My Lords, I support many of the principles underlying this Bill: the importance of personal, as well as collective, responsibility; the value of decent work, not just financially, but for human dignity; the role of the welfare system in encouraging positive behaviours; the recognition that poverty is not simply about lack of income; and the desire for fairness for those who receive from and contribute to the system, including the vast majority of us who do both at different points in our lives. None of these is completely new, but the Government’s approach to welfare reform has certainly reinvigorated the debate about poverty, helping to challenge implicit assumptions and some very tired thinking. Governments naturally want to distinguish themselves, but in seeking to introduce a fresh perspective on old problems, there is always a danger of going too far or of throwing out the good with the bad. That is my concern about some of the measures being discussed today.
The first is the proposal to replace the existing child poverty measures and targets with an obligation to report on a set of life chances indicators. Where I agree with the proposal is that poverty is not simply a matter of economics and the possession of material goods. Unemployment, low skills, poor housing, addiction and family instability are all tied up with people’s experiences of poverty, so it is right to acknowledge this in some way in our understanding of poverty and our approach to tackling it.
However, to scrap all of the income-based measures ignores the importance of money in meeting people’s basic needs. It also ignores the wealth of evidence pointing to the damaging effects that income poverty has on children’s lives in terms of their health, education and future opportunities. Life chances are affected by a multiple of factors, and basic income is one of them. When the coalition Government carried out a public consultation on child poverty measurement in 2013, more than 200 public, academic and voluntary organisations responded. The overwhelming majority argued that poverty is defined by lack of income and that other non-income-based indicators should be used to supplement the current income-based measures. Only one respondent did not think that income should be included in the child poverty measures, yet this is what is proposed in the Bill.
If the Bill goes through in its current form, there will be no recognition of in-work poverty in spite of the fact that around two-thirds of children in poverty have at least one parent in paid employment and there will be no targets for the new indicators and no duty on central and local government to publish strategies to tackle child poverty, simply an obligation to report on the listed indicators. With child poverty projected to rise by up to a million over the next five years, it is convenient, but unacceptable, for the Government to abandon the commitment they made to these targets when the Child Poverty Act was voted through in 2010 with cross-party support.
Last week, I wrote to noble Lords to express deeply held concerns—I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, for having read the letter and commented on it—about the limit that this Bill would introduce on the support for families with more than two children, so noble Lords will not be surprised that I am raising them now. We firmly believe that children are a blessing and strongly resist anything that implies that an additional child is unwanted or burdensome. Every child is valuable; every child matters. We are also very concerned about the practical consequences for the families affected who are already struggling to make ends meet. Larger families will lose up to £2,780 for each additional child beyond the first two. Two million children will be affected by the end of the Parliament, many of whom are already in or at risk of poverty. The majority of these live in working families with limited scope to increase their income. Also affected will be many families who had their children in good times, but who are unlucky enough to lose their job, become ill or disabled or experience a divorce. The Treasury is unable to forecast its own finances accurately more than a year ahead, yet parents are expected to anticipate their own future income for the next 16 years.
As faith leaders, we believe that this measure is fundamentally anti-family and surely fails the Government’s own family test. In extreme circumstances, older children may be forced to leave home before they are ready and large families may break up in order to avoid the two-child penalty. Vulnerable parents who are bereaved or fleeing domestic violence often require extra support at a time of acute need, but they will not be adequately supported if they have more than two children. Kinship carers and private foster parents—there are around 215,000 in the UK—may be unable to take on this vital role if they are no longer eligible for additional support.
This measure will also have a disproportionate impact on particular faith communities where large families are the norm, perhaps because of parents’ devout desire to avoid contraception or abortion. If the two-child limit is designed to encourage lower-income families to have fewer children there is very little evidence that it will be effective. Instead, the impact will be to increase child poverty, penalising children in a largely futile attempt to influence the behaviour of their parents.
A parent from the St Chad’s Community Project in Bensham in my diocese had this to say about the changes: “I receive Working Tax Credit as a single parent with three young boys to support. I feel that making these changes would be adding more pressure to my family. I already have to be very careful with my spending budget — rent, council tax, electric and gas all have to be paid before everything else. My children would suffer as a result. The extra money I get goes towards the children’s school uniform, trips and extras”. She is worried that she will not be able to manage if her benefits are cut, having only recently turned her life around when she was offered a job as a part-time support worker. This particular family may be protected in the short term, but future clients will find life gets even harder if these changes are introduced. Already, this project refers five to 10 families a week to the local food bank, because they are struggling so much, even though the majority of its clients are in work.
This situation will almost certainly get worse as a result of this Bill. I therefore urge the House to support amendments that would relax the limit on support for larger families—or at least reduce its impact by protecting the most vulnerable families—and look very carefully at ensuring that income is included as a factor in child poverty.