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[Relevant Documents: The transcript of oral evidence taken before the Work and Pensions Committee on
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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I hope that the Bill will have support from all parts of the House. I believe it is one of the most radical Bills we have debated in this Parliament. It sets out a vision of a fairer society that is bold and ambitious-a vision of equality and opportunity for our children that goes further than any other European country currently achieves. It entrenches that vision in our legislation for the long term.
We know that no law alone can end child poverty, but the Bill will help to hold the Government's feet to the flames in pursuit of a fairer Britain. It will demand of Governments, now and in the future, determined action to cut child poverty and to stop children being left behind. Those are bold ambitions, but they are the right ambitions.
The Bill does more than simply set out targets; it embeds a set of values in our primary legislation. For a start, it is the chance for Parliament to make it clear that children in the 21st century should not grow up suffering deprivation, and that they should not grow up lacking the necessities that most of us take for granted, and which allow them to participate fully in society-things such as keeping the house warm, being able to go on a week's holiday or being able to afford a bike to get out and about with friends. We are setting a clear target to cut the number of children growing up in low-income and material deprivation.
As the right hon. Gentleman will know, the figure on child poverty has in fact dropped over the past 12 years, in contrast to its having doubled over the previous 12 years. He will know too that our measure of child poverty is a relative poverty measure-it is an inequality measure. It is one of the most important things the Government have done to stop the inexorable rise in child poverty that his party and the Government of whom he was part presided over, and indeed encouraged when they chose to freeze child benefit three years in a row, so that, shockingly, in 1997 the level of child benefit was lower in real terms than it was in 1979. That is why it is so important that we have taken action to cut the number of children in poverty by half a million, with other measures in place to reduce it further.
The right hon. Lady talks about the values that underpin the Bill, and I certainly welcome those. Clause 8(5) lists a number of things that have to be taken into account in assessing and measuring progress once the Bill becomes law, including considerations relating to skills, employment and housing. Why is there nothing about the stability of the family environment? Surely that is one of the most important things for any child, is it not? Why is the Bill silent on that?
It is right that we support families, and we should support families of all kinds, whatever their circumstances. That includes helping them to have stability in their lives-stability for children as they grow. It is also right that we recognise what the Government can do and where the Government can take action to support families. That is why there is also a serious vision of equality embedded in the Bill. Labour's child poverty targets have never just been about poverty; they have always been about narrowing the unfair inequalities that can haunt children throughout their lives.
I entirely support the right hon. Lady's contention, but I am puzzled because the Government's position on this Bill, which sets out targets and makes it a duty on the Secretary of State to meet them, is different from the one they adopted on my Fuel Poverty Bill, in which I set out targets and placed a duty on the Secretary of State to meet them. I was told:
"That is an absolutist position, and it cannot be acceptable to any Government."-[ Hansard, 20 March 2009; Vol. 489, c. 1199.]
I was told that it would be opposed at all costs. Have Ministers changed their minds about the appropriateness of such a step?
The hon. Gentleman is right in that it is indeed a radical thing for us to set Secretaries of State a duty to meet targets to cut child poverty and to abolish it by 2020, as set out in the Bill. We considered long and hard how best to embody the targets and the duty in the legislation because we think that ending child poverty is serious and will have an impact throughout the country.
Concerns about fuel poverty are reflected in the assessment of material deprivation, so we take the issue very seriously. The hon. Gentleman will realise that, for example, there are families who are concerned about being able to pay their fuel bills this winter, which has an impact on their children. We have taken an overarching approach to child poverty which looks at a series of separate targets because this is about opportunities for every child for many generations to come.
We believe that every child should get a fair start in life, and every child should have the chance to get on, to develop their potential and to chase their dreams. We believe in equality of opportunity for children as they grow, but we can make those opportunities real only if we also tackle the poverty and inequality that holds children back today. We know that children from low-income families do less well at school. We know that children on free school meals are only half as likely as the rest of their class mates to get five good GCSEs. We know that being left behind can be about missing out on educational school trips or music lessons, or not being able to get on the internet at home to research homework. It can mean cases such as those in the Barnardo's report out today of the 14-year-old boy Jelani who got nothing at all for his birthday-except for £10 from a friend that he gave to his mother to help towards the cost of his school uniform. Children get left behind for years to come if their family get left behind today.
In fact, as I have just explained, the material deprivation target looks more broadly at the kinds of material circumstances in which families can find themselves. However, we have been clear that it is right to look at the relative poverty target because of the impact that that has on other aspects of children's lives, and for all their lives.
We also know that if we are concerned to increase family income, often the best way of doing so is by looking at how to get more parents into work and increase their skills and employability, so that they can get better-paid jobs in future. However, we also know that family income can have a significant impact on children's chances throughout their lives. It is simply unfair that some children should fall so far behind others and lose their chance to get on in life and properly fulfil their potential because of their family circumstances in early childhood.
Our main child poverty target has always been a relative poverty target and it must stay so. It means that as society becomes more prosperous, all our children must share in that prosperity. As the incomes of better-off families grow, the poorest families must not get left further behind, because if they do their children will fall further behind-and not just today, but potentially for decades to come.
The Bill goes further, because for the first time we are highlighting the importance of tackling persistent poverty. That, after all, is where the greatest harm for children lies. In the end, no Government action can prevent everything that goes wrong in families or causes problems for the children. However, we can work to help to get people the support that they need as soon as possible, so that the family is not trapped in poverty for years at a time.
It is clearly an evil for a child to be persistently poor. Likewise, it is an evil for a pensioner to be persistently poor, year in, year out. We welcome the Bill but, having legislated to eliminate child poverty, does the Secretary of State have a time scale in mind to legislate to eliminate pensioner poverty, or is that a second-order priority?
The hon. Gentleman will know that we have made substantial progress in cutting pensioner poverty, lifting pensioners out of poverty through measures such as the winter fuel allowance and the pension credit in particular, which has provided substantial support for pensioners. Therefore, the chances of being in poverty are now much higher for children than they are for pensioners. That is why we are saying now that the target to end child poverty in a generation is sufficiently important to embed it in legislation and make clear progress on it in future years.
We have seen significant changes over the past 12 years. When we started in 1997, child poverty had been rising for 18 years. In fact, child poverty doubled between 1979 and 1997.
I welcome the Bill, which I think will prove to be a significant milestone in tackling poverty in our country. I particularly welcome the provisions on local government. In order to meet the targets, can we encourage and support local government in all parts of the country to make rooting out poverty a top priority?
My right hon. Friend is right to suggest that local government often has considerable ability to make a genuine difference in local communities, tackling the estates with the highest levels of child poverty, helping parents into work or tackling problems that children in certain communities can face. That is why we have set out duties on local government in the Bill, including the duty to work with other agencies, such as the local police, the local health service and other organisations across the community. Tackling child poverty cannot be about just national Government; it cannot be about just local government.
The number of children in absolute poverty has halved since 1997 and the number in relative poverty has dropped by 500,000. We expect the measures that were recently introduced, including increases in the child tax credit, to lift a further 500,000 out of relative poverty. More than 600,000 more lone parents are in work, while the minimum wage has helped to tackle poverty pay. Some 3,000 Sure Start children's centres are helping 2.4 million young children and their families, while £20 billion of support for families is being provided through the tax credit system-measure after measure sadly opposed by the Conservatives. Yet if we had not done that-if we had followed the Conservative approach and simply uprated the tax and benefit system by inflation each year since 1997-2.1 million more children would be in poverty today.
The Minister mentions the minimum wage and relative income, on which I completely agree with her. However, is there also a place for absolute figures? Does the minimum wage perhaps need to be higher, or do we need some kind of minimum income standard?
The hon. Gentleman will know that we take advice from the Low Pay Commission on the level at which the minimum wage should be set. We have also introduced tax credits, including the working tax credit and the child tax credit, to provide additional income for families. That has made a substantial difference of thousands of pounds a year to many families, without which many more would be in poverty today: it is transforming families' lives.
However, this is not enough-we need to go much further. We need to be even more ambitious in future. We know that achieving these targets will not be easy. The very fact of setting a relative target means that as the economy grows and society becomes more prosperous, we have to work even harder to make sure that no one gets left behind. We know, too, that the challenge facing us is even more difficult in our current economic circumstances, but it is also even more important that we succeed. Over the past 18 months, we have continued to set out new measures to tackle child poverty, even in tougher times, including increasing tax credits, expanding child care, and increasing support for parents to get back into work. Everyone knows that it will be difficult to meet our target of halving child poverty by next year, but we believe that it is right to keep working towards it and to make as much progress as we can, even in more difficult times.
The recession makes action on child poverty even more important. The action that we take now is critical to preventing child poverty not just today but for many years to come. It was the failure of Tory Governments to help people through the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s that led to the big increases in child poverty at that time. Too many parents in the '80s and '90s lost their jobs and were abandoned, left in long-term unemployment or pushed on to other long-term benefits to fiddle the figures, with devastating consequences for them and for their families. Parents, and young people who were soon to become parents, not only fell out of work but fell out of the labour market altogether, making it harder for them to get back on their feet when the upturn came. The cost of that Conservative neglect was felt not just among the parents but among their children who are themselves parents today.
The Tories are sometimes accused of abandoning a generation: the truth is they abandoned several generations. [ Interruption. ] Conservative Members do not want to hear about the consequences for future generations, and for child poverty today, of their inaction and their abandonment of young people-future parents-in previous recessions .
The Secretary of State is making a great claim that the Government have done so much over the past 12 years. Why, then, have we just seen a record rise in unemployment, why is youth unemployment higher than when this Government came into office, and why has child poverty been rising for the past few years?
The right hon. Lady is opposing all the action that we are taking to help people who are unemployed. We are facing the first worldwide recession since the second world war; right across every country in the world job losses are increasing and unemployment is rising. The difference between my party and hers is that we believe we should not turn our backs on people. We believe that we should invest in people's futures and help them to get back to work. Her party has repeatedly refused to support the £5 billion extra investment to help the unemployed back to work. I will give way to any Conservative Front Bencher who can tell me now that they will support the £5 billion additional investment to help young people to get back into work. [ Interruption. ] Hon. Members chatter from the Front Bench, but none of them has the confidence or the guts to stand up at that Dispatch Box and tell us that they will support the £5 billion additional investment in helping people who are losing their jobs today-shame on them. Once again, they are refusing to support people, and that will put more families into poverty in the future. Once again, they cannot accept that it was their failure to act in the early '80s and early '90s-a failure that they intend to repeat-that has left so many children in unemployed households now.
The hon. Gentleman is keen to intervene from the Back Benches. I will give way to him in the hope that he will go further than his Front Benchers are prepared to and say that he is ready to support the £5 billion investment to help people back into work today.
I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that there is nothing more serious than helping parents back into work right now or tackling the rising unemployment that we have seen in every country in the world-
The hon. Gentleman might not think that is serious-he might not think the need to tackle child poverty is serious-but he should be ashamed of his party's refusal to support- [ Interruption. ]
Order. The hon. Gentleman may not like the answer he gets, but he must not keep chuntering from a sedentary position. Otherwise, he ought perhaps to be asked to leave the debate if he cannot control himself. It does not help the debate at all.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I agree with Mr. Walker that we need to do more to support children who have health problems, including obesity, but we also have to help those children out of poverty. If his party will not face up to the fact that parents who lose their jobs are far more likely still to be in poverty in years to come if they do not get help to get back into work now, he is blind to the serious problems of child poverty across this country.
Why can the Secretary of State not answer my question on income differentials, the shadow Secretary of State's question on child poverty, and the question asked by my hon. Friend Mr. Walker on obesity? Why does she always have to play crude and idiotic politics instead of dealing with the things that really matter to our constituents?
Not only is that not a question, but the right hon. Gentleman still has not said whether his party is prepared to support the action and investment to do something about child poverty. We have seen-the figures show this-that 500,000 children have been lifted out of poverty as a result of the action that the Government have taken. If we had simply followed the policies of the previous Government-his Government-child poverty would be 2.1 million higher than it is today.
The shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury sits there on the Front Bench and says it is not sustainable, we cannot invest, we cannot do anything, we cannot do this, we cannot do that-we cannot afford not to bring child poverty down. We cannot afford not to bring unemployment down. He might think that we should not invest £5 billion in helping the unemployed, but we think that if we do not invest in supporting the unemployed to get back into work, unemployment will stay higher for longer. That will push up debt for longer, too.
Does the Secretary of State agree that one way of getting more people out of poverty would be to ensure that means-tested benefits were given out, including to those in work? The DWP admits that £10 billion of unclaimed benefits are waiting to be used. That would be one way of reducing the numbers of those in poverty.
We have to do everything that we can to increase the take up of benefits. The hon. Gentleman is right-more can be done, particularly with things such as housing benefit and council tax benefit. As part of the reforms to housing benefit, we have been considering what more we can do to help those who are in work and who may be entitled to housing benefit. It may also help to make it pay for people to go back into work.
Although I think that the whole House will support the stated aims of the Bill, does the Secretary of State not recognise that behind the rhetoric the stark statistics show that 200,000 more children are now in child poverty than in 2004? The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests that the Government's policies will lead to the target for 2010-11 being missed by 600,000. On that basis, although the Minister claims that the Government are concerned about child poverty the facts show something totally different.
The hon. Gentleman knows that the current statistics do not yet include figures for operating the child element of child tax credit in April 2008, the child maintenance disregard for out-of-work benefits in October 2008, the increase in child benefit in 2009 and a series of other measures that have still to feed through. However, I agree with him that it is difficult to make progress, given the worldwide global credit crunch and its impact. It is important to help parents back into work because we know that long-term unemployment causes long-term child poverty, which we experienced in previous generations. That is why helping parents back into work was such an important part of the Budget measures that we announced earlier this year.
Earlier the Secretary of State referred to the key role of Sure Start children's centres. Surely by doing more through our Sure Start children's centres, we can provide information and advice to parents about health and nutrition so that we reduce childhood obesity. We can also build up parents' self-esteem and provide training so that they are in a better position to get into work and lift their children out of poverty.
My hon. Friend is right. The Sure Start programme is hugely important in providing opportunities for young people and support for their families. It can help parents in a child's early years, which can be a vulnerable time for families, when they want and need more support. Sure Start has proved to be an excellent way to provide that support. That is why it is not enough simply to back the Bill-one also has to back the means to deliver it. That includes the Sure Start scheme and not cutting it, as Conservative Members would do. If they are serious about supporting the Bill, I challenge them to say that they support the £5 billion investment to help the unemployed and the £1 billion for the future jobs fund to guarantee young people a job rather than leaving them in long-term unemployment. I challenge them to guarantee now that they will not cut the Sure Start programme, which provides so much support for young people throughout the country and helps to tackle child poverty, too.
Conservative Members say that they care about child poverty, but they cannot will the ends and cut the means. The Labour Government are serious about cutting child poverty and the Bill sets out our determination to go further. We are determined to help more parents into work and to get the skills and training they need for well-paid jobs to support children and families as they grow, while also ensuring that work is family friendly so that parents can combine employment and parental responsibilities.
Today, we are announcing more support to help parents hit by the global credit crunch. We know that parents are still losing jobs because of the worldwide recession, but often second earners do not go to the jobcentre for help if their partner is still in work. Yet that extra cash from their part-time or full-time jobs could be vital to help to pay the mortgage or keep the family out of poverty. Indeed, more than 100,000 children could be lifted out of poverty if more second earners worked part time or full time as the children get older. That is why we must do more to help second earners who are affected by the recession, and why we are announcing today a further £10 million to help working mothers who are affected by the recession and help more parents into work. Those funds will be targeted at 25 local authority areas to help to set up job clubs in schools to advise parents on getting access to training, finding work or setting up small businesses.
Tackling child poverty is also about acting across the board to ensure that children do not get left behind: from one-to-one tuition to free fruit for primary school children; from the work of neighbourhood police with troubled teenagers to the decent homes programme to put central heating into family homes. Tackling child poverty is everyone's business and that is why the Bill is so important.
The measure requires the Government to work with the devolved Administrations, local councils, the police, the NHS and organisations throughout the country to tackle child poverty in each and every community. It requires every area to set out its own local strategy to tackle child poverty, as well as the Government to set out the national strategy. It establishes a commission of experts to advise us and help drive us forward. It will force Governments to come back to Parliament time and again to demonstrate the progress being made. It ultimately means that the Government will be at risk of action in the courts if they fail.
We are considering a bold Bill, which sets out a radical vision of a fairer society, and a Labour vision of a fairer society. Whereas the Tories doubled child poverty, we are determined to end it. Whereas we want to cut child poverty, they want to cut children's services. Whereas we want to help today's parents, they want to cut the help they need to get back to work. Our priority is to tackle the inequality that prevents our children from getting a fair chance in life, and theirs is to widen inequality by cutting inheritance tax for millionaires. I urge the whole House to back this Bill and to back the long-term measures that are needed to make it a reality. I commend the Bill to the House.
Eradicating child poverty is an ambitious but important aspiration for any Government of this country. Not only is it an economic imperative, as no advanced economy can afford to waste the potential of so many of its citizens; more importantly it is a moral imperative, as no decent society should allow children to grow up in poverty.
Let us be clear that poverty exists in 21st century Britain, and for some communities it is the norm and not the exception. That situation is shameful and destructive. Some 10 years ago, the Government made a commitment to eradicate child poverty by 2020. We can disagree about the approach that has been taken and the lack of progress that has been made, but we should all recognise the importance of setting out that ambition.
I reiterate the Conservative party's support for ending child poverty, and I remind hon. Members of the words of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. He stated last year:
"I want...the government I aspire to lead to be judged on how we tackle poverty in office. Because poverty is not acceptable in our country today."
If the hon. Gentleman listens to my words, he will find out exactly what our position on this particular issue is. I suggest that he should perhaps take up the difference between an aspiration and a commitment with his party's Front Benchers, who have singularly failed to meet their child poverty target. Not only that, but they have now downgraded their child poverty target for 2010, as is reflected in the Bill. The Government are going to miss not only that target but their 2020 target, which illustrates the fact that setting targets is not what makes a difference.
As I indicated earlier in my intervention on the Secretary of State, to which there was no reply, things are moving in the wrong direction, because child poverty is now rising. Since 2004-05, it has risen by 400,000 after housing costs, meaning that there are 4 million children still living in poverty in the UK. The number of children falling below thresholds of low income and material deprivation rose by 200,000 in the last year for which figures are available. In fact, incomes for the poorest 20 per cent. of families fell in the past year, and have fallen in every year since 2004. All that means that across a range of indicators, income inequality is rising.
The shadow Secretary of State commits herself to the aspirations of the Bill, which I welcome. She will have read the regulatory impact assessment, which costs achieving the Bill's goal at about £21 billion a year. Does she have any views on where that money might come from?
The hon. Gentleman will know as well as I do that one omission from the Bill, and from the Secretary of State's speech, is any recognition of the difficulty for any Government of finding the money to meet the figures in the regulatory impact assessment. One issue that I shall mention is how we should be addressing child poverty in this country, which is not just a matter of money. There are many other aspects that affect child poverty in this country, and I shall deal with some of them in my speech.
I return to the fact that the Government are missing their targets. That is a tragic failure and a damning indictment of 12 years of Labour government. The Bill represents one of the last acts of a tired Government.
No, not at this stage.
The Bill ties a future Government to the targets that the current Government have failed to achieve. The Secretary of State may believe that that is clever party politics, but I say to her that such cynical positioning is undignified and belittles the important issues that the Bill should raise. It also sets this whole debate in the realm of the unrealistic; we are all aware of the tremendous pressures on the public finances, yet Ministers seem to have given only a perfunctory nod to such considerations when drafting the Bill.
It is important to remember that poverty is not only about economics. In too many parts of our country, we see not just poverty of income, but poverty of opportunity, aspiration and environment. A child who grows up without the opportunities of good education, health care or housing is also a child growing up in poverty. Those lost opportunities may relate to things that many of us in this Chamber took for granted when we were growing up-going on school trips, making visits to museums or swimming pools, taking a holiday, whether in the UK or abroad-but for too many British children, those are experiences that they will never enjoy.
When we talk about child poverty, we are also talking about family poverty. Children are poor because their parents are poor. In fact, I would almost like to change the name of the Bill from the Child Poverty Bill to the child and family poverty Bill. That would help us to remember that tackling poverty can never be a matter simply for children's services. Instead, we must adopt a co-ordinated approach that understands the complex roots of deprivation.
The right hon. Lady makes an important point about the wider aspects of poverty, but would she not accept that clause 8, on strategies, deals with the very point that she is making? That is why I think that the Bill is much more than just mechanistic target-setting on income levels.
I will come on to a very important issue that I believe lies behind child and family poverty, but is not referred to in that clause, as my hon. Friend Mr. Streeter pointed out. There are some interesting Government recognitions, not in the Bill but in the regulatory impact assessment and the explanatory notes-I shall mention them later-which suggest that they are at last, after 12 years, beginning to realise that there is more to the issue than finance.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that if Ministers are serious about tackling the issue, they should do it, and lead on it? We do not need another useless quango-the child poverty commission-set up at enormous expense, burdening taxpayers and getting in the way.
