To strengthen the scope of building blocks to ensure that the provision of childcare services which are delivered within a mixed market are included in the measures taken, and to ensure that funding for and delivery of childcare services are safeguarded despite wider economic difficulties.
Amendment 58, in clause 8, page 4, line 23, after services, insert
and improving the well-being of children.
Amendment 30, in clause 8, page 4, line 24, after housing,, insert transport,.
Amendment 2, in clause 8, page 4, line 25, at end insert
(e) reducing family breakdown
(f) assisting children in families with disabilities
(g) assisting children from minority ethnic backgrounds..
Amendment 20, in clause 8, page 4, line 25, at end insert , and
(e) the criminal justice system..
Amendment 47, in clause 8, page 4, line 25, at end add
Amendment 60, in clause 8, page 4, line 25, at end add
(e) the development of specific policies to tackle child poverty in rural areas..
Amendment 67, in clause 8, page 4, line 25, at end insert , and
(e) the provision of services for looked after children..
Amendment 68, in clause 8, page 4, line 25, at end insert , and
(e) the provision of services for children of asylum and immigration..
Good morning, Mr. Key. On behalf of the Committee, I welcome you back to the Chair on the penultimate day of our proceedings.
Clause 8 is the meat of the Bill. In many ways, it is the most significant clause, and the fact that a large number of amendments have been tabled to it shows that there is a lot of interest in it among Committee members. I shall go through the different issues raised by the first group of amendments, and I hope that the Committee will bear with me because that will take a little time.
Amendment 1, tabled by my hon. Friends and me, would add
and the promotion of economic enterprise to the end of subsection (5)(a). When discussing eradicating poverty, it is important philosophically to mention, albeit briefly, the creation of wealth. I recognise that the state has an important role in alleviating poverty, but it cannot perform it alone. It is the wealth creatorsthe entrepreneurs and the business men and women throughout the countrywho create jobs and set up businesses, and they will be at the heart of eradicating child poverty, which is the solution we all want from the Bill.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the best ways of contributing to tackling child poverty is to encourage enterprise to pay above-poverty wages?
That is an interesting debate. I remember Robin Cook criticising the predecessors of the tax credits introduced by the Conservative Government to subsidise poverty pay. I think that those were the words he used at the time. Of course, the policy of the previous Conservative Government has been continued and taken further by this Government, but the hon. Lady makes an absolutely fair point: a balance must be struck between the contribution of the state and businesses.
A significant feature of the evidence sessions at the start of our proceedings was that when local authority leaders were pressed on what it would take to eradicate child poverty they first mentioned getting more jobs and businesses going. On 20 October, Paul Carter talked about the need to bring more wealth and prosperity into his area of Kent. Richard Kemp, speaking on behalf of Liverpool on 20 October said,
The thing that will still take more people out of poverty in my city is more and better-quality employment.
He talked about the 4,500 jobs that were created in Liverpool last year, but made the fair point that not all of them had gone to the group that we are discussing.
Lastly, but certainly not least, Colin Green, speaking from his experience of Coventry said first, in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire, that
the most important things in this area are those that Richard pointed to, about creating a dynamic local economy. [Official Report, Child Poverty Public Bill Committee, 20 October 2009; c. 62-63, Q136-139.]
That is the perspective of the council leaders who will have an important job on the ground in working with the Government to eradicate child poverty in their areas.
There are further interesting perspectives. Just as Tip ONeill said that all politics is local, I would say that poverty is very much a peculiarly and distinctively local phenomenon in many parts of the country. The Department has produced some shocking figures onto introduce a bit of jargon early in the morningthe lower-layer super-output areas. Those figures look at sub-ward levels of economic inactivity. In the Falinge and Central area of Rochdale, 76 per cent. of the working-age population claims out-of-work benefits, and in a further 60 areas across the country, many of them close to the constituencies of some members of the Committee, more than half of the working-age population is not in work. I sometimes refer to those areas as job deserts. We will have to address that distinctive problem to make real progress towards reaching the targets by 2020.
The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely interesting point. However, before we go too far down a path with those figures, which might be slightly misleading, does he agree that one reason for those intense concentrations of workless parents is the nature of social housing distribution and allocations? The fact that there is much less social housing now than there was 30 years ago means that by definition one concentrates people with disadvantage in small geographical areas, rather than the geographical areas in some way explaining why people are in poverty? We need to look at people rather than at areas, which appears to what the hon. Gentleman implied.
I think that the two issues are linked. The hon. Lady makes a fair and sensible point. Housing does play a role, and that is one reason why I have some sympathy with the Liberal Democrat amendment 30 on transport. If there are large concentrations of people with high worklessness in one area, and jobs are created on the other side of town but there are no decent bus routes or it is incredibly complicated to get there, that is where transport comes in.
Let me point to a possible solution to the issue that the hon. Lady rightly highlighted. In the Marsh Farm estate in Luton, close to my constituency, there was just such a set of circumstances. The estate has high levels of worklessness and child poverty, and it was discovered that the people living there spent just under £2 million a year on a range of takeaway foods, all from businesses outside the estate. There was no garage on the estate either, and people had to go some wayto St. Albans, for exampleto get their cars serviced. Partly through, I think, some money from the new deal for communities programme, a fast food business and a garage were set up on the estate. I understand that those businesses are now thriving and sustainable, and not in receipt of ongoing taxpayer support. That is a good example of the promotion of economic enterprise within a job desert. Transport could, or would have to, be the solution in some cases, but not everyone can travel long distances to work, so it is important to have a supply of jobs in areas with high concentrations of worklessness.
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman about the need for small-scale statistics, and about the importance of initiatives such as the new deal for communities and estate-based work. I would like some assurances that not only the hon. Gentleman but the rest of his party are signed up to the focus on local poverty indicators. Those of us who were tackling unemployment and poverty in inner London in the 1990s found that the then Conservative Government would look only at the macro-statistics and not at the small-scale area statistics. That was one of the reasons we could never really crack some of the problems. Will the hon. Gentleman assure us that everyone on his Front Bench has changed their mind and is now aligned with what he said?
