I beg to move,
That this House
has considered child poverty.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I am delighted to have secured a debate on this vital topic. Child poverty unfortunately blights the lives of so many children throughout the UK, and should surely be a concern of absolute priority for the Government. I note, however, that in July’s Budget the Chancellor of the Exchequer launched the Tory Government’s latest plans to attack the poor, the vulnerable and the helpless in society.
The most recent target of the Government’s austerity crusade is our children. I have to wonder what that says about their priorities. They have often been heard to give much less than reassuring explanations for their dismantling of the welfare system, saying they are building a better, fairer society, where work pays. How do the proposals in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill truly build a better, fairer society? It is my contention that the Government are simply not concerned about fairness. In fact, it could be considered spineless to attack the people in our communities who most need our assistance: the working poor, the ill and the unemployed. Ultimately, the weakening of the welfare system has and will continue to hit low-income families and children the worst. Is that really the way forward?
Currently, 3.7 million children in the UK are living in relative poverty—that in itself is just not good enough. Shockingly, however, rather than actively stepping up to address the challenges facing children today, the Tory Government have hit out with further assaults on the poorest in the UK. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has predicted that, as a result of the Government’s most recent policies, child poverty could increase by more than a million from 2010, reaching highs of 4.7 million by 2020-21. Those are astonishing figures. It is frankly deplorable that, in a region as rich as the UK, such shameful, regressive and unacceptable policies should be even considered by the Government, never mind being pushed through this House.
Today, in another Chamber, right as we speak, the Government will move to reduce the amount people can earn—from £6,420 to £3,850—before tax credits begin to be withdrawn. The same measures seek to reduce the threshold from £16,105 to £12,125, as well as to increase the taper rate, which will mean that families reliant on those benefits lose out faster. That is simply illogical. It is incomprehensible and immoral to focus cost-cutting exercises on children.
Tax credits were introduced in 1998 in response to rising child poverty. Since their introduction, the number of children living in poverty in the UK has fallen from 26% to 17%. Surely the policy was working? Although we know that more needs to be done to lift all children fully out of poverty, at least tax credits have been keeping food on the table for children, and their parents’ heads above water. Today, the Tory Government move to take us backwards, to intensify the difficulties facing the working poor and our children.
In Scotland, 346,000 children will be affected by the tax credit changes—that is more than 197,000 families. In my own constituency of East Renfrewshire, nearly 15% of children are living in poverty, after housing costs. That is of great concern. The Child Poverty Action Group has estimated that the overall child poverty rate in Scotland could increase by a colossal 100,000 by 2020. Surely it is not good enough for us simply to vote against these measures; surely we have also to question the Government’s motivation. What sense is there in their actions, taking food from children’s mouths? I find it difficult to see how members of the Conservative party are not deeply concerned about the measures and proposals on child poverty, which is why I have brought this issue to the House today. I would like to force the Government to re-examine their proposals before it is too late.
As an elected representative, it is sickening to me to think of even one child in poverty, never mind such incredible numbers. I despair for the children in my area who will be affected by the Government’s actions. I despair for children around the world, so I urge the Government to do what they can in the UK and to heed the warnings given by the charity and voluntary sector, which has said that the proposed policies will plunge more children into poverty rather than pulling them out.
The Government have given us no plausible evidence base to demonstrate how cutting tax credits will incentivise work; I challenge Government Members present to address that point. Before they do, I remind them that the Government’s own evidence review of drivers of child poverty last year noted that the most important barriers to children exiting poverty were those arising from a lack of sufficient income from parental employment, not just worklessness.
It has been confirmed by the House of Commons Library that 99,600 out-of-work families in Scotland are receiving tax credits, compared with 250,300 families who are in work and receiving tax credits. The Government therefore contradicted their own testimony that cuts to the welfare system will make work pay: it is clear that working families and their children will suffer most from the tax credit changes.
It is clear that the UK Government were planning to give with one hand and take with the other when the Chancellor announced his golden ticket increase of the minimum wage. As ever, the devil is in the detail. The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that the higher minimum wage rate will increase earnings by £4 billion in total by 2020; however, there will be welfare cuts of £12 billion. That simply does not add up. In any case, the policies target different groups, with those hit by cuts to tax credit unlikely to benefit from the minimum wage rise.
It is extremely worrying that the Tory Government have gone one step further in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill by enforcing a two-child cap on families who will be eligible for receiving child tax credit from 2017. Currently, 872,000 families in the UK—548,000 of whom are in work—receive an average of £3,670 a year for supporting a third child or subsequent children. The policy is deeply unfair, and threatens to undermine the financial stability of thousands of families who are at a higher risk of poverty.
The Government’s own national poverty strategy recognises that the risk of child poverty is already significantly higher among larger families. In fact, a third of children living in poverty are in families with three or more children. The Government’s rationale is still unclear. There is no evidence base to show how the measures would somehow bring about some kind of behavioural change, should that be their plan. To deny assistance to families—most of them working—who fall on hard times or into a low income but have three or more children, is completely condemnable. The policy seems to be based on the assumption that a third child is now a luxury commodity, reserved for the most affluent, but the right to a family life should surely be protected and encouraged by the Government.
The Government’s welfare reform measures have already hit some of those most at risk of poverty, and the new proposals will undoubtedly thrust more children into poverty, but one of the Government’s most troubling moves is to remove the requirement in the Child Poverty Act 2010 to report on income targets. They have renamed the Child Poverty Commission the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, which represents a stark shift in focus from tackling poverty to promoting social mobility and equality of opportunity rather than of outcome.
The removal of income targets means the fundamental driver of poverty is de-prioritised. Do the Government no longer care how much money people have in their pockets to feed their families? Instead, by focusing on targets that are not necessarily related to poverty, the Government are taking worrying steps towards characterising poverty as a lifestyle choice, rather than addressing the social and economic drivers that cause people to fall into poverty. I wonder whether there is a link between their attacks on the welfare system and their rationale for watering down commitments to protecting children.
It is worth noting the Scottish Government’s approach to tackling child poverty. Under the Scottish National party, the Scottish Government will look at a Scottish approach that builds on the innovative child poverty measurement framework, with a view to introducing a new approach to reporting on measures to tackle poverty. Scotland has shown its commitment to tackling inequalities and lifting children out of poverty, and I am pleased to note that the Scottish Government’s Social Justice Secretary, Alex Neil, has requested that the UK Government repeal all parts of the Child Poverty Act relevant to Scotland and confirmed that the Scottish Government will remove themselves from the new social mobility commission. Instead, they will develop a distinct Scottish approach that does not ignore the increasing problems of in-work poverty.
Coupled with the squeezing of the benefit cap and work-related conditions imposed on families with younger children, the UK Government’s austerity campaign is on course not only to hit hard-working and low-income families, but to sink more children further into poverty. It is beyond reason and moral thinking for the Government to identify the poorest children in the UK as the target for shouldering the bulk of their cuts. To protect children, to ensure that they have full access to a real childhood and opportunities to grow and flourish in education, as well as socially, the Government must withdraw the measures in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, halt the changes to tax credits and continue to build on the good work of the child poverty commission, rather than getting rid of it.
