Clause 10

Child Poverty Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:15 pm on 29th October 2009.

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Scottish Strategies

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

I beg to move amendment 33, in clause 10, page 6, line 19, at end insert—

‘( ) The Scottish Ministers must, on or before each report date relating to a Scottish strategy, lay before the Scottish Parliament a report which—

(a) describes the measures taken by the Scottish Ministers in accordance with the Scottish strategy,

(b) describes the effect of those measures in contributing to the meeting of the targets in sections 2 to 5, and

(c) describes other effects of those measures that contribute to the achievement of the purpose mentioned in subsection (2)(b).

( ) The report dates relating to a Scottish strategy are each anniversary of the day on which it was laid before the Scottish Parliament, other than an anniversary which falls—

(a) on or after the date on which a subsequent Scottish strategy is so laid, or

(b) after the end of the target year.’.

This amendment requires the Scottish Ministers to lay before the Scottish Parliament an annual report describing how measures taken in accordance with the current Scottish strategy have contributed to meeting the targets and to ensuring that children in Scotland do not experience socio-economic disadvantage.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key Conservative, Salisbury

With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments 34 to 46.

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

Amendments 33 to 39 and 46 relate to the clauses that place duties on the Scottish and Northern Irish Governments, and they have been tabled at their request. This set of amendments has two purposes. First, the amendments will add a requirement on Scottish Ministers and the offices of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to report annually to the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly respectively. The report must detail progress made in implementing their child poverty strategies, including how measures they have taken have contributed to the UK-wide child poverty targets in clauses 2 to 5. That is broadly similar to the requirement on the Secretary of State in clause 13 to report annually to this Parliament. The amendments will increase accountability to the devolved assemblies, and will ensure that there is an annual progress check of steps towards meeting the 2020 goals.

The second purpose of this group of amendments is to ensure that the Bill is technically correct by removing a number of references to “Northern Ireland department” and replacing them with “Northern Ireland departments”. The amendments will ensure that the Bill recognises the role and responsibilities that central Northern Ireland Departments, other than the offices of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, have in relation to the Northern Ireland strategy.

Although the offices of First Minister and Deputy First Minister have overall policy responsibility for poverty and social inclusion matters, the goals of the child poverty strategy can be achieved only if all Northern Ireland Departments take steps to tackle child poverty. References to the duties of Northern Ireland Departments are, in that respect, similar to references already in the Bill to the duties of the Secretary of State or the Scottish Ministers that signal collective responsibility.

Amendments 40 to 45 clarify the wording of the UK annual report clause—clause 13. They are minor, technical amendments that will make the precise timetable for laying annual reports before Parliament clear and they will make those references consistent with the references to the timetable for Northern Ireland or Scottish annual reports. I am sure the Committee will agree that the amendments further strengthen the UK-wide framework for tackling child poverty that the Bill will establish.

Photo of Julie Morgan Julie Morgan Labour, Cardiff North

I support the Government amendments. In developing a UK-wide child poverty strategy, it is important that what happens in the devolved bodies is fully involved and integrated. It is therefore good that the amendments have been tabled. I note that there is nothing about Wales in the amendments, but I assume that is because Wales has not asked for an amendment to be made. I know that Wales already has a child  poverty strategy—I believe that it has had one for some time—and is about the launch another one. I certainly welcome the proposals for the other two devolved bodies and, as I say, the key to the success of a child poverty strategy in the sort of UK we have at the moment is making sure that what is happening in all the devolved bodies is tied in with what is happening in the UK as a whole.

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

The Welsh are, as my hon. Friend says, ahead of the other three nations on this issue at the moment. On 2 March 2009, the Welsh Assembly Government introduced the Children and Families (Wales) Measure, which effectively places the same duties on Welsh Ministers as the Bill places on the Secretary of State, Scottish Ministers and Northern Irish Ministers. The Assembly measure places on Welsh Ministers a duty to prepare a child poverty strategy that should be updated every three years. It also requires them to publish a report containing an assessment of the extent to which the objectives in the strategy have been met. Clause 9(5) of the Bill provides that the UK Government must have regard to the Welsh strategy when preparing a UK child poverty strategy. The Bill also requires Welsh Ministers to appoint a member of the child poverty commission. We intend that the two pieces of legislation should complement each other and provide a joint framework to ensure that the four nations work together towards the 2020 target.

