Clause 1

Child Poverty Bill – in a Public Bill Committee on 27th October 2009.

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Duty of Secretary of State to ensure that targets are met

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 10:30 am, 27th October 2009

I beg to move amendment 59, in clause 1, page 1, line 10, at end insert—

‘(e) the reductions in the causes of poverty targets in section [The reductions in the causes of poverty targets].’.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key Conservative, Salisbury

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 3—The reductions in the causes of poverty targets—

‘(1) The Secretary of State shall make regulations setting out the causes of poverty targets.

(2) Such targets may include, but are not limited to:

(a) low educational attainment and erratic school performance;

(b) school leavers not in education, employment or training;

(c) registrations on the Child Protection Plan;

(d) teenage smoking and obesity;

(e) teenage pregnancy;

(f) children in homes with drug and alcohol addiction;

(g) children growing up in jobless households;

(h) serious personal debt.’.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

Good morning, Mr. Key. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in the scrutinising and the amending part of our Public Bill Committee deliberations. As far as the Opposition are concerned, amendment 59 and new clause 3 are significant, and I hope that you will permit me to speak for a little time on them. They go to the heart of the Bill, dealing with the issue that was discussed extensively in our evidence sessions about getting the balance right between dealing with the causes of poverty—the pathways that lead families and children into lives of poverty—and alleviating its symptoms and effects.

I say to Government Members that amendment 59 and new clause 3 do not detract in any way from the existing income and material deprivation targets in clauses 2 to 5. The amendment and the new clause will leave those clauses, which we support, absolutely intact.  I say emphatically that the proposals are not wrecking amendments. They would put in the Bill an additional target that would help us to achieve the 2020 target and do the serious work of reducing the various pathways that lead families and children into poverty, not just up to 2020, but well beyond that date.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

This is an interesting proposal, and I look forward to hearing the hon. Gentleman develop the detail of his argument. I want to ask some overarching questions about his approach. I suspect that he—indeed, like my colleagues—has in the past condemned the culture of central Government setting a target for this, a target for that and so on. The Bill already has four targets, and his new clause would add perhaps another eight. Is there some inconsistency there? How does the hon. Gentleman reconcile the two?

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

The hon. Gentleman makes an absolutely fair and proper point, as he often does. I am not someone who seeks extra targets for the sake of it, and I accept his general point. In particular, when we come on to part 2 of the Bill, which deals with local government, my colleagues and I may want to include fewer targets and give local authorities in particular slightly more freedom in their approach. Hopefully, the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West will support us in that.

My worry, as the Committee heard extensively during the witness sessions, centres on the danger of keeping the current targets alone. They may drive policy in the wrong direction, keeping it in the area of income transfer—important as that is—without dealing with some of the serious issues that cause families to be in poverty in the first place. We do not propose imposing extra targets in the Bill lightly—we do so for a serious reason. We think that it will get to the heart of what we are all about in this Committee, which is turning lives around in a serious and substantial way. We fear that the four targets in the Bill alone might not do that, because the temptation, as has been said in Committee, could be just to whack out tax credits in 2018-19. Even the hon. Member for Northavon himself said that that might be the case.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

May I help my hon. Friend out? It seems to me, as someone who has devoted his life to eradicating targets, that the targets that would be included in the Bill by virtue of new clause 3 and amendment 59 merely recognise that that is the way in which local government is already working to tackle poverty. It is therefore an appropriate way to overcome the mismatch in the Bill between the income targets, which are macro-economic and central Government-related, and the activities that are taking place on the ground.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has particular expertise in local government, in which he served with distinction for a number of years. In subsection (2)(a) to (h) of new clause 3, he and his local government colleagues will recognise a number of targets on which local authorities up and down the country are already seriously engaged to try to deal effectively with child poverty in their area.

I was struck during the witness sessions by how much support there was—not just from the people who gave evidence—for the general approach that I am putting to the Committee.

Photo of Judy Mallaber Judy Mallaber Labour, Amber Valley

The hon. Gentleman refers to the witness statements, but I quizzed the witnesses about the difficulty already referred to. We say that we should not have too many targets, yet the Opposition now suggest that we have a lot more targets. I could add another 20 to the list. Does he not accept that the Bill places two duties on the Secretary of State? The first relates to the minimum income targets, but the second relates to the strategy, which will be informed by the child poverty commission. Rather than us putting suggestions in the Bill, surely the commission should be doing that job.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

The hon. Lady makes a perfectly fair point, but the danger is that if we stick with the targets that are in the Bill, from clauses 2 to 5, they and they alone will drive the strategy in clause 8, and it will be wholly directed to fulfilling—

Judy Mallaberrose—

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

Perhaps the hon. Lady will let me develop my argument a little further. The strategy will be wholly directed to fulfilling those targets; they will be statutory obligations on the Secretary of State.

We mentioned the witness sessions, so let me go through some of the points made in support of this general approach. The hon. Lady’s colleague, the hon. Member for Copeland, said at column 21 of Hansard on 20 October that he was concerned about not addressing the real cultural issues involved in leading families into poverty. The first thing that Councillor Paul Carter, the leader of Kent county council, spoke about, at column 51, was the tremendous importance of doing serious long-term work to get families out of poverty, which is what new clause 3 is about. In column 55, Kevan Collins, the chief executive of Tower Hamlets council, said that the Bill needed to be about breaking the cycles of inter-generational poverty.

