Clause 20

Child Poverty Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:45 am on 3rd November 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

Co-operation to reduce child poverty in local area

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

I beg to move amendment 4, in clause 20, page 11, line 45, leave out ‘each’ and insert ‘those’.

Photo of Martin Caton Martin Caton Labour, Gower

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 5, in clause 20, page 11, line 45, after ‘authorities’, insert ‘as the authority thinks fit’.

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

The amendments are about giving responsible local authorities the flexibility to achieve their statutory duties in the way that they believe is best for them. I put it to the Minister that clause 20(1)(b) is too prescriptive and smacks in part of a Government who do not trust local people to exercise accountability on their local authority through the ballot box.

I offer an analogy to explain my rationale. It would be fair enough if the task demanded by Government of a local authority or any organisation was to shift a load of bricks from one side of a building site to another. It would not be right, however, for central Government to dictate exactly how that task should be done in over-prescriptive detail. The Minister referred in earlier debates to the importance of clause 20(1)(c), which gives local authorities some flexibility, which we welcome. It is important to have the ability to include bodies that are not in the list in clause 19. My worry about subsection (1)(b) is that it might force people to waste time—to come to meetings where they might not have anything to contribute. We believe in giving more responsibility and trusting local authorities more, rather than trying to pin them down and telling them whom to work with, without any choice.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

It is also about giving local authorities a sense of ownership and empowerment to tackle these difficult issues. Rather than engage in a needless bureaucratic exercise, they should focus on the job in hand and the place in which they find themselves. My hon. Friend is right to table amendments to give that freedom and sense of empowerment to local authorities.

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I do not want to labour the case for these two amendments. I have set out my concerns about wasting the time of public services. When people travel to meetings, there is a cost. If they are not at their desks, they are forgoing time and attention that they could be devoting to other areas. If they have something to contribute, they should do so and, of course, the local authority can insist on that. For instance, a local authority can say to the health services that action is needed on a health inequality, or say to the police that action is needed in a particular area. It can say to Transport for London—or whoever—that the buses are not running between where people are living and where the jobs are. That is absolutely right. However, this proposal is over-prescriptive and runs the risk of wasting public servants’ time, which I am trying to avoid.

Photo of Jamie Reed Jamie Reed Labour, Copeland

I share, appreciate and commend the hon. Gentleman’s commitment to localism, which is absolutely right, but I wonder whether he shares my concern. I made the point during the evidence sessions that we have some dreadful local authorities that need a central mechanism and measurement process to ensure that they do what we ask of them.

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

I am delighted to welcome the hon. Gentleman as a fellow localist. My party does not have a preserve of interest in localism. I understand what he is saying but there is a different way to achieve what we both seek: partly through the ballot box and partly through measurement by results that are made public. We will come on to data sets and measuring when we  reach our stand part debate. However, I would say to the hon. Gentleman that the way in which to achieve the outcome that he wants is not to be over-prescriptive, but to judge by published results. Any council that was doing badly could then experience an element of shame, and there would also be local elections and the local ballot box.

Photo of Jamie Reed Jamie Reed Labour, Copeland

The method that the hon. Gentleman is outlining is helpful to us, and it would be helpful to the local authorities in question. However, I cannot help but think that it would not be helpful to the people and the children whom we are trying to help, and helping them is the purpose of the Bill.

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

I understand where the hon. Gentleman is coming from, but to be honest I think that there is a straightforward disagreement about the best approach. I believe in accountability and people being judged by results. I believe that the approach that I have outlined is preferable, so I commend amendments 4 and 5 to the Committee.

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

I shall speak to amendments 4 and 5 at the same time as they are so clearly linked. I point out to the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire that, on its own, amendment 5 is ambiguous, as it proposes that authorities should be replaced

“as the authority thinks fit”.

That would mean that the amended line of the clause—line 45—would read “each of its partner authorities, as the authority thinks fit”. That has no clear meaning.

Taken in conjunction with amendment 4, however, the effect of amendment 5 would be to change line 45 from stating “each of its partner authorities, as the authority thinks fit” to “those of its partner authorities, as the authority thinks fit”. That would mean that responsible authorities would not have to promote co-operation with all the named partner authorities, which would certainly weaken the impact of these partnership arrangements.

