Legislative Consent Motion

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 1:15 pm on 16th November 2009.

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Photo of Gerry Kelly Gerry Kelly Sinn Féin 1:15 pm, 16th November 2009

I beg to move

That this Assembly endorses the principle of the extension to Northern Ireland of the Child Poverty Bill introduced in the House of Commons on 11 June 2009.

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. We are here today to consider a significant piece of legislation that enshrines in law the duty to eradicate child poverty by 2020 and to debate the principle that the Child Poverty Bill that was introduced at Westminster in June 2009 should extend to this jurisdiction.

The purpose of the Bill is to ensure that eradicating child poverty is a high priority for the Government and that it receives the necessary focus to achieve the four targets set out in the Bill. Those targets cover absolute poverty, relative low-income poverty, relative low income and material deprivation, and persistent poverty. Although the Secretary of State will be responsible in law for ensuring that those are met, the duty on the Executive and Departments will be to demonstrate what actions they are taking to meet the targets and to eradicate child poverty by 2020. The placing of those targets in legislation will ensure that success can be defined and measured, and, although they are challenging, everyone should aim to achieve them.

The Bill also supports a co-ordinated approach to tackling poverty across all the Administrations, and it aims to build consensus and momentum on tackling child poverty. To help with co-ordination, the Bill proposes a new child poverty commission that will give advice to the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) as it prepares the Executive’s child poverty strategy. It also provides for OFMDFM to appoint a commissioner to that new body.

It is a radical step to introduce legislation with targets that will present huge challenges throughout government. There will be a duty on all Departments to contribute to a three-year strategy that will be laid before the Assembly and will set out how they will contribute to the targets. There will also be a duty on Departments to report annually on those targets through the Assembly.

The Executive have already confirmed their agreement to the extension of the Bill, and there are several reasons for that. Programme for Government targets on child poverty are already in place, and the legislation can serve to bring only clarity. It will focus efforts on the important area of child poverty, and, by placing more specific duties on all Departments, it will underpin the Executive’s commitment to achieving the targets set out in the Programme for Government.

Actions that relate to reserved and devolved matters are required to tackle poverty, and the Bill recognises the importance of the devolved Administrations’ contribution to achieving the targets based on the four themes. The Bill will also provide for the greater accountability, transparency and involvement of the Assembly.

In bringing the matter forward, we have been grateful for the views of the OFMDFM Committee. We are conscious of the knowledge that the Committee from its inquiry into child poverty. Indeed, Members will have received the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister’s detailed information brief, for which we are grateful. One of the main concerns that the Committee raised was how local authorities will contribute in future. That matter remains to be explored, as will happen in due course after the review of public administration (RPA).

I want to emphasise the two main amendments to the Bill. The first places explicit requirements on all Departments to contribute to the development of a strategy and to meeting the targets. The second places a duty on the First Minister and deputy First Minister to report annually to the Assembly. Those amendments show how serious the Executive are about the challenges ahead and that we are prepared to be accountable for our actions in the area.

It will be a challenge and difficult decisions will need to be taken about how we allocate resources and work together. However, we must remember that at the heart of the Bill is a vision of equality for all our children. Poverty narrows the choices available to our young people. The lasting detrimental legacy of poverty is poorer health, education and quality-of-life outcomes. We must do everything that we can to build a fairer society in which every child, from an early age, has the opportunity to thrive and make the most of their potential. We know that a poor start in life all too often means that a child will be disadvantaged later in life.

The Bill will provide a framework in which we can work together across all of government to co-operate and agree the measures that we must put in place to lift around 80,000 children out of poverty by 2020. Obviously, we will have to work even harder in the current economic climate in which public finances are likely to be constrained. The Child Poverty Bill is about fairness and equality and also about a strong economy. Releasing the potential of all those who would otherwise be held back by poverty will mean that all of us will be better off.

Child poverty is largely dictated by the income of the parents. Therefore, it is not always possible to isolate child poverty from wider poverty. However, we are able to measure the number of children who are living in households that are suffering from income poverty. We recognise that progress has been made: absolute poverty has halved since 1998. However, the relative income measure demonstrates that the gap between the poorest and richest is still significant, with only a small decrease since 1998 when the baseline was set.

We believe that the legislation will contribute in a positive and tangible way to achieving a reduction in child poverty. Should the Assembly give its consent to the motion, it will endorse the continued extension of the Child Poverty Bill, which was introduced in the House of Commons on 11 June 2009, to here. It would, thus, create a common legislative framework within which we and other jurisdictions will work. That will enable us to draw on a pool of expertise from within the proposed commission and require us to report regularly to our respective Assemblies on progress made. This is progressive legislation in which we should be included.

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP

Unfortunately, the Chairperson and the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister are unavailable today. I apologise on their behalf. I will speak for the Committee on the motion. I thank the junior Minister for his explanation of the legislative consent motion and the background to the Bill.

During completion of the Committee’s extensive child poverty inquiry, it became apparent that no single policy or programme will eliminate child poverty. Eliminating child poverty will require action by all Departments and government agencies and by local partners in the public, private, voluntary and community sectors. In reality, it also depends significantly on the actions of the UK Government on taxation and benefits policy. The Committee welcomes the UK Child Poverty Bill as a basis for government to build on.

