Supporting Disadvantaged Families - Statement

– in the House of Lords at 5:13 pm on 12th November 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Monday 9 November.

“Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, this Government have put an unprecedented package of support in place to strengthen the safety net for individuals, families, communities and businesses who need help at this critical time. We recognise that this has been a challenging year for everyone, especially for those who have lost their jobs and those families who are feeling the extra strain, worrying about putting food on the table or money in the meter. The Prime Minister has been clear that this Government will use all their efforts to make sure that no child should go hungry this winter. This Government also want to ensure that every child reaches their full potential. That is why I am announcing a comprehensive package of support to see these families through the winter months and beyond, through the new Covid winter grant scheme, increasing the value of Healthy Start vouchers, and the national rollout of the holiday activities and food programme for the longer holidays in 2021.

With Christmas coming, we want to give disadvantaged families peace of mind and help those who need it to have food on the table and other essentials so that every child will be warm and well fed this winter. Through the Covid winter grant scheme, we are delivering £170 million to local authorities in England, starting next month, to cover the period until the end of March. That fund builds on the £63 million already distributed earlier this year and, as then, funding will be disbursed according to an authority’s population, weighted by a function of the English index of multiple deprivation. Any Barnett consequentials are already included in the guaranteed £16 billion funding for the devolved Administrations, so there is funding available for every child in the UK, and I hope that the devolved Administrations will play their part in this mission.

Local councils have the local ties and knowledge, making them best placed to identify and help those children and families most in need, and it is important to stress that the scheme covers children of pre-school age, too. Targeting this money effectively will ease the burden faced by those families across the country worrying about the next bill coming through the letterbox or the next food shop. Grants will be made under Section 31 of the Local Government Act 2003, and different from earlier in the year, they will carry conditions and reporting requirements to ensure that the scheme is focused on providing support with food and utility costs to vulnerable families with children who are affected by the pandemic. We will require that at least 80% of the grant is spent on children with their families, providing some flexibility for councils to help other vulnerable people. We will also require councils to spend at least 80% on food and key utilities, again providing some flexibility for other essentials.

In trying to give children the best start in life, it is important that food for young children and expectant mothers should be nutritious, as that will help in their future health and educational attainment. That is why we are increasing the value of Healthy Start vouchers by more than a third, helping low-income families to buy fresh milk and fruit and vegetables, and helping to boost their health and readiness for school. From April 2021, the value of vouchers will rise from £3.10 to £4.25.

The third part of our comprehensive package is the extra support we will be giving children and families during the longer school holidays. After successful pilots of our holiday activities and food programme, I am pleased to let the House know that it will be expanded and rolled out across the country starting from Easter next year, through the summer and the Christmas holidays, supported by £220 million of funding.

Our manifesto set out our commitment to flexible childcare, and the expansion of the holiday activities and food programme has always been part of that commitment. We are building on the learning from the successful delivery of the programme over the past three years to expand it across England, as we had set out to do. The programme, which is being extended to all disadvantaged children, offers that vital connection for children during the longer school holidays to enriching activities such as arts and sport which will help them perform better in school, as well as a free, nutritious meal while they are there.

In May, the Government provided £16 million to charities to provide food for those struggling due to the immediate impacts of the pandemic. I announce today that we will match that figure again, making a further £16 million available to fund local charities through well-established networks and provide immediate support to frontline food aid charities, who have a vital role to play in supporting people of all ages. The package taken as a whole will make a big difference to families and children throughout the country as we continue to fight the virus.

We are taking a long-term, holistic approach, looking at health, education and hunger in the round, not just over the Christmas period but throughout the winter and beyond. This is not just about responding to the pressures of winter and Covid but about further rolling out the holiday activities fund, which is an established part of the Government’s approach to helping children reach their full potential. With this announcement, we are ensuring that as well as taking unprecedented action to protect jobs and livelihoods, we are protecting younger generations.

