Clause 21

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

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Local child poverty needs assessment

Amendment moved (this day): 7, in clause 21, page 12, line 26, after ‘assessment’, insert

‘including an assessment of—

(i) job creation, and

(ii) family resilience’.—(Andrew Selous.)

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key Conservative, Salisbury 4:00 pm, 3rd November 2009

I remind the Committee that with this we are considering amendment 72, in clause 21, page 12, line 26, at end insert

‘including the levels of benefit and tax credit take up among the eligible populations’.

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

Good afternoon, Mr. Key. May I be the first to welcome you to the last sitting on the last day of our deliberations on this very important Bill? It is good to have you back with us.

Before lunch, I had been speaking to the first part of amendment 7 about the central importance of job creation being at the heart of local authorities’ quest to eradicate child poverty in their area, and I now want to move on to the second part of the amendment, which deals with family resilience.

You will be relieved to hear, Mr. Key, that I do not intend to go over the ground that I covered when we discussed family matters on a prior amendment, but I would like to add a bit of new material to support why I think that proposed new sub-paragraph (ii) in amendment 7 could usefully come into clause 21. I shall start, if I may, by quoting from a document that I have been sent by Relate, which I believe may be one of the organisations to which the Financial Secretary referred when he said that the Government give

“£7 million to third-sector organisations that work with such families”.——[Official Report, Child Poverty Public Bill Committee, 29 October 2009; c. 242.]

I have a strong suspicion that Relate may be one of them.

Relate states, perhaps unsurprisingly from its point of view:

“Relationship breakdown is a key cause of child poverty. Local Authorities cannot tackle child poverty without tackling relationship breakdown.”

It goes on to make several points on the same theme. It states:

“Preventing relationship breakdown wherever possible, and facilitating responsible post-separation parenting increases the likelihood that households will have at least one salary coming in”, and, as we have said many times in this Committee, work is the best route out of poverty, so it is obviously important. Relate also discusses the

“large number of non-resident parents contributing neither income nor care” as far as their children are concerned.

When we talk about relationships, it is important to remember that post-separation, relationships can be better or worse for the children. If they are better, they can have a positive impact on income and dealing with child poverty. Relate goes on to make several suggestions about where work on that area could be done. It talks about children’s centres, work with primary care trusts and referrals from general practitioners.

The hon. Member for Northavon was correct when he said in our discussions last week that he believed that I was involved with such organisations in my constituency. In fact, last Thursday evening, I went from our second sitting to meet the director of children’s services for my local authority, so that I could introduce her to a voluntary group in my constituency that is hoping to work in that area with the local authority.

I have done some research on the background of the Ministers, and I believe that I am right in saying that the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland, worked for the Children’s Society in a prior life. I am sure that she has avidly read the excellent publication, “A Good Childhood”, which was brought out by the society. She will have noted, as I have, at the top of page 22, the fact that children rate more highly than their parents do the importance of good relationships in a family and trying to avoid family breakdown. We know that, from a child’s perspective, that is incredibly important.

The last organisation that I would like to pray in aid when talking about the second part of amendment 7 is an excellent one: the Bristol Community Family Trust, which is not far from the constituency of the hon. Member for Northavon. It manages to reach one in three new mothers in Bristol—well over 900 mothers a year—and mothers and fathers, with its relationship course, “Let’s Stick Together”. All that is done in a non-stigmatising, non-moralising way. It is not about hitting anyone over the head; it is not about telling people that they do not have perfect lifestyles or relationships. As I said last week, it is all about giving people the skills and support to make a success of their lives. I agree with Relate that it can have a critical impact on child poverty.

The other amendment in the group—not in my name but that of the hon. Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North—is amendment 72, which adds to the clause consideration of

“the levels of benefit and tax credit take up among the eligible populations”.

That is an important point. The facts show that if every benefit and tax credit to which families of children living in poverty are entitled were taken up, at a stroke 400,000 would be taken out of poverty; that is a significant figure. That would obviously help the Government and all of us to move a long way towards reaching the child poverty targets. The hon. Lady is on to something. The Government run take-up campaigns across the benefit system for all groups, and they would clearly have a  significant impact on the issue that we are considering. For that reason, I generally support the hon. Lady’s amendment.

