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Child Poverty Bill

Part of Bill Presented — Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill – in the House of Commons at 7:41 pm on 20th July 2009.

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Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North 7:41 pm, 20th July 2009

I was about to refer to that issue, because housing is one of my main concerns. Before housing costs, 19 per cent. of children live in poverty, but after housing costs that figure rises to 27 per cent. My hon. Friend Ms Buck referred to London, and my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury will be interested in the figures, as his constituency is also in inner London: after housing costs, 44 per cent. of children in London are in poverty, but before housing costs that figure is about 27 per cent., which is in line with other parts of the country. High housing costs, especially in London, cause poverty. The cost of housing is a significant factor in the poverty of families. Therefore, by increasing housing benefit this autumn, the Government are putting money in exactly the right place. However, they might also have to look closely at the impact of the cost of home ownership on low-income families and on child poverty as a result of the recession.

The poor are also likely to be in bad-quality, overcrowded housing. According to Shelter, 1 million children are in overcrowded housing, and many more live in homes that are below the decency standard. In my constituency, the number of council properties that fall below the decency standard has risen from 2,698 in 2006 to 4,623 in 2008-an increase from 21 to 37 per cent. That does not take into account the problems with families who are squeezed into unsatisfactory privately rented property, or who struggle to maintain low-cost private ownership. I shall set out proposals to strengthen the Bill with regard to housing.

The Bill also needs to be strengthened in relation to crime, as Mrs. May suggested. The link between vulnerability and crime is clearly demonstrated in the report by the Prison Reform Trust setting out the proportion of children and young people in custody who have been affected by family breakdown, special needs and poor educational achievement. The Government are studying the origins of that vicious circle in the early years of young people who become offenders, for whom outcomes are disproportionately in poverty. Although the Bill refers to police authorities and youth offending teams as partner authorities, it does not give specific attention to issues in relation to the criminal justice system and poverty, and the implications for child poverty. I would have expected such attention to be given in clause 8 on strategies.

However, it is more important for the Bill to be strengthened in relation to housing. Every Child Matters, in which the Government's children's policy is rooted, recognised homelessness as the second biggest risk factor for children-second only to low income and parental unemployment in determining a child's success in life. Housing authorities were made part of safeguarding arrangements, and protocols were issued for joint working, although those were weakly enforced. Housing is mentioned as a factor in the Bill, but only in passing in relation to strategies. There are no targets for housing and no indication as to what constitutes adequate housing for a child. In the suite of factors constituting material deprivation, only one relates to housing, which shows a weakness in the thinking behind the Bill. The one housing question is whether there are enough bedrooms for every child aged 10 years or over and of a different gender to have a room of their own. According to the Government's figures, 27 per cent. of those in the lowest decile say that they want but cannot afford that, although most of the rest-70 per cent.-already have it. Given the figures for overcrowding, that surprises me. I wonder what the response would be if those children were then asked whether they had a room of their own only because their parents slept on the floor in the sitting room.

All the information from every source suggests that inadequate and overcrowded housing plays a major role in the vicious circle that is child poverty. It contributes to poor health-we have seen a 25 per cent. increase in ill health among poorly housed children-and it leads to dysfunctions in families. Homelessness leads to three to four times the number of children with mental health problems. It means that children have nowhere to do their homework. Homeless children miss an estimated quarter of their schooling, and 50 per cent. of young offenders have experienced homelessness.

I believe that, ultimately, the state is not giving children enough rights to proper housing. Families with children can qualify as homeless, but their rights are circumscribed. It has been said that families with children should not be placed in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, but that is only guidance: it does not have the force of law. The standards relating to overcrowding are awful. They were set in 1935, and still provide-except in some pathfinder areas-that two adults, two children and a baby aged under one can be housed in a one-bedroom flat.

I am sure that other Members can give examples from their constituencies, but I want to give three particularly bad examples from my area, which illustrate the need for housing safeguards for poor families. One of the worst that I have encountered involves a young family. Both parents are unemployed, and the mother has only just turned 21. They live in a small first-floor two-bedroom flat with four children, the eldest just three years old and the youngest newborn. The parents have had a difficult time given their involvement with the criminal justice system, depression, poor health and confusion over their benefits, which resulted in their living on child benefit for about four months before the birth of their fourth baby. A council official who visited after I complained about the family's overcrowding said that there was no problem, because two of the children could sleep in the combined living room and kitchen. Given the safety risks involved in leaving two small children all night in a room with all those household appliances, that was extraordinary.

The other example involved a grandmother, mother and six children living in a four-bedroom house. They complained that the house was crowded, and that fixtures and fittings were breaking. When I arrived there, I discovered that the grandmother had one small bedroom, the mother had another, the three boys shared one bedroom, and the three girls shared another. The real problem was that the eldest boy was autistic. That returns us to the disability issue. I hope Steve Webb agrees that we should pay attention to conditions involving behavioural as well as physical disabilities. The boy crashed around the house a lot, breaking fixtures including all the doors. More to the point, he spent most of his time pacing up and down the family's only living room.

One of the material deprivation indicators listed in the Bill is that children are not able to have friends around for tea or a snack once a fortnight. According to the Government, even as many as 61 per cent. of children in the lowest family-income quintile are able to do that. Children can be very cruel about special needs. How on earth could a child feel confident about bringing a friend home from school to tea if an autistic older brother was pacing up and down the family's only living room, and if the child had to share a bedroom with two siblings? How could a child get homework done, or enjoy any peace or privacy?

A third and perhaps even more shocking case is that of a 19-year-old woman looking after her two young nephews and niece after the children's mother-her sister, a drug addict-had abandoned them. The three children and their aunt, along with the children's dog, were living in a one-bedroom flat. This remarkable young woman said that what really caused her problems was the inappropriate behaviour of the girl because of what she had been exposed to, and that the boy had also been exposed to behaviour that was completely unsuitable for such a young child. The fact that they were short of money was, in a sense, the least of the children's worries. There is poverty in kind as well as in cash. A number of Members have made that point, although I feel that specific targets should be set in the Bill.

I shall table amendments on the subject of housing. I shall propose a target for clause 3 that, ideally, would be radical, demanding that there should be no bed-and-breakfast provision for children, that all children should have rooms of their own and that every child should have a home with central heating and access to a safe outdoor play area; but that might be too much to ask.

Perhaps a more reasonable target is that every family with at least one child normally living with them should have a living room-a room that does not count as a bedroom, but in which the family can live and watch television, the children can do their homework, and there is enough space for a table around which they can sit and have a meal together. Another requirement would be that the spatial needs of children with special needs-this raises another point made by the hon. Gentleman-including behavioural difficulties, should be taken into account in the assessment of families' housing needs. If a child has behavioural difficulties, the lives of its siblings should not be turned upside down because of a lack of space in which to cater for its needs. Every child should have housing of a decent standard. As I have said, in Northampton 37.7 per cent. of council housing is not decent.

One of my predecessors, Margaret Bondfield, who was Member of Parliament for Northampton in 1923, campaigned on women's employment and child poverty issues. The Government's target is to end child poverty by 2020, which, unfortunately, is 100 years too late for my predecessor. With or without the improvements that I have suggested, however, the Bill will make a big contribution to-at long last-the achievement of her goal, and I thoroughly support it.

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