Strengthening Families — [Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 3:07 pm on 8th February 2018.

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Photo of Margaret Greenwood Margaret Greenwood Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 3:07 pm, 8th February 2018

I thank the hon. Lady for her clarification.

The coalition Government introduced the marriage allowance in April 2015, supposedly to support families. Couples with an overall income of more than £55,000 can benefit from the marriage allowance, but is that a priority when there is so much need elsewhere? Child poverty is increasing, 4 million children are growing up in poverty and two thirds of those are in working households. In some parts of Birmingham and London, more than 50% of children are growing up in poverty. The Child Poverty Action Group estimates that the cuts to universal credit will push 1 million more children into poverty by 2020, along with an extra 900,000 adults.

The coalition Government abolished the statutory targets for reducing poverty set by the previous Labour Government, along with the child poverty unit that the Labour Government set up to co-ordinate policy across Government to meet those targets. Instead, the coalition substituted measures of life chances. The Work and Pensions Secretary at that time repeated in February last year his belief that

“family breakdown is a big driver of UK poverty as children in families that break apart are more than twice as likely to be living in long term poverty. When couples break up, children suffer and poverty in the family is often not far behind.”

That ignores the reality that, in many families, poverty places great strain on relationships. Research by Relate, Relationships Scotland and Marriage Care found that a significant number of people cited financial problems as a reason for the break-up of long-term relationships. Debt creates real problems for families.

A recent study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies showed that one in four of Britain’s poorest households is falling behind with debt payments or spending more than a quarter of its monthly income on repayments. That is why the Opposition strongly believe that families in debt should be given breathing space to sort out a debt problem once they contact an agency such as StepChange to ask for help. We will press that as an amendment to the Financial Guidance and Claims Bill.

It is hard to credit that after repeated cuts to social security since 2010 the Government could seriously claim to support families. Child benefit, like most working age benefits, is frozen until 2020, yet inflation is over 3%, and food prices in December were over 4% higher than a year earlier.

The families manifesto calls for the marriage allowance to be increased for lower-income couples with children. It calls for those claiming universal credit and entitled to marriage allowance to receive the allowance automatically, and for the remaining couple penalties in universal credit to be removed. Is that really a priority when a fifth of people claiming universal credit still do not receive payment in full on time, and when more than one in 10 do not receive even partial payment on time?

Parents who find their claim for childcare delayed because the universal credit online system cannot validate the notepaper used for receipts might wonder how serious the Government are about supporting families and children. Parents with two children claiming tax credits, or the equivalent in universal credit, who find that a new baby is on the way and who will not qualify, will similarly be surprised at the Government’s claims, as will families claiming universal credit and earning more than £7,400 a year, whose children will no longer qualify for free school meals. That £7,400 is hardly a high income.

Only last week new Government statistics on the benefit cap revealed that 72% of households capped were single parent families, and 77% of those families had a young child under five. So will the Minister explain how the Government will support those families, who will doubtless experience increased difficulties in paying their bills as a direct result of Government policy?

The High Court ruled in July that imposing the benefit cap on single parent families with children aged two or under was unlawful. The judge in that case said that the mothers are not workshy,

“but find it, because of the care difficulties, impossible to comply with the work requirement.”

He went on to say,

“Real misery is being caused to no good purpose.”

It is clear that that is not supporting families.

Single parent families have been hit especially hard by cuts to social security since 2010, delivering real hardship to parents and their children. An independent study for the Equality and Human Rights Commission on the long-term impact of tax and welfare changes between 2010 and 2017 found that lone parents are set to lose around 15% of their net income on average: almost £1 in every £6. It is important that the Government recognise and value all family types. One in four families in the UK is a single parent family, so it is important that they are valued as much as any other family. Stigmatising single parent families is unacceptable and highly damaging.

Social policy needs to take into account all the family types that I have mentioned. The Government have failed to do that in the case of the bedroom tax, for example. Where parents have separated or divorced, the parent who is not the main carer is not allowed to claim for an extra room for children. Fathers are particularly badly affected by that. Labour would abolish the bedroom tax. I know that that is not the Government’s position, but will the Minister look at addressing the impact of the bedroom tax on separated and divorced parents and their children as a matter of real urgency? Many Members have spoken about the importance of fathers, but if a father cannot spend quality time with his children at the weekend simply because somebody has to sleep on the settee, that is not good enough.

Where relationships unfortunately break down, it is clear that the changes to the child maintenance system have not succeeded in supporting parents caring for children or in enabling parents to reach agreement themselves.

The families manifesto calls for the Government to promote healthy relationships to tackle the country’s mental health crisis, yet we know that mental health services are under extreme pressure and that trusts are finding it difficult to recruit key mental health staff. According to a study by the King’s Fund published in January, approximately 10% of all posts in specialist mental health services in England are vacant. Its survey of trusts found a pattern of high vacancy rates, with difficulties recruiting child and adolescent psychiatrists in particular. High staff turnover is currently leaving 4% fewer mental health nurses employed each year. All MPs are aware of the strain that child and adolescent mental health services across the country are under and of the impact that that has in terms of our young people not being able to access the support that they need and being asked to wait for an exceptional length of time and, in some instances, to make unacceptable journeys to get help when it becomes available.