Clause 14

Child Poverty Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 29th October 2009.

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Statement required in relation to target year

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

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

I have one question about the intriguing subsection (4) of clause 14. Subsection (1) says that the “report under section 13(3)”—which is the report at the end asking how we did—must give the four figures for targets in the Bill. Subsection (2) means that they must be kosher, and 14(3) asks whether the number is bigger or smaller than the target. That is not unreasonable. However, 14(4) is rather fun, as it says that if we have failed, we must say why. The whole point of the exercise is to place a statutory duty on the Secretary of State to achieve the targets. It is intriguing that in the middle we find a clause saying that if we fail we will have to explain ourselves.

I am intrigued to know the explanations that might be prompted by 14(4). Could one say, “We changed our minds and decided that child poverty was not all that important.”? Or could one say, “We would have liked to have done more but the economy was in such a mess we did not have the money.”? I am not sure what the point is. If we try to abolish child poverty over a 10-year period, fail to do so and breach a statutory obligation, what is the value added of an excuse clause? Presumably, we are hoping that someone will take legal action to enforce the provision.

The relevant point is that it is not clear whether legal enforcement of the Bill’s duties comes before or after 2020. Could one say, in 2018, “We are miles away from this.”? Could one take the Government to court to make sure? In a sense, there is no point taking the Government to court after 2020 because they will have failed. They will have breached the statutory duty and it cannot be un-breached. The only valid legal action would have to be pre 2020, in which case, what is the point of 14(4) asking why we failed? It seems odd. It might make an interesting article, I suppose, but it is not clear what it is for.

Will the Under-Secretary clarify the matter? What excuse could be given for failure? Is it her understanding that the statutory duty to reach targets must be susceptible to legal action prior to 2020? Subsection (4) concerns a  post 2020 excuse, which one hopes we would never get, since there would be no point in having the Bill in the first place.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness 3:00 pm, 29th October 2009

I am struck by the hon. Gentleman’s naivety. Does he really believe that, under the Bill, a court would enforce such targets, that it would intervene and imprison the Secretary of State for successive failures? The only thing that has ever happened when a statutory target has been missed is that the court makes a declaration. There has been no suggestion by anyone involved in the law that there could be another response unless we brought in specific provision to allow a court to intervene and overrule the democratically elected Government.

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

A democratically elected Government are passing this law; it is not undemocratic to enforce something that an elected Parliament has introduced. I am intrigued by the thought that the responsible Secretary of State, whom I now understand to be “probably the Chancellor”, could be locked up. Presumably, the effect of court action is to require the Government to take steps to meet their statutory obligations. If the court says, “You’re not going to meet your targets. You are in breach of the Child Poverty Act 2010. What are you going to do about it?”, we hope that the Government, rather than saying, “Well, you can lock us up if you don’t like it”, say, “Right, we will take the following measures.” I have made my main point, but it is a bit odd that we have an excuse clause. Being able to explain the reason for failure after the event undermines the whole point of having a statutory binding target by 2020.

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

I am slightly concerned by the hon. Gentleman’s use of the word “excuse”; it is not appropriate. Producing a report that explains what has not happened is different from making an excuse. The truth is that the duty is absolute. What is being produced is an accountability mechanism for the end of the period. However, it would be possible for legal action to be taken before 2020, not, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, if forecasts suggest that the targets will be missed, but if the Government’s actions, strategy or decisions will not be sufficient to allow them to meet their duties.

The duties of the Government prior to 2020 are to produce credible strategies. If they fail to do that, they will be open to legal challenge, and the claimants would need to produce clear evidence that they have failed to do that. In that case, there would not be a Government report before 2020 stating whether or not the targets had been met. The argument would be about whether the approach being taken was reasonable and, obviously, it would be up to the Government to show that they had a credible strategy. If the hon. Gentleman takes those two things together, he should be reassured that the measure will be an effective discipline on any Government. It will maintain the pressure—that is what he is primarily concerned about—and it will strengthen the force behind our objective of achieving the targets.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 14 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.