Order. I do not propose to impose a time limit at the moment, but seven Members have indicated that they want to speak, excluding the SNP and Opposition spokespeople and the Minister. If those who are called can emulate the great self-discipline exercised by the mover of the motion and keep to a time limit of seven minutes, we should be able to get everybody in.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to today’s debate under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, and to raise the concerns of many of my constituents.
Let me say first that this Government’s approach to child poverty goes against everything for which I stand. Plans to repeal the majority of the provisions of the Child Poverty Act 2010 demonstrates a blatant lack of understanding of what it actually means to be in poverty and highlights the ever-growing gulf in politics across these islands. The SNP were sent here in such substantial numbers to ensure that Scotland’s voice is heard and to provide a real opposition to the most right-wing Government since Thatcher’s. Make no mistake: this Government do not have the mandate to inflict such brutal measures on my constituents and others in Scotland.
According to the Child Poverty Action Group, 21% of children in my constituency grow up in poverty. That may just sound like a number, but it represents the lives of the children whom I represent. The figure is echoed across, but not limited to, Scotland, with more than one in five of our nation’s children living in poverty—210,000 children. The same statistics exist across the UK and are being disregarded by the Government’s welfare reform programme and ignored by the Government, who have chosen to overlook the importance of the future lives of children across these islands. These children need support, not savage cuts to their security and that of their families.
We came to the House to use what power we have to help lift people out of poverty and to help those we represent out of deprivation, not to kick them while they are down. We have to consider the bigger, long-term picture of what austerity means for our young people. One million additional children across the UK are expected to grow up in poverty by 2020, meaning 5 million children in poverty in one of the world’s richest nations. In Scotland, that would mean an additional 100,000 children growing up in poverty. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that the benefit cuts already made at Westminster have saved the public purse a mere £2.5 billion. Yet, the cuts have cost society more than £20 billion. How can the Government justify and balance those figures? If the obsession with austerity failed in the last Parliament, why will it work now?
Growing up in an area of multiple deprivation, I know only too well the negative impact that that can have on a child’s health, life expectancy, academic outcomes and future success in the workplace. I witnessed young people’s life chances diminish. I witnessed my peers not go on to achieve their full potential simply because they grew up in poverty.
Tax credits were mentioned earlier. They were introduced in 1998 as a response to rising child poverty, and that met with some success. Does my hon. Friend agree that any negative changes to the tax credit regime will lead to increasing child poverty in future?
Cuts to tax credits for families with more than two children will make some of the poorest families even poorer. Some 21% of UK families in receipt of tax credits have three or more children. Who are this Government to tell any family how many children it can have and say what price should be put on a child’s head? Furthermore, the proposal to eliminate the term “child poverty” is semantics over substance. Instead of tackling the real issues, this Government focus on playing politics with people’s lives.
The proposals in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill would see the removal of targets on absolute, relative and persistent poverty, as set out in the Child Poverty Act 2010. There has also been an increase in the proportion of children in poverty living in working families: now a staggering 63%. The impact of limiting child tax credits to the first two children will mean a huge negative impact on a minority of families. This Government cannot possibly justify such arbitrary and incomprehensible measures. We are talking about the poorest people in our society, the most vulnerable and the people who need our help the most. If this Government will not represent them, I certainly will. I am concerned that pushing the poorest into even deeper poverty will lead to statistics plummeting dangerously—statistics that are thrown around like weapons that do not relate to the lives of individuals.
We must ensure that the cuts are not allowed to go ahead, because the results will be disastrous, with no benefit whatsoever to working families across the country. The Welfare Reform and Work Bill fails to take into account the lasting damage to future generations of young people. I urge the Minister to rethink these arbitrary measures and consider the role that poverty plays in our society.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Kirsten Oswald on securing such a vital debate. My constituency is perhaps not the first to come to mind when thinking of areas where poverty strikes, but our enduring challenge is the low-wage economy. Unemployment is low in comparison with many other areas, but low wages are the biggest threat to children growing up there. Indeed, low wages, coupled with the increased cost of living, have certainly played a part in 210,000 children in Scotland living in relative poverty, many of whom come from families in which at least one parent is working. That should quite simply be considered an outrage.
We often hear the UK Government talk of making work pay, yet policy decisions achieve quite the opposite. In my constituency, that means one in five children growing up in poverty, with the figure as high as one in three in some parts. Changes to the tax credit regime will, without question, further worsen the living conditions of over 7,000 children in Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, as up to £1,000 a year is taken out of family budgets. The measures announced in the Budget are regressive, and it is children in families with the lowest incomes that continue to be hit hardest. It should be borne in mind that the proposals will affect life chances in areas of high deprivation, and families who are on the radar of financial distress. They will also be part of daily life for those who are afraid to admit to their situation, through fear of unwanted service disruption or sheer embarrassment at the stripping away of layers of personal pride that the removal of support leads to.
I want to share how, in the highlands, in-work families will lose out as a result of the tax credit regime changes. Limiting tax credits to two children results in the removal of £7.2 million from welfare payments in Highland—simply put, that is £7.2 million from low-wage, low-income families. Removing the family element of tax credits takes £4.02 million from welfare payments in Highland, which is £4.02 million from low-wage families. Increasing the tax credit taper from 41% to 48% means the removal of £7.77 million from welfare payments in Highland. The reduction in income thresholds in tax credits equates to a removal of £33.33 million from welfare payments in Highland, which is a further £33.33 million from low-wage families. I will stop with the numbers, but everyone in the Chamber knows that they go on and on.
I want to ask the Government this: in our low-wage but low-unemployment economy, how do such cuts ever help make work pay? They do not. Families are already struggling with housing costs, heating bills and food prices, and parents face a harrowing choice between heating their home or putting food on the table, with some even wondering if they will still qualify for the food banks because of the number of their visits. In a growing number of cases, due to the oppressive sanctioning regime faced by my constituents and many others, there is the phenomenon of no-income poverty.
Thank goodness the Scottish Government have, by paying, done what they can across the piece to mitigate the outrageous bedroom tax imposed on Scotland. In the highlands there are virtually no one or two-bedroom social housing units, which has been a real problem. Through no fault of their own, people have been scared and intimidated. Again, they have had to be compensated by the Scottish Government.
Poverty robs children of their childhood. Children and young people growing up in poverty face limited life chances. We surely should not accept any child growing up without a fair start in life. The charity Barnardo’s Scotland says that its caseworkers have recorded numerous cases of having visited homes where there was literally no food in the cupboards. The UK Government need to take action to reverse, not increase, child poverty. As others have said, these children are more likely to live in poor housing, to suffer chronic illness in childhood, and to die at birth or in infancy.
I congratulate Kirsten Oswald on bringing the subject to Westminster Hall for consideration. It is a pleasure to speak and to add my thoughts from a Northern Ireland perspective. I am happy to be involved. I will outline the case in Northern Ireland and how we are being affected. I will probably reflect the point of view of the two others who have spoken, the hon. Members for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) and for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry).