The consultations that we undertook while preparing the Bill made it clear that local partners thought that tackling child poverty must be a shared responsibility of all key partners, rather than there being an opt-in system. It is clear that the local authority has a lead role, but other local partners must also play their part. The importance of partnership working was clearly demonstrated by the evidence that we heard from witnesses on 20 October.

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke Shadow Minister (Treasury)

Amendment 5 is not saying that there should be no partner working at all. It proposes that the local authority should decide which of the potential partner authorities it should work with. Why is the local authority not in a position to make that judgment?

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

As we discussed earlier in the sitting, we are trying to reproduce the arrangements for the local strategic partnership, because we believe that that will be a less bureaucratic approach. Consequently, we are giving local authorities the flexibility to co-opt further partners, should they wish to do so.

The Bill specifically states that partnership arrangements involve all partners but it is not prescriptive, as the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire seemed to believe, about the form that those arrangements should take. For example, the Bill does not specify attendance at a particular number of meetings. I believe that we have got the balance right in the Bill.

Only by requiring local authorities to make arrangements that will make co-operation between the authority and “each” of its named partner authorities can we be confident that the full range of individuals, organisations and bodies that can make a real and lasting difference to the lives of children in this country will be fully engaged in the task. That is why the clause is worded as it is.

Amendment 5 proposes that it would be up to the local authority to determine which local partners should be involved. Although I appreciate the need for flexibility to suit local needs, the amendment would raise questions about who should be involved. Therefore, it would weaken the local authority’s ability to involve all the necessary partners.

As it stands, the duty proposed in the clause will ensure that all local authorities and their named partners can share their knowledge and understanding, their interests and influence, and the resources that they have available to tackle the issues that affect child poverty in their local areas. That process is not about imposing new systems and structures that will divert attention and resource away from action, as the hon. Gentleman suggested—quite the opposite. The requirement is to create an impetus across the country that those who are already collaborating can take further and so that those who could do more will have the stimulus to do so.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

The Minister is makes some interesting points. Let us say that a local authority sets up a child poverty group and decides not to have a partner authority on that group. Would she consider that appropriate? It might be useful if local authorities do not start out thinking that each time they meet under the child poverty banner, they must have all the partner authorities around the table or they will in some way be failing to deliver under the Bill.

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions) 12:00 pm, 3rd November 2009

When the Bill is passed into statute, the local authorities and partner authorities should fulfil their duties and responsibilities. It is for the leader authority to take the initiative and for all the partners to co-operate in the needs assessment and the strategy. If subsets of institutions want to concentrate on particular aspects, that seems to be perfectly sensible. However, it would not obviate the need for all the named partners under the Bill to fulfil their statutory responsibilities.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

I imagine that there would be a local area child poverty steering group. Is the hon. Lady saying, on the basis that we are considering not a subset but the overall position, that the police would need to send a representative each time, regardless of whether what was on the agenda seemed directly relevant?

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

No. That was precisely what I was not saying. All those identified under clause 19 have a part to play—individually and collectively. We will work with them to ensure that their respective contributions are properly articulated, acted on and maximised.

Having had an opportunity to reflect further, I hope that the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire will withdraw amendments 4 and 5.

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

I listened carefully to the Minister. Notwithstanding her remarks, there is a danger that the partner authorities, knowing that they have legal responsibilities under the Bill, will feel an onus to go along to meetings when perhaps their input would not be relevant on that occasion. There is a basic difference between us, in that Conservative Members trust local authorities to achieve the results that we all want to see in the way in which they think is best and that fits in with the particular circumstances of their local area. All that we are asking for is that degree of flexibility and discretion for local authorities, so I shall press the amendment to a Division.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 8.

Division number 9 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 20

Aye: 7 MPs

No: 8 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

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

I beg to move amendment 6, in clause 20, page 12, line 5, leave out subsection (4).

The amendment would delete subsection (4), which refers to the Secretary of State giving guidance and requires local authorities to “have regard to” any such guidance. That phrase might appear entirely innocuous, but from my experience as a local school governor, guidance often assumes almost the status of holy writ and is virtually indistinguishable from statutory obligation. In the spirit of my previous remarks, therefore, I would like to give local authorities greater flexibility to pursue their local child poverty agendas and strategies in their own way.