My right hon. Friend refers to the issue of quangos. All I would say to him is that, of course, the next Conservative Government will look to ensure that the number of quangos is significantly reduced, so that taxpayers' money is not wasted on bureaucratic bodies that achieve no aims.
There are aspects of the Bill that we support. We welcome the emphasis on local issues and action, because poverty will never be defeated by grand strategies dreamt up by a Minister in Whitehall. It will take determined work by local government, in partnership with other agencies and, crucially, the voluntary sector. We do not feel that centrally issued diktats will result in the best help for the people who really need it. That is why in Committee we will press the Government for more detail on how the proposals would work in practice, and on how onerous the duty on local authorities will be.
We have concerns about the emphasis on partner authorities for local councils-the police, strategic health authorities, transport bodies and so on. Again, we will need to be absolutely clear about what that emphasis means in practice, and how much discretion local authorities will have. Surely Government should trust local bodies to know what is best for their communities. We would like to see recognition in the Bill of the valuable work done by charities and other community groups-by those who are working on the ground in the most hard-pressed areas of the country. They often achieve very good results for the people whom they are helping-often, I am afraid, in the face of what Government do to them, rather than alongside Government. Those bodies are central to tackling poverty in the UK, and the Government should be doing all that they can to make their life easier.
It is not good enough simply to place more obligations on local authorities without them having the resources to act, so we will look to ensure that the Bill does not simply place more bureaucratic burdens on local authorities without giving them the freedom to innovate and act in accordance with local needs. They need the flexibility to work with whatever organisation it is necessary to work with to tackle poverty in their area. We do not want to see them attempting to fulfil their responsibilities simply by appointing a child poverty officer or creating a new department and leaving them alone to get on with the job. Co-ordinating action will be important at local authority level. Many councils will already be doing good work in this area, but bringing that work together with a clear focus on child and family poverty is what will make a difference.
I agree with the shadow Secretary of State about not merely giving the voluntary sector and local authorities more responsibilities. She mentioned resources, however, and I wonder whether she and her party will commit to giving extra resources to the voluntary sector and to local authorities to carry out these duties.
One of the most important things that we can do for the voluntary sector is free it up to get on with the job that it wants to do. It often finds itself hard pressed by Government diktats- [ Interruption. ] It is all very well Labour Members laughing. They should look at the state of the public finances, which have been presided over by the Prime Minister, when he was Chancellor as well as now. The fact that we have horrendous debt in this country has nothing to do with the Opposition; it is the fault of the Government and the way in which they have managed the public finances and the economy in this country.
As it happens, I was about to reflect on the fact that the Government have enshrined in the Bill the principle of taking economic and fiscal circumstances into account. I recognise the point made by Action for Children: tackling child poverty effectively would have a long-term benefit for the fiscal position. Taking that big-picture approach will be more successful than working in silos and ignoring other pressures on the Government and on society.
However, there are aspects of the Bill about which I have significant concerns, on which we shall press the Government in Committee. My right hon. Friend Mr. Redwood mentioned quangos. The creation of a commission on child poverty could be a useful step towards holding the Government of the day to account, but we must avoid its becoming another ineffective quango whose purpose is long forgotten. The public will be reluctant to support the creation of another committee that costs taxpayers' money, without clear transparency of purpose. I am also concerned about some obvious omissions from the Bill. It contains little on worklessness, in-work poverty or child care, all of which I will return to later. Housing and health care are also notable absentees.
My main criticism, however, is a simple one: I do not believe that simply legislating to end child poverty will make that happen. Reaching for the statute book has been this Government's modus operandi since they were elected, and we have precious little to show for all the laws and regulations that they have passed. All the evidence has shown that, instead of a target approach, we need a targeted approach that commits to addressing the root causes of poverty. The Bill does not do that nearly as robustly or comprehensively as it could have done. Perhaps the Minister will tell the House whether the Government, in taking a legislative approach, intend to involve the courts in enforcing the Bill's provisions. These are issues that will need to be probed further in Committee.
The Government's approach to tackling child poverty over the past 12 years provided some initial success, but, overall, it has been a failure. Their one-dimensional approach, which relies on means-tested benefits only, is unsustainable and will not result in the progress that we all want. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has said that
"the strategy against poverty and social exclusion pursued since the late 1990s is now largely exhausted".
Indeed, the Government now appear to recognise that themselves. Hidden away in the explanatory notes to the Bill is perhaps the most significant statement that the Government have made on this topic for many years:
"The legislation has the effect of requiring Ministers to consider a wide range of interventions through public services and the contribution of broader policy areas. The Government believes this to be a more cost-effective and sustainable route than increasing tax credits and benefits".
That will be news to many Members present today across the House. I warmly welcome this U-turn, which reverses almost everything that the Prime Minister has told us over the past 12 years.
We have long argued that we must take a wide-ranging approach to tackling poverty. The approach must focus on the root causes of poverty, including family breakdown, worklessness, educational failure and others. No target will be met, no strategy will be effective and no commission will be worth while without that recognition.
If the right hon. Lady recognises that worklessness is an important cause of child poverty, will she now commit her party to supporting the additional £5 billion to help the unemployed get back into work as part of the fiscal stimulus, or not? Yes or no?
The right hon. Lady makes such a thing of this £5 billion, but I would dearly love to hear her stand up and recognise that some of the money that she is talking about as investment to get people back into work is merely replacing capacity in Jobcentre Plus which has been lost as a result of a decision taken by her Government to continue to shut job centres at an average rate of one a week while unemployment was already rising.
Let me deal with the areas I have just set out. First, Britain has one of the highest rates of family breakdown in Europe. There is widespread evidence showing the impact that family breakdown can have on a child's outcomes in life. We know, for example, that children who experience family breakdown are 75 per cent. more likely to suffer from failed education; 70 per cent. more likely to experience problem drug use; and 35 per cent. more likely to experience unemployment or welfare dependency. Those shocking figures surely provide all the evidence we need to accept that family breakdown is one of the most serious challenges we face.
We will never get to the heart of the problems we face-from crime to debt, from drug addiction to entrenched poverty-if we fail to support the best institution our society has, namely the family. It is central to ensuring the well-being of children; there is no more important way to strengthen our society than to strengthen our families, so we must recognise that family breakdown is a route into poverty for many children.
I am pleased that the Government have now accepted that, although I am disappointed that that recognition is again hidden away in the notes accompanying the Bill. The regulatory impact assessment contains these important two sentences:
"Poverty may cause more family stress and therefore cause family breakdown. However, conversely, family breakdown may have caused the family to fall into poverty."
As far as I am aware, this is the first time that the Government have acknowledged that link, and it is a tribute to the work of my right hon. Friend Mr. Duncan Smith and others who have campaigned for so long on this issue.
The Government must now follow the logic of their own statement and support families in a way that they have failed to do over the last 12 years. That means, for example, ending the couple penalty that has done so much to undermine families and harm children. It is extraordinary that our tax system actually punishes couples who choose to live together. We are in the ridiculous situation where the state appears to encourage couples to pretend to live apart because they would lose out on benefits if it were known that they lived together. What sort of message does that send to families? That must play a part in the fact that 60 per cent. of children in poverty live in couple families, and it is a component of high levels of in-work poverty.
We have set out proposals to end the couple penalty by increasing the working tax credit for couples, helping 1.8 million of the poorest couples and in doing so lifting 300,000 children out of poverty. I think it is a pity that the Government have not adopted that proposal. I call on the Secretary of State to look again at adopting it, as it is an important step that the Government could take towards meeting their 2020 target.
Will the right hon. Lady tell me how she proposes to pay for that measure? Secondly, does it come first on her priority list, or does it come after cutting inheritance tax for millionaires' estates?
The Secretary of State knows full well how we will pay for the proposal- [Interruption.] Oh yes she does, because we set it out at the time- [Interruption.] The Secretary of State says that these are measures that the Government are already taking. Well, that is not the case, as I will show. Sadly, what this Government are doing on welfare reform-I assume she is referring to welfare reform-does not go far enough and will not have a sufficient impact on helping people back into work.
No, I want to make some more progress.
As it happens, I was about to come to the fact that work provides the only sustainable route out of poverty, which is why it is important to understand that child poverty is parental poverty as well. I am disappointed that the Bill does not give greater attention to the importance of business and economic regeneration. It says little about local enterprise, but that must be a key part of any local partnerships to tackle poverty. We have not begun to tackle the problem of worklessness in this country. We went into the recession with nearly 5 million people claiming some form of out-of-work benefit. Despite one of the most sustained periods of economic growth in our history, hardly a dent has been made on the hard core of welfare dependency, and we are now seeing record rises in unemployment.
Worklessness and benefit dependency put children and young people at risk of a cycle of poverty, yet Britain has a higher proportion of children living in workless households than any other EU country. The figures show why that is so serious: in households in which all the adults work, a child has only an 8 per cent. chance of being in poverty; in households in which no adults work, that figure rises to 61 per cent. Even the initial progress in reducing child poverty occurred not because of success in tackling high levels of worklessness; one recent report has shown that the number of children living in households in poverty-or those that would be in poverty without tax credits-has increased by nearly 1 million under Labour. Of course, tax credits have been a means of helping the poorest families. However, as the Government now accept, a strategy that relies solely on tax credits, without getting people into work, is not sustainable. Worse, such an approach undermines incentives to work.
Without support for tax credits, the logic of the right hon. Lady's position is that she is prepared to see parents going into employment even if that employment leaves them below the poverty level. Will she confirm that that is the case?
I did not say that at all, and I suggest that the hon. Lady listens more closely.
As the Institute for Fiscal Studies has stated, the extension of means-testing has weakened incentives for many people to stay in work and increase their earnings. It rightly warns that the strategy that the Government have clung to for so long might have the effect of increasing poverty by weakening incentives for parents to work. Without a clear recognition of the importance of local enterprise and regeneration, the Bill contains little to tackle the problem of welfare dependency. It is vital that the Secretary of State does not backtrack on the essential programme of welfare reform, which her predecessor began, following our proposals. Instead, I would prefer to see her go further, as we originally proposed and still advocate.
Part of tackling worklessness is making work pay and making work possible, which involves setting an environment in which good-quality part-time or flexible jobs can be provided for parents, along with high-quality and affordable child care options. I am disappointed that the Bill does not reflect those issues, and I urge the Government to recognise how vital such interrelated aspects of family life are.
I will make a little progress.
Another part of tackling worklessness will be improving the life chances of our poorest children through the education system. Again, it is disappointing that the Bill does not give greater recognition of that. For example, local colleges and universities could be considered as partner authorities for local government. The simple fact is that we need more good school places; poorer children are missing out because of a lack of them. Therefore, instead of backtracking on the academies programme, as the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families has, we should build on it by allowing educational charities, philanthropists, existing school federations, not-for-profit trusts, co-operatives and groups of parents to set up new schools in the state sector and access public funding equivalent to that of existing state schools. That would allow the creation of 200,000 new school places.
We need to divert resources to pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, ensuring that they get the earliest possible opportunity to choose the best schools and teaching, as my hon. Friend Michael Gove has set out. Education leading to work provides a route out of poverty. However, for some children, the effect of being born into poverty will already be apparent when they start school. That is why early interventions in a child's health and development are crucial. I again pay tribute to the work on this matter done not only by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green, but by Mr. Allen.
It is disgraceful that the Government have cut the number of health visitors by 2,000 over the past four years. Health visitors give families the support and advice that can help children to secure a good start in life. We would increase their numbers by more than 4,000, guaranteeing a minimum of six hours of health visitor support in the home for all families during the first two weeks of a child's life. There is no magic solution, but we must consider such policies if we are to reverse the increases in child poverty that we have seen in recent years.
The right hon. Lady has spoken about the importance of the early years. Can she confirm that she proposes to cut the Sure Start programme?
Numerous elements must be considered as part of a broad, holistic approach to child poverty-debt, addictions, health care, housing and the criminal justice system-and we will press the Government on those issues during the remaining stages of the Bill's passage. It would be a wasted opportunity if they ignored them.
The Bill must mark a second phase in our nation's progress towards ending child poverty. The first phase was simply not good enough. It was a one-dimensional approach that focused solely on tax credits and, tragically but predictably, resulted in an increase in child poverty at the very time when it should be decreasing. The same mistake must not be made again. Poverty is a complex and stubborn blight on our nation, and we will not eliminate it until we recognise its causes and tackle them head on. That means supporting the family as the most important institution in our society. It means tackling generational worklessness and welfare dependency. It means ending the failures of our education system, which result in so much wasted talent. It means working with local government, businesses and the voluntary sector in all parts of the country.
The Government's intention in presenting the Bill now is to bind the next Conservative Government. I assure the Minister and the House that the next Conservative Government will not adopt a one-dimensional approach to child and family poverty. We will recognise, and seek to tackle, the complex web of issues that lead to it, as part of our aim to improve the well-being and life chances of all those living in the United Kingdom.
I think that I speak for everyone when I say how dismayed I am by the hollow and poor understanding, the poor grasp of the facts, and the real lack of compassion displayed by Mrs. May.
I have spoken in the Chamber many times about matters of importance to me and to my constituents. I have spoken about matters of national and international importance, and about the policy solutions required if we are to succeed in those areas. Sometimes I have spoken about my role as an individual, and the roles that my constituents have played, not only in helping to solve the problems but, on some occasions, in causing them. With that last element particularly in mind, if we are truly to understand and defeat child poverty each and every adult in the country must understand the part that we have played in helping to create it.
It is a matter of fact that in the world's fourth largest economy, at the beginning of the 21st century, the existence of poverty-and child poverty in particular-shames us all. We in this country pride ourselves on our liberal democracy, our values, our national character and much else. Too often, however, we retreat into those comfort zones, satisfied with what we have achieved, satisfied with what we stand for, and satisfied with ourselves. Because the challenges that face us as individuals and as legislators are often relentless, there is an understandable desire in some quarters to take flight from the front line on occasion, and to take stock and repair before entering the fray anew. I entirely understand that attitude, but I reject it, because it has burdened the fight against child poverty. In our towns and villages, in the cities, in the countryside, in our streets, in our state schools and hospitals and elsewhere, it has blighted our efforts.
Each and every one of us in the House should be plagued by the presence of child poverty in our country of wealth and abundance. It should haunt our sleep and terrorise our waking moments, because child poverty is not a choice, and nowhere in the country is it inexorable or unavoidable. Child poverty is a consequence of our actions. It is an illustration of our failings, and for members of my party its defeat is a cause worth devoting the rest of our lives to. However, in doing so, we must remember that the longer it takes to defeat child poverty, the harder victory will become.
I welcome the Bill. It is clearly necessary, and no other party could or would have introduced such legislation. The Government's record since 1997 in taking 500,000 children out of poverty-now they are on the way to taking another 500,000 children out of it-is a worthy one of which we can all be proud.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman could tell us whether he believes that the number of children in severe poverty has increased or decreased since the Labour Government came to power.
I understand that the definition of severe poverty has been roundly condemned by the agencies most concerned about the alleviation of child poverty in this country. It is seen as something of a smokescreen put up by a party that, sadly, refuses to support the very measure that has taken so many children out of poverty.
I am interested in that question. Is not it the case that the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Child Poverty Action Group estimate that, if the definition of severe poverty now being promoted by the Conservative party were applied to its record in government, severe poverty would have increased by 500 per cent. during those 18 years?
My hon. Friend makes a compelling point. That is absolutely right.
The lives of the children we have lifted from poverty are not simply lives transformed; in many cases, they are literally lives saved. Our actions have undoubtedly prevented significant cases of poverty, including child poverty, across the board. There should be pride in that-but while one British child still languishes in poverty, there can be no satisfaction.
I note that the hon. Gentleman has used the words "defeat child poverty" before, and he is talking now about one child being left in poverty, so I wonder whether he is satisfied with the idea of 10 per cent. being left in poverty. Would that be counted as eradication?
The measures in the Bill are the most unprecedented steps towards defeating child poverty in this country ever-but, for me as an individual, no I am not satisfied. However, without measures such as the minimum wage, the new deal, Sure Start centres and much else, the incidence of child poverty would be much greater. We should judge colleagues in the House on their actions, not their words. Their voting record tells us all that we need to know about that.
The truth is that we should have done more. Surely we all accept that, but by creating a statutory duty for child poverty to be effectively defeated by 2020, the Government deserve great credit. It is a bold step. I welcome it, but urge that the date be brought forward. Is it the unintentional consequence of the Bill to allow a child born today not to enjoy that right-that is what it will become under law: a right for children-until they are 11? That cannot be right. Perhaps the Minister can inform the House why 2020 has been chosen, what the next 11 years will look like, and how any potential change of Government would affect the fulfilment of that statutory obligation. Children's charities are very concerned about such a prospect.
Can we also have a guarantee that the fight against child poverty will be properly resourced, irrespective of the broader economic outlook? I ask those questions because the House is very good at listening to those with a voice-victims of collapsed financial schemes, of industrial injuries and of other serious injustices-and we are always adept at listening to the media. We are adept at listening to the taxpayer and we are able to discern special interest groups when we hear them, all in the knowledge that those voices have votes.
Poor children cannot vote. Their voice is usually a whisper, and evidence suggests that when-sometimes that means if-they reach adulthood, they do not vote at all. Why? Because we consign those people to the under-class-a class of people who are, as the term suggests, outside society and outside the acceptable, without a voice and living in the shadows. The journey from the maternity ward to the shadows of poverty is a quick one, and begins the second a child is born into a family living in poverty, whether their poverty is relative or absolute. I think that we can all take genuine comfort from the fact that the national health service ensures that all our children are born equal, but that equality withers the instant a child leaves hospital.
This summer, I will hold a child poverty conference in my constituency. That will bring together local Sure Start centres, voluntary providers of child services, local government, social services, GPs, schools, businesses and Churches. The aim of that group will be to identify the child poverty in my constituency, its scope, location and nature, and then to develop a plan to beat it. Fundamentally, the aim is to defeat child poverty in my constituency well before 2020. It has to be this way, and I urge other hon. Members to do the same.
The battle against child poverty must be fought locally; it cannot be fought solely on a national basis. There is little prospect of a lever being pulled in Whitehall that will have an instantaneous effect in my constituency. We need soft influence as well as hard influence-carrots and sticks.
On soft influence, which the Secretary of State has already mentioned, I return to remarks I made at the beginning of my speech about individuals helping in their own way to create child poverty. Individuals do help to create child poverty; we in this Chamber help to do so in our communities, by ignoring both its causes and its signs. For us truly to succeed, this has to change. As significant as this legislation is, better central policy alone is not enough. More behavioural and cultural change is needed on the part of all of us if we are to prevail.
It is not just the job of the teacher to identify those children in their classroom who are living in poverty. It is not just the role of the Department for Work and Pensions to identify imperilled families. That is also about the local priest who looks after an impoverished parish yet rarely sees the poor among her congregation. It is about the local councillor who sees poverty on his streets and does not shake his council into action. It is about the shopkeeper who knows he should not sell alcohol and tobacco to under-age children but turns a blind eye. It is about the police officer who picks up the same kids from the same estates for the same reasons time and again. It is about the Member of Parliament who has no affinity with his constituency, does not see the impoverished children in his area, and is either too detached, too distracted or too uninterested to solve the problem. It is about the neighbour who does not lend a hand. In short, it is about each and every one of us. We must accept that child poverty is our problem, not someone else's.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech, which I am appreciating, but in his long list of people for whom child poverty is an issue he has not yet mentioned parents. There should be more in this Bill about the important role played by parents in the early years of a child's upbringing. Will he come on to talk about that?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and he pre-empts my next sentence. By "hard influence", I mean precisely parents and the encouragement of self-reliance where there is none to be found.
This is why community efforts are so vital. Whitehall cannot provide the full arsenal that communities need to defeat poverty, because most men and women in Whitehall have probably never seen child poverty.
Because we have a fundamental difference of understanding in respect of the Bill's scope, provisions and aims. I think it is a very enabling Bill, which allows people to provide the solutions that they see as being the most appropriate for their own communities.
I have talked about community efforts and the good men and women of Whitehall not having actually seen poverty. Most areas will be different, and in any event child poverty will not be beaten between the hours of 9 and 5, Monday to Friday. With this in mind, I particularly welcome provisions in clause 8 of the Bill, where the Secretary of State must consider what action is necessary, with regard to the employment of parents and the provision of financial support for families, and in health, education, social services, housing, the environment and other policy areas, to ensure that the fight against child poverty succeeds.
That cross-departmental approach is essential if we are to succeed. However, I know that such collegiate working can be very difficult, and for this co-ordination to be truly effective it will have to be done in Cabinet and enforced at the highest level. Will the Government ensure that the permanent secretaries of various Departments are as seized as they are of the importance of this agenda?
I also welcome the emphasis placed on local authorities. Independence is important, but will the Secretary of State provide more information regarding discretion among local authorities? Will the Government also ensure that local authorities prioritise need above other considerations? I would hope that they would.
My apologies to my hon. Friend, too, for not giving way.
Will the Government also ensure that the innovation, energy and insight of the third sector are put at the forefront of our efforts? In my experience, the flexibility of the voluntary sector can often-not always, but often-lead to more successful and productive outcomes than when statutory bodies pursue similar aims.