The issue is clearly important. When we hear about poverty, as we do every day, and in particular child poverty, our minds instinctively conjure up images of children living in parts of Africa, or in war-torn countries such as Syria. Given the media attention and the charities involved in trying to end poverty throughout the world, that is unsurprising. In no way do I intend to lessen the horrendous difficulties to which children living in those countries are subject. Unimaginably, they have no clean water, little food and little clothing; unfortunately that is the reality for many.
Poverty, however, means more than that. It is perhaps shocking to learn that here in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland poverty is a reality for many families. The most recent projections from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, produced before the 2015 summer Budget, suggested that by 2021, in the United Kingdom, 3 million children would be in relative poverty, not taking account of housing costs, and some 4.3 million taking account of housing costs.
Low income affects direct measures of children’s wellbeing and development, including cognitive ability, achievement and engagement in school, anxiety levels and behaviour. Life is difficult enough, but as the years go on, I become more convinced that, certainly in some ways, times are getting harder for our children—clearly, they are. It seems commonplace to see pressures thrust on children and young people from a young age. Getting good results, going to university and getting the best jobs are admirable objectives, but they are much harder for children to achieve when they face increased anxiety and feel less engaged with school.
The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey mentioned low income, and I will, too. This debate is timely, particularly because the tax credit changes are being discussed today—we will shortly have a chance to vote on them. My party will certainly oppose the changes. The cuts will have a substantial impact on child poverty. The IFS examined the impact of different cuts to benefits in its February 2015 “Green Budget” and estimated that the £5.1 billion of proposed cuts to child tax credit would increase child poverty by 300,000. My goodness! If we are not shocked by those figures, we should be—and embarrassed. The Treasury estimates the impact to be even greater. As well as increasing child poverty, the changes will significantly weaken incentives to work, because the impact of the cuts will fall disproportionately on low-income working families. That is obviously the reverse effect from the one that we want. Our aim in government is, or should be, to assist more people into work—it must be more financially beneficial to go to work than to remain on benefits. There is also pride in having a job and going to work every day, and it brings someone a routine.
We must ensure that wages reflect the cost of living, which is the problem in Northern Ireland. It is estimated that back home in Northern Ireland one in four children will be living in poverty by 2020, and more than half of children growing up in poverty live in working households. That is the main problem in Northern Ireland, much as the hon. Gentleman said it was in his constituency. We are not alone in that, as the issues stretch right across the whole United Kingdom. The Government’s January 2014 “Evidence review of the drivers of child poverty” found that the most important factors standing in the way of children exiting poverty were those contributing to a lack of sufficient income from parental employment—not only worklessness, but low income from work. That is what the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey said—I had to write down his constituency name beforehand, which makes for a long sentence—and I thank him for his contribution, because he made exactly the point that I wanted to hit on.
A Save the Children report published last May claimed that youngsters had paid the highest price in the recession. Their plight is exacerbated in Northern Ireland because wages lag behind the rest of the United Kingdom, while the cost of necessities, such as food, fuel and childcare, is higher than in other regions. I am sure I am not alone among Members in saying that the increase in families coming to my constituency office to ask for food bank vouchers is truly heartbreaking. I am a big supporter of the food banks; I recognise their good work and that they have a part to play in our society.
Many families tell me that several nights each week they have to decide whether to feed their family or heat their home. The reality, however, is that people make the decision to feed their family, because they have to fill their children’s stomachs, even though they have to be sent to bed with an extra jumper or coat on and do not get into their jammies. That is what happens. If a decision is to be made between feeding and heating, feeding always wins, and heating falls by the wayside.
In Northern Ireland 110,000 children are affected by poverty, going without essentials or living in homes that are cold or damp. Save the Children’s report claims that the 2014 so-called “poverty premium”, which represents how much more low-income families pay for goods and services than middle-income families, now stands at £1,639 per year in Northern Ireland. That poverty premium includes, for example, the extra money needed to pay for items, such as a cooker or house insurance, in instalments rather than all at once. All that comes at a high cost to the children involved. They are always the ones at the end of the line who seems to suffer. Poverty robs children of the childhood that they deserve. They often miss out on events that most of us took for granted when we were children and at school, such as going on school trips or going out with friends.
What I am saying only scrapes the surface of the issues. Children in poverty are more likely to live in bad housing, more likely to die at birth or in infancy, and more likely to suffer chronic illness in childhood, or to have a disability. Those are the facts, the statistics. Poverty damages children’s life chances. Children from poor backgrounds lag behind at all stages of education. By the age of three, poorer children are estimated to be, on average, nine months behind children from more wealthy backgrounds. That is a terrible statistic that we need to address. By the end of primary school, pupils receiving free school meals are estimated to be almost three terms behind their more affluent peers—a gap that grows to over five terms by the age of 14 and leads them to achieve the equivalent of 1.7 grades lower on average at GCSE. The figures show a real trend; children from low-income families are really affected.
In addition, families on low incomes are less likely to be able to afford organic and free-range foods, or even fresh foods. Often their only choice is to buy convenience foods, which often have a high fat and salt content. We cannot ignore that. During the previous Parliament, the Minister was very interested in sport and often talked about diet and sport. I hope that today he will make similar comments. Unsurprisingly, in 2011, the poorest households had more than twice as many obese children as those from wealthier backgrounds.
I am conscious of the time, and will bring my remarks to an end. The statistics are startling and worrying. The sad reality is that hundreds of families live below the poverty line in the United Kingdom. It is vital that we raise awareness of that. The rise in the use of food banks across the UK is a stark indicator of the problem. According to the Trussell Trust, almost 500,000 people were given three days’ worth of food in the first six months of the 2014-2015 financial year, an increase of 38% on the same period in the previous year. Just as Save the Children and End Child Poverty have firmly pointed the finger at low incomes and changes to welfare, so too has the Trussell Trust. All that being the case, more must be done to eradicate child poverty.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend Kirsten Oswald on securing this debate. It is a pleasure to follow Jim Shannon, who made a measured, reasoned and impressive contribution.
At the outset I must declare an interest. It is not financial and therefore does not appear in my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, but it is certainly relevant to the debate and without doubt influences what I have to say. My constituency of Airdrie and Shotts has a child poverty rate of 27% after housing costs have been considered; in some wards, one third of children are living in poverty. That is truly depressing and heartbreaking. I will briefly point out how that figure compares with that for the constituencies of other Members. Witney has a child poverty rate of 13%; in Witham, the rate is 17% and in Tatton it is 16%. Those rates are all far too high and require much work; nevertheless, they are among the lowest in the UK.
The causes of child poverty are without doubt complex. However, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which has been much quoted in this debate, has made it clear that the projected rise in the rate of child poverty is largely down to UK welfare cuts. Indeed, the conclusion to a 2014 IFS report states:
“Real cuts to working-age benefits are a key reason behind rising child poverty.”
