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Child Poverty Bill

Part of Bill Presented — Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill – in the House of Commons at 6:41 pm on 20th July 2009.

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Photo of Julie Morgan Julie Morgan Labour, Cardiff North 6:41 pm, 20th July 2009

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.

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