Tackling child poverty must be among the most important public spending priorities. The budgets relating to that policy agenda must be ring-fenced and, as a bold extension to that, we should further incentivise the benefits of employment for the poorest families in our society by taking them out of the taxation system altogether until they no longer live in poverty of any kind, be it relative or absolute. Finally, will the Government consider establishing pilot projects with the aim of defeating child poverty in discrete identified areas well before the 2020 deadline? I volunteer my constituency for such a pilot, and I look forward to the Government's response.
This Bill is precisely what my party, and this Government, are for. I commend Ministers and the Prime Minister for what has been achieved so far, but I urge them to be even bolder by bringing the target date of 2020 forward. Today we celebrate the 40th anniversary of putting a man on the moon, but let us never forget that that feat was not the inevitable consequence of a pressing industrial or scientific need; it was the result of a political choice. Kennedy famously stated:
"We choose to go to the moon."
A combination of sufficient resources and political determination made it possible. Politics is about priorities and choices. The fact that 40 years after conquering the moon we should still be discussing the spectre of child poverty is a sickening tragedy and a savage indictment of our society, so let us choose to do more. Let us choose to defeat child poverty and to do so before 2020.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Reed, who reminds us, in this discussion of statistics and targets, about the human face of child poverty and the fact that tackling child poverty is a cause, not simply yet another benchmark, target or box-ticking exercise. His perspective is very welcome and his commitment to action in his constituency is impressive.
I welcome the Bill. I sometimes tend to be slightly churlish in response to Government Bills, but I unreservedly welcome the fact that this one contains a commitment to tackling child poverty. At Prime Minister's questions last week, the Prime Minister talked about abolishing child poverty. I think that the House would recognise that that is not what this Bill sets as its target; it sets a target of having fewer than 10 per cent. of children living in relative poverty-by my maths, that still works out as 1 million children. The common understanding among the public of "abolishing" child poverty would not be that 1 million children are left in poverty. I hope that the Government and the Ministers present today will reflect on how they describe this Bill, because there is a danger of a noble end being oversold-Governments of all sides have a tendency to do that. If the aim is presented as the abolition of child poverty and a future Government subsequently pat themselves on the back because only 1 million children are in poverty, the public would be justified in thinking that that was not quite what they had in mind. I hope that Ministers will be more realistic about what this Government seek to achieve through the Bill, but I welcome an objective of this sort and a process for monitoring progress towards it.
I agree with the point that the hon. Gentleman has just made, which is all the more right because in a number of countries, including Denmark, the level of child poverty is below 5 per cent. Thus, to suggest that the eradication of child poverty should involve a figure of 10 per cent. is at least slightly misleading.
It is certainly true that the UK has a very poor record on child poverty compared with most of the rest of the European Union, and I shall discuss that later. Our record has got progressively worse over the past 20 to 30 years, although at least some welcome efforts have been made to reverse the situation in the past decade or so. The extent of child poverty in this country is internationally embarrassing.
I hope that the House will forgive me for being autobiographical for a moment-I am not referring to my own poor childhood, but to my career prior to coming into this House. My first job was working at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, whose work has been cited on a number of occasions during this debate. In the nine years I was there, my entire research was on poverty and child poverty, and the measurement of it. Although I was working for an avowedly non-party political think-tank-I had to leave it when I was selected as a parliamentary candidate to help preserve its party political neutrality-monitoring povertyunder the previous Conservative Government during the late 1980s and early 1990s was, over many years, a profoundly politicising piece of work. I say that because we would update the figures each year, check the relevant Department's figures and monitor trends in child poverty and find that year after year the level of child poverty would remorselessly grow. A majority of people would do relatively well, enjoying tax cuts, and the people at the top would do exceptionally well, but year after year more and more children would find themselves in poverty.
One of the things that caused me to cease being an even-handed academic and to want to engage in the political process was the fact that I was appalled at what was happening in our country to the most vulnerable people. Some people did very well in the late 1980s, but children in poverty did not. Therefore, this is a Bill that could never have been brought forward by a Conservative Government, because they stood idly by and watched child poverty reach record levels. To hear Conservative Front Benchers suggest that they even care about this subject, and that it would be some sort of priority, is frankly unbelievable.
People are judged by what they do when they have the chance to do something, and, in 18 years, there was at best benign neglect and, in some cases, policies that actively made matters worse. We have heard of the freezing of child benefit, and I would add to the list the abolition of grants for essential items for lone parents on benefit, and their replacement with repayable loans from the social fund, which had to be paid back out of inadequate benefits. Under those reforms, people could get to the point at which they were too poor to qualify even for a loan. The Conservative party said that poor families were getting too much help through the grant system, and replaced it with repayable loans that had a threshold that meant that people could be too poor to be entitled to help. That is what happens when the Conservatives' priorities are put into practice.
That is one reason why I welcome the framework of this Bill, the 2020 target and the commission. There has been a spurious suggestion that there will be a vast, sprawling quango that will rob the public purse of money. In fact, the estimated cost of this new body is £20,000 for a dozen people to come together four times a year to discuss the issue, with two civil servants working on it. In the context of one of the biggest social problems of our age, that is a tiny amount of money. If this is one of the quangos that the shadow Secretary of State suggests would be abolished by a new Conservative Government, I would like to know what she would put in its place.
The hon. Gentleman has launched a withering attack on my party. As a former statistician, he will be aware that the current figure for children in poverty is 23 per cent. I have looked back at the figures, and it has been around the 23 per cent. figure for the past 30 years. It has gone up and down around that figure- [ Interruption. ] If the hon. Gentleman and Ministers look at the figures, they will see that the figure of 23 per cent. has occurred fairly regularly over the past 20 to 30 years. Why does he think that there has not been a big improvement in the last 12 years?
My recollection of the years I spent looking at those figures is very different. In the late 1980s, when there was public money to spare, it was spent on cutting the standard rate of income tax. Indeed, it was even spent on cutting the top rate from 60 per cent. to 40 per cent. That is where that Government spent money when they had money. Within a year or two of those tax changes, they also froze child benefit. The priority of dealing with child poverty was certainly not borne out in practice.
The policy of the Conservative Government in office was to link benefits for children to the retail prices index. At a time of economic growth, that link means that relative poverty rates will rise remorselessly over the long term, year in and year out. We can argue about the efficiency of the delivery mechanism when it comes to tax credits, but the amounts that have gone into them have been a substantial increase over the RPI-a marked difference to what we saw under the Conservatives.
Will the hon. Gentleman accept that child poverty rates have not fallen significantly under this Government and that employment is the biggest single influence in getting children out of poverty? It was employment that the last Conservative Government prioritised. There was no indifference or lack of care. To suggest that Conservative Members do not care about child poverty is a gross distortion and an untruth, and I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw that remark.
I seem to recall that when Mrs. Thatcher came to power, unemployment was slightly over 1 million, and it reached 3 million within two years. It was still 3 million in the mid-1980s and that had a devastating impact on child poverty. This issue is cyclical, but the Government have clear control over the underlying policy, such as benefit rates. If benefit rates are price-indexed over a period of decades, people on benefits are cut adrift. At the time, that was explicit Government policy, because the argument was that people would be motivated to seek work if life on benefits was made very difficult for them. That was Government policy for decades, and I do not approve of it.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that getting parents into employment does not automatically mean that children are not in poverty? Many children in poverty now are in families with at least one parent working, and that would be made worse if there were no minimum wage-which the Conservative party does not really support.
The hon. Gentleman is right that there is substantial in-work poverty. The role of the minimum wage, however, is less clear-cut. I support the minimum wage, but many of those on it are young people, so the link between it and households in poverty is not as close as one might imagine, although it is part of the overall picture.
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for sticking with this issue since 1980s, paying close attention to the figures and having a clear analysis. Some of us were working on poverty in charities and non-governmental organisations at the time. Does he agree that perhaps the language that we have used has been wrong? We have looked at poverty as though there are puddles of poverty that can be mopped up here and there, when in fact we face deep, entrenched and endemic poverty that has a multitude of causes. We need long-term, patient and serious attention paid locally to those challenges.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that poverty has many facets. One of the welcome aspects of the Bill is that rather than pick a single point of a graph and say, "That is poverty, but that is not", it measures poverty in various ways, including material deprivation and persistent poverty.
My hunch is that the Government have made a rod for their own back with this Bill. They have set four targets. The absolute poverty target is a waste of time. It will just enable the Government to pat themselves on the back-if they cannot reach the poverty target for 10 years ago, we are really in trouble and might as well all go home. The target on persistent poverty, however, will be a nightmare, as will the one on material deprivation. Therefore, it is entirely laudable that the Government have included those targets in the Bill, and I welcome that.
I respect the hon. Gentleman's expertise in this matter, and I shall therefore ask him a genuine question removed from the party political issues. Does he think that it is possible for a family living wholly on benefits to be living above the poverty line?
That is a central question in this debate. If there is a goal to abolish child poverty in a meaningful sense, and benefit levels are below 60 per cent. of median, some families will always be in child poverty. Even with the most benign economic environment, significant numbers of families will probably always be on benefit. Ministers will have more accurate figures, but I suspect that the benefit level for an unemployed family with two children is not far off the 60 per cent. line. It is not implausible to think that people on basic benefit levels are just out of income poverty. The assumption that people would be in income poverty by being on benefit troubles me, and it should relate to the definition of the adequacy of benefits. I hope that the Minister will be able to give a more precise answer to that question than I can.
Britain's historic record, especially in the 1980s, was shocking, but where we are now is very worrying. In the European context, we are better only than Italy, Poland and Romania. All the other 25 EU countries have lower child poverty rates than we do. The goal of being about as good as the best European countries is a start, but it should not be the end of our ambitions.
One of my greatest concerns is that an opportunity has been missed in the last 12 years. If we have made so little progress when the economy was doing relatively well, it will get much harder in several respects. Presumably, the first to be taken out of poverty are the low-hanging fruit-those who are only a few percentage points below the line, who are temporarily on a low income, who will find another job or who are poor for a simple, single reason rather than complex and multiple reasons. Relatively speaking, it is cheap and easy to take such people out of poverty. If we are behind schedule in the good times, what will be different about the years to 2020 that mean that we will not only catch up but accelerate our progress? If we could not achieve the goal when we had the political will and the money in the bank, when the public finances looked relatively good and the economy was growing-if all we could do was tackle the low-hanging fruit and even be behind schedule on that-is it credible that we will accelerate progress and tackle the most difficult cases when the public finances are crippled? It is an admirable goal, but do the Government believe that we will achieve it? If they do, why have we gone so slowly relative to what we need to do, given that we have been going only for the low-hanging fruit?
The needs of children in poverty are complex and the policies for tackling them will be expensive; for example, complex issues arise for children in families with disabilities or for children living in care. My understanding is that children in care do not count in the figures because they do not live in households, and surveys are based on households. I have no idea what the number of children in care is, although I ought to know-[Hon. Members: "Sixty thousand."] Although there are 60,000 children living in care, could we declare the problem of child poverty solved because the children are not in the survey? Is there some way of grafting them on? I appreciate that mixing and matching is tricky, but it would be an omission if we excluded children living in local authority care.
Children in homeless households probably do not find their way into the surveys. In theory, a household survey can pick up a homeless household, but if people are in temporary accommodation or transient, or if they moved out between the time the survey application comes and the interviewer turns up, they would at the very least be under-represented. Might not a whole set of vulnerable children be missing from the survey? Can the Government think of a better way of including them because they are very important?
Obviously, a lot will depend on the exact methodology of the survey. There are permanent local authority Traveller sites in my constituency where the residents are on the electoral register, so they would be included, but I accept the general point. The hon. Lady is right: there is a risk that some of the most vulnerable children would be under-represented.
As I think has already been pointed out in the debate, the issue is not just about cash, but dealing with financial hardship and pressures on families will certainly help. That is one of the causative factors in family breakdown-to return to the point made by Mr. Streeter about the impact of family breakdown. When people go to bed every night worried about paying the bills, relationships come under pressure. Tackling that problem might be one of the most practical things we could do to support couples in staying together. The hon. Gentleman suggested that we put something about marriage or parents in the Bill. I am not sure that we need to write anything explicitly in the Bill-that we need to legislate-but there are a lot of policies that might address that point, en route to delivering the child poverty goal.
In the big picture, we have not so far dwelt enough on the get-out clause: clause 15. I do not think the shadow Secretary of State mentioned it-probably because she hopes to invoke it. The idea that the Government might say, "Well, child poverty is terrible, but we are broke," really would cause fundamental doubt about the whole Bill.
But is the Conservative party committed to the Bill or not? We know the state of the public finances, so we risk doing a disservice to our electors if we sign up to a Bill and then all quietly go off saying, "Of course, none of us thinks it will ever be implemented because we're broke." If that is how we view the Bill, we should come clean. As the hon. Member for Copeland said, it is a question of priorities. We will be spending money on some things over the coming years and child poverty clearly needs to be a priority.
The Liberal Democrats have argued that we should be prioritising within existing budgets; for example, rather than paying tax credits right up the income scale, we could reallocate some of the money to lower income families. That would assist in meeting the child poverty goal.
I have one or two more points about measuring child poverty. Happily, we have the whole summer for the Financial Secretary to reflect on all the points I am making-I know he is pleased about that. When he and the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Helen Goodman, gave evidence to the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, the issue of disabled people on disability living allowance was raised. The point was made that if two people-for example, the Financial Secretary and me-were on identical wages, but I was disabled and receiving DLA and had matching costs, the official methodology would say that I was better off than him because my income was higher. However, my costs would be higher. One option is not to include DLA and then we would be the same-as we should be; but the Minister said that as the DLA is income, it has to be counted. That may be so, but another way addressing the issue is through the equivalence scale.
The equivalence scale takes otherwise different households and converts them to a common denominator. Families with extra children have extra needs, so there is an extra factor in the equivalence scale. Why not include a factor for disability in the scale? We can look at the spending patterns of households where someone has a disability, just as we have looked at households with children, and exactly the same method that was used to derive the Maclennan equivalence scale could be used for a scale that reflects disability. We would thus have a truer impression of child poverty in households where an adult is disabled. It might take many years of research to sort that out, but the question needs to be addressed, because I believe that the official figures understate poverty in disabled households. They must do so, because they add an income that is only to meet costs; it is money that goes in and goes out again. It does not make the household better off net than if it was a non-disabled household, but treats it as such. I hope the Minister will look at that issue.
We talked briefly about omissions from the survey data, but some groups are under-reported, such as children from minority ethnic groups where poverty rates are higher. Among white children, the figure is about 20 per cent; it is 42 per cent. among Asian British children, and 31 per cent. for black British children. On average, children from minority ethnic groups are more likely to be in poverty, but they are less likely to be in the surveys, because we know that the household surveys on which the statistics are based tend, for various reasons, to under-represent urban areas and people from minority ethnic groups. The surveys are grossed up to population figures to correct for biases in age, sex and marital status, but not, as far as I am aware, in ethnicity. There is a limit to how far we can go down that route, but my worry is that the official figures under-state poverty, because such groups are under-represented in the surveys and that is not corrected when the data are scaled up to population estimates. Will the Minister look at that point?
In Committee, we shall have many happy hours looking at the detail of the reports. Modesty forbids me from commending various papers that the Minister might like to read over the summer; no doubt, we shall come back to them in the autumn. Stepping back from the minutiae, it is good to have a Bill of this sort. It is 10 years since the then Prime Minister said that we must abolish child poverty in a generation. A child born the day after he said that is now more than halfway through their childhood. As the hon. Member for Copeland said, there is a real worry about urgency, although given that we are behind schedule, even 2020 looks a bit ambitious from where I stand. The worry is that whole generations may go by, so we need an enforcement mechanism.
In response to the Work and Pensions Committee, Ministers said that the Bill states only that Ministers have to have regard to the economic situation in designing their programme. That looks like a get-out clause to me. I would like clause 15 to be taken out of the Bill, because the goal should be tackling child poverty. Of course Ministers will have regard to the economic situation-they always do and they always should-but why do we need that clause in this Bill? It has the feel of a get-out clause and I hope the Government will reflect on that.
When the Government introduced the Climate Change Bill, they had an ambitious goal for a long-term problem and they set up the Committee on Climate Change to oversee and monitor its enforcement. There is recognition of the fact that the public do not trust us when we say, "Vote for us and we'll fix the problem in 20 years' time". We need a mechanism to monitor progress-to chivvy and cajole. The child poverty commission is, if anything, quite clearly under-resourced. If we want it to report to the House on the failure of any successive Government to achieve progress on child poverty, it needs more teeth and more resources. If the commission is to meet only four times a year and be serviced by only two civil servants, will it really have the needling role that the Committee on Climate Change has? We need that for the child poverty commission too. MPs come and MPs go, and people move from portfolio to portfolio, so we need a body whose role in life is to chivvy whichever Government are in power to make sure that we make progress towards a noble aim that will be incredibly difficult to achieve.
I start by emphasising an element of consensus that has emerged from the speeches that we have heard so far: that the Bill is, broadly speaking, a good thing; that establishing a target in statute is, broadly speaking, a good thing; and that targets alone do nothing to put money in the hands of children who need it, so what matters is what we do to reach the targets rather than the targets themselves. The Secretary of State gave us a compelling reason for reminding ourselves of that-the human dimension of child poverty-when she gave the example of a child who received nothing for his birthday. That is a common experience for children living in extremely low-income families. They will actively avoid other people's birthday parties. Many times I have found that children simply do not respond to an invitation because of their parents' fear that they will not be able to take a present with them.
For the many of us who are parents, this is the first day of the school holidays, and it is worth reminding ourselves exactly what poverty will mean for children who are looking at a six-week stretch without the resources to participate in activities that are regarded as the norm and on offer in the community. We know that one definition of a family on a very low income is of a child of 16 living in a household where the total gross disposable income is £100 a week or less. It costs £9 for a child of 16 to go to a cinema in my constituency, so a family would be looking at spending 10 per cent. of their income on one trip to a cinema. To attend a sports camp, such as a tennis coaching camp, in a local park would cost nearly half the family's income, so the children simply do not take part.
It is no surprise then that we see a tendency for some children from particularly poor families to find themselves in trouble-bored, at a loose end and drifting into antisocial behaviour. When the norm is to participate, and some children are not able to do so, the situation is very difficult. One element of poverty about which we always have to remind ourselves is what the costs of living actually are. Poverty is not just a matter of how much money is coming into the household; it is about what demands are placed on families and their children and their ability to fund those commitments.
That is as far as the consensus goes. I pay tribute to Steve Webb, who said a great deal with which I agree and who has a long track record of displaying knowledge and expertise on this issue. We heard a speech from the spokesperson for the official Opposition that I found profoundly depressing in many respects. The first element that depressed me was the fact that there was no recognition whatever that tough though progress has been to achieve-I shall turn later to some of the problems of maintaining that progress-a great deal has been done. Mrs. May was extremely negative-indeed, damning-about the Government's record, and drew on some quotes to illustrate her argument. However, we should also consider what has been said by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and others.
Donald Hirsch's report, "What is needed to end child poverty in 2020?" says:
"Over the last few years a significant reduction in child poverty has been achieved, backed by significant resources."
Similarly, the poverty and inequality official report, published in February by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, says:
"There is no simple picture of success or failure...trends have improved in more policy areas than they have worsened in...Notable successes in the last decade included...reduced child and pensioner poverty; improved educational attainment for the poorest areas and schools; and a narrowing of economic and other divides between deprived and other areas."
It is extremely worrying that we are not able to begin a critique of what needs to be done and why progress has stalled in the past couple of years without at least an honest and mature recognition of what has been achieved. When the official Opposition speak-this also came through in interventions-they totally ignore not just some of the progress but the substantive work that the Government have done over the past dozen years to tackle the complex causes of poverty. One has only to look at the annual "Opportunity for all" reports and all the documentation produced by the social exclusion unit to see the enormous amount of research and thinking that went into examining the complex drivers of poverty, including family breakdown and, of course, worklessness, and establishing the importance of early intervention.
It is utterly dishonest to claim that the Government have driven an entirely statist agenda on poverty without working in partnership with voluntary and community organisations. That is simply nonsense, and if that is the Opposition's intellectual level, it bodes very ill. There are plenty of criticisms that can be made of the Government, and plenty of anxieties that can be expressed about where we go from here, but there is a vibrant partnership with voluntary and community organisations at both a local and a national level. I look at my own constituency and see a range of organisations that are working in partnership, such as Sure Start and its children's centres as well as those that are involved in relationship counselling and those that work with children. Westminster Children's Society is our main partner in delivering child care, and Women Like Us works on outreach for parental employment. I point the right hon. Member for Maidenhead towards that kind of work, and ask her to rethink the sterility of the Opposition's position.
I do not think that anyone sensible could doubt that growing up in a stable relationship gives a child the best possible start in life. However, I do wonder, given the push towards marriage being reasserted by those on the Opposition Benches, why, when they were in government, they scaled down the married person's tax allowance to the point of its virtual disappearance. There is a little hypocrisy in their position. We want to promote stable relationships, and marriage is obviously a critical, but not the only, way of providing a child with a stable life. We need, above all, as the Government have done-and as, in practice, the Opposition were moving towards-to direct resources towards the child rather than worry too much about the exact status of the relationship in which the child is growing up.
