Poverty

– in the House of Lords at 2:30 pm on 8th December 2004.

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Photo of Lord Roberts of Conwy Lord Roberts of Conwy Shadow Minister, Local and Devolved Government Affairs 2:30 pm, 8th December 2004

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What percentage of adults are living in poverty in the United Kingdom.

Photo of Baroness Hollis of Heigham Baroness Hollis of Heigham Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions)

My Lords, in 2002–03, 16 per cent of adults in the UK were living in households below 60 per cent median income, before housing costs.

Photo of Lord Roberts of Conwy Lord Roberts of Conwy Shadow Minister, Local and Devolved Government Affairs

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that reply. Does she accept that the proportion of adults of working age and without children who are living in low-income households has been on the increase in recent years? The numbers have increased from 3.6 million in 1996–97 to 3.9 million last year. Furthermore, is she aware that income support for this group has barely kept pace with inflation and is falling behind average wages? Do the Government have any special plans to deal with this very substantial but unfortunate group of people?

Photo of Baroness Hollis of Heigham Baroness Hollis of Heigham Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions)

My Lords, obviously the Government are concerned about poverty wherever it occurs. However, if we ask who in today's society is poor, it is first of all children, then pensioners and disabled people. Couples come next, followed by those who are the least poor: single people between the ages of 25—beyond student age—and 55. Therefore the Government have rightly focused on those who need our help the most: children and pensioners. Around half in those groups who were in absolute poverty in 1997 have now been lifted out of it.

I accept that it is true that single people who remain and linger on income support will be poor. However, it should be remembered that most single people who move on to jobseeker's allowance will get back into work, three-quarters of them within six months. Those who remain on IS will be poor, and it is often because they have very real difficulties. They may have no educational qualifications. They may well live in inner city areas. They may have substance abuse problems. They may not speak English as a first language. Above all, they may be members of our ethnic minority communities such as Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. Lastly, they may be former prisoners or have other problems. We are seeking to identify and help people in those groups.

Photo of Lord Laming Lord Laming Crossbench

My Lords, would the Minister be willing to consider whether benefits such as the winter fuel allowance might have a greater impact if they were targeted at those most in need?

Photo of Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay Shadow Minister, Treasury

My Lords, I ask the noble Baroness to step back for a moment to look at the bigger picture of poverty and wealth. Has she seen the report in today's Guardian showing that, on average, the 600,000 richest people in Britain are each three-quarters of a million pounds better off than they were before the Government came to power, whereas the share in national wealth for the poorest has fallen considerably? When will the Government start taking seriously joined-up tax and social policies in order to reduce these gross inequalities of poverty and wealth in Britain?

Photo of Baroness Hollis of Heigham Baroness Hollis of Heigham Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions)

My Lords, the noble Lord has asked two separate questions. He is absolutely right that the incomes of the top 1 per cent have increased dramatically. However, it is also the case that the position for the bottom 20 per cent of our society has improved dramatically as a result of the Government's policies, primarily because we now have the highest employment and lowest unemployment rates of anywhere in the G7, while youth unemployment has been virtually eliminated.

Photo of Lord Davies of Coity Lord Davies of Coity Labour

My Lords, while recognising that the circumstances are relative, can my noble friend say whether the way in which poverty is viewed is expressed in the same terms now as it was during the previous administration?

Photo of Baroness Hollis of Heigham Baroness Hollis of Heigham Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions)

My Lords, the figures used to identify households with below average incomes come from the same continuous flow of statistics used by the previous administration. Households with incomes below 60 per cent of median incomes are so categorised. As real wages rise and benefits rise more slowly, by definition the number of people living below that threshold will increase. It would fall only if real wages were also to reduce. The basis on which the statistics are gathered has been continuous.

Photo of Baroness Greengross Baroness Greengross Crossbench

My Lords, in spite of the Government's acknowledged success in alleviating poverty within certain targeted groups, does not the Minister agree that the real problem among older adults, and pensioners in particular, is that encountered by women? Do the Government intend to take any specific action to deal with poverty among women, which is very widespread?

Photo of Baroness Hollis of Heigham Baroness Hollis of Heigham Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions)

My Lords, the noble Baroness is absolutely right, and that is the precise reason why most of the beneficiaries of pension credit are women. As a result, women are seeing increases in their incomes averaging about £40 per week.

Photo of Lord Redesdale Lord Redesdale Shadow Minister, Defence

My Lords, are figures gathered on those between the ages of 16 and 24 who are living in poverty? Can the Minister also say whether there is a particular problem of homelessness among those living in poverty in that age group? People in that age group are on a very low rung when it comes to securing any kind of accommodation. It is a real problem for them.

Photo of Baroness Hollis of Heigham Baroness Hollis of Heigham Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions)

My Lords, the figures that I have show that 18 per cent of people under the age of 24 have below-average incomes before housing costs, but that includes student populations. The poverty that scars is the poverty that persists, and that is not a particular problem of younger people.

Photo of Lord Laming Lord Laming Crossbench

My Lords, does the Minister accept that it is personally offensive and factually wrong to assume that everyone over the age of 65 is dependent on the state?

Photo of Lord Skelmersdale Lord Skelmersdale Shadow Minister, Economic Affairs, Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Shadow Minister, Health

My Lords, given that the noble Baroness is not answering that question, perhaps I may put another one to her.

Photo of Lord Skelmersdale Lord Skelmersdale Shadow Minister, Economic Affairs, Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Shadow Minister, Health

In that case, the Minister is not going to answer it.

On Monday I asked the noble Baroness whether the department kept all social security benefits under review, a point which she very naturally did not have time to answer. Is she able to give me a response now, especially in the light of the Question on the Order Paper?

Photo of Baroness Hollis of Heigham Baroness Hollis of Heigham Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions)

My Lords, we keep all benefits under review. That is why, for example, on Monday the Secretary of State presented a Statement on uprating. Given that we were discussing disability issues on that day, we chose perfectly sensibly not to take that Statement in this House.

Photo of Lord Marsh Lord Marsh Crossbench

My Lords, I declare an interest—

A noble Lord:

Next Question!

Noble Lords:

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