We are living under extraordinary circumstances, which require an extraordinary response, but I am steadfast in taking action to support all children to fulfil their potential long after we have beaten the pandemic. Social justice has been at the heart of every decision this compassionate Conservative Government have made, whether that be protecting over 12 million jobs through our income support schemes, injecting over £9 billion into the welfare system or providing over four million food boxes to those shielding. This is yet another example of how the Government have supported people throughout the pandemic.”

Photo of Baroness Sherlock Baroness Sherlock Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 5:24 pm, 12th November 2020

We welcome the contents of this Statement. Any measures that can help to stop children going hungry over the tough months ahead must always be welcomed.

However, before I ask questions, let us look briefly at the context. I must say that I was a wee bit disappointed that the Statement made no reference anywhere to Marcus Rashford, even though everybody knows that this initiative is a response to his campaign for free school meals in the holidays. Can I invite the Minister to go on the record and pay tribute to Mr Rashford, as I do? It is quite an achievement on his part not only to force this Prime Minister to move but also to get the whole country talking about child poverty. Indeed, it is quite chastening for those of us who spend most of our lives talking about the issue, but it is a remarkable achievement. If I am ever lucky enough to meet Marcus Rashford, after congratulating him, I think I might see if I can focus his attention next on the five-week wait or maybe the savings gateway and universal credit.

Although I am thrilled at his success, I wish that the Government had handled this better. There was a deeply depressing debate in the other place where hapless Tory MPs were forced to defend the Government’s stance on this, not just by disputing the Rashford free school meals plan but essentially by claiming that there is not an underlying problem. We need to be very careful how we talk about these matters because, as the national debate raged on, we started to hear parents once again being blamed for their poverty, with the old chestnuts appearing that if you give money or vouchers to poor parents, they will only spend them on drugs. Yet, out of this mess came one of the most heartwarming things I have seen this year, when the backlash against the Government’s position prompted a huge number of hospitality businesses, many of them badly hit by the pandemic, to offer to feed children free of charge during half-term when the Government did not.

Enough of that: I am delighted that the Government have now come round and agreed to take some action. It would be helpful if the Minister could give the House some more details on the package. First, we are told that there will be a new Covid winter grant scheme, which will give £170 million to English local authorities and, unlike previous grants,

“will carry conditions and reporting requirements to ensure that the scheme is focused on providing support with food and utility costs to vulnerable families with children who are affected by the pandemic.”

Are the Government going to define “vulnerable”? Is it about income or is it more than that? Does struggling to make ends meet count as vulnerable? Plenty of people who would not previously have classed themselves as vulnerable are losing their jobs or facing cuts in income as a result of this pandemic. Who is going to be covered by this scheme?

It is good to know that the Government will roll out holiday activities and food programmes across the country from Easter next year. Does that mean that the scheme will be in place for the next Easter holidays, in 2021, or will it kick in after Easter? We are told that the scheme is being extended to “all disadvantaged children”. Can the Minister tell the House what a disadvantaged child is for these purposes? Is it the same as a vulnerable child for the purposes of the Covid winter grant scheme? Are these separate schemes aimed at the same families or are they different schemes aimed at different families, and is there an overlap? Finally, we are told that the value of Healthy Start vouchers will be raised from £3.10 to £4.25 but not until next April. Can the Minister explain why it is not happening straightaway, given the amount of need in the country right now?

There is a much deeper issue here. During the campaign on extending free school meals, I was horrified to hear suggestions that the blame lay with parents for failing to feed their kids properly when the basic underlying problem is that too many parents just do not have enough money to make ends meet. Every week, more people are losing hours or losing jobs and they are finding that, despite years of paying in, our social security system simply does not provide them with enough to live on. However, every time we mention this, Ministers simply repeat that they have given £9 billion et cetera. That is great—I am really glad that they have invested this money—but it is clearly not adequate to the scale of the problem. Food bank use is skyrocketing and people are falling into debt. That highlights that there just is not enough money in the system.

