Clause 25

Child Poverty Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:45 pm on 3rd November 2009.

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General interpretation

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

I beg to move amendment 32, in clause 25, page 14, line 21, leave out ‘16’ and insert ‘18’.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key Conservative, Salisbury

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 31, in clause 25, page 14, leave out lines 22 to 25.

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

Albeit late in our proceedings, I wish to speak to an amendment that would have a fundamental impact on the scope of the Bill.

Clause 25 gives a definition of a child, which is necessary for a child poverty Bill. The definition used is familiar, as it refers to a person under the age of 16 or those aged 16 to 18 years and eligible for the receipt of child benefit. That definition is usually used in the official figures.

Amendment 32 would take the age in the Bill to 18 years, meaning that it would cover all those under 18. If it were not accepted, surely we would be doing a disservice to the purpose of the Bill, which is to tackle child poverty. We are not using the definition of a child that is used in the UN convention on the rights of the child. That is not a clincher, in the sense that we can use whatever definition we want, but we are a signatory to that UN convention and, under it, anyone under the age of 18 years—regardless of whether they are studying or receiving child benefit—has the right

“to a standard of living adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development.”

I cannot understand why we want the Bill to distinguish between some 17-year-olds and others. We will be including under the Bill 17-year-olds who, on average, are more prosperous. Staying on at school is correlated with the affluence of parents, as the Government acknowledge, hence the existence of means-tested education maintenance allowance. On average, those 17-year-olds who stay on at school come from better-off households, yet those who drop out of the school system at the age of 16, for example, will be excluded under the Bill. The Bill thus excludes a series of vulnerable young people.

The first group who are not included is those famous NEETs—16 and 17-year-olds not in education, employment or training—of whom there are an estimated 124,000. Surely, if we are concerned about child poverty, a 16-year-old who is not being educated or trained, nor doing a job, has to be pretty high up on our list of teenagers whom we are bothered about. However, unless the Minister accepts amendment 32, the Bill will exclude them. It will also exclude 16 and 17-year-olds living independently, who do not count as children under the definition. It will also exclude care levers, because they leave the care system at 16 and live independently. We know that that group has a very high risk of poor outcomes, yet they are being excluded.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

I wanted to mention exactly that group. Many young people come out of care and are dumped into bedsits by local authorities that are, it seems, relieved to lose responsibility for them. We are excluding that most vulnerable of groups—they are vulnerable to prostitution and all sorts of exploitation—from the  scope of a child poverty Bill. I hope that Ministers will listen to the powerful point that the hon. Gentleman is making.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman; he puts the point very well.

There is an issue surrounding defining a child by whatever the benefit regulations of the day happen to be. We know what the child benefit rules are now, but they could shift. A future Government could abolish child benefit for the post-16 group, which, in turn, would exclude those people from the scope of the Bill altogether. Alternatively, a Government could means-test the benefit, so better-off 17-year-olds would be out and poorer 17-year-olds in. The definition of a child could vary from year to year, but not according to anything “real”, as it were. From one year to the next, someone could cease to be a child, not because they got a year older, but because the benefit rules had changed, and that seems odd.

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke Shadow Minister (Treasury)

The deputy leader of the hon. Gentleman’s party advocates means-testing child benefit. Is there a prospect that the policy will come in?

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

Not if we have anything to do with it.

The key point is that we need to define a child in common-sense terms that accord with the spirit of the Bill. Why have just a child poverty Bill? One could argue that we should have an adult poverty Bill or a pensioner poverty Bill. We have a child poverty Bill because we are talking about people who are growing up, dependent on others and at a formative stage of life. That implies that the definition of a child should not be linked to a particular set of benefits or to something that might change over time. It certainly implies that vulnerable young people should not be excluded. There could be a pair of twins—it must be a pair, I suppose—one of whom was a child while the other was not. That would be ludicrous, would it not? Under the Bill, if one 17-year-old twin was at school and the other had dropped out, one would be a child and one would not. Surely the Minister accepts that that is absurd.

The Financial Secretary might say, “Ah yes, that is all very well. We really care about unemployed 17-year-olds and we have all these programmes to deal with them, but we need standard international definitions,” as he has argued in the past. There is nothing stopping us having standard international definitions if all we want to do is compare our statistics with other countries but, to return to an earlier point, the Bill should be about the welfare of children and young people in this country and we should have a definition that works for that purpose. There is nothing stopping us collecting the figures on other bases for international comparisons—we are doing it anyway and it is not a problem—but let us have a definition that goes up to 18. We have signed up to that definition under the international convention. It would cover a lot of vulnerable young people whose welfare is surely just as important—if not in some senses more important, in that it gives greater grounds for worry—as the welfare of the 17-year-olds who are within the scope of the Bill who, on average, come from backgrounds that are more affluent. We are including some young people whom we are less worried about  because they are doing well, while arbitrarily and artificially excluding some whom we have been more worried about. I commend the amendment to the Committee.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Digital Britain) (also HM Treasury), Financial Secretary (HM Treasury) (also in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr. Key, in our final Committee sitting.