Little wonder that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is so determined to withdraw the criteria for measuring child poverty. His Government’s welfare cuts will plunge countless more families and children into poverty. A very large chunk of those who will find themselves desperately struggling to make ends meet—and who will be forced to choose between heating and eating, as the hon. Member for Strangford said—will be households where at least one adult is in work.
My hon. Friend will perhaps be aware of the report by the Educational Institute of Scotland called “Face up to Child Poverty”, the stand-out quote from which was:
“Not only is the incidence of poverty increasing, the nature of poverty is changing. Low wages mean that more than half (59%) of children living in poverty are within families in which at least one adult is employed…Scotland has seen a 400% increase in the use of food-banks…and organisers report that a significant proportion of their clients are in work”.
Will he comment on that view of how the nature of child poverty is changing? What should the UK Government do to change that situation?
I thank my hon. Friend for pointing out that important report. It is a very sad state of affairs when our teachers have to deal with children who are hungry when they come to school. That is shocking and depressing.
Wholescale cuts to tax credits will reduce the allowance before tax credits start to be withdrawn from £6,420 to £3,850 and increase the taper rate at which tax credits are withdrawn from 41% to 48%. Those cuts will slash household incomes for 197,200 families in Scotland with nearly 350,000 children. Nearly 250,000 families in Scotland will be worse off by an average of £1,000 per year as a result of changes to tax credits alone. As they qualify for tax credits, those families by definition have the lowest incomes in the country. They are least able to deal with those cuts to their income and, as they are in low-income work, will have little opportunity to increase their wages to a degree that would make up the shortfall. They are also far more likely to live week to week and simply cannot cut their cloth to suit.
All that completely flies in the face of Government rhetoric about making work pay. Indeed, when the Budget measures are taken in the round, the IFS has said that people in the four lowest income deciles will see their net income cut by between £600 and £1,300; compare that with people in the ninth decile—the second richest decile in society—who are to receive a net income rise. Levels of income without question have an absolute bearing on levels of poverty, yet as a result of scrapping the Child Poverty Act 2010, this Government will no longer have to account for income levels in the UK.
Poverty robs children of their childhood. Children living in poverty are more likely to live in poor housing, and to have poorer education outcomes and greater health issues. Poverty is the greatest barrier to children achieving better life outcomes—the aim at the heart of the UN convention on the rights of the child. Given that it has been demonstrated that their measures will push more children into poverty, it is time for this Government to think again and take a different path.
For their part, with their limited influence over these matters, the Scottish Government are providing over £300 million between last year and next to help mitigate the worst of the Westminster welfare cuts for families in Scotland. That means the people of Scotland are paying twice for the Tory cuts—the Scottish Government have their budget slashed and they have to set aside extra cash to ease the burden for hard-pressed families.
In conclusion, for all the reasons I have mentioned, I say, in accordance with the traditions and procedures of this place, that yes, this House has considered child poverty in this debate, but in reality, its current Tory majority is certainly not considering child poverty, and it is about time that it did.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate Kirsten Oswald on securing this timely debate. I enjoyed listening to the contributions of the hon. Members for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley), for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray). The passion that has been shown on this subject shows that Scotland and Northern Ireland are well served by those Members. I feel sorry for the Minister, as he is surrounded by the Celtic fringe, somewhat.
We will let you get away with that.
Child poverty is an age-old problem. Writers such as Charles Dickens, in the 19th century, J.B. Priestley, whose “An Inspector Calls” was recently adapted by the BBC, and the great socialist George Orwell have all chronicled poverty and its effects throughout the years. Yet however much great literary works and great authors have covered the scourge of poverty in all its forms, the problem has still not been solved.
Poverty at its extreme affects the two most vulnerable groups of people in society, the very old, who often have to make the choice between heating and eating, and the very young. We have heard many statistics, but for so many people across the country, in constituencies we have already heard from, in Scotland, in the north—including Manchester—and in Wales, poverty is a way of life. Extreme poverty means young people go to school hungry, not having been able to eat breakfast that morning. They do not have the equipment they need to gain the skills to succeed. Very often, they will return to substandard accommodation that is damp, and they will become ill. They have failed before they have even begun.
The sad fact is that, despite all the campaigns throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, poverty still comes down to one thing: someone born into poverty will probably die in poverty. As in the time of the great writers I mentioned, the challenge for society is to end poverty in all its forms.
I do not believe that people become politicians—come to the House of Commons or, indeed, go into Government—to oversee an increase in poverty, but that is what we have seen from this Government. If we look at the figures after housing costs have been taken into account, over 27% of children in my south Wales constituency are living in poverty. Across Wales, one fifth of all children grow up poor. In the UK—the fifth richest country in the world—more than 4 million children are living in poverty. None of their parents wants things to stay the same; they want to provide more for their families. Not one of them does not want to escape the tiring, punishing reality of being poor.
It is no good, however, simply setting out the challenge we face, which other Members have eloquently described. Anyone who cares about our country’s future and our constituents’ lives must now seek solutions, because it falls to this generation to eliminate poverty in all its forms.
The problem cannot be solved by simply throwing more money at it. That has been tried, and we still see poverty on a scale we cannot imagine. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report “What will it take to end child poverty?” stated:
“Ending child poverty is only partly about transferring money to poor households. A long-term solution must involve much more, tackling the root causes of poverty and in particular giving families opportunities that help them gain greater control of their own lives.”
We can do that only if people work. We can have all the Government schemes we want, but the best way to end poverty is to have working households. While people are stuck—dependent on the welfare system—they will never have control over their own destiny or the ability to break their family out of poverty. They will suffer poverty of money and, yes, poverty of ambition.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation states that truly tackling child poverty will require us to provide considerable personal support to people who are likely to face a combination of disadvantages in terms of entering the labour market. We can overcome those disadvantages, but only with targeted, personalised and localised support. That cannot be done just through existing public sector structures. Instead, there needs to be a partnership between public bodies, private bodies and, above all, local communities. We must harness the financial power of the Government, the innovation of the private sector and people’s knowledge of their own lives and communities—the people who know what is best for communities are those who live in them. We must put in place strategies that reach the poorest, the hardest to help and the most disadvantaged.
The last Labour Government made great strides with a public sector approach, but the world has moved on. The challenges in 2015 are not the same as they were in 1997.
Notwithstanding the hon. Gentleman’s wise words about tackling the issue on a longer-term basis using a real plan, which I absolutely subscribe to, does he agree that the actions taken by this Government in the short term do nothing to help those who are already working, but who are below the poverty threshold, and nothing to achieve the long-term ambitions we should all share?
I agree. The hon. Gentleman used the phrase “short term”, and the problem with this Government’s approach from the beginning is that there has been too much short-term thinking. The problem in politics may be that we think from one election to the next and do not plan for the long term. I believe that poverty is at its highest level at the moment because people are too fixated on the stereotypes perpetuated by the press—the idea that someone finds themselves on benefits not because they have fallen on hard times, but because they are some sort of scrounger. We must end that stereotype if we are to move on. That is where the long term comes in.
