Clause 18

Child Poverty Bill – in a Public Bill Committee on 3rd November 2009.

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Responsible local authorities

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North 10:30 am, 3rd November 2009

I beg to move amendment 69, in clause 18, page 10, line 22, leave out from ‘England’ to end of clause.

It is a pleasure to move this amendment under your chairmanship, Mr. Caton. There is a slight mistake in the amendment printed on the amendment paper, which is probably down to my drafting of it. It is supposed to delete the words from “other than” in paragraph (b) to the end of that paragraph, rather than from “England” to the end of the clause. That is not exactly clear from the amendment as it is printed.

I have alluded to the importance of housing and housing authorities. In areas where there is still two-tier local government, district councils are housing authorities. As we have discussed previously, housing is a critical factor in poverty, particularly in the material deprivation of children. Housing authorities are extremely important, not just as partner authorities, but as responsible local authorities under the Bill.

I looked at the draft regulations that are due to be introduced next year, as I mentioned previously. In their current form, they will not provide adequate protection and protocols to ensure that district councils in areas where there is two-tier local government and which are simply partner authorities, not responsible authorities, are subject to adequate safeguards so that authorities can work together properly.

I want to make only a few points, as I know that the Committee has a lot to get through. I will draw on the example of my own local authorities, which are relevant because we have two-tier local government and a large housing authority. I am sure that the Financial Secretary will correct me if I am wrong, but under existing legislation, district councils in areas where there is two-tier local government have two important powers that are relevant when considering child poverty. First, they are responsible for conducting local economic surveys, which means that they have an economic development function. That is important with regard to encouraging economic development as part of tackling child poverty. Secondly, they have responsibility for setting the local housing strategy, for which they have to assess housing need and look at homelessness and all other factors.

Those two responsibilities are critical functions when considering child poverty. It is absolutely true that where there is two-tier local government, the county  council has overall responsibility for children’s services, social services and education. Those services are important for the overall well-being of children, but economic development and homelessness are important when considering the vulnerability of children, which is slightly different from what we considered previously regarding poverty. It is therefore important that housing authorities that are district councils in two-tier local government areas are responsible local authorities rather than just partner authorities.

Of Northamptonshire’s 700,000 people, about a third—by far the biggest concentration of the population—live in Northampton, which has the biggest housing stock. I should have checked the numbers before I came to the Committee, but I think it now has 11,000 to 12,000 units. The next biggest area is Corby. Both those large and complex urban areas have problems with disadvantage and child poverty. Some of the other, more rural, local authority areas have problems with poverty, but they do not have as much housing.

I do not see how child poverty can be tackled without making the two local authorities, which have problems in that regard, responsible authorities. They should not just be partner authorities. If a protocol states that the county council has responsibility, that the other council is a partner authority and that they have to find a way to work in partnership, how they are supposed to do so must be made clear. For example, when children’s issues were being looked at in the county, one of the rural authorities had to represent the housing authorities. I am sure that the person who went to the partnership meetings was experienced, passionate and committed, but the rural authority had no housing. That person could not therefore deal with the issue that they were supposed to oversee, because they were from a rural council rather than an urban one and had virtually no housing stock. The discussion with the other partner authority must have proceeded by some sort of osmosis.

There are also difficult issues surrounding data sharing, which leads me to another example of how the protocols do not work. Following the Homelessness Act 2002, there were supposed to be protocols for joint working between county and district councils to ensure that homeless children were protected and did not find themselves homeless. My hon. Friend the Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North was closely involved in that work. We struggled because, rather than giving the district council responsibility, there was a similar structure to the one under discussion with partner authorities and protocols for joint working.

I had to deal with a domestic violence case that involved children, which, sadly, occurs often, and the county was dealing with child protection issues. The family involved had a record of domestic violence with young children, and the district council’s environmental health officer received a report of noise nuisance from the family living below them, who complained about fighting upstairs. However, the partner authorities could not share data, and the protocols were not in place to turn a report about serious fighting over to social services so that they could deal with the child protection consequences. If the protocols do not work on such a sensitive area of child protection—alarm bells should ring all over local government if there is a report of any risk of harm to a child—I do not see how they will  deliver on child poverty issues when housing is one of the measures of material deprivation and is just one issue among 21 others.

I understand that there are all sorts of issues surrounding joint working and what ought to happen, and that regulations will be introduced and the responsible authority will have a responsibility to work with the partner authority. However, district councils should be regarded as responsible local authorities, unless my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary can think of a way of ensuring that they are involved when they have a certain amount of housing stock. Once unitary local government is in place across the country, I hope that the problems will resolve themselves. Until then, however, where there is two-tier local government, it is important that district councils are responsible, not just partner authorities, to ensure that the housing and economic development functions are dealt with properly by local government.

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

I welcome you back, Mr. Caton, on the final day of our proceedings on this important Bill. I am grateful to the hon. Lady, as always, for her amendment. She has raised a number of significant issues already and I am not surprised—indeed, I am pleased—that she has come back to the important issue of housing, which she says is behind her amendment. She has been good enough to explain to the Committee what she intended by her proposal, which we understand is not exactly what went down on the amendment paper, so that is helpful in directing us along the lines that she intended.

I recognise the point that the hon. Lady has made. I started my political life in a London borough where there was just one council. I then moved to a shire county where I worked with a district and a county council, and we have just moved to a unitary basis. We have a new Central Bedfordshire council, so I am back where I started, but I acknowledge her point about the possible chasm between a county and district council where they are responsible for different services, especially housing.

The hon. Lady is right to mention housing. It creeps into the Bill—only just—by virtue of clause 3, on the combined low income and material deprivation target. The Minister was kind enough to supply the Committee with the 10 material deprivation questions, both to an adult and to a child. I have just looked at them and, as far as I can see, there is only one question to the child, which is whether there are enough bedrooms for every child of 10 or over to share their bedroom only with siblings of the same sex. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady is saying that there are two questions: there are other issues about having friends round for tea and so on, which, I accept, relate to housing.