As I read the political tea leaves, localism has had a long overdue renaissance in all the political parties, not least in the Conservative partyperhaps even principally in the Conservative party. That is absolutely right. Local authorities, with the total place concept that is being developed in local government, are getting much more switched on to such an approach. I am happy to be on the record as saying that all poverty is local. The hon. Lady makes a fair point: we shall need a balance of national and local solutions to deal with the important issues.
I strongly support the idea of localism and looking at things in small local areas, but it is important to link that with wider economic strategies. I think in particular of south Wales, where areas are blighted by worklessness, in a large degree due to the end of the mining industrya catastrophe that we are still trying to get over.
The hon. Lady is right. There are many such areas of the country. My own area, for instance, used to make trucks and had a big motor component industry, but all that is gone now. My area, like hers, is having to think how to earn its living in a new and changing world. That is always part and parcel of economic life. However, the hon. Lady makes a fair point and I am sure that such issues are rightly occupying the minds of her local authority leaders and of the Welsh Assembly.
Amendment 50 mentions child careto which the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North will no doubt refer shortly. She is right to try to put the issue in the Bill. The whole area of flexible working needs to go in alongside thatthe National Childrens Bureau was keen to see it in the Bill. The NCB has drawn attention to the fact that we are clearly not going to get many familiessingle parent families in particularinto the labour market without making absolutely sure that we have adequate child care.
We are debating an issue on which there has been a change of focus in Conservative policy. Flexible working is another such issueperhaps in the past it was seen as imposing too much of a requirement on companies, and that to allow flexibility in working would be against business interests. On the contrary, it has opened up the work force and allowed more people to access work and has been a positive measure that the Government have taken forward and that the next Conservative Government will be able to build on.
I am grateful, as always, to my hon. Friend for putting that on the record. I have always thought it slightly bizarre that, as an employee, one is given such an all or nothing option: to sell either all of ones time to an employer or none of it. We need to get away from that general concept, because that is not how many peoples lives operate. We are all agreed, across the Committee, that work is the best way of getting peopleincluding childrenout of poverty. We have to do further thinking on that area.
May I pay tribute to the Government for some other progress they have made? The use of tax credits has made worktypically for around 16 hours a weekeasier, for lone parents in particular. However, there are disincentives to work more hours than that and for those for whom 10 hours might be more appropriate than 16. We have a rather fixed system that dictates how millions of people live. Does my hon. Friend think that progress can be made to create a smoother and more graduated system to ensure that people are able to work the hours that are most appropriate to them and best suit their circumstances, including child care?
I agree with my hon. Friend. If memory serves me correctly, that point was made by Kevan Collins in our evidence session, when he called for more flexibility within the benefits system and for the system to be prepared to take risks sometimes over individuals, with benefit holidays and the ability to get back on benefits.
I am not sure that we have talked about general options; we are talking about a general philosophical approach of providing more flexibility within the welfare system. I do not necessarily agree with the Minister that a flexible system is necessarily more expensive than a rigid system. There are costs inherent in a rigid system, if it keeps people out of the labour market, because the Ministers Department has to go on paying benefits. It is a complicated area. I recognise what she is saying and she is right to make that point, but this is not by any means the end of the debate. It will be the subject of further study by her party and mine for many years to come. I shall move on because there are many amendments to speak to.
Amendment 58 deals with the well-being of children, which we have touched on throughout the Bill. This is specifically a child poverty Bill; it looks at the income levels available to families in which children live. It is not a Bill about childrens well-being specifically, but we would all agree that poverty and well-being are intimately linked. If nothing else, fostering childrens well-being is likely to be beneficial to the outcomes of those children when they in turn become parents. The National Childrens Bureau, among others, has said that adding a reference to well-being would ensure that the Government consider the breadth of services that can impact on the quality of a childs life.
Amendment 2 covers three different areas, all of which I will speak to. The reference to families with disabilities covers a distinct group in which there is a particular concentration of child poverty, as every study on child poverty shows again and again. The Equality and Human Rights Commission, among others, has called for and will welcome amending the Bill to refer to disability. We referred to it in our earlier discussions on the disability living allowance. I commend the amendment to Ministers for their consideration. The Secretary of State will have to consider the issue specifically when she formulates her strategy.
I make the same point about ethnic minorities. I am conscious that we need to be careful of the language we use, but, for example, there are phenomenally high rates of child poverty in the Bangladeshi community in London, perhaps for long-standing cultural reasons or due to language or attitudes towards all family members going out to work. We must recognise that a general UK-wide strategy may leave certain communities untouched. Again, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has welcomed that focus.
I want to talk about proposed new subsection (5)(e) in amendment 2, which refers to reducing family breakdown. I hope we can debate this in as consensual a way as possible, and I long for the day when this area of family policy is more or less agreed across the House. I am always troubled that it is an area of contention, as it is one on which I seek consensus. I was genuinely pleased when I picked up Ending child poverty: making it happen, which was brought out earlier this year by the Department for Work and Pensions from the child poverty unit, which has done tremendous work on bringing the Bill forward. All three references to strengthening families pleased me.
Page 12 of the document says:
Family breakdown and crisis can make searching for work very difficult and also increase the risk of dropping out of the labour market.
That is absolutely right; I was pleased to see that. Page 15, which addresses supporting parents, talks about strengthening the capabilities of parents. That is just the right the language and something I would back completely. Page 16 sets out the famous building blocks to try to eradicate child poverty, with the diagram that has been produced at all sorts of conferences. I was again pleased to see family rightly mentioned as one of those eight building blocks. I have referred before to the impact assessment, paragraph 2.6 of which says:
Family breakdown may have caused the family to fall into poverty.
Those statement are all from Government documents, so I was surprised when I looked at clause 8(5), and noticed that all the building blocks were there and named expect one: family. Curiously, family seems to have slipped through the net, and I do not know why. I was disappointed because I had thought that what the Government had been saying and their direction of travel had been encouraging.