The Bill will provide a statutory basis to the commitment made by the Government in 1999 to eradicate child poverty by 2020. Its stated purpose is to give new impetus to the Government’s commitment and to drive action across Departments. It also aims to define success in eradicating child poverty and to create a framework to monitor progress at a national and a local level.

I commend the junior Minister on the willingness of his officials to come before the Committee to brief members on the workings of the Bill. On 18 February 2009, officials attended to consult the Committee on the UK Government’s consultation document on legislative proposals for the introduction of a child poverty Bill, which was published on 28 January 2009. The Committee welcomed any measure that raises the profile of child poverty, focuses minds on the demanding Government targets in that area and maintains momentum on tackling the issues that cause child poverty.

The Committee also welcomed the pre-legislative consultation and the laudable effort to address child poverty in the long term through legislative action.

During the consultation period, the Committee raised a number of concerns for the Department to take forward. Following consultation with the OFMDFM Committee, and with the Executive’s agreement, the First Minister and deputy First Minister wrote to the UK Government requesting that amendments be made to the Child Poverty Bill. First, they requested an amendment that would recognise explicitly the role and responsibility that all Northern Ireland Departments will have in relation to the Northern Ireland child poverty strategy and reports. For example, all Departments will have to set out the measures that they are taking to contribute to the meeting of the targets set out in clauses 2 to 5 and describe the effect of those measures.

Secondly, they requested an amendment to impose a duty on the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to report annually to the Northern Ireland Assembly on the measures taken by the Northern Ireland Departments, in accordance with the Northern Ireland strategy, and on the effect of those measures in contributing to the meeting of the targets set out in clauses 2 to 5 of the Child Poverty Bill.

On 1 July 2009, 16 September 2009, 30 September 2009 and 4 November 2009, the Committee received further briefings from officials on the Bill, the legislative consent motion and the amendments to the Bill.

At the Committee meeting on 4 November, officials explained that, on 9 October, the First Minister and the deputy First Minister had written to the lead Minister for the Bill, Stephen Timms, requesting that amendments be made. Those amendments would, first, place a duty on OFMDFM to report annually to the Assembly and, secondly, extend the scope of the Bill to all Northern Ireland Departments. The officials explained that Minister Timms had agreed that the amendments be included in the Government amendments going forward to the Westminster Committee for its consideration of the Bill.

The Committee Stage is complete, and the Committee at Westminster has accepted the amendments, which are now part of the Bill. It is expected that the Report Stage at Westminster will take place in early December and, hopefully, the Bill will attain Royal Assent in early January 2010.

At its meeting on 11 November 2009, the OFMDFM Committee agreed to issue a Committee information brief to all Members and party support staff detailing the issues that gave rise to this legislative consent motion. It was intended that that would aid Members in contributing to today’s debate.I am pleased to say that the Committee for OFMDFM supports the legislative consent motion.

Mr Deputy Speaker, if you will allow me, I will now put forward the Ulster Unionist Party’s perspective on the motion.

The legislative consent motion continues the well-established principle of parity between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom with regard to welfare matters. As such, it is important that the legislative consent motion receives the support of the House. Equally important, however, is the fact that it addresses the moral, social and economic scandal of child poverty within not only the Province, but the UK.

That said, there are important questions to ask about the Child Poverty Bill. One wonders whether it was a concern about child poverty that motivated the UK Government to introduce the Bill. Labour has been in power since 1997, but there is a reasonable expectation among political commentators of all shades that it will lose the general election next year. Why, therefore, has Labour waited until the very end of its term in Government to introduce such an important Bill?

There are questions around the current UK Government’s record on child poverty. Despite their welcome pledge to reduce child poverty by 50% by 2010 and to eradicate it by 2020, the number of children living in child poverty has increased under the Labour Government. Therefore, are the Labour Government best-placed to introduce legislation on a matter on which they have so obviously failed?

The Labour Government have had a near total reliance on welfare measures to address child poverty. That one-dimensional approach to child poverty — salvation by economics alone — has, as I have said, failed. It has failed because child poverty is not a matter of simple economics. Raising income levels alone does not address social exclusion. The poverty of aspiration, educational opportunity, family support and community support, has all been left untouched due to Labour’s focus on income levels.

The Labour Party has ignored the root cause of child poverty. It has ignored the importance of the child’s family, the role played by economic inactivity and trans-generational unemployment and the poverty of educational aspirations and opportunities. How can the House be sure that the Child Poverty Bill does not seek to enshrine in legislation an already failed approach to child poverty? I look forward to a much more positive and proactive response to those matters, both in the Child Poverty Bill and in child poverty issues throughout government

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP 1:30 pm, 16th November 2009

I support the legislative consent motion. I pay tribute to everyone in the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. Committee members have worked together on the issue, there has been consensus, and all parties are united in their desire to eliminate child poverty.

