Clause 9

Child Poverty Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 29th October 2009.

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Provision of advice by Commission and consultation with others

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

I beg to move amendment 51, in clause 9, page 5, line 16, at end insert—

‘(3A) If after receiving advice from the Commission the Secretary of State lays before Parliament a strategy or a revised strategy, he shall lay with the strategy or the revised strategy a copy of the advice from the Commission and a statement showing:

(a) the extent to which he has, in framing the strategy, given effect to the advice of the Commission; and

(b) in so far as effect has not been given to the advice of the Commission, his reasons why not.’.

To require the Government to explain to what extent it has decided to follow any recommendations made by the Commission, and where it decides not to take the Commission’s advice, its reasons for this.

Briefly, the amendment seeks to probe the Government’s thinking on how responses might be given to the recommendations of the child poverty commission. My hope and intention is that the commission’s recommendations will be more likely to be responded to in a manner mirroring the responses to—I hesitate to use these words—the Social Security Advisory Committee, than in the production of a report such as “Opportunity for All”. There is a lot to be said for the way in which the Government produce such broad and comprehensive reports, which set out a great deal of useful information and look at targets. However, it would be a missed opportunity if the child poverty commission did not receive a more specific, line-by-line, detailed explanation of how and why the Government felt that any recommendations should not be taken forward. Recommendations and advice that are accepted do not need such a comprehensive response. However, where the Government choose to differ from the advice and recommendations of the child poverty commission, or need to explain a failure to implement them fully, it would be sad if they did not set out the arguments and provide evidence for so doing.

There is a temptation for Governments of all colours to prefer to use such opportunities to set out their own case and to congratulate themselves on what is done well. I understand why that is, but it is not necessarily the best way to progress towards meeting our objectives. I encourage the Government to think about the kind of rigour that they will adopt in their responses, and I hope that the Minister will concede that point.

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

The hon. Lady has explained her amendment well. It is a perfectly sensible amendment, which seeks clarity and transparency. I have no problem with the fact that advisers advise and Ministers decide. That is the prerogative of power, which the two Ministers in Committee enjoy. If Ministers come to a contrary view, which they are perfectly entitled to do, following any advice that they are given, it is reasonable for them to justify why they have taken a different decision and to put that in the public domain. Time may prove them right. The amendment is about public openness and transparency, and it is sensible.

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

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

My hon. Friend the Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North, has tabled an amendment that would require the Government, when laying before Parliament a strategy or revised strategy, to provide a copy of the commission’s advice, and a statement showing the extent to which the Government gave effect to that advice in framing the strategy. If effect has not been given to the advice of the commission, the Government would have to give reasons why not.

Obviously, the Government place a high value on expert and independent advice to inform the development of strategies to tackle child poverty. It is clear that the child poverty commission is central to the development of effective child poverty strategies that focus on sustainable long-term solutions, rather than short-term fixes. Those views were made clear in the consultation on the Bill. Following the consultation, we have made it clear that the Bill will ensure, first, that the Secretary of State must ask the commission for advice in preparing or revising the strategy, as set out in subsection (1). Secondly, that advice must be made public, so that it is clear what steps the commission thought were necessary in the development of the strategy. That is set out in schedule 1, paragraph 16(3). Thirdly, the Secretary of State must have regard to the advice provided by the commission. That is set out in clause 9(3).

To ensure that the advice of the child poverty commission is of high quality and informed by the best evidence and expertise, paragraph 1(4) of schedule 1 states that in making appointments to the commission

The Secretary of State must have regard to the desirability of securing that the Commission (taken as a whole) has experience in or knowledge of...the formulation, implementation and evaluation of policy”, research and

“work with children and families experiencing poverty.”

All such measures will ensure a strong role for the child poverty commission. In practice, the child poverty strategies will demonstrate the extent to which the commission’s advice has shaped the Government’s thinking. By requiring the commission to publish its advice, it will  be clear whether the Government have followed the commission’s advice. It is intended that the initial and revised strategies that the Government will be required to publish will make reference to the commission’s advice to demonstrate that the Secretary of State has had regard to that advice. That point covers advice accepted and not accepted.

Once enshrined in law, the Bill will ensure that the commission provides quality advice to the Secretary of State, and it will give Parliament and the public powerful tools to exercise the appropriate accountability. I agree with my hon. Friend that we need to provide for an effective child poverty commission. I hope that she will agree that the existing provisions of the Bill meet the aims of her amendment. I am afraid that I did not have quite as good a lunch as my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary; I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North, will withdraw her amendment.