At the start of this crisis, we asked for five urgent steps to be taken. The first was an extension of the £20 increase in universal credit to legacy benefits. I urge the Minister again, as I did this morning, to explain to the House why the Government will not do that—that is, tell us not just that they will not but why. Why is it okay to give the money to universal credit recipients but refuse it to JSA and ESA? Secondly, we asked them to scrap the savings threshold on universal credit so that we were not punishing savers. Thirdly, we asked for an end to the terrible two-child limit. Fourthly, we asked for a suspension of the benefit cap so that everyone can get the extra money that the Government have announced. Fifthly, we asked them to turn the universal credit advance into a grant rather than a loan to address the five-week wait in the short term.

If Ministers had taken those basic steps, we would have fewer parents struggling to feed their children in the first place. I therefore urge the Minister to ask her colleagues to change their minds once more, to implement these five changes and then to take a longer look at why our social security system is failing to stop so many of our fellow citizens falling into poverty. This pandemic has already done enough damage to our children. Let us all work together to do what we can to stop it getting any worse.

Photo of Baroness Janke Baroness Janke Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

My Lords, we welcome these measures and recognise the Government’s intentions to support disadvantaged families through winter and beyond—

Photo of Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I am sorry, but we cannot hear the noble Baroness. Could she try again?

Photo of Baroness Janke Baroness Janke Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

Can you hear me? We very much welcome these measures, and I too pay tribute to Marcus Rashford and his campaign.

I would like to understand a little more of the noble Baroness’s clarification of what is meant by “beyond”. I very much hope that there is to be a longer-term strategy on this issue, as criticisms I have heard from local people are that the Government appear to be following a policy of knee-jerk responses and quick fixes, while the public in general would welcome a much longer-term approach, which would give them more confidence. For example, is it the Government’s intention that the temporary measures taken during the pandemic are to be made permanent, such as the extension of the free school meals entitlement to families with no recourse to public funds? Perhaps the noble Baroness could clarify that.

The Statement also said that local authorities have local ties and knowledge, and this is most certainly the case. Local authorities are to receive £160 million, to be added to the £63 million—[Inaudible.]

Photo of Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I am sorry, but we cannot hear the noble Baroness. Can she get closer to the microphone?

Photo of Baroness Janke Baroness Janke Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I am right up against the microphone now. Can you hear me?

Photo of Baroness Janke Baroness Janke Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

Local authorities are to receive £160 million, to be added to the previous sum of £63 million which was distributed earlier in the year. This is to be paid as a one-off government grant. I would like to understand more about the basis of these measures. What consultations have taken place with local government and what were their outcomes?

The issue of conditionality was raised. How is that to be achieved and demonstrated? Are there to be target numbers of families or children? Are levels of participation to be measured, or perhaps there are measures of improved well-being that are to be reported upon?

What exactly is the basis of these sums of money? We are told that funding will be dispersed according to an authority’s population, weighted by a function of the English indices of multiple deprivation, so presumably we are looking at a sum per head. Can the noble Baroness say how much per head and for how many people?

Does the noble Baroness feel confident about the number of families that are to be helped, given that local authorities have had financial cuts of £16 million over the last 10 years and that their capacity is significantly reduced? Many important services for disadvantaged families no longer exist in many areas, such as family support schemes and community facilities such as libraries, sports and recreation, and local health promotion, and many of those may be required to implement the scheme. Does the noble Baroness feel that the sums of money here will be enough to achieve the objectives she describes in the Statement?

The noble Baroness talked about the importance of nutritious food. Has any financial assessment been made of the cost of providing this to the numbers involved? If so, it would be good to see it. The Food Foundation has established that, to pay for the Government-recommended “eatwell plates”, people on universal credit would need to spend around two-thirds of their non-housing income on food. It would help to understand the analysis that underpins these measures.

We all welcome the expansion of holiday activities for disadvantaged children. Can the Minister clarify how these children are to be identified? Who is eligible for these provisions? Existing criteria exclude many children, particularly in low-paid working families. We have welcomed the temporary measures that have been introduced during the current crisis. Can the Minister assure the House that these will remain in place?