I have spoken about child poverty in the Chamber on many occasions, as a member of the Committee and as a public representative. In many cases, what one sees as a public representative can be used in Committee meetings. A public representative sees the incidence of child poverty in his or her own area and understands how to tackle the root of the problem.

I wholeheartedly support the theory behind the motion. We need a co-ordinated effort to put child poverty in its place — the past. In 2007, I was provided with shocking figures, which showed that more than 10,000 children in Northern Ireland were living in poverty. That figure covered only those who were living in poverty; there are many others on the edge of it. The detail of those figures goes to the core of our society and shows that the underbelly of society in Northern Ireland is under pressure. Early indications show that the child poverty figure rose again in 2007. The economic crisis has resulted in more child poverty. The figures make me feel sick, because, despite being far from an underprivileged society, we have so many children living below the poverty threshold.

Children are at a higher risk of living in poverty if they are in a family in which there are no working adults; there is only one resident parent; there are four or more children; or a child is disabled. All the statistics show that child poverty is higher in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the UK or Europe. A survey by Save the Children found that very poor children are badly affected. In many cases, there are social consequences: the children in question lack friends, lack hobbies, never go on family trips and have severe financial pressures.

The Northern Ireland Housing Executive has found that 6,805 families with dependent children are homeless, which is a 50% increase over 10 years. In play and social development, poor children lose out on basic social activities due to low household incomes, and their health is affected from birth. I represent Strangford. It is an area that some would perceive as affluent, but the child poverty figures are scary, and that worries me. I am still surprised that there are children who go to bed hungry and cannot enjoy activities that a lot of other children take for granted, such as swimming.

I have been told by many people who work with children daily that there are signs of deprivation in most youth groups. When one youth club in Newtownards ceased its 50p dues policy and made entry to the club free, more children from the estates attended. However, when there are outings and the kids must pay towards the bus, many cannot attend. If the provision is free, children in poverty can attend, but even a nominal cost means that they are unable to participate.

I have a heart for the issue as Newtownards is one of the top spots for child deprivation in the Province. I have seen that at first hand via my constituency office. It concerns me to think of the worries that some of our children take on their small shoulders, which are not designed for burdens such as paying bills. Some of them carry a heavy burden from an early age. The Assembly has recognised that children have a right to a carefree existence, and there is an overall aim to eradicate child poverty by 2020. Although that is ambitious, it is achievable if all Departments work together to flag up the signs of poverty and issue the aid that is needed. I am sure that, during his response to the debate, the junior Minister will speak about how Departments will address the issue collectively and responsibly.

The passing of the Bill will give focus to the implementation of our child poverty policy and will be a guide to help us to find a solution. It is not all about problems; it is about solutions and how we address issues, and today’s legislative consent motion offers the Assembly an opportunity to do just that. We have the capacity to make a difference and, as I said earlier, there is a will to do so in the Committee. The Bill should be the start of real change for children in the Province, who can and should have a bright future regardless of their background. The facts are clear, as is the pressure on elected representatives to make it happen.

We must combat the statistics, which can only have worsened since the survey because of the economic climate and the credit crunch. In the Chamber, Members have already made a commitment to eradicate child poverty. The issue has been discussed and agreed by all parties here. The Bill that we are discussing today is the next step towards achieving our goal. However, we cannot do so alone; it must be a UK-wide battle. The help that the Bill provides, through the child poverty commission and the pressure on the Secretary of State, can only be a good thing.

Child poverty must be tackled at its root; that is, through the provision of jobs for parents and their ability to work in those jobs with adequate childcare arrangements in place. That is a core issue in addressing child poverty and is an intricate part of the issue. However, that is a debate for next week: I understand that the House will debate childcare next Tuesday, and we will have an opportunity to discuss that issue then.

There cannot be anyone in the Chamber who does not recognise the importance of driving a strategy for child poverty, not simply to meet the target of eradication by 2020 but to make a difference to the lives of children throughout the Province who are growing up in homes in which there is only one meal a day. The rumbling of their stomachs is no laughing matter. For some, that is a daily occurrence. Some children do not have the food that we have in our homes: sometimes we have too much. That cannot be allowed to continue in the Province. It is vital that Members nail their colours to the mast today and take a step forward by supporting the legislative consent motion. I support the motion and ask other Members to do likewise. I am convinced that they will. Let us make child poverty a thing of the past and do better for our children.

Photo of Martina Anderson Martina Anderson Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat. I support the legislative consent motion. When the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister’s child poverty inquiry looked into the issues, it laid bare the scandalous extent of child poverty here. Moreover, it demonstrated the need for a proactive and cross-cutting measure to combat it.

The first thing I did as a newly elected MLA and new member of the Committee was lobby for the inquiry. I did not do so alone: Jim Shannon, in particular, was eager to have the inquiry. Jim and I lobbied for the inquiry because like many other people, not only Committee members but MLAs, I was appalled at the level of child poverty. My constituency of Foyle has a child poverty rate of 34%. That means that more than one in three children in the city of Derry live in poverty. That is an absolute scandal, and the Committee found similar scandalous evidence across the North. The Committee was appalled to discover evidence that 135,000 children live in poverty across the North.

