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Child Poverty Bill

Part of Bill Presented — Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill – in the House of Commons at 8:05 pm on 20th July 2009.

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Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud 8:05 pm, 20th July 2009

I am delighted to take part in this Second Reading debate and it is a pleasure to follow Mr. Davies, who clearly has considerable expertise in this area. I would like to make my speech a tribute to someone who has not yet, as far as I know-I was out of the Chamber for a short time-been mentioned in the debate and should be mentioned. That is the late Peter Townsend, who passed away a couple of months ago. Peter was a friend. He was also a constituent in his later years and he was married to Baroness Corston.

If one person has done more than anyone else to raise the issue of child poverty in this country, that person was Peter Townsend. I have a suggestion. It may be an informal one, but I hope that, as a mark of respect to Peter Townsend, the commission will be called the Peter Townsend child poverty commission. I understand that that may be difficult in terms of how these things work but, as many will know, Peter's work led to the setting up of the Child Poverty Action Group and set in motion much of the research work not just in this country but in the third world. He talked about the importance of the social security system in the developing world, where there are so many other issues to deal with-education, health, peace, trying to provide water-and he explained graphically why looking after the most vulnerable in the developing world is so important. I hope that we can apply that epitaph to this country. I am sure that he would be proud that we are legislating in this field now.

I would like to thank the Government. The Bill Committee team has met on a couple of occasions with the all-party group on poverty. I am an officer of that group, which is genuinely all-party. The team met and discussed with us what was in the Bill and what we might like in the Bill. More than anything, it explained the structure and the thinking behind the Bill. Perhaps no one else will mention it, but there are some interesting findings in the consultation that was carried out-I know what others have said about the dirty word that "consultation" has become-and I hope that it will inform the Committee stage. As we take evidence from the various organisations, perhaps we can use that to improve the Bill still further.

I pay credit to the End Child Poverty coalition. This is not the Government's Bill per se, because it is owned by a range of organisations. Although some aspersions have been cast about how the legislation has been approached, it is important to say that there is overwhelming support for the attempt to abolish-if that is the Prime Minister's word-child poverty. I hope that support can genuinely be spread across the House, because it has certainly spread across those organisations.

Several years ago I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill, which looked at anti-poverty measures and how we should target them to try to eradicate poverty in the round. I thought that it was a largely consensual Bill, but it was opposed by the late Eric Forth-not so great in my eyes in this respect. However, I thought that the official Opposition had moved on from their view that poverty did not matter. I was somewhat taken aback by the speech of Mrs. May, which took us back almost to thinking that her party had learned nothing and forgotten nothing, but I was uplifted by the contribution made by Mr. Streeter, who is an acknowledged expert in this area. I hope that what he had to say reflects the tenor of the official Opposition's approach to this debate, rather than what we heard from their spokesperson.

I was pleased that the Church of England mentioned in its submission William Temple, whom I consider to be the greatest Archbishop of Canterbury, mainly because he was a Christian socialist-alongside R.H. Tawney. It is, of course, a long-held view of the Christian Church in this country that we must attack poverty, and particularly child poverty.

We must also take into account the issue of the demonstration of poverty. Poverty is, of course, all too apparent in our urban areas and we must bear down on that, but poverty exists in all areas of our society, and rural poverty has not been mentioned very much. I wish this was apocryphal, but I still remember that children who received free school meals were put on a separate table because that was the way it was always done. Although I hope that is now a thing of the past, even the fact that until comparatively recently we used free school meals, and the definition thereof, as a measure of poverty shows how little we have moved on in some respects, because anyone who knows anything about the rural domain will know that the one thing that children, and particularly their parents, will not want recognised is the fact that they are eligible for free school meals. That is indicative of how problematic it is to measure where poverty exists and how we can address it. People will hide from the fact of their poverty. They will live in denial, because they do not want to be faced with the fact that they will be labelled as the poor of the village. We must do something about that.

The analysis by Steve Webb was, as always, very helpful. We will, no doubt, have an interesting discussion on clause 15 in Committee-perhaps I will be chosen to serve on the Committee-as it is worthy of proper debate. It does look like a get-out-of-jail-free card for the Government. That was countered by my hon. Friend Ms Buck, who rightly said that the point is not the cost of dealing with poverty, but the fact that if we do not deal with it the costs thereof are even greater. I therefore hope the Government will not see this as an opportunity to slide out of their obligations, but will instead look very carefully at whether that is a necessary clause and whether it should be more tightly defined.

I hope the commission will be proactive. It is a nice idea that it will come together four times a year, as has been said, and just look at whether the Government have done what they should have done. To be fair to this Government, they have been on a journey, all the way through the various reports they have brought forward and the work of the No. 10 policy unit and the social exclusion unit. I hope we will see this coming through and coming to fruition with the commission being seen not as a quango but as a very proactive body that engages with the poverty lobby, and that does so to the extent that representatives of those in poverty are a part of it. That is never easy. I and the other members of the all-party group on poverty had a difficult time in addressing how to engage with people in poverty, but not engaging with people in poverty is as unacceptable as paying lip service to that.

As my hon. Friend Mark Durkan said, it is important that we recognise that it is the responsibility of this place as well as Government to address how we make this legislation accountable. I would like the Government to say that they welcome an annual debate on this issue so we can see the progress that has been made, and I hope that that debate will be subject to some form of affirmation at the end so that we do genuinely test whether progress is being made. Because there are different Departments involved, we have to have a meaningful structure that covers the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Children, Schools and Families, the Treasury and the devolved Departments to make sure there is proper joined-up thinking in how we scrutinise what the Government are doing.

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