We welcome the £16 million for charities to help those struggling to afford food, but surely this is no more than a sticking plaster. We must ensure that families’ income is sufficient so that they can afford to provide nutritious food for themselves and their children. Removing the benefit cap and the three-child limit would help. If the Government do not intend to do that, what longer-term policies are being considered to ensure that families and children will no longer have to depend on short-term fixes and will have enough income to provide their own food and care for their families without depending on charities?

Photo of Baroness Stedman-Scott Baroness Stedman-Scott The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

My Lords, I will respond first to the points raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Sherlock, and then cover the points from the noble Baroness, Lady Janke. I am sorry that the audio of the noble Baroness, Lady Janke, was not at all good. If I do not answer all her questions, I will go through Hansard tomorrow and make sure that she receives a written answer.

I am grateful that both noble Baronesses welcomed the Statement. Let me say right at the start that the Government much admire Marcus Rashford’s passion and commitment and are proud to have provided this invaluable support. I note the hopes of the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, for Marcus Rashford’s next campaign.

She also mentioned the comments about parents who use their benefits for purposes other than we would wish. We do not associate ourselves with those remarks. We are only too aware and appreciative of the difficult circumstances in which some parents find themselves at the moment. We are delighted that the hospitality industry came into its own and are glad that it was in a position to give extra help.

I am well aware that earlier at Questions, the noble Baroness was underwhelmed by my response about legacy benefits. I will try to be a little more helpful. Back in March, when there were no arrangements such as the furlough in place, UC had to take the strain until those schemes came online. The Government were trying to cushion those who had had a fall in income because they were made unemployed, or their earnings dropped, due to Covid-19. They were not trying to provide a general uplift in benefits. Those who were newly signed on to universal credit did so because they had seen a significant drop in their income, whereas those on legacy benefits had not seen the same fall.

Moving on to what we have done, we have announced a £170 million Covid winter grant scheme, to make sure that families get the help they need. We are giving this to councils because they are best placed to understand their communities. They know the most vulnerable children and families who need this money. As the noble Baroness, Lady Janke, said, this is being done on a per-head-of-population basis, according to the deprivation indices.

We are also investing £220 million more than existing funding allocated to the programme. This will mean that children eligible for free school meals will have the option to join a holiday time programme that provides healthy food and funds activities during the summer, Christmas and Easter holidays. I am afraid I am not able to comment on more than that timeframe. I will write to the noble Baroness about why the Healthy Start payments will not start until April 2021.

On the holiday activities and food programme, much has been said about the speed at which it has been introduced and whether it was a reaction, but I will say that we have been piloting this initiative and trying to work out how best to deliver it. This was not a knee-jerk response or something we thought we had better get on and do; it was something we piloted and tested. We made sure that, when we announced it, we knew that it would work. Since the summer, 50,000 children have benefited from the holiday activities and food fund, and a further 2,500 additional breakfast clubs have been started.

Will all children in England be eligible for a place on a HAFF programme? The programme will make free places available to children eligible for free school meals in their local authority for a minimum of four hours a day, four days a week, six weeks a year. This will cover four weeks in the summer and a week’s worth of provision in each of the Easter and Christmas holidays. As I have said before, local authorities have the flexibility to decide how to do this and how to use the money.

As I expected and I understand, there has been a call for the £20 uplift to be extended to legacy benefits, and I have been very clear about the Government’ position on this. The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, raised the issues of the savings threshold, the two-child limit, the benefit cap and advances into grants. I have made clear that the Government do not have any plans at the moment to change those things, and, as my Secretary of State said in the other place,

“advances are actual grants to people—they are just the phasing of universal credit payments over the year”— and they are repayable within a year—

“and soon to be over two years if that is what claimants want.”—[Official Report, Commons, 9/11/20; col. 642.]

We are listening and extending the time.

Where we have been doing the local pilots, there has been extensive discussion on interfacing with local authorities. I understand that the Government have written to all the chief executives of the local authorities, and, at this stage in the proceedings, the announcement and commitment have gone down very well. I am afraid I cannot tell the noble Baroness, Lady Janke, how much it is per head because it will be up to local authorities to say where the money goes and spend it most effectively.