However, this new dispensation has the opportunity and the responsibility to begin to address that legacy. To begin with, the commitments in the Programme for Government, particularly the target of eliminating child poverty by 2020, must become a reality. To do that, Departments must target proposals within their remits that demonstrate that they will alleviate child poverty. We must see evidence that their programmes and projects will have an effect on alleviating child poverty.

The Assembly has already signed up to that 2020 target, which is laudable, but this legislative action is already long overdue if we are to achieve that target. The overarching aim of the Child Poverty Bill is to increase those efforts. It seeks to define and set targets in legislation to eradicate child poverty and to promote measures to meet those targets. That takes into account some of the concerns raised by the Committee. It also seeks to hold the Government to account for their progress against those targets, and that is to be welcomed. There is great potential within the Bill.

Comments have been made about the motion coming before the Chamber at this moment in time. The Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister did not wait until the end of our tenure before we focused on or addressed child poverty. The first thing that the Committee did was to instigate an inquiry into child poverty, for which there was cross-party and cross-community support. Whatever happened elsewhere has not been replicated in this Chamber.

However, gaps in the legislation were identified by members of the Committee when we discussed the Bill. We carried out a consultation with key stakeholders, including Save the Children, the NSPCC, Barnardo’s, CiNI and the Commissioner for Children and Young People. Although there was a broad welcome for the aims and intent of the Bill, there was a feeling among the Committee members and the stakeholders that additional measures were needed to reflect our particular circumstances. A number of amendments were subsequently requested, and it is those that now require the legislative consent.

The Committee was pleased to see that our concerns were not just taken into account but were followed up, and amendments have been made to the legislation that make it more robust than before. The amendments place a duty not just on OFMDFM but on the Executive as a whole to prepare our own child poverty strategy setting out how the North will contribute to child poverty targets and what actions our Departments must take on the issue.

Departments need to demonstrate, as has been repeatedly discussed in the Committee, how programmes, projects or proposals coming through will impact. They need to be evidence-based so that we can track the changes that take place. The amendments also impose a requirement for the North’s strategy to be revised every three years. To that end, we should be able to measure where we are, where we have got to and how we got there, as well as knowing what else we need to do.

There will be a requirement for OFMDFM to request the advice of the new child poverty commission in preparing the Executive’s child poverty strategy and to have regard to that advice. The Bill will include a right for OFMDFM to appoint a commissioner to the new child poverty commission and a clause that will allow OFMDFM to be consulted by the British Secretary of State on the overall membership of that commission. That is an input that we recommended for the implementation of this Bill and what needs to be done with the strategy.

The amendments and new mechanisms will assist in the monitoring and implementation of the kind of cross-cutting measures that will help to eradicate the scourge of child poverty. The proposals coming from Departments must be targeted. They must be measurable, and we must be able to see how they will make an impact on child poverty. On that basis, I commend the legislative consent motion to the House.

Photo of Mary Bradley Mary Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I hope that by now, no Members of the House will argue against the motion. I fully support the ethos of the motion and the UK Child Poverty Bill and its contents. Although there are many intricacies, which my colleague and party leader spoke about during the Bill’s progress at Westminster, it is generally to be welcomed. I am hopeful, given the directives and requirements that the Bill will issue, that the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister will offer full and explicit co-operation and a renewed vigour to reach the goals that the Executive set after restoration.

Devolved institutions and Departments will have no place to hide once legislative consent has been attained. They will not be able to renege on the principles, aims and objectives that form part, or all, of the long-awaited and elusive anti-poverty strategy, which will be catapulted into the mainframe of the UK Government and the devolved institutions.

Northern Ireland has a history of poverty. We are by far the poorest of any region in the EU, with more than one third of children living in poverty. The population of Northern Ireland is also the youngest of any UK region, with 27% of its population aged under 18. The report ‘Childhood in Transition’, which was commissioned by Save the Children, the Prince’s Trust and Queen’s University, was transparent in its assessment that poverty, and more specifically persistent poverty, was one of the main contributors to the future prospects and life experience of children in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, our troubled past and divided society make our job more difficult. Northern Ireland’s children have more challenges to face and overcome than those in other regions.

For example, education should be a pathway out of poverty, but we face many in-house issues on that very subject. The ‘Every School a Good School’ ethos is centred on area-based planning and will not help in the challenge to eradicate poverty. Many cross-departmental issues will need to be reviewed, tweaked and even, I am sorry to say, shelved if we are to achieve our goal in 2020. I have been critical of OFMDFM, particularly regarding its approach to older people, another vulnerable group, and their need for a commissioner with real teeth. I will continue to be vigilant of OFMDFM’s actions following the consultation period and the publication of the outcome and summaries.

However, I have hopes that the legislative pressure that the UK Child Poverty Bill will place on devolved Governments will mean that OFMDFM finally has to act, rather than pontificate, on child poverty in Northern Ireland. OFMDFM will no longer be able to merely say the right things to catch headlines and throw the public off the scent. Actions speak louder than words. I urge all Members and Ministers to take account of even the smallest perspective on any child-centred issue and to reaffirm their commitment to children and the eradication of child poverty by accepting the motion. I expect that all Departments will be given an opportunity to contribute to the child poverty strategy and that the current economic conditions will not be used as a get-out clause to excuse a lack of the positive activity and dedication to the legislative commitment that the motion requires.