In column 82 on 22 October, Charlotte Pickles from the Centre for Social Justice made the point that were we to increase benefit take-up alone, that would not break the cycle of inter-generational poverty. Indeed, the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North—perhaps she will speak for herself during the debate—said that targets were only part of the whole story, and I agree with her on that point.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Regent's Park and Kensington North

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, as he mentioned my name. My point is—there is cross-party consensus on this—that poverty is multi-dimensional, and it is addressed in the “Opportunity for all” strategy. There are many families and children whose poverty can be ascribed to many complex social and cultural factors. Among Labour Members, however, what underpins the Bill is the fact that the 2.9 million children living in poverty do so because they do not have enough money, and if we do not have a financially driven programme around benefits and wages and so forth in this Bill, of all Bills, we are in danger of missing nine out of 10 of the children currently below the poverty line.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I have no argument with the hon. Lady on that point. As I have already said, we are leaving clauses 2 to 5 intact. We are committed to those targets, but this is an important argument because our contention is that we will not really succeed in meeting the targets in clauses 2 to 5 unless the strategy in clause 8 is focused on the additional set of targets that we want to put into new clause 3, which would become clause 6 of the Bill, were it agreed to.

Let me pray in aid some of the other witnesses who came before us. At column 109, on 22 October, Mike Brewer of the Institute for Fiscal Studies and Donald Hirsch from Loughborough university were asked whether to achieve the aims of the Bill one needs to address the longer-term causes of poverty in the early years, to which they both said yes. Mike Brewer said:

“I share the reservations...that all the targets are about family income.”

He went on to say:

“I wish that there were a broader range of indicators”.——[Official Report, Child Poverty Public Bill Committee, 22 October 2009; c. 104, Q203.]

My concern is that we could achieve the targets, but not turn people’s lives around in the way that would be necessary to break inter-generational cycles of poverty. Edna Speed told the Committee how her organisation, Save the Family, managed to do that, and said that

“86 per cent. of our families are turned round for ever.”——[Official Report, Child Poverty Public Bill Committee, 22 October 2009; c. 84, Q168.]

That is a pretty impressive statistic. Neil O’Brien, from Policy Exchange, spoke about the current set of targets driving public policy to

“relentlessly...downstream intervention to give people income, rather than...tackle the causes.”

He spoke of it being necessary to align

“your targets to your broader strategy”.——[Official Report, Child Poverty Public Bill Committee, 22 October 2009; c. 101, Q199]

That is the central point. Clause 8 will focus solely on meeting the targets in clauses 2 to 5.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

I have two questions for my hon. Friend—or perhaps a comment and a question. One of the criticisms made of the target culture is the fact that the targets chosen, however worthy, distort the broader range of policies. That is particularly important in an area in which, as the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North said, there is such complexity involved, so would the addition of a greater number of targets perhaps lead to a more rounded policy approach? Does my hon. Friend have reservations—perhaps I am in a minority of one—about the fact that the setting of targets in statutory form as an essential aspect of ongoing policy is fundamentally incorrect and self-distorting?

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

In relation to my hon. Friend’s first point, my argument is that we will ultimately not be successful by 2020, or by any other date, in achieving the targets in clauses 2 to 5 without doing serious work on what leads families, often over many generations—five generations were mentioned by some of the witnesses—into poverty.

On the point about putting that on a legal basis, I understand the concern expressed by hon. Members. The Government have failed to meet their 2005 target,  and they are likely to fail to reach their 2010 target by about a third. As my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire said on Second Reading, they are now reaching for legislation, having failed without legislation. There is a question as to what difference a Bill will make—that is a legitimate view. However, a Bill is being considered in Committee. We are all committed, across the House, to really dealing with, and eradicating, child poverty if we possibly can, and to driving it down as much as possible. To do that, we need to make sure that the strategy in the Bill does the job by focusing on what drives people into poverty in the first place.

The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and her Department used to publish that sort of data in the Government report “Opportunity for all”, until 2007. I am not aware that she has explained why the Department suddenly stopped publishing that information, as a number of witnesses, including, I think, Neil O’Brien from Policy Exchange, pointed out. The data that the Department used to publish focused on children in workless households, and looked at teenage pregnancy, the proportion of children in disadvantaged areas with a good level of development, the number of NEETs—people not in education, employment or training—the number of 16 to 18-year-olds in learning, obesity in children, and a number of other factors. Bizarrely, that publication was stopped. Some Members will perhaps be familiar with the statistics produced by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which cover more than child poverty—they go across the age range. The JRF report, “Monitoring poverty and social exclusion 2008”, contains 56 indicators, and notes whether there have been improvements and whether the situation is steady or has got worse across a range of those indicators. It is an incredibly valuable document in terms of driving policy. Indeed, Save the Children applies a similar rubric.

Finally, the New Economics Foundation and Action for Children report, “Backing the Future: why investing in children is good for us all”, came out a month or two ago and I am struck by a couple of sentences in its summary. The document, which I would commend to all Members if they have not read it, talks about

“why it is essential to address the impact of the structural factors affecting the circumstances of children’s lives”.

It also mentions how

“the UK Government could fund a transition to a more preventative system, therefore turning aspiration into reality.”

The report points out:

“When compared with our European neighbours, the UK comes bottom of the pile on almost every preventable social problem—crime, mental ill health, family breakdown, drug use, or obesity.”

Furthermore, an incredibly striking point is that

“the UK has to spend a third more in addressing the consequences of its social problems than the next most troubled nation.”

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire, who is part of the shadow Treasury team, will have noted that the UK is forced to spend a third more than the next most troubled nation in Europe on some deep-seated social problems.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

If the hon. Lady will let me finish, I will give way to her. The report states that

“the UK has some of the lowest levels of child well-being when compared with countries of similar economic wealth,” and says:

“Our 16-24-year-olds, for example, record the lowest levels of trust and belonging in Europe.”