I was also slightly discouraged during the evidence sessions when the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions said:
The Government are not wholly convinced that family breakdown is a cause of poverty.
That worried me, so I came back with:
Is it not the case that if your parents separate you are twice as likely to grow up in poverty as a child?
The Minister replied:
The data that we have show that there is a small downward blip at the point of a family breakdown.[Official Report, Child Poverty Public Bill Committee, 20 October 2009; c. 15-16, Q44-45.]
I said that we needed to look further into the data.
I found that the most peculiar piece of evidence that we heard in all the Committee sittings was a Government Minister saying that family breakdown was not a major contributor to poverty. It might make one think that the couples penalty within the benefits system is almost deliberate, if the Government put such little regard on supporting and keeping families together, and do not regard them breaking apart as something major.
I hear what my hon. Friend says, although I take a slightly more charitable view. I do not think that it is deliberate; it is probably an oversight or an unintentional policy error. I completely and utterly accept that poverty drives families apart. There is a saying that when money goes out of the window, love goes out of the dooror vice versa. I wholly accept that, but I think that the relationship works the other way as well.
Let us look at some detailed figures. The hon. Member for Northavon is a great believer in dipping carefully into the households below average incomes seriesno doubt he has the pack with him. I also have a copy from the Library.
I got the House of Commons Library to carry out some analysis of the figures. It sent me a note in Julythat is the one to which I referred in Committee. The note splits children in low-income householdsthose below the 60 per cent. median incomeinto those whose parents are married, in a civil partnership, cohabiting, single, widowed, and separated or divorced. The figure for all children in poverty across the UK is 23 per cent. The likelihood of a child being in poverty if their parents are married, in a civil partnership or cohabiting is 18 per cent.1.8 million out of 9.8 million children. In households headed by a parent who is single, widowed, separated or divorced, or whose civil partnership has been dissolved, the figure is 1.1 million out of 3 million children, or 36.6 per centslightly more than double the figure for other households. When I said that the figure was double, I was being cautious and had understated the figures.
Those are the Governments own figures for households below average incomethey are just the facts of the case. We can forget any political baggage on the left or the right of the issuethese are just the facts. It is staggering that we cannot get some political consensus on the issue on doing something to strengthen and support families and give them the best chance of keeping their children out of poverty.
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I do not think that there is such a thing as just a facthis facts were laden with inference, and that is where there is some difference between us. The point was made in the evidence session that many countries have comparable rates of lone parenthood to the UK, but that that does not manifest itself in child poverty. From the point of view of the Bill, is not the most important question why being a lone parent in Britain associates very strongly with poverty, when it does not have to in many other comparable countries?
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, and I would want to look further into the particular details that he mentions. However, as I look at the statistics across Europe, I see that this country is off the curve. We are right at the top of the table for countries in which there is a significant degree of separation, and we also have a very high level of child poverty. I believe that there is a correlation between the two. Of course, if we give more and more financial support to single parents, there will be less child poverty in certain areas. None the less, 1.8 million children in two-parent families are in poverty, while 1.1 million children in single-parent familiesthose where the parent is widowed, separated or divorced, or where the civil partnership has been dissolvedare in poverty.
The hon. Gentleman is clearly correct in the sense that if we give lots of state benefit to single parents, we can do something about the issue, and I do not think that anyone would dispute that. However, I am making the more general point that as part of their strategynot the whole and perhaps not even the most significant partthe Government must be conscious of the need to do something to strengthen and support family life, the fragility of which leads far too many of our children into poverty.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that any difference between the parties relates to a question of means, rather than a question of principle. However, given that the Conservative party is keen to introduce a premium in the tax system to support marriage, what calculations have been done on the amount that would act as an incentive to couples to marry and stay together?
I have not actually mentioned marriage so far, although I am happy that the hon. Lady has done so. I do not know what my party will do on that issue, and we have not announced that yet. However, we have announced plans to end the couple penalty as far as the working tax credit is concerned, and that would apply to married and cohabiting couples. There is a separate debate to be had on marriage, and I am more than happy to enter into one with the hon. Lady or anyone else on another occasion, but that was not the central thrust of my argumentI was just talking about strengthening families in any shape or form.
Does my hon. Friend, like me, wonder whether any Labour Member will stand up and defend the couple penalty and say that this is a desirable state of affairs? Alternatively, will they welcome the fact that we would seek to get rid of it? The Minister is always quick to point out that there are costs to all these things, but surely we can all agree that we should seek to end the couples penalty.
As always, Mr. Key, I shall follow your guidance in these matters. My hon. Friends comments are on the record for Labour Members to respond to as they wish later in the debate.
Finally, amendments 67 and 68 were tabled by the hon. Member for Northampton, North. She wants to include the provision of services for looked-after children and for those in the asylum and immigration system, which was the subject of earlier deliberations. There are distinct issues there, so I think that it is fair for her to raise that point.
Good morning, Mr. Key. I have been musing this morning as to what sin you might have committed in a previous life to have to endure another of our sittings. It is nevertheless good to see you in the Chair.
Clause 8 has a slight feeling of a Christmas tree about it; we have all come along with our baubles. A bit of me almost wants to strip the tree down and perhaps even take out subsection (5), on which we are hanging those baubles. Either we have a strategy that is about child poverty and we let the Secretary of State get on with it, or we have a complete shopping list of everything that matters to do with the welfare of childrenand in the spirit of the debate we have added a couple of our own. However, what we have is neither fish nor fowlwe have some things that matter to children but not others.
We have tabled amendment 30, which is about transport, and amendment 47 on child care. We note that the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North wanted to add a provision on child care in a different place in the Bill. We can have a high-tempered debate about where it should go, but we would be happy if amendment 50 were accepted. I shall explain why, if we are going to have a Christmas tree, we would like to hang the baubles of transport and child care on it, but I wonder whether the Ministers will reflect on whether picking some things and not others might create the wrong outcome.
