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13 Mar 2008 : Column 443

James Purnell: Actually, the figure is £30 million, so just like the £1.5 billion the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) cited, that was a misinterpretation of the figures, although I know the hon. Gentleman is fond of doing that. That intervention was a bit like a rolling substitution in rugby—the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) popped on to the pitch for a couple of seconds, so perhaps the hon. Member for Tatton will rise a bit later.

The answer to the question is that we aim to make all the assessments within three years. That is how we plan to proceed. After April 2010, the aim is to carry them out within three years. [ Interruption. ] The figure is £30 million—there is a net figure, but the gross figure is £30 million.

It is precisely because we have had a stable fiscal and monetary policy that we have had 10 years of economic growth. We have had higher growth than during the last decade of Tory Government, half the inflation and half the claimant unemployment, which means that we are much better prepared to face global economic difficulties than the Tory Government of that time. In the 1990s, when the Conservatives’ current leader was working in the Treasury—when they were trying to recover from Black Wednesday—the economy was not well prepared. Inflation was out of control, debt was well over 40 per cent. and interest rates hit 15 per cent., which meant that when they wanted the economy to adapt, it could not. Interest rates could not go down and borrowing could not support the real economy.

Today, we can afford to make changes because we can afford to increase borrowing. We can decide to do so. We can ensure that fiscal policy supports the economy. Last year, our economy grew faster than any other economy in the G7—

Angela Browning rose—

James Purnell: A fact on which I am sure the hon. Lady wants to congratulate us.

Angela Browning: On stewardship and balancing the books, is it still the case that the Department for Work and Pensions, which has responsibility for many of the benefits and policies the Secretary of State is talking about, has not yet had Treasury sanction for its accounts to be signed off on an annual basis? Is the Treasury still overseeing his departmental budget?

James Purnell: I think the hon. Lady is talking about the National Audit Office. My permanent secretary had an interesting discussion with the Public Accounts Committee recently, and showed that there has been a significant reduction in fraud— [ Interruption. ] The hon. Lady says that she is a member of the PAC.

There has been a huge reduction in fraud—something that the previous Government did not even measure. Our accounts stand in good comparison to those of other welfare departments anywhere in the world. [ Interruption. ] The Conservatives did not measure fraud, so they have no grounds for making comments about it.

We can continue to invest because we have switched spending from failure—for which it was used in the past—to the future we face now. In the early ’90s, three quarters of all new public spending went on social
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security and debt; today, the amount is less than a third, which is why we have been able to invest in schools, hospitals and public transport—all the things the shadow Chancellor said he wished we had cut over the past 10 years. He wishes we had not spent money on all those things, but had instead taken money away from the future, spending it on the economic failure that used to be his policy.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): Yesterday, we heard a speech that avoided the issues by trying to send us to sleep. Today, we are hearing a speech that avoids the issues by trying to talk about things that happened 10 years ago. Can I bring the Secretary of State back to today? Has child poverty increased or decreased in the last year?

James Purnell: No wonder the hon. Gentleman does not want to talk about the Conservative record of 15 per cent. interest rates, but we shall keep on talking about it. Under their Government, child poverty doubled—

Mr. Ellwood: Answer the question.

James Purnell: The hon. Gentleman will like the answer. Child poverty doubled under his Government but it has fallen by 600,000 in the last 10 years—a clear contrast between our Government, who are cutting child poverty and his Government, who allowed it to double. That is a shameful record.

We can continue to invest because we have switched spending to the future. As everyone now knows, this is a Budget for stability—that has been well commented on.

Mr. Heald: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

James Purnell: I have given way enough for the moment, but I will happily give way to the hon. Gentleman later.

Everyone recognises that the Budget shows the difference in priorities between the Government and Opposition Front-Bench Members. Yesterday, we announced that we would lift 250,000 children out of poverty, in addition to the 300,000 announced in the pre-Budget report and last year’s Budget. Does anyone in the House seriously believe that if the hon. Member for Tatton had made the Budget speech yesterday he would ever have thought of making such an announcement? He would never have done so; it would never have been his priority, because the Conservatives never did anything about child poverty when they were in power.

Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): Does the Secretary of State expect to meet the 2010 target of halving child poverty?