I want to lay to rest some myths, the first of which is the idea that one can tackle child poverty without money. Its causes are complex and multifaceted, and we need to look at education, relationships and so forth to deal with them, but we will lift people out of poverty by making sure that they have more money. It is a no-brainer, but unfortunately I hear the Conservative party propagating the myth that we can tackle child poverty without money.
It is extremely worrying that we believe that simply driving parents into employment without ensuring that that work pays will somehow tackle poverty-it will not. It will simply move a parent from out-of-work poverty to in-work poverty, and quite possibly deepen their poverty because of the costs that they will have to deal with.
There is also the myth that we can achieve everything that we want to achieve through local delivery rather than with national Government. Ending child poverty is a national Government responsibility. It requires the active participation of local authorities, but I say to Conservative Members that it is striking that my local authority, a flagship Conservative-controlled authority, did not mention the word "poverty" for 11 and a half years, until the Government offered it some money to deliver pilot work on reducing child poverty, whereupon it took the money and is now, I have to say, doing some very solid work on it. However, it has taken-and will continue to take-national direction to deliver that work.
Having defended the Government from what is an admittedly reasonably easy target-the official Opposition -I must say that it is a grave disappointment that we have flatlined following the progress made between 1999 and 2006, with even a slight deterioration in the situation recently, despite the welcome addition of around £2 billion of extra investment in the 2006-07 Budgets, some of which is still to come through. We have an interim target for 2010, which we will clearly not reach, but there is no reason for not recommitting ourselves to reaching it as soon as possible: the fact that we will not hit the target in 2010 does not mean that we cannot hit it in 2011.
We do not want a target for 2020 to take total precedence over interim measures. Similar concerns were raised in relation to the Climate Change Act 2008 about not allowing long-term perfection to drive out the messier and less perfect but none the less very important interim objectives.
My right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary has done a great deal on this issue in his ministerial capacity and he knows that London is at the heart of much of our dilemma in reaching the child poverty objective. London has not made progress-in fact, if London had made the same progress as the rest of the country has, we would be hitting our lone parent employment targets and would be well on the way to hitting our child poverty target. London's experience has clearly demonstrated that incentives work in getting parents into employment and helping them to earn money and lift themselves above the poverty target.
Incentives have worked in every other part of the country. The tax credit system has delivered lone parent employment levels and reduced child poverty, but it has not worked in London. Why not? Work incentives, as delivered through the tax credit system, do not deliver in London because our costs are so much higher. We pretty well know what works. The London child poverty commission does not have a huge intellectual task ahead of it. We know what works: incentives into employment work, as does the delivery of affordable, quality child care. Again, it is a no-brainer. The problem is not about thinking up new ideas, but about delivering on them. That cannot be done for free, despite the assumptions made by the Opposition.
I want to finish by spending a minute or two on something about which we did not hear much from Ministers but about which I would like to hear more in the winding-up speech and in Committee. None of us has done a terribly good job at convincing the public of the need to tackle child poverty. The most fascinating Joseph Rowntree Foundation report-it is also the one that deserves the closest scrutiny by Ministers-is the one that looks at attitudes to child poverty. There is a general assumption among the public that the word "poverty" is associated with individual failure and, effectively, laziness. In part, that is obviously to do with the abstraction of the word "poverty", which people do not like, but when they are confronted with it as a concept, there is a general willingness to believe that people are the architects of their own inadequacy and poverty.
In large part, that is explained by the low awareness in the public mind of such elements as average income. I do not know whether any hon. Member in the Chamber has ever taken it, but the Institute for Fiscal Studies has a test on its website that asks people to place themselves on an income scale. I am sure that all hon. Members know only too well where they are on the income scale, but most people phenomenally underestimate where they stand on the scale-the IFS has applied the test to groups of civil servants in particular. Most people think that they are average earners, but actually-oh boy-we are not. We are very high earners indeed, while the overwhelming majority of people who take the test find that they are much higher on the income scale than they expected.
People do not understand just how low the incomes that people on low incomes are, nor do they fully understand, when they are earning, just how low benefits are. Above all, they do not understand-this point was made in an earlier intervention-that half of all households in poverty contain at least one person who is in work. As long as we have a public assumption that poverty is associated with out-of-work benefit-dependency, we will have our work cut out in winning public support for what needs to be done.
Does it matter whether we have public support? It matters hugely, because we have a moral commitment-I would say that we all have that commitment, in all parts of the House-not to leave children behind in this, the fourth largest economy in the world. It also matters a great deal whether we have public support because poverty costs this country a great deal. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that the cost to the British economy of maintaining high levels of child poverty is around £25 billion, while 1 to 1.8 per cent. of GDP could be saved by lifting children out of poverty. There is therefore a powerful economic case. I am sure that hon. Members in all parts of the House would accept that long-term poverty and inequality not only are an economic drag on this country, but take their toll on the wider economy and society.
It is a pleasure to follow Ms Buck, who made a thoughtful and passionate speech, and with whom I enjoy serving on the Select Committee on Home Affairs. I am used to her intellectual analysis, and we have seen some of that this afternoon.
We all want to eradicate or severely reduce child poverty. There is much in the Bill that we can all support, and we wish it well. We hope that it works. Whichever Government oversee its implementation, we very much hope that child poverty in this country will be reduced. However, I would like to make a few comments, and I hope that the Financial Secretary, who is a very reasonable man, may take some of them on board and seek to improve the Bill as it goes through Committee, although sadly I shall be supporting him only from a distance in that process.
I want first to explore the issue of targets. It seems to be becoming quite a fashionable framework for the Government to impose a target and then set up a commission to monitor it-we have seen that primarily with climate change. One of the problems with targets is that they can be a distortion. We asked the Home Secretary about targets when he appeared before the Home Affairs Committee last week. The police now have only one target, which is public confidence. A couple of years ago, however, they had dozens of targets. There is now a recognition that targets can sometimes be a distortion.
Targets can also be a disappointment. Perhaps the most famous set of targets in the world are the millennium development goals, according to which we will do tremendous things by 2015, but sadly-tragically-it looks as though we will not hit those targets or anything like them by 2015. I just hope that we have not set people up for a huge disappointment, which will not help the implementation of policy.
I therefore worry slightly about the Government just saying, "Here's the target and this is a solution." A target is not a substitute for a plan and a strategy. I would like to see a little more depth to the Government's plan and strategy in the Bill. A target can give us the impression that we are doing something, when in fact all we are doing is creating a target. As for the commission that will oversee that target, I wish it luck; but as we have heard today, it will not be significantly resourced, so I wonder what contribution it will make.
We must not forget that a recent UN report concluded that the children growing up in the UK right now are some of the unhappiest in the whole of Europe. Why is that? The answer is not just about pounds, shillings and pence-that point is the missing ingredient in the Bill and in this debate, although it has been reflected slightly in some of the interventions. How many ways are there of raising children out of poverty? We can increase benefits significantly-we had an exchange about that earlier, although I do not pretend to be an expert on the benefits system; I will leave that to Steve Webb, who certainly is an expert on it-but the call on the Exchequer will be dramatic.
We know that we can improve access to employment, which is a significant way of helping children and families get out of poverty, and I frequently ask myself how we go about that when I encounter poverty in my constituency surgeries. It was rather unkind of an earlier speaker to suggest that Conservative Members do not understand or encounter poverty; we all encounter poverty in our daily lives and in our constituency business. Access to employment is critical, but we must wonder how much there will be over the next few years when we are caught up this serious recession, with private sector unemployment still rising and possibly public sector jobs being lost in the next five years, whoever wins the next general election.
So we can increase benefits and improve access to employment, but a third thing that we can focus on-it is not tackled in the Bill-is improving the stability of the framework in which children grow up. The Bill is primarily about financial poverty, but children suffer all kinds of poverty-it is not just about pounds, shillings and pence. The hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North made an important point about children who cannot afford to go to the cinema, go on a family trip or go out with their friends. I accept that those are serious impediments, but children are also poor in terms of encouragement, stability, a nurturing environment, and a framework of values in which they can grow and succeed. It is not about single parents-it is about households of chaos, as I tend to call them, and broken families. How many children grow up in households of chaos where they do not enjoy a sense of security and stability and tend to go from pillar to post? That is one of the greatest factors in the creation of poverty. There is not much about that in the Bill, and that worries me.
There is a missed opportunity in clause 8(5). In considering and measuring how we are making progress on child poverty, if we are to take into account education, health and housing-all very sensible-why on earth should we not take into account the frameworks of stability and security in which children are growing up? That is a key factor. I recognise that there is no magic wand to create those frameworks. However, I hope that when the Committee considers the Bill line by line, it will at least debate that, and perhaps add the requirement that we should take into account the stability and security that can breed the nurturing environment and freedom from poverty that we want for all our children. Of course the Bill is well meaning, but it slightly misses the point about the cause of poverty for too many children-it would be better if it said a little about stability and family breakdown.
I strongly support the policy advocated by my Front-Bench colleagues on putting a form of stability back into the tax system. I am modern enough to accept that not everybody is going to get married. I happen to be married, as are many people in this Chamber. The statistics tell us that marriage creates a form of stability that no other union or relationship has known in the past or is likely to know in future. However, I recognise that lots of people do not want to get married-that is fine. I am interested not so much in marriage as in promoting stability for our young children. I think that marriage is the most important vehicle for stability; none the less, I want those who choose another way of life to enjoy a stable relationship, at least while their children are growing up.
I am probably pulling the rug from under my feet by asking how we can achieve that in relation to non-married couples, which is a tricky thing to do. I see that the hon. Member for Northavon is thinking of intervening on me-I hope that he will stay in his seat, because I do not have an easy answer. However, at least we can make a start with the significant number of people who choose to be married. If we had a tax system that favoured marriage, or at least did away with the penalty on couples, that could give a wider choice to people who have chosen not to get married, and who could then opt into that system. Although we cannot pass a Bill to create stability, we could nudge people by sending a strong signal that we want to underpin stability for families; that would create the right mood music.
I want to see much more early intervention in the lives of children who are clearly in difficulty-not only those who are at risk but those who are in danger of growing up under-achieving and in poverty. The idea that has come from Conservative Front Benchers about equipping and deploying an army of district nurses would be the right way forward. Having experienced, practical people going into the home, seeing what is going on, being able to give advice and acting as a gateway to other advisers would be a useful tool for underpinning stability and early intervention for children who are in danger of falling into poverty and the kind of under-achievement that we see all too frequently.
We talk about these difficult-to-achieve issues to do with creating stability, supporting parents and early intervention, but we do not expect the civil service to do that as it cannot easily be done by the state. The Bill is oddly and disappointingly silent about harnessing the resources of the voluntary and charitable sectors. I am not saying that they can solve every ill-of course they cannot-but there is a vast reservoir of good will and a vast army of people who can supply some of the advice, wisdom, time and support that so many of these families and parents are struggling to find.
I welcome the provision on local authorities and their delivery partners, but the situation as regards outcomes is very patchy around the country. Many local authorities are not good at giving leadership to the voluntary and charitable sectors in their communities and ensuring that there is better co-ordination. We need to improve the situation-the Bill does not do so-and I hope that that can be done in Committee. Why is the voluntary sector able to succeed more than the civil service-more than paid employees or the state-in supporting parents and families who are struggling? It is a question of motivation, of time, and of being able to give a personal, one-on-one commitment to seeing a problem through. That is what many people need. The voluntary sector can help with that, and we need to be a lot better at harnessing it.
We need to include in that the faith communities, whichever faith might be involved. We must be a lot better at deciding what faith communities can do, what they cannot do, and what we want them to do. Of course, no one wants to see them proselytising at the expense of the public purse-that is completely wrong. On the other hand, we do not want to intervene in charitable works with a spiritual component that are undertaken by faith communities, and try to squeeze the life out of them. We cannot say, "Oh yes, that works-we'd like you to do more of it, please, but here's a set of rules we want you to follow that will mean that you won't be getting the same results as previously." This must be based on results. We must monitor what the voluntary sector is doing and vet it with a light touch-it must comply with professional standards-but we must not put it in a straitjacket that squeezes the life out of its performance. It has a huge part to play in supporting and underpinning families and children, and I wish that the Bill did more to encourage that-it is another wasted opportunity.
I am nervous about the setting up of another quango. I have heard that it is not one of the most expensive, but even appointing such independent people would be an expensive process in itself.
There is a grievous omission in the Bill as regards children in care-60,000 youngsters who are surely the poorest of the poor, in view of all the opportunities that have been denied them after their removal from their families, for all kinds of legitimate reasons. Now that we are talking about child poverty, is it not time for a major push in trying to intervene more effectively in the lives of children in care, particularly when so many of them leave care aged 16 and go into a vacuum? I ask the Minister to reflect on that.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that clause 8(2)(b) refers to all children. The difficulty, though, is in defining what is meant by a child in care being below the poverty line-that is a measurement that cannot be addressed in the Bill. I agree, however, that we need to ensure that children in care, children in Traveller families and others benefit from the improvements that it sets out.
The Minister makes a good point. Perhaps that is one reason why the definition of poverty-although I know that the Bill focuses primarily on financial poverty-should at least give credence to other forms of poverty, which would make things easier. The one thing that I would like the Government to do for children in care, which could easily be done through this Bill, is to ensure that they have proper back-up when they leave care. A lot of them go into a vacuum. A social worker might contact them once in a blue moon-we know how busy they are-and many of these children end up on the streets as the poorest of the poor.
This has been a very interesting debate. Some people say that in modern-day politics there is no difference between the main parties. I think that debates such as this show that there is a difference still between the main parties, and I think that it is a healthy difference. One of the differences that I would see is that the Government are still intent on a top-down solution-if I might say so, a rather bureaucratic, pounds shillings and pence solution-whereas I would like to think that the Opposition are looking at this issue in its proper context. We see that child poverty is at least in part a reflection on the family breakdown that we are seeing in our country, so sadly, at this time. We know that to tackle this problem properly is not just a matter of introducing a new bureaucratic system, a set of targets or a new commission; it is about rolling up our sleeves and grappling with the difficulty of trying to foster security and stability once again for families in this country so that children can grow up to achieve their full potential.
This has been an important and interesting debate. Child poverty is one of the most important issues that the Government are tackling. I strongly support the Bill and congratulate the Government on the steps that they have taken so far and on having the courage to go for these ambitious targets. Indeed, that is a great tribute to what they have already done.
I want to start by paying tribute to all the organisations that have worked in this field and contributed to the debate about child poverty, in Wales in particular. I want to pay special tribute to Save the Children, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Bevan Foundation, which is a Welsh think-tank, and in particular to the pamphlet written by Victoria Winckler that I shall use in this brief speech.
I am chair of the all-party children in Wales group. I am pleased that its vice-chair, Mr. Davies, is also here. The group has worked very closely with the voluntary agencies involved in tackling child poverty. The importance of the voluntary sector's role has already been made clear. I want to emphasise that point. Before I came to this place, I worked for Barnardo's; I worked with many children who were growing up in deprived circumstances. Having a Government who are trying to address those issues is a huge step forward.
The all-party group recently visited a family centre in Pontlottyn run by Action for Children. The centre is in the constituency of my hon. Friend Mr. Havard. We saw at first hand the huge efforts made by voluntary organisations in helping young, vulnerable families, many living in poverty, to get some of the stability that Mr. Streeter mentioned. It is important to recognise that this Government and the Government in Wales have worked very closely with the voluntary sector, and that tackling the lack of stability in some families is something that the voluntary sector does extremely well. One of the main reasons why it can do so is that voluntary sector groups can get closer to the families than statutory agencies can. It is well recognised, including by the statutory agencies, that that is one of the strengths of the voluntary sector. It can be more innovative and can work with less threat to the families. That work is going on, and it has been encouraged by the Government. Tackling the lack of stability that we know exists in many vulnerable families has been a big plank of the Government's programme throughout the UK and certainly in Wales.
One of the interesting things that the all-party group found was that this group of young families-mainly young mothers with children-felt that one of the barriers that brought them into poverty was the lack of affordable transport in their area. That illustrates the fact that the debate about poverty is multifaceted. We cannot restrict it to one particular area, as it covers all areas. The other issue that those families spoke very strongly about was the lack of affordable child care.
Recent reports have suggested that 32 per cent. of children in Wales-192,000 children-live in poverty. We all agree that, as has been said widely here today, for any child to live in poverty is a slur on what we are doing in this country. In addition, Save the Children says that more than one in 10 children live in severe poverty. When we look at the households that those children come from, we can see why they live in poverty. The reasons have all been mentioned today.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation notes that 60 per cent. of Welsh children who live in poverty live in a workless household and that 40 per cent. live in a lone-parent household. Some 40 per cent. of children who live with a disabled parent are in poverty, compared with 25 per cent. of those whose parents are not disabled. We have already heard about issues concerning children living in households where one of the parents has a disability.
Such figures are not any great surprise, really. Poor children come from households where there are disabled people, from single parent households and from workless households. What are the consequences of this poverty? In Welsh schools with a high number of low-income families, 27 per cent. of children fail to get five GCSEs, as opposed to 5 per cent. in more prosperous areas. The chances of poverty being perpetuated continue. We all know the phenomenon of families where poverty is passed from generation to generation. It is important that we use every means at our disposal to try to tackle that link between one generation and the next. We need to use every means to do that and the targets proposed in the Bill are one such means.
The Bill is certainly not narrow in the way that the Opposition have suggested. We have only to consider clause 8 and the measures involved to see that the Bill is trying to tackle poverty in its widest aspects. By failing to support children from poor backgrounds at an early age, we risk not only building up huge financial bills for the future, but having to live with the disappointment of children who do not fulfil their potential. Children being disappointed, and at a very early age, is one of the saddest situations we can see.
I was very moved by the comments made by my hon. Friend Ms Buck about children who cannot go to birthday parties because they cannot afford to buy the present and card. When we think about what many of us have done with our own children-about how much it costs to ensure that they have a card and a present, and about the fact that in some schools there may be a party every week, especially if there are 30 children in a class, with the whole class sometimes being invited-we can see what a huge financial burden is involved. It is very distressing to think of a child's being aware, deep down, that they cannot take part in the activities that other children can take part in. That is a huge motivating factor in respect of the strength of the Bill. It is the sort of reason why the Bill is so important.
There are many ways of tackling poverty. Children's inability to take part in some activities can be tackled by trying to make provision more universally available. For example, we can provide free access to swimming and leisure centres. That has been the policy in Wales for under-16s for some time, and I believe that it is being extended to the rest of the UK.
On another important point, it is good that the Government have recognised how important it is to work on child poverty with the devolved countries by developing a strategy and working at a local level, particularly with local authorities. I know that some aspects apply only to England, but I hope that they will also apply to Wales in the future.
Eradicating child poverty by 2020 is a huge aim, which we all support. However, we must also provide increased opportunities by making things more accessible, including mainstream services. The Welsh Assembly Government have their own child poverty strategy and will introduce the Children and Families (Wales) Measure. It is vital that the poverty strategies of the UK and of the devolved bodies are co-ordinated, and that links between them are strong.
Wales has taken particular initiatives to tackle poverty through education, with policies such as Flying Start and Foundation Phase Wales, which is based on the Scandinavian model of children learning to play at an early age. It has been phenomenally successful in the early years of its introduction. Wales has also provided for free breakfast clubs for any school that is happy to introduce them. Again, that will add to the proposals in the Bill. Those initiatives will have long-term benefits in tackling poverty, but obviously we deal with many of the key income-related issues, such as taxation and benefits and welfare-to-work, here in Westminster. It is essential that UK and Welsh policies, and those of other devolved Administrations, together tackle child poverty throughout the UK.
Given that 60 per cent. of children in poverty in Wales are in workless households, work on access and encouragement is essential, and Department for Work and Pensions initiatives are important. The system of providing advisers is excellent and I have had good feedback, particularly from lone parents who have been helped by the lone parent advisers. We must always remember that such work has to be accompanied by adequate, affordable child care and good public transport. The Government have made many strides in child care, but a shortage of provision remains-certainly in Wales, although the Flying Start initiative is helping to move things along. I cannot yet say that there is universal, affordable child care. Like the Government, I see work as the way out of poverty, but to give everybody work opportunities, we must make proper child care provision.
Flexibility is also important. Work must be flexible so that parents and children benefit from being with each other as well as having the income that work provides. Above all, benefits and allowances should encourage, not discourage parents' employment.
Child poverty must therefore be tackled in many different ways, and it is great that the UK strategy, as described in clause 8, ensures that the Secretary of State must promote employment, financial support, health, education and social services, housing and social inclusion. That gives the lie to the Opposition's comments.
Those are just warm words in clause 8. They are not a strategy. The Bill simply states that we must have good education and good conditions; it covers a variety of matters, but in no way adds up to a strategy. Indeed, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has said that the policy on fighting poverty for the past 10 years is now exhausted. We need a new one, but it is not in the Bill.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation's critique of the poverty strategy is that its heavy dependence on work incentives, driven through the tax credits system, is not sufficient to enable the Government to reach the child poverty targets. That dependence is necessary but insufficient, so the critique means almost the opposite of what Mr. Stuart implies.
I agree, and I thank my hon. Friend for her contribution.
I strongly welcome the child poverty commission and was surprised that the Opposition criticised it. The commission is important because it will unite the whole UK in planning a strategy. It is important that the three devolved Administrations appoint members and that they are closely bound to it. The commission should operate as independently as possible. Some charities have suggested that it should be able to commission its own research. I hope that the Financial Secretary will comment on that when he replies to the debate.
