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Child Poverty Bill

Part of Bill Presented — Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill – in the House of Commons at 8:58 pm on 20th July 2009.

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Photo of David Gauke David Gauke Shadow Minister (Treasury) 8:58 pm, 20th July 2009

We have had an interesting and thoughtful debate with contributions from all parts of the House and all parts of the United Kingdom. We heard 13 contributions from the Back Benches, and I would particularly like to thank my hon. Friends the Members for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter), for Henley (John Howell) and for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) for three excellent speeches. My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon set out the case that poverty is not just about money and stressed the importance of stability and security in children's upbringing. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley set out some of the challenges for local authorities and some of the difficulties that the Bill may cause. My hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness rightly stated that the debate included many high-quality speeches, and proceeded to deliver one himself. It touched on many issues, including educational standards and housing.

There is some consensus here. We strongly share the aspiration to eradicate child poverty by 2020. We believe that high levels of child poverty reveal a waste of potential in a globalised world, in which there are opportunities for many more people than was previously the case to achieve greater material wealth. Children who are excluded from those opportunities will fall further and further behind. It is not good for any of us if a section of society is excluded from the benefits of what we hope will be a growing economy in the years ahead, stuck in a culture of low aspiration and dependency and attaining poor educational qualifications. All that results in a cycle of deprivation, and it becomes increasingly hard for any child born into poverty to escape it. That is bad for those in poverty and for society as a whole. For those reasons, we support the aspiration behind the Bill.

On a positive note, the debate appears to be moving in a more sensible direction. There was a time when the Government's response to all such questions was simply, "More money", and a view that any problem, including child poverty, could be addressed by more public expenditure-more money in benefits and tax credits. If we exclude the Secretary of State's contribution to the debate, it appears that the Government have moved on from that one-dimensional approach.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has calculated that one could spend £4.2 billion to meet the 2010 target. That is not a recommendation, merely an assessment of what could be done by spending that amount on child benefit and tax credits. It also calculates that the 2020 target could be achieved by spending £19 billion in 2008-09 prices. However, the Government appear to recognise that that is not a sustainable method of delivering. We agree.

We welcome the Government's acknowledgement of the need for a wide range of interventions. It must be said that my right hon. Friend Mr. Duncan Smith has set the terms of the debate. The greater focus on family breakdown, drug and alcohol dependency and worklessness has meant that we now have a more sensible debate on such matters. The Government's record on poverty and reducing the gap between the poorest and the rest of society is disappointing. As we have heard, they are failing to meet their 2010 target-it is estimated that it will be missed by 600,000 children-and child poverty is increasing.

Sometimes the Government make the excuse that everything was going swimmingly until the recession came along. That is wrong on two counts. First, long before the recession arrived, the Government were destined to miss their 2010 target. In February 2009, the IFS said that its

"forecast of child poverty in 2010 would be very slightly lower if the economy were to perform worse than the Treasury assumed in the PBR. This is because lower employment and real earnings have more effect on median income (and thus the poverty line) than on the income of low-income families with children (in which the parents are less likely to be working than in the median household)."

The recession is, therefore, according to the IFS, to the advantage of meeting the child poverty target.

Mr. Reed said that tackling inequality and poverty was what his party was about and what the Government were for. However, it is not just in the area of child poverty that this Government are failing. The average weekly income, after housing, of the poorest 10 per cent. has fallen from £98 in 2003-04 to £87 in 2007-08. The Gini index shows inequality at a record high. Life expectancy differences between the poor and the rest have widened since Labour came to power, as have infant mortality rates. Youth unemployment is a third higher than when Labour took office, and the number of people on out-of-work benefits has not fallen below 5 million in the past 12 years. Of that figure, 1.1 million people of working age have never worked a day while Labour has been in power. Child poverty is just one example of the Government's approach to poverty having failed.

It is therefore not surprising that there is a degree of scepticism about the Bill, which is more about distracting attention from the failure of the 2010 target than it is about the 2020 target. I shall make an analogy. Let us imagine a school pupil who is about to sit his GCSEs. He has not completed all his coursework, he has not revised, and he is clearly destined to fail his GCSEs. He says to his worried parents, "Don't worry, Mum. Don't worry, Dad. I hereby pledge"-it is not an aspiration, it is a pledge-"to obtain a postgraduate degree within 10 years. In 12 months' time I will set out my strategy for how I will do that." I think the parents could be forgiven for not being overly impressed, and we are not overly impressed by the Government's approach. They are failing on the target that is about to arrive, so instead they focus on something that will happen in 10 years' time by concentrating on an aspiration well beyond the next general election.

A further concern that we have is about accountability. Clause 1 states that it is

"the duty of the Secretary of State to ensure that...targets are met".

I hope that in Committee we will be able to examine to whom exactly that duty is owed. What will happen if the target is not met? Will it be possible to take the Secretary of State to court if he or she fails to meet a target? Will the courts be able to block a policy initiative if it is inconsistent with that duty, or will they be able to initiate policy? If so, there has to be distinct unease, because those are matters for a democratically accountable politician. They are matters for Ministers, not unelected judges, and that would start to blur the line between what is rightfully done in this place and by people accountable to it and what is done in the courts. If it is not for the courts to make such decisions, that prompts the question of what the point of the Bill is, other than to be a glorified press release.

Part 2 of the Bill sets out the role of local authorities. We recognise and welcome the importance of local authorities playing a role in tackling child poverty, and we recognise that a lot of problems are of a local nature. That point has been made by a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House. However, part 2 contains a list of duties on local authorities: to make arrangements to promote co-operation with partner authorities, to publish a local child poverty needs assessment, to prepare a joint child poverty strategy and to have regard to any guidance given by the Secretary of State. That is very much a top-down view of what local authorities should do.

Essentially, the Government's view as expressed in the Bill is that local authorities are there to administer the priorities of central Government. Under the Bill, there is no discretion as regards which of the partner authorities local authorities should work with, or what measurement of child poverty should be used. Is there an argument for a wider range of measurements being available for local authorities to use? My hon. Friend the Member for Henley set out what some local authorities are doing. Will that help or hinder?

The requirement to have regard to the Secretary of State's guidance could result-we will want to examine this in Committee-in the Secretary of State being able to force local authorities to act in a particular way. That would make local authorities look to what central Government want, rather than to the local people whom they are there to represent.

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