It is like our discussion about targets when we started our consideration. Once we start saying that something matters because it is in legislation, is there not a risk that, when drawing up the strategy, we look at the things that are listed, but ignore disability, ethnicity, asylum-seeking children and all the other things that we would like to add? I hope that the Financial Secretary will give us a flavour of why some things and not others are included and reflect on whether specifying particular things makes sense. If we are going to do that, transport is clearly an important issue and it links to the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness on rurality, because transport and rurality are closely linked.
I understand the hon. Gentlemans argument and I am having similar difficulty about what should and should not be included. Would he not agree, however, that there is a difference between what is included and some of the other items that are being suggested, which are subject areas and services, and a separate category that would not fit into the existing structure relating to individuals characteristics and groups, such as ethnicity? A clear distinction can be drawn between those two sectors. I think that it is right to concentrate on the services and subject areas rather than the groups, which would be a separate argument.
That is a fair point. We are talking about different categories of things today. I am not absolutely convinced that all those on the list are of a kind. One might argue that some of them are slightly different sorts of things, but I take the general point. If that is the criterion for being on the list, transport services would be an obvious example. There are three obvious links between transport and child poverty: access to services, access to jobs and access to leisure.
The material deprivation standard is things like having a hobby and going swimmingthat kind of stuff. If there is no bus and the childs parents do not have a car, going swimming is going to be a bit tricky. Clearly, if we are to deliver on the targets, I cannot see why transport would not be on the list. Health matters, education matters, social services matters and transport matters, so why not include transport, which has a particular impact on poverty in rural areas?
One of the problems with the Governments anti-poverty strategyit is an inevitable problemis that it is much easier to do things in towns and cities, as everyone is in the same place. There might be public transport, and things could be done cost-effectively, but that is hard if there is one deprived child living down a country lane with no bus. Transport is central.
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. By way of example, I would cite the Humber bridge toll, which is one of the highest and most expensive tolls in the country to use a piece of infrastructure completed nearly 30 years ago. Anyone with a part-time job or who is working for minimum wage is unable to use the bridge, and thus employment in an area of lower than average income is constrained. Transport absolutely needs to be understood within the poverty context.
The cost of transport is important, even for those who have a carthere are issues such as the cost of petrolbut I am thinking particularly of those who do not have access to private transport. Many of us know that public transport is little short of a joke in many parts of the country. It either does not exist at all or, if it does, it is expensive. If someone uses public transport to get to work, they can have a season ticket and get relatively cheap faresthat is one thingbut if someone needs an occasional bus to a Sure Start centre, a leisure activity or whatever, they pay the full farethey do not get a discounted fare. There is a risk of being ever so slightly London-centric about this. Those of us who represent constituencies outside London are sometimes astonished by the comparison between cheap bulk public transport in central London and the kind of fares that our constituents experience.
There is a particular issue about housing allocationsI believe that the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North has mentioned thisthat links to transport. For example, the DWP local housing allowance scheme can result in particular areas of a local authority being inaccessible to people on housing benefit because there is, in essence, a cap on the rent that will be covered, so people tend to cluster in the low-rent parts of a housing market area where transport might not be good. That is partly why the rent is so lowit is cheap to rent there because no one wants to live there because there is no transport. There is a danger that the policies will interact. Putting a provision on transport in the Bill would encourage the Secretary of State to think broadly about one of the barriers to improving child welfare and dealing with child poverty.
Another issue is child care, which is covered in our amendment 47 and also in amendment 50I hope that the hon. Lady will make some further observations on child care. This partly comes back to the point made by the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire about the link between lone parenthood and poverty. One of the reasons why there is a much stronger correlation between lone parenthood and child poverty in Britain than in many other countries is that, despite the progress that has been made, there is still a lack of affordable, accessible, flexible, quality child care.
We know that in-work poverty is significanta job is not enough on its own to get someone out of povertyand, interestingly, the poverty measures that are used in the Bill do not net off child care costs. Again, we are probably understating child poverty in working households because many parents, particularly lone parents who work but do not receive working tax credit or child care tax credit and all the rest of it, pay a significant part of their after-tax income in child care costs, so their real living standards are much lower.
We must think about the accessibility of affordable, quality child careand flexible child care. Those who have regular, predictable working patterns and pre-school age children might face one set of issues relating to child care, but if the kids are off at primary school, and perhaps there is an in-service day in the middle of the week, or cover is needed for half term, or one of them is illall those kinds of thingspeoples ability to hold down a regular job may be undermined. Fill-in child care can be very expensive and can affect living standards. We need to have child care on the list as well, if we are to have a list at all.
I shall not go through the rest of the amendments, but I would like to make an observation about family breakdown, because it is obviously important. It is clearly the case that the children of lone parents are at a higher risk of child poverty than the children of two-parent families. Interestingly, the policy response of the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire, as I understand it, is within a fixed pot of money to put extra money into two-parent families. Is not that what getting rid of the couple premium would actually mean?
It would provide a level playing field, as elsewhere in the benefit system there is not the discrimination against two-parent families that currently exists with working tax credit. It would be a levelling up, not a levelling down. It would not take money away from any single parents at all. There is also the whole area of trying to strengthen and support families to give them a chance of staying together in the first place, rather than dealing with the consequences when they split up.
But as with all spending commitments, there is no such thing as a free lunch. The hon. Gentleman has told us with some passion, which I believe is sincere, that he is concerned about the high rates of child poverty in lone-parent families but wants some additional support to be available to two-parent families in priority over lone-parent families. That would presumably give him less bang for his buck on child poverty.
Yes, but we are not talking about fixed states. There is the whole phenomenon of LATsthose who are living apart together. The hon. Gentleman must be aware that many people who are an item, to use the popular vernacular, are forced to live apart because of the way in which the benefit system acts against them. People are taking decisions in their personal lives because the benefit system would be stacked against them if they moved in with each other.
I am interested in the point that the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire just made because it seemed to be based on the assumption that the benefit system effectively does not disincentivise a couple from separating because the two people will not have additional costs as a result. In my experience, the housing costs of two people separating would heavily outweigh any possible advantage within the tax credit and benefit system of them separating, so I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has thought that point through.