Ending child poverty must mean ending poverty for every child in the UK, but some of our strategies do not reach every child. For example, in Wales, some strategies are based on locality, yet very poor children may live in more prosperous areas. I want to refer to two disadvantaged groups, which have already been mentioned in the debate. The first is the Gypsy and Traveller community, for whom there is not enough accommodation to bring up all children safely and healthily. The health statistics for Gypsy mothers and children are shocking. I want to ensure that any debate about child poverty and any targets will include children from that disadvantaged background. The second group is asylum seeker children, who are treated differently from other children in this country. They are very disadvantaged in many ways-for example, in income and access to services. Every child is a child, and I hope that any poverty strategies that arise from the Bill will take account of those two disadvantaged groups.
I echo what has been said about the importance of this subject, and the need to tackle child poverty, but I have concerns about the approach in the Bill. I shall start with the implications for local government. The Bill lays a duty on local government to devise a local strategy to reduce or mitigate child poverty. My first disappointment is that although that hints at wider definitions of child poverty in broader socio-economic terms, when one follows through its logic, it clearly boils down to the same income-related criteria as in the rest of the measure.
My second disappointment is that the approach to local government is typical of the Government's treatment of that sector in the past 12 years. This is yet another example of local government being Whitehall's delivery arm, and of much of the initiative being taken away. We should not do that, because local councils' ability to tackle child poverty more broadly gives initiatives local colour.
My county council fully understands what it means to break the cycle of deprivation, and what that cycle is. It is prepared to deal with a combination of linked factors, including employment, poor skills, low income, poor housing, crime, poor health and poor access to services. It is already doing that in partnership with the county voluntary sector development partnership, the children and young people partnership, the health and well-being partnership, the county safer communities partnership, the economy partnership, the environment partnership and the district local strategic partnership. What added value does the Bill give to the positive work that is already happening?
Is there not a risk that the Bill could divert attention from the carefully worked-out strategies that have already been put in place with other organisations to meet Government targets? Many hon. Members may, like me this morning, have received a brochure in the post illustrating a range of local government activity in connection with child support. It shows that not only is my county council taking a lead in seriously tackling the problem, but that there are examples throughout the country of councils of all colours that have already accepted that as a duty.
The one-dimensional approach to local government is now beyond a joke. It boils down to, "If in doubt, lay another prescriptive duty on local government." It is an extremely cynical approach, because ultimately it puts the duty on others, so that if it fails, it is not the Government's fault. Local government does not need more centrally driven strategies, assessments, detailed regulation and guidance from the Secretary of State. It is not surprising that one of the biggest factors prompting local councillors to stand down at the last county council elections was that they felt that responsibility and accountability for shaping their own environment had been taken away from them.
The Bill gives no idea about how the changes will be resourced. I am extremely worried about its mention of the possibility of creating pooled budgets, because that rather suggests to me that it is simply about recycling existing money. We have to ask what will have to go from the strategies already in place, because local government money is finite, and decreasing.
My own council's opinion is that the Bill will mean a huge realignment of funding and services and a change to orientation on a geographical basis, with a move away from what it is currently doing. I believe that there is a much better way, which would genuinely bring out the benefits of localism and move away from Government-imposed targets and directives. There is no real sense in the Bill of partnership between local and central Government, because ultimately there is no partnership between the two, and there has been very little for the past 12 years. We are a million miles away from the type of compact with local government that hon. Members from north of the border say the Scottish Government have.
The hon. Gentleman nods, and I well remember his comments on this subject in the Committee on the Equality Bill, on which we both served.
We can see from the list of partnerships that I read out, each of which has its own strategy, that we now have strategy overload. As my hon. Friend Mr. Streeter said, the Bill sets out a bureaucratic model-but a model that contains no real idea of sustainability. I dread announcements being made about pilots when a Bill is introduced, because the usual approach is short-term pilots with over-investment followed by long-term under-investment in the roll-out, so that expectations are dashed.
I am not the only one who sees the importance of the shift that is taking place. Barnardo's admits that the Bill
"shifts significant responsibility for the eradication of child poverty onto local authorities and their partners."
It is concerned that in the absence of additional resources from Government, the ability to drive progress will be limited. Concern has also been expressed by the Child Poverty Action Group that there is no idea of how the Bill will work in practice. It, too, asks what will have to be dropped from existing strategies in order to deliver the changes.
The Bill represents the wrong way of working with local government, and it echoes what we came across in debates on the Equality Bill. In the fifth sitting of the Public Bill Committee, on
"if we put responsibilities on a range of authorities...we must think about not only the duties that we are placing on them, but the resources that we grant them. If we place a lot of responsibilities on public authorities without the concomitant resources, we may be setting up not only Ministers, but that significant list of authorities, to fail."
We argued that direct interference from central Government in defining what should go into sustainable community strategies, around which that Bill was based, was wrong. My hon. Friend said:
"It is for electors to make decisions when they elect different members of those authorities and it is for those authorities to make the decisions in debate, weighing up all the factors concerned. It is proper for that to be done at that level and not for Ministers to seek to put duties on them." --[ Official Report, Equality Public Bill Committee,
I urge Ministers to acknowledge the good work of many local authorities across the country and embrace a broader-based partnership approach to them. I urge them to back off from central Government planning and let local authorities choose the indicators and targets most appropriate to their own area when they produce their strategies.
I also have a couple of comments about targets. The Bill seems to be an admission of failure, as we have already heard that by 2010 we will be 600,000 short of the target. The Financial Secretary is a man who likes to put a good spin on things, and I notice that he has talked about the glass being half full, or indeed two-thirds full, when it is really a third empty. That spin undermines the effect of the target. In the Select Committee proceedings that have been referred to, he admitted, in answer to question 3,
"given current economic circumstances, that it will now be hard to meet the 2010 target on time".
That is true, but it is interesting that he went on to say that nobody could have foreseen
"the scale of the current economic crisis".
That is believable only of someone who was blinded by the myth that they had abolished boom and bust.
I felt excited when I saw the aim in the Bill of ensuring
"that children...do not experience socio-economic disadvantage", because it could widen the scope of the Bill to encompass a range of non-income factors, which a number of hon. Members have mentioned. That hope was dashed by the fact that the only measurable things in the Bill are income targets. That distorts the policy agenda hugely, detracting from factors such as education, social work, good parenting and others that have been mentioned. It is a one-dimensional approach. If there is a legislative target for income and not for other factors, there is surely likely to be a bias in the allocation of scarce resources. That, too, echoes debates on the Equality Bill, which followed the same line on socio-economic duty and the concept of disadvantage.
There are some anomalies in the calculation of income. The targets in the Bill all relate to the income of qualifying households, rather than to the income of children. The modified OECD equivalence scale that the Government currently use, which has been mentioned, allocates a weight of 0.67 to a household's first adult, before housing cost income, a weight of 0.33 to subsequent adults and children of 14 and over, and a weight of 0.2 to children under 14. If the Government transfer income to a household of two parents and a young child in pursuit of their targets, 83 per cent. of the income transferred is therefore assumed to be spent by, and for the benefit of, the parents. Only 17 per cent. is assumed to be spent on the child.
Such a transfer may be the only way of helping the child, and I am not criticising that method of approaching child poverty, but we need to be clear about who the chief beneficiaries of the targets will be. In reporting on what has been done for such households, the Government should simultaneously report on what has happened to poverty elsewhere, even if they do not have targets for it.
Conventional income measures ignore income in kind, such as the provision of free education and health care, and the effect of indirect taxes. However, as we have heard, they include disability living allowance, even though that is arguably provided to accommodate the extra costs of disability and should not be counted as income. There is a great need to increase the take-up of benefits and to simplify the whole system. Both those matters were brought up in discussions with the Financial Secretary in the Work and Pensions Committee.
Comparisons have been made with the Climate Change Act 2008. I shall not go into the merits of that Act, but there are two reasons why the procedure of setting long-term targets was more appropriate in that case. There was a need to provide long-term certainty about the British Government's intentions, to encourage private sector development of costly technology and to strengthen the UK's position in international negotiations. By contrast, this Bill merely defines a framework for Government reference. Whereas the Climate Change Act included new powers to help achieve the targets set out-on emissions trading schemes, biofuels and household waste, for instance-this Bill contains no new powers other than those affecting internal Government processes.
My right hon. Friend Mrs. May was being generous when she suggested her new title for the Bill. If the title really reflected the contents, it would be "A Bill to set targets relating to the eradication of poverty in households with children, and to make other provisions about child poverty." That would be a far more accurate title, even if it tripped off the tongue less easily; it reflects the bureaucratic nature of the Bill. The problem is multifaceted; it needs a multifaceted solution, and the flexibility to ensure that we can make a real difference to the lives of children in poverty in this country.
I support the Bill. As a number of hon. Members have said, child poverty should concentrate all minds in the House, and more widely in politics. To their credit, the Government have, down the years, successfully addressed child poverty through a number of measures, both budgetary and other. It is appropriate that they see fit to try to reinforce further their commitment on child poverty through appropriate legislation, so I welcome the Bill.
Unfortunately, I do not completely welcome the tone taken by the Secretary of State in opening the debate. An issue of such worth should not be the subject of as partisan an excursion as the one to which we were treated. Child poverty is a serious and compelling issue, and cutting the debate down to the goading and needling of the Opposition is unworthy of the purposes claimed for the Bill.
Like other Members, I am interested in a number of the issues provided for in the Bill. However, unlike some of them, I would like the Bill to go further, and I shall give an example. Several Members have referred to the importance of the child poverty commission. Julie Morgan talked about the commission ensuring that there was a combined UK strategy, but I am not sure that the provisions in the Bill will allow the commission to do that adequately. Clause 7 sets up the commission. It is significant that three of its six subsections, taking up four lines, deal with setting it up; the other three subsections, covering 11 lines, deal with the possibility of the Secretary of State winding it up. Provisions elsewhere in the Bill require Ministers in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales to have a role in appointing people to the commission, and in providing advice and contributions, but there seems to be no provision for them to have any role in relation to any determination by a Secretary of State to wind the commission up, which seems rather strange.
Under clause 9 subsections (1) and (2), the commission is to provide advice at the request of the Secretary of State, and according to a timetable set by the Secretary of State. In subsequent subsections of that clause, we are told that the Secretary of State will
"consult such children, or organisations working with or representing children, as the Secretary of State thinks fit".
I hope that the Government will clarify whether they foresee the commission being able to engage in such contact and consideration; that would meet the point that hon. Members made earlier about the need for the commission to recognise the worth of advice, and the relevance of the role of a number of charities and voluntary organisations, and some faith-based groups.
I hope that the Government will clarify, in the winding-up speech tonight and certainly in Committee and on Report, whether the provisions that address aspects of devolved responsibility will be fine-tuned, so that we end up with strategies that are compatible, complementary and coherent. At the moment, there are provisions in clauses 10 and 11 on the Scottish and Northern Ireland strategies respectively. Clause 11 says that strategies in Northern Ireland
"may not include proposals that relate to excepted or reserved matters, within the meaning of the Northern Ireland Act 1998."
Clause 10 contains a similar provision relating to the relevant Scottish Act. I can understand what is meant, but we need to ensure that strategies produced by the devolved authorities can make proper and appropriate reference to UK Government measures and relevant initiatives. In quite a number of policy areas, we are in a twilight zone between devolved responsibility and reserved or excepted matters.
Clause 8(5) says:
"In preparing a UK strategy, the Secretary of State must consider what (if any) measures ought to be taken in each of the following areas-
(a) the promotion and facilitation of the employment of parents or of the development of the skills of parents,
(b) the provision of financial support for children and parents,
(c) health, education and social services, and
(d) housing, the built or natural environment and the promotion of social inclusion."
In each of those areas, we can identify where there are clear devolved remits, but we can also identify where there are significant UK Government influences, contexts and parameters. In a sense, if we are honest, there are a number of matters that are nominally in the area of devolved responsibility, but on which the devolved Assembly in Northern Ireland is basically engaged in making karaoke legislation. The Assembly often has to frame its legislation according to limits, constraints and frameworks determined here in Westminster and Whitehall. We need to ensure that the Bill does not unduly cramp the style of the devolved authorities or their initiative in coming forward with realistic relevant strategies honestly set in the context in which Administrations and societies finds themselves.
As well as the numerous references in the Bill to the role of the devolved authorities, there are, as a number of hon. Members have said, significant references to local authorities, specifically in England and Wales. In Northern Ireland there is change in local government; the new councils there will have some responsibilities for community planning and general well-being. Obviously, I hope that the omission of any reference to local government in Northern Ireland does not mean that local councils in Northern Ireland will be precluded, under the legislation, from making contributions to the task of eradicating child poverty.
It is significant that while there are copious references to local authorities and various partnerships that might be involved, and while there are many references to devolved authorities, the only references to Whitehall are to the Secretary of State-and, it seems, to just the one Secretary of State. We are left with the question: will this legislation be binding everywhere in the country, except across Whitehall? Mr. Reed made the point that men and women in Whitehall do not experience or meet child poverty every day, but they very much set the context in which child poverty exists and continues, and where it can be alleviated and, hopefully, eradicated.
Clause 8(5) refers to the UK strategy and to what the Secretary of State must consider; again, it is the Secretary of State who is to consider the measures. The provisions do not, as hon. Members have suggested, bind the Cabinet or Cabinet Sub-Committees to addressing that range of measures.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is as confused as I am by the Bill. My understanding was that the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families headed up the whole area of children, and that he-or possibly she, in future-would co-ordinate such matters, yet the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is leading on the Bill. That perhaps suggests that the approach will not be as holistic as one might have hoped.
I accept the hon. Gentleman's point. The question arises: under the Bill, where does the Secretary of State's responsibility lie, not just in the Government's intention, but in the intention of any future Government? That is an issue against which we have to test the worth and strength of the Bill.
If we are to get the coherent, joined-up approach that Ministers are clearly saying that they want to achieve, the Bill will need tweaking and fine-tuning in a number of respects. It is significant that many of this Government's achievements on child poverty relate strongly to budgetary measures that were taken in various Budgets and through the Treasury. It is also significant that, while the Bill requires an annual statement to be made by the Secretary of State, it contains no obligation for Budgets or comprehensive spending reviews directly and specifically to address the issue of child poverty.
It should be noted that, just this year, the Treasury Select Committee regretted the fact that neither the pre-Budget report last autumn nor the Budget statement this year specifically addressed the issue of child poverty. The Committee noted that that was a significant omission, even allowing for all the other pressures and distractions that exist. Before we can convince ourselves that we are passing a Bill that will actually mean something in terms of committing the Government and this House to eradicating child poverty, we must acknowledge that the Bill is silent on the matter of budgetary statements. The Chancellor of the Exchequer is obliged to produce many statements and reports on many issues that set out many different factors and assumptions, and it seems odd that we should pass a Child Poverty Bill that would allow a Chancellor to produce significant Budget statements without at least addressing issues of child poverty and identifying the terms and assumptions involved.
As a member of the Treasury Select Committee, may I say that although no specific measures were announced in the most recent statement, one of the most significant measures to tackle child poverty-which is about increasing housing benefit and council tax benefit-will come into effect this autumn, and that it was pre-announced quite some time ago?
I fully accept that point. Nevertheless, the Treasury Committee clearly lamented the fact that there were no references to child poverty in the pre-Budget report or the Budget statement. I shall not read out the entire quote from the Committee, but it called on the Government to address that matter in the future.
The proposal to eradicate child poverty raises the question of what we mean by eradication. Other hon. Members have already said that the Government have set a target that seems to suggest that a poverty rate of anything below one in 10 could count as eradication. Such a percentage in this House would equate to 64 Members, but I see an Opposition party here with more than 60 Members that does not regard itself as eradicated. Under 10 per cent. hardly counts as eradication.
Regrettably, that proposal is an example of the Government and the Department for Work and Pensions resiling from an understanding that they gave in 2003 on eradicating child poverty. Their document, "Measuring Child Poverty" stated:
"Success in eradicating poverty could, then, be interpreted as having a material deprivation child poverty rate that approached zero and being among the best in Europe on relative low incomes".
However, what we are legislating for here falls short of that standard set by the DWP, and I hope that the Department and the Government will return to the prospectus that they were offering in 2003. I hope that the Bill can be improved as it continues its passage through the House.
Another way in which we could usefully improve people's understanding of the purpose of the Bill is to show real parliamentary intent. At a time when the reputation of Parliament is pretty low and when politics is not held in the highest esteem, if we are going to legislate on child poverty, let us set down the clear principles that we as a Parliament want to address. The commission envisaged in the Bill will clearly have an important role, as will the Secretary of State, in providing reports to Parliament, but perhaps we in this House-or a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament-should actively monitor the progress of the provisions. We should be tracking and backing the targets, and testing them, rather than simply waiting to pounce on the annual reports from the Secretary of State.
Perhaps such a Committee could follow the style of the Joint Committee on Human Rights-not meeting as often as a regular Select Committee-in probing and testing some of these issues. That could include highlighting good practice, because we shall be imposing a number of obligations on central and local government, and on devolved Government. If we are obliging them to report, we, as the Parliament that created the legislation, should at least pick up the information in order to establish best practice and to reinforce and support the people who are delivering on the targets.
I wonder whether the public would have more confidence in the measures if the commission were to report to Parliament rather than to the Secretary of State. Perhaps the Select Committee could play a role in the appointment of the chairman of the commission. If Parliament were to hold the Secretary of State to account, people might have more faith that the outcomes could be achieved.
I fully accept the hon. Gentleman's point, which reinforces the one that I was making. People would value Parliament making serious commitments about what it was going to undertake, rather than our imposing what appear to be obligations on central Government that leave a lot of room for central Government to pass them down to others while abdicating from them themselves.
Clause 15 gives serious cause for concern in relation to a future Government being able to avoid some of the requirements in the Bill. Its provisions on economic and fiscal circumstances could be played like a joker by any future Government who wanted to say, "No, there are measures that we cannot consider because the prevailing economic and fiscal circumstances mean that we cannot proceed or act on child poverty." People will not accept such excuses and slippage. They will identify such slippage as slipperiness. If they see us building a get-out clause into the Bill, they will think that it can be cited, by virtue of other prevailing circumstances, as a way by which the provisions will not make as robust a commitment to eradicating child poverty as they need to.
I support the commitment to eradicating child poverty by 2020. In Ireland, however, my party has strongly argued that 2016-the 100th anniversary of the proclamation of Irish independence and of the Republic, which set out the key element of cherishing all the children of the nation equally-should have been the date by which we should have eradicated child poverty there. Obviously that has not happened, however. This Government have made huge strides on this issue. Yes, there have been some blips and slips in recent years, and we understand the circumstances involved, but we welcome the fact that the Government are showing the resolve and determination to legislate for this. I hope, however, that they will recognise that the Bill can, and must, be improved as it proceeds.
It is a great pleasure to follow Mark Durkan. He said that this should not be a partisan debate. Apart from some of the usual political banter earlier in the day, I think that Members on both sides of the House have treated this as a serious issue on which we want to move forward. Unfortunately, however, the Bill is very much about setting targets rather than delivering an end to child poverty.
A few Members have talked about the great progress that has already been made, but we are where we are, and, in regard to where we stand in Europe, that is not a great place to be. My hon. Friend Steve Webb mentioned that child poverty rates in the UK were below those of Poland, Italy and Romania. I do not have his encyclopaedic knowledge-which he gained from working for the Institute for Fiscal Studies for nine years-but I think that it is worth putting on record which European countries we are behind in this regard. We are behind Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Cyprus, Iceland, Slovenia, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, France, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Belgium, Estonia, Malta, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Luxembourg, Portugal, Lithuania, Greece and Spain. So, when people say that we have made great strides in years gone by, we must remember that we are still not where we want to be.
I see pockets of poverty in my constituency, which is generally viewed, like those of many other Members, as a relatively wealthy one. It is sad to say that in my eight years as a Member, nobody has ever come to my surgery to ask about child poverty. People come along to say that they have problems with their benefits, tax credits or whatever, but nobody has told me, "You must deal with the issues of child poverty". It is the same with housing problems in that very few come along to say, "Housing is a major problem and we want to see Parliament do something to sort out the wider problem."
As I have said, the Bill deals with targets, but there is a great shortage of specific detail and no specific strategy. As Mr. Streeter said, it is very easy to set targets for issues such as the millennium development goals. We all heard pledges made when the G8 met at Gleneagles a number of years ago. Earlier this year, the G8 met again in Italy and some of those who had made significant pledges at Gleneagles were there calling for action to happen, but those very same people had not delivered on their own pledges. We must expect promises to be kept generally, but for those suffering from poverty, those promises can be the very heart of their lives.
People often say that it is not just a question of money or cash in pockets, as there are many other aspects to living in poverty. One particular issue that I want to highlight today is that Government targets on child poverty will never be achieved without a specific focus on disability. I am going to come back to that. There are a wide range of issues involved, but I shall try not to repeat those previously mentioned.
As a number of Members have said, education also has a key role in pulling people out of poverty. There are two spirals that work with education-an upward and a downward spiral. People who have good jobs and a good income often see their children having a good education. Those children will come out of school, secure a good job and carry on in that upward spiral. At the same time, the children who grow up in poverty often suffer from a poorer education; they will end up in lower-paid jobs and the downward spiral will continue for them.