Child poverty will be solved only by a Government that are firmly focused on the issue in the long term. The distinction between the public, private and third sectors must be broken down. In the pursuit of a country where no child is born poor, there can be no qualms about harnessing the best of private enterprise and the best of social action. In practice, that will mean contracting diverse providers from charities to recruitment companies and agencies to deliver employment support. It will mean private companies showing the social responsibility we have always talked about and working with people who face severe disadvantages in terms of entering the labour market to put in place individual strategies to overcome those problems. It will mean families who are stuck in poverty receiving one-on-one support that is tailored to their needs from any willing provider who can provide the best support.
The one-size-fits-all model of Jobcentre Plus and the welfare system has comprehensively failed, to the extent that Ofsted found that Jobcentre schemes have a success rate of less than 1%. Rather than pursue that model, the Government should work with any company or organisation that can help. No stone should be left unturned. This is not about taking an ideological approach and saying the public sector is always right or the private sector is always better. This is not about left or right, or about Welsh, English Scottish or Irish; this is about doing what works to end child poverty.
The people trapped in the punishing reality of being poor will not care where the support comes from, as long as it works. However, it must be part of a new contract with them. The Government will work with anyone who can provide support, but individuals must take responsibility; they must accept that if the country is there for their family, they must be as well. It must be Britain’s moral mission to end child poverty, but all the support we can provide will not be enough if people do not take responsibility. They cannot be allowed to see welfare as a way of life, to be the worst possible example to their children and to sustain the culture we see in far too many communities where joblessness is the norm. The deal must be: “We will help you, and you will get the support you need, but, in return, you have to work, to provide for your family and to be responsible for your spending.” That is how we end child poverty and lock in a country where no child is born poor. Without ensuring personal responsibility, any action we take to help the poorest children will be reversed, and we will never break the poverty of ambition that traps poor children into a life of poverty.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I am reminded of my maiden speech, when you were in the Chair as Deputy Speaker, although I hope I will not have as short a time to speak as I did then.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Kirsten Oswald on securing this important debate. I also congratulate other Members, who have made valuable contributions. I want briefly to reflect on some of the global dimensions of child poverty, which Jim Shannon touched on.
As is clear from all the speeches that have been made, poverty is a scandal wherever it exists. Too many children, in the UK and elsewhere, are born into, and grow up in, poverty. We have heard the statistics from other hon.
Members. In my constituency, 25% of children live in poverty. My hon. Friend Neil Gray compared constituencies, and Glasgow North is ranked 110 out of 650 constituencies for child poverty. That means that there are 109 other seats in this country where more than 25% of the child population lives in poverty. That is a complete scandal, but, sadly, that scandal is only exacerbated around the world.
UNICEF estimates that, by 2030, 119 million children will still be chronically undernourished. Even today, entirely preventable diseases such as pneumonia, diarrhoea and malaria are leading causes of child deaths, with more than 5,000 children dying from them each day. Despite all the progress that has been made in the lowest-income countries since 1990, the proportion of children under five living in poverty rose from 13% in 1990 to 19% in 2014.
The saddest and perhaps most frustrating thing about all this is that none of it is necessary, because structures exist to prevent it from happening in the first place. The rights of children are protected by the UN convention on the rights of the child, which has been ratified by 194 states, including—more than 25 years ago, in 1989—by the United Kingdom. UNICEF described the convention as
“the first international instrument to articulate the entire complement of rights relevant to children—economic, social, cultural, civil and political. It is also the first international instrument to explicitly recognise children as active holders of their own rights.”
Living in poverty is perhaps the greatest denial of those human rights. Article 6 of the convention provides:
“States Parties shall ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child”.
The “maximum extent possible”—that is the responsibility of the Government. Yet we have repeatedly heard from Members that the Government want to roll back their responsibilities to tackle child poverty, and the relevant measurements. However, the global frameworks exist to tackle poverty here and around the world.
Last Thursday there was a debate in the Chamber on the sustainable development goals, a new global framework aimed at eradicating poverty in all its forms, everywhere. That means at home as well as elsewhere in the world. In Scotland there was a working group drawn from civil society, the Government and the academic and business world—I declare an interest as I was a member of it—on the sustainable development goals. It was innovative not only for the way such different organisations worked together towards ending poverty overseas, but for what we could do domestically. There is an interesting and continuing collaboration between global and domestic anti-poverty organisations, and it would be interesting to know from the Minister whether he is prepared to work with his colleagues in the Department for International Development, and across the Government, to consider how the new global goals aimed at ending all forms of poverty, including child poverty, everywhere, might be applied in the United Kingdom.
As so often with such issues, we are the generation with the knowledge, means and resources to end poverty, and all that seems to be lacking is the political will.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend Kirsten Oswald on securing the debate, which has been enlightening. It is good to see cross-party participation among Opposition parties. I am disappointed that Conservative Members have not come to defend policies that they will vote for in the Chamber. [Interruption.] I thank the Minister for being here, but it would have been appropriate, given the gravity of the circumstances relating to child poverty, had more Conservative Members been present to defend the levels of child poverty and what the Government are doing.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire said that it is immoral to force tax cuts on children. It is clear that the target of austerity is children. It is a hugely important debate and should transcend party politics, because child poverty should be the concern of us all. Unfortunately the Government’s policies are forcing more children into poverty. It should concern us all that 3.7 million children in the UK live in relative poverty, and it should alarm, astound and worry us that the number in child poverty is projected to rise to 4.7 million by 2020 under current policies. The obsession of the Tory Government is that people at all levels of society must firefight cuts. For their part, the Scottish Government are providing more than £300 million between 2013-14 and 2015-16 to mitigate the effect of Westminster welfare changes for families in Scotland.
My hon. Friend Angela Crawley said—and I agree—that there is no mandate for imposing the cuts in Scotland. The Tory party received its lowest support in 165 years in Scotland at the general election; it fell to just over 10% of the vote. My hon. Friend spoke about semantics over substance, and the change in Tory rhetoric and attitude with the renaming of the poverty statistics. The simple fact is that austerity has not worked. It is astonishing that, despite the evidence of the harm from what they are doing, the UK Government continue to attack low-paid families. That makes a mockery of the Conservatives’ claim to be the party of working people. For example, cutting tax credits, which are a lifeline for low-income families and a crucial tool in lifting people out of poverty, will only exacerbate the already dismal projections of rising child poverty. In Scotland alone, 346,000 children will be affected by the changes, and we are in danger of pushing them into poverty and causing lasting damage to their life chances.
We know the harm that austerity is doing to thousands of children across the country. It simply cannot be acceptable to ignore the severe and particular impact on children of the Government’s policies. Jim Shannon said that poverty robs children of their childhood and the life chances that they deserve, and I agree. By changing the definition of poverty and removing the requirement to report on income targets, the Government are doing just that. In renaming the commission set up under the Child Poverty Act 2010 the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, the Tories are trying to airbrush child poverty out of our political debate.
