[Katy Clark in the Chair] — Low-income Households

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:19 am on 14th September 2010.

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Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Liberal Democrat, Colchester 10:19 am, 14th September 2010

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Ms Clark, and I congratulate Ms Buck on securing the debate. As the schools have just gone back, and as we are talking about low-income households, I would like to point out that for almost one in three families there was no holiday away from home-not even a single day trip to the seaside for one third of the nation's children. That is the reality in the UK, one of the world's richest countries, where the divide between rich and poor has widened over the past decade. That is where we are, and I sense that things will get worse. I am grateful to a charity called the Family Holiday Association for that information. The hon. Lady and Mr Field may wish to get hold of a university of Westminster study published in April last year which can expand on it.

I intervened in respect of housing benefit because I believe that if people have to spend more money on rent-assuming that they have more money to spend on rent-they will have less money to spend on food, clothing and services. The knock-on effect-the downward spiral of less money churning through the environment-will have an impact on their local economy.

The stark fact is that, for the past 30 years, it has been impossible to tell the difference between successive Governments when it came to the provision of what we now call social housing, but which I still refer to as council housing. It is obvious that if housing stock is not provided to house the people, supply and demand will get out of kilter. That is why 30 years ago in Colchester there was no such thing as a housing crisis but there is one now. That is why local churches in my town have had to start a food parcel scheme to help desperate people who need something to eat.

A hallmark of a civilised society is that all its citizens are fed, housed and clothed, but the reality in the world's fifth-richest economy-even in our great capital city-is that there are levels of poverty which will grow. It is to the lasting shame of the previous Government that they left office with 3.9 million children living below the official poverty line.

My role is to try to influence the coalition Government to make the situation better, not worse. The Minister will recall that we have already had a debate on this subject. On 9 June, I pointed out the high level of child poverty. According to Barnardo's, if we take housing costs into account, 3.9 million children live in households that are below the official poverty line. I was shocked by a disturbing extract from the "Hard Times" report published by Save the Children in 2006-four years ago:

"One third of British children are forced to go without at least one of the things they need, such as three meals a day or adequate clothing."

I raise housing benefit because, inevitably, the cuts will lead to low-income families being forced out of their neighbourhoods. That is not ethnic but economic cleansing. It has no place in civilised society, and the coalition Government must not take any measures such that they could be accused of it.

Barnardo's stated in June, before any public spending cuts:

"The poorest families in the UK are struggling during the recent economic crisis and are very likely to bear the brunt of forthcoming spending cuts. Barnardo's proposes pragmatic, cost-effective solutions to redistribute money to the poorest families without the Government spending a single penny extra."

Save the Children stated:

"It makes financial sense to end child poverty-the Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates it costs the taxpayer £25 billion a year."

Putting to one side the obvious reasons why a civilised society should not tolerate child poverty, Save the Children made the financial case for ending it. It is obvious-"obvious" is not a word that the Treasury uses or understands-that, in the long term,

"huge amounts would be saved from not having to pick up the pieces of child poverty and associated social ills."

I will end with the plea that I made to the Minister on 9 June, because it is probably more valid now than it was then:

"I therefore invite the Minister to have a meeting with Save the Children, Barnardo's and the other charities that do so much work to help children, to discuss what needs to be done. Working together, as a big coalition of people with shared interests, makes sense. It would make further sense if there were a permanent standing committee, for example, involving Government and those organisations, to help with formulating policies and strategies, in the spirit of joined-up government across all Departments. I also seek a pledge from the Minister"- for the second time-

"that there will be no delay and no dilution of the provisions set out in the Child Poverty Act 2010, including measures on the poverty reduction target and setting up the child poverty commission, which are a matter of urgency."-[Hansard, 9 June 2010; Vol. 511, c. 31WH.]