As I said earlier, there is a good case for saying that all poverty is local. Depending on where in the country it occurs, different sets of circumstances trap families and communities in poverty. I have difficulty seeing how guidance given by the Secretary of State can usefully be applied in the same way from Cornwall to Dundee and from Cumbria down to Kent. I call only for local discretion and local flexibility. Local authorities will be judged on the basis of their results. They will be judged, as they should be, on how successful they are in reducing the number of children living in poverty in their area. That should be the accountability framework. We should judge by results and use comparative tables to see which councils have made progress and which have not. There is always the ballot box.

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

This might pre-empt discussion on the next clause slightly, but does the hon. Gentleman accept that it is impossible to measure which local authorities are making progress on any of the targets in the Bill, as none of them is measured at local authority level?

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

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. When we come to a stand part debate on clause 21, I would love to engage on that subject, as I tabled a written question to the Minister a couple of days ago that he very helpfully answered and that is entirely relevant to that point. If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will park that issue for one moment. As so often, he is absolutely right to raise it, but the appropriate time to debate it, as I think you would agree, Mr. Caton, is later. The thrust of my remarks is similar to that of the points that I made on amendments 4 and 5. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North

I do not agree with the amendment. Guidance is important. Will my hon. Friend the Minister set out what the guidance would say? Some factors that are particularly relevant to child poverty might not always be immediately evident locally, although that might sound like a contradiction in terms. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but if, for example, one sits the national statistics on poverty or low birth weight in babies—a high risk factor resulting partly from poverty—over the national profile of ethnicity, one finds a near-perfect fit. That might not always be immediately evident from local statistics.

Unfortunately, black and minority ethnic communities are not always engaged fully in either political parties or the democratic process. One need only look around the Committee to see evidence of that. Although black and minority ethnic communities are disproportionately affected by poverty, we do not have MPs from any of those communities in the Committee. Guidance from the Government to local authorities to point out what the national statistics show, and to suggest that they find ways to look at the matter, might be relevant. Of course some local authorities are particularly good at engaging with diverse communities and many can teach the Government a great deal on that. There is also flux in such communities: different communities are affected in different ways and therefore guidance can act as an important prompt—I put it no stronger—to ensure that lessons are learned.

The guidance might also raise issues about the involvement of faith communities, bearing in mind that a wide variety can engage with the issue. That might be a good way of dealing withsome of the local black and minority ethnic communities. In the Bangladeshi community in Northampton, child poverty is a major issue, and there is a real need to engage. Will my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary tell us whether the guidance will touch on those factors, or is there some other way in which black and minority ethnic communities and diverse faith communities might need to be involved in tackling child poverty?

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

It is difficult to see what guidance central Government can provide when, as we heard in the evidence sessions, local government is already actively participating in this area and is doing so in a diverse way. One of the impressive things we heard, which is  mirrored, I hope, by our own experiences in our constituencies, is that local councils are tackling child poverty in a very diverse way. I hope that Ministers heard and read the comments of Kevan Collins, one of our witnesses who represented local government, who said in response to question 124 that guidance could easily be unhelpful.

That is a crucial issue. Will guidance be helpful or unhelpful? There is a huge potential for it to be unhelpful in that it runs the risk of harming and distracting from what is already being done. A good example of that is the distinction that is made between approaching child poverty on the basis of child poverty or family poverty. There is a completely different approach on the ground, and the guidance might distract from that.

I disagree with guidance as an automatic part of the Bill. There are three references to guidance in this Bill, as well as to additional regulations. It is typical of the master-servant relationship that has characterised this Government’s attitude towards local government. Will the Minister clarify what she means by guidance? Earlier in the debate she referred to statutory guidance. In my book there is no such thing as statutory guidance. It is an obligation. That is what the statutory part of it means. We need to know, as the hon. Member for Northampton, North said, what the guidance will cover. I believe that the term “light touch” has been thrown about in relation to the guidance. That is a nice term of art, but we need to bring that down to something more specific.

