HC Deb 20 October 2003 vol 411 cc361-4
7. Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

If he will make a statement on the steps his Department has taken to tackle poverty and social exclusion. [132607]

14. Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth)

What research his Department has commissioned within the last two years to evaluate its policies for tackling social exclusion. [132614]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle)

We recently published "Opportunity for all"—the fifth annual report that provides a detailed account of our strategy and policies for tackling poverty and social exclusion. That report was supported by a wide range of research and evaluation evidence drawn from a variety of sources, including departmental research.

There is significant progress to show. There are now 500,000 fewer children in relative low-income households than in 1997. Since 1997, we have helped nearly 2 million more people into permanent jobs and virtually eradicated long-term youth unemployment and, for the first time ever, more than half of lone parents are now in work.

Paul Farrelly

I thank the Minister for her reply. I know from experience in my constituency of Newcastle-under-Lyme that, through the minimum wage, the various tax credits, and initiatives such as sure start, we are seeing the benefits of the Government's commitment to tackling poverty and social exclusion. Time and again in the constituency, however, I come across young people who have stopped education and become lone parents at much too young an age. What steps is the Minister taking to improve their life chances by helping them into work, and to train and study?

Maria Eagle

My hon. Friend is right to note the increase in employment in his constituency. It has increased by 6.9 per cent. since 1997, and now stands at 81.3 per cent., which is higher than both the regional and national averages. My hon. Friend is also right to suggest that particular groups such as lone parents find it harder to get into work because of the barriers that they face. He will be aware of the new deal for lone parents, which has already helped 280 lone parents in his constituency into sustained employment. Programmes such as sure start, and the help available through the Connexions service, can also put young lone parents in touch with the programmes that can help them. This is in contrast to the declared war on lone parents by the Conservatives—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker:


Mr. Edwards

May I commend my hon. Friend and her colleagues on ensuring that many of their policies are subjected to evaluation? Will she join me in paying tribute to those who undertake that evaluation in universities and other research institutions? What conclusions has she reached about the Government's policies on encouraging people with disabilities to get into employment?

Maria Eagle

I echo my hon. Friend's thanks and congratulations to those who carry out that research. Everyone in the House will know that they do not always come up with the results that we might like to see, but that just proves the independence and quality of the work that is being done. I join my hon. Friend in congratulating them on that work, because without that evidence, it would not be so easy for us to come up with policy initiatives that will make a difference.

Mr. Willetts

And they help us to criticise the Government, too.

Maria Eagle

Indeed; the hon. Gentleman would otherwise have nothing whatever to do.

In respect of helping disabled people into work, my hon. Friend is right to identify them as one of the harder-to-help groups who perhaps find it more difficult even than lone parents to overcome the barriers to work. There is no doubt that, despite the lessening gap between the overall employment rate and that for disabled people, there is still a lot more to do. In that regard, I hope that the pathways into work pilot, which is starting this month, will show us a way forward in assisting into work those disabled people who have been out of the labour market for some time.

Sir Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

The Minister is quite entitled to refer to the publication last month of "Opportunity for All" as a very valuable document and an annual statement of the Government's progress. According to my account, they are making valuable progress on 33 of the 55 poverty indicators in "Opportunity for All", and that is welcome. But may I draw the Minister's attention to the fact that the proportion of pensioners in the categories dealing with pensioners in persistent poverty is gradually increasing, in three years out of every four? This is at the same time as the minimum income guarantee and means-tested benefits for pensioners are being increased by the Government. Does the Minister accept that that is a worrying figure? What plans do the Government have to tackle the problem for that group of retirement pensioners?

Maria Eagle

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. He is absolutely right to say that the persistence of poverty is perhaps one of the most difficult problems that "Opportunity for All" and the statistics that it regularly produces have highlighted. There is a time lag between the publication of statistics and the implementation of the measures that we have put in place to try to tackle some of these issues, particularly in respect of the persistence of poverty. Pension credit and some of the other measures that the Government are now introducing will have an impact on the persistence of poverty, but there is no doubt that it is one of the most difficult issues to tackle in relation to poverty. However, simply redistributing to all pensioners the cash that is currently going to the poorest pensioners would have nothing other than a negative impact on the problem.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon)

Is it not true that every person helped back into work is a person helped to escape from poverty and social exclusion? Presumably, that is why we are seeing so many television adverts at the moment featuring road blocks and encouraging people back into work, which I applaud. Have the Minister and her Department yet found a way of measuring how many people are specifically encouraged to make contact with the Connections service and other local agencies as a result of those television adverts, which were probably rather expensive? Is there a way of measuring whether they are effective, so that we may know whether taxpayers' money is being effectively spent?

Maria Eaglec

The hon. Gentleman began by making some excellent points. I very much approve of the Joseph Rowntree report, which recently said that work for those who can work has made a real contribution to reducing poverty, and that poverty would be much worse without the improvements that have been made to the tax and benefits system for those on low incomes. That is undoubtedly true.

Advertising campaigns are evaluated. Some of the self-same researchers on whom my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards) heaped praise, with which I agreed, are evaluating the value for money of those campaigns. That information is, of course, in the public domain.