Photo of Julie Morgan Julie Morgan Labour, Cardiff North 2:30 pm, 29th October 2009

I want to ask the Minister about the differences between the age in the Welsh measure, which concerns children up to 18, and the age in the child poverty strategy, which is up to 16. Has there been any progress on that issue, which I know concerns the Assembly?

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

I know exactly what my hon. Friend is talking about, and it is something that I have considered very recently. The definition of the child in the Bill is consistent with the definition used by the family resources survey, which has been the main survey used to measure child poverty since it began in 1993-94. To change that definition now would smack of moving the goalposts, and would mean that we were not consistently measuring progress over time. That issue does not arise for the Welsh measure, which does not set a child poverty target in the same way, so we feel that it is acceptable to progress with those slightly different measures.

Amendment 33 agreed to.

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

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke Shadow Minister (Treasury)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr. Key. I have not had the opportunity to say that before now.

I would like the Minister to clarify a point that arises as a consequence of Mike Brewer’s evidence in one of our evidence sessions. Clause 10 relates to Scottish strategies, and is therefore relevant to this point. Mike Brewer was asked what the distribution of child poverty would be like if we had a figure based on the regions, rather than having a national figure. He replied:

“poverty in London goes up and poverty elsewhere goes down, particular in Scotland, which ends up with the lowest level of child poverty of all the nations and regions of Great Britain, once  you account for the lower costs of living there.”——[Official Report, Child Poverty Public Bill Committee, 22 October 2009; c. 108, Q210.]

The Scottish strategies relate to the targets set out in clauses 2 to 5. The Bill does not state that they are UK targets, but I assume that that is the case. Will the Minister clarify whether the Scottish strategies will be required to meet UK targets rather than specifically Scottish targets? Clearly, it would be easier to meet a Scottish-only target, as the median income and cost of living are lower there, than a national target. The Bill is not absolutely explicit on this, but I think it concerns national targets.

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

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The targets in clauses 2 to 5 are UK-wide, so they apply to children across the whole UK, no matter where they live. The levers for tackling child poverty include a mixture of devolved and reserved measures. Obviously, Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh Ministers cannot be held responsible for delivering on the reserved matters in the strategy. They cannot be legally accountable for child poverty targets that cover the whole of the UK because they do not have influence over all the necessary levers. The Bill requires the Scottish and Northern Ireland Governments to set out how their child poverty strategies will contribute to the targets in clauses 2 to 5. I hope that that clarifies the matter for the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I am grateful to the Minister for that clarification, but it raises questions about legal accountability. Can I confirm that Scottish Ministers have a responsibility to contribute to the targets, but not necessarily to meet them so, in other words, they must do their bit? Presumably, it could be a defence for the Secretary of State to say that the targets would have been met, but for the Scottish Government—[Interruption.] I do not know whether I am intervening or making a speech, but I would be delighted to give way.

Photo of John Barrett John Barrett Shadow Work and Pensions Minister

I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. This issue becomes quite complicated because it is within the power of Scottish Ministers to devise a strategy that requires UK benefits to be raised to a certain level to wipe out poverty in Scotland.

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke Shadow Minister (Treasury)

The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point; I am sure that the Minister will respond to it. There is the distinct possibility of buck passing. This problem is easier to identify than to solve. There is a tension in a UK-wide target that must be met partly through reserved powers and partly through devolved powers.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

To go back to an earlier point in my hon. Friend’s speech, the evidence was that Scotland had the lowest level of child poverty in the UK on a regional scale because of lower living costs. Does he think it is due entirely to that, or are lower median incomes in Scotland also a key contributor?