It is therefore not only the Opposition making the points that I have outlined. The Action for Children and New Economics Foundation report is very serious.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Regent's Park and Kensington North

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that part of the strength of the report’s analysis, with which I agree, has its roots in decades of under-investment in child care and effective welfare-to-work strategies, and in policies that led to a trebling of child poverty during the 1980s? It is not possible to take the report as a snapshot and argue that all those factors and decades of under-investment did not play an important part.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I am not here to play a blame-allocation game. My purpose is to try to get the policy right for the future. Edna Speed, who travelled from the north-west to attend an evidence sitting, said that she hoped that she had not made a wasted journey and that the Committee would do the serious work to get the policy right for the future. There has been a tendency across Governments of both parties for far too long to use sticking-plasters as solutions and to send out ambulances without doing some of the long-term, tough—it is not easy—deep, preventive work that is necessary to deal with families in the constituency of the hon. Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North, as well as with families in my constituency and, in some cases, whole communities that have suffered severe inter-generational poverty. We are talking about long-term, deep, serious work, not quick headlines, and it is needed alongside the targets in clauses 2 to 5.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Good morning, Mr. Key. The amendment and new clause are well-meaning, because they address things that we want to do something about. The question is whether they should have statutory force and be included in the Bill. I do not doubt for a moment the sincerity of the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire, but I do not think that he addressed my earlier intervention. I suspect that every Government Minister throughout history has said that, in general, micro-management and target-setting are a bad thing, but that their targets are good targets. The hon. Gentleman gave a slight sense of that by suggesting that he would strip away bad targets and have lots of new, good ones.

New clause 3 itself indicates that its list of eight targets is not exhaustive. For example, the list includes children growing up

“in homes with drug and alcohol addiction”, but not those in homes where an adult or child has a mental health problem. One might subset and say, “Okay, we will put that one in.” Then one might ask about the children whose parents experience racial discrimination in employment and as a result are less likely to get jobs and more likely to live in poverty, and say, “We will put that on the list.” Suddenly there is a much less focused debate. Does one say, “Well, 100 targets would be ridiculous, so we will have the big 10”?  Then there is distortion, as the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness suggested, because some things are on the target list and some are not.

The point about the Bill is that it focuses on a narrow range of goals—on different measures of material deprivation, such as income poverty, persistent poverty and so on. The risk is of losing focus. My view, as I will explain later, is that four targets are too many. One of my worries about having four targets plus the eight in the new clause, or whatever the number, is that there would then be 12 targets, and the Government of the day could say, “We haven’t done too badly; we got seven out of 12.” We want to focus on one specific goal for which the Government are held to account. One worry about the absolute poverty target is that it is a sitter. It is a penalty with the goalkeeper having gone off. The Government will hit that one, so that is one out of four already. A future Government might say, “Well, two out of four ain’t bad.” As soon as we do that, there is a danger that we dilute what we are trying to achieve. We want to do something about all the things on the list for their own sake, and possibly as a means to the end of tackling child poverty, but the Bill is about tackling child poverty in a particular way and we risk losing focus. I hope that we will get the chance to have a short stand part debate on clause 1, so I will not go any broader than the subject of the amendment and the new clause.

The only other danger that I would highlight is that various other parts of Government will rightly try to tackle the issues. I am concerned that we would let the Government off the hook if we diluted the targets. We risk having a massive debate about what is in the Bill, and what is not. Presumably, the list in new clause 3 is not fixed in time, either. In other words, whereas we have a 10-year target of tackling child poverty on an income measure, things would come on to the list and go off it as society changes. We will still be bothered about income poverty in 10 years’ time, but some of the issues in the list might become less prevalent, and others more prevalent, as time goes by. Do we want to be constantly updating and changing? Or do we end up with a list of out-of-date targets, because although there is a whole set of bigger issues that should be on it, it is too late to change primary legislation?

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke Shadow Minister (Treasury)

New clause 3 is drafted to allow the capability to amend and update. The list is not exclusive. Indeed, the eight targets listed are not compulsory; they are targets that may be included. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about the need to focus on different issues at different times, because some matters may be addressed and others may emerge, but the amendment allows that flexibility.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

It does, but the question is: where would we start? Would we start with a list that is broadly the length of that in the new clause? I do not know what is in the hon. Gentleman’s mind. That would worry me. Four plus eight makes 12 targets. Do we let the Government off the hook if they hit seven, eight or nine? Do we count ourselves as quibbling if they miss only two, but they are the two big ones? Or do we have endless debates about what should be on or off the list, or what is now more important than it used to be? I am worried about the loss of focus. The Bill has one specific purpose.  All of the matters listed are both a means to achieving that end and worth while in their own right. I am not sure what value is added by picking a subset of them—or others—and statutorily targeting them in a child poverty Bill, rather than focusing on one specific goal for which we want to hold the Government to account.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

The hon. Gentleman said that the Bill is extremely focused. It is focused on the incomes of families in which children live. The question is whether that policy could lead to bad outcomes. Will it lead to the allocation of resources to fulfil precisely that aim? Perhaps, as I think he said, the Government of the day would say they had tackled child poverty effectively by maintaining people instead of helping them into work, altering their housing circumstances and ensuring that they got better schooling. If they just stick the benefits level up high enough to ensure a statistical, theoretical removal from poverty, that will leave people stuck there. That concern is at the heart of the amendment.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

With respect, that point is at the heart of the hon. Gentleman’s concerns, but it is the opposite to what is at the heart of the amendment and the new clause. The amendment and new clause would do a lot more of the kind of stuff that he mentions, because they would add more targets. I take his point that the focus in the Bill is too narrow. My view is that there is a risk of downplaying income poverty. In her evidence Edna Speed described it not as absolute poverty but as abject poverty. What is good about the measures in the Bill is that they are not just about a line on a graph showing equivalent household income: we have measures on persistent poverty and material deprivation.