James Purnell: The Budget gives us a good step towards it. [ Interruption. ] I am not giving a running commentary on the target. We are committed to it. We reaffirmed our commitment to it and published a document on how we would do it. With those measures, we are taking an extra 500,000 out of poverty, in addition to the 600,000. There is a clear contrast between a Government who are reducing child poverty and one who allowed it to double.

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Greg Clark: I am sure that the Secretary of State’s officials must have advised him about when, on current progress, he will meet his 2010 target. In what year have his officials advised him that the Government are likely to meet the target?

James Purnell: We aim to meet it in 2010. That is our clear commitment. How can the hon. Gentleman shed crocodile tears about a target to which his party is not even committed? The Conservatives are not committed to that target; we clearly heard again from the shadow Chancellor that it was an aspiration. I will not take synthetic anger from a party that criticises us for a goal that it will not even meet.

Chris Grayling rose—

James Purnell: Will the hon. Gentleman say that the Conservatives are committed to that goal? Will he use the word “pledge”—will he say that he is pledged to meet the target? No one on the Conservative Front Bench has ever done so, now is his chance to redeem his colleagues.

Chris Grayling: Why has the right hon. Gentleman just told the House that he expects to meet the target in 2010 when last week his Department published a document stating that the target would not be met in 2010?

James Purnell: That is loud and clear: the Opposition are not committed to the target. Why does it matter? Why does it matter that it is an aspiration and not a target? What is it about the words

that Opposition Front Benchers find them so hard to say? It is because they do not really believe in the target and would never have set it in the first place. In any case, they cannot afford to meet it.

Why does it matter that it is an aspiration and not a target? We pledge to meet the target of eradicating child poverty by 2010 by taking further steps— [ Interruption. ] That is our target. We have made it clear that our target is to halve child poverty by 2010. Yet again, the shadow Chancellor failed to say anything about it. People outside this place will notice that the Conservatives are simply not committed to the target.

Why does it matter? Because a target generates policy momentum. It also means that people have to find the resources to meet it, which is exactly what we did yesterday. Why will the Conservatives not do that?

Several hon. Members rose

James Purnell: Let me make some progress.

The Conservatives will not pledge to meet the target because of the £10 billion gap. On Sunday, the Leader of the Opposition said that they would spend £3 billion on the working tax credit. At exactly the same time, on Andrew Marr’s programme, the shadow Chancellor was saying that he would spend that money on the health budget. His leader was saying that they would spend it on the working tax credit; he said on the very same day that they would spend it on health. Their
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policy was confused and contradictory even then, with them not even being able to agree with each other. Today, the hon. Gentleman has found a third way of spending that money. He said that it would be spent on welfare to work. So they have spent exactly the same money three times now on three totally different issues. That is classic behaviour from the Conservative party, trying to fill a black hole by spending the same money again and again.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): May I ask the Secretary of State the same question again, but in a perhaps more friendly way? What further measures does he expect are necessary for the Government to meet their 2010 target?

James Purnell: Thanks to the Budget, we will take further measures on welfare reform and child poverty. Clearly, we want to make to further progress towards the 2010 target, but we are committed to it and the hon. Gentleman is not. His party is not committed to it, either.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): During the years when the Conservative party was in power and all the fat City bonuses were being paid, I was the leader of a south London council and remember going around the schools and seeing children with signs of poor nutrition—almost malnutrition—with skin blemishes, bad hair and bad clothing. How the Conservative party dares to raise the issue of child poverty and criticise the Government is quite beyond all of us who have had anything to do with child poverty over the years.

James Purnell: The Opposition do not care about the target and that is why they will simply not commit to it.

Mr. Heald: Will the Secretary of State give way?

James Purnell: I will make some further progress in my argument if I may. I have already taken up some time of the House.

The Conservatives already had a problem: they had spent that £3 billion on three different issues, but they have a much bigger problem today. The much bigger problem for the shadow Chancellor is that that money has vanished. It is factored into our future spending plans, but the Conservatives have exactly the same welfare reform goals as we do.

Mr. Ellwood: Will the Secretary of State give way?

James Purnell: I have given way quite enough.

Our welfare reform programme is based on a simple contract. For those who play by the rules, we will provide extra support so that they can realise their ambitions. For people who do not play by the rules, there will be clear consequences from their behaviour. That is why we want to create a higher floor for children. We want them to get on, and we know that poverty is one of the things holding them back. That is not just a child anti-poverty policy, but a pro-child well-being policy and a pro-child life-chances policy.

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Let us think of all the problems that are alleviated by getting to grips with child poverty: obesity, truancy and low school attainment. About 50 per cent. of the educational inequality in this country is related to income inequality. Unless the Opposition commit to the target, their views on this issue will be hollow and, frankly, pious.

I said that this was a contract, and so it is. As my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) quite rightly said, for those who can work, there is no option not to do so. We have already announced—much to the Opposition’s chagrin—that there will be work for the dole for young people who are not working or learning and for the long-term unemployed: a much wider programme than the one that they had previously announced. The hon. Member for Tatton wishes that we were not doing that. As we discussed, he was impressed by the Freud report—so much so that the Conservatives quote it on pages 10, 19, 38, 42 and 43 of their document. We are implementing it, and I am sorry that he cannot be disappointed about that, too.

Last month, we announced payment by results. Now, we can announce that everyone on incapacity benefit will be put through the work capability assessment to find out whether they are capable of work. But we will go further: welfare reform can help more children out of poverty. We will require lone parents with older children to look for work, and that will lift another 70,000 children out of poverty. We will develop a radical reform package to extend further and improve opportunities and incentives to work, lift even more children out of poverty and give independence, choice and control for disabled people.

Chris Grayling: The Government have announced that already.

James Purnell: No, we have not; this is a new announcement from the Budget yesterday.

If there are no more of David Freud’s ideas that the hon. Member for Tatton wants to plunder, perhaps the Conservatives would like to come up with some of their own, and we would be happy to look at them.

Mr. Ellwood: Will the Secretary of State give way?

James Purnell: I am going to make some progress.

The Conservatives have clearly said that their goal is the same as ours: they would take 1 million people off incapacity benefit. They are not planning to squeeze any more from that budget. So their £10 billion hole is exactly the same as it was on Sunday. Everyone now wants to know the answer to this question: what does the hon. Member for Tatton say to the shadow health spokesman who said:

I bet that he is very popular at shadow Cabinet meetings, going around promising to cut other people’s budgets. If not welfare, where are those areas that will be cut in real terms? Where will those cuts come from? Perhaps the shadow Chancellor would like to say where the axe will fall? He certainly did not tell us in his speech. From his silence, we can assume one of two
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things: either all the proposals that he made in his speech are completely unfunded and therefore should be taken for what they are, which is a con, or there are swingeing spending cuts coming in key Departments to pay for that £10 billion black hole. [ Interruption. ] Opposition Members do not like listening to this, because theirs is exactly the sort of fiscal indiscipline that led to the economic problems of the 1980s and 1990s, and they do not like being reminded of it.

The hon. Gentleman’s smokescreen is gone. He is left with no target, no funding and no credibility. I would be happy to take criticism on child poverty from people who have a record on combating child poverty and who are committed to the target. But I will not accept their crocodile tears on an issue that they will not even commit themselves to. He has not even got the generosity to acknowledge that 600,000 people have been lifted out of poverty, and he has not got the honesty to admit why we had to act. We had to act because child poverty doubled under the Conservative Government and was the highest in Europe.

If we had just continued the spending policies of the Tories but uprated them, there would be an extra 1.7 million children in poverty today. We would not be talking about halving and eradicating child poverty; we would be talking about doubling it. That is exactly the record that we would have if the Conservatives had continued in power. The 2010 target was deliberately tough. It was never going to be easy to get so far, but as I said, the Budget makes real progress. We will do everything that we can to meet our 2010 target.

We are aiming high, and we are making the choices stark. Which do we prefer: a Government who set a very tough target and invest again and again to get there, or a Government who only pretend to care about child poverty because their leader’s spin doctors tell them that they have to do so; a Labour Chancellor or the hon. Member for Tatton—confused, contradictory and a threat to the economy? I know which is better for the country, and I know which is better for the children of this country.

1.27 pm

Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): I would say that it is a pleasure to follow the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and, indeed, the shadow Chancellor, but the debate so far has been an embarrassment. The shadow Chancellor had nothing at all to say, and the Secretary of State had almost nothing to say about his own budget. It is no wonder that people outside the House are so disillusioned with politics when they listen to the sort of contribution that we have heard from the first two speakers, who had nothing to say about the changes made in the Budget. Perhaps it was good knockabout stuff—or perhaps weak knockabout stuff—but it did not address the real issues of the Budget and how it affects people in this country today.

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