that is what all the figures add up to.

In this new listening Government, I hope that there will be some humility and that we will reappraise what we are doing. If we fail, the people whom we represent and those who look to us as the last hope will never forgive us. When Cabinet Ministers and the Prime Minister look back on our unprecedented majority and power, they must consider the timidity with which we have approached the problem. The Minister might say that we have a lot of policies and that we are not timid, but we are not successful. Too many people are hurting. It would be the greatest crime to have such a majority, such power and such time only to leave office and hand over power at some time in the middle of the century to what will presumably be a right-wing Conservative Government who will have no interest in ordinary people. If that happens, we will have failed not only this generation of ordinary people but also future generations.

7.59 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Yvette Cooper)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie) on choosing to raise the important issue of inner-city poverty in Leeds and on his passionate remarks about his constituency and the lives of the people who live there. He has worked hard for many years to address the problem of poverty. I share his concerns about inner-city poverty and join him in commending the Yorkshire Evening Post for its campaign on the issue. Too often, poverty and inequality are invisible to the majority of people. It is a tribute to a campaigning regional newspaper that it has managed to highlight an issue that newspapers do not always cover. They often do not prioritise poverty and action that tackles inequalities.

I take my hon. Friend's points seriously. I disagree that no progress has been made important progress has been made on a range of issues. However, I agree that there is more to do. Interestingly, our progress on some things has created new challenges in others. Some of the Government's measures to address poverty are universal; they affect constituents across the country. The family income of the worst-off has increased considerably with the introduction of tax credits, increases in child benefit and the overall substantial increases in support for both those in low-paid work, so that work pays, and those without work. As a result, the number of children in relative income poverty fell from 34 per cent. in 1999–97 to 30 per cent. in 2001–02, which is before the most recent increases. The absolute low income fell from 34 per cent. to 20 per cent. That is a result of the Government's policy changes and can mean a difference of hundreds of pounds a month in the pockets of low-income families who would not have received that money under the Tory Government. Those changes have only been possible because of a Labour Government and their commitment to tackling child poverty.

There is still a long way to go, however. The Chancellor is right to establish a review on how to meet the ambitious target of abolishing child poverty over a 20-year period. No such target has been set by a Government before. The truth is that we cannot achieve that target in six years. I feel passionately about child poverty and will argue continually for more to be done to address the terrible problems that cause it. Equally, however, it is not possible to abolish child poverty in six years. We must recognise that even a 20-year target is ambitious. The issues cut across generations as they pass from one generation to another. We know that people who grow up in poverty are more likely to live in poverty later on.

The debate is not just about income. My hon. Friend gave an eloquent account of the lives that his constituents lead. He mentioned housing on estates, the services that people receive, the opportunities they have and their sense of community, including whether they feel safe on the streets. We need to recognise that Leeds faces huge challenges. It is a city of great contrasts and inequalities. In many ways, Leeds is an amazing city. It is a powerhouse for economic growth in the region. My constituency is benefiting substantially from being close to Leeds and its economic growth. Considerable regeneration is taking place. It is clear when one drives through the centre that the skyline is crammed with cranes, such is the building and investment in the city.

Some areas are not sharing in the growth, however. Some communities are not keeping up and individuals feel shut out of the growth that is taking place elsewhere, and that problem creates substantial challenges. The Government's approach has been to prioritise regeneration in the most deprived wards in the country. We have argued that we need full employment in every region. We need to promote job growth so that everyone shares in the prosperity generated by the economic growth and the growth in jobs of the past few years. The challenge is how to ensure that every ward shares in that prosperity.

Three wards in my hon. Friend's constituency—Burmantofts, Harehills and Seacroft—fall within the 10 per cent. of the most deprived wards in the country. I understand that Leeds city council estimates that the claimant count in those wards varies from 5.3 per cent. in Seacroft to 6.4 per cent. in Harehills. That is higher than the national average but it is considerably lower than it was 10 or 20 years ago. My constituency has experienced substantial employment growth relative to the terrible experiences of the high unemployment of the 1980s and early 1990s. The number of people in the claimant count has dropped substantially since 1997. In the seven most deprived wards in Leeds, it has dropped by 39.3 per cent. The number of people in work is welcome progress. However, the claimant count has fallen faster in other Leeds wards and Leeds as a whole has experienced a 41 per cent. drop over the same period. My hon. Friend is right that economic growth in Leeds is likely to be sustained for the coming period and employment growth will probably follow.

My hon. Friend is also right that we must address the obstacles that people in some communities face in getting jobs that are, perhaps, just down the road. As a result of the new deal, we have made progress on child care and training, but we need to go further. The social exclusion unit is carrying out a detailed analysis on jobs and enterprise. It is considering the jobs gap between different areas and what we need to do to tackle the obstacles that some areas face so that we achieve full employment in every region.

My hon. Friend the Member for Elmet (Colin Burgon) mentioned the close relationship between housing and the economy, in particular the work and jobs that are available at different times of housing development. The relationship between housing and the economy is important. It is the case in some parts of the country, although I cannot say whether this is true of the estates mentioned by my hon. Friends, that there are complex consequences if economic regeneration is not accompanied by rapid change in the housing market to address the problem of housing stock built for previous generations. Some people who get jobs move out of their estates and the position of those left behind becomes even more difficult. That can result in a complete housing market collapse in those areas. For that reason, we are introducing housing market renewal pathfinders in areas with the most severe problems to tackle low demand, and we are making substantial investment.