The list in the “households below average income” statistics of what counts as material deprivation is not just about lines on a graph. It covers whether a child can go on holiday, have a new pair of shoes, and have a hobby. It is already a broader concept than the hon. Gentleman perhaps suggests. I risk repeating myself, but my key concern is about whether this focused Bill could be even more focused. The amendment risks diluting it, albeit in a well-meaning way. The matters listed should be ends in themselves, and will form part of any child poverty strategy anyway. I am not sure that we gain focus by adding them to the Bill.

Photo of Judy Mallaber Judy Mallaber Labour, Amber Valley

I agree that the amendment and the new clause would create a much less focused Bill. Some of the items in the new clause are slightly curious. For example, it asks for

“regulations setting out the causes of poverty targets”, and one of those causes is “serious personal debt”. Surely it is the fact that a person is poor that causes them to have serious personal debt, rather than the other way round.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

Obviously, I recognise that there is some truth in what the hon. Lady says, but I have spent quite a lot of time recently with various debt counselling organisations across the country that help families who are in poverty and have very serious debt, and there is a particular characteristic of serious personal debt that aggravates poverty and can keep people in poverty in a particularly unattractive way. There is a separate facet of the debate relating to debt.

Photo of Judy Mallaber Judy Mallaber Labour, Amber Valley

The hon. Gentleman’s comments show the complexity and the difficulty of adding extra targets in the way that the new clause does. I could give another 40 targets, but if I did, I would be accused of being target-mad. We all know that we have moved between having too many targets and having too few. As my hon. Friend the Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North, pointed out, the danger is that by focusing solely on those at the bottom of the pile with multiple deprivation, we ignore 2 million—perhaps even more—of the 2.9 million people in poverty. The Bill attempts to focus us on the broader sweep of those in poverty.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Regent's Park and Kensington North

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a danger of us almost psychologically profiling the poor? That is something that I have heard Opposition Members almost do, and that issue is coming through very strongly again this morning. Is it not true that people who are on low incomes have as wide a range of characteristics as people who are on medium and high incomes? Is it not true that they are no more than just as likely to have the flaws of drinking too much alcohol, taking drugs or being in debt, but do not have the income to give them resilience? That is a separate but equally serious problem in the approach taken on poverty by Opposition Members.

Photo of Judy Mallaber Judy Mallaber Labour, Amber Valley

I agree. In the questioning session I specifically referred to many of my constituents who, if given additional income, do not have those other problems and are perfectly able to cope with their lives. Their sole problem is a lack of income. That in no way denigrates the really serious problem faced by a certain proportion of our population, and nobody downplays the importance of any of the items in the new clause.

When I quizzed the witnesses, there were contradictions in their answers. When I asked about targets, Neil O’Brien said:

“I think that you want a broader range of targets and you do not want to privilege a few of them over others. So you want, in a sense, to be neutral between the different types of approaches to challenging child poverty”.

He had asked for targets, but he also said that he did not want to privilege a few of them. If we list some of them in regulations in the detailed way that is proposed, that is precisely what we will do. Donald Hirsch said:

“the key thing is to...create a commission with some clout and some teeth, and one that provides a sort of discipline...The risk of having lots and lots of targets is that they duplicate targets elsewhere and also that each one of those targets itself becomes a potentially distorting measure.”—[Official Report, Child Poverty Public Bill Committee, 22 October 2009; c. 116-17, Q34-35.]

The amendment does not take account of the Bill’s structure, which is a good structure, and we need to take equal account of the provisions in clauses 1 and 8. Clause 8 specifically asks for a strategy that is not just about the four income targets but about ensuring that children do not experience socio-economic disadvantage. That clause sets out the broad headings, such as education, financial support, social services and employment, under which a number of those targets would be set. We cannot have a Bill that encourages a Secretary of State to set out a whole load of targets that might conflict with what Ministers are doing in relation to their own departmental interests. That would be confusing. While  nobody denies that the items in subsection (2)(a) to (h) of proposed new clause 3 are important, they would end up creating a muddle. I am surprised that a party that has gone on at the Labour Government for having too many targets now seeks to introduce a whole load of new ones. That is a slightly surprising contradiction in its position. The amendment does not add to the Bill, and we should oppose it.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley 11:00 am, 27th October 2009

One of the difficulties that I have with the Bill—I will, no doubt, wish to return to the subject later in our deliberations—is the disjuncture that there seems to be between the theory and the high-level aspects of the Bill on the one hand, and its implementation on the other, particularly with regard to how it hands over implementation to local government. I make no apology for bringing the issue back to local government, because that is a way of delivering the Bill. I would like there to be much more acknowledgment of the fact that delivery of what the Bill and all of us seek to achieve will happen only if there is a true partnership between central and local government, and that starts at the top, with the targets. I have listened carefully to the comments that have been made, some of which have been surprising. The hon. Member for Northavon questioned the desirability of updating the targets, and also questioned how we would deal with a whole range of them. I have to tell him that that is how the Government have imposed the mechanism of governance on local government activities across the board. They are always updating targets—until recently a huge number—and are extremely adept at putting them into baskets of targets that they can manage, monitor and change dynamically.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Does the hon. Gentleman think that that is a happy precedent?