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

Good afternoon, Mr. Key. I would like to say a brief word about amendment 72 and then come back to amendment 7. Amendment 72 highlights the importance of take-up. It is vital that where the state has identified a level of income to which families with children are entitled, they receive that entitlement. The key method of supporting low-income families with children—those with whom we are most concerned in the Bill—is the child tax credit, so I was surprised to see in the households below average income statistics the figures for families with children and their receipt of child tax credits. Table 4.4 shows that of all 12.8 million children in the country, only 60 per cent. are in families receiving child tax credit. That suggests that take-up might be a significant issue. While it is true that child tax credit does not apply to the entire income scale—it cuts off at about £58,000—that fact knocks out only about the richest 10 per cent. or so of families with dependent children.

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

I am sorry to intervene, but could the hon. Gentleman say that again, please?

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

The whole thing? I was quoting a figure from table 4.4 of the households below average income report, page 65. It categorises children according to the benefits that their parents receive. It says that of the 12.8 million children in Britain, 60 per cent. are in families receiving child tax credit. I would assume that if every entitled family received the tax credit, the figure would be about 90 per cent. We know that there is a slight lack of take-up by case load in particular, which one might have thought would result in a figure of 80, 78, or 75 per cent., or whatever. I was startled when I looked at the figures to see 60 per cent., because that implies that around a third of families who are entitled to child tax credit are not getting it. That is a higher number than I have seen before. I am starting with this point to give the Minister time to reflect on it. Why are up to a third of those entitled to child tax credit not getting it? Amendment 72 flags up the importance of take-up and, if I understand that figure correctly, there is an important gap in the system.

To come back to amendment 7 and what should be included in the regulations on the local child poverty needs assessment, my feeling on the point about job creation is that it is almost impossible to imagine a local child poverty needs assessment that did not take account of the need for jobs. It is inconceivable that one could have such an assessment and strategy that did not take jobs into account, so sub-paragraph (i) of amendment 7 is perhaps unnecessary.

I want to say a word, however, about family resilience. In our earlier debates, the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire would perhaps have felt that those of us on the Committee who took a different perspective from him were simply refusing to accept something that was blindingly obvious and which was staring us in the face. Given that he might anticipate being on the other side of the Committee as a Minister in the Department for Work and Pensions in six months’ time, it is worth probing his reasoning a little further.

The hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out that children of lone parents are twice as likely—that is how it looks from the figures, but they are certainly significantly more likely—to be in poverty than children in two-parent families. From that, he infers the need for amendment 7, which would include family resilience in the Bill, but I want to give him one example of why we might reach the wrong policy conclusion if we approach the issue in that way.

Let us suppose that young women with low educational attainment and low aspirations are more likely to have children young and outside a stable couple relationship, which means that they are then more likely to become lone parents and to be in poverty. They are likely to be in poverty partly because their low educational attainment will mean that any job that they get might not be very good and might be low paid, and if they have young children, they will, of course, be in poverty anyway. The problem, as it were, is the low educational attainment, not lone parenthood per se, although that clearly makes life more difficult. The policy response to such young women is not couple therapy or Relate, but education, although perhaps the response would involve parenting classes for those women’s parents and all sorts of other things.

That is just one example, and I will not labour the point, because we need to make progress. What I am trying to say to the hon. Gentleman—I want to call him my hon. Friend because I think that he is sincere in what he is saying—is that just because someone in one group is more likely to be poor than someone in another group, we should not think that the title of that group tells us everything that we need to know about them. Clearly, we want to keep stable couples and parents together and we want to help people make healthy relationships, but if our goal is to tackle child poverty, we have to see the big picture—why do people become lone parents?

