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House of Commons

Wednesday 3 July 2002

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State was asked—

Local Government

1. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): What assessment he has made of the impact on the membership of North-West Leicestershire parish councils of the implementation of the new codes of conduct and registers of interest. [64154]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Christopher Leslie): Local government at all levels, including parishes, will be strengthened by the new code of conduct and register of interests that we are introducing. By aiming for higher standards in local councils, the Government hope that public confidence in and respect for the valuable work of councillors will be increased.

David Taylor: Although the Government's policies for parish councils appear broadly well-intentioned, their requirements on registration of interests seem over the top for smaller authorities. Where, for example, parish councillors such as my fellow parish councillors in Appleby Magna, Kegworth, Measham, Snarestone and Swannington decline to sign and resign, are we not losing a wealth of experience and commitment? Does my hon. Friend agree that the present code is more rigorous for councillors in communities of 600 with a budget of £4,000 than it is for Ministers in a country of 60 million with Government budgets of more than £400,000 million? Is that not rather perverse for those of us who are parish councillors and unaccountably not yet Ministers?

Mr. Leslie: I am not sure that my hon. Friend has interpreted the code of conduct and the register of interests requirements accurately. I believe that it is a fundamental principle of democratic accountability that elected positions should carry a requirement to adhere to standing lists of registers of interests. That is fundamental for local communities that are concerned about where their elected representatives make decisions, and it is the

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right and proper step to take, not least because it came out of a recommendation from the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): I welcome the Minister to his new post. Like everyone else, he is well aware that this disproportionate code will affect not only the parish councillors in North-West Leicestershire but all parish councillors, whose financial interests and those of their wives, of their children—even of their nephews' wives—will have to be declared. That is wholly disproportionate, and a monstrous slur on our fellow citizens who give of their time voluntarily to help their communities. Will the Minister, even at this stage, exempt small parish councils with a precept of under £5,000 from these excessively burdensome proposals?

Mr. Leslie: No, because I believe that the requirements in the code of conduct and the ethical framework for councillors and those holding elected offices, which I am slightly surprised the hon. Gentleman is opposing, are perfectly fair and not at all onerous. I recommend him to read the details again. They affect only those matters relating to official duties. I seriously believe that, as a fundamental democratic principle of accountability, we need a system whereby relevant interests are declared and a register is available for communities to see. It is important that that should apply to councillors at all levels when making decisions that affect local communities.

Area-based Studies

2. Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West): How area-based studies are being used in the social exclusion unit's inquiries. [64155]

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State (Mr. John Prescott): Area-based studies are currently being used in two social exclusion unit projects to identify examples of good practice and gaps in local services; to analyse the likely impact of policies at community level; and to include front-line workers and local people in that policy process.

Dr. Starkey: Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that, although absolute poverty is a good indicator of social exclusion, it is also important to consider inequity within an area? May I draw his attention to the fact that Woughton ward in Milton Keynes, which is one of the 10 per cent. most deprived wards in England, has an index of multiple deprivation of 6.8 and is adjacent to a ward with an index of 66? Does he agree that such inequities deepen the sense of social exclusion? Will he assure me that his Department will take that into account in further studies on social exclusion?

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: My hon. Friend makes a good point. The index of multiple deprivation identifies the problem at ward level. We are working on a new neighbourhood statistics programme at sub-ward level, which will be helpful. We constantly review the position, and the identification of poverty and deprivation is an essential concern.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): Has the Deputy Prime Minister had time to study the new research

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paper issued by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which claims that the decline in child poverty is much less than has been confidently expected? In the light of that, will he look into what we believe to be an exaggerated statement in the Budget Red Book last year? It said that 1.2 million children have been taken out of poverty, whereas the figure is probably less than half that.

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: No, I have not had chance to read that article, but I shall do so.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough): In the light of what my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) said, is the Deputy Prime Minister aware that we have a similar problem in Loughborough, where two of the richest wards in the county are adjacent to two of the poorest. That causes enormous difficulty in getting Government programmes into those areas, although we welcome the impact of the sure start programme on local areas. The Deputy Prime Minister has already referred to sub-ward levels. Will he give further details on that and say how it would impact on constituencies such as mine?