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

To be fair, there are pros and cons. The cons are that if the process gets too onerous, it creates more of a bureaucratic structure for the management of the operation, but on the other hand it provides flexibility to react to situations and, particularly on a basket basis, the ability to keep the majority of the targets that one wants and alter those on the periphery. My experience is that there are pros and cons, and I want to return to that issue in a second.

There is already a bit of schizophrenia—if I may use that expression—on the Government’s part as to whether the targets should go broader than the four income targets. I thought that during the evidence sessions there was some recognition, however grudging, by Ministers that the targets needed to be broader. To a certain extent, the reference to material deprivation in the second of those targets is an indication that Government thinking has needed to acknowledge the broader base. The problem with the material deprivation aspect is that it maintains the issue of addressing symptom rather than cause, and we heard in the evidence sessions that the material deprivation target itself did not achieve the wider range of measurements that was needed to take into account the causes of poverty. I refer to the question to which Neil O’Brien replied:

“The bad thing in the Bill...is the narrowness of the legally binding targets...That...drives you relentlessly towards downstream intervention to give people income, rather than upstream intervention to tackle the causes.”

That is also picked up in Mike Brewer’s answer to another question, in which he wished

“that there were a broader range of indicators and perhaps some that related directly to children’s well-being”.——[Official Report, Child Poverty Public Bill Committee, 22 October 2009; c. 101-04, Q199-203.]

Although there were different opinions from some of the witnesses, I got the impression that there was consensus from those whom we saw that there needed to be broader recognition.

Let me return to the local government point from two additional aspects. First, as I said in my intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire, local government ought to tackle child poverty with regard to the sort of issues that are outlined in the new clause. If we are to have that partnership, there needs to be a recognition, up front, that that is how they are tackling it, rather than on an income basis alone. In many ways that argument has been played out in many of our councils across the country in the run-up to setting their own targets. The issue comes back to the fact that some councils have chosen to adopt the overarching indicator 116 and some have chosen to adopt other indicators.

The argument, philosophically, is exactly the same. For those that chose not to opt for the overarching indicators, the argument was that they needed a broader set of indicators, which were more based on the outcomes that they wanted to achieve in that particular locale. There is strong evidence for trying, right at the beginning, to set the tone for a much broader partnership in order to achieve what we want to achieve in the Bill.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Digital Britain) (also HM Treasury), Financial Secretary (HM Treasury) (also in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills)

I bid you a warm welcome to the Chair of our Committee, Mr. Key; I look forward to the debates ahead. The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire helpfully prompted an interesting debate, which has taken us to the heart of the question, “What is the Bill for?” I entirely accept that the amendments are well meaning, as the hon. Member for Northavon said, but if agreed to they would detract from the Bill’s clarity of purpose, as others said.

The opening debate is a good opportunity for that clarity to be achieved. We can be straightforward: the Bill is about tackling poverty—income poverty and material deprivation. Our aim is that children in the UK should not live in poverty, so the Bill deliberately has a tight focus on income and material deprivation. The reason for that is the evidence of poverty’s impact on children’s lives—on their experiences now and on their chances for the future. The evidence is clear and is set out in some of the documents to which the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire drew attention. Poverty blights children’s lives: it impacts on their education, health, social lives, relationships with their parents—sometimes on the relationship between parents—and future life chances.

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke Shadow Minister (Treasury)

In the light of what the Minister has just said about income poverty, can he explain why over the past three years the Government have not increased the level of tax credits necessary to meet their 2010 child poverty target?

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Digital Britain) (also HM Treasury), Financial Secretary (HM Treasury) (also in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills)

Of course, we have increased tax credits consistently over the past three years. The 2010 target is going to be difficult to hit, as we discussed in Committee  last week. However, we have made a great deal of progress in reducing child poverty: we have reduced the figure by 500,000 according to the most recent data, and we have agreed and legislated for measures that we anticipate will lift another 500,000 children above the poverty line. That is very substantial progress, particularly when compared with what happened between 1979 and 1997, when the level of child poverty in the UK more than doubled to become the highest in Europe. That was a disgrace. We have not only arrested that trend but reversed it—I hope decisively. I welcome the fact that on Second Reading there was unanimous support for the Bill across the House, which reflects the recognition—in contrast with the view taken in the past—that poverty is a blight on the lives of children and on the country that needs to be addressed.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Digital Britain) (also HM Treasury), Financial Secretary (HM Treasury) (also in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills)

Let me make a couple more points and then I shall gladly give way to the hon. Gentleman. I want to comment on what he said. I sensed from his remarks that he was arguing that income poverty may not be that important, and there are other things that may be important. Of course there are other important things, but the key to the Bill is the conviction that income poverty—living below the poverty line—for children should end. That strong conviction drives the Bill, and I hope the hon. Gentleman accepts that.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

The Minister is right to say that income poverty is a blight. Those outside the House will find it extraordinary that the Government oppose an amendment that would ensure that such a Bill puts the causes of child poverty—the broad basket of issues that successive Governments have signally failed to tackle—at its heart. Instead the Government fixate on income only, and thus do not ensure that the broader range of issues is tackled. The amendment would at least ensure that the causes of poverty are at the heart of the Bill—not just the quick fix that the Government are not even prepared to employ for next year’s target of more tax credits.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Digital Britain) (also HM Treasury), Financial Secretary (HM Treasury) (also in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills)