The amendment does not mention housing, but the hon. Lady rightly intends to make housing more of a priority in the Bill, which does not give the emphasis and priority to housing issues that she seeks. No doubt Ministers will, perhaps correctly, argue that there are other places where that can be done.

The hon. Lady has raised an important issue. A high degree of partnership working is required, with local authorities emphatically not trying to pass the buck in relation to their responsibilities, for the issues to be properly joined up. That degree of partnership working  happens between many district and county councils up and down the UK, but I have no doubt that it does not always work as perfectly as it could or should in some of them. She has recounted experiences from her own area in that regard.

Clearly, we will not vote on this probing amendment, but I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising an important issue. I shall listen with interest to the Minister’s response.

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

The spirit of the amendment is right— housing is a key element of the anti-poverty strategy, and the district councils will have a key role to play. My reservation about the amendment, as the hon. Lady intended it to be tabled, is that we could end up with two separate principal authorities responsible for developing a child poverty plan in a given area. One of my worries about the Bill relates to central Government. As we heard earlier, there was a bit of hesitation as to where the buck stops: if it is everyone’s responsibility, it is no one’s responsibility.

My worry is that if we have two separate tiers of local government, each responsible for drawing up its own plan, affecting in some cases the same set of people, that could create an unnecessary overlap. I therefore hope that we get reassurances that district councils and their housing functions will be central to the delivery of the Bill. I am not wholly convinced that the amendment is the way to do it.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

I agree with the points that have just been made. I, too, see the importance of including housing as it is a central part of understanding and combating child poverty. However, in my experience, trying to put in another principal authority would lead to chaos. We need a clear line of responsibility for somebody to take the initiative. Local government does everything these days on a partnership basis, and there is a lot in the Bill about encouraging that.

For those reasons, the principle of allowing district councils to come in and play an important part is already strengthened in the Bill. Considering them partner authorities in no way reflects on their import or status in putting the strategies together. Certainly, that is not currently a restriction in relation to the strategies that local government is putting together to address child poverty issues, and changing it would lead to more confusion and delay in trying to get a strategy in place.

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions) 10:45 am, 3rd November 2009

May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr. Caton?

I fully appreciate the sincere concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North about giving housing its rightful place as we move forward with the strategy to combat child poverty and about ensuring that local government bodies with responsibility for housing play their full part in the partnership arrangements. Respondents to the consultation on the Bill were clear about the importance of effective partnership working. They believe that it is important that the Bill should set a clear framework for co-operation between  local authorities and their partners, and that those arrangements should be delivered through existing partnership structures, such as the local strategic partnerships. They were also clear that although it is important that the Bill should set a framework, it is effective practice and support that results in good partnership working.

My hon. Friend’s amendment is technically defective because it would not achieve her aim; the effect of her intended amendment would have been to remove from all authorities, other than county councils, the responsibility for putting in place arrangements to co-operate. Therefore, in areas covered by unitary authorities or London boroughs, for example, no authority or other body would be responsible for putting arrangements in place for co-operation to reduce and mitigate the effects of child poverty.

I know that my hon. Friend is particularly concerned about the effectiveness of partnership arrangements between county councils and district authorities in relation to housing. Housing clearly plays an important role, but, as hon. Members have said, making non-unitary district councils responsible authorities would not result in effective partnership working. One body must take overall responsibility for ensuring arrangements to co-operate in the local area. Making all district authorities responsible authorities, alongside their respective county councils, would mean that in any one area a number of bodies would have the responsibility. That would clearly result in confused accountability.

I would like to draw my hon. Friend’s attention to what Kevan Collins said in evidence:

“I do not know what other body locally would be the appropriate one. The local authority has a special, important place in convening, and a leadership role in all these matters, so it is absolutely right that the responsibility is distributed in that way.”——[Official Report, Child Poverty Public Bill Committee, 20 October 2009; c. 60, Q134.]

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North

I completely recognise the practical difficulties of the amendment as it is drafted. I would appreciate it if my hon. Friend said how she expects the partnerships to work and what kind of protocol should be in place. The key is ensuring that we do not end up with the county council and one district council deciding all the other areas. I am particularly interested in the protocols; I am sorry if I did not make that clear enough in my speech.

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

I am about to draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the later parts of the Bill where the processes are set out.

It is clear that partner authorities must play a full part in the local arrangements to tackle child poverty. The local needs assessment, in clause 21, and the joint local child poverty strategy, in clause 22, are framed in the Bill as the responsibility of the partnership, not just the responsible local authority. Clause 22(2) states:

“The joint child poverty strategy must set out the measures that the responsible local authority and each partner authority propose to take”, which means that it must cover the actions of all the main partners with responsibility for housing, including district authorities.

I hope that my hon. Friend can see that the upper-tier authority will have a leadership role in convening the partners together. However, for needs assessment, strategy and action, all the partners will have a responsibility to fulfil their duty and play their part. In addition, the draft regulations for local needs assessment, which we have circulated to the Committee, will require those assessments to cover a range of local services, including housing.

The arrangements for partnership working set out in the Bill are the right ones, but it is clearly important to ensure that they result in effective working practice. Statutory guidance made under the Bill will build on the good experience of some local authorities, providing information and guidance on how to ensure that local government and its partners can maximise the opportunities for effective partnership working. With those reassurances, I hope that my hon. Friend will withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North

I am grateful to the Minister for setting out what I wanted to be set out when I tabled the amendment. I shall look carefully at the regulations and the guidance, but having received assurances I am happy to beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 18 ordered to stand part of the Bill.