Understandably, the noble Baroness, Lady Janke, raised the point about local authorities and underfunding. We are giving councils unprecedented support during the pandemic: a package of £6.4 billion so far. We recognise that there will be individual councils with unique circumstances, and we encourage them to approach MHCLG to discuss their future financial position.

Before I close this part of the questioning, I will make the point that Covid has certainly made life very difficult for people—nobody is trying to ignore that—but, underlying this, we believe that parents are responsible for their children. It is not the state’s job to take that responsibility, other than in these very difficult times, where we are trying to do everything we can. One of the areas I have responsibility for is the Child Maintenance Service. You would not believe the extent to which people try to get out of their responsibilities to pay for their children. We are working very hard to get this money back. As it stands, there are 130,000 children who are owed £381.3 million, and I am doing everything I can to get that money to children because it would make a huge difference to their lives.

Photo of Lord Russell of Liverpool Lord Russell of Liverpool Deputy Chairman of Committees

We now come to the 30 minutes allocated for Back-Bench questions. I ask that questions and answers be brief so that I can call the maximum number of speakers.

Photo of Lord Berkeley of Knighton Lord Berkeley of Knighton Crossbench 5:45 pm, 12th November 2020

My Lords, naturally, I am extremely pleased the Government are responding to this very real need, even if as something of a reaction to public disquiet. Marcus Rashford is clearly an artist on and off the field.

This money will obviously make a real impact in areas of disadvantage and poverty. However, I am sad to say I must add to them the current plight of freelancers and their families. Despite the Chancellor’s generous support for the arts, it is a fact that this section of society is falling through the support network provided by the Government. I know of people who are seriously worried about how they will feed their families this winter and this Christmas.

In anticipation of the Minister’s response, I put it to her that not only are a huge proportion of freelancers unable to access SEISS according to the Government’s own figures but they are unable to claim universal credit for the following reason. If they have been saving to pay tax on earnings made prior to Covid-19, they could easily have the savings as a couple that exceed the £16,000 threshold—money that is ultimately destined for the Chancellor.

Although I find myself incredulous at my own words that, for example, a highly skilled violinist of many years’ standing in the profession might not be able to feed his family this winter, that is in fact the case. When Keir Starmer in the other place gave the example of Chris, the photographer, to the Prime Minister at PMQs yesterday, Mr Johnson completely dodged the question, saying Chris would be better off once we had dealt with the virus. That is obvious, but I doubt Chris felt this solved his immediate and imminent financial crisis. Can the Minister say whether her department and the Chancellor will look at the predicament of freelancers in our society? Secondly, will they be able to access the support announced in the Statement?

Photo of Baroness Stedman-Scott Baroness Stedman-Scott The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I thank the noble Lord for that poignant comment. I understand his concern and distress about this situation. The issue of the support—or otherwise, as he would say—for freelancers rests with the Treasury, but I will go back to the Treasury and get answers to those questions, especially about the savings, where they put money aside to pay their bill. I will talk to those in the department to see if, in those circumstances, people can access universal credit and the help we are announcing today. I hope he will give me time to do that.

Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Chair, Economic Affairs Committee, Chair, Economic Affairs Committee

My Lords, at a time when it is claimed we have more food banks than McDonald’s restaurants in our country, and following the rather disappointing response to the Economic Affairs Committee’s report Universal Credit Isn’t Working, when will the Government end the anguish and uncertainty facing families who stand to lose £1,000 a year unless the standard allowance is made permanent after April? How can it be right to deduct up to a quarter of universal credit payments from families due to historic debt arising from faults in legacy systems, much of which they are completely unaware of? Finally, when will the department make a decision on the benefit cap, which affects 7% of families with children?

Photo of Baroness Stedman-Scott Baroness Stedman-Scott The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I will answer again on the £20 uplift. We are in discussion with officials at the Treasury: when a decision has been made, Parliament will be advised. The issue of historic debt is well documented and well discussed. Nothing I can say now will make that situation any different. However, where people are struggling, even when the level has been reduced to the maximum of 25% being taken off, please will they talk to their work coaches, who will turn themselves inside out to help? That is probably not the answer the noble Lord wants—but that is what they are there to do. As things stand, there are no plans to change the benefit cap.