People listening to and reading the debate will be much more likely to agree with my hon. Friends the Members for Amber Valley and for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North: poverty is an overriding concern. As others have said, it is right for the Bill to focus tightly on that concern, rather than on lots of things. The amendment suggests that instead, the Bill should cover a wider range of policy areas and set targets through regulations on a wide range of outcomes relating to child poverty. It is true that they relate to child poverty; they are not irrelevant or unrelated and it is important to tackle them. Indeed, there are Government proposals and measures in place to tackle them, and there are targets, but we should not have targets in the Bill. That would water down the bright spotlight on poverty, which is the Bill’s great strength.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

I am slightly confused by that argument. The Minister has already admitted that the Bill contains not just income targets but targets relating to material deprivation, so surely that already widens the Bill. The problem is the evidence given by Neil O’Brien that the material deprivation data are not solid. Why have an imperfect definition outside the income ranges for those targets when we could have a better one?

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Digital Britain) (also HM Treasury), Financial Secretary (HM Treasury) (also in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills)

As others have said, there is not a single number that tells us about poverty. That is why we have taken the view, which has been widely supported by those who have looked at this issue, that there should be four measures, all four of which I would defend. The hon. Member for Northavon indicated that he will take a contrary view on at least one of them. All four measures are about poverty, how much income people have, how much they are able to buy and whether they suffer from material deprivation. That focus is clear. I will resist suggestions that we ought to water that down by looking at a load of other things as well.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Digital Britain) (also HM Treasury), Financial Secretary (HM Treasury) (also in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills)

Let me make one more point on this issue. I am not sure that the amendments would result in a broad strategy to tackle child poverty, as has been argued. The target should cover our ultimate goal—the outcome that we seek to achieve—not the range of policies and other topics likely to be addressed as part of an effective strategy.

The strategy needs to be multifaceted if we are to end child poverty, but specifying targets, and specifying measures for a range of policy areas, would reduce its effectiveness and result potentially in a focus on those eight areas, rather than other things which equally need to be addressed. It is a pretty selective list. A much better approach would be to ask, what are we trying to achieve? We are attempting to achieve the eradication of child poverty. That will be our target.

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke Shadow Minister (Treasury)

The Minister is generous, as ever. I seek clarity on his approach to tackling child poverty. It seems that there was a stage when the Government argued that the way to reduce child poverty was simply through better benefits and tax credits and such transfers of resources. In recent years the Government’s emphasis has been more on tackling what we consider the long-term causes of poverty. It is not clear from what the Minister has said today quite where he stands. Does he believe essentially that the child poverty target set out in the Bill will be met by transfers of resources, such as tax credits and child benefit? Or does he believe it is about addressing what we would consider the causes of poverty? What is his position?

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Digital Britain) (also HM Treasury), Financial Secretary (HM Treasury) (also in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills)

It will need to be both. Given the substantial investment in education, child care, Sure Start centres and other public services over the past 10 years, we will benefit in the coming decade more than in the past, simply because that investment and those services are now in place. Some of the children who benefited from that investment will have their own children by 2020.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

On exactly that point, we have not seen the reduction in the number of NEETs for which we  would have hoped from measures such as Sure Start centres. Let us assume hypothetically that over the coming years we see a big reduction in the number of children leaving primary school unable to read or count properly, from the current scandalous level of one in five to a much lower level. Let us assume that over the coming years, we see a massive reduction in teenage pregnancies and other causes that help to put people into poverty. Let us say that we are making enormous progress in a way that we have not over the past 10 years. Would the Minister really want to see us take funding from those successful programmes in order to increase benefits, when we were making progress on the root causes of poverty that have made Britain the most miserable place in which a child can be brought up?

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Digital Britain) (also HM Treasury), Financial Secretary (HM Treasury) (also in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills)

We have, of course, seen significant improvements in education standards in primary schools. Many more young people leaving primary and secondary school are achieving—

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Digital Britain) (also HM Treasury), Financial Secretary (HM Treasury) (also in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills)

I do not think it is hotly disputed. The evidence is actually very clear. We have seen substantial gains, including progress in reducing the incidence of teenage pregnancy.

The child poverty strategy will set out the specific actions that need to be taken. The development of the strategy will identify those groups of children most at risk of being in poverty, including particularly vulnerable groups, and the underlying causes of poverty: the kind of things set out in the amendments. Annual reports will enable us to monitor progress, tracking a wide range of indicators. I imagine those indicators are likely to change, as circumstances change over the coming decade. The ultimate goal— the end of child poverty—will be unchanged. It is right that that should be at the heart of the Bill.

The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire mentioned the publication of “Opportunity for all”. The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland wrote to Members of the Committee late yesterday about that, to set out that the Department for Work and Pensions is considering what form in which to continue publishing that information. The data are included in other documents, such as annual departmental reports, reports on public service agreements and so on. My hon. Friend is considering the issue at the moment, recognising the interest that there is and has been in “Opportunity for all”.

The Bill requires all four of the targets to be met. The hon. Member for Northavon said that perhaps in 10 years’ time someone would say, “We’ve done two of them, that’s not too bad”, but the terms of the Bill are clear—all four targets need to be hit.