We must of course look at the wider picture of young people’s life chances, rather than focusing simply on one set of statistics or another, but the Government’s changes to the Child Poverty Act will be deeply damaging, for three main reasons. First, the removal of the requirement to report on income targets means that a fundamental driver of poverty—how much a person has in their pocket —is essentially being deprioritised. My hon. Friend Drew Hendry said that that low wages and increased inflation are key drivers of poverty. Secondly, the Government’s plans to focus purely on worklessness ignore the 67% of UK children who live in a household with one or more working adult. In-work poverty, which will undoubtedly be exacerbated by the changes to tax credits and other Budget measures, is a key challenge that the Tories seem content to ignore. Thirdly, the additional targets that are proposed are not necessarily related to poverty. Family break-up and drug and alcohol dependency affect families in all income deciles, and problem debt is generally a consequence rather than a cause of poverty. The proposals are a step towards characterising poverty as a lifestyle choice, rather than addressing the social and economic drivers that cause people to fall into poverty. That is a mistake that we cannot afford to make.
Chris Evans—I hope he will forgive my pronunciation—is correct: we must seek solutions. It is up to this generation. Poverty should not exist in a country as rich as ours and no child should have to experience it. As long as the Government pursue a damaging austerity strategy and attempt to sweep child poverty under the carpet, it will persist and be pervasive. My hon. Friend Patrick Grady said that poverty is a scandal wherever it exists, and spoke of his constituency where the rate of child poverty is 25%, the 110th highest in the UK. In 2012, my constituency’s child poverty rate was 32.6%, which was the 26th highest in the UK. Twenty-five constituencies had child poverty rates higher than almost a third of children. In some parts of my constituency child poverty is almost at 50%.
The Government’s Dickensian policies belong in the House of Commons Library, not in the Chamber or the statute book of any country that has the resources that the UK has. When there is a clear and demonstrable link between Tory policies and low wages it becomes clear that increasing levels of poverty and child poverty are political choices; we have the power to tackle the situation, but we worsen it instead. The Government must halt the changes to tax credits, withdraw the measures in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill and continue to build on the good work of the child poverty commission, rather than eradicating it from political discourse. I urge the Minister to consider what has been said in the debate, from across the parties.
Order. We have just over 30 minutes—32 to be precise—for the two Front Benchers to wind up. I ask them to bear in mind that, because of the self-discipline that hon. Members have shown, there is plenty of time, and to recognise that the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire, who moved the motion, would like to make a few observations by way of winding up.
It is a great pleasure, Mr Howarth, to respond to this debate and to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate Kirsten Oswald on introducing it this afternoon.
As the debate has proceeded, we have understood the complexity and multi-layering that is intrinsic in child poverty, but we should also recognise that we know what works to tackle it. Looking at the track record and progress that was made under Labour Governments between 1997 and 2010, I am proud that we saw huge progress with more than 1 million children in the UK lifted out of poverty.
We know what led to that massive reduction in child poverty. As the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire acknowledged, it was in no small measure due to the effectiveness of tax credits, and to the rise in employment, particularly the employment of lone parents, which increased from 44% in the mid-1990s to approaching 60% when we entered this decade.
None the less and despite that progress, today, as we have heard, 3.7 million children in this country live in relative poverty. Perhaps even more depressing, since 2011-12, progress to reduce that number further has stalled. There was no progress whatever under the coalition Government after 2011-12, and the prediction is that under this Parliament, we will start to see a substantial rise in child poverty. None of us can be satisfied or complacent about that.
We have, rightly, heard a lot about the importance of measuring child poverty and having meaningful targets for tracking and tackling progress. At one time, there was cross-party consensus on the importance of measuring relative income poverty and targets for its reduction, but that consensus has broken down between the parties. It seems to have broken down in the Prime Minister’s mind—we have heard him say that he is in favour of targets and measuring and addressing relative poverty, and that he is not and believes that that is irrelevant. We have heard that the Government intend in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, which is now being debated in Committee, to remove the targets altogether and no longer to set that hard ambition for us to improve our performance. I cannot help feeling—Neil Gray hinted at this—that that is motivated by fear that the targets will not be met, fear that the position will worsen and fear that the Government will be held to account, as they should be.
We know the importance of having targets and an agreed definition of poverty. Targets drive action. They drive progress and they allow for comparisons that show the direction of travel and the trends, and enable us to compare ourselves with our international peers. No one would pretend that child poverty in this country is like child poverty in some of the poorest economies of the world, but the measures in the Child Poverty Act 2010 have presented a very useful picture that has enabled us to compare performance here with the best performing countries in Europe. Indeed, that was the ambition. It was not to eliminate child poverty to zero, because we all recognise the existence of frictional poverty, but to be at the level of the best in Europe. Until the arrival of the coalition Government, we were on track to achieve that.
It may be that recognition of the importance of targets is why in 2013, when the Government consulted on changing or abolishing the targets, 97% of those who responded said there was no need for any change, so it is highly regrettable that there are proposals from Ministers today to do something that has been roundly rubbished by all the respondents to that consultation. I am shocked by the lack of notice that the Government have taken.
We also heard today, rightly, about the importance and centrality of income in defining, measuring and tackling child poverty. Indeed, Kitty Stewart of the London School of Economics has shown that income is the single most significant factor and indicator of poor outcomes for children across a whole range of measures, including educational attainment and poor health. We also know that poverty has a cost to society as a whole. Estimates by the Child Poverty Action Group suggest that the cost to society of failing to tackle child poverty is £29 billion a year.
In recognition of the intrinsic link between low income and poor outcomes for children, the Child Poverty Act 2010, which received cross-party consensus, covered not just income poverty and did not require measures only on income poverty, but also required strategies on, for example, education, health, parental employment, debt and parenting. All those are associated with high levels of child poverty, but they are not the same as child poverty and it is important not to confuse the two.
None the less, one of my regrets about the abolition of much of the 2010 Act is that we will lose the requirement to produce those strategies. This morning, we heard in the Standing Committee considering the Welfare Reform and Work Bill—the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire may have repeated this this afternoon—that the intention in Scotland is to continue to produce that strategy and I understand from this morning’s evidence session with witnesses that that is also the case in Wales. However, there is no expectation that that will happen in England. Ministers will not expect local authorities to produce comprehensive strategies to address child poverty. If I am wrong about that, I shall be very pleased to hear it and I hope that the Minister will be able to contradict my assertion this afternoon.
We know that the Government know that income is important. Their own evidence review in 2014 showed that it was the most important factor, and not just, as we have heard today, that low income arises because families are out of work, but when there is insufficient income from earnings. It was right for hon. Members to point out this afternoon the absolute inadequacy and insufficiency of measuring only worklessness when two thirds of children in poverty are growing up in working households. We know the reasons for that. They are not laziness on the part of those parents, but poorly paid jobs, lack of access to flexible jobs that can be combined with family responsibilities, high child care costs, high housing costs and ill health. The need to care for a family member suffering ill health or their own ill health curtails employment chances.
I mentioned during my contribution the effect on those on low incomes of buying cheaply because it is better financially for their pocket, but that affects their diet and health. Does the hon. Lady believe that we should also address that issue?