Photo of The Bishop of Durham The Bishop of Durham Bishop

I warmly welcome so much in the Statement and in the decisions made; I also associate myself with those who ask why it did not all happen a bit more quickly. None the less, this has exposed the underlying fundamental structural issues which mean that we are not tackling child poverty in the round and as a whole. What consideration have Her Majesty’s Government given to creating really long-term solutions by forming a child poverty commission, as proposed by faith leaders in their recent letter to the Prime Minister?

Photo of Baroness Stedman-Scott Baroness Stedman-Scott The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

The right reverend Prelate is consistent in the issues that he raises, and I understand that. As for this happening more quickly, as I said, we were piloting and we were in dialogue. We were not sitting around waiting to be kicked into touch. As I have also said before, we have tested to make sure that these things can work. As for the long-term issue of a child poverty commission, I am not aware of any plans, but I will go away and double-check for him. I take this opportunity to thank the Church and all the faith groups who are supporting their communities in such an outstanding way.

Photo of Baroness Drake Baroness Drake Labour

My Lords, for the Government, protecting children is a moral imperative, because children cannot protect themselves. He may not have used those actual words, but they underpin the simple and compelling request from Marcus Rashford; that is why it was so clearly understood by the public and local businesses in their communities. I welcome the Statement as a contribution to preventing children going hungry, but this is a problem growing in prevalence and urgency. The role of local government is important, but may I push the Minister further on the question put by my noble friend Lady Sherlock about how “vulnerable” will be defined? That will be key in capturing the population to be helped and ensuring that some vulnerable families and children are not missed. For example, food aid charities have identified the emergence of the newly hungry—a growing cohort of people previously in jobs, who have been forced to use food banks and claim benefits for the first time during the pandemic. Will the Minister write, giving more detail on how the DWP will define vulnerable families in the Covid winter grant scheme, to ensure and give confidence that that category will include all those who need help?

There is a second example. On 9 November in the other place, the Secretary of State, Dr Coffey, said that

“every child has no need to go hungry in this country”,—[Official Report, Commons, 9/11/20; col. 649.] and that there would be

“funding available for every child in the UK”.—[Official Report, Commons, 9/11/20; col. 637.]

But she did not expressly answer a question posed by Stephen Timms, so I ask the Minister that question again now. Will she confirm that this package of support extends to families who have no recourse to public funds?

Photo of Baroness Stedman-Scott Baroness Stedman-Scott The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Of course we agree completely that children cannot protect themselves, and we must all do our part to protect them. Local government’s role is important, and we urge all partners in the communities that work with their local authorities, and the community groups with which they have relationships, to work together to identify those they know who really need this support. I undertake to write to the noble Baroness, as she requests, about the term “vulnerable”. As for those with no recourse to public funds, local authorities can, and already do, use their judgment to assess what support they may lawfully give to each person on an individual basis, taking into account their needs and circumstances. That includes providing a basic safety net option to individuals regardless of their immigration status, if there is a genuine care need that does not arise solely from destitution—for example, if there are community care needs or serious health problems—and there is a risk to a child’s well-being.

Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat

My Lords, it is odd when we talk about child poverty as though it has happened with the pandemic. Food poverty during the holidays has been with us for a long time. In that context, it is only fair to ask what the Government’s long-terms plans are. They must have seen this coming for a long time. What are they going to do to make sure that the whole of the school holidays—not just six weeks—are covered? Will they make sure that in future they have a coherent plan to ensure that children get through the whole period with enough nourishment, so that they are not in a state of low nutrition, meaning that they cannot learn for a few weeks when they get back to school? Marcus Rashford did a wonderful job. It is appalling that the Government had to be told by him what to do and that they did not listen to their own Back-Benchers.