Were the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire to respond to that point, I am sure that he would cite some recently published research about those relative costs, but I am with the hon. Lady on that. One of the things that people do not value adequately enough in such calculations is the value, in the case of couples, of what might be called free child care. Couples can live together and save certain costs by doing so, leaving aside the psychic or emotional benefitswhatever they are calledof being together, which are rather difficult to include in a cost-benefit calculation. If one parent works, however, the other can provide free child care, whereas a lone parent does not have that option.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that levels of financial support should be determined by need and based on the number of children and the amount of finance available to that unit, rather than on whether the family arrangement is that of two parents or of a lone parent? As I understand it, the current arrangements seek to put financial need as the criterion.
Yes, the focus clearly must be on need. I do not want the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire to think that any of us in the Committee do not think that fostering an environment that enables people who want to stay together as a couple to do so is a good thing. We all believe that, so the point of difference is between the causality of what he talks about inevitably leading to poverty, and the ability of the state to do as much as it can about it. He is involved in voluntary sector projects in his constituency that are very effective in that area and that could be better resourced. This is not a council of despair, and I am not saying that we cannot do anything. This is a question of whether a national child poverty strategy with local implementation should make the causal link that he assumes.
A further point relates to marriage, which the hon. Gentleman did not mention, and I appreciate that that was because he did not want to be pigeonholed. The evidence that financial incentives keep people together specifically in marriage is staggeringly weak. He will know that his right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), when Chancellor, like other Conservative Chancellors, cut the married couples tax allowance repeatedlythe current lot finished it off, but they started it, as it were. There is no correlation between the point at which the married couples tax allowance was degraded, and marriage and divorce. We must be careful about the assumption that relatively small financial incentives will affect big life choices in a simplistic, causal way.
It is extraordinary that both left-wing parties on the Committee are so determined to deny that disincentives for couples to stay together exist or have any import. The further up the income levels someone is, the freer they are to make decisions. It is the poor and vulnerable whose decisions are particularly driven by financial incentive, because of the immediacy of finances in their daily lives. Does the hon. Gentleman suggest that, despite the evidence provided by work such as Dynamic benefits, there is no financial disincentive for people on low incomes and benefits to be a couple?
I certainly take one of the hon. Gentlemans points: lower down the income scale, these incentives matter more. The Dynamic Benefits report is packed full of assertions, but there is relatively little substance behind a lot of it. Some of those assertions may be true, but in my view they are not substantiated. They underestimate the benefits of being a couple and what it is that prompts many people to remain as a couple, notwithstanding, as the hon. Gentleman says, some financial issues in doing so. We risk relying too much on anecdote in this area. There is not a lot of hard evidence of people [Interruption.] It is asserted that this goes on a lot. The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire says, We all know people who
I am not sure that I do either. This is a marginal rather than a central feature of the system, and that is perhaps where we disagree.
I think I should wrap up my point. If we are going to have a Christmas tree, our baubles are nice, so we would like to see child care and transport on the list. However, I ask the Minister to consider whether a Christmas tree is the best idea.
I want to add another bauble to the Christmas tree. I have tabled an amendment on asylum-seeking, Traveller and looked-after children, but we have discussed those issues previously. I do not want to say much more, except to point out that looked-after children need services particularly when they come out of care, to help them enter economic activity.
I want to speak to amendment 20, which is about the criminal justice system. I agree with the hon. Member for Northavon that things can be added on for ever, and that all kinds of issues would be suitable. However, I am not sure that the criminal justice system is referred to anywhere in the Bill. I am not thinking about children who are in the criminal justice system because, as I have said, children in institutions might be vulnerable and have multiple difficulties, but I am not sure that poverty is the biggest issue for them. I do not think that we can measure poverty if such children are in an institution that is properly resourced.
I am thinking about the involvement of parents in the criminal justice system, and the impact that that has on family income and on levels of child poverty in particular. That applies to both men and women. However, in the Corston report on women offenders and the sentencing of women, there are particular issues regarding women who are put into prison, their experiences in prison and difficulties with resettlement. Often, women are more likely to face custodial sentences for non-violent crimes, despite their family responsibilities. There are major issues around that, and maintaining relationships with the children. May I just give a practical example, as it always helps to focus attention a bit?
The mother of one of the families I have spoken about previously was sent to prison for stabbing her partner. When she came out, her benefits had been disrupted because she had been in prison and it took about three or four months to get them sorted out, because the benefits system is not the fastest thing that has ever happened. Worse than that, while she was in prison, her housing benefit lapsed and she built up rent arrears. So when she came out, she had no income and she had to go back to sharing a cramped flat with the partner she had stabbed. She was pregnant and was being pursued by the council for rent arrears. By any standards, a local authority that is looking at how to tackle child poverty must consider what happens with this group of parents, which will not be huge.
Does the hon. Lady know how long the prison sentence was, because it is my understanding that housing benefit is supposed to stay in place and is not supposed to be disrupted if the sentence is less than 13 weeks?
She received a longer sentence than that. It also seemed that the courts had not made a proper assessment of how many children she had. She did not have proper legal representation and I think the courts thoughtit was not absolutely clearthat she had only one child, but she had three and she was pregnant. She got quite a long custodial sentencelonger than 13 weeksand it was only by starting to get proper legal representation and unpicking things that it was possible to resolve her situation a bit.
I suspectI do not have all the datathat although this group of parents might not be huge, 100 per cent. of their children would be found to be living in poverty and suffering compound material deprivation. I understand that the Minister does not want to have a wish list that goes on and on, but will he consider giving some assurances about how the assessments locally and the strategy nationally can take into account the criminal justice system? That is particularly necessary because of the pressures on families in which the parents are involved with the criminal justice system, with a devastating impact on the familys income. Will he make sure that he looks at not just the issues surrounding fathers but those relating to mothers?
