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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

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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

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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.

New Deal for Disabled People

13. Liz Blackman (Erewash): What representations he has had from employers' organisations about his Department's involvement with the new deal for disabled people. [145971]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Hugh Bayley): By the end of last year, the pilots of the new deal for disabled people had helped more than 6,000 people move into work. We are now working to extend the programme. We have consulted widely, including with employers, whose views will help us to target our measures more effectively to support those who currently claim incapacity benefits and who wish to move into work.

Liz Blackman: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that more help should be given to people who suffer from ill health and whose jobs are at risk? What do the Government intend to do about that?

Mr. Bayley: I agree with my hon. Friend. In fact, I feel passionately that the state should be able to help people who risk losing their jobs because of failing health. Under the new deal for disabled people, we have run a number of job rehabilitation pilots, from which we have learned a great deal. We hope shortly to advertise for people to run a further series of pilots focused on job retention; indeed, I hope that we shall do so next week. Through rehabilitation and job help, such pilots will enable people who have been absent from work for six weeks to retain their jobs. Each week, 17,000 people reach their sixth week of absence from work. Those people need help, as they run the grave risk of losing their jobs altogether. Such help has not been provided in the past, but the pilots will allow it to be given in future.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): Is it not a fact that, although some Opposition Members may not look in the mirror--a comment that was made earlier--Ministers and other Labour Members often look in The Guardian? Did the Under-Secretary see in The Guardian last week a statement made by the head of public policy at the Royal National Institute for the Blind? With reference to the new deal for the disabled, he said that

What is the hon. Gentleman's answer to that criticism?

Mr. Bayley: I know Steve Winyard well. He did not say that the new deal for disabled people discriminates against people; he asked questions about the evaluation strategy for the new job-broker scheme. We have been discussing the scheme with voluntary bodies and we want to make the evaluation as user-friendly as possible.We are absolutely determined to ensure that it is thorough and robust, so that it will prove the effectiveness of work to help people on incapacity benefit to retain jobs and to get back into work. Such help can then be provided to people on incapacity benefit not on a pilot basis, but on a full-time, regular basis. We need such measures because

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the number of people on incapacity benefit trebled from 600,000 to 1.8 million when the hon. Gentleman's party was in power. Those people were simply dumped. The Conservative party left them high and dry, which is why we are piloting the new deal for disabled people. We want to give those 1.8 million people some hope of getting back into work.

Pensioners (Expenditure)

15. Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South): What representations he has received about the amount his Department spends on pensioners. [145973]

The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Darling): The extra £4.5 billion that the Government are spending over and above the amount that the Conservatives planned to spend has been widely welcomed.

Mr. Chapman: Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is unsurprising that few representations have been made to the Department of Social Security about spending on pensioners, because the Government have done morefor our pensioners in four years than the previous Government did in 18 years? Does he agree also that we remain committed to allowing pensioners to share in the growing prosperity of the country as it develops?

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend is right. Most people welcome the increase in the basic pension of £5 for single pensioners and £8 for pensioner couples, which will happen in April. That comes together with the increase in the minimum income guarantee, which means that2 million of the poorest pensioners in the country will be at least £15 a week better off in real terms. Those increases have been widely welcomed. I am sure, however, that the same people who welcome them will be equally apprehensive about the Opposition's proposals to scrap the winter fuel payment and to reduce the entitlement for 2.5 million pensioners, who will lose out as a result of the proposal.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): How much money each year will the Government claw back from people who reach retirement age and will no longer qualify for the married couples allowance?

Mr. Darling: The hon. Gentleman knows that we made changes to the married couples' allowance because we wanted to focus more help on families with children. We want to ensure that the Government's help goes to people on the basis of need rather than status. That is why we made those changes.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries): Having spoken to some pensioners in my constituency over the weekend, may I tell my right hon. Friend how much they applaud the Government's efforts in relieving them of pensioner poverty? Given the time of year, they made particular mention of the winter fuel payment. Can my right hon. Friend outline what he believes the introduction of the pension credit will do for those who fall just above that minimum income guarantee line?

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend will be aware that the Government intend to introduce the pension credit

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from 2003. It will guarantee that no pensioner need live on less than £100 a week and will ensure that, for every pound that they save, people qualifying for the pension credit will receive a cash top-up. For example, a pensioner saving £20 a week will get £12 a week on top of that as a reward for saving.

The Government's objective is to ensure that it pays to save. The problem with the social security system that we inherited was that there was a positive disincentive against saving. From 2003, for the first time in the history of the social security system in this country, for every pound pensioners save they will get a credit for their thrift. That reform is long overdue. Not only does it help combat pensioner poverty but it ensures that thrifty pensioners are rewarded and not penalised, as they were for far too long.

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