In Northern Ireland, 96,000 children exist in a state of poverty on a daily basis, and some 45,000 of those children live in severe poverty. Our receipt of out-of-work benefit is 19%, which is 6% above the UK average. Those figures are totally unacceptable, but we are at the threshold of a real and positive opportunity to change them. We must give full and honest support to the motion. Given the economic situation, we should be under no illusion that it will be a hard task. However, with commitment, we can make it happen. I support the motion.

Photo of Kieran McCarthy Kieran McCarthy Alliance 1:45 pm, 16th November 2009

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I will speak in support of the legislative consent motion on behalf of the Alliance Party. Child poverty is a scourge on our society that should be eradicated at the earliest possible moment. I pay tribute to the many individuals and voluntary groups throughout Northern Ireland who work continuously to overcome this very serious issue. The Alliance Party welcomes the UK Child Poverty Bill and will work with everyone concerned to make child poverty a thing of the past. It is our wish that all our children enjoy a good, sound, playful and healthy childhood. Surely that is the least that Members should work for in whatever way we can.

The Bill makes provision for the appointment of a child poverty commissioner to advise on strategic and technical matters. The Bill will place a duty on the Secretary of State to produce an initial UK strategy to eradicate child poverty, as well as to devise a revised strategy every three years. Furthermore, the Bill will recognise explicitly the role and responsibility that all Northern Ireland Departments will have for producing a Northern Ireland strategy and any reports. Indeed, Minister Kelly acknowledged that earlier.

In the Programme for Government, the Northern Ireland Executive set out 2012 as the interim target by which child poverty should be eradicated. However, the Child Poverty Bill sets 2020 as the target, which is rather disappointing. I hope that the Northern Ireland Executive will do everything possible to retain the 2012 target or propose one that is as close as possible to that date.

The Bill will ensure that effective mechanisms are in place to ensure that the performance of public bodies is accountable against targets that have been set. Those mechanisms include the establishment of a commission that is independent and possesses real powers, such as authorising research and calling for evidence. The Bill states that the Government must have regard to the commission’s advice; however, it should also state explicitly that the Government must explain to Parliament why they reject any of the commission’s recommendations.

Save the Children believes that the relative low income level should be set at a precise numerical target of 5% or below, rather than 10%, which is what the Bill states. Save the Children also believes that the target for persistent poverty should be set to approach zero. In Northern Ireland, persistent poverty is 21%, which is more than double the GB level. Surely that is a shocking statistic. Indeed, we are told that some 44,000 children live in such poverty. However, if I heard the Minister correctly, he said that 80,000 children in Northern Ireland live in severe poverty. That shows that current policy interventions are not reaching the children that they should. We must not permit the situation that creates those figures to continue. It is a shameful situation, particularly as the UK is regarded as one of the most prosperous countries in the world.

Earlier in the Chamber, we all supported Minister Ritchie’s efforts to direct finance to child poverty so that people can feed and clothe their children. Although the Alliance Party welcomes the Bill, we would like to see its contents finalised and implemented well before 2020.

Photo of Jimmy Spratt Jimmy Spratt DUP

I apologise to the Minister for not being in the Chamber at the start of the debate. I am pleased to support the motion and speak in the debate.

As Members are aware, the Child Poverty Bill was introduced in the House of Commons on 11 June 2009. It is right and proper that the Bill be extended to this Assembly. Its objectives and goals will have an impact on many families here in Northern Ireland. As other Members said earlier, it was heart-rending to hear some of the evidence in the Committee from the various organisations that deal with the many families that are caught in the terrible trap of child poverty. Our hearts went out to those folks on many occasions.

There is a clear onus on the UK Government to commit to eradicating child poverty by 2020. As has been said, we all hoped that child poverty could have been eradicated before that date. Even eradicating child poverty by 2020 is now a major task that the Government have set themselves. Although the Westminster Government ultimately hold the levers of power on this matter, it is important that all the devolved Assemblies throughout the rest of the United Kingdom work towards that goal and that we do everything within our powers to eradicate some of the problems earlier than 2020.

It is important to point out that child poverty has decreased since 1998, but the level remains very high, and knowledge of that decrease makes no difference to families who are caught in the poverty trap. A lot of progress has been made and life has improved for many people, but for people caught in that trap life has not improved, and it must.

To keep the eradication of child poverty at the top of the agenda, it is essential that we set targets based on the child poverty measures that are detailed in the Bill, for example:

“relative low income…combined low income and material deprivation…absolute low income” and “persistent poverty”. We must also monitor progress, and there are ways in which to do that. The Committee suggested that the First Minister and deputy First Minister provide regular progress reports to the Assembly. In addition, the UK Government have a duty to report annually and to establish a child poverty commission. It is important for Northern Ireland to have a representative on that commission. Of course, the same applies to the United Kingdom’s other devolved institutions. There is a clear obligation to produce a strategy to tackle child poverty; however, that will require all Departments and public bodies to play their part.