I shall give an example of the particular impact on lone parents. One of my more instructive mornings was spent in a youth court, where all the young men were being done for nicking and driving cars, and they were getting community sentences. There were only a couple of women who were up in the youth court, one of whom was a very poor young mother. She was a teenager and had a couple of children. She was done for committing credit card fraud to get money to support her children. There are real issues about focusing on this difficult group and making sure that they are properly included. If my right hon. Friend the Minister cannot include them in the Bill, will he say exactly where the criminal justice system will come into play in looking at strategies to deal with child poverty?
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Northampton, North, whose personal experience of case work benefits the Committee as it seeks to understand the many triggers of child poverty. The hon. Member for Northavon rightly pointed out that clause 8 is a Christmas tree. Perhaps if I had had the insight to speak to the hon. Gentleman before I drafted my amendments, I might have sought to alter the clause altogether, so that subsection (5) might read, Must consider what if any measures ought to be taken to improve the well-being of children. Given the variety of policies and services that affect the welfare of the children, any effort to list them all is fundamentally absurd.
Ministers have heard what has been said, and I am about to move on and promote my own baubles, but I invite them to think again whether the approach is the right one. It has been a pleasure to listen to the three outstanding contributions that have been made today, and I am struck with the thought of other relevant servicesto refer to the comments of the hon. Member for Northampton, North, who sought a rationale for the Christmas tree in relation to services.
All hon. Members will have daily familiarity with the misery caused to the families of lone mothers or fathers, or new families, by the administration of the Child Support Agency. It is an impossible mess in which lots of good people appear to be trying to do their best, but all too often things end in misery for families, with stress in the home and child poverty.
There is nothing on the list about the administration of benefits. What goes more to the heart of services on which children in poverty depend than the administration of benefits? If the hon. Member for Northampton, North is right, and someone coming out of prison can wait four months to get her benefits sorted out, that goes to show how important the administration of benefits should be in the clause, if we are to go for a Christmas tree effect.
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that there is some rationale for not including absolutely everything? The provision of financial support for children and parents so clearly has the Child Support Agency and the administration of the benefit system at its core that I cannot see that anything would be added by listing those items. I think that the baubles can be limited, even if a few extra might conceivably be added with a little more logic than the hon. Gentlemans two examples, important though they are in our daily lives and case work.
The hon. Lady is probably right, but the point allowed me to bring up both those subjects.
I shall try not to detain the Committee too long by talking about other amendments that I have not tabled, but I hope that the Government will take on board the need to emphasise enterprise and the creation of wealth, as well as its distribution, which is the reason for amendment 1.
I have commented already on well-being. It would be peculiar if we did not try to bring the concept of well-being into the matter. The Bill is primarily about incomes, and I shall come to the issue of rurality in a moment. However, it is possible to imagine that even while children are, technically, in poverty, there can be excellent access to transport, libraries, swimming pools and a choice of decent schools, so that a material difference can be made to the lives of children who are still, technically, in relative poverty. Therefore, a wider sense of well-being needs to be captured in the strategies.
I shall not rehearse the point about family breakdown too much more, but to the bizarre combination of Labour and Liberal Democrats who seem not to care about, orI must stop overstating my casewho fail to give sufficient weight to the importance of family breakdown, I would recommend the report Dynamic Benefits, which was recently published by the Centre for Social Justice:
Economies of scale mean that two single claimants will always need (and hence deserve) more than a couple. However, the Government reduces benefit payments to couples by far more than is saved through cohabiting: so, among families facing the greatest disadvantage, where strong, stable family units are needed most, they are most penalised.
The hon. Member for Northavon may say that that is an assertion not backed by evidence, but it is followed immediately by a case study, which is about the best that can be done in such a context, I think. It deals with a couple, who are
If they choose to live together, then the Government recognises their joint income required to keep the same standard of living would be 75 per cent. of their combined separate incomes as singles. However, as a couple they would be entitled to just the same HB as a single person, and between them would receive a joint JSA award of only £100.95 per week. This would typically leave them with approximately 66 per cent. of their previous income, less than the 75 per cent. required to make it equivalent for couples.
If the case study in the report is incorrect, I would be interested to hear that from the Minister, but on the face of it, it shows that a couple on benefits living together would be penalised more than is necessary to reflect the fact that they were living together. That, simply, is the point being made by my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire and the Conservative party. I do not think that it is an extreme one, and it certainly does not seek to penalise lone parents. It is an attempt to lay out what a fair and reasonable benefit system and a level playing field look like.
The hon. Gentleman has helpfully raised a specific case, which aids the debate. Clearly, there is a set of bills that two people running separate households must pay twice. An example is water rates. There is no benefit for paying water rates, so people running two households have two lots of water rates, household insurance, fuel bills and so on. There must be some adjustment. The question is whether it is the right adjustment.
The hon. Gentleman read out the line:
the Government recognises their joint income required...would be 75 per cent. of their combined separate incomes as singles.
Does he know where that figure comes from? Where do the Government recognise that it is 75 per cent.?
I have to confess that I have not the faintest idea. Perhaps the Minister will be able to help us later; I merely throw it out. Apart from casework, my greatest and deepest involvement in understanding the benefit system comes from reading that report and others. I do not have the hon. Gentlemans statistical background.
I am honestly not trying to be a smart Alec. What I was getting at is that I assumeI am guessing, because it is not made clearthat the issue is about the equivalence scales. I am guessing that the report is saying that the Government adjust for household size on one basis, but pay benefits on another. It is perfectly sensible to discuss whether the equivalence scales match the benefit relativities, and if not, whether they should be adjusted. It does not seem to be a great theological point; it is a somewhat technical one. I wonder whether people make judgments on such a huge issue as whether to live together based on 6 or 7 per cent. here or there. If 9 per cent. is the margin, is that enough to make the hon. Gentleman decide whether to live with somebody?
I must say that yet again, the hon. Gentleman has shown his credentials for the post of first chairman of the child poverty commission. I hope that he will give serious consideration to such a move in due course.
