I beg to move,
That this House
has considered cross-departmental strategy on social justice.
I am delighted to have secured this vital debate, which I applied for with my hon. Friend Mr Burrowes, on the importance of joined-up thinking on social justice. I am delighted, too, that we have obtained it so early in our new Prime Minister’s tenure, because my right hon. Friend has already made it abundantly clear that she is personally interested in social reform and in continuing the one nation tradition that has been a consistent and defining strand of 21st-century conservativism.
I propose to use family policy as an example of an area in which greater cross-departmental strategy, involving several Ministers and one Cabinet-level Minister with overall responsibility as a primary element of his or her portfolio—not only as an adjunct—could reap exponential benefits, in particular for the poorest families in our society. That is crucial, because as many Members present today know—I thank those attending for their support, in particular those on the Government Benches—family breakdown is a key driver of poverty. It causes so many problems, not least financial ones, but also problems in health, including mental health, educational difficulties—leading to employment disadvantages—addiction and housing pressures.
In taking charge of the newly minted Social Reform Cabinet Committee, the Prime Minister has put social justice right up there on her list of priorities, alongside Brexit and the economy. The message could not be clearer. She stood on the steps of No. 10 and talked about governing for everyone:
“That means fighting against the burning injustice that, if you’re born poor, you will die on average 9 years earlier than others”.
She also highlighted the fact that
“If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university.”
She has indicated that she intends to take personal responsibility for changing such unacceptable realities. To my mind, that is not only encouraging, but exciting.
Moreover, I applaud the Prime Minister’s stated ambition, a
“mission to make Britain a country that works for everyone”.
Most, if not all constituency MPs must have completely agreed with her when she said:
“If you’re from an ordinary working class family, life is much harder than many people in Westminster realise.”
We all very much want to work in harness with a Government who see it as their duty to deliver success on behalf of everyone in the UK, not only the privileged few, and who also have social justice explicitly at their heart.
Let me explain what I mean by using the example of family policy. I am sure that other hon. Members will have other policy areas to share. For too long, there has been a view in Government that an aspiration to help families struggling to nurture their children and to hold down stable relationships was indefensibly interventionist and intrusive. Before my right hon. Friend Mr Duncan Smith laid bare the social, financial and emotional costs of family breakdown in our poorest communities in his paradigm-shifting reports, “Breakdown Britain” and “Breakthrough Britain”, fractured families were simply not considered policy-relevant. He punctured the myth that relationship breakdown was none of the state’s business by pointing out that the public purse was picking up the tab and by exposing the easy complacency of those who are better placed in our society.
I accept that no social stratum is immune to family difficulties. I know that from almost 30 years of leading a law firm specialising in family law. Many people in this House, for example, come from broken homes or have seen their own marriages falter, and no one judges them. However, the social justice narrative articulated so eloquently by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green and the Centre for Social Justice highlights how more advantaged people tend to experience family breakdown somewhat differently from people in our poorest communities—although I have to say from my own experience that children can suffer grief from relationship breakdowns however affluent their background.
When the family relationships of those from better-off backgrounds experience shipwreck, they or their parents can deploy reserves of social and other capital to soften the potentially harmful effects on them and the children involved. For example, in good schools, staff are less embattled than in deprived areas and have more time for each individual pupil; or the family might have enough cash that a split does not plunge the people involved into poverty or they can pay for counselling.
All that stands in stark contrast to what happens for the poorest 20% of society, where debt, educational failure, addictions to substances, and under or unemployment often conspire together to compound the damage of broken relationships. Such pressures make relationships hard to maintain, or for parents to spend time with their child to encourage interaction between them. As a result, half of all children in communities of the 20% least advantaged no longer live with both parents by the time they start school—seven times as many as those in the richest 20%.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Her words are important and resonate with those in a recent speech by the noble Lord Sacks, who referred to the “two nations” we now have—those, perhaps the preserve of the rich, who benefit from the association of children with two parents, and those who do not, the 1 million children who have no contact whatever with their fathers.
Yes, Jonathan Sacks, who is so respected and speaks from a heart of compassion, indeed said that. I very much support those words, because we know that about 1 million children have little or no contact with their fathers, and they are vastly over-represented in our poorest communities.
What I said about the poorest 20% on the income spectrum holds true for those who have a bit, but not a lot more. The Institute for Social and Economic Research found that, on average, women’s incomes dropped by more than 10% after a marital split, and that family breakdown is a route into poverty for many. The single fact of family breakdown can tip people out of a degree of financial security and into a much more precarious and uncertain set of circumstances, in which they are also far more dependent on the state.
As I always state in such debates, I make no criticism or condemnation of single parents. So many of them strive so valiantly to support their children and to do their very best for their families, often in challenging circumstances. However, the fact is that lone-parent households are twice as likely to be in poverty as couple families. In 2015, 44% of children from lone-parent families were in households living on less than 60% of median income, as compared with 24% of children from two-parent families. Inevitably, single parents struggling to juggle their time will face greater challenges to spending time with their children.
Some might suggest that parents raising children on their own should simply receive more support from the state, but single parenthood is a risk factor for poverty internationally. Swedish statistics show that parental separation is the biggest driver into child poverty, by a large margin, and that is in the country with the most generous welfare regime in the world. The state does not and cannot protect a child against the absence of a relationship missed with one parent or another. As this Government’s emphasis on life chances has made clear, however, we cannot look only to the effects on income. Poverty is not only about income, but about many other things in life, not least, particularly in a child’s life, poverty of relationships. How are the nation’s children and young people faring in terms of their mental health and wellbeing?
Research commissioned by the previous Labour Government shows that children who experience family breakdown are more likely to experience behavioural problems, to perform less well in school, to need more medical treatment, to leave school and home earlier, to become sexually active, pregnant or a parent at an early age, and to report more depressive symptoms and higher levels of smoking, drinking and other drug use during adolescence. The most up-to-date research also demonstrates those associations. The recently published “Longitudinal Study of Young People in England” found that young people in single-parent families had greater mental health challenges than those with two parents, and there was a greater likelihood of them being above the “caseness” threshold, which means that someone is suffering from such psychological distress that they need clinical help.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s comment that social injustice is based not just on financial poverty but, in effect, on social poverty—things such as bereavement, family breakdown and children’s time being consumed by them acting as carers. Does she agree that we should look at how things such as the pupil premium are calculated to ensure that they take into account the whole range of social injustices that children in this country face?
We certainly need to look at a range of solutions for supporting such children more, and that could be one. My hon. Friend raises the concerning issue of young carers, who are certainly under-supported and under-resourced and whose number is underestimated, as I know from my own area.
I am patron of a young persons’ mental health charity, Visyon, which cannot cope with all the requests for help that it receives, including from children as young as four years old. I recently asked how many of those children have mental health issues because of relationship difficulties, and the answer was virtually all of them. Similarly, young people in step families were reported by the longitudinal study that I referred to as being significantly more likely to be above the caseness threshold than those living with two parents. We are often reminded of the need for more and better mental health services, but the role of family breakdown in fuelling that need is almost never mentioned. Would it not be wonderful if we could start to look earlier in the chain of difficulties and challenges that such children experience at how we can prevent family breakdown from occurring, as it does in so many cases?