From an economic perspective, one of the best ways to tackle poverty is to create employment opportunities, although the present economic climate that is being endured by us all makes achieving that difficult. Other methods to tackle child poverty include supporting working parents, particularly lone parents. Childcare vouchers are important for parents who work, and I sincerely hope that the Prime Minister and the Government will take that into account, given the debate about the childcare voucher system in recent days and weeks.

There is much work to be done on child poverty. We on this side of the House fully support the motion. The Assembly must tackle the issue as a matter of urgency and deal with it in whatever way it can. I hope that OFMDFM takes all of my points on board.

Photo of Claire McGill Claire McGill Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I support the motion on behalf of Sinn Féin and I thank junior Minister Gerry Kelly for his explanation of how the legislative consent motion is connected to the Child Poverty Bill.

The Bill’s stated intent is to:

“Set targets relating to the eradication of child poverty, and to make other provision about child poverty.”

That might seem simple to do; the language is simple and the intention is laudable. However, Mr Shannon, Martina Anderson and others gave examples of their views of what it is to be poor, and we must take on board that “poverty” and “being poor” might well mean different things to different people. We all have our own image, some of them traditional, of what those terms mean. The Child Poverty Bill is a commendable attempt to lay down in statute identifiable targets and measures to deal with child poverty.

Reference was made to what British Governments have or have not done thus far and to why they might be bringing a Bill forward at this stage. As Mr Elliott said, it goes back to a pledge that the British Government made in 1999 to put into statute provisions to deal with poverty. I listened to Mary Bradley, and I was glad that she supported that view, because, although not everything will be managed in the way in which we might want, it is important that we manage what we can and that legislation exists to allow us to do so.

Some of the groups that responded to the consultation pointed out that the Lifetime Opportunities strategy does not include a legal obligation to protect children in poverty, and I interpreted Children in Northern Ireland’s comments to mean that it would be good to have such an obligation in statute. A number of other groups referred to the Lifetime Opportunities strategy, and the Law Centre pointed out that now is not the time, and perhaps it is not even appropriate, to have another strategy. It suggested, indeed, that we should refer to the strategy that we have — the Lifetime Opportunities strategy — whether or not it has worked thus far. The Child Poverty Bill is an attempt to make things better from here on in, and my party supports that position, as I do as an individual.

In April this year, when Departments here were asked to respond to the consultation document, ‘Ending Child Poverty: Making it Happen’, interestingly, some of them made no comment and some responded at length. In fact, DSD said that although it is good to have an aspiration to eradicate child poverty, it may be difficult to enshrine it in legislation, because conditions change, and so on.

Of all the Departments that responded, only two — the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) and the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) — referred to the Lifetime Opportunities strategy. DARD is working hard to alleviate poverty in rural areas, and I welcome that. We should consider the Lifetime Opportunities strategy. The Child Poverty Bill calls for more focus on child poverty, and that is commendable. DARD’s rural White Paper and its other plans to sort out poverty in rural areas feed into that goal, as that Department said in its response to the consultation. I repeat that other Departments did not refer to the Lifetime Opportunities strategy, and that is something that OFMDFM needs to consider. Members of the OFMDFM Committee have already given a commitment to look into that.

The amendments to the Bill that specify the involvement of all Departments in enacting its provisions are very valuable. The responses to the consultation thus far indicate that there is a gap in involvement, for which we must all take some of the blame. Departments must contribute to the process, because the momentum that the Bill should give to dealing with child poverty will be extremely welcome. In spite of what Mr Elliott said, I understand that that is the Westminster Parliament’s intention, and we support that intention.

As my colleague Mickey Brady has just pointed out to me, we associate fuel poverty with elderly people, yet as many as one in three children living in fuel poverty may develop respiratory conditions and other problems.

If we are to tackle child poverty, there must be joined-up working and co-ordination between Departments, and the Bill provides for that. I fully support the motion and the Bill. My party accepts that there is work to be done, as Martina Anderson outlined in her contribution. We all have work to do, and it is a matter of making progress and addressing the problem. I take Mary Bradley’s point about what Departments and Ministers did in the past, and I repeat that Sinn Féin wants to contribute to the process of reducing child poverty. We fully support the motion. Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

Photo of Carmel Hanna Carmel Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:00 pm, 16th November 2009

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the critical issue of child poverty. I also welcome the work of the Labour Government. During their years in power, they have shown a commitment to tackling child poverty.

However, in Northern Ireland, we need to take more control of the issue. We have particular needs and difficulties, and we have set our own ambitious targets. Devolution is all about the local picture. We know the local area and where the pockets of deprivation lie. The problem, however, extends far beyond those pockets of deprivation. It is particularly relevant, in view of the economic downturn, to those living just above the benefits threshold. They are called the “new poor”, but they are not so newly poor. I support the Labour Government’s commitment to eradicating child poverty by 2020. However, the SDLP believes that the Assembly should use its devolved power to do its utmost to achieve that before 2020 and closer to the date that we set.

