Regional Inequalities: Child Poverty — [Dr Rupa Huq in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:22 am on 2nd March 2022.

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[Dr Rupa Huq in the Chair]

Photo of Liz Twist Liz Twist Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Scotland) 2:30 pm, 2nd March 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered regional inequalities and child poverty.

It is a pleasure, Dr Huq, to serve under you as Chair in this debate on regional inequalities and child poverty. Speaking about child poverty gives me no pleasure at all. In 2022, in the world’s fifth-richest country, we should not need to talk about child poverty or regional inequalities at all, yet sadly too many of my constituents and people living across the whole north of England face real inequalities in all aspects of life. That directly affects our children’s life chances, health, wellbeing and, yes, even life expectancy. I acknowledge that there are huge divides between communities in London, too; there is great wealth in some parts and real poverty in others. It is important to recognise that.

Of course, covid-19 has deepened inequalities; the north was affected by longer lockdowns, a higher number of infections and, sadly, a higher number of deaths. Professor Sir Michael Marmot’s report, “Build Back Fairer: The COVID-19 Marmot Review”, and before that, “Health Equity in England: The Marmot Review 10 Years On”, published in 2020, clearly set out the situation. Covid-19 does discriminate, hitting hardest those people in our communities who are already affected by inequality. It has exacerbated inequalities, hitting hardest those groups and people who were already disadvantaged.

Earlier this year, the Northern Health Science Alliance, or NHSA—a group of academics and health specialists working in collaboration—published a major report, “The Child of the North: Building A Fairer Future After Covid-19”. Sadly, I do not have time to take hon. Members through all its detail, but the findings were that inequality and low living standards are a huge problem across the north, and that this problem is only getting worse.

The NHSA’s report found that today, nearly a third of children in the north live in poverty, and 60% of northern local authorities have above-average numbers of children living in low-income homes. The report found that children across the north spent more time in lockdown than their peers in the rest of England. They are also more likely to grow up in care. Young children in the north are less prepared when they start school than children in the rest of England.

The report clearly shows the many ways that regional inequality blights the lives of children and adults, including through higher levels of poverty, poorer educational attainment, higher levels of infant mortality, lower life expectancy and worse mental health outcomes, both for children and adults.

Finally, the report concludes that

“Poverty is the lead driver of inequalities between children in the North and their counterparts in the rest of the country, leading to worse physical and mental health outcomes, educational attainment, and lower lifelong economic productivity.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made this situation worse. Although the full impact is not yet known, modelling suggests that, without intervention, the outlook is bleak.”

I am pleased that, one week today at 10 o’clock, I will host the report’s authors as they present their findings. I hope that the Minister can call in and speak to some of those involved in putting the report together, as well as to some of the children with whom they worked, to hear at first hand how we can reduce regional inequalities and improve the life chances of our children and young people right across the north.

One of the best parts of our job as MPs is the great opportunities that we get to go into local schools. When I visit schools—primary and secondary—I see children and young people who are full of enthusiasm, and keen to tell me about what they are learning and the things that really interest them. The classrooms are full of their artwork, and they ask loads of questions—very often the questions that adults would be far too polite to ask—and of course there are teachers and other school staff doing their very best to level up the chances of those children, so that they are the best they can be.

There are great things happening in the north, but we owe it to those young people to really address the disadvantages that they face, and to reduce the poverty that holds them back. There are people and organisations on the ground across Blaydon constituency taking positive steps to make things better and ease things for those who are really struggling, such as the Gateshead food bank depots at Blaydon and Birtley, the Blaydon Community Larder, the Gateshead West pre-loved school uniform scheme, the Winlaton Centre, The Bank in Chopwell, the Birtley Hub and so many others right across my constituency. However, it should not have to be like this in this day and age.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. She mentions food banks. We have seen a huge increase in food bank usage in Newcastle Central, and had the third highest increase in child poverty in the country between 2015 and 2019; it was almost 13%. Some 100,000 of the children living in poverty across the north-east live in families where one parent is working, and we see that reflected in food bank usage. Does she agree that we have to ensure that parents have enough to feed themselves and their children without going to food banks, and that the Government have been failing on that?

Photo of Liz Twist Liz Twist Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Scotland)

I most certainly agree. That picture is reflected in my constituency, too. We must make sure that families have enough to live a good and decent life, and to support their children.

On the north-east more specifically, the North East Child Poverty Commission, hosted by Newcastle University, produces valuable research on the prevalence and effects of child poverty across the region. On the latest available data, from 2019-20, the north-east has the UK’s second highest rate of child poverty. An average of 37% of all babies, children and young people in our region grow up poor, whereas the UK average is 31%. Most concerningly for our region, the north-east also experienced the steepest growth in child poverty from 2014-15 to 2019-20—the six years leading into the pandemic; it rose by 11 percentage points from 26% to 37%. By comparison, there was a UK-wide rise of 2 percentage points over the same period.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth

Does my hon. Friend agree on the importance of the relationship between our social security system and the adequacy of working-age support on the one hand, given that £34 billion a year has been taken out of support for working-age people, and the impact on child poverty on the other? Would she like to comment on the fact that for every 1% increase in child poverty, an additional five babies a year out of 100,000 live births will not see their first birthday?

Photo of Liz Twist Liz Twist Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Scotland)

I agree with my hon. Friend, and I will come to the economic aspects of this issue later. We do not yet have child poverty figures for the period during the covid-19 pandemic; I understand that we will not have them until the end of March 2022. However, from some of the available real-time information, it is clear that there has been a significant financial impact on thousands of families in our region. The north-east has experienced the joint steepest increase in the proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals during the pandemic of anywhere in England, having already had the highest proportion pre-covid.

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Chair, Petitions Committee, Chair, Petitions Committee

My hon. Friend is making a powerful and timely speech. She mentions free school meals; another support that many families in the north-east rely on is Healthy Start vouchers. A report by Northumbria University and Feeding Britain recently highlighted that there are incredible struggles with the move from a paper-based system to a prepaid card system. Families are being rejected at the tills in their hour of greatest need, and cannot get any help through the helpline. Does she agree that the Minister should commit today to urgently resolving the matter, so that families, and particularly children, get the support they need?

Photo of Liz Twist Liz Twist Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Scotland)

I thank my hon. Friend for that valid and pertinent point. That is one detail that must be looked at—it is so important for those families. Turning to in-work poverty, the TUC found that 108,775 children living in poverty in the north-east come from homes with at least one parent or carer in work. That is an increase of 52% since 2010. Children growing up in poverty is not about parents who refuse to work, but rather a lack of good, secure and well-paid jobs in the north-east and across the north.

Photo of Margaret Greenwood Margaret Greenwood Labour, Wirral West

My hon. Friend is being generous with her time and making an excellent speech; I am impressed that it is so wide-ranging. She will be aware that 4.3 million children are living in poverty in the UK. According to research by the End Child Poverty coalition in May last year, 20% of children in my constituency of Wirral West were living in poverty in 2019-20. That has increased since 2015. Does she agree that Government policy is having a direct impact in stimulating child poverty? She is talking about parents being in work, but policies such as the cut to universal credit are only making the matter worse.

Photo of Liz Twist Liz Twist Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Scotland)

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and I shall come on to that later. The regional inequalities go beyond childhood and affect people in the north-east throughout their life. According to “Health Equity In England: The Marmot Review 10 Years On”, living in a deprived area of the north-east is worse for health than living in a similarly deprived area in London, to the extent that life expectancy for those living in deprived areas of the north-east is nearly five years lower. Life expectancy in the north-east is lower than in any other part of England, and region matters more for people in the most deprived areas. For both men and women, the largest decreases in life expectancy were seen in the most deprived 10% of neighbourhoods in the north-east. That is clearly unacceptable. I thank Jane Streather, chair of the North East Child Poverty Commission, for her work over the last 10 years; she steps down as chair later this year.

Of course, we cannot have this debate without speaking about what the Prime Minister calls levelling up. That phrase seems to mean so many things to so many people, but I would argue that a crucial part of levelling up, reducing inequalities or whatever else we call it is reducing child poverty—giving our children and families the economic means to get out of the poverty trap. It was disappointing to see that the levelling-up White Paper did nothing to address that fundamental issue for families, many of whom are working households. The “Child of the North” report clearly points out the link between tackling poverty and increasing productivity, so it makes sense to take steps to remove those children from poverty. What we have seen with the removal of the £20 per week universal credit uplift is the exact opposite.

Another thing we cannot and must not ignore is the impact of the substantial increase in the cost of living. The families and children we are talking about are hit every bit as much as others, and in many cases more, by increasing inflation, the massively increasing energy costs and other increases. Those effects do not show yet in the figures I have quoted. What can we do? We must urgently work towards a comprehensive, cross-departmental child strategy that includes increasing Government investment in the welfare, health and social care systems that support children’s health, particularly in deprived areas and areas most affected by the covid-19 pandemic. That means raising child benefit by at least £10 per child per week, lifting the two-child limit and the benefit cap and, crucially, reversing the £20 cut to universal credit. We need a welfare system that both prevents and tackles poverty.

We need long-term transformative investment in the services that children, young people and families use, particularly those services that are targeted but universal, such as family and community hubs, in order to build social solidarity and reduce the risk of stigmatisation.

We need to develop area-level measures of children’s physical and mental health in order to better understand place-based inequalities. I ask him to look at those issues and respond to those points. I would be pleased to meet him to discuss these issues further. Can he answer each of those points?

I can do no better than finish with the words of Lemn Sissay OBE in the foreword to the “Child of the North” report, which I hope he does not mind me quoting. He says:

“Childhood is life defining and shaped by factors from before birth through to adulthood. A child’s mother’s health, the care they get, through family or the care system, what house they live in, what food they eat, how often they get to run around, their education, their opportunities. All of these things have a big impact and, as this report shows, the average Child of the North is disadvantaged from the start across all of these measures.”

The children of the north deserve the very best chance to develop, grow and prosper. I hope that the Minister will take action on these issues.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton

We have done the maths, and we think we can do this. If everyone sticks to three and a half minutes or less, then everyone will get in. I start with Peter Gibson.

Photo of Peter Gibson Peter Gibson Conservative, Darlington 2:46 pm, 2nd March 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. I congratulate Liz Twist on securing today’s important debate.

As a fellow north-eastern MP, I know only too well that the north-east has been left behind by Governments of all colours. In 2019, the people of Darlington and other constituencies across the north-east elected Conservative MPs on the promise of levelling up and realising the full potential of the north-east. Since the election, the Government have faced incredible challenges that no other Government have. They have pressed ahead with their ambitious agenda and have committed to unprecedented investment up and down the country.

The annual “Households below average income” publication, about the number and percentage of children in low-income households, remains the most accurate published measurement of low income. Those statistics show that in the past decade 100,000 children have been lifted out of absolute poverty, and levels of combined material deprivation and low income for children are at their joint lowest level.

We know that the best way for people to find a route out of poverty is through work. That is why I welcome the Government’s lifetime skills programme, which enables people to get the skills they need in order to get the jobs that will help them to provide for their family.

Photo of Liz Twist Liz Twist Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Scotland)

The hon. Member has quoted some measures. As he will be aware, there are different definitions of child poverty; the standard definition refers to 60% of median income. He needs to recognise that there is a difference.

Photo of Peter Gibson Peter Gibson Conservative, Darlington

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention. The issues around accurate definitions pose part of the problem. I hope the Minister will address that point, as Members on all sides of the House need to agree on an accurate definition of the issue that we are discussing.

The chances of a child growing up in poverty are significantly reduced when both parents are working and when both parents are present. I am proud that this Government are taking an approach to tackling poverty that has employment at its centre. The Government’s plan for jobs has already supported millions of people, and will continue to support people into work, in developing their skills, in making the most of their talents and in achieving their potential.

I recently met the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and it impressed on me that it is in single-parent families or those with absent parents that a child is most at risk of growing up in poverty. We must remember that the state has limited levers for dealing with poverty unilaterally. A responsibility rests on both parents, and I would like to see greater efforts by the Child Maintenance Service to ensure that absent parents pay and meet their responsibilities.

While we know that employment is hugely important, I am glad that we have a robust welfare safety net in place to support people on low incomes; £111 billion has been invested in welfare support for people of working age. I welcome the Chancellor’s decision to extend the work allowance for those on universal credit, and the reduction in the taper rate, ensuring that work really does pay. Moreover, I welcome the Government’s £421 million household support fund to help vulnerable people in England with essential household costs over the winter, as our economy recovers.

Improving educational outcomes for children is also key to tackling long-term poverty, and the Government are determined to help people receive the best possible start in life, creating a level playing field for transforming the education system, to ensure that people gain the skills they need to unleash their potential. The Government recognise the current regional differences in schools, meaning that some children do not have access to the same level of education.

I also take the opportunity to praise the Government’s fantastic holiday food and activities programme. Darlington Borough Council received £460,000 to deliver food and activities over Easter and summer, and has already reached more than 2,000 local children. Councillor Jonathan Dulston, the deputy leader of Darlington Borough Council, said:

“This fund came at a crucial time, and this Government support gave local authorities like Darlington the tools to step up and bring communities back together by creating educational, physical and fun opportunities to help our children thrive.”