When the study that I referred to was publicised, digital media received the lion’s share of the blame for driving poor outcomes. I have no doubt that over-exposure to screens and the online world does children and adolescents no favours—I and many other Members spoke about that only yesterday during the debate on the Digital Economy Bill—but digital media are here to stay, and we must be ruthlessly honest that family background can make children more likely to get less help than they need to navigate the challenges of the digital world. That is why I said in that debate that
“whatever protections the Government devise, they cannot be comprehensive. Parents need to be given as much information and support as possible to enable them to engage with and protect their children from harmful behaviour online in what is a very challenging environment for many parents.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 614, c. 841.]
That might not be the responsibility of the Ministers promoting that Bill, but I believe that it should be grasped by someone in government.
Families with two super-invested parents who have time and motivation to supervise their children’s internet use and coach them to be savvy digital natives are at a distinct advantage over others in helping to protect their children from self or other, abusive sexual experimentation. My main point is simply that when it comes to social harms, there is still a tendency to emphasise factors external to families and to look for solutions at a safe distance. However, the report of the Government-commissioned “Longitudinal Study of Young People in England” stated:
“Schools would seem ideally placed to cut through to all young people in year 10 and provide them with the support that they need around wellbeing”.
I accept that schools have an important role to play—many do so and support children with difficulties and disadvantages well—but the challenges are huge. We should surely also equip and educate parents so they can help their children. I commend Keith Simpson, headmaster of Middlewich High School in my constituency. When he seeks to support children with challenges in his school, he seeks to work with their parents, too.
The Institute for Public Policy Research, in its report “A long division”, found that no less than 80% of the factors influencing pupil achievement come from outside school, and family influence is particularly strong. Equipping and educating parents must include helping them when their own relationships are under strain and being honest about the effects that a culture of family breakdown has on the next generation.
The Government has a self-interested responsibility in this area, given that young people with poor mental health and wellbeing often grow up into adults who struggle, with implications for employers, national productivity and health services. University College London’s research department of epidemiology and public health has shown that 60-year-olds still suffer the long-term effects of childhood stress linked to the trauma of family breakdown. As someone who has been involved in a law firm that has undertaken family work for three decades, I can confirm that the bereavement and grief that young people feel from missing relationships can be profound and last a long time.
Members will be pleased to hear that that brings me back to the title of the debate, “A cross-departmental approach on social justice”, which has clear implications for the Prime Minister’s broader social reform goal. I have touched on just some of the social problems that restrict a child’s life chances and make life in Britain much less fulfilling and prosperous for so many than we in this place want it to be. If we are to cut through and make a lasting difference to those problems, a much more concerted and co-ordinated effort has to be made from the very top of the Government to address family breakdown than has been made to date.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. Children’s experience of school demonstrates perfectly how their experiences transcend departmental lines. You—she, rather—will not be surprised that when I spoke to colleagues in my constituency who work in the education sector, their primary concern was not curriculum reform, exam success, assessment or even funding, but children’s mental health. That has an impact not only on health policy but on children’s education—and their life chances, for which the Department for Work and Pensions is responsible.
My hon. Friend puts that point very succinctly, and better than I have in my prepared speech. She speaks not only from long experience but from her heart. Her commitment to family concerns has become well recognised since she entered the House, and I thank her for that.
There are examples of good practice in the form of joined-up governmental thinking. The previous Social Justice Cabinet Committee found that when Departments took a strategic approach to working together on issues such as the dreadful outcomes for care leavers, on which the DWP’s work was backed up by the work of the Department for Education, the then Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Department of Health, the Department for Communities and Local Government, and the Ministry of Justice and others, they could generate a wave of reform, not just a few isolated initiatives. For example, Jobcentre Plus advisers now know that when they have a care leaver in front of them, they will get extra support or flexibility, including early access to the Work programme; there are more funds for housing for those people and help for them to save through the junior ISA; and there is a care leavers champion in the criminal justice system. The list of co-ordinated government action is long and should make us and our former coalition partners proud.
I and many others were deeply encouraged when Lord Freud explained during the Report stage of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill in the House of Lords that the life chances strategy would cover measures relating to
“family breakdown, problem debt, and drug and alcohol addiction.”—[Official Report, House of Lords,
Vol. 768, c. 1084.]
I welcome that. It would be wonderful for the kind of cross-departmental work and ministerial leadership that we have seen on support for care leavers to be applied to family life. When it comes to the knotty problem of family breakdown, I am an incurable optimist, despite my law firm background, but I doubt our ability to successfully reverse the epidemically high rates of divorce, separation and family dysfunction in our society unless there are clear accountabilities across the full range of Government Departments represented in the Social Reform Cabinet Committee.
I pay tribute to my noble Friend Lord Farmer for his commitment to promoting and strengthening family life and all he has done in this place. I also pay tribute to Dr Samantha Callan, who works with him, for the many years of work research and advice she has dedicated to this field, particularly but not exclusively with the Centre for Social Justice. She has laboured for years to emphasise the concern we should all have about the impact of family life on children in particular. At times she may have wondered whether anyone from Government was really listening, but I am optimistic that those years are behind us and that now there are people in the top levels of Government who are listening. My noble Friend Lord Farmer recently wrote in The Times that we need a Minister in every Department who is explicitly responsible for leading a strand of family-strengthening policy. I agree and would add that we also need a Cabinet Minister with overall responsibility for the family.
Better support for marriage by beefing up our slender tax allowance that recognises enduring aspirations to make a commitment in the teeth of the many financial pressures that can make marriage seem so unattainable would be good, as would be community-based support in family hubs for people to get advice when they are struggling with parenting and relationships. I hope the Minister has seen the report I recently produced as chair of the all-party group on children’s centres entitled “Family Hubs: The Future of Children’s Centres”, which proposed that and a number of other actions to strengthen family relationships in our local communities.
Support for action to ensure that prisoners maintain the family ties that can boost rehabilitation efforts and make jails safer would also benefit from a co-ordinated approach. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend Andrew Selous, our previous Prisons Minister, for all he has done to emphasise the importance of strengthening prisoners’ family relationships. Mental health services that work with all the family dynamics underlying children’s problems could be better co-ordinated, but without a level of steely-eyed determination I fear our life chances indicators in these areas will put us to shame.
As I said, I am incurably hopeful, particularly as our new Prime Minister is the only person ever to have had the title Secretary of State for the Family—albeit that was preceded by the word “shadow”, when we were in opposition. It is now time for family policy to come out of the shadows, take its rightful place in her new Cabinet Committee along with many other important areas of social justice—I am look forward to hearing about those from colleagues over the course of the debate—and be tackled unflinchingly with the energy and talent of all those around the Cabinet table.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries, and an absolute pleasure, as it always is, to follow Fiona Bruce, whom I see not just as an hon. Member but as a friend. We share many issues of importance and it is rare for there to be a debate on which we are not on the same side, as we are today. She set the scene well and comprehensively, very much along lines that I will espouse.
I see the Minister in her place. It is the second time that she has been in Westminster Hall today—it is my second time as well. It is nice to see her in her place and I look forward to her response. The response she gave us this morning on funeral payments was excellent.
The hon. Member for Congleton has brought an important issue to the Chamber. “Social Justice: transforming lives”, published by the coalition Government in March 2012, emphasised tackling poverty in all its forms. That was the theme of the document, which gave the following definition of social justice:
“Social Justice is about making society function better—providing the support and tools to help turn lives around.”
