Poverty Reduction - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:27 pm on 22 February 2024.

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Photo of The Bishop of Durham The Bishop of Durham Bishop 12:27, 22 February 2024

I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for securing this debate on an issue of such importance and for the way that he introduced it. Also, because I have spoken on this issue repeatedly throughout my past 10 years as a Member of this House, it thus seems a fitting debate for my valedictory speech. I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, for speaking straight after me. We have worked together on poverty in the north-east. I also look forward to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford’s maiden speech.

During my maiden speech, I spoke of the high levels of poverty in my region of the north-east. Sadly, poverty, particularly child poverty, remains as significant an issue today as it was 10 years ago. Only last week, the North East Child Poverty Commission released its blueprint for tackling child poverty, featuring the latest poverty stats from 2021 to 2022, along with those recorded in 2014-15—the very year I entered this House. They reveal that, in 2021-22, there were around 134,000 children living in poverty in the North East Mayoral Combined Authority—an increase of over 7% since 2014-15.

But poverty is not just about numbers. Behind each statistic are the lives of children and the impact on them is all-encompassing. Poverty means going without the basic essentials. It means not being able to concentrate in school due to an empty stomach and not getting adequate nutrition; a packet of apples costs five times the amount of a packet of biscuits. Poverty means missed opportunities. It denies the chance to develop new skills through extra-curricular activities. Poverty means growing up too soon. It means dealing with stresses and anxieties with which no child should ever be burdened. It impacts the present and its effects last a lifetime.

More fundamentally, I care about poverty because God cares about it. God is:

“Father of the fatherless and protector of widows … he leads out the prisoners to prosperity”.

God calls on leaders and Governments to

“Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute”; to

“Rescue the weak and the needy”,

not leave them there. God gives us a vision of a world where we

“let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”.

This sets our poverty in the broader context of world poverty. While tackling our own, we must maintain our commitment to the world’s poorest. We need overseas development aid to be returned to 0.7% now.

During my time in this House, the Government’s approach to poverty reduction has been promoting work as a route out of poverty. Given that the proportion of children from working families living in poverty in the north-east has risen from 56% to 67% over the last seven years, it is clear that work alone is not enough. Low pay and insecure work continue to prevent families being lifted out of poverty. Work is a successful route out of poverty only if it pays a real living wage, as well as providing secure hours and working practices. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, for her good examples, but they must be good examples for work to work. What steps will the Government take to further improve the national living wage to be at the real living wage level?

Viewing paid work as the sole route out of poverty fails to recognise the invaluable unpaid work that so many contribute. Raising children is the most important role that any parent ever undertakes. Its importance outweighs that of any paid employment and must be acknowledged by the whole of society as such. Further examples of critical unpaid work include running food banks, caring for those in need and running local sports and creative arts clubs. These are all vital to our society yet receive little recognition for their contribution. We need a different way of thinking, where those contributing critical unpaid work are valued in society and no longer faced with financial hardship as a consequence. Can the Minister say whether there is any major work on re-evaluating the great contribution made by volunteer carers and full-time parents and the wider contribution of unpaid work?

To align poverty reduction policy-making, we also need to remove the policies that continue to push more children into poverty. I highlight the two-child limit, which currently affects 1.5 million children. Its removal would lift 250,000 children out of poverty straightaway. On social security benefit levels, we need the essentials guarantee proposed by the Trussell Trust and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Will His Majesty’s Government support this? There is no single, simple solution to poverty reduction. It is a complex issue and there is not one switch to flick to solve it, but neither will anything change if we optimistically sit back and simply hope that the situation will improve.

As we have heard, England currently has no child poverty strategy and there is no UK-wide one. We have no targets or coherent cross-departmental collaboration. I thank each Minister with whom I have constructively engaged over the years, and those from the opposition Benches. I thank in particular the present Minister, who has been wonderful to work with. My individual meetings with the DfE, DWP, DLUHC, the Home Office, DHSC and the Treasury have shown that knowledge and insight from each department is essential, yet they have also demonstrated the need for a more collaborative approach. There is still far too much silo thinking.

Of equal importance are the clear insights that local government brings from its day-to-day experience of poverty in its communities. There are also those from schools, colleges, charities and faith communities who deal with poverty every day. Small and medium-sized businesses create the essential jobs that help people out of poverty, and chambers of commerce have a very important role. They have insights into the reasons for poverty in specific local settings. Most essential is the voice of those who live with poverty themselves. We need a vision for reducing poverty and a strategy that engages all these actors. Decisions by the Treasury, too often made on short-term rather than long-term economic analysis, regularly fly in the face of the evidence presented by other government departments and those who work on a local level. There must be a fundamental shift in our national thinking. Poverty is complex. It requires not only focusing on income levels but a holistic, preventive approach. Stronger communities, better mental and physical health and improved family relationships all contribute to poverty reduction.

That is the serious bit. As I draw to a close, I thank those who have assisted me throughout my time serving in this House: the wonderful doorkeepers; the staff who serve us in hospitality; the security team; the amazing teams in the clerks’, Black Rod’s and the Lord Speaker’s offices; and all those who serve in Whips’ offices and Bill teams. They are superb. I am also deeply grateful to the Church of England’s very small parliamentary office team, Richard Chapman and Simon Stanley; the public affairs team of the Church of England; and each of my three RAMP assistants and seven parliamentary assistants and researchers from the brilliant Buxton scheme. Without them, I could never have taken part in the life of this House in the way that they have enabled me to do. I shall miss this place and the brilliant work it does in scrutinising, revising and seeking to hold the Government to account. Had there been a different flavour of Government while I was on these Benches, I promise I would have behaved in exactly the same way towards them.

Poverty is a scourge. It needs to be confronted head-on as a national emergency. Jesus warned us not to harm children. He also made it clear that all of us have to enter God’s way of living by placing a child in our midst and learning from their trust and humility. We need a clearer vision for children and for how we confront all poverty, one with determination that requires us all to work together. Only then will we see poverty be reduced. Only then will we ensure that no child in this country grows up without the basic essentials and finally end child poverty.