Finally, I refer the Committee to the evidence of Colin Green, whose words sum up many of my feelings for this clause:

“The Bill is an enabler: we do not need more micro-management.”——[Official Report, Child Poverty Public Bill Committee, 20 October 2009; c. 53, Q124.]

The Government have to show why this is not micro-management.

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Work and Pensions) 12:15 pm, 3rd November 2009

I hope that I am more successful in persuading Opposition Members that amendment 6 is unnecessary. Subsection (4) requires local and partner authorities, in co-operating to reduce child poverty in local areas, to have regard to the guidance given for that purpose by the Secretary of State. That means that if the authorities can demonstrate that different arrangements are effective, they may use those.

Opposition Members said that they were concerned that the requirement may be an unwarranted burden, but the exact opposite is the case. The publication of guidance by the Secretary of State will ensure that existing and emerging good practice will be captured and acted on across the country, thus helping local authorities and partners and removing a burden. In other words, each local authority will not have to reinvent the wheel as it carries out its duties under the Bill. There is already a great deal of good practice.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

I am sure the Minister is aware that good practice is already being spread among local authorities. They talk to each other, and they also have the Local Government Association, which occasionally manages to spread good practice in a positive way.

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

Of course. However, the Bill is designed to address child poverty across the whole country, so it is important that we put in place an approach that is likely to work across the whole country.

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

If the picture in local government is as consistently innovative and rosy as Conservative Members would have us believe, will the Minister cast light on how many local authorities of different political persuasions had developed a strategy for investigating and tackling child poverty before the performance indicators were introduced and before the Bill was produced? I suspect that the answer is none.

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

I do not have the answer to hand, but I hope to be inspired before I conclude.

As I was saying, there is good practice. We have three child poverty beacon councils, from which we heard in our evidence sessions, which demonstrate that local collaboration can work extremely well. There is also, as I mentioned in a previous debate, a range of child poverty pilots through which local authorities and partners are exploring, developing and delivering new and better ways of helping children to escape the corrosive effects of poverty. Guidance based on that good practice should go some way to enabling authorities and their partners to respond positively to the duties placed on them by the Bill.

As we have emphasised, it is important that there is a consistent and coherent approach across the country to tackling child poverty. We do not want to see some areas performing significantly better than others. Guidance will help to ensure consistency and coherence, by setting out what has worked hitherto and how continuing progress can best be made.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

Consistency and coherence sound attractive, but uniformity and lack of innovation are the B-sides of those words. Can the Minister reassure the Committee that guidance will not be so overwhelming and prescriptive that there is a loss of a sense of ownership by local authorities and that, although we achieve uniformity, we do so at a high price?

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

Of course we do not want that. The situation in my constituency in County Durham is different from that in the Financial Secretary’s constituency in Newham, which is again different from that in the constituency of the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire. There must be flexibility for local authorities to address different needs. If the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness can be a little patient, I will explain what I am driving at.

We are issuing guidance on the needs assessment, which we have circulated. It is based on the risk factors, which we know exist thanks to firm evidence about the risks of child poverty. I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not feel that we are over-prescriptive: our guidance on the needs assessment is evidence-based. I point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North that the draft that we have circulated says that matters considered in the needs assessment must include the ethnic composition of the population, because obviously, as she says, that is a factor.

When the authority and partners go on to establish the strategy, it must relate to the needs assessment—there is no point having a strategy that does not tackle the problem with which we are all trying to deal—but that is the point at which there is scope for local authorities and partners to behave in a more innovative and flexible way that relates to the differences between, for example, County Durham and South-West Bedfordshire. Our aim is not that the guidance should be a solution to all problems but that it should help to make the intentions of the legislation clear. We will work with local delivery partners in drafting the guidance to ensure that it meets the needs of both those that have made progress in the area and those that have been left behind.

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

I apologise for intervening on the Minister again. I am not trying to interrupt her flow; I just want to get one thing clear. If I understand correctly, she is saying that the guidance will relate to the needs assessment, but that it relates much less, or perhaps not at all, to how a local authority will then try to meet the needs identified in that assessment and tackle child poverty in its area. Am I right to understand that the local authority will not get in trouble in respect of the guidance in terms of how it tackles those significant issues in its local area?