It is about how we can help people help themselves and how we as a society can help them. I will give some examples from my constituency of self-help programmes and how society comes together to help those who are less well-off. The document continues:
“This is a challenging new approach to tackling poverty in all its forms. It is not a narrative about income poverty alone: this Government believes that the focus on income over the last decades has ignored the root causes of poverty, and in doing so has allowed social problems to deepen and become entrenched.”
That is my opinion of what Government have done, and they brought the document forward to address that issue.
I remember being impressed with the big society. Indeed, we could not fail to be impressed by its theme. Whether it achieved or not was the issue, but what it set out to try to achieve is something we all like. I was excited and happy to be part of the ideal of a society in which we help each other. This is our motivation for being in this House: we are here to help others, whether that be in the House or more directly back in constituencies with constituency issues.
Despite the failures of the House to make any substantial effort on the big society, I have seen communities rallying around and helping each other out. In the main town in my constituency, Newtownards, the community groups work hard together and individually in their estates to make lives better. That same theme of communities rallying around permeates all the way down the Ards peninsula and further over on the other side of Strangford lough down towards Comber, Ballygowan, Saintfield and Ballynahinch. People are coming together to work on behalf of those who need help.
I have had calls in my office from young people who go to their local campaigner group in the Newtownards Elim church—this is an example of how they play a small role and how communities can interact socially and do something. When the bus was parked in a car park, they noticed that that there were weeds and rubbish lying all around. The campaigners—they are like a boy’s brigade or girl’s brigade—discussed that in their planned meeting and contacted the local council to offer to clean up the area as part of their programme. That is a small example of social justice at work in communities: young people recognising what the issue was and responding. Those who are fit to do, do for the benefit of the community.
There is a thriving food bank in my area that does tremendous work, but that comes down to people buying and donating food for those around them who are unable to provide for themselves. That is the big society in action—exactly what the hon. Lady was referring to. I have never seen food banks as a negative; I see them as a positive that delivers when communities, Government bodies and the churches come together in a true, ecumenical sense, and they can then deliver for those who are less well off. The theme in relation to compassion is “your pain in my heart” and the members of the thriving food bank feel that.
Local churches take turns on Christmas day either to deliver Christmas dinners to the elderly and those who are alone or to open church halls so that people can come and be together even if they do not have a family they can call their own. That again is big society in action. Christmas, as we all know, can be one of the happiest days of the year but it can also be one of the saddest. It is sad if someone has died or for those who are alone. It can be happy when we have family around us, but not everyone has that possibility.
What have we done in this place to help see social justice in action? Tax credits were cut—I am glad to see the former Secretary of State, Mr Duncan Smith, in his place—and other benefits tackled in welfare reform. Savings could have been used to help in other ways, but young mothers are having all sorts of problems due to the Concentrix palaver; I use that as an Ulster Scots word.
As a rule I do not make complaints, but I had to complain about Concentrix to the Government because it was carrying out a policy of changing tax credits without doing its homework. Apart from that, for almost four hours one day we could not even get through to the company, which is a problem. I know there was a question about the issue in the main Chamber but I could not stay for it, but that is an example of what we went through. It targeted young mothers in a horrific manner, which is a debate for another day—I know you will bring me into line for that shortly, Ms Dorries.
Constituents came to use my office phone to try to get things sorted out, having used all of the credit on their phones. The ordinary person cannot be expected to phone Concentrix for 35 to 40 minutes, which has sometimes happened. They are people whose benefits have been stopped and, as one of the suppliers of food bank vouchers, I am helping them wherever I can with food parcels. They do not have enough money to put in their electricity meters and some have moved their families in with their parents because they need some respite. Is that the big society ideal, with social justice at its heart? That was the hon. Member for Congleton’s question and it is also mine.
We need Departments to work together on ways to help people and not hinder them. Welfare reform has not only targeted young families and single parents; it has eradicated the need for child poverty targets to be met. Again, that is a topic for another day, but it is one that massively impacts on today’s debate on social justice. All those issues are linked and so must our response be. That is what this debate is about: linking it all together and responding.
Housing benefits and tax credits administrators work closely together to cut off claims when investigating allegations. I have become immensely frustrated with the process at times; why can those partners not work that closely to help people who are in tough situations? When somebody changes their working hours their tax credits and housing benefit changes. Everything goes on hold and it takes some five to six weeks to process, which is a difficulty.
Why can jobs and benefit offices not help somebody in receipt of a benefit to receive all they are entitled to, instead of referring them to third parties? Many people are embarrassed about claiming and will not go to someone else. Why can that not be handled in a cross-departmental way? If we look constructively at the hon. Member for Congleton’s contribution, in which she set the scene, we can see that that is what she is asking for. It is also what I am asking for, and I believe it is what the debate is asking for as well. We should help those who need help more constructively, positively, effectively and quickly, and not drag the system on.
We have read about the people who abuse the benefits system and live a life of luxury. There is an idea that some of those who claim are lazy and cheat. That is simply not true and I have no evidence for it that I am aware of in my constituency. I look at young single mothers who work and try to provide for their children and I feel compassion; in many cases, my heart aches for them as well. I look at men in their 50s who are unemployed after a factory closes. They have worked all their lives and do not know anything apart from that work. They wonder who will employ them and have compassion for them, but compassion is not enough—there must be action. That can only come when this House puts in place a strategy that allows us to do what the welfare state was designed to do: to help those in need.
I am confident that the Minister will give us a positive response; I have great faith in that. I urge her to stop looking at numbers and forgetting that they are attached to people who have lives and who need help. She should do what people around the UK are doing—seeing a need and meeting that need. There is a great need for change in the way compassion is dealt with in this place. We can, and must, be compassionate and effective. That is what needs to happen. I leave everyone with the words of Nelson Mandela, who was important for all of us in the House because he was such a colossus:
“Our human compassion binds us the one to the other—not in pity or patronisingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.”
It is a pleasure to serve under you, Ms Dorries—my constituency neighbour—and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce for securing the debate. I, too, will talk mainly about family policy, but I think it important to look at all of the five pathways to poverty so ably identified by my right hon. Friend Mr Duncan Smith, whom it is an enormous pleasure to see with us today.
We still have an issue with worklessness, despite the British jobs miracle, when this country created more jobs than the rest of Europe put together. We need to remember that there are 843,000 young people who are not in education, employment or training, which is why we have to keep on creating jobs, as we have over the last few years—the job is not fully done yet. Speaking on the steps of Downing Street, the Prime Minister specifically identified those in work, but often work that is insecure, does not pay well and leaves them worried about their mortgages. That is where we need what I would call an “ABC” approach, by which I mean a job, a better job and a career. We need to think more about training for people in entry-level jobs to increase their skills and give them the opportunities to progress up the work ladder, perhaps by re-engaging them with local further education colleges and so on, if we are going to deal with that cohort of people whom our new Prime Minister quite rightly identified.
It is also really important that we roll out the universal support offer alongside universal credit. Universal support delivered locally has been rolled out, but as I understand it universal support across the country as a whole would give responsibility to work coaches for things such as addiction and debt. Rather than just passing over a leaflet on addiction, that work coach would take responsibility and perhaps try to get an unemployed person into a drug rehabilitation programme or link them up with someone who could deal with their debt issues.
Educational failure is absolutely key to social justice. Frank Field, among others, has pointed out that there is a 19-month gap between the brightest children and those who are the furthest behind when they start school—a gap from which many children fail to recover throughout their time at school. One thing we could do is to get outstanding primary schools in the poorest areas to set up early years provision to try to narrow that gap.