The West Yorkshire Partnership is developing proposals for the regional housing board to fund areas such as Beeston and Harehills. I am worried about some of the housing-related issues that have been mentioned and would be happy to discuss those further. I would, of course, be happy to visit the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East as well. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning is aware of the issues concerning the Leeds ALMO. Officials are considering that and discussions are under way.

Mr. Battle

We have a problem if the housing policy is to support housing associations. Their rents are structured in such a way that the only people who can afford to live in them are people who are on benefits for ever. People in that accommodation will never be able to get a job, even if we train them, or they will have to move out of the neighbourhood. We must crack that conundrum.

Yvette Cooper

Clearly, such a situation is not the intention of the programme. We are linking programmes around housing policy and economic regeneration more closely than ever before. It has often been the failing of previous programmes that they focused on issues of economic regeneration and jobs, or on housing renewal and improving the physical infrastructure of housing. We must link the two together. That is what the housing market renewal programme is all about. For constituency reasons, I know that that approach is being picked up in west Yorkshire as well. I will be happy to discuss further with my hon. Friend issues related to that.

My other hon. Friends raised various aspects of the matter. Many issues associated with housing would benefit from further discussion with hon. Members, and I know that Members representing Leeds constituencies who are present in the Chamber share these concerns.

Considerable programmes for economic regeneration are under way. Harehills, Burmantofts, Seacroft and Halton are all included in the neighbourhood renewal programme and should be benefiting from the investment of neighbourhood renewal funds, which in 2001–02 were £4.2 million and in 2003–04 were £8.4 Million. Over a five-year period there has been a £35 million programme of investment, which is funding, for example, neighbourhood wardens in Harehills, Burmantofts and Seacroft wards.

I am advised that the wardens are working hard to tackle antisocial behaviour, and I would be concerned if my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East thought that they were not making the difference that others believe they are making in other parts of the country. Again, I would happily talk to him further about that, as I know that the neighbourhood warden programmes have been greeted by many communities as a substantial improvement in tackling antisocial behaviour, addressing concerns such as abandoned cars and graffiti, and strengthening people's sense of community.

My hon. Friend referred to issues around the St. James's partnership and the work that the primary care trust is doing as part of the Harehills neighbourhood renewal scheme. The role of local authorities is vital. My hon. Friend suggested that we were not supportive of local government's role, but my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has championed the role of local government in regeneration, particularly in respect of economic issues, which can be so fundamental, and he is supporting greater powers and freedoms for local government. It is an area where we need to go further, and that is happening.

My personal view is that the programme that is doing most to tackle inner-city poverty and inequality is sure start. As I recall, I visited the sure start programme in my hon. Friend's constituency some years ago. It is a hugely important programme because it addresses inter-generational inequalities. Because it provides support right at the beginning of a family's life and supports them through the years, it is the most radical programme that we have for addressing child poverty. Again, from memory, the work of the sure start programme there seemed to be extremely popular and successful. I would be concerned if my hon. Friend thought differently, and I should like to discuss the matter further with him.

The Government have had an important impact on poverty and inequality. In my constituency I have seen jobs created on derelict pit sites. I have seen the number of families who are applauding the children's tax credit. I have seen the progress of programmes such as sure start and the new deal for communities, the partnerships that are being built and the substantial investment in mainstream services, reflected in the extra doctors, nurses and teachers whom my hon. Friend mentioned.

We have a long way to go, and we must address the inequalities that exist within such short distances as the centre of Leeds. Such inequalities in health, education and opportunity within a single city, as my hon. Friend described, are morally unacceptable in the modern world. The social exclusion unit is examining the progress that we have made so far and the problems that remain.

As my hon. Friend knows, I wrote to him and many of his colleagues a month or so ago about the work of the social exclusion unit. It is conducting a substantial analysis and hopes to have preliminary findings by the beginning of the new year. As part of that work, I am keen to have the views of hon. Members, particularly those living in low-income areas, and I would be happy to meet Members representing Leeds constituencies to discuss in more detail their views about social exclusion issues in Leeds and what should be fed into the work of the social exclusion unit.

We have made considerable progress, but we have much still to do. We still have far to go before we sleep. We will make more progress and sustain the commitment to substantial investment in the lowest-income areas of the country through the neighbourhood renewal fund and the new deal for communities only if we can also allay people's concern about the injustices that remain, and if we can prove that such programmes are making a difference and changing people's lives. I believe that they are changing people's lives substantially, but we must demonstrate that and maintain the argument that politics can make a difference and is doing so.

We will fail if we do not recognise the scale of the problem, and if we succumb to cynicism. We will fail, too, if we believe that we can solve the problems too quickly and if we raise people's expectations that some of the problems are easy to solve, and then let people become disillusioned. We need to keep the work going and our eyes on the prize. If we believe that it is right to invest in regeneration and tackling poverty, we must keep arguing for it. I believe that that is the right thing to do, and I know that my hon. Friends representing Leeds constituencies think so as well.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes past Eight o'clock.