Schedule 1 — The Child Poverty Commission

Part of Bill Presented — Fiscal Responsibility – in the House of Commons at 6:20 pm on 9th December 2009.

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Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 6:20 pm, 9th December 2009

I have no hesitation in joining the Minister in saying that eradicating child poverty is an ambitious but vital objective for our country. It is both an economic imperative, because no advanced economy can afford to waste the potential of so many of its citizens, and, as she has said, a moral imperative, as no decent society should allow so many children to remain in poverty, as has been the case in the United Kingdom in recent years. I shall repeat what my right hon. Friend Mrs. May said on Second Reading, because we are both proud to serve under a leader who has said:

"I want me-and the government I aspire to lead-to be judged on how we tackle poverty in office. Because poverty is not acceptable in our country today."

I am also pleased that it was a Conservative Mayor of London who decided to pay a living wage to Greater London authority staff. That had not happened before.

The long title of the Bill refers to "eradication", but both the Minister and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions have made frequent reference during our debates to the fact that the Government's real aspiration is to achieve a child poverty level that is among the best in Europe. It would have been slightly more honest to have said that in the Bill, because the 10 per cent. that is in the Bill represents the best level, and 10 per cent. is not eradication. Some 23 per cent. of children in the United Kingdom live in poverty, which is about twice the level found in the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark-they have child poverty rates of 14, 12 and 10 per cent. respectively. It is also instructive to note that 23 per cent. of UK children were living in relative poverty in 1987, 24 per cent. were doing so in 1996 and 23 per cent. were doing so in 2001. The level of child poverty has remained stubbornly high for more than 30 years.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has drawn attention to the need for us to change our strategy if we are to make better progress, saying that

"the strategy against poverty and social exclusion pursued since the late 1990s is now largely exhausted."

The former Secretary of State for Health, Mr. Milburn, has said that

"poverty has become more entrenched".

That is why we need fresh thinking on this subject, and I was pleased that just now the Minister outlined five themes. A number of those relate to the causes of poverty, to which Conservative Members have tried on every occasion to include reference in the Bill.

The Bill is very much a blank canvas. It sets out the targets to be achieved in 2020, but I was disappointed just now that Labour Members voted against including the 2010 target, even though I believe that some of the Minister's colleagues joined us in the Division Lobby. As I said, the Government have had 10 years to have a run at the target of halving child poverty, and I think that a formal report to Parliament on that would have been useful and would have provided the Government with an early opportunity to come to the House to explain how the child poverty strategy will change.

Conservative Members have set out on a number of occasions the causes of poverty that we want examined. Our non-exhaustive list includes educational failure, hence our school reforms and our commitment to pay a pupil premium to those schools in the most disadvantaged areas, and the level of skills, which is vital. Level 3 skills, which were mentioned at Prime Minister's questions, are particularly important and have decreased over the past decade.

Both benefit dependency and intergenerational worklessness are huge problems that cause poverty up and down our country, hence the Opposition have produced some of the most detailed welfare reform proposals that any party has introduced in opposition or in government. Our "Get Britain Working" programme cuts right to the heart of what is needed to deal with child poverty, so that we can help people to get back into the work force and break these intergenerational cycles of worklessness.

Work on dealing with benefit dependency is extremely important, too, and I commend the "Dynamic Benefits" report produced by my right hon. Friend Mr. Duncan Smith in that regard. The issue of debt is extremely serious. We touched on that in Committee. It aggravates poverty for some families in a particularly nasty and unattractive way, trapping them in deep poverty, often for long periods. Some excellent work is being done in the voluntary sector by Christians Against Poverty centres and others up and down the country.

I was pleased to hear the Minister refer to the need to strengthen families, and I was particularly pleased to have support from Mr. Field in that regard, too.

We touched on the issue of addiction. I say again that I think that that needs to be part of the Government's anti-poverty strategy. I recognise that some people might get into illegal substance abuse and alcohol abuse because of poverty, but the relationship also works the other way around. Families and lives that were proceeding along absolutely fine are destroyed because of alcoholism or illegal drug use.

We have also learned from a recent report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that the Government's child poverty strategy started to run into trouble as early as 2004-05. That was a key turning point well before the recession when poverty, unemployment and property repossessions all started to rise. Indeed, only a day or so ago there was an further excellent report by the Young Foundation pointing out some of these difficulties and to the important psycho-social problems faced by many families up and down the country. In particular, it pointed out the vital role of the voluntary sector, working alongside the Government to make real progress in dealing with these deep-seated issues.

In conclusion, I want to thank all those who were on the Committee, in particular my hon. Friend Mr. Gauke. He was an excellent shadow Minister to work alongside. I want to pay particular tribute, too, to my hon. Friends the Members for Henley (John Howell) and for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart). They were a formidable duo behind us both in Committee and this afternoon. I am also grateful to my hon. Friend Mr. Streeter, who spoke eloquently on Second Reading and made a number of excellent interventions today.

The Bill is not perfect. We will seek in the other place to push some of the issues that we have raised. However, we join the Minister in agreeing with her wish to see child poverty come tumbling down in this country. It is still far too high and we believe that we can make much better progress.

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