Clause 7

Child Poverty Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:30 pm on 27th October 2009.

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The Child Poverty Commission

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

I beg to move amendment 48, in clause 7, page 3, leave out lines 29 to 32.

I had not planned to table the amendment, as is apparent from the numbering, but the subject arose during the evidence sessions. The amendment would remove the part of clause 7 that provides for the child poverty commission to be abolished. I must admit that I had not noticed that, which is why I had not tabled an amendment on the subject, but when we were looking at  the Bill and discussing it, I suddenly realised that it gives the Secretary of State power to abolish the commission. On the face of it, that might seem reasonable: one could argue that we do not want a plethora of quangos and that once it has served its useful purpose, the commission should drift off into the sunset.

I do not think it is quite as simple as that. Tackling child poverty is a bit like running up a down escalator. If we do not do very much, we end up going backwards. We had a discussion this morning about poverty rates in Europe and it was noticeable that in all sorts of different countries with different Governments of different complexions and different social environments, overall child poverty rates are going up because there are global forces at work. Globalisation has implications for the wage structure. There are social changes going on across Europe. There are forces at work which tend to lead to greater inequality and greater child poverty. I therefore find it hard to believe that, even if we reach that happy day in 2022, for example, when we decide that the 2020 target has been met, we are not then going to want to have some sort of infrastructure for not taking our foot off the pedal at that point.

The Minister said—I paraphrase ever so slightly—that it is all very well the Finns getting 5 per cent. for a few years, but they could not keep it up, could they? Likewise, if the United Kingdom happened to reach the 10 per cent. target and so on in 2020, that is marvellous compared with where we are now, but could we keep it up and sustain it? What happens beyond the end of that period? Given that the child poverty commission is not some sprawling bureaucracy that is going to leach vast amounts of taxpayers’ money—£180,000 a year or whatever, for four meetings a year and some biscuits—it does not seem to be unduly onerous for it to have a rolling role, just as the Committee on Climate Change will go on until 2050. In other words, the bit of clause 7 that we are trying to delete makes the assumption that child poverty will be fixed somehow—that will be a box that we can tick, and we would not even have the slightest overseeing, reporting mechanism that the child poverty commission would provide.

I would like to see the child poverty commission kept going post-2020—not just because it provides jobs for academics. It is said that the poor are always with us, so we cannot afford to take our foot off the pedal. We need a body that is always there to prod and to probe on child poverty so, with the amendment, I would like to remove the ability of a future Secretary of State to abolish the child poverty commission.

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke Shadow Minister (Treasury)

May I say for the first time today, Mr. Key, what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship?

I rise to make a couple of brief points. First, the amendment raises an interesting question. As the hon. Member for Northavon said, we could see the Bill as being about achieving the 2020 target and, clearly, the child poverty commission has a role in that. Once that target is achieved, assuming that it is, what then is the ongoing role for the child poverty commission? Is there an argument for it to be abolished? We do not believe that quangos should exist for the sake of it. We are interested to hear what the Minister has to say about that and about his defence of the Secretary of State’s ability to abolish the commission.

My second point is a technical one, which is that the amendment does not do all that it should do. It proposes the removal of clause 7(4), but subsections (5) and (6) should also be struck out. For that reason, if the hon. Gentleman intended to press the amendment to a Division, we could not support it. However, an interesting point is being made and we would be grateful to hear the Minister’s views.

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr. Key.

The effect of the amendment would be to take from the Bill an order-making power, subject to the affirmative procedure, for a future Government to wind up the commission once its work is complete. I understand that the hon. Member for Northavon has concerns about how the power might be used. He would like to see a continuing role for the commission after the target date of 2020. I would like to reassure hon. Members that the power is in the Bill simply to avoid a future Government finding itself with a statutory public body that has completed its work but remains in existence because there is no ready means to bring it to an end.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire for pointing out the technical deficiencies in the amendment. I was hoping that the hon. Gentleman would tell us what Mrs. Gauke thought, but he has not done so on this occasion.

Clause 7(4)(b) clearly states that the power can only be used on a date falling after the target year. Furthermore, the explanatory notes clearly state that it is the Government’s intention to use the power only if they consider that there is no longer a role for the commission.

As we have stated before, the order-making power is subject to the affirmative procedure, which means that a future Government would need to demonstrate to Parliament that there was no longer a role for the commission. It would clearly not be appropriate to wind down the commission if the targets had not been met. All Members know that constraints on Government spending will continue into the next decade. In that context, continuing to fund a public body that has no remit after the target year would not be a sensible use of public funds.