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke Shadow Minister (Treasury)

The quote from Mr. Brewer refers to lower costs. We have touched on this matter briefly and I assume that lower median incomes would be a large factor. The nature of a relative income measure is that lower median incomes can reduce child poverty, as happens in a recession.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

I wanted to find out whether that was the case because it reminds me of the dictum of Winston Churchill that the vice of capitalism is its unequal sharing of blessings, whereas the virtue of socialism is its equal sharing of misery. There is an irony that the more socialist and economically failing an area of the UK, the lower its child poverty appears to be, in regional terms.

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke Shadow Minister (Treasury)

My hon. Friend tempts me to go in a direction that would not help the Committee, but I note his comments.

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

However, is the Bill not about the UK poverty threshold? Therefore, under the clause, Scottish Ministers must enable Scottish children to get above 60 per cent. of not just the Scottish median—which may or may not be measured—but the UK median. That means that it is even harder for Scottish Ministers to achieve the goal, because they are further behind to begin with.

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke Shadow Minister (Treasury)

That is right. I raised the query to get some clarity on record about what the obligation is. I am grateful to the Minister for providing that clarity.

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

The UK strategy will incorporate the devolved strategies, for which the devolved administrations will be responsible to their Parliaments and Assemblies. It will also cover the measures taken under the reserve powers. Together, they must consult and produce an overall strategy that hits the overall target. The UK Secretary of State has an absolute duty to meet the UK targets, whereas the Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh have a duty to contribute to meeting them. That seems reasonable as the Secretary of State, obviously, has control over a wider range of levers than those in the devolved administrations.

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke Shadow Minister (Treasury)

Does the Minister think that there is a concern about the Secretary of State having an absolute responsibility when there is also a need, as I think we would all agree, for a contribution from the devolved Executives, over which the Secretary of State does not have control and which he cannot order to perform in a particular way? Fulfilling the absolute requirement with regard to child poverty might prove more problematic for the Secretary of State at a practical level in Scotland than in England or Wales.

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

It is reasonable. If we did not operate in that way, it would be too easy to have a get-out clause. At some level, we must rely on the fact that all the Administrations are interested in tackling child poverty. As we move forward, we will work to ensure that the consultations are effective. Obviously, in the event that a target was missed and the Secretary of State was taken to judicial review, if the devolved administrations had failed to fulfil their duties to contribute effectively, that would form part of the UK Secretary of State’s defence. However, as we embark on the programme, our objective should be to have an open, transparent process that facilitates all parties to make a reasonable contribution to the overall objective.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

I think that I am speaking, Mr. Key, with your permission. Unfortunately, in that case, I can no longer question the Minister.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

Excellent. Is the Minister satisfied, following the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire, that having a UK-wide child poverty figure and target is appropriate for each area of the United Kingdom? I ask because, as has been said, if it were done on a regional basis, Scotland would be shown to have the least. The Ministers and all of us have said that the reason why we think that relative poverty is the right fundamental measure involves comparators with other children and how things operate within a school or village. If one is considering making the relative figure correct, it should reflect the surroundings and communities in which one finds oneself.

Is the Minister sure that having a UK-wide number is right and has no distortions? In particular, there might be an area of the United Kingdom—one might want to call it Scotland—with a greater dependency culture than some other parts, where a higher percentage of people are dependent on the state for employment benefit and other benefits. If the rules were UK-wide and if levers were pulled and benefits were increased specifically to deal with the problem, that could further remove economic incentives in the area to go to work. While seeming to have helped eradicate child poverty, I put it to the Minister that the Government could actually be helping, counter-productively, to ensure a lack of dynamic economic activity in a whole region or, indeed, nation of the United Kingdom.

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions) 2:45 pm, 29th October 2009

The hon. Gentleman has once again demonstrated the Conservative party’s grasp of politics and the cultural situation north of the border extremely well for us. What we have here is an objective that is widely shared. There are different policy levers in different places. We have had a great deal of co-operation from all the devolved Administrations in working together on the Bill, as was demonstrated by the fact that the Scottish and the Northern Irish were promoting tougher responsibilities and duties on themselves. We should move forward and take that as an earnest of their good intentions and everybody’s good intentions to hit the 2020 target.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 10, as amended, accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.