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister. I will not push my luck on this issue. Allowing for parliamentary scrutiny and what she has said, I am prepared to be persuaded. In the unfortunate event of an alternative Government, it may be necessary to return to the matter. As with all such things, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. If a Government are truly committed to responding to the child poverty commission, I am sure that the Minister’s words will suffice. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

I beg to move amendment 56, in clause 9, page 5, line 22, leave out ‘or’ and insert ‘and’.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key Conservative, Salisbury

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 57, in clause 22, page 13, line 14, leave out ‘or’ and insert ‘and’.

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

Clause 9 is headed “Provision of advice by Commission and consultation with others”, and subsection (4)(c) states that the Secretary of State

“must consult such children, or organisations working with or representing children, as the Secretary of State thinks fit”.

The amendment would modify that to read, “consult such children and organisations working with” children. As the wording currently stands, it appears to be possible to draw up a strategy without consulting children; that is where we are coming from. One will be able to satisfy the condition in subsection (4)(c) by consulting only organisations that work with children, and not children themselves. All that we are trying to do—it is clearly good practice to do this—is to make consulting children a requirement. I do not need to labour the point, as I am sure that the Committee knows where I am coming from.

There are two issues here. The first is about consulting children, and the second, a sub-issue, is about consulting children in poverty. It is important that actions on child poverty are not things done to people, but are things done with them and for them, and are shaped by those who are meant to be influenced. To quote from the UN Development Programme, people living in poverty

“must be considered as the principal actors of development; they can no longer be seen as passive recipients; they are strategic partners rather than target groups.”

In other words, this should not be a patronising, top-down, we-know-what-is-best-for-you measure. With children, that is a particular risk. However, parts of the Bill already ask children what they think. For example, for the child material deprivation indicators, children will be asked about their hobbies, such as swimming, from their perspective. That is entirely welcome, but we would like to see the Bill strengthened so that there is consultation not just with representative groups, but with the children themselves.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

I will not speak on the amendment, but I fully support what the hon. Gentleman says, and I hope that Ministers will take that on board immediately.

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

I am sure that the Ministers will take the hon. Gentleman’s support on board immediately; I am grateful for his support.

Save the Children endorses the amendment, and I think the Equality and Human Rights Commission might even have written it—although even I can draft “delete ‘or’ and insert ‘and’” on a good day. An important point is being made: consultation with organisations is supplementary to, not a substitute for, consultation with children and families. One only has to run through some of the frameworks for consulting children and young people—the UN convention on the rights of the child, the Children Act 1989, the Every Child Matters programme, the national service framework for children—to see that all of them stress the importance of seeking and taking into account children’s views. Indeed, the UN convention on the rights of the child states that

“parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.”

Obviously, the views of younger children will differ from those of older children.

I cannot help but feel that listening to the voice of a variety of children with disabilities will be particularly important. I suspect that all of us have attended fringe meetings at our party conferences that were organised by the Every Disabled Child Matters coalition. It produced a DVD that disabled youngsters had made. A parliamentary colleague and I were on a panel with disabled teenagers, who were able to hold up a card that said “Jargon” if we used jargon. I recall that meeting more than most; I hope that no one on the Committee has such a card. It was different to hear things from the horse’s mouth, rather than just from an organisation acting on people’s behalf.

Photo of Julie Morgan Julie Morgan Labour, Cardiff North

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point: it is important to communicate directly with children. However, does he agree that communicating directly with them is not easy, and has to be done in a way that allows one to find out what they truly mean? In those situations, organisations that work with children can sometimes help facilitate the coming forward of children’s views. It is important to bear that in mind.

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

Absolutely. I do not underestimate the difficulty of communicating with children, nor do I underestimate the contribution that children’s organisations  can make. We do not do that, in any sense, by converting “or” to “and”. By putting in “and”, we will require consultation with children’s organisations. However, we have to ensure that the voice of the child is heard clearly. I think that the point has been made, and I commend the amendment to the Committee.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 2:15 pm, 29th October 2009

I support the amendment, and I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness. The amendment is important. We should not underestimate the fact that adults are not always good proxies for children’s views. As the hon. Member for Northavon said, the task may not be easy, and we need to talk to organisations that work with, for and on behalf of children. At my party’s conference I saw a film produced by Save the Children called “Wee Shots”—both Ministers may have seen it at a showing in Portcullis House—and met children who live in poverty in Bradford, London and elsewhere in the UK. The amendment brings an extra dimension, and I echo the reference that the hon. Member for Northavon made to the United Nation’s words about doing things with and for people, rather than to them. The amendment is therefore sensible, and we will support him if he chooses to press it to a vote.

