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I congratulate Hugh Gaffney on bringing forward this debate. He always speaks passionately on behalf of his people, and on this occasion he did so on behalf of all children in poverty.
I am here to support my colleagues and friends. Although the debate is about child poverty in Scotland, the fact is that child poverty is not specific to Scotland. It is also rampant in other areas of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—particularly Northern Ireland—so I want to say a couple of words in support of colleagues who have already spoken and those who will speak after me. Much of what we say will be very similar.
I am a proud Ulster Scot. I love my heritage. I come from the Stewarts of the lowlands of Scotland, so my heritage goes way back to Scotland. I share a cultural identity with the hon. Gentleman and other friends and colleagues in the Chamber, and my values are very similar to theirs.
Unfortunately, the children in my constituency face the same difficulties as those in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. Official estimates published by the Northern Ireland Department for Communities—the figures are a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly—show that in 2017-18, 19% of children in Northern Ireland from birth up to the age of 16, including dependent children aged between 16 and 19, lived below the poverty line, in households with an income of less than 60% of the UK average. I suspect the figures are the same in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and in those of Marion Fellows and the hon. Members who speak after me.
In 2017-18, the poverty threshold in Northern Ireland stood at £19,016 of annual income for a single person with two children, and £24,245 for a couple with two children. The Minister knows that I am very fond of him and what he does, and I believe he will answer our questions to the best of his ability, but I say to him that we need a UK strategy and additional funding to tackle child poverty. The situation in my constituency is the same as the situation that the hon. Members for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill and for Motherwell and Wishaw described. Society, the Government and elected representatives are marked by the way they respond to those who are less well off. I do not believe for one second that we can ignore them; the Government must reach out and help.
During Northern Ireland questions today, an hon. Member—in fact, it was the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw; I should have recognised her name earlier—asked the Secretary of State:
“What economic assessment he has made of the potential effect of the Government’s proposed withdrawal agreement on Northern Ireland.”
In a subsequent question, Steve McCabe asked about
“legislative proposals to maintain welfare mitigation payments in Northern Ireland after March 2020.”
My party—the Democratic Unionist party—and our Minister at that time were instrumental in achieving those welfare mitigation payments. At the end of March 2020, those provisions will end, and members of the public from all communities and of all political and religious persuasions across Northern Ireland will be disadvantaged because of Sinn Féin’s intransigence. We have an opportunity because my party put on the statute book legislation that enabled welfare mitigation payments to be made. Those payments came out of the block budget, by the way, but we agreed to that and acted accordingly. I did not get the chance to ask Northern Ireland Office Ministers directly earlier, but I ask this Minister: what can be done to mitigate the impact, which will be severe?
I will make a final comment about food banks, Sir David. Food banks are often talked about, and have probably been mentioned by everyone who is present here. The first Trussell Trust food bank in Northern Ireland was in my constituency. It came to Strangford because a number of church groups got together and recognised the need to reach out as faith groups, in order to help others who found themselves in difficulties making payments or paying bills, or when everything seemed to turn against them.
On the television this morning there was a discussion about debt organisations; I have not had a chance to watch it yet. It is not always a person who has benefit delays or benefit short payments who needs debt management; more often it is people who do not fit into the normal category. Minister, when it comes to addressing child poverty, what has been done to help those who need debt management? It is always better to try to address debt management early on, rather than let people get to the final moment, when letters are coming through their door, they are under pressure, their credit cards are over-egged and they find themselves in difficulties. People who are in employment, have a mortgage and who own a house may also need help.
There are people who come to my office who use the Thriving Life food bank in my area. I highlight the DWP and the changes that have been made to benefits, as referred to by the hon. Members for Motherwell and Wishaw and for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill. There is a follow-on that is down to benefits being reduced or, when the issue of housing benefit is looked at, delayed. It is also down to employment issues, such as shorter hours and changes to minimum pay.