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Child Poverty Bill

Part of Bill Presented — Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill – in the House of Commons at 8:33 pm on 20th July 2009.

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Photo of John Mason John Mason Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 8:33 pm, 20th July 2009

My party welcomes this Bill. I wish to associate myself in particular with the speeches by the hon. Members for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and for Northavon (Steve Webb), although almost every hon. Member who has spoken has made some good points.

We clearly need to tackle income inequality and the root causes of disadvantage, and we need to support people in poverty now. Some of the explanatory notes are very good and summarise where we are trying to go. Paragraph 131 says:

"It is nearly impossible to quantify the financial benefits of eradicating child poverty. Growing up in poverty can damage cognitive, social and emotional development, which are all determinants of future outcomes for a child. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates that child poverty costs at least £25 billion a year in Britain, and that £17 billion could accrue to the Exchequer if child poverty were eradicated. However, this is a possible under-estimate of the true benefit. There are other benefits associated with the eradication of child poverty which are difficult to quantify such as equity, reducing hardship, deprivation and exclusion and breaking the intergenerational poverty link."

Those points have been referred to by many of the Members who have spoken.

The current economic climate is leading to more families in poverty, and more families who could fall into poverty. We cannot have this debate without talking about resources, which have not been touched on as much as I hoped. At the last Budget, the Child Poverty Action Group called on the Chancellor to invest at least £3 billion in tax credits and benefits. When that did not happen, the CPAG said there was a danger that the Bill would have

"no credibility from the outset."

Without real money, I do not see how we can possibly meet the child poverty targets. Instead, with budgets being cut, as I fear both major parties seek to do-although they may quibble over who is cutting more-we shall not see much progress. The Budget this year did little to help, so I would be interested to hear from the Financial Secretary at the end of the debate whether there will be real resources in the pre-Budget report this autumn to help to address the shortfall.

We need to simplify the tax credit scheme and promote greater availability of child care vouchers. There is a problem for people whose weekly hours fall below 16, because they lose tax credits. There is a particular problem for single-parent families. We are told that 52 per cent. of them were in poverty in 2007-08. Parents may not be to blame for a family coming apart, but it is clear that the children suffer.

Relative inequality is definitely a problem. We have heard many examples of children who cannot do the same things as other children in their class. Gingerbread gives this example:

"My children have also been unable to go on school trips because I cannot afford it...and my children were the only ones not to go."

School trips may not be the most essential thing in life, but I find such statements particularly touching.

By many accounts, my Glasgow, East constituency has some of the greatest poverty in the country. Housing is the issue that people most often come to see me about. It has been touched on already, so I will not go into great detail, but the examples given by Ms Keeble were extremely relevant and touching. So many kids are brought up in overcrowded, unsuitable accommodation in the 21st century.

Clause 2 contains a 10 per cent. target, but as I said in an intervention, I wonder whether that is ambitious enough. Clearly that target is much further on than we are at present, so it is definitely to be welcomed-but given the number of voices who question it, including those of Barnardo's, Save the Children and Gingerbread, we have to wonder whether it is enough. If we said that next year only 10 per cent. of houses in the UK would be broken into, so by definition house-breaking would be eradicated, many Members would not accept it, and neither would the public. As has already been suggested, if the plan was to remove 10 per cent. of Members from the House, a lot of us would not be very keen on it. In reality, none of us think that 10 per cent. will be acceptable in the long term, although I acknowledge that it is a big improvement on the current situation. Perhaps we should stop using words such as "eradicate" and "abolish", because that is not what will happen.

Clause 15 has been referred to, and some of my fears have been echoed. Barnardo's mention that clause too. Is it a get-out clause? We should be interested in reassurance from the Financial Secretary that that is not the case. Perhaps the Committee might come up with better wording for it. Are the factors mentioned simply factors that have to be taken into account, or can they override the targets?

We have not heard very much about interim targets. It seems to be accepted that the 2010 target, the halfway point, will be missed. Will the Minister who responds to the debate state that everyone now accepts that? It strikes me that if we are now aiming for 2020 there should be an interim target of 2015-a point at which we could measure progress.