Part 2 of the Bill places a duty on each local authority to undertake a child poverty assessment in its area. That applies only to local authorities in England, and, therefore, no such duty is placed on local councils in Northern Ireland. We must examine how we manage that duty in the North and, as we are in the middle of the review of public administration, we should do so now. It is important, and it would show devolution at work.

More importantly, that duty must also be acted upon by every Department, and I welcome the Bill’s amendment of the law to that effect. The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, the Department of Education, the Department for Social Development, the Department for Employment and Learning and the Department of the Environment are all highly involved, and it is important that they are all part of the process.

Northern Ireland legislation would allow us to set our own targets. Kieran McCarthy pointed out that the target for relative low income is set at 10%, but many organisations in the children’s sector believe that it should be set at 5%. In addition, the Bill does not contain a target for children living in severe poverty, but such a target is contained in our Programme for Government. That is the most difficult group to lift out of poverty, and, therefore, we must focus on and prioritise those children.

The deprivation gap in health is widening, and we must focus more on prevention, early intervention, good parenting programmes, initiatives in schools and good preschool programmes such as Sure Start. We are well aware of fuel poverty, and the need for childcare vouchers was also mentioned.

Legislation alone will not end child poverty, and I am keen to hear from OFMDFM what additional resources will accompany the Bill, particularly for areas in which that Department is not under a duty to act. I have in mind such initiatives as the promotion and facilitation of the employment of parents, the development of skills, the provision of financial support for children and parents and the promotion of social inclusion.

We can see the gap that exists in health provision and the division in education that the 11-plus created. Although the 11-plus was brought in for a good reason, it has brought about a two-tier system. We need to have really good primary-school education. That is essential to ensuring that, regardless of age, children who transfer have the three Rs — reading, writing and arithmetic. It is imperative that they start off on a level playing field. In the long term, it is worrying and sad that many children will be socially excluded and unable to achieve their potential.

I would like to receive an update on what measures OFMDFM has undertaken to ensure that child poverty is being tackled by coherent cross-departmental action, because never before in any issue has such joined-up action been required.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the debate, and I am glad that there will be a legislative context in which we can take forward these matters. However, I am mindful of the fact that constraints arise from the legislation that need to be rectified at the earliest possible opportunity. My comments are meant as constructive encouragement, and I hope that the deputy First Minister will accept them in that spirit.

My colleague Mrs Hanna referred to the duty on local authorities to undertake a child poverty assessment in their areas, and, in his opening remarks, the deputy First Minister said that that:

“remains a matter to be explored”.

That matter was touched on and somewhat explored by the Committee, but it has still not been resolved. The SDLP believes that it would have been better to seek from the British Government an amendment to the Bill in which councils in the North, whatever their future designation, would have an obligation to eradicate child poverty, because it is normally best practice to create certainty earlier, rather than to allow doubt to linger longer. That argument has been confirmed by the fact that, in recent days, the Minister of the Environment has indicated that there may be some issues around the review of public administration legislation. In view of that new context, it may be that ultimately, unless the issues are corrected, we will regret at leisure our failure to seek in the primary Westminster legislation a provision that local councils have an obligation to eradicate child poverty.

It would, however, be helpful if the deputy Minister were in a position to confirm whether it is the intention of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister to encourage the Assembly to put in the review of public administration legislation, if and when it comes to the House, an obligation in law that is at least equivalent to that which will apply to councils in England and Wales under the Westminster legislation. If the junior Minister were in a position to confirm that today, it would create some degree of certainty. If he were to do so, at least that matter would be tied down.

I welcome the Children’s Rights Alliance’s argument that the Government should have a duty to report annually, that OFMDFM supported that call and that it is now included in the legislation. All of that is good, but, without anticipating a future debate in the House on European matters, evidence has been given to the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister on what reporting means for each Department when it comes to its obligations on implementing EU policy in Northern Ireland. Colleagues on the Committee will confirm that the evidence that OFMDFM officials have given to the Committee on the subject is very much a mixed bag.

For example, we are told that some Departments’ obligations on mainstreaming EU policy appear to be very much about the ticking of boxes. There is evidence that one Department has a different way of operating from others when it comes to EU matters. There is also evidence that there is no change in how Departments here respond to a change of priorities in the EU when the EU presidency changes every six months.

Such evidence to the Committee suggests that the reporting function and accountability for what Departments do about EU matters may not be a healthy precedent for how the Government may report on how Departments perform on child poverty each year. Mrs McGill touched upon that matter when she confirmed that, in respect of a proposal for Departments to have an obligation regarding child poverty, some of them made no comment whatsoever about their responsibilities.

Although annual reporting is important, it needs to be much more than some of the reporting that goes on in a parallel area, such as EU strategy, when it is working through Departments in the North. The annual report should be about hard targets, real strategies, common standards between Departments, and they should be measured in an evidence-based and rigorous way.