The other thing that we need to remember is that lone parenthood is not principally about married couples splitting up, because most lone parents have never been married. We have a whole set of policy responses for young women who are lone parents and who have never been married, and we have a set of responses for divorced people, people who have had casual relationships and ex-cohabitees. Lone parenthood is linked with poverty, but talking just about family resilience makes it sound as though family resilience is the key to unlocking everything. However, lone parenthood has diverse causes, and there are diverse policy responses. Supporting couple relationships is a good thing to do, but it is perhaps a smaller part of the overall picture than the hon. Gentleman’s simple statistical correlation might lead him to conclude. That is all that I want to communicate.

Both the issues in the amendment are important, but I am not sure that they need spelling out in the Bill. I would, however, be interested to hear about take-up, because the shortfall on child tax credit is apparently rather large, so it should be a focus for action by local authorities.

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

May I begin by saying what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr. Key?

I want to begin this mini-debate on amendments 7 and 72 by saying something about the importance of job creation. To be honest, I find it totally astonishing  to be on the receiving end of the implied criticism that the Government have not paid sufficient attention to job creation in their range of policies. Job creation does not appear as one of the factors in the clause because the provisions are about how, not what.

I draw the attention of the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire to the vast amount of work being done on job creation. First, for example, we have the working neighbourhoods fund, which was introduced in April 2008 and which consists of a £1.5 billion three-year settlement. It is distributed to the 61 local authorities with the worst concentrations of worklessness, but the Conservative party opposes it.

Then, there is the new future jobs fund, which is worth £1 billion. It aims to create 150,000 new jobs. Again, the Conservative party opposes it. Then, there are apprenticeships. We have provided an £11 million package to create 3,000 new apprenticeship opportunities. Again, the Conservative party opposes it. The Conservative party has opposed the flexible new deal, local employment partnerships, which are helping 250,000 people into work, and routes to work, which will help 50,000 long-term unemployed young people to access existing jobs.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness 4:15 pm, 3rd November 2009

I do not want to pre-empt anything that anyone else might say, but I wonder whether the Minister might get back to the amendment.

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

Earlier, we discussed whether we should have a specific reference to regional development agencies in the Bill. Both Opposition parties say that they want to close down the RDAs, which have been an absolute engine of job creation in the regions. David Blanchflower, the former member of the Monetary Policy Committee, said that the unemployment rate would be 5 million higher if the Conservative party’s plans were implemented. Opposition Members really need to start thinking about these issues in a clearer and more constructive manner.

Amendments 7 and 72 relate to clause 21, which sets out the requirement for local authorities and their partners to prepare and publish a needs assessment. That forms the basis of the joint local child poverty strategy, which must be published under clause 22. Clause 21(2) and (3) give the Secretary of State the power to make regulations that may prescribe the contents of the needs assessment.

In amendment 7, hon. Members suggest that the regulations made under clause 21 should require local authorities and their partners to consider job creation and family resilience. We heard from witnesses on 20 October about the important work that local authorities and their partners can carry out to tackle child poverty. It is clear that supporting and improving outcomes for families and working with local employers on the availability of jobs in their areas and the removal of barriers to parental employment are important elements of effective local child poverty strategy.

Although those elements have a vital role, we also heard that we must not set our partners in local government an impossible task. For the purposes of the needs  assessment, we must ensure that we do not impose undue burdens by asking local authorities and their partners to measure issues on which they do not have access to data and which they cannot measure. The issues as framed and as highlighted by the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire are complex, and local authorities will not be in a position to measure them directly.

I turn now to the hon. Gentleman’s remarks on family resilience. I am glad that he has read the report from the Children’s Society, but I hope that he read in the appendix the acknowledgment to the person whose idea it was to set up the inquiry into the condition of childhood. The point about that excellent piece of work by the society is that it looks at things from the child’s perspective and offers a complete picture of child well-being, while the Bill is about child poverty, and they are not the same issue.