I hope that the Committee will accept that it is right for the Bill to have the tight focus on poverty—no ifs and no buts—and that the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire will withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I am grateful to all hon. Members who have spoken. We have had a wide-ranging and important debate on the amendment and new clause.  Let me scotch the idea straight away that the amendment constitutes some sort of Conservative get-out, to water down the Bill, as the Minister said, or to let the Government off the hook, as the hon. Member for Northavon said. It is nothing of the kind. Clauses 2 to 5 remain in the Bill—they have not been amended and Conservative Members have not proposed to take them out. Our attempt is purely to get appropriate targets—the right targets—in the Bill, so that we drive policy in the right direction and get the correct balance between symptoms and causes.

The principle definition that we use is shifting people from below 60 per cent. of median income to just above. An analogy that I often use is that if one of us were to knock on the door of a home in our constituency and find a family in which income had moved from 58 per cent. of median to 61 per cent., Ministers would claim that that was a family taken out of poverty. They would be correct in a purely statistical sense—that is what would have been achieved according to the Government terms. However, if we sat down and spent some time with that family, we would probably be told that, yes, they did have a bit more money, which was important and for which they were grateful, but that the deep-seated problems that led to ongoing difficulties in their lives were still there. New clause 3 and amendment 59 try to deal with the issue.

To make a further point to the Minister, in 1987 the rate of child poverty was 23 per cent., as it was in 2007, the last year for which we have figures. Over a 20-year period the rate has not shifted much, so it is time for a new approach. I shall seek to divide the Committee on amendment 59.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 11.

Division number 1 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 1

Aye: 5 MPs

No: 11 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I beg to move amendment 21, in clause 1, page 1, line 11, at end insert—

‘(3) The Secretary of State shall also ensure that interim targets for child poverty are met in relation to the United Kingdom in the financial year beginning with 1 April 2015, where such interim targets are specified by the Child Poverty Commission.’.

The amendment seeks to put into the Bill an interim target, which is halfway between now and the target date or, alternatively, three-quarters of the way from when the promise was first made about 10 years ago. Given the length of our previous debate, I shall endeavour both to be brief and to encompass any remarks that I  might otherwise have made on a clause stand part debate, which may be a position shared across the Committee.

On the 2015 targets and why we might want them, one of the worries about where we are in 2009-10 is the economic situation. We will be going through a difficult five-year period, when the public finances will be in a mess and we may even have legislation to put them on an even keel, so it will be hard to make much progress in the next five years, frankly. When there was, on the face of it, plenty of spare Government cash—we can debate whether there was—it was relatively straightforward, when the economy was growing rapidly and things looked good, to find money to boost tax credits. Even in those halcyon days, as they now seem, we could not meet the targets.

We missed the five-year target and we missed the 10-year target by more, so it is not hard to see that the next five years will be more difficult than the preceding 10 and, therefore, pro rata we will miss the 15-year benchmark by even more. One option says, “Well, that doesn’t matter because the only number that matters is 2020. We’re going to have rolling reports and the child poverty commission will tell us how we are getting on and there will be pressure to keep on track, so we don’t need to worry.” It is true, obviously, that we have not had a child poverty commission for the past 10 years, so we have not had that external discipline. The worry is that the momentum, such as we have had bearing in mind that child poverty has risen for the past two years, will be lost irreparably in the next five years.

We may get to 2015 even further behind schedule and it will have become impossible to hit the 2020 target. At that point, the legitimate concern about the Bill as a whole becomes relevant: if we do not have the interim target to keep us on track, we run the risk of running round pulling the only lever available to us, which is income transfer. In a sense, that is a comment for a stand part debate. One reason for a 2015 target is to say, “We need to act now to deliver in 2015”, so we do not get to 2015, miss the target, have no enforcement mechanism and realise that the only thing that we can do is rely on cash transfers, which, although a very important part of the mix, are clearly not the whole story. We have just had that debate.

The 2015 target is a valuable interim target. The Minister may say that the Secretary of State will give us three-year strategies reflecting on progress to date, and the child poverty commission will tell us, advise us and do all the rest. That would have some force if we felt that the child poverty commission had real clout. Obviously, we will debate in greater detail the clout of the child poverty commission, but it is relevant here because I am concerned that it is a weak institution compared with other analogous bodies, such as the Low Pay Commission—the minimum wage recommendations of which Governments have great difficulty ignoring—and the Committee on Climate Change, which has had a huge influence already and even before it existed had a huge influence in shadow form. The child poverty commission will be 14 people meeting four times a year, plus two members of staff and a hired meeting room. That is it. The idea that it will hold a Government to account for what the regulatory impact assessment says is £400 billion of spending over 10 years is implausible. We need a body with more teeth.

The amendment gives us a binding interim target. What that should be is clearly a separate question. There is an argument that it should not be half the distance between here and there, because some investments are longer term and will yield fruits later in the decade, but we need to be explicit and transparent. That argument could become a great get-out clause for the next Government, who could say, “We’ve sown all the seeds but you will not see the fruit till 2018 or 2019, so don’t worry about the fact that we are miles away from our target in 2015, it’ll be okay.” If we can do all those things by 2020 but they will not flower by 2015, let us be explicit, transparent and accountable.

To sum up, we have not had a statutory target hitherto. The Bill gives us one at the end of the period, but we will not know if that has been achieved until 2022 or some time, so the worry is that we have no real toothy accountability.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

For those who support this approach to tackling child poverty, I can see the logic of having an interim target. However, the hon. Gentleman keeps talking about teeth and enforcement mechanisms. As far as I can see, as a sceptic and cynic on the matter, it will simply show that the child poverty commission can do nothing and that the Government will fail. If they do fail on an interim target, what teeth does he propose?

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 11:30 am, 27th October 2009

The Bill itself is the teeth. It would be a breach of a statutory duty if the 2015 target is not met, and the legal remedy that will apply in 2020—judicial review—would apply in 2015.