Photo of Yasmin Qureshi Yasmin Qureshi Labour, Bolton South East 2:51 pm, 2nd March 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. I thank my hon. Friend Liz Twist for securing today’s important debate. There are 4.3 million children living in poverty in the UK, with more than half a million in the north-west alone. In my constituency of Bolton South East, two of the postcodes have 50% child poverty, and one in three children in our country are raised in poverty; yet we are the fifth-richest country in the world.

The previous Labour Government took 1.1 million children out of poverty. We now have a situation where a generation of children have had their life chances damaged by poverty. With the rise in the cost of living, including energy costs, the situation is only going to get worse and bleaker for them. There are a number of things that the Government can do, even now, that could make life easier for those children and their families, to take them out of poverty. I received an email from a constituent who said that children do not have to go hungry when they go to school or wear the same uniform for three years in a row.

First, the Government could return universal credit to the level it was under covid. That change has impacted 14,000 of my constituents. They could reintroduce the education maintenance allowance, which the Labour Government introduced for 16 to 18-year-olds. That allowed them to continue in education because that money paid towards bus fares, food and books. Weó also need more proper social housing. Children and families in poverty often live in squalid and overcrowded accommodation with no heating, where children have to share a room with three or four people.

Instead, the Government have come up with a crazy plan to give households a £200 rebate that has to be returned, to help with energy prices. The scheme will probably cost more than the money given out, which is plain ridiculous. There is a very good option available: tax the energy companies on their unexpected windfall profits, which would raise about £32 billion to help people in real ways. Yet the Government refuse to do that.

I was dismayed to read last week of the Government plan not to give loans to people who do not have GCSEs in maths and English. How does having a maths GCSE help in a degree such as sociology, history, social sciences or management? The vice-chancellor of the University of Bolton told me last week that that will stop children getting into universities. It will also reduce the numbers in universities such as Bolton, which serve particularly vulnerable and marginalised communities.

When the Government talk about levelling up, I am not sure what levelling up they are doing. I am hoping that the Minister has listened to me and colleagues about the actions that could be taken immediately to assist those families.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Labour, Washington and Sunderland West 2:54 pm, 2nd March 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. I congratulate my hon. Friend Liz Twist on securing this important debate.

Child poverty has been rising in the UK, with a quarter of all children now living in poverty—more than 3.4 million children. Of those children, 75% are from working families. When children in our society face poverty as they are growing up, society as a whole suffers as a result. Yet, since 2010 there has been little, if any, intervention to stem the insecurities facing many families on the poverty line. As we begin the road to recovery after the pandemic, there is the opportunity for real change, but the perfect storm is coming for families across the UK as we approach the new tax year, with skyrocketing energy bills, an increasingly expensive weekly shop, a hike in national insurance and a cut to universal credit. This complex situation will mean that many more families will face strains on their household budgets and risk falling into food insecurity.

Not every child living in poverty facing food insecurity is eligible for free school meals. In the north-east, one quarter of children in poverty are not eligible for a free school meal according to the narrow £7,400 household income threshold. Meanwhile, 150,000 children across the country with no recourse to public funds live below the poverty line but remain ineligible for free school meals because of their immigration status. There was a temporary reprieve for those children during the pandemic; I plead with the Government to make it permanent.

We will all know that hungry children cannot learn, but this simple phrase is becoming a complex reality for far too many children and young people across the country. The burden of the gaps in the provision of free school meals often rests on schools that are having to subsidise parents who cannot pay—something that is not sustainable. Urgent attention must be paid to addressing the shortcomings in school food provision, to ensure that all children experiencing poverty have access to a hot, healthy and balanced meal each school day.

The recent levelling-up White Paper gave warm words to the importance of school food in combating health inequalities such as malnourishment and obesity. The prevalence of obesity has risen markedly since the start of the pandemic, no more so than for children from deprived and left-behind areas. It is a stark reality that the cheapest food is often the most calorific. It is far more expensive to fill up hungry children with healthy food. To give a quick example, four chocolate muffins are £1 in supermarket; six apples are usually £2.

The warm words of the levelling-up White Paper are not matched by reality. Over 1,300 Sure Starts have closed since the Conservatives got into government. At their peak, Sure Starts prevented more than 16,000 hospitalisations of children every year. We need more than warm words form the Government. Children and families experiencing poverty must be at the heart of levelling up. They need security and real policy changes, so that every child has the opportunity to do well in life. They need a Government who truly believe that poverty is not inevitable and act with passion every day to make it history.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton

Let me remind Members that the clock is ticking and all speakers have got very near the limit.