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

Subsection (4)(c) requires the Secretary of State to

“consult such children, or organisations working with or representing children, as the Secretary of State thinks fit” in preparing a UK strategy. Similarly, clause 22(6) requires the responsible local authority to

“consult such children, or organisations working with or representing children, as the authority thinks fit” in preparing or modifying a joint child poverty strategy. The hon. Member for Northavon proposes to change the word “or” in those subsections to “and” to require consultation on national and local child poverty strategies to take place directly with children, as well as with organisations working with or representing children.

The Government fully appreciate the spirit in which the amendment has been tabled. Ensuring that children’s views underpin Government policies to improve outcomes for all children has been and remains at the heart of our approach. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the participation of the child is one of the three key principles in the UN convention on the rights of the child and has been incorporated into English law since the Scarman judgment on the Gillick case. We have a long history of doing that where we believe it to be appropriate. Article 12 of the UN convention urges state parties to allow children who are capable of forming their own views to have a say on issues that affect them.

Taking into account the views of children and families living in poverty is central to the development of our strategies for tackling child poverty. During the development of the Bill, we commissioned Save the Children to carry out a series of consultation events with children and young people aged five to 19, seeking their views on the Bill, as well as on the Government’s vision for meeting the 2020 targets. We have also commissioned Dr. Tess Ridge from Bath university, who gave evidence to the Committee last week, to research the experience of children and families living in poverty. Her report was published in July and will help to inform the development of the child poverty strategy.

We do not believe, however, that it will always be appropriate for the Secretary of State to consult children directly, as well as those organisations whose role is to identify and represent children’s views and interests. While we want to ensure that both the local and national strategies are informed by the views of children and young people, we acknowledge, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North implied in her intervention, that Government may not always be best placed to achieve this goal. In reaching the most disaffected children or those with complex needs, we want to work with those organisations that represent groups that do not usually take part in Government consultations, and that have the necessary specialist skills.

The hon. Member for Northavon suggested that the Government were failing in their obligations to take the views of children and young people seriously. I do not accept that. We have made the participation of children and young people a priority. The Children’s Commissioner and the DCSF’s children and youth board play a crucial role in ensuring that the views of children and young people inform the development of policies. I have taken the trouble to check the obligations of the Children’s Commissioner for England, and they include the “and”—rather than the “or”—approach that the hon. Gentleman would like us to take. However, the Children’s Commissioner differs significantly from the child poverty commission, because he has the function of promoting awareness of the views and interests of children, whereas the role of the child poverty commission is to advise on strategies to tackle child poverty.

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

The Minister refers to the child poverty commission, but clause 9(4) imposes a duty on the Secretary of State, not on the child poverty commission.

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

I understand that, but in implementing strategies and seeking to meet targets, the Secretary of State tries to implement a policy that will be effective in another objective. That is different from being effective in representing the views of children to the world, which is the role of the Children’s Commissioner, and that is why we have handled their role differently.

Photo of Judy Mallaber Judy Mallaber Labour, Amber Valley

I am still a little confused as to what difference changing the wording, as proposed by the amendment, would make. The tenor of the amendment is not clear. Would the Minister explain further what she understands would happen as a result of the amendment?

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

My understanding is that in preparing a UK strategy, the Secretary of State—or the local authorities, as set out in clause 22—would have to consult children and organisations working with or representing children in every single case. As the provision is currently drafted, the Secretary of State has a choice about how best to secure the views of children and young people on the issues being considered—namely, drawing up a strategy to tackle child poverty.

I hope that hon. Members will accept my reassurances that we intend that the development of the national and local strategies should benefit from the views of children who have direct experience of living in poverty. In our view, clause 9(4)(c) and clause 22(6) make that intention clear, and the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Northavon is unnecessary. The important point is  how we put those requirements into practice and ensure that the views of children and their families are properly taken into account. On that basis, I hope the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendment.

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

I feel that that was the answer to a different question. The Minister said that it is important to listen to children and that test groups have been commissioned to do research, which has informed policy. She said that Save the Children had undertaken a consultation in which it talked to children, which was good and worthwhile, but she did not want to make it a duty on the Government to do that again. If this is all so worthwhile, why would the Secretary of State want to retain the option of not consulting with children under the Bill as currently drafted?

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

The Secretary of State retains the option of doing it, but is not required to do it in every instance. I think there is a difference.

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

I think it is the same thing. I cannot conceive of a Secretary of State wanting to draw up a child poverty strategy where he or she did not consult children directly, so I do not see why we need to leave that option in the Bill and I seek to test the view of the Committee on the amendment.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 7.

Division number 7 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 9

Aye: 7 MPs

No: 8 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill.