Families (Scotland)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 12:01 pm on 21st March 2001.

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Photo of Malcolm Bruce Malcolm Bruce Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 12:01 pm, 21st March 2001

Perhaps it is appropriate to have a change of party at this juncture, although I have no complaint about the fact that five Labour Members have spoken so far. Nor do I blame them for taking this opportunity to claim credit--in some cases, deservedly so--for a number of Government initiatives. However, Mr. Davidson was right to say that we need to look ahead and ask where the money is going. Moreover, as Mr. Robertson said, although much has been done, there is still more to do. I do not agree that all the Government's initiatives have been effective or conducted in the best possible way, but I none the less welcome the fact that there have been a number of them.

Although the problems associated with poverty are extremely important and have to be dealt with, we should remember that this debate is concerned with the impact of Government policies on families in Scotland. We must consider the entire perspective, because in dealing with poverty we must level up, rather than down. Some who are regarded as part of the better-off strata of Scottish society nevertheless feel vulnerable in the light of current events. They fear that their standard of living and quality of life will decline rather than improve.

Given that I have an 18-month-old child, I should declare an interest in knowing whether the Government recognise a commitment to families. The principle behind such a commitment is right, and it should be given priority. It is clear that supporting people who bring up children is an important investment in the future quality of our society--not just in economic terms, but in terms of citizenship, social justice and the entire fabric of society. Of course, such support boils down to practical measures. It is a fact of life that in the flexible labour force for which this Government and the previous Government have argued, parents will be working, even in households where there is only one parent. We must ensure that the income available to those who work is sufficient to provide a good home for their children. Child care is also vital, and the right type and quality must be made available.

The Secretary of State has been a working mother, and she will not mind my saying that during last week's Question Time we had an informal discussion in the wings on the impact on children of such work. It has been suggested that working mothers might not be helping their children and should stay at home instead, but my view is that that is a fruitless and unfair debate. The truth is that many children who were brought up by working mothers proved well-adjusted and happy individuals. Working mothers need to know not just that the child care that they need is available, but that it is of the right quality. As was said, we do not want a left-luggage office for children, and more needs to be done to ensure that the right care is available. A nursery is not a place to park children; it is a place that provides children with a stimulating environment before they go to school.

I am proud of my association with the expansion of nursery education in my area. The north-east of Scotland was one of the first parts of Scotland to achieve almost total nursery provision for four-year-olds, and we are well on the way to achieving the same goal for three-year-olds. The Conservative party opposed campaigners for the expansion of nursery provision because its members regarded nursery education as an inappropriate leftist issue. Indeed, when the regional council was founded it came into power with a Conservative majority. Several nursery units, which the previous independent council had built, were not opened for 10 years because the Conservative group did not believe that that kind of provision was desirable. The policy changed only after the Conservative group was heavily defeated in local elections.

I am glad that Liberal Democrats co-operated with the Labour party to implement the strategy that created universal nursery education. [Interruption.] I can hear Mrs. Laing muttering from a sedentary position, but I shall go further. That strategy demonstrated that for whom one votes makes a difference, even in local council elections. People realised that a fundamental shift in policy can bring about a beneficial change.

Families contain not only children, but older people and pensioners. The commitments that have been made to pensioners go some way to assuaging their anger about the 75p increase to state pensions and have made them feel that they are beginning to be treated differently. I shall be bullish and say that the Liberal Democrat party has made a positive contribution by campaigning and petitioning on the back of the 75p increase. I welcome the fact that the Government are under pressure from not only Liberal Democrats, but their own people and pensioners' organisations.

Never mind the argument about the earnings link. Pensioners have a right to expect that pensions and associated benefits will keep pace with general improvements in the economy. It is no longer acceptable to relate pension increases only to the cost of living, and no Government should accept doing so. As everyone else's earnings rise in line with the economy, pensioner poverty is accentuated. Although this is neither the time nor the place to develop that argument, it is one reason why the Liberal Democrat party will make a commitment to improve the income of pensioners, and especially older pensioners, the centrepiece of our general election campaign--whenever that may be. Whether or not we have an opportunity to deliver that policy, we shall pressurise any future Government to adopt it.

We have secured a commitment to provide personal care for the elderly in Scotland. I hope that that issue will be taken up by the United Kingdom Government for two reasons. First, if it is right for Scotland, it is right for the remainder of the UK. Secondly, if the UK Government made such a commitment, it would take the pressure to find the money off the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Executive, which would ease the pressure on other resources.

Much has been made of the new deal. It is important to put it on record that those of us who criticised the new deal did not criticise and do not criticise the practical assistance and support that it has given to individuals. We appreciate that that kind of resource often delivers benefits to individuals. However, we are concerned by the high cost of the programme. A few people may have benefited substantially, but many did not benefit or the benefit was not connected to the new deal. Additionally, two questions arise. First, as a windfall tax for the duration of this Parliament has been the prime basis of funding for the new deal, how will the programme be funded in the next Parliament? Secondly, the Government have benefited from a growing economy, for which they claim the credit, but would that mechanism stand the test of being the best way of funding the programme if the economy went into a downturn?

I agree with the hon. Member for Pollok that to give people access to education, training and ambition and to raise standards we should encourage the private sector to play a more active part in poorer communities. More money must be spent, but it does not have to be state money; it could be private money from firms that employ people or open facilities that people can use, work in and gain benefit from.