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

In my opening remarks, I pointed out that local authorities must have regard to guidance, but if they can demonstrate different effective arrangements, they may use those. We are getting the balance right.

Photo of Jamie Reed Jamie Reed Labour, Copeland

In my constituency, I have established an anti-child poverty coalition involving the county council, the district councils, Sure Start, churches, businesses, police and so on. Our ambition is to beat child poverty in my constituency before 2020. I am disappointed that no one at any stage of this debate has mentioned the role of a constituency Member of Parliament in tackling the issue head-on. Does my hon. Friend share my view on that? Secondly, is there anything in the Bill—I cannot see it—to prevent me from pulling together a group of interested people to beat child poverty in my constituency before 2020?

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

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. He demonstrates the great effectiveness of a dynamic, concerned and committed Member of Parliament, as I know he is, who thinks at all times of the concerns of his constituents. Nothing in the Bill would inhibit that sort of worthwhile activity. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire will accept that in the interest of having effective action, we cannot put all the detail in the Bill, as that would be extremely unhelpful. We are consulting on the guidance, and I would be pleased to hear his views. I hope that he feels that we are getting the balance right and will withdraw amendment 6.

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

I have listened to what the Minister said. Perhaps because we are nearing lunch time, I am inclined to be a bit more charitable about this amendment than I was about the other. There is an ongoing debate to be had about the issue—I will reserve our right to revisit the matter at another stage—but I welcome her  offer to consult us. It is always nice to be consulted by the hon. Lady. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

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

It is as good a time as any for me to refer to the question raised by the hon. Member for Northavon about how we will know whether a local authority and its partners are successfully tackling child poverty in their area. I said earlier that I want local authorities to be judged on results—whether they are reducing the number of children in poverty in their area. The hon. Member for Northavon is correct in saying that, at the moment, we have only partial information on that.

If Members cast their minds back to the evidence sessions, they may remember the leader of Kent county council being asked—by the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North, I think —how many children there were in poverty in Kent. He replied straight away, “48,000”. When asked how he knew that number, he said that he had asked his officers, which is a perfectly reasonable thing for the leader of an upper-tier local authority to have done. No doubt that was the correct answer, but it is only a partial one, because in an answer to my written parliamentary question, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions replied:

“The dataset ‘Children in Families in Receipt of Out-of-work Benefits’ is currently used as a proxy to measure child poverty at the local level.”

My understanding, therefore—the Under-Secretary may wish to intervene now or respond later—is that the 48,000 figure was based on the current dataset for children in Kent and related only to children in poverty in out-of-work families. As we all know, there is an enormous amount—far too great—of in-work poverty, so the number of children in poverty in Kent is probably 100,000 or so. I do not know what the exact split is between in-work and out-of-work poverty—the hon. Member for Northavon will probably tell us shortly.

The hon. Lady went on to say in her helpful answer, for which I am grateful, that a “revised indicator” was “being developed” and that

“This will provide information on both in-work and out-of-work poverty in the local area.”

She mentioned the Centre for Excellence and Outcomes in Children and Young People’s Services—C4EO—which is an excellent organisation. The Financial Secretary and I attended a conference in Manchester on child poverty, which was run by C4EO. It is doing fantastic work in this area and I pay tribute to it. The hon. Lady went on to say that it was developing a tool

“to help local delivery partners analyse local data relating to child poverty. This tool will be available from the end of the year.”—[Official Report, 27 October 2009; Vol. 131, c. 213-14W.]

From that answer, it is not clear to me when we are to get the new combined dataset for local authorities that will measure both in-work and out-of-work poverty in an area, which is a crucial issue.

I said a few moments ago that I want local authorities to be judged by results, but we must have accurate data. We have to know what our start point is and then we can measure progress against that in local areas, so it is  not just a technical issue for us policy wonks in Committee. It goes to the heart of whether the child poverty needs assessments and the local strategies will be effective. There is nothing more effective than for a local authority to say, “We’ve got x thousand children in poverty”, then to see the reduction that is achieved and be able to measure progress. I would be grateful if the Under-Secretary enlightened the Committee on those important questions.

