Poverty Reduction - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:33 pm on 22 February 2024.

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Photo of Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government) 1:33, 22 February 2024

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for securing this very important debate, for the truly magnificent work he has done over many years to alleviate poverty and homelessness, and for being a real champion of independence and dignity as that work was carried out. I also congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham on his marvellous valedictory speech, on all the work he has done on child poverty and refugees, and on his passionate advocacy for those on the margins. I also thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford. I am a Hertfordshire girl, and the two are always getting mixed up with each other, but I know the difference. We very much look forward to working with him—and, I hope, helping him avoid the fate of some of his more unfortunate predecessors.

Last night, I attended my last full council meeting at Stevenage after 27 years as a councillor, and I will continue to serve the last of my 17 years as a county councillor until May 2025. This is relevant to this debate because, every day on the front line, councillors see the dreadful impact of entrenched poverty. My county council division, Bedwell, contains one of the most deprived wards in the country. The inequalities there get lost because of our being situated in the middle of relatively wealthy Hertfordshire, an issue the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford referred to. But the inequalities are stark. People living in Bedwell will live seven years fewer than those in other parts of my town, and 12 years fewer than those in St Albans, which is 12 miles away. Their educational attainment will be significantly lower, and we are already seeing further dips in key stage 1 and 2 results following the pandemic. Levels of economic activity are hampered by poor physical and mental health. While those lucky enough to be in social housing fare a bit better, poor, inadequate, expensive and insecure housing in the private sector creates a multitude of issues. Almost worse than all of this is the dreadful impact poverty has on the life chances, confidence and aspirations of people who live in such difficult circumstances. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, referred to this.

J.K. Rowling once said:

“Poverty entails fear, and stress, and sometimes depression; it means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships.”

There can be no worse indictment of the record of the last 14 years than that levels of poverty have got worse. More people are suffering those thousand petty humiliations and hardships. Worse still, more children are living in very deep poverty or worse, and 1 million children are living in destitution, as reported in the excellent Joseph Rowntree Trust report on poverty in 2024. There are 3.8 million people, including those 1 million children, living in destitution in the UK in 2024. They cannot afford to meet their most basic physical needs—to stay warm, dry, clean and fed. This figure has doubled since 2017. It is utterly shameful.

There is a disproportionate impact on families with more than three children, lone-parent families, families with younger children and some ethnic minority groups. Shockingly, some 50% of people in Pakistani or Bangladeshi households live in poverty, compared with 19% of people of white ethnicity. The high cost of living with a disability, whether poor physical or mental health, means that the poverty rate for these groups is 12% higher than for those who are not disabled. Those who take on unpaid carer responsibilities, who we should recognise as heroes for the saving they bring to the public purse, instead face increased poverty and an average financial pay penalty of £414 a month.

The petty humiliations and hardships are bad enough: children not able to go on school trips, wear proper school uniform, have shoes that fit them or sleep in their own beds with proper bedding; and managing without adequate sanitary protection. My own one was not being able to take part in cooking lessons at school because I was not allowed to take the ingredients on the list for what we had to make. I will never forget the story of the 10-year-old who was a promising opera singer. She and her mum lived in one room, and she did her homework sitting on her mum’s bed. In 10 years, she had never had a bed to herself. When you live like that, you cannot take friends home. It eats away at your self-confidence. It batters your aspirations for the future.

The key causes of such poverty are well documented, if perhaps not so well understood. The title of the debate of the noble Lord, Lord Bird, points to one of the key reasons why it has seemed much harder than it should be to work across government to resolve some of these generational, underlying issues.

I was astonished to discover when I first came to your Lordships’ House that the broad sweep of work that we do in local government is just not replicated by the work of DLUHC here. As the convenors of coalitions across business and the public and voluntary sectors, leaders of councils draw together many different strands to effect the change they want to see achieve outcomes for their areas. They also have key responsibilities for adult social care and children’s services, tackling climate change, driving economic development, and transport infrastructure, which in government sit in entirely different departments. These differences were referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox.

We know what would make a difference to tackling poverty, and I have no doubt that the levelling-up agenda was intended to address it, but without fundamental reform at government level, it is difficult to see how it will succeed. It was disappointing—not to say incomprehensible—that the Government refused to include tackling child poverty as one of the key levelling-up missions, in spite of the powerful case made by my noble friend Lady Lister and other noble Lords. That is why my party is proposing a mission-led Government which will see the structures determined by the outcomes, not the other way round, and a radical child poverty strategy.

It has been tragic to see the steps taken over the last 14 years that have exacerbated the situation. There is the hollowing out of the fantastically progressive Sure Start programme, the introduction of the two-child rule for benefits, the failure to address the economic activity needs of people with disabilities and poor mental health, the lack of an industrial strategy to deliver the skills we need, and the virtual abandonment of unpaid carers. It is shocking that we now have more food banks in our country than police stations. The imminent removal of the household support fund will make all of this worse.

This failure is particularly highlighted by the situation in housing, where we currently have over a million people on waiting lists, only 8,396 new social homes built last year and newly homeless families outnumbering newly built social homes by six to one. A decent, secure, affordable home is the absolute foundation stone for tackling all the other underlying causes of poverty. I grew up in a council house myself, so I speak from experience here. At a recent event in your Lordships’ House, the story of a family from one of our rural areas—they had been forced away from the area their family had lived in for generations, lived in inadequate accommodation for years and were then given the keys to their new social rented home in their own village—demonstrated yet again that housing matters.

We need to pull together the threads of tackling poverty across government. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Bird, does not like politicians very much, but politics, like marriage, is a triumph of hope over experience. My party has a plan to tackle the causes of economic inactivity: our New Deal for Working People, childcare support through breakfast clubs in every primary school, targeted support for the over-50s and those who have left the labour market, overhauling the skills system so everyone has a chance to carve out a career and breaking down the barriers for disabled people at work, growing the economy so that we put money back into people’s pockets and make work pay, and delivering a bold new cross-government child poverty strategy.

To give people an affordable home, we need to get Britain building homes of all tenures, but particularly social homes. Labour is committed to that. We will make sure there are proper targets for delivery for every area based on housing need and bring forward new “new towns”.

Running our NHS into the ground has seen waiting lists for mental and physical health soar. We need to improve access to those healthcare systems to get people back into work. Carers UK estimates that 1.2 million carers live in poverty, so Labour will reform the NHS and ensure that both paid and unpaid carers are valued and supported. Nearly one in five pensioners—almost 2 million—now lives in poverty. The Government have failed on the uptake of help for poorer pensioners. I will take the opportunity to mention the WASPI generation, who were not adequately informed of the pension-age changes which left their financial and career planning in tatters as seven years were added to their pensionable age when they had planned to retire at 60.

Today’s debate has brought into sharp focus the scale of the challenge. But we must be in no doubt: we should measure our success as a country by the way we deliver for our most vulnerable. Surely, as a minimum, we want to see the levels of poverty and destitution we have heard about today eradicated. For me, that is the minimum we would expect of levelling up.

We should commit to a mission of tackling poverty across government, lifting the stress, anxiety and depression it causes, and removing the thousands of petty humiliations and hardships it causes. Leaving people in poverty and blaming them for their circumstances—something that is sadly endemic in the UK—can deprive the whole country of the talents, skills and potential those people have. We know it needs to be done, so even if it takes a general election to deliver that change, can we please get on with it?