Although we have legislation before us-I welcome the fact of this Bill-it will not end child poverty. I accept that some Members care less than others about poverty, but I would like to think that everybody cared about poverty, even though they might not have suffered from it themselves. I do not believe that someone has to rob a bank to know that doing so is wrong. Equally, we do not have to be poor in order to feel the pain of those who are living in deep poverty.
We see in our surgeries how issues have developed over the years. On the good side, child poverty will be at the heart of every party's manifesto in the run-up to the next general election, which is 12 months away. We have moved on, because child poverty did not merit a mention at all in the Labour party's 1997 manifesto. It was a couple of years later before child poverty came up on the agenda and targets were set, only some of which have been met. The Government have achieved some positive things-tax credits, for example, but there are both good and bad sides to them. There have been errors and reclaims that have caused great confusion.
Even worse for people, we are now in a recession, with increasing unemployment. Although the Secretary of State announced today a further £10 million to tackle poverty, we have seen tens of billions of pounds pumped into the banking system to ensure that it can carry on working. As we heard in an announcement last week, several thousand bankers received bonuses in excess of £500,000 each, at the same time as many people in the UK were living on the breadline. There is no lack of wealth in this country: if only we could get it right-whether it be through legislation, education, employment, transport, housing or a whole range of other issues-we could tackle the poverty that still exists in too many pockets of the UK.
A number of provisions in the Bill detail the role of local authorities and devolved Governments and Assemblies. I shall raise one issue, on which I expect John Mason to strike back. Problems can be identified at the UK level, as they were some years ago when the UK Government specified that about £300 million needed to be spent in support of disabled children. That went through the Barnett formula, but when £34 million went to the Scottish Government, the money was not spent on that purpose. It was spent on other issues, not on the specific need identified by the UK Government. It is the same with child poverty. There are clear issues that run UK-wide, but when responsibilities are passed to local authorities, Governments and Assemblies, it is sometimes a case of passing the buck, while at other times those bodies just do not deliver. I believe that the responsibility lies at the UK level to see that child poverty is tackled at the UK level.
I am now going to focus specifically on child poverty in relation to disability. Unless the Bill is disabled-aware, the significant costs associated with living with a disabled child for families and parents who are sometimes themselves disabled will not be understood. So many factors work together that result in children ending up in poverty. It is well known that those who are disabled are less likely to be in work, but more likely to want to work, than their able-bodied counterparts. A household with disabled children will end up with higher weekly running costs-often higher transport costs, sometimes higher food costs because of specific diets that are required and a whole range of other costs. At the same time, however, their income is likely to be lower.
A few facts are worth reading into the record. One in three of all children living in poverty have at least one disabled parent. A family with one disabled parent is 30 per cent. more likely to be in poverty, and 700,000 children with a disabled parent are living in poverty. Families with disabled children are more than 50 per cent. more likely to be in debt, while 16 per cent. of mothers with disabled children work in comparison with 62 per cent. of mothers with non-disabled children.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon said, there is often a real disparity when extra income or benefits are taken into account. Those increases do not result in those families being better off; they are simply there to deal with the increased costs that the families have to deal with. The Government often respond by saying that they target means-tested benefits to those who are the poorest of the poor, but the poorest of the poor are not necessarily those entitled to and receiving benefits. The real poorest of the poor-this is where poverty is a real problem-are those who are entitled to, but do not receive, those benefits. As I said to the Secretary of State earlier, £10 billion of means-tested benefits went unclaimed this year.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech. May I recommend to him "Empowering Society", which was launched today by the Conservative disability group? Its first key idea is that we need to bring in a single assessment for people with disabilities to enable them to access benefits. These people are often sent from pillar to post under the current system and they often end up compromising for the sake of speed-with a reduction in their benefits. What we need to do is radically change that system so that disabled people can get the support they deserve.
I take the hon. Gentleman's point. We often hear, particularly from parents with disabled children, that it is an onerous enough task just to deal with the child and the disability, as it involves dealing with mental anguish as well as the physical disability. Having a disabled child can be the catalyst for family breakdown, which often leads to further social problems. To follow up the hon. Gentleman's point, parents then have to spend hours and hours going from helpline to helpline and from Government Departments to local authority departments and social services, while at the same time having to deal with doctor and hospital appointments. One thing I did to help with this problem at the constituency level was to put together a pack of information for parents of disabled children. The idea was that in their quiet moments, perhaps between their doctor and hospital appointments, they could see at a glance all the help and support that was available to them. Under the current system, whatever the Government's failings, a lot of help and support is available, but people often do not know how to access it, or do not even know it exists. The point is therefore valid, and is not a party political one: all parties in the House would like benefits and support to be received by those who need them most.
I will put a couple more statistics on the record: parents who have a disabled child are two and a half times more likely not to work more than 16 hours a week; and 10 per cent. of families with disabled children care for more than one disabled child. Although I welcome the Bill, and I leave the exploration of the fine details to the encyclopaedic mind of my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon, Members on both sides of the House can work together in Committee to improve the legislation. In 2009, child poverty ought to be history. Sadly it is not.
I am pleased to speak on this important Bill. A number of Opposition Members, especially John Howell, said that the Bill was an example of interference from central Government, who were constraining and placing more duties on local government. That misses the point of the Bill, as, broadly, it sets out a commitment to end child poverty, with which all Members have said they agree. The Bill sets out some targets-although not enough-to specify poverty, but leaves it to local agencies to deliver strategies to tackle poverty, which is right. Everyone who has worked on poverty understands that it requires local solutions and people and agencies to get into areas of intractable, hard-core poverty, using different strategies to tackle it and considering its specific causes in those areas.
The Bill is well suited to take forward the fight against poverty. Eradicating child poverty is one of the great goals of this Government. I concede that we will miss the 2010 target, which I very much regret, but we should not ignore the progress that has been made. The Bill will move matters forward, tackling not just the financial aspects of poverty, but the other aspects to which Members have referred. I want to focus on some of those other aspects, and make some proposals to strengthen the Bill.
Targeted measures, rather than blanket solutions such as general disbursal through child benefit, are necessary to target intractable, hard-core poverty. By and large, we know which families are most at risk of poverty and where they are. As several Members have said, first, they are the families in which no one works. However, the statistics also highlight the risk factors of lone parenthood, disability, unemployment in two-parent households or marginal employment in two-parent households. Those are the biggest risk factors for children to live in poverty and, according to Every Child Matters, for poor outcomes for children. Poor families can also be identified by the state benefits they receive, especially income support, jobseeker's allowance and housing benefit, with disability benefits a bit further down the scale.
We also know where poor families live, and that has changed over time in an interesting way. In 1970, poor families were most likely to be renting private property, with only a third in social housing. By 2000, the figures were almost exactly reversed, with poor people three times more likely to be social housing tenants. Now, the figures have shifted again. The biggest proportion of poor families are tenants of the state, renting social housing split between council housing and housing association properties. However, the next biggest category of poor people live in owner-occupied housing. The size of that category might increase as a result of the current recession, and the Government might need policy instruments to tackle it.
The hon. Lady refers to the important role of housing in poverty. She will know that the definition in the Bill explicitly does not take account of housing costs. Given that housing costs might partly reflect quality, but also real inflation, which would in turn affect real living standards, is it not at least a concern that such costs are wholly excluded?
I was about to refer to that issue, because housing is one of my main concerns. Before housing costs, 19 per cent. of children live in poverty, but after housing costs that figure rises to 27 per cent. My hon. Friend Ms Buck referred to London, and my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury will be interested in the figures, as his constituency is also in inner London: after housing costs, 44 per cent. of children in London are in poverty, but before housing costs that figure is about 27 per cent., which is in line with other parts of the country. High housing costs, especially in London, cause poverty. The cost of housing is a significant factor in the poverty of families. Therefore, by increasing housing benefit this autumn, the Government are putting money in exactly the right place. However, they might also have to look closely at the impact of the cost of home ownership on low-income families and on child poverty as a result of the recession.
The poor are also likely to be in bad-quality, overcrowded housing. According to Shelter, 1 million children are in overcrowded housing, and many more live in homes that are below the decency standard. In my constituency, the number of council properties that fall below the decency standard has risen from 2,698 in 2006 to 4,623 in 2008-an increase from 21 to 37 per cent. That does not take into account the problems with families who are squeezed into unsatisfactory privately rented property, or who struggle to maintain low-cost private ownership. I shall set out proposals to strengthen the Bill with regard to housing.
The Bill also needs to be strengthened in relation to crime, as Mrs. May suggested. The link between vulnerability and crime is clearly demonstrated in the report by the Prison Reform Trust setting out the proportion of children and young people in custody who have been affected by family breakdown, special needs and poor educational achievement. The Government are studying the origins of that vicious circle in the early years of young people who become offenders, for whom outcomes are disproportionately in poverty. Although the Bill refers to police authorities and youth offending teams as partner authorities, it does not give specific attention to issues in relation to the criminal justice system and poverty, and the implications for child poverty. I would have expected such attention to be given in clause 8 on strategies.
However, it is more important for the Bill to be strengthened in relation to housing. Every Child Matters, in which the Government's children's policy is rooted, recognised homelessness as the second biggest risk factor for children-second only to low income and parental unemployment in determining a child's success in life. Housing authorities were made part of safeguarding arrangements, and protocols were issued for joint working, although those were weakly enforced. Housing is mentioned as a factor in the Bill, but only in passing in relation to strategies. There are no targets for housing and no indication as to what constitutes adequate housing for a child. In the suite of factors constituting material deprivation, only one relates to housing, which shows a weakness in the thinking behind the Bill. The one housing question is whether there are enough bedrooms for every child aged 10 years or over and of a different gender to have a room of their own. According to the Government's figures, 27 per cent. of those in the lowest decile say that they want but cannot afford that, although most of the rest-70 per cent.-already have it. Given the figures for overcrowding, that surprises me. I wonder what the response would be if those children were then asked whether they had a room of their own only because their parents slept on the floor in the sitting room.
All the information from every source suggests that inadequate and overcrowded housing plays a major role in the vicious circle that is child poverty. It contributes to poor health-we have seen a 25 per cent. increase in ill health among poorly housed children-and it leads to dysfunctions in families. Homelessness leads to three to four times the number of children with mental health problems. It means that children have nowhere to do their homework. Homeless children miss an estimated quarter of their schooling, and 50 per cent. of young offenders have experienced homelessness.
I believe that, ultimately, the state is not giving children enough rights to proper housing. Families with children can qualify as homeless, but their rights are circumscribed. It has been said that families with children should not be placed in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, but that is only guidance: it does not have the force of law. The standards relating to overcrowding are awful. They were set in 1935, and still provide-except in some pathfinder areas-that two adults, two children and a baby aged under one can be housed in a one-bedroom flat.
I am sure that other Members can give examples from their constituencies, but I want to give three particularly bad examples from my area, which illustrate the need for housing safeguards for poor families. One of the worst that I have encountered involves a young family. Both parents are unemployed, and the mother has only just turned 21. They live in a small first-floor two-bedroom flat with four children, the eldest just three years old and the youngest newborn. The parents have had a difficult time given their involvement with the criminal justice system, depression, poor health and confusion over their benefits, which resulted in their living on child benefit for about four months before the birth of their fourth baby. A council official who visited after I complained about the family's overcrowding said that there was no problem, because two of the children could sleep in the combined living room and kitchen. Given the safety risks involved in leaving two small children all night in a room with all those household appliances, that was extraordinary.
The other example involved a grandmother, mother and six children living in a four-bedroom house. They complained that the house was crowded, and that fixtures and fittings were breaking. When I arrived there, I discovered that the grandmother had one small bedroom, the mother had another, the three boys shared one bedroom, and the three girls shared another. The real problem was that the eldest boy was autistic. That returns us to the disability issue. I hope Steve Webb agrees that we should pay attention to conditions involving behavioural as well as physical disabilities. The boy crashed around the house a lot, breaking fixtures including all the doors. More to the point, he spent most of his time pacing up and down the family's only living room.
One of the material deprivation indicators listed in the Bill is that children are not able to have friends around for tea or a snack once a fortnight. According to the Government, even as many as 61 per cent. of children in the lowest family-income quintile are able to do that. Children can be very cruel about special needs. How on earth could a child feel confident about bringing a friend home from school to tea if an autistic older brother was pacing up and down the family's only living room, and if the child had to share a bedroom with two siblings? How could a child get homework done, or enjoy any peace or privacy?
A third and perhaps even more shocking case is that of a 19-year-old woman looking after her two young nephews and niece after the children's mother-her sister, a drug addict-had abandoned them. The three children and their aunt, along with the children's dog, were living in a one-bedroom flat. This remarkable young woman said that what really caused her problems was the inappropriate behaviour of the girl because of what she had been exposed to, and that the boy had also been exposed to behaviour that was completely unsuitable for such a young child. The fact that they were short of money was, in a sense, the least of the children's worries. There is poverty in kind as well as in cash. A number of Members have made that point, although I feel that specific targets should be set in the Bill.
I shall table amendments on the subject of housing. I shall propose a target for clause 3 that, ideally, would be radical, demanding that there should be no bed-and-breakfast provision for children, that all children should have rooms of their own and that every child should have a home with central heating and access to a safe outdoor play area; but that might be too much to ask.
Perhaps a more reasonable target is that every family with at least one child normally living with them should have a living room-a room that does not count as a bedroom, but in which the family can live and watch television, the children can do their homework, and there is enough space for a table around which they can sit and have a meal together. Another requirement would be that the spatial needs of children with special needs-this raises another point made by the hon. Gentleman-including behavioural difficulties, should be taken into account in the assessment of families' housing needs. If a child has behavioural difficulties, the lives of its siblings should not be turned upside down because of a lack of space in which to cater for its needs. Every child should have housing of a decent standard. As I have said, in Northampton 37.7 per cent. of council housing is not decent.
One of my predecessors, Margaret Bondfield, who was Member of Parliament for Northampton in 1923, campaigned on women's employment and child poverty issues. The Government's target is to end child poverty by 2020, which, unfortunately, is 100 years too late for my predecessor. With or without the improvements that I have suggested, however, the Bill will make a big contribution to-at long last-the achievement of her goal, and I thoroughly support it.
Like many others who have spoken, I welcome the Bill and the continuing forecast for the eradication of child poverty.
Let me touch on a few issues that, although they have already been raised, I consider to be important enough to mention again. First, there is the poverty of love. We have heard about the importance of marriage and families and about marriage break-up and its effect on children, but one of the major issues that I regularly encounter in my constituency is that of families who experience antisocial behaviour problems with their children. Such families need one-to-one assistance-focused help-but at present local authorities are finding it difficult to provide it. We have heard about the poverty of health, and, from Ms Keeble, about poor housing, which is a huge problem in my constituency. It is a former mining constituency containing many terraced houses, and the loss of housing grants and inability to make repayments is a major problem.
Disability has been mentioned, and another health issue, affecting both children and their parents, is that of mental health. There is huge pressure on children nowadays. There is stress and anxiety, not just in the home but in the community. We tend to take our eye off the ball when it comes to mental health, and I think we should focus on that in the coming months. We have also heard about the poverty of opportunity and ambition, and about the support that we should give children and young people to encourage them to want to get on. It is so easy to fall into the poverty trap, not just in financial terms but in terms of having no ambition and not wanting to change.
When it comes to education, one of the major problems is sex education. We see many parents aged 12 or 13. We have forgotten about the education that is needed in telling children about the problems of having a family at such a young age.
There is another problem on which I think all Departments need to work together. In other Bills, the Government have proposed fining families if children fail to attend school. Which families would that affect the most? It would tend to be those living below the poverty line. We have heard that £15,000 tends to be the average annual income, and that anything below that is seen to be poverty level. In my constituency, a significant number of people live on real incomes of well below £15,000 a year. Although there is a reliance on benefits, the worry is that those benefits can be taken away at any time.
I have another concern about benefits and the benefits structure: where does the money end up? Does it end up benefiting the child? Is it targeted within the family to look after the children? Where is it spent, and how is it spent? Again, it comes back to education and helping families to understand that the money needs to be used in the right way.
Another issue that has not been touched on is the role of grandparents and the wider family. In my constituency, we have a huge problem of children having children and very young people being caught in the family trap. The role of grandparents has been undermined in so many ways. The chances of grandparents to look after the children have been undermined. Their voices need to be heard.
Constituencies such as mine have suffered over the past 30 years from the loss of traditional industries and manufacturing. I urge the Minister to ask the Prime Minister for sight of a report called "The Other Half of Britain" that was produced by the Alliance, which is primarily made up of local authorities from areas of the country that have suffered from the loss of traditional industries and therefore have a huge need for investment. I sent a copy of the report to the Prime Minister some 12 months ago. If he has not got it, I can provide another one.
We heard again about partnership working by the voluntary and statutory sectors, but I worry that in some respects the statutory sector sees the voluntary sector as a threat. Instead of allowing it to do the job it does well, it tends to resent the interference, as it sees it sometimes, from the voluntary sector. There is a huge task to be performed throughout the country in encouraging increased partnership working.
I was pleased, proud and privileged to be part of the "end child poverty" rally that was held in London earlier this year. I was lucky enough to have a number of my constituents alongside me and to be one of the 10,000 people in Trafalgar square. It showed again that the focus on ending child poverty goes much wider than this place.
The Bill concentrates quite a lot on targets and statistics. I worry about targets and statistics. We can make statistics say anything we like. If targets are not realistic, they work as a disincentive to people to achieve; we need targets that can be achieved. That is a problem with the Bill.
A promise of delivery in terms of ending child poverty is one thing, but just passing a Bill through the House will not achieve that. I am seeing services being cut in my constituency. I urge the Government to take the advice of the latest report from the House of Lords on the Barnett formula. It stated clearly, and so has Lord Barnett, that the formula needs to be reviewed. The Welsh Assembly and the Welsh Assembly Government have carried out their own review, which comes to the same conclusions. The distribution of wealth across the country should have a needs base within it; otherwise areas such as mine will find it very difficult to come out of the difficult times that we are in now and to recover from previous difficult times.
We are losing community facilities. My other worry is that the first things to be cut by a local authority in times of austerity tend to be things that are seen as the flowery bits, the add-ons: community centres; places where young people can meet, be occupied and do things; and youth workers. There needs to be ring-fenced funding from central Government to local government, which must be told "That is what the funding must be spent on", otherwise it will be spent on many other services.
We in Wales were fortunate enough to be the first country in the UK to have a commissioner appointed for children. I know that that idea has now spread across the country. The influence of the commissioner has been significant in making many improvements in our areas. It is wonderful to come up with plans, strategies and initiatives but the problem is that, if the funding is not provided to take them forward, we will lose the plot. Again, to disincentivise people and to communicate things to people and then not deliver is the worse thing one can do. There is a huge difference between consultation and negotiation. If we consult and then fail to deliver, people will walk away.
Over the past 30 or 40 years, we as a nation have struggled to understand the poverty issue not just in terms of children-as we heard earlier, we have struggled to understand it in terms of older people as well. We will be judged on how we provide for our senior citizens and our young people, who are the future of this country and are so important to us.
There is more than enough in this country and the world for people's needs, but as we have seen over recent months, through the bonuses paid to bankers and the financial services collapse, there will never be enough for people's greed. I hope that the Government, through the Bill, will concentrate on those who need help the most.
I am delighted to take part in this Second Reading debate and it is a pleasure to follow Mr. Davies, who clearly has considerable expertise in this area. I would like to make my speech a tribute to someone who has not yet, as far as I know-I was out of the Chamber for a short time-been mentioned in the debate and should be mentioned. That is the late Peter Townsend, who passed away a couple of months ago. Peter was a friend. He was also a constituent in his later years and he was married to Baroness Corston.
If one person has done more than anyone else to raise the issue of child poverty in this country, that person was Peter Townsend. I have a suggestion. It may be an informal one, but I hope that, as a mark of respect to Peter Townsend, the commission will be called the Peter Townsend child poverty commission. I understand that that may be difficult in terms of how these things work but, as many will know, Peter's work led to the setting up of the Child Poverty Action Group and set in motion much of the research work not just in this country but in the third world. He talked about the importance of the social security system in the developing world, where there are so many other issues to deal with-education, health, peace, trying to provide water-and he explained graphically why looking after the most vulnerable in the developing world is so important. I hope that we can apply that epitaph to this country. I am sure that he would be proud that we are legislating in this field now.
I would like to thank the Government. The Bill Committee team has met on a couple of occasions with the all-party group on poverty. I am an officer of that group, which is genuinely all-party. The team met and discussed with us what was in the Bill and what we might like in the Bill. More than anything, it explained the structure and the thinking behind the Bill. Perhaps no one else will mention it, but there are some interesting findings in the consultation that was carried out-I know what others have said about the dirty word that "consultation" has become-and I hope that it will inform the Committee stage. As we take evidence from the various organisations, perhaps we can use that to improve the Bill still further.
I pay credit to the End Child Poverty coalition. This is not the Government's Bill per se, because it is owned by a range of organisations. Although some aspersions have been cast about how the legislation has been approached, it is important to say that there is overwhelming support for the attempt to abolish-if that is the Prime Minister's word-child poverty. I hope that support can genuinely be spread across the House, because it has certainly spread across those organisations.