The hon. Member for Northavon has explained the effect that amendments 31 and 32 would have, but I must say to him that our aim is to end child poverty. We want, through the Bill, to meet the targets that are applied to dependent children. My principal response to his case is that we want the targets to relate to dependent children. He acknowledged that in his remarks. When we talk about children in ordinary parlance, we are talking about young people who are dependent on others, and that is the group that the definition in the Bill describes.

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

When I heard myself talking about that, I thought, “Ooh, ’eck, have I just undermined my arguments?” However, a 17-year-old NEET is financially dependent on his or her parents, so why preclude them from the Bill?

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Digital Britain) (also HM Treasury), Financial Secretary (HM Treasury) (also in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills)

The Bill addresses the issue of improving children’s living standards. It is right that the definition of a child in the Bill should relate directly to the financial support that the Government provide for families in respect of children—that is the effect of the clause. Under the definition, a child is financially dependent on their parents. Many young people over the age of 16 who are not in full-time education might well be earning in their own right. They are not necessarily dependent, so they are not covered by the measurement of child poverty. That sets the boundary in the right place. The definition follows the approach that is taken in the survey of family resources, which has been the main survey used to measure child poverty since it began in 1993-94. The definition was also used in earlier child poverty statistics. One benefit of using that definition is that it gives us a continuous data series that runs back to, I think, 1961.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the school leaving age is going up to 18? By providing support through the education maintenance allowance, which is highly valued in my constituency, so that children may stay on at school beyond 16 to 18, are not the Government providing more support to 16 to 18-year-olds than has been given previously?

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Digital Britain) (also HM Treasury), Financial Secretary (HM Treasury) (also in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the increase in support for that group. I was going to mention the increase in support for another group who have rightly been mentioned—care leavers. Support for that important group was addressed by the Children and Young Persons Act 2008. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the additional funding and support that we are providing.

The hon. Member for Northavon anticipated that I would make this next point. If we are to meet the targets in the Bill in a sustainable way, national and local strategies will need to go wider than the definition of children that is used in the target, and will certainly  cover youth unemployment and training. As my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North has pointed out, we have raised the participation age. We are also ensuring that all young people benefit from education or training, whether combined with work or not, through the future jobs fund, which supports young people into employment.

The European Union has started to publish data on poverty among under-18s. On the most recent data that it has published, for 2007, it is exactly the same as the proportion in child poverty under the households with below average income statistics. As the European Union series emerges—it was first published in 2005—it will enable the level of poverty in that group to be tracked.

I shall sum up my argument with two points. First, it is right to refer to dependent children in the way in which the Bill does, because that is what most people understand by the term “child”. Secondly, that approach has the great strength of giving us a continuous data series for comparison, going back to 1961, I think.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 5:00 pm, 3rd November 2009

I am grateful to the Minister. I am sure that my former colleagues at the Institute for Fiscal Studies would enjoy reworking the data back to 1961 on a slightly different definition. I have to say that I am convinced by the argument. The Minister says, “We have done worthwhile things for 17-year-olds who are not defined as children.” I am sure that the Government have done that, and can therefore get the credit for those things if they are included in the scope of the Bill. We can have consistent data over time on a range of definitions, because we know from the data what the 17-year-olds who were not in education were doing. We would therefore know who is excluded and who we would want to start including, if we agreed to the amendment. I return to my central point, which is that we are making arbitrary and artificial—

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Digital Britain) (also HM Treasury), Financial Secretary (HM Treasury) (also in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills)

This is a small point, but I do not think that we have the data going back to 1961 for under-18s in poverty—that would be difficult. However, we know the figure for children, as defined in the Bill.

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

A 17-year-old who responded to the family expenditure survey in 1961 as an adult, because they had left school, would presumably have had to say what they were doing. I assume, therefore, that the survey would show whether they were in employment or getting benefits, and if they were getting benefits in their own right they would have been counted as a separate benefit unit. I seem to recall that the Minister had that data, but I am open to correction.

The amendment is worthwhile and important. We need meaningful definitions and I therefore seek to test the opinion of the Committee.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee divided: Ayes 2, Noes 7.

Division number 10 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 25

Aye: 2 MPs

No: 7 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 25 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 26 to 30 ordered to stand part of the Bill.