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

I cannot resist a challenge. I think the hon. Gentleman has raised an important point. When the leader of Kent county council gave his figure, I spoke to him afterwards and said, “Can you tell me where it came from? Here is my e-mail address.” I am still waiting, perhaps because it was the answer to a different question.

The hon. Gentleman has made the very important point that, based on the latest figures on households below average income, roughly half the children in poverty—[Interruption.] It is a very good guess. Roughly half of such children are classified as either “lone parent not working” or “both members of the couple not working”. There would probably be even more children in poverty if we accounted for one parent working part-time and the other not working and so on.

That raises the fundamental point that we are setting national targets based on some very specific definitions and then asking local authorities to be partners in delivering targets based on definitions that they cannot access or measure. We cannot know how many children in Kent live in households with a score of 25 on the material deprivation list, and I cannot envisage that we ever will, even with souped up sample sizes.

If we take the big survey of 40,000 or so households, split it and sub-divide it into quintiles or whatever, we will never get the figures for a small unitary local authority such as mine, South Gloucestershire. It is a real challenge to hold local authorities to account for targets when they cannot tell whether they are achieving them. The hint that we have heard in the discussion is that we will use proxies. We say, “We don’t really know how they are doing on the measures that we have set them, but here are some other measures that aren’t very different.” I have a nasty feeling that that is probably the answer, but it is a strange situation that we are in.

As for the paragon in the corner, the thrusting and dynamic Member for Copeland—I forget what the expression was, but it was something of that sort—it is tremendous to have a local initiative, as he says, but in terms of a national target, it is very difficult to know whether one is succeeding. However, it is possible to overstate the point. Clearly, as the hon. Member for Northampton, North, said, some things fit so terribly well that they do not do too badly as proxies. I do not want to keep on rambling, but there is a serious issue. If someone has a specific target but cannot measure it, they will go for the thing that they can measure. That is the worry.

In the Bill, we quite rightly say that what matters is not just cash, but material deprivation and all the rest of it. However, all that the local authorities will see is  benefit receipts and cash, and that could lead them to focus on what they can see and measure in their area, and what they will probably be held to account for. They might then miss things that are equally tangible, and that we are measuring, but cannot measure so well locally. I do not know whether the Minister can elaborate on the written answer that she gave to the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire, but that exchange was very helpful. There is a genuine worry. It is essential to consider the facets of child poverty that we are discussing, and it is good that they are covered in the Bill, but the link between the national targets and local delivery is still unclear to me.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

That was rather a surprise, Mr. Caton. I was not quite ready. I will, however, make good. The clause imposes a duty on local government. I want to question why the Government have pursued the idea of a duty, rather than other means of achieving their objectives for local government. The duty relates to

“reducing, and mitigating the effects of, child poverty”.

The use of the word “effects” is interesting. We are talking about not reducing and mitigating the causes of child poverty, but reducing and mitigating the effects. For me, “effects” in that context is synonymous with symptoms. The measure therefore lacks ambition and does not move us on to doing what the Bill seeks to achieve.

For reasons that I alluded to in earlier speeches and interventions, there is a considerable mismatch between parts 1 and 2 of the Bill. In part 1, an income-based strategy is set out and in part 2, a broader role is outlined for tackling what local government does in relation to it, and the duty does not seem to fit very easily in that. It would have made sense to include in part 1 a clause on tackling and measuring the causes, or the proxy for measuring the causes of poverty. Sadly, however, that was not accepted. The question still remains: what is the value of giving local government a duty, as this clause does, rather than doing things in a different way? I admit that there is some symbolism in giving local government a duty, but it is clear from the evidence from witnesses that the duty is rather meaningless, and was seen by them as a rather heavily bureaucratic approach. For example, Catherine Fitt said:

“over the last few years...local government and its partners are engaging very positively.”

We have heard the question of what local government did before that. The answer is that it did a lot. Paul Carter’s evidence alluded to that, in respect of the results from the first round of public service agreement targets and the achievements arising from them. Richard Kemp’s evidence was even more explicit:

“Giving local government a duty would not help us”.