Several years ago I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill, which looked at anti-poverty measures and how we should target them to try to eradicate poverty in the round. I thought that it was a largely consensual Bill, but it was opposed by the late Eric Forth-not so great in my eyes in this respect. However, I thought that the official Opposition had moved on from their view that poverty did not matter. I was somewhat taken aback by the speech of Mrs. May, which took us back almost to thinking that her party had learned nothing and forgotten nothing, but I was uplifted by the contribution made by Mr. Streeter, who is an acknowledged expert in this area. I hope that what he had to say reflects the tenor of the official Opposition's approach to this debate, rather than what we heard from their spokesperson.
I was pleased that the Church of England mentioned in its submission William Temple, whom I consider to be the greatest Archbishop of Canterbury, mainly because he was a Christian socialist-alongside R.H. Tawney. It is, of course, a long-held view of the Christian Church in this country that we must attack poverty, and particularly child poverty.
We must also take into account the issue of the demonstration of poverty. Poverty is, of course, all too apparent in our urban areas and we must bear down on that, but poverty exists in all areas of our society, and rural poverty has not been mentioned very much. I wish this was apocryphal, but I still remember that children who received free school meals were put on a separate table because that was the way it was always done. Although I hope that is now a thing of the past, even the fact that until comparatively recently we used free school meals, and the definition thereof, as a measure of poverty shows how little we have moved on in some respects, because anyone who knows anything about the rural domain will know that the one thing that children, and particularly their parents, will not want recognised is the fact that they are eligible for free school meals. That is indicative of how problematic it is to measure where poverty exists and how we can address it. People will hide from the fact of their poverty. They will live in denial, because they do not want to be faced with the fact that they will be labelled as the poor of the village. We must do something about that.
The analysis by Steve Webb was, as always, very helpful. We will, no doubt, have an interesting discussion on clause 15 in Committee-perhaps I will be chosen to serve on the Committee-as it is worthy of proper debate. It does look like a get-out-of-jail-free card for the Government. That was countered by my hon. Friend Ms Buck, who rightly said that the point is not the cost of dealing with poverty, but the fact that if we do not deal with it the costs thereof are even greater. I therefore hope the Government will not see this as an opportunity to slide out of their obligations, but will instead look very carefully at whether that is a necessary clause and whether it should be more tightly defined.
I hope the commission will be proactive. It is a nice idea that it will come together four times a year, as has been said, and just look at whether the Government have done what they should have done. To be fair to this Government, they have been on a journey, all the way through the various reports they have brought forward and the work of the No. 10 policy unit and the social exclusion unit. I hope we will see this coming through and coming to fruition with the commission being seen not as a quango but as a very proactive body that engages with the poverty lobby, and that does so to the extent that representatives of those in poverty are a part of it. That is never easy. I and the other members of the all-party group on poverty had a difficult time in addressing how to engage with people in poverty, but not engaging with people in poverty is as unacceptable as paying lip service to that.
As my hon. Friend Mark Durkan said, it is important that we recognise that it is the responsibility of this place as well as Government to address how we make this legislation accountable. I would like the Government to say that they welcome an annual debate on this issue so we can see the progress that has been made, and I hope that that debate will be subject to some form of affirmation at the end so that we do genuinely test whether progress is being made. Because there are different Departments involved, we have to have a meaningful structure that covers the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Children, Schools and Families, the Treasury and the devolved Departments to make sure there is proper joined-up thinking in how we scrutinise what the Government are doing.
As always, the hon. Gentleman is making a thoughtful contribution. Does he think a Select Committee might be a better means of holding the Government to account than an annual debate, even if that were granted-Ministers usually oppose putting that into legislation? Such a debate may not have the same effect as perhaps bringing a number of relevant Ministers before a Select Committee where they can be examined in detail.
Well, I am greedy because I want both. I want a Select Committee that embraces the different Departments because that is a good way to hold them to account, but I also want an annual debate in this Chamber so we can look meaningfully at what progress is being made and have a debate on that. To my mind, those two means serve different purposes and we should explore both.
On the definition and measurement of success, I know we will have a debate on the 10 per cent. versus the 5 per cent. and I think it is right that we do so, and I also think it is right that we look at whether we can get down to 0 per cent. There is a danger of getting into a statistical morass when looking at the four different measures, but that does not mean that those of us who do not want to play with statistics should not look at what lies behind the statistics. Given that there are international obligations that we have to look at-the Department for International Development is examining how it measures its ability to deal with poverty in different parts of the world-we should be willing and able to reflect on what we are doing in this country.
Local authorities are key. There is no point in pretending that central Government can tackle this issue. They certainly cannot do so in partnership with the voluntary sector; they have to do it in partnership with other parts of the statutory sector, in which local authorities are key. We have various performance indicators, which I hope can be addressed. I welcome the fact that almost all local authorities now include climate change in the targets they are willing to address, and I would hope that they would include child poverty as something that everybody wants to eradicate, but if we do not target resources on it locally, it never will be eradicated. I wish to see that happen. I also issue a plea for us to use the Sustainable Communities Act 2007. I want organisations to see this as one of the triggers they want clearly to identify themselves with in taking forward policies and having the motivation to ensure everyone is included.
I am a wee bit nervous that some groups might be excluded from the measurement of children in poverty. Asylum seekers, those in care, Traveller families, and those who have specific disabilities and therefore do not appear on the radar screen are the very children who are the most vulnerable. If we say they are too difficult to measure and that it is impossible to see how we could eradicate their poverty, that is a sad indictment, because we ought to be looking at measures that can include those very difficult to measure and vulnerable groups.
Moving towards what we want to achieve does not involve simply looking at the statistics and the four different measures. As many Members have said, it also involves looking at the poverty of aspiration, which is what causes the greatest dissatisfaction for those in poverty as they not only cannot see themselves getting out of poverty, but they cannot see how they can get their children out of poverty.
Of course, attacking the cycle of deprivation must underlie our approach. With those reservations, and given that many Members have covered the points that I wished to talk about, I do not intend to speak for any longer. I hope that we can debate these matters in the presentations and the sittings that will be available in Committee, so that we can bring back an even stronger Bill to which everyone will commit themselves, because by 2020 we should have ended child poverty.
It is a great pleasure to follow Mr. Drew and to participate in tonight's debate, which has been of a universally high standard. Every speech that I have heard-I apologise for missing the first one, Mr. Deputy Speaker-has been thoughtful and constructive. I aim to continue in the same vein by not using this immensely serious subject-many hon. Members have pointed out its seriousness-for any partisan purpose.
It is important that we examine where we are on this issue today. Over the past few years, child poverty in this country has increased enormously. As people have said, it doubled under the previous Conservative Government, on the definition that was being used, and some 3.4 million children were living in poverty when the current Government came to power. On the last available figures, that number had reduced by 600,000. My maths may be a little poor, but assuming that things have started to go into reverse in the current recessionary times, it is not unreasonable to expect that there might still be-or might be in the next few months-3 million children living in poverty. That is much further than 600,000 away from a halving of the poverty figure; I may be getting my numbers mixed up and I look forward to the Minister putting me right, but I fear that the situation might be worse than hon. Members are led to believe.
The progress made to date in reducing the official poverty figure has largely been achieved by moving hundreds of thousands of people who were receiving a few pounds less per week than the poverty line to a position where they receive a few pounds more; there has not been a profound change with regard to the relative poverty of children in this country. The 600,000 whose position has changed have generally not moved very far; their situation has changed by only a few pounds a week. Of course, the converse of that is that even the smallest reduction in the income of those just above the poverty line plunges them back down below it, so that they are then officially in poverty. That is particularly relevant to the Prime Minister's and the Government's abolition of the 10p tax rate, some of whose impact has been ameliorated. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the people who face the biggest loss from the abolition of the 10p rate are those whose incomes are £149 a week. That figure corresponds almost exactly to the Government's official poverty line, which, for an individual, is £145 a week. It is as if the Government's poverty policy has been thrown into reverse and the tax change has been finely tuned to cause the maximum possible damage to their genuine and proper policy objectives.
A former Labour Health Secretary has said that
"poverty has become more entrenched".
"the strategy against poverty and social exclusion pursued since the late 1990s is now largely exhausted".
The Treasury itself says:
"Worklessness and low pay are the biggest direct causes of poverty. Living in a family where no adult is working puts a child at a 58 per cent. risk of poverty...Work remains the most sustainable route out of poverty: a child's risk of being in poverty falls from 58 per cent. to 14 per cent. when one or both of their parents is working."
As hon. Members will know, if one or more parent is in permanent work and stays in work, the chance of their child being in poverty reduces further still.
As has been said, the number of people living in severe poverty, which is defined as having less than 40 per cent. of median income, has risen by 600,000 since this Government came to power-measured after housing costs, the level is the highest for 30 years, at 5.2 million people, or 8.8 per cent. of the population. Some 40 per cent. of all people in poverty are now in severe poverty. The proportion of children living in severe poverty has also grown since 1998-99, increasing from 5 to 6 per cent. The number of children living in severe poverty has, thus, actually increased by 20 per cent. in the past 12 years. That is the situation with which we are dealing. I am certainly not saying all this in order to make any partisan point, because I recognise that Ministers and this Government have genuinely wrestled with this issue to try to create a fairer and more equal society.
We have heard powerful speeches tonight from the hon. Members for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble). The hon. Member for Northampton, North discussed how crucial housing is to the welfare of children in poor households and said that the housing in her constituency is not up to standard and is woefully inadequate in quantity; the same is true in my constituency. Who would have thought that 12 years into this Government, during whose time in office there has been a period of sustained economic growth-at least until recent times-fewer affordable houses would have been built than in any year of either the Thatcher or Major Governments? I certainly would not have thought that. It remains a baffling cause for concern that during the times of relative plenty the Government did not find the opportunity to reform the planning system and did not find ways to work with communities, rather than imposing on them, in order to ensure that there were the houses that we need and that would make such a difference to families.
Where someone is in a decent home in a community that has decent resources around it-even if numerically, according to the targets in this Bill, they are still in poverty-their life chances, well-being and morale are transformed. As has also been mentioned, the worst possible statistic for this country is the one showing that our children are the most miserable in Europe; there are more unhappy children in this country than in any other around.
I make no apology for explaining where I think we are at on child poverty. We are not in the benign position of having had a transformation, with major strides having been made. In no way do I doubt either the resource or the will with which the Government have approached this issue, but I question whether any major strides have been made. It seems to me that, for the poorest in particular, the situation appears to be going backwards. I hope that the Minister will be able to talk through the strategies, rather than just the aspirations, that may turn things around.
I am not sure whether I support the Bill, because I do not like legislation that makes promises that I fear will not be delivered. In a related area, the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill promises that every young person of 16 to 18 will be guaranteed a choice of two apprenticeships within a reasonable travel-to-work area by 2013, yet the legislation contains no tools or levers to show how on earth any Government would be able to deliver those apprenticeships. I therefore fear that the very young people who might most want and need them will not actually get them. Likewise, this Bill makes promises that I fear cannot be kept, because we cannot ignore the fact that the Government, despite the best will, have failed-or will fail-to deliver their relatively easy target of halving child poverty by next year. That target came at a time of fiscal surpluses, when we had a strong economy. But we will miss it. In the next few years, with £175 billion of borrowing this year, £173 billion next year and unprecedented pressure on our public finances, how can we believe that any Secretary of State will be able to deliver on these targets? I fear that they will not.
We have an ageing population-in the coming decade we will have many more people over 80 and over 100-and social care costs will also put Government finances under pressure. The child poverty targets will either distort all other Government policy or-this is more likely, in my view-the two opt-outs in clause 15 will be used. If economic circumstances are not enough for the Secretary of State to use as an excuse, he or she will be able to cite fiscal circumstances as well. Obviously, the economic circumstances opt-out was not broad enough for them. The fear is that this is aspirational legislation, sending out false messages that any Government will struggle to deliver, given the fiscal inheritance of whoever wins the election next May.
I ask Ministers to be as upfront as possible with people about what is possible given the likely available funding. The Secretary of State in the Bill will be the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, so the assumption is that benefits and tax credits will be used to deliver children out of poverty. That means that the benefit level for the average family on benefits will have to be set above the relative poverty line, but how will that be possible while maintaining the incentives to work and ensuring that we balance the books? I fear that this legislation is making promises that the Government cannot keep.
We need to look at child poverty holistically. Despite clause 8 and its wish list of various things that the Secretary of State should bear in mind, will the Bill put in a place a strategy to deliver what it promises? I fear that it will not. What will we do about the fact that women in Scotland with no qualifications will tend to have three children, but only 11 per cent. of women with degrees will tend to have three children? The fewer qualifications a woman has, the more likely she is to produce children, and the earlier she is likely to do so. The danger is that if women with no qualifications become pregnant in their teens, they are likely to bring up children in a household with low aspirations and a single parent who struggles to find work because she lacks those qualifications. Until we tackle that issue, we will not make progress.
Nor will we make progress until we tackle educational failings. Leitch's report suggested that the number of unskilled jobs would collapse between now and 2020-from more than 2 million to 600,000. There will be very few jobs for people who are unskilled, but have educational outcomes improved in this period of economic growth? The number of NEETs has gone up and the percentage of children who get no GCSEs has fallen by only a tiny amount-from 10.3 to 10.2 per cent. On the wider societal issues, such as housing, supporting families to bring up children and education, I do not see how this Bill will make a difference.
The hon. Member for Foyle said that we must pass a Bill that actually means something, and commented that the Government have resiled from their previous promises-the aim in respect of the eradication of child poverty is no longer to have 5 per cent. or less of children in poverty but 10 per cent. That needs to be looked at in Committee, but most of all we need to ensure when we make promises to the people of this country, they are well founded and can be delivered.
My party welcomes this Bill. I wish to associate myself in particular with the speeches by the hon. Members for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and for Northavon (Steve Webb), although almost every hon. Member who has spoken has made some good points.
We clearly need to tackle income inequality and the root causes of disadvantage, and we need to support people in poverty now. Some of the explanatory notes are very good and summarise where we are trying to go. Paragraph 131 says:
"It is nearly impossible to quantify the financial benefits of eradicating child poverty. Growing up in poverty can damage cognitive, social and emotional development, which are all determinants of future outcomes for a child. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates that child poverty costs at least £25 billion a year in Britain, and that £17 billion could accrue to the Exchequer if child poverty were eradicated. However, this is a possible under-estimate of the true benefit. There are other benefits associated with the eradication of child poverty which are difficult to quantify such as equity, reducing hardship, deprivation and exclusion and breaking the intergenerational poverty link."
Those points have been referred to by many of the Members who have spoken.
The current economic climate is leading to more families in poverty, and more families who could fall into poverty. We cannot have this debate without talking about resources, which have not been touched on as much as I hoped. At the last Budget, the Child Poverty Action Group called on the Chancellor to invest at least £3 billion in tax credits and benefits. When that did not happen, the CPAG said there was a danger that the Bill would have
"no credibility from the outset."
Without real money, I do not see how we can possibly meet the child poverty targets. Instead, with budgets being cut, as I fear both major parties seek to do-although they may quibble over who is cutting more-we shall not see much progress. The Budget this year did little to help, so I would be interested to hear from the Financial Secretary at the end of the debate whether there will be real resources in the pre-Budget report this autumn to help to address the shortfall.
We need to simplify the tax credit scheme and promote greater availability of child care vouchers. There is a problem for people whose weekly hours fall below 16, because they lose tax credits. There is a particular problem for single-parent families. We are told that 52 per cent. of them were in poverty in 2007-08. Parents may not be to blame for a family coming apart, but it is clear that the children suffer.
Relative inequality is definitely a problem. We have heard many examples of children who cannot do the same things as other children in their class. Gingerbread gives this example:
"My children have also been unable to go on school trips because I cannot afford it...and my children were the only ones not to go."
School trips may not be the most essential thing in life, but I find such statements particularly touching.
By many accounts, my Glasgow, East constituency has some of the greatest poverty in the country. Housing is the issue that people most often come to see me about. It has been touched on already, so I will not go into great detail, but the examples given by Ms Keeble were extremely relevant and touching. So many kids are brought up in overcrowded, unsuitable accommodation in the 21st century.
Clause 2 contains a 10 per cent. target, but as I said in an intervention, I wonder whether that is ambitious enough. Clearly that target is much further on than we are at present, so it is definitely to be welcomed-but given the number of voices who question it, including those of Barnardo's, Save the Children and Gingerbread, we have to wonder whether it is enough. If we said that next year only 10 per cent. of houses in the UK would be broken into, so by definition house-breaking would be eradicated, many Members would not accept it, and neither would the public. As has already been suggested, if the plan was to remove 10 per cent. of Members from the House, a lot of us would not be very keen on it. In reality, none of us think that 10 per cent. will be acceptable in the long term, although I acknowledge that it is a big improvement on the current situation. Perhaps we should stop using words such as "eradicate" and "abolish", because that is not what will happen.
Clause 15 has been referred to, and some of my fears have been echoed. Barnardo's mention that clause too. Is it a get-out clause? We should be interested in reassurance from the Financial Secretary that that is not the case. Perhaps the Committee might come up with better wording for it. Are the factors mentioned simply factors that have to be taken into account, or can they override the targets?
We have not heard very much about interim targets. It seems to be accepted that the 2010 target, the halfway point, will be missed. Will the Minister who responds to the debate state that everyone now accepts that? It strikes me that if we are now aiming for 2020 there should be an interim target of 2015-a point at which we could measure progress.
One or two Members have asked whether the commission should be beefed up. Should it have a bigger budget and more powers? Mr. Drew said that he would like it to consult outside experts. That in itself would presumably increase the time for which it needed to meet, and its expenses. If the commission is to do its own research and call for evidence, it will need a budget for that. Like others, I welcome the fact that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are to appoint their own commissioners, which has not always happened in other cases, such as broadcasting.
It concerns me that no actual figures in pounds and pence are being mentioned. I accept the relative measures that are being given, but I wonder whether they are enough in themselves. Perhaps we need to look at minimum income standards and consider raising the minimum wage. One of the London charities that submitted evidence reminds us of some of the figures that we are talking about:
"Nowhere in the government's measures of poverty is there any estimate of what it actually costs every week to live healthily in the expensive UK economy. The current...adult unemployment benefits...are £64.30 a week, but £50.95 a week aged 18-25; they are half, or less than, the government's poverty threshold and 42 per cent. of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation minimum income standard" after housing costs
"of £144 a week."
We need to introduce some solid reality. I know that costs change year by year, but there seems to be a lack of reality in the Bill.
Tax credits were mentioned when I asked about the minimum wage. Although we welcome tax credits, and the fact that they boost family income, in one sense they just subsidise profitable employers. Employers can then employ staff at the minimum wage, which people clearly cannot live on, and make huge profits. I have a problem with that.
Consultation is good, but I notice that clause 9(4)(c) talks about consulting children or organisations that represent children. That "or" should be an "and" because children should definitely be consulted.
I suspect that more than one Secretary of State will be involved in all this, because the Secretary of State for Scotland will be involved in some of the processes. I hope that the Secretaries of State will be constructive in their dealings with Holyrood and the other devolved Administrations. I want to make some points from a Scottish point of view. The Scottish Government are fully signed up to the UK target of halving child poverty by 2010 and eradicating it by 2020. In Scotland 20 per cent. of children are in poverty, which is only marginally better than the UK as a whole. The Scottish Government welcome the positive contact that there has been between the Minister and our Deputy First Minister.
There has been some mention of grandparents and other relatives. The whole issue of kinship care needs to be looked at. I know that in Scotland some local authorities, and the Scottish Government, are trying to help grandparents and other relatives who look after children, but there seem to be problems with the Department for Work and Pensions penalising people. That needs to be looked into.
The Scottish Government would like to replace council tax with a local income tax, which would definitely help poorer families. Scotland believes that we will be able to tackle the issues of child poverty best when we have the full powers of taxation, spending and social welfare under our control, but we seek to do what we can with what we have.
I note that John Barrett mentioned that money came from Westminster and was not used in the same way as it was in England. However, he then mentioned that hospital appointments were important for disabled people. One of the things that the present Government of Scotland have done is to keep open more hospitals that were planned for closure. A lot of the levers still lie with the UK Government, but I hope that that disadvantage can be addressed in due course.
Local government in Scotland has also been mentioned. I do not know whether exactly the same applies in Wales and Northern Ireland, but we have the concordat, which means that local government and the Scottish Government try to work together on more issues, rather than taking a top-down approach. However, that means that it is more difficult to have ring-fencing and to insist on local government toeing a certain line. However, to be fair to local authorities-I know best the authority in Glasgow, which probably has a lot of the problems in Scotland-they are very committed to tackling child poverty too.
I hope that there can be a constructive relationship between Westminster and Holyrood. It is a question of balance, because some factors are almost purely Westminster issues, while others are purely Holyrood issues. However, as Mark Durkan said, there is also a twilight area where a lot of the factors interrelate. In the past there have been some unfortunate examples of a lack of working together. For instance, the Scottish Government were approached on
We are in complete agreement that child poverty is one of the foremost issues, now and for the coming years. We support the Bill; my only question is whether it is specific enough, whether it is tough enough and whether it goes far enough.