Drug taking is a huge issue across our country, not least in the criminal justice system. It is concerning that a third of recovering addicts are still unable to become fully abstinent. I, for one, do not think it right that we just maintain people for years on methadone and other substitutes. We need a higher ambition for our fellow citizens. We need to raise our gaze around the world to countries we can learn from, such as Germany and Sweden. I have already mentioned serious debt, but it is a huge issue for those it affects. I think universal support will be a part of the solution when it is fully rolled out, but I pay tribute to organisations such as Christians Against Poverty, The Salvation Army, which does great work in my constituency, and the citizens advice bureau, which also does great work locally. They come alongside people to manage their debts so they do not get overburdened by them.
As the prisons and probation Minister, I had the good fortune to come across a small charity in Blackpool called Jobs, Friends & Houses. I say to the Minister that that small local charity is an example of cross-departmental working in the voluntary sector at the local level that the national Government could do very well to learn from. It is funded by Blackpool police and Blackpool Council, with some support from Public Health England, and it took recovering drug addicts who were coming out of prison, trained them in construction skills and had them doing up run-down houses in Blackpool. It also enabled them to live in good quality housing, which the ex-offenders themselves had often done up, and provided a support network for them at weekends. It ticked every box. Although the charity did not receive any support from the probation service, it set a really good example. The Minister will probably know that 22% of benefit recipients are ex-offenders, and this is precisely the type of project we need to see working cross-departmentally at the local level. Indeed, I would like to see it spread across the UK as a whole.
“Critically, education should also help prisoners to acquire the social skills and virtues which will make them better fathers, better husbands and better brothers. Ensuring that prisoners can re-integrate into family life and maintain positive relationships is crucial to effective rehabilitation. Families are one of our most effective crime-fighting institutions. And we should strengthen them at every turn.”
Those are wise words, not least because if someone’s family relationship breaks down while they are in prison, they will probably not have anywhere to live or a family to go back to, and families are helpful in helping prisoners to find work.
I have a quotation from the other side of the Atlantic. It is from President Obama’s speech on father’s day on
“So we can talk all we want here in Washington about issues like education and health care and crime;
we can build good schools;
we can put money into creating good jobs;
we can do everything we can to keep our streets safe—but government can’t keep our kids from looking for trouble on those streets. Government can’t force a kid to pick up a book or make sure that the homework gets done. Government can’t be there day in, day out, to provide discipline and guidance and the love that it takes to raise a child. That’s our job as fathers, as mothers, as guardians for our children.”
That was powerfully put and brings me on to the final area of family.
I will not reiterate the excellent points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, but I want to encourage the Minister to go back to her Department and ask her officials to look around the world at what works well. I note that the Americans set up the National Fatherhood Initiative in 1994. Since then they have had the fatherhood, marriage and families innovation fund, which looks at job training, parenting, domestic violence prevention—a key priority of the Prime Minister—and relationship support. They have also had the fatherhood and mentoring initiative, which looks at raising awareness of responsible fatherhood and works to re-engage absent fathers with their families.
In Australia there is a network of family relationship centres, which the Minister’s officials might want to look at. In my experience of Whitehall, officials and Ministers are sometimes not quite good enough at looking at best practice around the world that the United Kingdom could localise, fit to our own conditions and usefully learn from.
I want to be quick to allow colleagues to speak, but I have four proposals that I want the Minister to raise across Whitehall for what we could do to strengthen family life in this country. First, improving access to psychological therapies is a really good thing that the NHS does for our constituents. Therapy for couples, which has proved to be really useful and helpful, has been virtually squeezed out. This was an issue before I became a Minister two years ago. I am concerned to find that no progress has been made in the intervening time.
Secondly, during the antenatal stage—the one time when dads turn up with mothers to go to programmes in big numbers—we are missing a trick if we do not try to strengthen the relationship between mum and dad before the child is born. The fathers are there. It is an open goal. Some hospitals are doing it under the wire at the moment. Why do we not do it everywhere?
Thirdly, the family hub is an idea whose time has come. Perhaps the Minister will look at what they do on a bipartisan basis in America and at the family relationship centres in Australia and learn from them. We can localise such initiatives and make them appropriate to the UK. Fourthly, my final request is that the Cabinet Office should make sure that its What Works centre looks at this area of strengthening family policy. It is not acceptable that the Cabinet Office does not extend its work to this area. There have been studies by the Department for Education showing that relationship support is extremely effective. The last one was in 2014. The Cabinet Office needs to keep that work going.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate Fiona Bruce on securing this debate on an important matter that has such wide-reaching consequences that I feel a debate in this Chamber simply does not do it justice. I am sure there will be another opportunity to have this debate on the Floor of the House.
When the hon. Lady speaks of “these families”, she speaks of my family. After losing a parent to mental health, I grew up in a one-parent family before living with my aunt and uncle and my foster sister. I was the first to go to university. I grew up in damp council houses with hard-working parents who struggled to make ends meet. My sister, now a graduate, and my brother going to university are testament to the hard work and ambition in my family. But my story is not unusual. Where I start is sadly where many people end. So when each of us speaks about this in this Chamber, I expect us to show more sympathy and respect, because we are talking about real people’s lives. I know the hon. Member for Congleton understands that.
In the UK, the social justice strategy stated that from the outset its approach was to aim to tackle poverty in all its forms. I am not being political when I say this, because I grew up under a Labour Administration; however, a quick glance at my constituency casework brings up many examples of where, sadly, policy is adding to the hardship faced by many people across my constituency of Lanark and Hamilton East. I am under no illusions that we are somehow the exception to the rule. The strategy is failing people up and down the UK, and pushing people further into poverty.
The initial changes to universal credit have left many families without money for periods of four to six weeks. In one part of my constituency, I have been informed that the universal credit rollout, which was targeted towards single males, many of whom are vulnerable and without the safety net of families, were the targeted group who already rely on food banks—not a sign of the big society, but a sign that the system is failing. For many, the lump sum payment is not easy to manage and the lack of budgeting experience will not allow them to manage a large lump sum in one go. Does the Minister have any solutions that will alleviate some of this burden?
Another universal credit concern was raised with me by Women’s Aid South Lanarkshire: the fact that universal credit is paid to only one person in a couple. Vulnerable women who find themselves in controlling relationships could find themselves even less able to financially support themselves. But perhaps the worst aspect of the social justice strategy that is failing my constituents is the harsh application of sanctions being enforced on claimants across the country. We need only look at our constituency casework to find such issues. If a Member does not find such issues, they are blessed. I spend a lot of my time concentrating my office’s efforts on supporting these people.
Perhaps worst of all, I have heard many examples of constituents being sanctioned for the most basic of reasons—including being five minutes late to an appointment and not attending a meeting at the jobcentre owing to attending a job interview—and there have been many instances of admin errors. Another form of sanctions imposed by the UK Government concerns those executed by Concentrix. I welcome the news that Concentrix will no longer have the contract with HMRC. However, as part of the apparent fishing exercise to stop tax credit payments, Concentrix has blanket-lettered many single-parent claimants asking for evidence that they are not co-habiting. It seems abhorrent to me that nobody seems to have any consideration or empathy for the devastating effect that receiving such a letter from Concentrix can have on a person. One constituent of mine ended up homeless. I do not want to go into the wherewithal of it, but these are the consequences of the Government’s actions when they contract with an American company that is not accountable. How will Concentrix be held to account for its failure and a series of administrative errors—we will call it that—that resulted from this exercise?