Photo of Baroness Stedman-Scott Baroness Stedman-Scott The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

On a long-term plan, the only commitment that I can make today on behalf of the Government is the one in the announcement. That is the straight answer on that point. I note the noble Lord’s observations in the latter part of his contribution and just say that we have listened to Marcus Rashford and others, piloted the initiative, and responded accordingly.

Photo of Baroness Eaton Baroness Eaton Conservative

My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister confirm that support with food costs will not be confined to families with school-age children but will extend to those with pre-school children as well?

Photo of Baroness Stedman-Scott Baroness Stedman-Scott The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

The £170 million scheme recognises that more people might feel under pressure this winter and will allow local authorities to support a wider group of vulnerable people, including those with children of pre-school age. Precise eligibility for the Covid winter grant scheme will be decided by each local authority. This is not about numbers; it is for local authorities to decide how they can best support those in need. The Healthy Start scheme payments are also set to increase from £3.10 to £4.25 a week from next April.

Photo of Baroness Lister of Burtersett Baroness Lister of Burtersett Labour

The Statement said that the Government want to give disadvantaged families peace of mind. Welcome as this week’s package is, why do the Government continue to refuse to act on calls from children’s and anti-poverty organisations? Their work shows that improvements to social security support for children is essential for their parents’ peace of mind and for tackling child poverty and hunger in both the short and longer term, as called for by the right reverend Prelate.

Photo of Baroness Stedman-Scott Baroness Stedman-Scott The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

The noble Baroness is correct in that we want to give people peace of mind, as reflected in the announcement that we have made. The right reverend Prelate made his statement, and all I can say is that our Secretary of State, the department and the Government are working tirelessly around the clock to make sure that there is a package in place that does what it can to support people in these difficult times.

Photo of Lord Taylor of Goss Moor Lord Taylor of Goss Moor Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I would like to associate myself with the comments of others in congratulating Marcus Rashford on persuading the Government to take these rightful actions. As a single father, I am not disadvantaged financially, but I have direct experience with three young boys—two of whom, at different times in the last month, have had to self-isolate at home because of potential contact with coronavirus cases at school—of just how difficult it can be for families in these circumstances.

First, can the Minister assure us that no one will now have to choose between looking after their children when they need looking after and earning an income—that the financial support will always be there for everyone who needs it? Secondly, can the Minister comment on the rollout of computers to schools to make sure that every child at home gets the opportunity for education? It is absolutely clear, from all the evidence presented to the Government, that the coronavirus period has been a catastrophe for many children, particularly those who were already disadvantaged.

Photo of Baroness Stedman-Scott Baroness Stedman-Scott The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I can appreciate the noble Lord’s commitment to his three boys and the difficulties with their care caused by Covid. We have done as much as we possibly can to make sure that childcare stays in place, even paying for places when nurseries have been closed. As for enabling parents to look after their children, and not having to choose between earning money and not going to work, I think most employers have been very considerate about these circumstances and have been as flexible as they can. In relation to computers for schools and the disruption to education, the noble Lord’s point is very well made. I will ask my colleague in the DfE to write to him specifically about computers.

Photo of Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Non-affiliated

My Lords, while welcoming the contents of the Statement, I have to say that I agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham that there needs to be a child poverty commission. The Statement clearly highlights that there has been such a deficit in welfare and child welfare policy. Will the Minister talk to her Secretary of State to ensure that discussions get under way about an immediate review of welfare policy in light of the pandemic?

Secondly, could she provide an estimate of what amount of money under the Barnett consequentials or Covid winter grant scheme—£16 billion has been allocated to the devolved Administrations—has actually been allocated to Northern Ireland? Will she further ensure that that money is dedicated to disadvantaged families and does not go into the central pot of the Department of Finance?

Photo of Baroness Stedman-Scott Baroness Stedman-Scott The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I will go back and speak to my Secretary of State about the points the noble Baroness raises. I cannot make any commitment further than that. As the noble Baroness says, £16 billion is given to the devolved Administrations to allow them to plan. Last week, in the Chancellor’s Statement, there was a recognition that, through the Barnett formula, every time we do certain different policies, the devolved Administrations want to do additional things. We have a mature relationship with the devolved Administrations. They have been set a guaranteed amount of funding, and I assure the noble Baroness that there is still more room in terms of Barnett consequentials. The Chancellor was right to make the decision he did, and I am glad she welcomes it.

