Poverty Reduction - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:05 pm on 22 February 2024.

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Photo of Baroness Lister of Burtersett Baroness Lister of Burtersett Labour 12:05, 22 February 2024

My Lords, follow that! I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for the opportunity not just to debate this important issue but also to say thank you to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham for his tireless championing of the interests of children in poverty and also refugees and asylum seekers. It has been a privilege and a pleasure to work with him, and he will be sorely missed.

I shall focus my remarks mainly on child poverty and the need for a cross-government child poverty strategy, not least because children are disproportionately at risk of poverty. As the Association of Directors of Children’s Services reminded us this week:

“Sadly, children’s needs, their rights and outcomes have not been prioritised in recent years”.

No doubt the Minister will trot out the usual cherry-picked statistics on so-called absolute poverty, despite the promise of the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, when leader of the Conservative Party, that the party

“recognises, will measure and will act on relative poverty”.

I shall spare noble Lords the trading of statistics, but we cannot ignore the growing evidence of the intensification of poverty, serious hardship and indeed, as documented by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, destitution.

Last month, the Prime Minister in a radio interview said that he was sad to hear of families in poverty who reportedly were having to water down baby formula, and that he was committed to sitting down with those involved, if he were written to. Well, he would have to sit down with an awful lot of people, if he were to meet all those who are unable to afford life’s basics today. What is needed is systemic change, not individual sympathy—and that brings me to today’s Motion.

In 2010, the political parties came together to support the introduction of the Child Poverty Act, which required central, devolved and local government to produce child poverty strategies, building on the progress made on reducing child poverty over much of the previous decade. Despite that all-party support, the Act was watered down and then effectively abolished in 2016—though, thanks to the stalwart work of the right reverend Prelate, the duty to continue the measurement and publication of key poverty indicators was retained. But the upshot was that, as the Social Mobility Commission pointed out in 2021, England is now

“the only nation in the UK without a strategy to address child poverty”.

When challenged on the lack of a child poverty strategy, Ministers tend to recite a litany of various inadequate measures, but a list of measures does not constitute a strategy, with clear targets and reporting requirements. In contrast, my party has committed itself in its final National Policy Forum document, agreed by conference, to

“a bold and ambitious strategy to tackle child poverty”,

which will be cross-government and place a

“responsibility of all government departments to tackle the fundamental drivers of poverty”.

I just hope that this commitment will be set out clearly in our manifesto.

Decisions made by almost every government department have implications for children and others in poverty. For example, the Department for Education cannot ignore the impact of poverty, whether it be childcare policies, the costs of education, including school meals, the need to poverty-proof schools and, most fundamentally, the impact of poverty on the ability to learn, and its role in continued inequality of educational opportunities and outcomes.

Home Office rules have a direct impact on poverty among refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, and this is the subject of a current joint inquiry by the APPGs on Migration and on Poverty, which I co-chair. Fuel poverty is the responsibility of the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero; the transition to net zero has to take account of the needs of those living in poverty as, otherwise, new research suggests that they could face what the authors call “transition poverty”.

Before I turn to the Minister’s own area of responsibility, I ask him what cross-government machinery exists to consider the impact of policies on poverty. What discussions does he have with colleagues in other departments to encourage them to think about the poverty implications of their work? The DWP’s work of course remains central to any poverty reduction strategy. At present, it seems as if its anti-poverty policy begins and ends with getting more people into paid work, regardless of the quality of the jobs on offer. I do not dispute that paid work is important and reduces the risk of poverty, but it is no panacea—witness the fact that the majority of children in poverty have at least one parent in work. Indeed, according to Action for Children, around 300,000 families with children are in poverty despite each parent being in full-time work. Much more needs to be done to break down the barriers faced, in particular by those with caring responsibilities.

Punitive sanctions have been shown to be counterproductive, pushing people into low-quality and insecure work, according to the Work Foundation and others. The evidence suggests that those struggling to get by on inadequate benefits do not make effective jobseekers, as poverty reduces psychological bandwidth and job-seeking itself can cost money.

I will say more about the inadequacy of the social security benefits that we expect our fellow citizens to survive on in next week’s uprating debate, but I make just two points now. First, in a briefing paper for the Financial Fairness Trust, my former colleague Professor Donald Hirsch concludes:

“The level of working age benefits in the UK today is denying claimants access to the most fundamental material resources needed to function day to day and have healthy lives”.

Secondly, a report from CPAG, of which I am honorary president, argues that the first step in tackling child poverty has to be the abolition of policies that are increasing it. This includes scrapping the benefit cap and the two-child limit—here, again, I pay tribute to the right reverend Prelate’s indefatigable opposition to the latter; I suspect that the Minister might breathe a sigh of relief not to hear more from him about its iniquities. Underlying both points are the series of cuts made to social security since 2010. Given that many of those affected were already in poverty, we may have seen the impact less in the numbers in poverty and more in its growing depth.

A cross-government strategy must also include local government. Key here is the future of the household support fund. In his Answer to my recent Oral Question, the Minister referred to councils’ continued ability

“to use funding … to provide local welfare assistance”,—[Official Report, 30/1/24; col. 1106.] which replaced the national Social Fund. But when I followed up with a Written Question about how many English local authorities do not run such a scheme, he responded that the Government do not have “robust data”. Why do they not? According to End Furniture Poverty, 37 authorities have closed their scheme, which means that if the household support fund is abolished as feared, there will be nothing other than charity for people in need to turn to. To their credit, a number of local authorities have developed anti-poverty strategies despite their financial pressures, but it is clear from research by Greater Manchester Poverty Action that they are hampered by the absence of a UK government strategy and by national policies that have compounded poverty.

As made clear so graphically by the noble Lord, Lord Bird, policy-making must aim to prevent poverty rather than simply reduce it after the event. I see that as one of the principles that should inform any anti-poverty strategy. Other principles include: the need to provide genuine financial security; attention to diversity, including the particular needs of racialised minorities, disabled people and women; recognition that poverty is experienced not just as a disadvantaged and insecure economic condition but as a corrosive and shameful social relation, which means that policies and their application must be dignity-promoting rather than, as is too often the case, shame-inducing; and, related to this, the involvement of people with experience of poverty, including children, in the development of anti-poverty policies—here we can learn from Scotland.

There is growing recognition of the value of the expertise of experience thanks to projects such as Changing Realities. Its recent briefing began and ended by quoting Erik, a single disabled parent. He argues:

“It is NOW that changes must be made in order for a fairer society where we can all have a reasonable standard of living, bring up our families to have the best possible start in life that is achievable”,

but, he says:

“I am starting to lose hope that anything will change for low-income families”.

Whatever Benches we sit on, we have a duty to offer people like Erik some cause for hope. He is right that change must happen now. Indeed, as public attitudes towards action against poverty appear to have softened in recent years, what better time to offer a vision of a good society in which a cross-government anti-poverty strategy has to play a central part?