I understand the concern expressed by the hon. Member for Northavon that the targets could be breached after 2020. However, schedule 2 places a duty on the Government to ensure that targets are met beyond the target year; if breached, it would require regulations to be made setting out the steps to meet them again. Paragraph 6 of schedule 2 allows regulations to be made after 2020 relating to the provision of advice by the commission. The Bill therefore envisages that the commission will continue to play a role after 2020, if it is considered that it can still add value.

Having pointed out the back-stop position given in schedule 2, I hope that I have satisfied the hon. Gentleman’s concern and that he will withdraw the amendment.

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

Having established that we need the child poverty commission to keep an eye on Government, I cannot envisage a world in which we went forward without it because we had achieved our targets. It is not clear who will be reporting post-2020 if the commission  has gone and we have been meeting our targets. Who will be keeping an eye on those targets and ensuring that they are met? I assume that the Department will publish statistics, but who is to report on why the targets have not been met? That is what the commission will be doing pre-2020.

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions)

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands that responsibility for meeting the targets and reporting on them lies with the Secretary of State. It is the commission’s responsibility to advise the Secretary of State. There will be no question about it: the Department will continue to oversee the policy.

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

I am trying to make the point that if a Government need advising pre-2020, why should a post-2020 Government not need advice? They may have hit a target, but it does not mean that they do not need advice. I am reassured that schedule 2 provides for the post-2020 world. I would be tempted to remove subsection (4) and leave the Government to remove subsections (5) and (6) in order to tidy things up. However, given the context of our discussions, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

This will be my second attempt to get some definition of how the Minister envisages the commission working in practice. A number of visions of how it would work were set out in witness statements and the memorandums that accompanied them. Save the Children saw it playing a strong role, active in driving the strategy forward, whereas others saw it playing a lesser role.

Both Ministers were at the Work and Pensions Committee hearing on 17 June, but we heard a rather uncertain view of the commission from them. We were told that it would be an advisory body. We were told that it would not set targets, but that that would be an important task for Government and for Parliament. We were told that it would be a high-profile organisation. However, all those views were extremely general and gave no substance to the circumstances in which Ministers envisaged it being used. It is great that, according to the Minister, it will have a budget for research—but research for what and on what occasions?

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions)

I am sorry if it is not clear to the hon. Gentleman, but the commission’s role is to advise the Secretary of State. The commission will do that by considering the Government’s position in relation to meeting the targets, and it will consider the sort of content needed for a credible strategy to meet the targets. It will advise the Secretary of State and its advice will be published. Obviously, the commission will meet regularly—it is not intended that it should be called together only in exceptional or unusual circumstances. It is intended that it should maintain a watching brief throughout the period to 2020.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

There is a huge difference between a body that provides advice when asked for it by the Secretary of State, and a body that provides advice on its own initiative. Which will the commission be?

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions) 5:45 pm, 27th October 2009

The duty to provide advice is set out in the Bill, and it will be the Secretary of State’s duty to take account of the advice and to show that it has been taken into account. I am sorry, but I cannot understand why that is not clear to the hon. Gentleman. The duties are laid out, and the commission will fulfil its duties.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

I am sorry, but that is not the question I asked. It was a simple question: does the commission have the ability to initiate the right to give advice to the Secretary of State when she has not asked for it?

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I did not intend to raise this point at this time, but, given the helpful intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley, the fact is that the role of the commission is to advise Ministers. I ask this to obtain information. Will the Minister explain why she thinks it necessary to have an outside body providing policy advice? Should not Government Departments provide advice to Ministers, who are then held accountable in Parliament?

The Bill creates a distance from parliamentary scrutiny. I think that the intention behind it—this is not necessarily a criticism—may be to create transparency in respect of advice provided to Ministers. But given that we could work out a system whereby targets exist and Government Ministers are held accountable for the decisions that they take, why is it necessary to have an entirely separate body?

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions)

It is the responsibility of the Secretary of State to establish a strategy that will achieve the targets and to work to achieve the targets. In doing so, the Secretary of State will draw on all the advice from her officials on which she normally draws. At the same time, because of significant public interest in child poverty, and following the consultation that we have conducted over the past few months, it was decided to establish a child poverty commission to ensure that the best independent advice could be given to the Secretary of State, drawing on people of exceptionally high quality, knowledge and expertise in the field.