Photo of Rachel Hopkins Rachel Hopkins Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office) 2:58 pm, 2nd March 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dr Huq. I congratulate my hon. Friend Liz Twist on securing this important debate.

It is truly shameful that in the 21st century, poverty has become part of everyday life for many in our country. Families are choosing between heating and eating, and food bank usage continues to rise. Where a child is born dictates their future opportunities—a postcode lottery.

While we have heard pertinent points about regional disparities, particularly from northern MPs, we must also consider that there is poverty across the UK and in regions that, overall, would not necessarily be considered deprived. My constituency is in the east, which is a net contributor to the economy. However, according to estimates from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions, in Luton South, a shocking 8,130 children live in poverty, which is 10% above the national average. Free school meal eligibility has risen by 44% since 2015-16. There are constituencies in the eastern region with a child poverty rate below 10%.

With Luton being a super-diverse town, it is important to note the research by the Child Poverty Action Group that found that children from black and minority ethnic groups, as well as those form lone-parent families, are more likely to be in poverty. Let me take this opportunity to say to all children, whatever their circumstances or background, that they are valued and deserve the best opportunities. That is why I am here today, and that is why we are here today.

The Tory Government’s mismanagement of the economy means that work no longer provides a guaranteed way out of poverty. Some 70% of children growing up in poverty live in households where at least one person works, according to Department for Work and Pensions figures. The Tories are culpable for rising child poverty. The Tory austerity programme, which slashed 60p in every pound of local authority funding between 2010 and 2020, led to the cutting of services that are crucial to supporting residents and tackling child poverty in our communities. Tory cuts to Luton Borough Council’s funding over 10 years resulted in key services, such as our children’s centres, being cut. We have heard from hon. Friends about the impact of that on our children’s health.

Child poverty is set to be exacerbated by the Tory Government’s failure to tackle the cost of living crisis. Energy bills, petrol prices, rail fares and national insurance are increasing but wages are stagnant, and in some sectors people are suffering real-terms pay cuts. Responding to a YouGov poll last October, 50% of respondents said that they could not afford an additional £50 a month increase to their cost of living—an additional £600 a year.

This Tory Government had a chance specifically to include tackling child poverty in their levelling-up White Paper. The 12 key missions do not include tackling child poverty or investing in early years, nor does the White Paper focus on wellbeing and health inequalities. As the joint statement from Save the Children, The Children’s Society, Barnardo’s, Action for Children and the National Children’s Bureau said, levelling up is not just about spreading opportunities but about tackling

“the underlying issues that persistently deny children fair access to these opportunities.”

Can the Minister explain what contribution he and his Department made to the levelling-up White Paper and the agenda to tackle child poverty?

Photo of Grahame Morris Grahame Morris Labour, Easington 3:02 pm, 2nd March 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq; thank you very much for calling me early in the debate. I congratulate my good and hon. Friend Liz Twist on securing this important debate. I also thank the North East Child Poverty Commission, which does really vital work and is committed to ending child poverty in the north-east, for providing me with a briefing ahead of the debate.

On the latest data, from 2019 to 2020, the north-east had the UK’s second-highest rate of child poverty, with an average of 37% of all babies, children and young people in our region growing up in poverty, compared with a UK average of 31%. However, I take issue with a point raised by Peter Gibson, who said that there are limited levers and avenues for Government to address these issues. There is a dramatic example today, in relation to social security. There is a statutory instrument on a deferred Division, and the Government have decided that, even though the forecast suggests that inflation will be 7%, they will limit the increase in social security benefits to 3.1%. Clearly, that will have a negative impact on some of the poorest people in our society; it will increase levels of child poverty.

There are also huge regional disparities and variations, but even within our own region there are huge disparities and variations. In my constituency, in the east of County Durham—the same county represented by the hon. Member for Darlington—the average figure for child poverty is in excess of 40%. Nine of the 11 electoral wards in my constituency have child poverty levels above 40%, and 10 of the 11 wards are above the County Durham average. The level in the Blackhall Rocks ward is 48.2%, and in Blackhall Colliery it is 44.2%. The county average is 25.8%. There are 33 electoral wards, out of 63 in the whole county, with a higher proportion of children living in relative poverty than the county’s average. In those circumstances one might expect that Government policy would be to direct resources, following the rhetoric of the levelling-up agenda, to the areas in greatest need, identified as having the highest levels of child poverty, in terms of children in receipt of free school meals and other established measures, but sadly that is not the case. Resources seem to be distributed on the basis of competitions. On the established consensus of using scarce resources to meet the greatest need, I am afraid the Government have broken with that long-standing tradition.