One or two Members have asked whether the commission should be beefed up. Should it have a bigger budget and more powers? Mr. Drew said that he would like it to consult outside experts. That in itself would presumably increase the time for which it needed to meet, and its expenses. If the commission is to do its own research and call for evidence, it will need a budget for that. Like others, I welcome the fact that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are to appoint their own commissioners, which has not always happened in other cases, such as broadcasting.

It concerns me that no actual figures in pounds and pence are being mentioned. I accept the relative measures that are being given, but I wonder whether they are enough in themselves. Perhaps we need to look at minimum income standards and consider raising the minimum wage. One of the London charities that submitted evidence reminds us of some of the figures that we are talking about:

"Nowhere in the government's measures of poverty is there any estimate of what it actually costs every week to live healthily in the expensive UK economy. The unemployment benefits...are £64.30 a week, but £50.95 a week aged 18-25; they are half, or less than, the government's poverty threshold and 42 per cent. of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation minimum income standard" after housing costs

"of £144 a week."

We need to introduce some solid reality. I know that costs change year by year, but there seems to be a lack of reality in the Bill.

Tax credits were mentioned when I asked about the minimum wage. Although we welcome tax credits, and the fact that they boost family income, in one sense they just subsidise profitable employers. Employers can then employ staff at the minimum wage, which people clearly cannot live on, and make huge profits. I have a problem with that.

Consultation is good, but I notice that clause 9(4)(c) talks about consulting children or organisations that represent children. That "or" should be an "and" because children should definitely be consulted.

I suspect that more than one Secretary of State will be involved in all this, because the Secretary of State for Scotland will be involved in some of the processes. I hope that the Secretaries of State will be constructive in their dealings with Holyrood and the other devolved Administrations. I want to make some points from a Scottish point of view. The Scottish Government are fully signed up to the UK target of halving child poverty by 2010 and eradicating it by 2020. In Scotland 20 per cent. of children are in poverty, which is only marginally better than the UK as a whole. The Scottish Government welcome the positive contact that there has been between the Minister and our Deputy First Minister.

There has been some mention of grandparents and other relatives. The whole issue of kinship care needs to be looked at. I know that in Scotland some local authorities, and the Scottish Government, are trying to help grandparents and other relatives who look after children, but there seem to be problems with the Department for Work and Pensions penalising people. That needs to be looked into.

The Scottish Government would like to replace council tax with a local income tax, which would definitely help poorer families. Scotland believes that we will be able to tackle the issues of child poverty best when we have the full powers of taxation, spending and social welfare under our control, but we seek to do what we can with what we have.

I note that John Barrett mentioned that money came from Westminster and was not used in the same way as it was in England. However, he then mentioned that hospital appointments were important for disabled people. One of the things that the present Government of Scotland have done is to keep open more hospitals that were planned for closure. A lot of the levers still lie with the UK Government, but I hope that that disadvantage can be addressed in due course.

Local government in Scotland has also been mentioned. I do not know whether exactly the same applies in Wales and Northern Ireland, but we have the concordat, which means that local government and the Scottish Government try to work together on more issues, rather than taking a top-down approach. However, that means that it is more difficult to have ring-fencing and to insist on local government toeing a certain line. However, to be fair to local authorities-I know best the authority in Glasgow, which probably has a lot of the problems in Scotland-they are very committed to tackling child poverty too.

I hope that there can be a constructive relationship between Westminster and Holyrood. It is a question of balance, because some factors are almost purely Westminster issues, while others are purely Holyrood issues. However, as Mark Durkan said, there is also a twilight area where a lot of the factors interrelate. In the past there have been some unfortunate examples of a lack of working together. For instance, the Scottish Government were approached on 19 March for a response to the Equality Bill that was required by 25 March. Six days for a Government response is really not what we are looking for.

We are in complete agreement that child poverty is one of the foremost issues, now and for the coming years. We support the Bill; my only question is whether it is specific enough, whether it is tough enough and whether it goes far enough.

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