Photo of Baroness Altmann Baroness Altmann Conservative

My Lords, I too welcome this Statement and this decision, and congratulate the Government. I urge my noble friend, in line with her responses, including to my noble friend Lord Forsyth, to continue urgently talking to the Treasury about the extra £20 uplift in universal credit being extended, given that the opportunity of work is much more difficult in the current environment. I also encourage the Government to look at the position of children in particular, as the noble Baronesses, Lady Lister and Lady Ritchie, have said.

Could my noble friend the Minister please join me in praising the work of others, not just Marcus Rashford—the local organisations and religious groups across the country involved in providing these activities and food for children, who have helped make the pilot scheme such a success?

Photo of Baroness Stedman-Scott Baroness Stedman-Scott The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

At the risk of repeating myself, the issue that the noble Baroness raises about the £20 uplift has been raised many times, and we undertake to come back to Parliament to advise on the outcome of discussions with the Treasury. On praising the work of local organisations, I have already given an absolute endorsement to faith groups—the Church of England, Jewish communities, the Salvation Army—and many other charities that I wish I could mention by name. We have seen some fantastic provision in the last three years and we want to take that learning experience into the future delivery of holiday activities and food programmes.

Photo of Baroness Massey of Darwen Baroness Massey of Darwen Labour

My Lords, I of course welcome the positive aspect of the Statement, but it feels to me that the Government have reacted to crisis under pressure from local government, the voluntary sector and dynamic individuals. A new report from the Local Government Association, A Child-centred Recovery, points out that children have been disproportionately impacted by the Covid crisis. The report calls for a

“cross-Whitehall strategy that puts children and young people at the heart of recovery”.

It seems blindingly clear that a cross-departmental strategy for children should be an urgent priority. Will the Minister take this forward?

Photo of Baroness Stedman-Scott Baroness Stedman-Scott The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I am pleased to tell the noble Baroness that there is already a forward-looking approach that is long-term and cross-departmental, with DWP working closely with the DfE and Defra to target support to those in need. The Secretary of State set out in the other place her desire to ensure that every child has the chance to realise their full potential, and the long-term thinking in this support package will help to achieve this far more than piecemeal reform. I ask the noble Baroness to write to me if there are particular things that she would like included; I am quite prepared to make those available to the department.

Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence)

My Lords, clearly the additional funding is welcome, but I note that the Statement suggests that there will be additional reporting requirements and conditions for local authorities. What work have the Government done in talking to local authorities to ensure that such requirements are not overly onerous? It would be something of an own goal to have money being spent that local authorities do not have the time to disburse. In the longer term, what are Her Majesty’s Government doing to make child poverty history?

Photo of Baroness Stedman-Scott Baroness Stedman-Scott The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

The noble Baroness raises a really important point about reporting. We will need some information back for the sums of money that we will be spending. I sincerely hope that the reporting requirements will not be onerous, but that they will enable us to understand the impact of the spending and the difference it makes, and help us understand what needs to be done next. I really hope that will be case. I can only reiterate that we are working hard as a Government to make sure that children and families have the support they need in these even more difficult times.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, has withdrawn her name, so I call the next speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Labour

My Lords, what is happening about the decline in the number of health visitors in respect of the youngest children in disadvantaged families? If the Government, as was said in the Statement, are taking a long-term holistic approach, why has there been no national health inequality strategy since 2010? Is this why life expectancy in England has stalled since 2010—something that has not happened since 1900, according to The Marmot Review 10 Years On?

Photo of Baroness Stedman-Scott Baroness Stedman-Scott The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

There is an exam question to finish this session. I will need to ask my colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care to provide the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, with the information about health visitors and the other valid points that he raises.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, all speakers who wished to ask questions on the Statement have done so. We will move straight on to the next Statement, but I recommend that we just take a few moments to allow Front-Bench Members and others to find their right places.