Photo of Rebecca Long-Bailey Rebecca Long-Bailey Labour, Salford and Eccles 3:05 pm, 2nd March 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Dr Huq. I thank my hon. Friend Liz Twist for securing this important debate and for her articulate and passionate speech.

As we have already heard, recent End Child Poverty coalition research indicated that there were 4.3 million children living in poverty in the UK between 2019 and 2020, and now it is set to be much worse. The Government might wax lyrical about the route out of poverty being work, but staggeringly, 75% of children growing up in poverty live in a household where at least one person works—work that is often insecure and simply does not pay enough to sustain a decent standard of living.

In my constituency of Salford and Eccles, 23% of children lived in relative poverty, whereas the national average was 19%; 19% lived in absolute poverty, and the national average was 16%. Poverty, whatever we call it, relative or absolute, is still poverty, and 42% of children in Salford and Eccles live in poverty. In one of the richest economies in the world, those statistics are a disgrace.

Amid this scandal, the Government are quietly passing their benefits uplift legislation today. Even with inflation expected to hit 7.25% in April, the Government are uprating benefits by just 3.1%. Let us be clear: that is a real-terms benefit cut. With rising living costs, it will push families already stretched past breaking point.

More than 30 charities and organisations have called on the Government to increase benefits in line with rising inflation, so I hope the Minister will heed those calls today. I hope he will also recognise that the two-child limit and benefit cap should be abolished. Although most households will see their benefits increased by a paltry 3.1% in April, capped households will see no increase, just as inflation is set to peak and energy bills soar. That will be catastrophic for those families.

Further energy prices are expected to rise by a whopping 50%, which will cripple many families. In response to the calls to increase benefits, the Government have offered paltry support in the form of a £200 discount that consumers must pay back over the next five years, essentially loading even more debt on to the backs of cash-strapped families. At the very least, the rate of VAT for household energy bills must be cut by the Government as soon as possible, and they must levy a windfall tax on oil and gas companies. They must also expand and increase the warm home discount, not load the cost of supplier failure on to household bills, and must increase universal credit to match inflation, as well as increasing public sector pay to a real living wage.

I say to the Minister: let us not wring our hands today about how much we empathise with those who are struggling. As Franklin D. Roosevelt once said:

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much;
it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

We have the means and the policy ideas to tackle this national scandal, so let us act on that today.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 3:09 pm, 2nd March 2022

I thank Liz Twist for setting the scene so well and for securing this debate, giving us all an opportunity to participate in it.

There is little as heartbreaking as seeing a child in need. As a father and grandfather, it is my purpose in life to see that my family have enough—not that they have everything they want, just that they have enough. I cannot imagine seeing my child go hungry or wearing ill-fitting shoes, and I cannot imagine that there should ever be an excuse that any child in any corner of this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland should live that way.

Ask any teacher and they will say that children are coming to school who are not well nourished, and that their free school meal does not do enough for them. There are also children who are spotlessly clean, yet their shoes have holes. The number of families who use food banks has risen hugely. More than 31,000 food parcels were provided to children in Northern Ireland between April 2020 and March 2021. The Trussell Trust provided some 79,000 parcels in total to children and adults last year, which was a 75% increase on the 2019-20 figure. In all, 2.5 million food parcels were given out across this great United Kingdom, which was up from 1.9 million in 2019-20.

Just last week in my constituency of Strangford, we had the launch of a Christians Against Poverty group. Christians Against Poverty helps people with their finances. I will just say this: the uptake for that group in my constituency has been enormous. We are very grateful that the churches and other bodies have come together to make that group happen, but it tells me where society is going and that worries me.

It cannot be refuted that people are struggling more than ever, and when a family struggles, the children pay a high price. To be fair, many parents make sure that their children eat before they do, but is that the way it should be? It should not be that way. Although we must be thankful for our charities, churches and other groups in the voluntary sector, the fact is that we in this place are missing a trick when children are in such need.

There are 1.8 million people in Northern Ireland, including 440,000 children, with almost 25% of those living in child poverty. Yet the majority of households in Northern Ireland—61%—have at least one working parent. One in four children in Northern Ireland are living in a family that struggles to provide for their basic needs—a warm and adequate home, nutritious food and appropriate clothing—as well as to pay for childcare costs. Children in poverty are twice as likely to leave school without GCSEs, and they are also more likely to suffer poor mental health and have fewer years of good physical health than other children.