That is very clear, and there are two reasons for that. First, the notion that all one has to do is to create a duty and the problem is solved is not only wrong, but reflects what I call the master-servant relationship that has grown up between central and local government. I thought that Richard Kemp’s evidence was very instructive:

“You are making an assumption that a duty is necessarily a good thing but I am not convinced that it is. You can give me a  duty and I can perform it well because I want to—but I would probably have done it anyway—or I can perform it to meet the minimum requirements”.

In other words it is, at best, a blunt tool, and not the rapier or stiletto that we need to tackle child poverty on the ground.

Secondly, local government is already doing much on the issue; we have heard a lot of examples of that. Paul Carter said that local government is already taking a long-term view of underlying problems, and had been taking such a view before the Bill was introduced. Kent is not alone in doing that; we can pray in aid plenty of other authorities as illustrations.

The way in which the clause imposes the duty is not dissimilar, in its high-level approach, to how the national indicator set asks and encourages councils to sign up to national indicator 116, which is the general indicator on child poverty. Most councils have not done so for very good reasons. They clearly did not think that it was a meaningful target, because it did not deliver any positive outcomes on the ground. They were much more focused on the causes of poverty and there were better indicators, with real outcomes, in the indicator set. For example, Richard Kemp said:

“In crude terms, only 45 out of about 140 local authorities have signed up to NI 116... However, 118 local authorities are doing work on NEETs, 101 on obesity in teenage schools and 107 on under-18 conceptions.”

The question remains: why impose a duty, given the existence of a national indicator set that has not been in its current form for very long? Why did the Government not use it as an alternative method? That would have been far less bureaucratic and would have still allowed for considerable flexibility.

During the summer, in preparation for the Committee, I did some research and spent some time asking my county council about the issue. Its attitude was that the Bill was largely meaningless and potentially dangerous for the reasons that we have mentioned—the Bill cuts across a lot of what it does. That was summed up in the question—I think that I asked it—to Richard Kemp on whether the duty would make a difference. He replied:

“So my response to your earlier question about what we would do differently as a result of the Bill is, ‘Not necessarily anything at all’”.——[Official Report, Child Poverty Public Bill Committee, 20 October 2009; c. 50-59, Q121-32.]

What does the clause deliver? What does the duty deliver? Where is the additionality? Why not stick with a tried and tested method that has proved to have an impact on local authorities, particularly in holding them to account?

Subsections (5) and (6) use the creation of pooled funds as the way to approach the issue. I am extremely glad to see that the measures are permissive. I hope that Ministers know people’s feelings about how pooled funds operate. The fact that many local authorities have moved on from the pooled fund method to the aligned fund method says an awful lot about the rather old-fashioned and clunky way in which the clause introduces the duty, and about how this part of the Bill tackles the whole issue of local government involvement in child poverty.

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

The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire asked whether we have adequate statistics at a local level to enable local authorities to take forward  the needs assessment and strategies. I would like to embark on a paean of praise for the British civil service, which has enabled me to provide the hon. Gentleman with information on the data set that is totally consistent with the parliamentary answer that I gave him a few weeks ago. I will explain the point for the benefit of other members of the Committee who might not have been following the detail of the debate.

The current data set for children in families that are in receipt of out-of-work benefits is used as a proxy to measure child poverty at local level. The fact that it is a proxy does not mean that it is not a helpful measure for local authorities, or that they cannot make an effective contribution to tackling child poverty. The targets that we set are national, not local. It is important that local authorities have the data set to inform their needs assessment and the work that they do at local level.

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

The national target on material deprivation is children having a bedroom to themselves once they are 11 if they are of different sex. If the local authority is being measured on a proxy that has nothing to do with any of that, where is the impetus on the local authority to deliver the national targets? Where is the connecting rod? It is not in the figures.

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

I was going on to say that the current data set is the basis for indicator 116, which is used by local government. A revised indicator is currently being developed to measure child poverty at local level, and that will include those children who live in low-income, working families, as well as those in workless families. The revised indicator will be the proportion of children living in families that are in receipt of out-of-work benefits, or working families whose income is below 60 per cent. of median income. That will provide information on both in-work and out-of-work poverty in the local area. I anticipate that the data will be available at both local authority and, significantly, ward level, and that they will be produced annually. Data will shortly be available for 2006-07.