This is an extremely important priority for the Government. That is why we believe that it is important to have transparency in the whole process, so that all those who are concerned about and interested in it will be able to see all the factors that have been taken into account, and to determine whether things have been done properly.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

I am struggling to see where in the paragraph headed “Provision of advice by Commission” in schedule 1 it explicitly states that the commission can give advice to the Secretary of State.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

I am informed by my hon. Friend that I will see the answer if I look at clause 9. I shall now sit down with no more ado.

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

This has been a useful debate. On the Minister’s comments about the people nominated to sit on the commission, have she and the Department given any thought to the type of individual who will be nominated? She said that nominees will be people of distinction—we take that as read. Does she envisage that there will be some people involved in fighting poverty on the front line of their organisations who take a hands-on approach—perhaps people such as Edna Speed, who came before the Committee—or does she envisage that the commission will be entirely staffed by local academics and people with a policy or research background? Would it be useful to have a mix of the two? I think it is important that we get a feel for the thoughts of the Minister regarding the balance of expertise on the commission.

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions)

If the hon. Gentleman turns to paragraph 1(4) of schedule 1, he will see the wide range of experience and knowledge that we will look for when making appointments to the commission. We will not look simply for policy and academic researchers, albeit their skills are valuable, but for people who work with children and families that are experiencing poverty.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

I was perhaps not helped by my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire. The Minister said that the commission will be able to provide advice to the Secretary of State at its own behest. That does not seem to appear in clause 9 or schedule 1. Clause 9 states:

“In preparing a UK strategy, the Secretary of State must request the advice of the Commission” and in schedule 1:

The Commission must comply with any request made by the Secretary of State...Advice given by the Commission under either of those sections must contain the reasons for the advice.”

It continues:

“As soon as reasonably practicable after giving advice under either of those sections, the Commission must publish the advice”.

As ever, one must look carefully at the detail of the legislation to ensure that the Government are genuinely setting up an independent body of experts that can, when it sees fit and for reasons that it judges to be suitable, make public advice to the Secretary of State and try to trigger change.

It is not clear to me—I could be wrong, and perhaps the Minister will reassure me—that the answer she gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Henley is exactly what is included in the Bill.

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions)

I am sorry if I was not clear. Let me try to reassure hon. Members on this point.

As has been noted, the Secretary of State must request advice when preparing or revising the strategy. The Secretary of State can seek advice at any other time. The commission will not provide advice to its own time scale, but will do so in a timely manner to enable the Secretary of State to fulfil her duties.

That is a different point from the question whether the advice is genuinely independent. Given the recruitment of people with independent experience, the transparency of the process and the fact that the advice will be published, it will be clear that the commission has a proper degree of independence.

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

I think that this is a genuinely useful debate. We are assuming that the commission will speak with one voice and give united advice. What happens if there is a difference of view within the commission—perhaps a majority view with a significant minority view? Will there be provision for the members of the commission who have a minority view to make that view known? I do not see why that should not be possible, and it would be helpful if the Minister said something encouraging about that. There can be minority reports in Select Committees, and it happens in the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England. If the minority disagrees with the majority decision, we are able to see that in the minutes. Does the Minister favour the greatest possible transparency, to ensure that if the commission is not unanimous, the full range of views is made available to the public?

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions)

The point would be covered by the terms of reference. In practice, we will have a group of people who might have differences in emphasis. The parallel with the Monetary Policy Committee is not quite right, as that body discusses one lever that is designed to achieve monetary policy objectives. In tackling child poverty, we can have a range of policy options.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions)

As I was saying before the Division, the parallel with the Monetary Policy Committee is not a good one, because while it is solely focused on one objective and one target, this is obviously a more complex arena. We are making it clear that we are drawing on the expertise of a lot of people, who will be able to contribute on various different policy levers of which Ministers will want to avail themselves. I do not think that anybody realistically thinks that the targets that we are setting out in the Bill can be achieved solely through one type of policy response. I hope that it is clear in paragraphs 13 and 14 of schedule 1 that the commission will regulate its own proceedings, so we are not prescribing now precisely how it should do its work.

I should like to make a final point about the qualities of people, particularly the chairman of the commission. A good chairman seeks not to stifle debate, but to draw creatively on the different contributions of the members of a commission, and in doing so to build a consensus when possible. Certainly, they do not seek to provoke disagreement. The commission is not intended as a debating chamber; it is intended to be a body that formulates advice for the Secretary of State. Of course, on occasion, people might lay a different emphasis on aspects of that advice. In such instances, it would be interesting for people to know that, and that would be reasonable.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 7 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.