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Child Poverty Bill

Part of Bill Presented — Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill – in the House of Commons at 6:56 pm on 20th July 2009.

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Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley 6:56 pm, 20th July 2009

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 11 June, my hon. Friend Mr. Harper said:

"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, 11 June 2009; c. 127.]

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.

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