Let me return, however, to the issue of parenting and resilience. In 2007, a report on parenting and resilience commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation described family resilience as a complex concept that refers to a family’s ability to manage in difficult circumstances and to achieve outcomes that are better than anticipated given the pressures that the family face. The report indicates that resilience is difficult to measure and that approaches vary to child resilience, parental resilience and family resilience. It is not clear how a local authority or its partners would measure the concept as set out in the amendment.

Again, the hon. Gentleman takes an issue—on this occasion, family resilience—asserts that it is important and says that it should therefore be in the Bill. The remarks made by the hon. Member for Northavon on that matter were eminently sensible. The problem that lone parents face is worklessness. The hon. Gentleman might know that there is a 55 per cent. chance that a child in a lone parent family is living in poverty, if their parent is out of work. For a child living with a workless couple, the chance increases to 68 per cent. I wish to draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the fact that it might not be the family’s status but the other things going on in that family’s life that are significant.

If something is not in the Bill, that does not mean that it is not important, nor that the Government are not paying attention to it. The Department for Children, Schools and Families has a number of programmes that support families in which there has been family breakdown. It has £5 million for pilots dealing with support for separated parents. Over the next two years, we are providing £7 million strategic funding to a number of third sector organisations that work directly with families experiencing relationship conflict, and we have provided £3 million to third sector organisations such as Relate. We have just announced an increase in the number of family intervention projects. All those things are going on outside the context of the Bill, and I therefore urge the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire not to confuse something that is important with something that needs to be in the Bill. Another institution that we have established, and which provides support to families, is Sure Start. The Conservative party, of course, is not committed to maintaining the level of funding for Sure Start either.

I shall return to the draft regulations, which we have made available to the Committee. They state that, alongside the other risk factors and drivers of child poverty, the  needs assessment will require local authorities to consider the level of both in and out-of-work poverty in their locality, and assess the barriers to parental employment. The needs assessment will also set out information about family size and structure, and require local partners to assess the well-being of children in poverty in relation to each of the five Every Child Matters outcomes. In that way, the needs assessment will identify the employment and family support needs in the local area. We will, of course, consult on the regulations before they are laid.

My hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North is right to highlight in amendment 72 the importance of ensuring that parents take up all the benefits and tax credits to which they are entitled.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North

Apart from being concerned about the take-up of child tax credit, I am also extremely concerned about the take-up of the child care element of it. That used to be a separate tax credit—the child care tax credit—but it is now a child care element of other tax credits. In the Treasury Committee, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs representatives were not able to say what that take-up was, even though there had previously been problems with low take-up. Will my hon. Friend the Minister say a bit more about that, and indicate whether the Government might be able to provide some figures, if not now, at some later stage? The ability to pay for child care is absolutely critical if parents, particularly single parents, are to get work.

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

Both my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Northavon have raised the take-up of tax credits, and my hon. Friend is right that that is as important as the take-up of benefits. The latest estimates that we have are for 2007-08, and suggest that take-up of child tax credit is 81 per cent., rising to 92 per cent. for households with incomes of less than £10,000. This is a phenomenally high take-up compared with, for example, the family income supplement, which is the benefit that was aimed at the in-work poor 20 years ago.

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

I am grateful to the Minister for that figure. She will know that take-up is measured in two ways: the proportion of the money that is claimed and the proportion of people who claim. Could she clarify whether her 81 per cent. or 90 per cent. numbers are expenditure-based figures, in other words amounts of money? Does she have the case load figures and can she explain the discrepancy between the 60 per cent. in the household below average income figures and the sorts of figures she is quoting?

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

I will have to write to the hon. Gentleman—[Interruption.] I will write to the Committee on that point.

I want to say something about what we are doing to improve take-up in cities, as it is important. We set up the take-up task force chaired by Sir Trevor Chinn, which published its report in the summer. Hon. Members will no doubt have had an opportunity to look at that. In essence that report proposes a more joined-up approach to encouraging take-up. One thing we are doing is piloting the placement of HMRC advisers in Sure Start children’s centres to promote take-up and reduce error  in tax credit claims. We are also piloting raising the childcare element of the children’s tax credit to 100 per cent—in most places it is 80 per cent.—to see what impact that has.