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke Shadow Minister (Treasury)

The hon. Gentleman makes a very strong case. He raises the concern that without an interim target we will get to 2018 and will have to pull the only lever available, which is income transfers. What is to prevent us, if his amendment is accepted, from finding ourselves in that position in 2014? Given the problems we are likely to face over the next five years with the state of the public finances, will we not find in 2014 that we are in exactly the position that he is trying to avoid in 2018-19?

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

The straight answer to that is that I have a feeling this is a lever that will need pulling long and hard and consistently. It is difficult to see how we can deliver on 2015 without significant action on tax credits and benefit levels. We will not achieve these goals in 2020 if we lose momentum on that very specific point. Clearly the strategy has to be a mixture of transfers and tackling the causes in the longer term, but my worry is that without this interim target, the whole defence will be that everything is long term and investment. The argument will be that although there are no such signs and child poverty may even have risen, we should not worry because all this stuff has been done for the long term.

My argument essentially is that we are not going to deliver on 2020 without significant action on income transfers, which is one of the shorter-term things we need to do. If we allow the real value, relative to  60 per cent. of median income, of tax credits and benefits to fall back, which is a real danger, we may as well kiss goodbye to 2020. In a sense, part of 2015 is keeping the momentum and pressure up and not taking our foot off the gas. That is essentially where we are coming from. The amendment is straightforward and transparent. It tries to make sure that we hit 2020. It reinforces what the Government are trying to do by making sure we do not take our foot off the gas, and by being transparent. If we think the profile is going to be other than even to 2020, it requires Governments to say why and to do something about it.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

As the hon. Member for Northavon said, we can be briefer in this debate. I understand the logic of what he proposes. We have had five-yearly targets and milestones, as the Minister described them last week, since the original 1999 pledge. We have 2005 and 2010. It would therefore seem logical to have another five-year sequence. However, I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to clause 13, under which annual reports will be made to Parliament by the Secretary of State concerning all the relevant progress that has been made in meeting the targets in clauses 2 to 5. I expect those to be fairly robust occasions on which the Government will be challenged. The child poverty lobby groups will not miss those opportunities to be vociferous about what they would like to see done to meet the ultimate 2020 target. I am reassured by what is in the Bill, because in this new environment we will have the annual report from the Secretary of State, which will put us in a different situation from the present one.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Digital Britain) (also HM Treasury), Financial Secretary (HM Treasury) (also in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills)

The hon. Member for Northavon made an important point about the need to scrutinise progress rigorously and to make sure we are on track to meet our 2020 targets, but much of what I will say has been anticipated in his remarks and those of the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire.

Clause 8 requires the Secretary of State to publish a strategy every three years, to set out the progress intended over that three-year period in each of the policy areas specified in subsection (5), and to describe the progress needed over that period to meet the 2020 targets. In that way, the strategy will set milestones to 2020. Clause 8(1) sets out that the first child poverty strategy needs to be published within a year of Royal Assent of the Bill.

The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire rightly pointed out that clause 13 requires the Secretary of State to publish annual progress reports. They will show progress towards the milestones set out in the strategy, and towards the strategy’s aims. Clause 13(5) requires that when a strategy is not fully implemented, the annual report must describe the respects in which it has not been implemented and give the reasons why. There will, therefore, be a high degree of accountability for progress towards 2020.

The process of setting milestones needs to be linked to the strategy. If we set interim milestones in isolation from the strategy, that would be inconsistent with our approach. For example, the strategy ought to focus, first, on the longest acting policy levers, and the hon. Member for Northavon accepted that that would not give a linear trajectory on income to 2020. Alternatively, the strategy could focus on those with the greatest need, which would not give a linear trajectory either. It is  important, as was reflected on Second Reading, that accountability for setting targets and monitoring progress remain with Ministers answerable to Parliament. The commission, through its advice on the development of the strategy, will inform the interim milestones set out in the strategy. We are keen to ensure that the Bill requires proper scrutiny and proper accountability for progress, which is already provided through what is set out on the strategy and annual reports. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Member for Northavon does not press his amendment.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Both the Minister and the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire have a touching faith in the power of annual reports to Parliament. I suspect that there are hundreds if not thousands of such reports by all manner of Government bodies, all of which we scrutinise thoroughly, all of which regularly occupy the front pages of our newspapers and all of which we are regularly asked about on the doorstep and held to account for—not. I suspect that this would be just another annual report from just another body.

We all know how difficult it is to get the media interested in poverty. When poverty is debated in the House a set of us are there, but we are not a majority. Poverty is not a subject that gets the pulses of the majority racing, and I fear that if we do not put some real teeth into this, it will just be yet another report that Parliament nods at: perhaps there will be a bit of a flurry for three hours in a desultory session in Westminster Hall, and then the world moves on. British children deserve rather better than that. To be fair to the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire, I can understand why a party that aspires to be in government between 2010 and 2015 does not want tough targets for 2015; if I were in his position, I am sure I would say exactly the same.

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I take it from that that the hon. Gentleman’s party does not aspire to be in government in that period.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

On the contrary, we aspire not only to be in government but to be held to account for those targets.

The Minister says that the trajectory is non-linear. I am sure he is right—reverse, in fact, is the current gear. He is probably right that if the targets were to be deliverable they would not be deliverable in a straight line. It would be good if the Government were—not even forced by my amendment—to be explicit about how much progress they think is likely by halfway through, and about the balance between short and long-term measures. The amendment would have forced that, but I will not pursue it. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.