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Child Poverty Bill

Part of Bill Presented — Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill – in the House of Commons at 5:46 pm on 20th July 2009.

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Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 5:46 pm, 20th July 2009

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.

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