The junior Minister rightly acknowledged that what some view as radical targets in eradicating child poverty inevitably become more challenging in an economic downturn. The consequence is that the Assembly and the Government must be frank with themselves in that context: the targets for 2020 will require more strategies and investment. If we are going to get close to meeting some of the measurable targets — and not all of them can be measured — we must recognise that the Assembly will have to make decisions about strategy and resources to address those matters.

That is complicated and compounded by the fact that child poverty will be most intense in those families, of which there are significant numbers in the Catholic and Protestant communities, in which no member of a household — grandparent, parent or child — is in work. When it comes to equality, in general, and child poverty, in particular, that sector of society requires a dedicated approach. A Committee on the Administration of Justice report that was referred to in this House two or three years ago said that the number of workless families in the Catholic community remained constant, and there was growing evidence of workless families in the Protestant community. Not a child, parent or grandparent in those households was in work. That wider issue has to be dealt with, and, in doing so, we will deal with some of the most acute child poverty figures in the North.

One amendment that the Children’s Rights Alliance suggested that the Assembly and Executive endorse in the primary legislation in West referred to the employment of parents, including quality, affordable childcare, and developing parental skills.

In that context, and given that the matter has been highlighted by the Children’s Rights Alliance, where do we sit in respect of the roll-out of the childcare strategy? The Minister has reported to the House that the subgroup is working on that matter, and that various attempts have been made to take forward the childcare strategy. It would be helpful if the Minister were in a position to indicate where things stand, because the aim is to help families and children in poverty.

I conclude by recalling what Jim Shannon and Mary Bradley said, which was touched on by other Members: 96,000 children are in poverty, and 45,000 children are in severe poverty. Given what I said earlier about the economic situation and considering that, at times, our Government do not work in a joined-up way, and given what Mrs McGill said about some Departments not even responding to the consultation, those figures should be a wake-up call for all Members in the Chamber, and many in government.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:15 pm, 16th November 2009

I call junior Minister Kelly to wind up the debate, and I give him the challenge of finishing before 2.30 pm, when Question Time begins.

Photo of Gerry Kelly Gerry Kelly Sinn Féin

I start by thanking Alex Attwood for both promoting and demoting me during his fairly long speech. My speech will be fairly short because all Members supported the motion, and I thank them for that. I thank Tom Elliott, in particular, for representing the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. I appreciate the positive manner in which the Committee dealt with the proposals for the legislative consent motion, as did everyone else.

I will pick up on one or two issues and totally ignore the question of the Labour Party’s reasons for introducing the Bill, which is a welcome piece of legislation. Jim Shannon articulated on behalf of many Members the on-the-ground experience in our constituencies, and referred to the necessity for the motion. He also made the helpful comment that the 2020 target is achievable, and, as Alex Attwood just said, it is a wake-up call.

Martina Anderson used Derry as another example. She said that the consultation with the stakeholders was very important, and mentioned that the strategy would be revised every three years. Mary Bradley spent most of her time talking about accountability and transparency, which is crucial, because the statistics for child poverty here are the worst in Europe. I thank Members for not getting too party political during the debate; Mary Bradley almost went there, but resisted. She said that OFMDFM was pontificating, but she also said that all Departments needed to play their part, and I thank her for that.

Kieran McCarthy also supported the motion. However, it is important to make the point that he was talking about dealing with severe child poverty by 2012. As Carmel Hanna pointed out, that target is additional to the Bill; we have addressed that in our Programme for Government, and it remains something that we will try to do. The Bill seeks to eradicate child poverty by 2020, and there was some confusion around the two targets. Jimmy Spratt was very supportive, and said that a lot of work had to be done. He referred to childcare vouchers, the commission and the commissioner. The commission and the commissioner will be very helpful.

Claire McGill mentioned Lifetime Opportunities, which the legislation can encompass. She also referred to rural areas. The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, inside and outside Executive meetings, always refers to rural proofing all measures, and that is important. Carmel Hanna said that it was the local picture that counted, and that is true. She also said that, although the levers of power in respect of the legislation are at West, we have our part to play and we can have an effect. I think that we will have an effect, and that effort must be cross-departmental.

She also mentioned a series of ideas, which we can come back to; I will not go through them now. I agree entirely that legislation is not enough and that there is a need for joined-up action.

Alex Attwood said a lot, but I will only deal with a few of the points that he raised. He mentioned the RPA legislation. I do not think that we could have placed that duty on the RPA, because the legislation for that was going through at the time. He also mentioned a lot of examples from Europe and the lack of joined-up government, specifically in relation to reporting. All that I can say on that matter is that reporting is very important and must not be a box-ticking exercise; we will do all that we can to avoid that.

In conclusion, I reiterate the Executive’s belief that the Bill will bring greater clarity to our child poverty targets, greater transparency as we strive to meet those targets and greater accountability to the Assembly. Ultimately, the Bill is intended to help us to build a better future for all our children and, for that reason, I commend the motion to the Assembly and thank Members for their support.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for his brevity.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly endorses the principle of the extension to Northern Ireland of the Child Poverty Bill introduced in the House of Commons on 11 June 2009.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

As Question Time begins at 2.30 pm, I suggest that the House takes its ease until that time.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Molloy] in the Chair)