Second Reading

Part of Welfare Reform and Work Bill – in the House of Lords at 6:52 pm on 17th November 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Maddock Baroness Maddock Chair, Works of Art Committee (Lords) 6:52 pm, 17th November 2015

My Lords, I have three relevant declarations of interest. I am vice-president of the Local Government Association, vice-president of National Energy Action, which is a fuel poverty charity, and vice-president of the Sustainable Energy Association. I will confine my remarks this evening to two main areas—the almost wholesale repeal of the Child Poverty Act 2010, and how the fuel poverty strategy put in place during the coalition Government interacts with this Bill.

First, I have a general comment. In another place, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, said:

“This is a Bill for working Britain … work is the best route out of poverty … being in work should always pay more than being on benefits … spending on welfare should be sustainable and fair to the taxpayer while protecting the most vulnerable”.—[Hansard, Commons, 20/7/15; col. 1258.]

Many of us might agree with quite a lot of that but, when we examine the Bill closely, we find that it does not quite live up to those aims. This is particularly so when we look at the sections on child poverty and life chances. The Bill removes the four poverty targets set out in the Child Poverty Act 2010 and thereby the Government’s duty to meet those targets. Under this Bill, the Secretary of State will have only to report annually on the number of children in workless households and educational attainment at the end of key stage 4. Other noble Lords commented on this earlier. Gone are any targets on income and material deprivation.

I recognise that, during the previous Parliament, coalition Ministers called for improved measures of child poverty that would better reflect the causes of poverty but we seem to be—and I apologise for this phrase but I could not find a better one—throwing the baby out with the bath water.

The Government’s evidence review, published in January 2014, indeed showed that long-term worklessness had a very high bearing on the ability of children to exit poverty, as did low earnings. It also showed that low educational attainment had a major effect on the likelihood of poor children becoming poor adults. It was also clear from the review that income levels affected many of the areas that keep children in poverty and lead to poor life chances. There are so many factors that affect children’s ability to do well educationally—not just housing but life experiences and the food they eat, which affects their health. All these are affected by levels of income.

I know that free school meals for all young children, which was pushed against the wishes of some of my Conservative colleagues when we were in coalition, have made a huge difference, not only to family incomes, particularly in my area of north Northumberland, but also to levels of attainment in those children. We have heard rumours that the Government want to close the scheme down. Can the Minister tell us whether this is true or merely a rumour?

In drawing up this Bill, how much attention have the Government paid to duties under the Fuel Poverty (England) Regulations 2014, particularly the legal requirement for the United Kingdom Government to declare how they will reach the new fuel targets in England within six months of the most recent general election? To date, this has not been done and the Energy and Climate Change Committee has already pointed out that the current resources are less than half those required to meet the targets set in that strategy. Has the Department for Work and Pensions looked at how its proposals will affect the numbers in fuel poverty? We know that reduced incomes will send more people—more families, more children—into fuel poverty. Has the Department for Work and Pensions looked at the interaction between any change in the warm home discount and its proposals, particularly any changes to the incomes of low-paid working families with children?

The warm home discount scheme provides automatic electricity bill support for low-income older-age house- holds. For other vulnerable and low-income electricity customers who are not of pensionable age there is a one-off payment of £140. This is not paid automatically but is available to people if they apply in the summer. The policy is paid for through a levy on energy consumers and delivered across Great Britain by obligated energy suppliers. Without an extension this scheme will expire in 2016. It is important to know how these measures will interact with each other. Can the Minister tell us whether his department has taken account of such matters? I realise that it is not directly his responsibility but we urgently need to know what plans the Government have for the warm home discount scheme.

In conclusion, we can all agree that the strategies put in place after the 2010 Act have not led to the level of changes that we would have liked, particularly around child poverty. We all want better results. We have had two strategies with a review in between and now drastic changes to the 2014 strategy. I wonder if the Minister—I am sorry he is not in his place but I understand it is a long time to sit there—can tell us why he thinks we are going to do so much better with the proposals here today. Many think they do not reflect well enough what the 2014 review actually showed. They will certainly help the Government by reducing targets but will they help reduce child poverty? Will they improve the life chances of children in poverty? Having listened to contributions this evening I am quite sure we are going to have robust discussions in Committee and I sincerely hope this will lead to an improved Bill. I hope that we can look further at the issue of fuel poverty.