On amendments 67 and 68, as I said, if we accept the Christmas tree idea, looked-after children are always missed. The Children, Schools and Families Committee wrote a report recently pointing out just how much we, as corporate parents to looked-after children, fail them. Asylum seekers children are all too easily missed as well, so I support the amendments.
I did want to make a main contributionI will try not to make it too long, Mr. Keyon my amendment, which concerns the need for policies to deal with rural child poverty. Some 22 per cent. of rural children and their families live in financial poverty, according to the Commission for Rural Communities State of the Countryside 2008 report. It is a serious issue. According to the same report, child poverty is growing more quickly in rural than in urban areas. During the period 2004 to 2007, it rose by 3 per cent. in rural areas, compared to 2 per cent. in the rest of the nation. That is a reminder that during some periods in the past 10 years, child poverty has moved in the wrong direction.
Poverty in rural Britain is hidden, as the media and an urban-based and perhaps occasionally urban-focused GovernmentI do not mean that overly pejorativelytypically focus more on urban blight. As can sometimes be seen in contributions from Opposition Members, there is a tendency to believe that rural living is essentially a comfortable and middle-class preoccupation.
I will in a moment, having done my normal trick of provoking her. According to the Institute for Public Policy Research Norths 2006 paper, A New Rural Agenda, that view obscures issues such as small settlement structures, limited provision of welfare services and the arrival of ex-urban groups.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that many of us represent rural and semi-rural constituencies, but I thought it necessary to put it on the record. My constituencyan ex-mining communityis largely rural, with market towns. The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland, has just told me that her constituency is 800 sq km, which can hardly be described as a compact urban area. Indeed, I drove past it when I was going on holiday in Northumberland recently, and can vouch for it being rural.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. The rare signs of commitment to, and understanding of, rurality by Labour Members are always welcome. Although the causes of rural poverty are similar to the causes of the urban experience of poverty, there are often
I will make a little more progress, with Mr. Keys permission. I shall seek to be less provocative of Labour Members. I will happily give way to the hon. Lady once I have made my point.
There are often deeper challenges because of rural constraints, such as low rates of pay and the predominance of seasonal work in coastal towns and villages. Those issues are pertinent in my constituency of Beverley and Holderness. Seasonal work is linked not only to tourism, but to agriculture. Access to education and services is difficult for those without private transport, as was mentioned by the hon. Member for Northavon. There are also higher living costs, particularly in tourist areas and places that are remote and isolated from centres of main activity. Pockets of deprivation in rural areas are harder to discern than in urban areas, where they are more concentrated.
This is a major policy point in the Bill. One of the reasons why the hon. Gentlemans party criticised the Bill was the responsibility it put on local authorities. One reason why I and other Labour Members support that approach is that local authorities can deal with issues of poverty, including rural poverty, in their areas as it is. That is why it is so important that we follow the approach in the Bill. It will enable the targeting of poverty in precisely the way he wants.
Asserting something does not necessarily make it so. I hope that the hon. Lady is right. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Henley, who is far more expert in the workings of local government than I, suggests that the Bill is over-prescriptive. In his opinion, it does not allow the flexibility of approach that the hon. Lady wishes for. Perhaps we will focus on that later in our deliberations. I agree that if the Bill provided that flexibility, it would be right to support it.
Access poverty features largely in the lives of rural children and young people. It is particularly important in the lives of teenagers. Over time, there has been a centralisation of services such as health, housing, education and leisure services. The financial and physical barriers to services, such as distance or a lack of transport, affect families and children on low incomes disproportionately, particularly those in remote areas. That is why amendment 60 was tabled.
On benefits, which are the responsibility of the Financial Secretary, there is a lack of rural jobcentres. Before the sudden spike in unemployment, the Government were busily shutting jobcentres as fast as they could. According to the CRC report, State of the Countryside 2008, there are only 31 jobcentres in sparse and rural areas. In rural areas, 40 per cent. of 15 to 16-year-olds said that the availability of transport played a part in their decision whether to enter post-16 education. I know people in Withernsea and the surrounding areas who have tried to access education in Hull, but have given up on their courses because of the difficulty and expense involved in accessing public transport. That affects the drop-out rate.
I put it to the Minister that there are extra costs to living in rural areas. Households in rural settlements typically spend £74.50 on transport each week; that compares with a figure of £57 in urban areas. Therefore amendment 60 is necessary to ensure that the UK strategies cover the specific rural challenges and that progress on child poverty is made fairly and proportionately across different areas, so that no areas are left behind in the drive for improvement.
I shall aim to be brief and will concentrate on my amendments, but we have had interesting exchanges about the couples penalty, family breakdown and other important contextual drivers of child poverty, and it occurred to me that there is potentially a couples penalty for pensioners as well. If that is the case, I wonder why we do not see a spate of pensioner break-ups when people reach retirement age. As the hon. Member for Northavon rightly said, the factors that drive relationships are much more complex than that, and relationships are much less amenable change as a result of relatively minor impacts of the tax and benefits system.
Admittedly, Conservative Members are making some very good points; the last speech that we heard contained some important points about rural poverty. However, in making representations, it is critical that the Conservative party tries to understand that given public spending pressures, and the demands that constantly come from Opposition Front Benchers for faster and deeper cuts to public expenditure, adding ever more demands for investment in benefits and other services is unrealistic. Those demands would need to be met by taking resources from other elements of the tax and benefits system. That understanding has been sadly missing.
I want to make a couple of comments on amendments 64 and 66, which are probing amendments. I do not intend to use the word bauble, because it would be inappropriate in the context of a very important group of people, but I am clearly not seeking to add the provisions to the Bill, for the reasons that other hon. Members have outlined. We should not look to the Bill to include a list of different categories of people at risk of poverty, or a list of their characteristics. That is an important point.