My hon. Friend the Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North was not here to speak to her amendment, but I wanted to address those points because they have been raised by other hon. Members. I hope that the Committee will agree that it is important to leave the specific detail of the issues that the needs assessment must cover to regulations, rather than insert them in the Bill.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North

Will my hon. Friend deal with the point about the take-up of the child care element which the HMRC reps were not able to answer? Or will she undertake to write to the Committee? It is a specific element and its take-up has been heavily criticised. Nobody quite knows why, on the most recent questioning, HMRC could not even provide the figures. Will my hon. Friend look into that and let us know, as it is such a key issue when it comes to tackling child poverty?

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

Of course I will be happy to look into it. If the information is available I will supply it in the letter to the Committee that covers the take-up questions.

In conclusion, I hope that the Committee will agree that it is important that the requirements in the needs assessment regulations must be deliverable by local authorities and their partners, but that the issues of family support and employment, including take-up of benefits and tax credits, are already covered by the draft regulations. I hope that the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire is reassured that I have presented adequate draft regulations to the Committee that meet his concerns and so will withdraw his amendment.

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

I would like to respond to a number of points made in the debate. I should like to reassure the hon. Member for Northavon that I recognise that low educational attainment and aspiration are fundamental to the issue we are discussing, as is the prospect of work in terms of men whom women may want to partner or marry. Job creation and family resilience are closely connected from that point of view. My proposal would work alongside those two areas.

I am sorry that the Minister responded in a semi-hostile way. I did not fully understand her logic. She said that there were a number of important areas but that did not mean that they should be in the Bill. That logic slightly escapes me. There is perhaps an argument the other way. If something is important, then perhaps it should be in the Bill. She mentioned a number of issues and made a number of accusations, to which I need to respond. She talked about the new deal. The fact is that there are many critics of the new deal in her own party. If we examine its effectiveness—whether it has provided value for money for the taxpayer and done the best possible job for the people who have been through it—and if we look at the churn, it is clear that we should have higher aspirations. As taxpayers we should be demanding slightly more for our money. That is where our thoughts on welfare reform are heading, and I thought that that was where the Government were heading as well.

On apprenticeships, the Minister may have missed our announcements recently in our “Get Britain Working” programme. We are committed to providing even more apprenticeships. We recognise that they are important. She is also right that my party is not a fan of regional development agencies. When I referred to them this morning, I was careful to include any organisations that might follow them. We, perhaps like the Liberal Democrats, want a more local form of economic regeneration. In my own area—the east of England—we have little in common even with the Cambridge economy, and certainly not with East Anglia’s. There are arguments for localising the important work of economic regeneration more.

As for Sure Start, I am sorry that the hon. Lady repeated her accusations. They were tried by her party in the recent Norwich, North by-election, but the voters gave their verdict on them. She is not correct in what she says about my party’s policy on Sure Start. We have significant plans for children’s Sure Start centres up and down the country.

Photo of Jamie Reed Jamie Reed Labour, Copeland 4:30 pm, 3rd November 2009

That statement is at distinct odds with a recent Westminster Hall debate, when a Conservative Front Bencher said nothing of the sort.

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

I did not quite catch what the hon. Gentleman said, but, as my colleagues have said, we have significant plans for the health visitor network and we want to do a number of important things for children’s centres.

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

Is not the hon. Gentleman’s party proposing to divert possibly up to 30 per cent. of the resources currently expended on Sure Start into the health visiting service? How can he suggest that he can maintain the current network of Sure Starts and take out such a large chunk of the funding?

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

There are questions as to how the budget is best used in Sure Start centres. Ministers seem to imagine that the only way to spend money effectively is in the way that they are spending it. The Minister talked about Sure Start centres and I have said what I wanted to say on that. Repeating allegations about other parties’ priorities is not helpful.

I have listened to the debate and I will not press amendment 7 to a Division. We have voted on similar areas already, so I cannot see that it would add much value. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 21 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 22 and 23 ordered to stand part of the Bill.