The difficulty towards the end of such a debate is that many of the points that one wished to raise have already been raised. However, some of the issues that I want to raise may run counter to those raised in many of the speeches in this debate.
First, I welcome the objectives of the Bill. We have had a good run-through this evening of the impacts that child poverty has on children throughout the United Kingdom and the consequences for society in lost opportunities, crime, problems in later life and so on. However, I am not so sure that the approach taken in the Bill is necessarily a good way of dealing with the issue. Hon. Members have drawn parallels between this Bill and the Climate Change Act 2008-some people may know my views on that-under which long-term targets have been set. Those targets will span not just this Administration, but another Administration and perhaps another one after that. At the end, nobody will be held responsible for targets that may be set 10 or 20 years in advance. To throw in a commission in order to try to provide some continuity is something that I am not so sure about-and I will come to the commission in a moment. I am not sure that the approach that we are debating is necessarily the best way forward.
Secondly, let us introduce a bit of realism. Hon. Members have already made the point that the issue should not be about simply scoring political points off the Government who happen to have responsibility for taking through legislation and public policy at the moment. However, even with their commitment to reaching their target of reducing child poverty by 50 per cent., this Government were unable to achieve their targets during the best of economic times. At a time when employment was riding high and public finances were abundant, those targets were not met. This Bill is being introduced in the context of immense pressure on public sector finances, with a period of rising unemployment and the impact of other policies. For example, last week the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change announced a policy that will add, some believe, £230 a year to households' energy bills.
We must therefore be realistic when we set these targets. We must not create an expectation that we can meet a target that we were unable to meet in the good circumstances, because we are unlikely to be able to meet it in the circumstances that we will face in future. I take issue with Mark Durkan, who used the word "slipperiness" in referring to the clause saying that economic and financial circumstances should be taken into consideration. To a certain extent, that is simply being sensible. We are looking at a policy that will apply that far ahead and in circumstances that we cannot possibly foresee and unless we skew all the other policies around it, we must have some way of evaluating the targets that we are aiming for but that circumstances might prevent us from achieving.
My next point flows from that. There is an obligation on devolved Administrations to bring forward a strategic plan for dealing with this issue. I take the point that it is not simply about levels of income. Perhaps the Bill focuses too much on that, although, to be fair to the Government, the guidance that they have given goes much wider to include housing, education and a range of other things. However, there will still be resource implications that vary across different parts of the country. In some places there will be deeper deprivation, and therefore a greater problem, than in others; the causes of poverty might be much more expensive to deal with than elsewhere.
Without the commitment of resources-I am thinking particularly of devolved Administrations such as Northern Ireland, where, given the higher levels of deprivation and child poverty, there are greater consequences in dealing with this-we will not meet the targets for 2010 that we had hoped to meet. Only last week, the House of Lords indicated-John Mason will not like to hear this-that Wales and Northern Ireland have lost out on the Barnett formula. As a result, the resources that have been made available are less than what is required to bring Northern Ireland up to the levels that would give us greater equality with the rest of the United Kingdom. Some Members have asked how, if the money available through the Barnett funding mechanism is not ring-fenced, we can be sure that it will be spent on these issues. However, the fact that the child poverty strategy has been brought forward indicates that the necessary resources have to be directed towards dealing with it.
I am not sure I agree with criticisms of other aspects of the Bill. John Howell said that the strategy for dealing with these issues would be imposed on, or left to, local councils as the deliverers in England, and that there would be disadvantages to that. Given the different circumstances in different parts of the United Kingdom, that degree of flexibility for local councils or devolved Administrations to bring forward their own strategies is a good part of the Bill. Administrations are guided towards certain areas, but some will have different emphases. In rural areas, for example, the issues of poverty might be much different from those in inner-city areas. Giving the responsibility to local authorities or devolved Administrations to draft their own strategies rather than having them imposed from the centre is, I believe, a good idea.
Let me consider the circumstances in Northern Ireland. One thing that helps to release people from poverty-it has been mentioned tonight-is a good sound education and once we had a devolved Administration in Northern Ireland, we moved away from the policy that the Government were introducing of doing away with grammar schools in Northern Ireland. We believed that grammar schools were one way of giving young people from disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to climb the ladder out of that background and impoverishment. When it comes to the delivery of some of the programmes, especially those that offer help with families that have difficulties or that are dysfunctional, Churches in Northern Ireland could have a huge input-and perhaps more so than in other parts of the United Kingdom. A strategy that recognises such opportunities and their strengths should be within the remit of the local administration. That flexibility is good, and we should not turn our backs on it.
My last point concerns the need for the commission. Its role is to provide the data, to scrutinise and evaluate the policy, to carry out research into child poverty and to have the expertise in dealing with families that experience poverty and so on. We are told that it will not cost very much. We have not even got the Bill through and groups are already saying that the commission is under-resourced and should have more. Let us face it-once such an organisation is set up, the impetus is always for it to be expanded into a bigger bureaucracy and a bigger quango, not shrunk. As Mr. Drew said, the real place where the scrutiny of the success or otherwise of this policy should be undertaken is Parliament. This is where Ministers should be brought to account, whether through Select Committees or in annual debates in the House. This-not some quango-is the place for such scrutiny. Of course, quangos often take on a life of their own anyway. Few quangos vote, or produce reports, to say that they are no longer needed. They always find some reason for their continued existence.
I have heard so many times in this House that we have to reduce the cost of government. However, it seems that on almost every occasion when we come forward with some new ideas or policies to deal with a particular problem, we set up more extra-parliamentary bodies. I believe that that is the wrong way forward.
I look forward to Committee. I know that the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland will be actively involved in considering a strategy for dealing with child poverty, which will have to cross all the various Departments within that Administration. I hope that where resources are required centrally for that strategy, they will be made available.
We have had an interesting and thoughtful debate with contributions from all parts of the House and all parts of the United Kingdom. We heard 13 contributions from the Back Benches, and I would particularly like to thank my hon. Friends the Members for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter), for Henley (John Howell) and for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) for three excellent speeches. My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon set out the case that poverty is not just about money and stressed the importance of stability and security in children's upbringing. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley set out some of the challenges for local authorities and some of the difficulties that the Bill may cause. My hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness rightly stated that the debate included many high-quality speeches, and proceeded to deliver one himself. It touched on many issues, including educational standards and housing.
There is some consensus here. We strongly share the aspiration to eradicate child poverty by 2020. We believe that high levels of child poverty reveal a waste of potential in a globalised world, in which there are opportunities for many more people than was previously the case to achieve greater material wealth. Children who are excluded from those opportunities will fall further and further behind. It is not good for any of us if a section of society is excluded from the benefits of what we hope will be a growing economy in the years ahead, stuck in a culture of low aspiration and dependency and attaining poor educational qualifications. All that results in a cycle of deprivation, and it becomes increasingly hard for any child born into poverty to escape it. That is bad for those in poverty and for society as a whole. For those reasons, we support the aspiration behind the Bill.
On a positive note, the debate appears to be moving in a more sensible direction. There was a time when the Government's response to all such questions was simply, "More money", and a view that any problem, including child poverty, could be addressed by more public expenditure-more money in benefits and tax credits. If we exclude the Secretary of State's contribution to the debate, it appears that the Government have moved on from that one-dimensional approach.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has calculated that one could spend £4.2 billion to meet the 2010 target. That is not a recommendation, merely an assessment of what could be done by spending that amount on child benefit and tax credits. It also calculates that the 2020 target could be achieved by spending £19 billion in 2008-09 prices. However, the Government appear to recognise that that is not a sustainable method of delivering. We agree.
We welcome the Government's acknowledgement of the need for a wide range of interventions. It must be said that my right hon. Friend Mr. Duncan Smith has set the terms of the debate. The greater focus on family breakdown, drug and alcohol dependency and worklessness has meant that we now have a more sensible debate on such matters. The Government's record on poverty and reducing the gap between the poorest and the rest of society is disappointing. As we have heard, they are failing to meet their 2010 target-it is estimated that it will be missed by 600,000 children-and child poverty is increasing.
Sometimes the Government make the excuse that everything was going swimmingly until the recession came along. That is wrong on two counts. First, long before the recession arrived, the Government were destined to miss their 2010 target. In February 2009, the IFS said that its
"forecast of child poverty in 2010 would be very slightly lower if the economy were to perform worse than the Treasury assumed in the PBR. This is because lower employment and real earnings have more effect on median income (and thus the poverty line) than on the income of low-income families with children (in which the parents are less likely to be working than in the median household)."
The recession is, therefore, according to the IFS, to the advantage of meeting the child poverty target.
Mr. Reed said that tackling inequality and poverty was what his party was about and what the Government were for. However, it is not just in the area of child poverty that this Government are failing. The average weekly income, after housing, of the poorest 10 per cent. has fallen from £98 in 2003-04 to £87 in 2007-08. The Gini index shows inequality at a record high. Life expectancy differences between the poor and the rest have widened since Labour came to power, as have infant mortality rates. Youth unemployment is a third higher than when Labour took office, and the number of people on out-of-work benefits has not fallen below 5 million in the past 12 years. Of that figure, 1.1 million people of working age have never worked a day while Labour has been in power. Child poverty is just one example of the Government's approach to poverty having failed.
It is therefore not surprising that there is a degree of scepticism about the Bill, which is more about distracting attention from the failure of the 2010 target than it is about the 2020 target. I shall make an analogy. Let us imagine a school pupil who is about to sit his GCSEs. He has not completed all his coursework, he has not revised, and he is clearly destined to fail his GCSEs. He says to his worried parents, "Don't worry, Mum. Don't worry, Dad. I hereby pledge"-it is not an aspiration, it is a pledge-"to obtain a postgraduate degree within 10 years. In 12 months' time I will set out my strategy for how I will do that." I think the parents could be forgiven for not being overly impressed, and we are not overly impressed by the Government's approach. They are failing on the target that is about to arrive, so instead they focus on something that will happen in 10 years' time by concentrating on an aspiration well beyond the next general election.
A further concern that we have is about accountability. Clause 1 states that it is
"the duty of the Secretary of State to ensure that...targets are met".
I hope that in Committee we will be able to examine to whom exactly that duty is owed. What will happen if the target is not met? Will it be possible to take the Secretary of State to court if he or she fails to meet a target? Will the courts be able to block a policy initiative if it is inconsistent with that duty, or will they be able to initiate policy? If so, there has to be distinct unease, because those are matters for a democratically accountable politician. They are matters for Ministers, not unelected judges, and that would start to blur the line between what is rightfully done in this place and by people accountable to it and what is done in the courts. If it is not for the courts to make such decisions, that prompts the question of what the point of the Bill is, other than to be a glorified press release.
Part 2 of the Bill sets out the role of local authorities. We recognise and welcome the importance of local authorities playing a role in tackling child poverty, and we recognise that a lot of problems are of a local nature. That point has been made by a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House. However, part 2 contains a list of duties on local authorities: to make arrangements to promote co-operation with partner authorities, to publish a local child poverty needs assessment, to prepare a joint child poverty strategy and to have regard to any guidance given by the Secretary of State. That is very much a top-down view of what local authorities should do.
Essentially, the Government's view as expressed in the Bill is that local authorities are there to administer the priorities of central Government. Under the Bill, there is no discretion as regards which of the partner authorities local authorities should work with, or what measurement of child poverty should be used. Is there an argument for a wider range of measurements being available for local authorities to use? My hon. Friend the Member for Henley set out what some local authorities are doing. Will that help or hinder?
The requirement to have regard to the Secretary of State's guidance could result-we will want to examine this in Committee-in the Secretary of State being able to force local authorities to act in a particular way. That would make local authorities look to what central Government want, rather than to the local people whom they are there to represent.
My hon. Friend puts his finger on an important point. On the guidance from the Secretary of State, there will be fear that if the Government impose an urban model, albeit with good will, it will have a disastrous impact on locally tailored policies in rural areas such as the East Riding of Yorkshire, which I represent. That would be the case even if the urban model was appropriate, even if the Government had got it absolutely right and even if it worked in urban areas.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. That is exactly the concern. I hope that we will be able to examine that issue. The situation will partly depend on how the powers given to the Secretary of State are applied, but there is clearly a concern. We believe that logically there is a role for local authorities; a lot of problems relating to poverty are local in nature, so clearly local authorities must have discretion in deciding how to tackle them. The concern is whether the balance will be right, and I hope that we will examine that in greater detail in Committee.
We need to know what the burden on local authorities will be, and whether the Bill will be an effective way of reducing child poverty. There is a concern that the response to part 2 will be a plethora of advertisements in The Guardian for "a child poverty strategy co-ordinator, tasked with engaging in a permanent dialogue with key stakeholders and partner authorities to develop a cross-cutting strategic plan to meet statutory child poverty objectives", but that little will be done to move significant numbers of children out of poverty.
Does my hon. Friend think that it is an omission that there is no mention of children's trusts? They are supposed to have been put into statutory form already, and are supposed to bring together the various agencies; it is rather odd that they are not mentioned in the Bill.
Again, my hon. Friend makes an interesting point. I do not know whether we should take that as his application to be on the Public Bill Committee, but it sounds as though he has a host of good ideas that he will want to bring to the Committee.
We support the aspiration behind the Bill, but the Bill shares some of the less attractive characteristics of the Government. It looks bureaucratic, and it looks as though it is centralising, rather than localising. There is one other important point. One might expect a Government to proceed by first setting out their objectives, then setting out a strategy on how to deliver those objectives, and then delivering, but after 12 years, the Government have failed to deliver, so they resort to repackaging their objectives in the Bill without explaining how they will deliver. Whatever its qualities, the Bill is a style-over-substance measure. It is about political positioning before delivery. It is a Bill from a Government who have given up on delivery. It is a Bill from a Government who have given up. Where this Government have failed, others must succeed.
I agree that we have had an excellent debate. I really hope that we can forge a consensus on the aims of the Bill and the reforms that it will deliver. The goal is that no child's life prospects should be limited by an upbringing in poverty. My hon. Friend Mr. Reed was among the contributors to the debate who set out how some of those limitations are applied in practice. Every child should have a good start in life, a fulfilling childhood and opportunities to thrive and flourish. That is why, after 1997, we first halted and then reversed the previously inexorable rise in child poverty. There are 500,000 fewer children living below the poverty line than there were in 1999, and another 500,000 are expected to be lifted above the line by the measures announced in the past couple of years.
I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend Ms Buck on child poverty in London, and I agree with her that it is dishonest to pretend that there has been no progress over the past 10 years, although I welcome the fact that Conservative Members are now willing to talk about poverty in a way that simply did not happen when we had a Conservative Government. There has been substantial progress over the past 10 years. Reforms since 1997 have made households with children in the least well-off fifth of the population £4,750 a year better off, on average. The minimum income for a family with one child and one person working 35 hours a week has increased by more than 30 per cent. in real terms since 1999. There has been very substantial progress, but there remains a great deal more to do. That is the importance of the Bill, which will provide renewed impetus, build and sustain momentum and create a clear definition of success. It will put in place a framework for accountability and improve partnership working at local level to tackle child poverty.
Steve Webb made a particularly interesting speech, drawing on his many years of work in this area. I am grateful for his support for the Bill and I agree with his characterisation of what was happening inexorably under the Tory Government. I hope that he will send me some of his collected works; I look forward to reading them over the summer, and to having a rigorous debate with him and others in Committee after the break.
The hon. Gentleman and one or two others suggested that the current fiscal pressures put the ambitions for 2020 at risk. I would rather put it the other way round. Under the obligations in the Bill, once it receives Royal Assent, we need to devise a strategy for child poverty that is consistent with the fiscal consolidation that will be necessary over the next few years. That is what clause 15 requires. The eradication of child poverty and the fiscal consolidation set out in the Budget are not incompatible, and the strategy that the Bill requires will have to demonstrate how we can deliver both. Financial support will have to be tightly targeted-that is true. Having a job is the best way out of poverty, but too many families today remain below the poverty line even though a family member is in work. We need to do better for those families, and to set out in the strategy how public services, which have seen a huge boost in funding over the past 10 years, will help us to tackle poverty.
Some hon. Members have rightly said that the benefits of the proposals will far outweigh the costs. Creating a fairer society will benefit everyone. Without the action that we are proposing, we would need to continue meeting the real and high costs of inequality, and we would continue to miss out on the value of unfulfilled potential. The eradication of child poverty will have significant benefits for the economy. Entrenched crime and poor health impose big costs on public services and prevent them from operating as effectively as they could.
John Mason was right to mention the recent estimate by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that the cost to the economy of child poverty is around £25 billion a year. The challenge is to work out how to tackle that cost effectively, and to realise those substantial cost savings over time in a way that is consistent with the consolidation that will be needed over the next few years. That is what the strategy required by the Bill will need to do.
Measuring poverty is not straightforward; there are widely different approaches to it, and we have heard about some of them in the debate. The definition of success in the Bill results from careful and widespread consideration and consultation. My hon. Friend Mr. Drew referred to the widespread consultation that had taken place, and to the quite widely held sense of ownership of the Bill and of the way it sets about its task. It involves four poverty measures: relative poverty, combined low income and material deprivation, absolute low income and persistent poverty. Those four reflect the reality that income and the length of time experienced on low income and being without things are all important, and success will be achieved only if all four of those targets are hit. Those targets are ambitious, but achievable. If we meet them by 2020 and maintain them subsequently, we can be confident of making a big impact on children's well-being and on the well-being of the country, as those children go on to become adults.
My constituents often tell me that they get frustrated when, as soon as a target they have heard about looks as though it will fail to be achieved, there is a big fanfare announcing something new. Will the Minister address the 2010 target and square with the House about where we are with it so that we have some context when we talk about the Bill.
I am happy to do so. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the assessment made by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which I believe estimates that on the basis of policy currently in place, we can expect to get about two thirds of the way to the target by the end of 2010-11. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions explained earlier that pressure on the public finances constrains what we can do, but we have certainly not given up, and we may be able to go further in the announcements to follow before the end of the 2010-11 period.
I welcome many of the points that my hon. Friend Ms Keeble put forward. She is consistent in championing the need for better housing and she provided some powerful examples from her constituency. One of the indicators in the material deprivation index is whether or not children over 10 of different genders have their own room-an issue that she raised, which is at least touched on in the Bill.
All the targets refer to income, but I agree that it is important to approach the issue of child poverty from a variety of angles, working across the whole of Government and at a local level. The Bill recognises the importance of narrowing the education attainment gap for disadvantaged children and of reducing infant mortality, but it is right to focus on income in order to address the lack of experiences and opportunities from which children in low-income families suffer. The Bill's strategy will drive action to tackle such poverty across the so-called "building blocks" underlying the income targets. Hitting all four of those targets will provide real and lasting improvement to the well-being of children in the UK.
Mr. Streeter made a connection between family break-up and poverty-and there is, of course, a connection between them. The shadow Secretary of State quoted from the regulatory impact assessment, where it said that low incomes can cause strain in relationships leading to family breakdown, while family breakdown can exacerbate or even cause poverty. I would advise caution regarding some of the points made by the hon. Gentleman and others about the so-called couples penalty. In particular, it remains the case that the likelihood of poverty is twice as high in one-parent households as in two-parent households, which needs to be borne in mind as we set about tackling the problem.
I agree with those who applauded the contribution of the third sector. My hon. Friend Julie Morgan made the same point, and I join her in paying tribute to the work of organisations in Wales. Mr. Davies talked about the work of the End Child Poverty coalition, which does great work in every part of the UK. I join those hon. Members who paid tribute to the work of the Welsh Assembly Government in this area, as they have had measures in place since March, including duties on Welsh Ministers to prepare a child poverty strategy and update it every three years.
John Howell set out his concerns about the role of local authorities in the Bill, but it has been widely recognised that tackling child poverty cannot be a priority only for central Government Departments; it must also be a priority for local authorities and their partners. Obviously, tackling child poverty helps local communities, and many local authorities have made a commitment to tackling child poverty. Good work is under way, and local authorities have given a lot of support to the proposals in the Bill. However, we need local authorities and their partners to do more, even in seemingly affluent areas such as-dare I say it-Henley. The legislation will be accompanied by support to help local partnerships as they work together. The Bill embraces Scotland and Northern Ireland as well as Wales, and I am grateful for the support and help from both Administrations in the progress that we have made on the Bill.
Clause 15 is not, as one or two Members have suggested, a get-out clause. The only way of avoiding the duty to meet the targets under the Bill would be to repeal the legislation. Clause 15 is about how, not whether, the Government meet the targets, in a value-for-money way that is consistent with the needs of the wider economy.
Our vision of a fairer society in which no child is left behind, and every child has the chance to flourish, is one that I hope the whole House will embrace. The House will have appreciated the tribute paid by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud to Peter Townsend, and I agree with him about Professor Townsend's huge contribution to drawing attention to the issue. Too many families are still on the edge of coping. There should not be, but there are, families who cannot afford to eat properly, keep their home warm or pay for basics such as school uniform or outings, let alone buy presents for birthday parties, as we have heard.
Children who grow up in poverty lack experiences and opportunities that others take for granted, and the exclusion that results can last for a lifetime. We can change that, and we must. The Bill is a key step, and I look forward to the detailed debates after the recess. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.