Many vulnerable families have been left with no money as a result of a Government contract. Who will hold Concentrix to account? I hope the Minister will be able to indulge me in answering that. I have yet to receive a response, despite the fact that I asked this question in November 2015. When I asked on behalf of several constituents what evidence was being used to trigger the letter, I received no response from Concentrix and no response from any Government Department that could justify such actions.
Despite the UK Government’s social justice strategy’s apparent aim to tackle poverty in all its forms, current statistics show that around one in five children in my constituency are still growing up in poverty. That is simply unacceptable in a modern, thriving society like ours. We need to take urgent action to help children who are living in poverty now and to prevent children from living in poverty in future. That means there must be more focus on the work being done across Governments, therefore I welcome the news that the Government will look at that in more detail. I say that not because I want to be partisan, but because the issues are serious and fundamental and must be addressed. I am sure that Mr Duncan Smith will agree with me about that.
The Scottish Government propose in the consultation that their new approach will build and refine a framework that supports children growing up in poverty and their families. In addition to the ambitious target of eradicating child poverty, the Scottish Government are preparing for new powers to be devolved to them as part of the Scotland Act 2016. They will have control of only 15% of social security responsibilities in Scotland. The sad fact is that the other 85% will remain here with the Minister, so I rely on her to respond to my concerns and give them deep and serious consideration.
The Scottish Government have pledged to increase carer’s allowance to the same level as jobseeker’s allowance, to abolish the bedroom tax, to scrap the 84-day rule, which removes income from the families of disabled children, to abolish employment tribunal fees, and to replace the Sure Start maternity grant with an expanded maternity early years allowance, restoring payments for children beyond the first two years. There are also plans in place to block the sanctions regimes when Holyrood takes control over the welfare and social security powers that they will then have.
Those measures constitute a fairer, more equal society and a better Scotland, but it should not be the role of Scotland to eradicate poverty on its own. The Government have a responsibility to do their job and assist the Scottish Government and other parts of the UK in making sure that the issue is tackled. We cannot be glib and sit in one room talking and sounding off. We must do more to tackle the matter seriously. As the hon. Member for Congleton has said and as I have reinforced, families are affected, and we should not diminish the importance of their lives. Social justice should be at the heart of what the Government, and all Governments, do. We have the privilege of representing our constituents, and the responsibility to do so.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce on securing a debate on such an important issue.
I am sure that many of us were very encouraged to hear the new Prime Minister state clearly that social justice will be at the heart of her Government, continuing the excellent work of the former Prime Minister, David Cameron, and that the Government’s agenda will be focused clearly on addressing not just the symptoms but the causes of poverty. In its report, “Breakthrough Britain”, the Centre for Social Justice identified five pathways or causes of poverty in the UK. Those were family breakdown, educational failure, addiction, debt and worklessness. I am delighted at the way the Government have for some time now sought to address those issues by, as we have heard, creating jobs and getting more people into jobs than ever before—there are far fewer workless households—and by reforming education and raising standards of education in schools.
I particularly want to focus on the place of family. Unless we address the matter of family breakdown, we will never truly address the issue of poverty and social justice. We need to put family at the heart of any agenda.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
To pick up where I left off, there is clear evidence that we will never truly deal with the issue of social justice and social mobility if we do not put family at the heart of any agenda. Research conducted by the Centre for Social Justice has shown that children who experience family breakdown perform less well at school, gain fewer qualifications and are more likely to be expelled. Helping families to stay together is the ultimate social mobility agenda.
While it is not just about money—we must remember that these are real people’s lives at the heart of this—we cannot ignore the cost of family breakdown. Family breakdown is estimated to cost the country £48 billion a year, with £7 billion on the health service, £4.5 billion on the police and £13.1 billion on increased tax credits. That is in addition to the pressure it puts on our housing stock and social services. Despite that massive cost to the taxpayer and the pressure that family breakdown places on our national services, next year the Government will spend more on repairing cathedrals than they will on supporting relationships and families staying together. If this Government are really to build a one nation Britain, their social reforms will have to work to close the family gap, because the benefits of a stable family life are not shared equally and are becoming a middle-class preserve.
I know these are generalisations, and people will always point to exceptions, but the latest Government data show that 76% of children in middle to high-income households are living with both parents, compared with only 48% of those in low-income families. It is clear that family breakdown is damaging the life chances of the poorest children in our country, and it should be a matter of social justice. I am aware that social justice is easy to talk about and much more difficult to achieve, but we do need to talk about it. I say that as someone who has learned the hard way how important family is. We should not shy away from saying that strong families, strong marriages and couple relationships are a good thing, because the evidence is there to clearly demonstrate that that is the case.
Too often, successive Governments have kicked this issue into the long grass or put in the “too difficult to deal with” pile. I do not believe we can afford to do that any longer. If we do not take steps and put measures in place that will actively support couples and families and reverse the trend of family breakdown in this country, we will fail future generations of our poorest children.
The title of this debate is “Cross-departmental strategy on social justice”. If we are to have such a strategy, we will need a cross-departmental strategy on the family. In my time in this House, it has struck me that family policy is not really owned by any Department or Minister. While it is true that family matters cut across many Departments, they are too vital to the life chances of millions of children across our country to not be owned by anyone in government. Because family matters are often seen as difficult, intangible and hard to address, there is a real danger that they end up falling between all the stools.
I believe that the Government need to do more. I support the proposal by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton that children’s centres be converted to family hubs as a first step. I also call on the Government to extend the married couples transferable tax allowance further and to continue to eradicate the couple penalty in the welfare system, so that it is no longer a disincentive for couples to stay together.
We need someone in the Cabinet who will champion the family. We need cross-departmental co-operation to develop family-friendly policies and a family test with real teeth that shapes policy. We need the Government to not be afraid to boldly say that strong families, marriages and couple relationships are good. They are good for our children and for our national wellbeing, and they will play a key role in dealing with the causes of poverty across our country.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Steve Double. It is marked that speeches from my hon. Friends have centred on the family. As my right hon. Friend Mr. Cameron, to whom I pay tribute—he has a new title now, which I forget; is it sheriff of Northstead?—quite rightly said, family is
“the best anti-poverty measure ever invented”.
I am sure that that will be endorsed by the new Minister, whom I welcome, and our new Prime Minister, who has made clear that her focus continues to be fighting against “burning” social injustices. At the root and heart of injustice is the lack of opportunity to have the care of two parents and, indeed, to be part of a commitment of marriage.
The point of this debate, which I was involved in seeking to secure, is for the Minister to do a very straightforward thing: to confirm, as we hope is the case, that there is a cross-departmental strategy on social justice and that the Government will publish a life chances strategy. We look forward to the Minister telling us the date of publication of that strategy, which was mentioned in the Queen’s Speech:
“To tackle poverty and the causes of deprivation, including family instability, addiction and debt, my government will introduce new indicators for measuring life chances.”—[Official Report, House of Lords,
Vol. 773, c. 3.]
I hope the Minister will reaffirm that commitment.