The hon. Gentleman made a useful contribution on the poverty premium: that the poor pay more for the basics. He now adds another important dimension: that lack of income means that the poorest in our society are unable to afford to have the quality of life that protects health, wellbeing and social participation.
The critique of measures on which the Government are relying to underpin their rejection of the Child Poverty Act 2010 is simply wrong. Let us remember that it is not that the income measure in the Act does not capture the full picture of poverty. There is not one income poverty measure, but four to give us a rounded view. It is important to continue to measure relative income poverty, which we expect to rise. None the less, Ministers should be grateful for the four measures in the 2010 Act because it is possible that at the same time as seeing a rise in relative income poverty, we may see a fall in absolute poverty in the next few years. If median wages rise, but benefits are frozen or rise only with prices, we will see a rise in relative poverty. Conversely, absolute poverty could fall if benefits rise in line with the consumer prices index. It is important for Ministers to recognise that we have a good mix of measures in the 2010 Act, which would enable them to point to the complexity of the picture, rather than rejecting the Act on the misleading grounds that it measures relative poverty alone.
We have no analysis yet of the impact on child poverty of the measures in either the Welfare Reform and Work Bill or the others announced in the summer Budget, some of which we are debating this afternoon. However, we know that the impact of those measures will not be felt in the same way across all family types and structures. Lone parents, couples with several children and those with high housing costs will be hit particularly hard.
As we have heard this afternoon, it is important also to understand that the effect of the so-called national living wage will not wholly compensate for the cuts that are being made. Indeed, the cuts are particularly perverse when we consider that many of them are to in-work benefits, increasing, not reducing work disincentives. I am quite at a loss to understand why Ministers think that is a sensible way to proceed.
There is also a massive amount of ignorance about the purpose of different policy instruments to tackle poverty. Everybody welcomes higher minimum pay. Of course it is right that people should be paid properly for the work that they do, and of course it is right that the taxpayer should not subsidise low-pay economies, although we should recognise that achieving a minimum income standard for some families from earnings alone would simply drive businesses out of business. We have heard the projections that even a national living wage may lead to the loss of some tens of thousands of jobs. That is why, in addition to measures to tackle low pay, it is important to invest in tax credits, because many low-paid people who will benefit from the increase in the national living wage may not live in poor households. Conversely, many of those who are going to receive the national living wage will not be lifted out of poverty by that alone, because of their family and household structure and size. Therefore, it is important that we proceed on both fronts, and we cannot expect, at the lower end of the labour market, for wages alone to lift all families out of poverty.
Income poverty is crucial, and the Government’s analysis of the limitations of the Child Poverty Act and the limited approach that they will take to address rising family poverty, frankly, are simply wrong. It is regrettable that, with so much evidence before us and such a long history of having seen what works and what does not, Ministers are so uninterested in looking at the facts and the evidence, and instead insist on pursuing an ideology that will cause hardship for many, and, for the most vulnerable, destitution, the likes of which we have not seen for two decades.
I congratulate Kirsten Oswald on securing this important debate. There have been several excellent speeches from right across the Chamber, and I will do my best to cover as many of the points made as I can. I am also grateful that I have slightly longer than four minutes to speak—which was how long I had to respond to the last debate I had here in Westminster Hall.
There is clearly a lot of passion and real determination among hon. Members. We disagree on how the aim should be achieved, but I think there is a shared consensus that more needs to be done and that this issue is incredibly important. I speak as an individual who went to a school at the bottom of the league tables, back in my home town. My father passed away at an early age. I absolutely understand the importance of this issue, and I stress that I think we all share that determination, even if we perhaps see different ways to achieve that aim.
Before I focus on the UK, I will pick up on the point made by Patrick Grady. I was very proud to serve as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on global education for all. I was the warm-up act before the former Prime Minister stepped in and significantly increased the group’s profile, but I did that role for about 18 months, and I was very proud to do so.
I also congratulate Chris Evans on his speech. I have contributed in a number of debates in which he has spoken, and I am always impressed with his pragmatic, proactive approach. I absolutely echo his points about needing to look at local, individual solutions. That does him real credit; he is easily one of the most articulate speakers, and I was pleased that he was able to sneak in with his speech.
Our Government are committed to working to eliminate child poverty and improving children’s life chances. Our new approach is focused on transforming lives through tackling the root causes of child poverty, rather than through just focusing on the symptoms. Our new life chances measures will drive real action on work and education which will make the biggest difference to disadvantaged children now and in the future. That is crucial. The point was raised that too often, all Governments in the past have looked at short-term solutions, and the reality is that to break the cycle, there have to be long-term, sustainable solutions. We are taking action and looking at family breakdown, problem debt, addiction and ways to transform lives to ensure that all children get the best start in life, regardless of the circumstances that they find themselves in.
On work and poverty, the Government believe that work is the best route out of poverty. Children in workless families are around three times as likely to be in poverty as those in which at least one parent works. The “Child poverty transitions” report published in June found that nearly three quarters of poor workless families who found full time employment escaped poverty. The report also found that the highest poverty exit rate—75%—was for children living in families who went from part-time to full-time employment. By 2010, after over a decade of welfare spending increases, one in five households had nobody in work. Frankly, that was shameful.
Last July, I had a Westminster Hall debate in which I talked about what I felt was the ineffectiveness of Jobcentre Plus. Will the Minister accept that there is a serious problem with Jobcentre Plus actually getting long-term unemployed people back into work? What usually happens is that people find jobs through it, and within eight months, they are back on welfare benefits and out of work. What does the Minister believe is the cure for that problem?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. That is a fair point. At the moment, we are seeing about 1% a month coming off the ESA benefit. It is a poor success rate and we would expect far better. In his speech, the hon. Gentleman was bang on, in that we need to have localised individual responses. We need better support and to have more businesses signing up to provide those opportunities. We are looking to reform that and are in consultation. I spent much of the summer with my Minister for Disabled People hat on, doing visits and looking at the best ways that that can be done in the changes. Given the record of 1% a month of coming off that benefit, and with people often then slipping back in, it is incredibly important to address that looping effect.
The wider issue is a tragedy for each and every family, because families in which no one works lose their sense of self-worth.
From the Minister’s words, I am sure that he, personally, very much wants to see a long-term solution to the problem, but he mentioned a long-term ambition. Does he not accept that by not having a short and medium-term option for people in work at the moment, they will be punished and pushed further into poverty by the removal of those working tax credits, particularly in constituencies such as mine, where there is relatively low unemployment but very low wages?
I will address that later, so please be patient for a little bit longer.
Children grow up without the aspiration to achieve. They become almost certain to repeat the difficult lives of their parents, following a path from dependency to despondency, rather than to independence. At the beginning of my remarks, I talked about my background. That is what drove me into politics. We all have our calling, our passions and our priorities. That very much was what drove me into politics. As I said, I think we all share the same end goal; there is just disagreement on how we would look to achieve it.
On our record on worklessness and poverty, I highlight that many hon. Members have referred to the IFS statistics throughout the debate. I sound a strong note of caution on that. The statistics have been wrong every single year since 2011, and in the summer, they were half a million out, so I attach a big note of caution to the predictions and doom-mongering.