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: Again, I very much agree with my hon. Friend. The Government are concerned to look at the issue with some urgency, and as soon as the information becomes available to us, we will make it available. However, we have to enter into a lot of consultations about this. We are consulting on how to measure child poverty, which is a real problem in this country, and the Government's record shows that we have done a great deal to reduce it.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): Are not the homeless some of the most socially excluded people in this country? How does the Deputy Prime Minister justify keeping his flat in Clapham—

Mr. Speaker: Order. There is no need for the Deputy Prime Minister to answer.

Social Exclusion

3. Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): What progress has been made by the social exclusion unit towards reducing the number of people classed as socially excluded since June 2001. [64156]

The Minister for Social Exclusion and Deputy Minister for Women (Mrs. Barbara Roche): The social exclusion unit delivers long-term strategies for tackling specific aspects of social exclusion. It is not possible to get comparative figures for June 2001, but good progress has been made. For example, there has been a 71 per cent. reduction in the number of people sleeping rough since June 1998, and the proportion of teenage parents in Great Britain who are in education, employment or training rose to 29 per cent. in 2001, compared with 18 per cent. in 1997.

Kevin Brennan: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. In relation to the social exclusion unit's work with ex-prisoners, 58 per cent. of whom reoffend after their release, is she sure that, having been tough on crime by

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putting people in prison, we are tough enough on one of the main causes of crime, namely social exclusion, when they come out?

Mrs. Roche: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to tackle reoffending rates. Figures show that something like 1 million crimes a year are committed by those coming out of prison after serving sentences, which is why we need to do something with prisoners from the moment they start their sentence. This is what the new plan is all about, and we will come back with detailed proposals shortly.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon): I am sure that the Minister agrees that one of the most socially excluded groups of people are young people who have been excluded from school, many of whom drift into crime, drug dependency and underachievement. Does she agree that until we have a clear and coherent strategy on what to do with excluded young people, we will never get to the heart of the problem? What is the Minister's strategy, and how is it progressing?

Mrs. Roche: The hon. Gentleman is right to mention those who have been excluded from school, who might give in to the temptations of crime or become very vulnerable. That is why we have pupil referral units, which are very successful. There are also programmes in schools which have seen a drop in the number of pupils who are excluded permanently. However, there is clearly a lot more that we want to do, which is why the Department for Education and Skills is taking forward this strategy.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney): Regarding the social exclusion unit's study into transport obstacles faced in trying to get unemployed people back into work, will my hon. Friend look at ways of incentivising employers to lay on coaches to get people to work? That form of transport is an efficient means of getting people to work; it is also flexible and possibly the only means of getting people in rural areas to work. Will she consider that possibility?

Mrs. Roche: We will certainly look at that very important matter. There is no doubt that in looking to regenerate communities, whether urban or rural, which have high levels of unemployment among certain groups of people, particularly the young, transport is a factor. We will discuss the issue with employers and consider my hon. Friend's comments.

Annabelle Ewing (Perth): What involvement has the Deputy Prime Minister's Office had in discussions on tackling social exclusion in Scotland where, under a Labour Government, one in three children continues to be brought up in poverty and one in four of our pensioners lives in poverty?

Mrs. Roche: The hon. Lady is right to talk about the problems of social exclusion. That is exactly why we have the social exclusion unit in England, and why the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament have been active in

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this area. They have made a number of proposals and my officials in the unit are in close contact with others in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North): London has the highest rate of child poverty in England and two thirds of the most deprived council estates in England. To the Government's considerable credit, child poverty has been cut in all regions of the United Kingdom but, in London in the late 1990s, child poverty remained constant. Will my hon. Friend assure me that, in terms of tackling social exclusion, London will get its fair share of resources in the comprehensive spending review and the standard spending assessment calculations to be announced shortly?

Mrs. Roche: As a London Member of Parliament, I understand the picture that my hon. Friend presents, but the Government have moved a long way to tackle those issues. I will certainly pass on her views to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor.

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