The House authorities struggled when they saw the title of the debate. Who is the Minister responsible for this cross-departmental strategy? The title of the debate was deliberately designed to raise that question, because we need a clear answer on who is leading the way. Traditionally, my right hon. Friend Mr Duncan Smith, to whom I pay tribute, led that charge, given his background with the CSJ and all the hard work done, not least in opposition. We need to know clearly that this strategy is owned across Government and that not only will a life chances strategy be delivered, but it will have real meaning—that it will not consist of good soundbites and a good press release and then gather dust on civil service shelves. That is important.
While I respect that the Minister is responding to this debate—no doubt a lot of concerns focus on the Department for Work and Pensions—this issue goes beyond specific departmental responsibilities and affects all parts of government. We know the family has to be at the heart of that, because it is in stable families that we can have social justice across Departments. When the life chances strategy is published, I will be doing a word search not only for “family” but for “marriage”. I want to see hits on both those words, because they are key determinants.
My hon. Friend Andrew Selous mentioned Jobs, Friends & Houses, a cross-departmental approach with the charitable sector. May I take that a stage further? Although there is a question mark about who is responding to the cross-departmental strategy on social justice, we can be in no doubt about the impact of a lack of such a strategy. While there are great opportunities through local charities that bring things together, the impact is on those like Lucy. My test of the Government’s cross-departmental strategy is a “Lucy” test.
Lucy was a child who was sexually abused and placed in care. She later went on to suffer from depression, which caused educational failure. She began shoplifting to pay for a drug habit following a short spell in prison, and she lost touch with her grandmother, her remaining relative. The spiral of complex needs led to injustice for Lucy. She was able to buck the trend, but sadly there are all too many Lucys—58,000 are homeless with substance misuse and criminal justice issues. We must tackle this problem. Lucy is an example of the way forward. We must bring things together properly with a national strategy that enables the Lucys of this world to have joint commissioning from their council to avoid the silos between the Probation Service and the NHS, and to have a dedicated, named mentor and advocate. Lucy is now back in contact with her grandmother, out of contact with the police and on the road to recovery.
I appreciate, Ms Dorries, that you want me to conclude. Those individuals with complex needs do not understand cross-departmental strategies, but they understand when they fall into the gaps between departmental silos, funding streams and statutory responsibilities. We have to ensure that the strategy goes to the root causes of poverty and into entrenched areas so that we do much better for such people. We know we need more residential rehab, which has had 50% cuts. Areas such as Birmingham are not making any referrals to abstinence-based residential rehab. We have to ensure that the Lucys of this world get a better deal. To pay homage to the old Heineken adverts, this life chances strategy has to reach the parts that other strategies do not reach and the lives of the Lucys of this world.
Thank you, Ms Dorries. I will try to do the maths on the timing.
I congratulate Fiona Bruce on securing this debate and on her thoughtful speech. Let me say at the outset that Scottish National party Members share the desire to support families, to promote social justice and to improve the prospects of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. We recognise that that will require cross-departmental action that cuts across a range of policy areas and Government functions, including areas of devolved responsibility—a point that may be reflected this afternoon in the fact that only Back-Bench Members from Scotland and Northern Ireland are in the Chamber today.
Where we part company with the UK Government is in our analysis of the underlying drivers of poverty and deprivation and in the prescriptions we offer to address it.
I will not give way because I am very short of time.
The hon. Member for Congleton put great emphasis on family policy, and clearly families are at the heart of a stable society. We have heard from other speakers today and from the Government in recent months about life chances. That is an innocuous enough term. Who could take issue with improving life chances? The problem is that the shift in the Government’s rhetoric has masked a sharp move away in policy terms from consideration of the economic drivers of disadvantage, particularly low income, towards social phenomena such as family breakdown and addiction, which we have heard a lot about today but which actually affect children in families across the income spectrum.
Don't get me wrong—children are often very badly affected by parental separation or a parent’s problematic use of alcohol or drugs, but that will not necessarily push them into poverty. Likewise, problematic levels of debt are by no means the preserve of low-income households. I agree with the hon. Member for Congleton that support for all families who are coping with these issues is important regardless of their income level, but if we want to achieve greater social justice and to close the gaps in educational attainment, job prospects, and long-term health and life expectancy between the wealthiest and the poorest, it is intellectually dishonest to pretend that low income is anything other than the core driver of poverty. It is a distraction to think we can tackle child poverty without recognising that material deprivation, lack of money in a household and chronic financial insecurity—symptoms of a labour market that is increasingly characterised by low-paid, temporary jobs with fluctuating hours of work—and excessive housing costs lie at the heart of the gulf in prospects. We cannot tackle these glaring inequalities if we are not prepared to bite the bullet of these gross disparities in income.
The reality is that the Government’s austerity agenda continues to reduce the incomes of families in lower paid jobs and those unable to work because of serious illness or disability. Austerity has hit the incomes of women and disabled people disproportionately. The four-year freeze on working-age benefits, including child tax credits, working tax credits and jobseeker’s allowance, will see families lose an estimated 12% of the value of their support by 2020. Two thirds of children growing up in poverty in the UK live in working families, so cuts to tax credits have an enormously detrimental effect on parents in low-paid jobs. That undoubtedly puts pressure on families and strains relationships.
The cuts to the work allowance will also hit low-paid working parents, including single parents, some of whom could lose as much as £2,600 pounds a year. The cuts to the work allowance also remove from universal credit one of the cornerstone benefits of the system, namely that it was supposed to remove the work disincentives—the so-called benefit trap inherent in the previous system. Universal credit now replicates that flaw so that for many low-paid parents there is now no incentive to take promotion or increase their working hours because their family will be worse off. According to the Resolution Foundation, work will pay on average £1,000 a year less for working families in receipt of universal credit.
Jim Shannon and my hon. Friend Angela Crawley talked about the Concentrix fiasco, which we debated in the main Chamber today. All I can say is that it has caused extreme financial distress and hardship. I know of at least two families who have lost their homes because of that. The Government really must take responsibility.
Another key issue in addressing life chances is housing costs. There is a chronic shortage of affordable housing across the UK, a consequence partly of grossly inflated house prices and partly of the failure of successive Governments to build enough affordable homes. I am glad to say that in Scotland we have taken a very different approach and have started to reverse that situation. We are committed to building 50,000 more affordable homes in the next five years, which will go some way to meeting need, but we cannot avoid the fact that children who grow up in a warm, dry, decent and stable home will have better life chances than those who do not. That is a good example of why we need cross-departmental efforts to tackle child poverty. Again, it goes without saying that poor housing puts terrible pressure on families and relationships.
Last week, I attended the launch of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s “Solve UK Poverty” report. One of the most important messages that comes out of that is about the dynamic nature of poverty. In this place, we often trade in lazy stereotypes about entrenched poverty, and there is no doubt that some parts of the country are affected by that because of deindustrialisation and so on. Nevertheless, for most people it is unexpected life events that push them into poverty, whether it be redundancy, relationship breakdown or long-term illness and serious health problems. One of the most important things that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlighted is families’ level of resilience. Clearly, when unpredictable events that could happen to any of us strike, poorer families have less of a cushion. They are much less able to cushion themselves against such events that can have long-term, far-reaching consequences.
I will finish by talking about how we measure child poverty and pick up some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East. The Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 removed the statutory child poverty targets that were to be met by 2020. A cynic might assume that that is because the Government know that the Institute for Fiscal Studies is correct in its projection that the rate of child poverty in the UK is set to increase to over 18%—affecting almost one in five—by 2020 as a direct result of austerity reforms.
