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Child Poverty Bill

Part of Bill Presented — Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill – in the House of Commons at 7:10 pm on 20th July 2009.

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Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party 7:10 pm, 20th July 2009

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.

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