The Minister will know that one of the reasons why there may have been a discrepancy between the IFS prediction and the out-turn is to do with the use of survey data and different datasets. Does he agree that there is no doubt at all that the accumulation of measures announced in the summer Budget will increase child poverty, perhaps by many hundreds of thousands of pounds? They cannot fail to, because they will make working families worse off.
Despite a huge increase in spending, by 2010, the number of households where no member ever worked nearly doubled, in-work poverty rose and the Labour Government missed their own 2010 child poverty target by 600,000 children. Compare that with our record. During the previous Parliament, we turned around Labour’s legacy of worklessness. There are now 2 million more people in work. To put that in context, it is more than the figure for the whole of Europe put together. We have the fastest growing major economy.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but again I plead with hon. Members to be patient; I am coming to those points.
There are now 800,000 fewer people in relative poverty, including 300,000 children. Compared with the second quarter of 2014, there are 50,000 fewer households where no one has ever worked. And importantly, the number of children living in workless households has fallen by 390,000 since 2010 and is now at a record low.
On the specific point about in-work poverty—that theme was followed in the majority of speeches and is important—the figure for relative low income in work is now 200,000 lower than the peak in 2008-09. However, we all recognise that more needs to be done. Wages are rising faster than inflation. That is on the back of having a strong economy. Everything that we do must be underlined by a strong economy. We talk about austerity, but without taking the difficult decisions, we would not now have a strong economy. We have only to look at our neighbours in Europe to see the consequences of not having a strong economy.
We have increased income tax thresholds year on year. We have now taken the lowest 3.8 million earners out of paying any income tax at all. We have set a commitment to raise the allowance to £12,500, and once we reach that point, we will link that to wages going forward, so the lowest earners will never be dragged back into paying income tax. We have set out our ambitious plans for the national living wage. That will make a huge difference. People are forgetting that the impact will not be just on those who get an immediate pay rise, which I think is about 2.6 million people. There will be a ripple effect that could impact on more than 6 million, according to some predictions. Also, the introduction of universal credit will remove the barriers preventing people from increasing their hours. As I mentioned, the biggest improvement is for those people who go from part time to full time. The benefits system was putting in artificial barriers, preventing people from increasing their hours. Universal credit will give people the flexibility steadily to increase their hours where they wish to do so.
We want to build on that progress, which is why we are bringing forward our new life chance measures. The Welfare Reform and Work Bill introduces a new duty to report annually on worklessness and educational attainment in England. We have chosen those measures because the evidence tells us that those factors have the biggest impact on child poverty and children’s life chances, and that is what matters. We want legislation to drive action that makes the biggest difference in the lives of our children. The worklessness measures will identify the proportion of children living in workless households and of children in long-term workless households. The educational attainment measures will focus on GCSE attainment for all pupils and for disadvantaged pupils. We will develop a range of other measures and indicators of root causes of child poverty, including family breakdown, problem debt and addiction, and set those out in our life chances strategy. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made clear, we will continue to publish low-income statistics annually, as part of the “Households Below Average Income” publication.
We should be focused on those pathways to poverty, not moving people around an arbitrary income line. As Frank Field put it,
“raising everybody above a set percentage of median income is rather like asking a cat to catch its own tail.”
Focusing on work and education will drive real action, which will make the biggest difference to children’s lives now and in the future.
Education is key to transforming children’s futures. Good English and maths skills are key to improving children’s future life chances. Nearly two thirds of men and three quarters of women with low literacy never receive promotion and are locked into their starting income.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. Again, I will cover it as I progress.
Part of our commitment to social justice is the determination to ensure that every child is given an education that allows them to realise their potential. That is why we are raising standards with a vigorous new curriculum, world-class exams and a new accountability system that rewards those schools that help every child to achieve their best. Crucially, we introduced the pupil premium in the previous Parliament—it is worth £2.5 billion in 2015-16—to improve the life chances of disadvantaged pupils, and we have invested £50 million in the early years pupil premium to support disadvantaged three and four-year-olds.
Let me address issues such as children coming to school hungry when their parents have not been able to provide food—are not in a position to do so. I look at a lot of innovative schools that have provided food across the board. The school that was initially the worst-rated school in my constituency is now the highest rated. It used the pupil premium innovatively to provide food across the board, for all pupils. It recognised that that was a particular challenge and that if it did not solve that problem, what hope was there that pupils could concentrate and progress in the work environment?
Are we not taking this in a back-to-front way? Why should the schools be expected to provide that food when the parents themselves are unable to do so? Surely we need to address the income levels of the parents to ensure that they can provide for their children.
That is where we agree. We disagree just on how to get to that point. Government Members believe that work and educational attainment are the best way to provide the opportunity to break that cycle.
There are the wider education reforms, about which I have been very passionate. In the previous Parliament, we saw 2 million new apprenticeships. That figure is rising to 3 million new apprenticeships. We have had the introduction of university technical colleges, giving young people the real, workplace-based skills that will provide the best opportunity to get into work. We have also had the introduction of the national citizen scheme. I have seen year after year the increasing number of young people who are being transformed and who are then in a strong position to step into good careers.
Jim Shannon talked about sport. I have long said that our schools, between 4 and 6 o’clock, should be opening up to provide free use of their facilities to community groups to provide sporting opportunities. Sport helped me not to follow the path of two of my colleagues at school, who went to serve at Her Majesty’s pleasure, although when I told my school that I had got elected to Parliament, the head did say that he was not sure which was worse!
I will turn to Scotland, because I recognise that most of today’s speakers were from Scotland. The Scottish Government have the power to address child poverty through action in areas such as health, education, housing, employability and childcare. Following our proposals in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, they also have the freedom to choose what approach to take and how to act on, measure and report on life chances and child poverty, in line with the substantial areas of policy devolved to them. The UK Government are already giving Scotland through the Scotland Bill significant new taxation and welfare powers, including £2.5 billion-worth of new welfare powers and responsibility for raising more than 50% of what it spends. We will work closely with the devolved Administrations as the Welfare Reform and Work Bill proceeds and are open to reflecting their preferences regarding their jurisdictions in the legislation. We will take a keen interest in how that develops. In England, local authorities are being encouraged to come to the Government with their own innovative proposals, and we will always consider opportunities for further devolution.
In conclusion, our approach will ensure that tackling the root causes of child poverty and improving future life chances become central parts of our business as a one-nation Government. We will focus on transforming children’s lives by extending opportunity for all, so that both they and their children in turn can escape from the cycle of poverty and improve their life chances. Our new approach will drive real action, which will make the biggest difference to children now and in the future.
I thank you, Mr Howarth, the Minister and all those who have made such valuable contributions. We have been discussing a very important subject and have heard many mind-boggling statistics, but as my hon. Friend Angela Crawley said, this is not about statistics; it is about children. On that basis, I must ask the Government to consider their approach to child poverty, to think very carefully about all the important things that have been said today and to think again about how they take this forward.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered child poverty.