Life chances indicators may provide some useful insights, but given that two thirds of children living in poverty have working parents, focusing on worklessness will not take us much further forward and misses the big picture of widening inequality eroding young people’s life chances. I am glad to say that in Scotland we are taking an alternative approach to child poverty which focuses on maximising household resources, investing heavily in high-quality early-years education, including 30 hours a week free childcare for all nursery-age children and for the most disadvantaged two-year-olds, and renewing the focus on closing the attainment gap in schools between those from the lowest income groups and their better-off peers.
The Scottish Government are also consulting on legislation to measure child poverty with proposals for ambitious statutory income targets and duties on Ministers to report every year on published delivery plans. We have also protected the educational maintenance allowance, which has helped young people from low income families to stay on at school or college so that they get the qualifications they are capable of achieving, and ensured that those who get the grades they need to go to university can study on the basis of their ability to learn, not their ability to pay tuition fees.
We should not dodge the big issue about income, but should recognise that it is at the heart of families and their ability to sustain the normal shocks and events that most people go through at some point in their lives.
I welcome the genuine concern focused on the poorest families by the hon. Member for Congleton. However, as she said, while family breakdown is a key driver of poverty—Steve Double made much the same point—poverty is a key driver of family breakdown, and it is important that that remains in the frame. There are almost 1 million zero-hours contracts in our society, as well as high housing costs, insecure rental contracts and insecure work, all of which create a great deal of instability in the home and for families. A Government who are focusing on tackling social justice should take note of that.
Jim Shannon spoke compellingly of the community groups in his constituency, which work hard to make lives better. He did say that he had never seen food banks as a negative. I have to disagree with him on that: I see the sharp rise in food banks in our country, one of the richest nations on Earth, as a stain on the reputation of this Government.
Andrew Selous spoke very clearly and importantly on the role of education in helping people in prison—helping them to become better fathers, mothers and so on and aiding their rehabilitation. He also spoke about the importance of improving access to psychological therapies.
Angela Crawley raised the important issue that universal credit is paid only to one person in a couple. That raises the problems that particularly women in abusive relationships can face, and I ask the Minister in particular to address that point.
The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay also called for family hubs, but I have to say that in my constituency Government cuts are putting our family hubs in jeopardy. Dr Whiteford, whom I absolutely agree with, pointed out that low income is a core driver of deprivation.
The hon. Member for Congleton spoke with pride about the social justice narrative of Mr Duncan Smith. I have to take exception to that, because we of course have to bear in mind the record of what he achieved while in office. We saw the slashing of social security support and a failure to ensure the levels of high-quality, well-paid and secure jobs that would prevent an additional 800,000 children from being in poverty by 2020.
The hon. Lady and I can agree on one thing: the need for an interdepartmental approach to enable social justice to thrive, and to counter social injustice. Where we may disagree is on the interpretation of how to achieve that. I would point to whole swathes of Government policies and previous coalition Government policies as drivers of deprivation. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that the Budget has left people on low and middle incomes proportionately worse off as a result of tax and social security changes. Regressive economic policies whereby the total tax burdens fall predominantly on the poorest, combined with low levels of public spending, especially on social security, are key to establishing and perpetuating inequalities. Is that really social justice?
I will not, because I am very short of time; I am sorry.
Is it socially just that 3.7 million sick and disabled people will have approximately £28 billion-worth of cuts in social security support from the Welfare Reform Act 2012? That does not include the cuts to employment and support allowance work-related activity group support due to start next, or cuts to social care. Is it socially just that in addition to facing the misery and hardship of poverty, the children affected have greater risks to their future health and wellbeing? One witness to the recent inquiry by the all-party parliamentary group on health in all policies into the effects of the 2016 Welfare Reform and Work Bill on child health told us that
“as children’s lives unfold, the poor health associated with poverty limits their potential and development across a whole range of areas, leading to poor health and life chances in adulthood, which then has knock-on effects on future generations.”
There is even increasing evidence that poverty directly impacts on how neural connections develop in the brain. In particular, the hippocampus, which is key to learning, memory and stress regulation, and the amygdala, which is linked to stress and emotion, have weaker connections to other areas of the brain in children living in poverty compared with children from more affluent homes. Those changes in connectivity are related to poorer cognitive and educational outcomes and increased risk of psychiatric illness for nine to 10-year-olds; that includes depression and antisocial behaviours.
The inequalities that the people of our country face at the moment are reminiscent of the Victorian age. The International Monetary Fund has described income inequalities as
“the most defining challenge of our time”.
In the UK, 40 years ago, 5% of income went to the highest 1% of earners; today it is 15%. Unless we address that, we cannot get to grips with all the other issues talked about in this debate. Of course, this is not just about income. The Panama papers revealed the shocking extent to which the assets of the richest are kept in offshore tax havens, where tax is avoided and evaded. According to the Equality Trust, in the last year alone the wealth of the richest 1,000 households in the UK increased by more than £28.5 billion. Today, their combined wealth is more than that of 40% of the population. While the wealth of the richest 1% has increased by 21%, the poorest half of households saw their wealth increase by less than one third of that amount. I could go on.
Of course, social injustices are not confined to tax and social security policies. There is inadequate funding for nursery schools, so we are seeing them struggle to provide the expertise that can make a real difference in early-years development—something very pertinent in my own constituency. What about the impact of the Government’s decision to bring forward the equalisation of the state pension age for women born in the 1950s, the so-called WASPI women—Women Against State Pension Inequality? What about the restrictions in access to justice through legal aid and the fees charged for employment tribunals? What about the reducing of access to education by trebling tuition fees and scrapping the education maintenance allowance? What about the cuts to local authority budgets—they have been very high indeed in my constituency—leading to cuts to Sure Start and threatening vital adult social care?
Cuts to the police authorities mean that we are seeing increased problems with social cohesion, creating real anxiety at all levels of society, with people in certain areas afraid to go out of their houses. There is the threat to the social housing sector, such that people do not feel that they have a secure home to live in, through the Government’s right to buy, bedroom tax and 1% annual cut to social rents. Those are all combining to threaten the social housing sector.
This Government and the previous coalition have facilitated exploitative labour markets with poor-quality jobs and zero-hours contracts, the number of which is heading towards 1 million, and have further contributed to maintaining power within an elite. Where is the social justice in that?
Governing is about choices. The amount of revenue lost to the Exchequer each year as a result of tax fraud is £16 billion—the same as we spend on disabled people through disability living allowance and personal independence payment. If the Government truly believe in social justice and fairness, they need to reflect that in their policies across the board. They need to clamp down on tax fraud and ensure that the most vulnerable in society are looked after properly and not plunged into poverty or worse, and that opportunities are there for all.
It is, of course, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. Like other hon. Members, I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) on securing this important debate on social justice.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton in particular is a very committed and diligent campaigner on these issues, and I thank her for the work that she has done to raise the profile of social justice matters. I also thank hon. Members on both sides of the House for their contributions to this discussion. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Mr Duncan Smith, who unfortunately has had to leave the Chamber, but whose commitment to these issues is indeed incredibly well known.
