Child Poverty Bill
Lord McKenzie of Luton (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (also in the Department for Communities and Local Government), Department for Communities and Local Government; Labour)
My Lords, to start with, I would never suggest that the noble Lord, Lord Freud, was mad-far from it. On the point of the noble Lord, Lord Martin, and the need to talk to people in language that they understand, he is absolutely right about engaging with people in their terms. We are dealing here with a specific term in a piece of legislation. Not many people are going to go back to the source of the primary legislation. The fact that one wants to and should engage with people in their terms is not of itself inconsistent with having legalese or particular provisions in a piece of legislation.
This is again about seeking to define "socio-economic disadvantage". The noble Lord's suggestion is that we should add to that term, so that it,
"is not limited to financial considerations and must, in particular, have regard to international definitions of child well-being".
We debated at length in Committee the use of "socio-economic disadvantage" as it appears in Clause 8(2)(b). Frankly, I thought I made a good attempt then to clarify what we understood the term to mean and why putting more specific wording in the Bill was not helpful. Clearly I have not been wholly successful in doing that so will try again this afternoon.
In doing this, I refer noble Lords to the discussion on the Equality Bill, to which the noble Lord, Lord Freud, referred. In Committee on that Bill, a similar amendment was tabled that sought to compel a definition of socio-economic disadvantage to be placed in the Bill. My noble friend Lady Royall explained in Committee what the Government meant by the term. My script says I should repeat her words. Given that the noble Lord has pre-empted me on that I do not propose to do so but what my noble friend said on that Bill holds true for this one. Although noble Lords will appreciate the slight difference in context, the concept is clear.
On the point made by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, including a formal definition could lead to an inflexible interpretation which may hinder the Secretary of State as she prepares her strategy. As I previously said, in preparing her strategy the Secretary of State will be obliged to consider the measures necessary in each of the areas set down in Clause 8(5) for the dual purposes of complying with the duties in Clause 1, ensuring as far possible that children in the UK do not experience socio-economic disadvantage.
Clearly this term is not limited to financial considerations, as the amendment seems to imply. It is more complex than that. I have given repeated assurances, including in Grand Committee, that the Government's approach to tackling child poverty is not solely about income transfers, and I have sought to demonstrate that the Bill makes that clear, particularly in Clause 8. While it is true that the targets focus on income poverty-although I contend that the combined low-income and material deprivation target is broader than that-we have always been clear that the Bill is concerned not only with tackling low incomes but with improving child well-being and ensuring a sustainable end to child poverty.
As required by Clause 8, the UK child poverty strategy will drive further action to tackle child poverty across the building blocks. The action will include measures to enhance child well-being; to support parents to undertake their role as well as possible, enabling children to stay safe and supported; to improve the quality of services and space in neighbourhoods so that children can thrive in safe and cohesive communities; to ensure that all children live in decent housing; and to narrow the educational attainment gap for disadvantaged children. Those of you who attended the mini-seminar that we organised a few weeks ago will know that officials in the child poverty unit are already doing a huge amount of work to consider how action in each of these areas can help to tackle child poverty. We expect to set out more details of our analysis in a strategic direction paper that we hope to publish shortly.
I hope that noble Lords will agree that our approach in Clause 8(5) of naming specific policy areas that must be considered in a UK child poverty strategy is a more effective way of illustrating the broad approach that we expect this strategy to take than that proposed by the amendment. Adding a formal definition to the Bill in the way that this amendment proposes could have a detrimental effect and lead to an inflexible interpretation of socio-economic disadvantage, which could hinder the Secretary of State in preparing strategy.
This is particularly the case with the amendment, which refers to,
"international definitions of child well-being",
without being clear what is meant by this. There is no universally agreed, unique definition of child well-being, as reports from the Children's Society and the OECD acknowledge. International reports, such as the ones from UNICEF and the OECD, use a multidimensional approach to measure well-being, which varies between reports. As there is no agreed definition of measuring well-being, either internationally or domestically, it would not be possible to incorporate such definitions in a meaningful way. The absence of an agreed international definition would cause great ambiguity in defining the purposes of a child poverty strategy.
The noble Lord referred to UNICEF's index of well-being. As I mentioned, it uses data that are very out of date. The report fails to register significant progress in key areas, such as improved provision of universal childcare, reductions in the rate of teenage conceptions, improved educational attainment, reduced risk of accidental injury and a falling infant mortality rate. Therefore, for the reasons that I have set out, it is not necessary to define socio-economic disadvantage in legislation. On that basis, I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.