Work is under way at the moment with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs on revising that indicator. When it is finalised, it will be put on the Department for Communities and Local Government website. I have not got an exact date, but I assure members of the Committee that it will be before Royal Assent. Therefore, before the duties on local authorities come into effect, we will have the data.

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

With the greatest respect, I simply do not believe what the Minister has said. The data in the Bill are based on household income. That is not the unit that claims benefit, but everybody under the same roof. The data available to HMRC are on the income of the benefit unit—the narrower definition of income. The Minister said that the data would be available at ward level. The sample used by the family resources survey is one household in 1,000, so a ward of 3,000 households would have three or four people in a sample. How can it possibly be true that data on 60 per cent. of median household income will be available, when data on household income are not collected for benefit purposes? Will the samples be big enough to have ward-level data relative to the national targets, which are on household data based on sample surveys?

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

For relative low income, the local measure is NI 116. It is available at local authority and lower super output area level. On material deprivation, the local measure is the index of multiple deprivation and the income deprivation affecting children index. As for absolute low income, local partners can consider that as part of their needs assessment. The hon. Gentleman is taking us into an extremely technical area, and that is not good use of the Committee’s time.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 12:45 pm, 3rd November 2009

I hear what the Minister says. We have some sympathy for the hon. Lady because we are putting her on the spot with some technical issues, perhaps at an unexpected point in the Bill. However, the issues are vital. Part 2 is an important part of the Bill, one that I very much welcome in general. Local authorities bring something important to the table but, if we are not clear about the measurement criteria, if they are not fair, are not accurate and not reasonably all-embracing, we will get into a muddle. Will the hon. Lady write a further note to the Committee on the matter? We need a little more clarity and perhaps even more work on top of the excellent work to which she alluded, so that we know the basis on which local authorities will have to be judged.

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

Of course the hon. Gentleman can ask for that. When I said that our discussion was technical, I was not arguing that it was not important. However, such matters are better handled in writing, and I shall be happy to write to the Committee about them.

The hon. Member for Henley talked about the duties being placed on local authorities. The purpose of the Bill is to reduce and mitigate the effects of child poverty. That means that the partnership must tackle the causes of child poverty and mitigate the effects of child poverty. No one could object to that. It is the correct approach. Of course, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that local government is already doing a lot, but the important thing is that the Bill provides a framework to ensure that action is taken in all areas.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that such issues form only part of central Government’s relationship with local government, not the whole of it. He might not be satisfied by my assurances, but I remind him of the evidence that we heard from the local authorities on 20 October. Catherine Fitt said that

“the reason for having the Bill is to ensure consistency across the country...We are very aware that it is no good solving the problem in just one part of the country, because whether a child’s needs are met should not be dependent on where they live.”

Richard Kemp said that

“enhancing the duty of our partners to co-operate with us around a specific thing would” help us.

Kevin Collins said:

“What I find exciting is the idea that we are looking towards a collective effort on the issue...It must be a collective effort. It must be about how well people are doing to create the conditions that will reduce levels of child poverty...It is not about passing the buck to local government; it is about collective effort.”——[Official Report, Child Poverty Public Bill Committee, 20 October 2009; c. 50-51, Q121-134.]

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

May I take the Minister back to the regional issue? If we looked at child poverty on a regional basis as opposed to a national basis, there would be a very different picture in London, which must impact on quite a few members of the Committee. Will the hon. Lady comment on the rationale for looking at the national picture as opposed to the regional picture? For example, local government in London will be dealing with child poverty figures based on a national assessment when, in fact, if it were assessed on a London-only basis, a much greater percentage would be seen to be in relative poverty. Is there a risk that a national picture would do less as a result?

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

I do not believe so. We have introduced the Bill to tackle child poverty throughout the whole country, and we make it clear in part 2 that we do not believe that central Government have all the answers. We want a partnership with local authorities, where they can do best. We have made it clear in clause 20 that in specific cases local authorities can co-opt further partners, such as those suggested by the hon. Gentleman. I hope that, with those reassurances, hon. Members will agree to the clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 20 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.