When I and other hon. Members were asked to table an amendment about children who live with families that do not include their parents, but who are not in the care system, there was a quite dramatic unintended consequence for me, which is that I learned something. I learned that there is a huge policy implication arising from a situation that is brought up in my advice surgery every two weeks. Families in my constituency are constantly coming to me with a number of complex problemsoften financial but sometimes notand they include one or more children who are not the children of the people in front of me. They are nephews and niecesa sisters childor grandchildren, and almost invariably the circumstances
Order. May I gently point out to the hon. Lady that the amendments that she is speaking to are not in this group of amendments? They are in the next group. Perhaps she would like to intervene when we discuss the next group.
I apologise, Mr. Key. I thought that we were covering all the amendments to the clause. I have obviously made a mistake and I shall return to my amendments later. To address the issue of child care specifically, and to continue the Christmas analogy, if we added child care to the building blocks, it would be the non-gender-specific fairy at the top of the Christmas tree, rather than a bauble. Given that the Bill has specified a number of services, and a number of different approaches to, and preconditions for, a strategy for tackling poverty, not to include child care would be quite a significant error.
Clause 8(5)(a) talks about
the promotion and facilitation of the employment of parents
And subsection (5)(c) talks about
health, education and social services.
I expect the Minister, in responding to the amendment, to point out that child care will be covered under those categories. Of course, an element of that argument is right. However, it is possible for a Government strategy to promote and facilitate employment, health, education and social services without necessarily looking at the delivery of child care services. It is possible to leave out an analysis of the impact of child care and its delivery, quality and affordability, and that inclines us to make a case for its inclusion.
I am clear that the Government have transformed the landscape of child care in the past decade. The national child care strategy and the Childcare Act 2006 provide for the extension of child care, with the addition of places for three and four-year-olds. In the near future, we will be rolling out free places for two-year-olds; that will be funded by the nursery education grant. There is also the provision through Sure Start, childrens centres, and additional support through the child care affordability programme and the child care tax credit. That is all true. However, in practice a number of inherent flaws in the system show the downside of localism. If we do not specify child care in the Bill, it is possible that those flaws might expand in future.
A review of the early years funding formula is taking place. That formula, which is in principle entirely sound, aims to put nurseries maintained by a local authority on the same footing as those in the private and voluntary sectors, to create a level playing field. However, the Royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea is using that formula to create the opportunity to close four maintained nursery schools; it is one of a number of authorities across the country acting in such a way. That was not an intended consequence of the funding formula. In practice, that local authority is not looking at the delivery of child care against the benchmark of child poverty, and is not considering how its child care services would best deliver a service to the people who need it most.
I should like to provide a separate example relating to the funding that is pouring into local government through the nursery education grant and the Sure Start programme, which is funding the expansion of early years provision. Some local authorities have decided that they will seek to recoup large amounts of Government money through back-door means, for example by charging rent to those nurseries, which immediately pass on the cost to parents. One nursery is being charged £64,000 a year in rent by Westminster city council, which is my local authority. That money, which was delivered into the hands of the nurseries, is immediately recycled out, back into the general fund.
I am concerned that if we do not strengthen the Bill and ensure that local authorities and other partner providers look at the implications for child poverty when considering aspects of child care delivery, the issue will slip off the radar.
What my hon. Friend says is absolutely right. We know that there has been a significant expansion in core funding for free places, which we should be proud of. However, the complexity of delivery, particularly given that we rely on a market model for a lot of child carewe use the private and voluntary sector for so much of itinvariably means that charging becomes a factor and that we cannot rely, without further strengthening the requirement on local authorities, on the people who are most in need being able to access the services that they require.
My right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary is well aware of my concern about how the child care tax credit works. The Government are right to say that that tax credit is a more generous means of funding families on low incomes, so that they can afford child care in the marketplace. Sadly, the number of people who claim child care tax credit is small. For example, in my local authority area, only about 100 or so families actually receive it. It is, and has been, possible for local authorities to say that they will introduce extra charges for child care, on the assumption that the child care tax credit will take up the slack. It will not do so, because it is structurally difficult to claim. It effectively militates against certain areas of the country where costs are high and working tax credit take-up is relatively low. We end up losing the provision. That has been the case in the past, and I fear that it will be so in the future if we cannot guarantee delivery.
So far, I have concentrated mostly on under-fives, because that is where the greatest expense lies for parents, but an even bigger concern, not covered fully in the Childcare Act 2006, is child care for older children. We know that the extended school service exists, and that a huge amount of money has gone into it; that is something of which I am very proud. It is also true that the level of prescription relating to extended schools is such that it is perfectly possible for a school to say that it is providing a full extended school service, but not actually provide a single service on its site. That is how the classification of extended schools operates. Looking at service delivery throughout the country, I am not at all sure that there are not very real variations in the quality and provision of service.
We seek to migrate lone parents on to the employment and support allowance, jobseekers allowance and income support, on the basis that the extended school services exist and on the basis that there is the ability to pay for them, but we lack the robust information that would let us know whether that actually happens.
I point out to my hon. Friend that we published a written ministerial statement on Monday, which made it absolutely clear that, as lone parents migrate from income support to JSA, their obligations to work will be tied to school hours, rather than the extended schools hours to which she refers, and about which she is particularly concerned.
I am grateful for that welcome clarification. I expect that, in practice, most Jobcentre Plus staff would be sensitive to such issues, but it is important that the point be specified. The broader point remains: extended school provision and early years services are critical, not just to enable parents to work, although that is significant, but because they are enriching and valuable experiences for children. Investment in early years services provides more value for money than investment in education at any other stage in a childs life. If we can close the attainment gap by the age of five, it will be far more valuable to us than money that is dedicated to secondary, further and higher education; a lot of that investment is spent chasing up on what we were not able to do in the early years.
My amendment 50 is in no way critical of the progress made over the past decade, but I worry that underneath the general average of improvement, there are significant levels of variation, even within local authorities. I am not convinced that the target of tackling child poverty and improving social mobility will be attained simply by looking at local authority averages, as the Childcare Act does. If the Government are to keep a clause that specifies a number of different services and elements that are needed for a comprehensive strategy, but not all of them, I would strongly argue that they should include child care provision as a vital building block.