We are not talking about children whose parents cannot afford to take them to Disneyland; we are talking about parents who cannot buy shoes, or parents who cannot afford the internet access their children need to do their homework, or parents who need their 14-year-old boy to dry dishes in the local chippy just to help feed the family. These are the issues and this is the society we live in; others have said that already and others will say it after me.

Consequently, the pressure on young people is incredible, which has seen a rise in mental health concerns as well. Our children are in physical and emotional need. Minister, we have to meet that need. Rebecca Long Bailey referred to removing the two-child limit on benefits and I would put that case forward, too. Take someone on a wage of £1,200 per month. Last year, their fuel cost £100 a month but it is now double that; similarly, their groceries were £100 a month, but now they are £125 a month. That shows that the wages of 2020 cannot match what the situation is now in 2022.

Children are our greatest resource; I believe that with all my heart. Money spent on giving them the best start is a long-term investment in ourselves and, Minister, it must start right now.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden 3:12 pm, 2nd March 2022

My being here might seem a bit strange, given I am a London MP, but I must set out the problems that we experience in London.

I cannot even fall back on the suggestion that I am from north London. My borough is an outer south London borough, which is home to some of the richest places in the entire country, such as the All England Lawn Tennis Club. However, there is a difference of nine years in life expectancy between people living near the All England Club and people living in the heart of my constituency—places only a 15-minute bus ride apart.

In Mitcham and Morden, 46% of children are regarded as living in poverty. However, there is an issue that is uppermost in my mind—indeed, I may even be relying on this speech to be a bit of therapy for me. In May, I will have been an MP for 25 years. I have worked in housing all my life, and the things that I see happening to children in my constituency today keep me awake at night. I am sure that similar issues in her constituency keep my hon. Friend Ms Buck, the shadow Minister, awake at night, too.

I will just share two stories. First, Mr and Mrs B have three children. Their eldest son has muscular dystrophy. He cannot walk or use a bathroom; he needs physical help to do those things. He lives in an unadaptable house. His tiny mum picks him up, throws him over her shoulder and walks up the steep steps to get him upstairs to his bedroom. When he needs to use the bathroom, she throws him back over her shoulder and carries him back down the stairs. The space in the bathroom where she has to lay him out, in order to help him to use the toilet, is probably 18 inches by 18 inches. She is in band A on the housing register. I visited her home last week, and took the head of housing with me. I can offer her no help or support. She is at the top of the list, but she will probably not get a house that is adapted or adaptable in her son’s lifetime.

Let me tell hon. Members about Miss T, who lives with her three children in a combined living room and kitchen, while her former partner, who is the tenant of the flat and has multiple sclerosis, is in the bedroom. Of those three children, one is severely autistic. Miss T has a neurological brain disorder. She is in band A on the housing register; there are 32 families ahead of her. Last year, Merton had 32 three-bedroom properties to give to all the bands. Even though Miss T is top of the list, it would be extraordinary if she were to get somewhere else to live within the next five years. By then, all three children, with whom she sleeps on the floor, will be teenagers. In how many cities and how many parts of this country is that acceptable?

Photo of Olivia Blake Olivia Blake Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero) 3:16 pm, 2nd March 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dr Huq. I thank my hon. Friend Liz Twist for her thoughtful introduction to the debate.

Far too often, when regional inequity is discussed, the framing is entirely wrong and misses out the real impacts that that inequality has on people’s lives. Although I accept that child poverty is a disgrace wherever it happens, it is deeply endemic in the north, and I say that as the representative of the wealthiest part of Sheffield. Along the 83 bus route, from my constituency to the other side of the city, there is a 10-year difference in life expectancy for women.

I recently met people from the Trussell Trust food bank network across Sheffield. We discussed the use of the word “poverty”, and they said that we should actually use the word “destitution” when talking about food banks, because that is their client base: people in destitution. Theirs are not the only food banks in our city, but they provided more than 12,000 emergency food parcels between April and September 2021—their highest number on record so far. Of those parcels, more than a third went to families with children.

It should not have to be said in the 21st century, and in one of the richest countries in the world, that there should be no such thing as child poverty, but here we are. It is hard to take the Government seriously on their commitment to levelling up when Conservative peer Daniel Moylan tweeted in response to a Yorkshire Post headline that he sees Yorkshire as

“a county of leftist whingers begging for handouts.”

