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Child Poverty Bill

Part of Bill Presented — Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill – in the House of Commons at 5:05 pm on 20th July 2009.

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Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 5:05 pm, 20th July 2009

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.

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