The Government, too, are committed to building a country that works for everyone. That means taking action to help the most disadvantaged. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said on the steps of Downing Street, we will fight against the injustices we see in our society and, in doing that, we will do everything we can to give people more control over their lives. However, we know that, as many hon. Members have said today, our strategies need to be joined up across Government so that we can effectively support and transform the lives of the most vulnerable. That is why the Prime Minister has established a new Social Reform Cabinet Committee—to bring Departments together to deliver social reform. In addition to the Prime Minister, that Committee includes the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Home Secretary and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster; in total, nine Departments are involved.
The Prime Minister has been clear that tackling poverty and disadvantage and delivering social reform will be a priority for this Government, but I would like to take this opportunity to respond to the many issues that hon. Members have raised and to set out the ways we are currently tackling disadvantage, removing barriers for people and ensuring that everyone has the right opportunities to fulfil their potential.
This afternoon there has been a focus on relationships and families, and rightly so. Good-quality relationships are the basis of a strong and stable society, and we are committed to strengthening and supporting family life for our children and for future generations. The evidence is clear: what matters most is the quality of family relationships and not necessarily whether parents are part of a couple, cohabiting, married or separated. It is important to acknowledge that families come in many different shapes and sizes and we need to be able to support them all.
Over the last four years, we have invested £30 million in relationship support services, allowing 160,000 people to access preventive support. More than 48,000 couples participated in counselling, and more than 17,000 practitioners have been trained to help families in difficulty. We are developing new programmes of relationship support services to help couples with relationship issues, and those focus particularly on the most disadvantaged in society. They are aimed at helping parents to manage and resolve couple conflict.
What we know more clearly than anything else is that conflict has the most impact on children. We want to support parents to stay together where they want to and can, but also support parents, when they have separated, to continue working together in the best interests of their children. My officials are actively working with a range of Departments. Given the prevalence of relationship distress in disadvantaged groups, we are working with Department for Communities and Local Government colleagues, who are responsible for the troubled families programme, on strengthening the focus of that programme on relationship support and parenting.
We recognise that relationships come to an end and it is important that those parents get the support they need to keep conflict to a minimum and to agree on what is best for their children. Over the last two years we have funded 17 projects to help test which services work best in helping separated parents. These have been up and down the country in very different and varied areas, including the constituencies of some of my honourable colleagues.
What I found particularly interesting from one project was the evidence that the involvement of grandparents could be incredibly useful and constructive when couples are separating, to help them work in the best interests of their grandchildren. We have learned a great deal from these projects and are now deciding how best to invest in the help for separated families and single parents in the future.
I was delighted to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton refer to the Government’s work on care leavers. As a former member of the Education Committee, I was but one small part of the work looking at the impact that Government and agencies can have on care leavers. It is absolutely right that these young people, some of the most vulnerable in our society, whose educational, health and employment outcomes are significantly poorer than those of their peers, are made one of our priorities. We are committed to giving them the support they need as they make the difficult transition to adulthood, independent living and, of course, work.
Since the first cross-Government care leaver strategy was published in October 2013, the Department for Work and Pensions has continued to take action to improve the employment support we provide for care leavers. In July this year, the Government published a new, more ambitious strategy to improve care leaver support across this Parliament. This includes setting out in law, for the first time, what it means for a local authority to be a good corporate parent, and creating a new care leaver covenant, which will be launched shortly.
Offender rehabilitation was spoken about by my hon. Friends the Members for Congleton and Andrew Selous, who has a great deal of experience and expertise in that important area. We are committed to offender rehabilitation and prison reform. Helping offenders to get into work and make a positive contribution is in the best interests of the individual and wider society.
We know that ex-offenders who find work are significantly less likely to return to prison. Re-offending rates are around 20% lower for prison leavers who go into a job. Work is the best route out of poverty, and for offenders work is essential to rebuild their lives and achieve independence and stability for themselves and their families. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire referenced Jobs, Friends & Houses, which is working in the Blackpool area. Close to my own constituency, I have seen some of the work done at Winchester prison that has seen the prison working with both education providers and local businesses to help prisoners acquire employment placements.
We also recognise what an important stabilising and motivating influence families can be in prisoner rehabilitation. Family engagement in prisons across England and Wales helps increase wellbeing and reduce re-offending. At Winchester I saw the work done by the charity Spurgeons, which is one of many partners delivering this support across the prison estate. Spurgeons supports imprisoned fathers to help them with their parenting skills, and to help their families handle the stresses associated with having a parent in custody. Classes are run on parenting skills and the impact that custodial sentences have on families. Family days are then held to support building better relationships during custody and after release.
Jim Shannon raised a number of very important issues, including a discussion of the big society, which I too have seen working in my constituency. We might have a discussion about the role that food banks play, but he is absolutely right to point out the role that the Church has in both establishing food banks and supporting people who use them. In Southampton just last week, I was at the 20th anniversary of the Basics Bank, which operates in a network of churches across the city. It is based at Above Bar Church, but also operates in Swaythling Methodist Church in my constituency.
The hon. Gentleman also talked about universal credit, and of course this is an important part of the Government’s welfare reforms. During the summer recess, I visited the Newcastle jobcentre where UC is operating in the full service. I saw the commitment and determination of the work coaches, who play an absolutely critical role in encouraging and supporting people—not just into work, but once they are in work, in that journey to better employment, longer hours and higher wages. Actually seeing it in operation was an incredible experience. The support and encouragement the work coaches were giving to the individual jobseekers coming in was really motivating to me. I saw the commitment they had and their enthusiasm for the transformational difference universal credit has, where nobody is penalised for taking on more hours.
It is an important change and one that we need to emphasise: to explain clearly that this is a route where there are no cliff edges and where work coaches can make sure they give budgetary advice. That is an important part of the transformation that we can make to people’s lives. They can give support and, importantly, build relationships with those jobseekers.
Angela Crawley also spoke about universal credit. She raised a very important point, which I must address, about Concentrix and the contract; HMRC has confirmed it will not extend that and also that those who have had their tax credits stopped will be made priorities, to make sure that their cases are looked at.
I pay tribute to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire. He gave me a great long list of questions, which I fear I am not going to have enough time to answer in full. I reassure him that we do look at the work being done overseas and learn from best practice in places such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the Netherlands. I am absolutely open to suggestions of what works to help build and strengthen family relationships wherever it happens in the world. In this country we are not isolated from the impacts of what other countries have learnt before, and we should be willing to learn from our neighbours.
In conclusion, let me reassure hon. Members that this Government are absolutely committed to fighting against the injustices of society and to ensuring that everybody has the right opportunities to fulfil their potential. Our priorities remain making work pay and supporting families into work and out of poverty, by tackling the root causes of poverty and not just the symptoms.
In his moving explanation of Lucy and the Lucy test, my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate was absolutely right to point out that these are individuals who are impacted. We must do our utmost to make sure that that Lucy test is used to ensure that the policies the Government have across a broad range of Departments are effective and deliver the outcomes we are looking for.
I thank colleagues for the many thoughtful and constructive contributions they have made, with practical suggestions for cross-governmental working on promoting social justice—in particular my hon. Friends the Members for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) and for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes), and Jim Shannon.
I also thank the Minister for her response. I hope she will take away some of the points made during the debate. May I ask her please to consider writing to answer the points she has been unable to respond to today? I thank her for her response and for referring to a number of projects providing relationship support in different parts of the country. I hope to see them extended more widely right across the country, because that is very much needed, and prioritised, along with other proposals.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered cross-departmental strategy on social justice.