If he were to visit Sheffield, he would actually find a city where people have waited time and again for the Government to deliver on their promises. The Government are failing to level up our transport—there has been no electrification and no High Speed 2; failing to level up the north’s economy, holding our producers back; and failing to tackle and combat inequality.

According to research by the University of Sheffield, the UK has a higher level of regional inequality than any other large wealthy country. To me, that is not inevitable, but a result of Government policy. It is a political choice to drive people into destitution and to deny them sufficient social security and the services that would prevent that destitution. It is a deeply political choice to invest heavily in some parts of the UK but not in others, and to champion some parts of the economy but leave others to fend for themselves. It is a despicable political decision to then accuse people who are forced into poverty —let alone children—of begging for handouts, when our entire economy is geared towards exploitation, dwindling opportunities and the proliferation of dehumanising zero-hour contract work under a Government who seem simply not to care.

We all know that regional inequalities run deep, but they are reinforced year on year by how much or how little is invested in key public services. According to the Centre for Cities think-tank, national local authority spending fell by half between 2010 and 2019. We all know that major cities in the north were hit hardest. On average, areas such as Liverpool, Blackburn and Barnsley faced twice the cuts of their counterparts in the more affluent south. More recently, analysis of the £4.7 billion allocated for the Government’s levelling-up agenda has shown that the wealthiest areas have been allocated 10 times more money per capita than the poorest. That is astonishing, and the Government must act urgently to ensure that they get those things done better.

Photo of Andy McDonald Andy McDonald Labour, Middlesbrough 3:19 pm, 2nd March 2022

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Dr Huq. I thank my hon. Friend Liz Twist for securing this debate. Sadly, during the last 12 years of Tory Governments, the squeeze on wages has meant that in-work poverty has hit new highs, with one in six working households below the poverty line. That has meant that, in my hometown and constituency of Middlesbrough, over the past five years alone, relative child poverty levels have almost doubled, and two out of five children now live in households with an income below the poverty line.

Those in need are now set to be hit by the Tories’ cruel and callous slashing of universal credit, along with their plans to raise national insurance contributions. All the while, the cost of living crisis is shooting up, thanks, in part, to the Government’s catastrophic mishandling of the fuel crisis.

We know that we are one of the most unequal countries in Europe. We have pockets of incredible wealth and of shameful poverty and marginalisation. That is undoubtedly a regional issue, but inequalities also exist within our regions, with obscene levels of wealth alongside destitution. That inequality has widened under this Tory Government. They have frozen pay and benefits while billionaires—Russians included—have flourished.

Shared prosperity funds, towns funds and future high street funds will not do what is fundamentally necessary to close the gap of regional inequality, which is to return power and resources to the communities where they rightly belong. The Tory trick of creating competitions for communities, pitting them against each other for central Government funding, must be exposed as the divisive pork-barrel politics that it really is.

Peter Gibson talked about making work pay. Okay, let’s do that. If we are really serious about giving workers the security, prosperity and respect that they rightly deserve, then we must have a plan to make it happen. We in the Opposition do. To begin with, we would not increase taxes for working people or cut universal credit. Instead, we would bring in a windfall tax on the oil and gas giants to help with the rising bills. We would give Britain a pay rise and deliver a new contract for the British people.

Photo of Peter Gibson Peter Gibson Conservative, Darlington

The hon. Gentleman is making some important points. As for giving things back to communities, he knows, as I do, that our region, Tees Valley, has had devolution, and our Tory Mayor is delivering jobs and opportunities for our region. The hon. Gentleman talks about the opportunity to serve a windfall tax on energy companies; that windfall tax would prevent those oil and gas companies from investing in and transitioning to the renewables that we so desperately need.

Photo of Andy McDonald Andy McDonald Labour, Middlesbrough

Well, if that was actually going to happen, the Tory Tees Valley Mayor would have no hesitation in bringing the trade unions into the conversation to ensure that they had good, secure, unionised, well-paid jobs. However, he refuses to do so.

As I was saying, that is why I was so honoured to work with our trade unions chairing our power in the workplace taskforce and produce our party’s Green Paper, “a new deal for working people”. I am delighted that that has been adopted as party policy, because that would mean that we would be raising pay for all, ending the scourge of in-work poverty, and delivering a social security system that provides a safety net for all with decent sick pay.

We would use public procurement for supporting good work, as our wonderful Welsh Labour Government are doing in Cardiff. We would empower workers to act as a collective to secure better terms and conditions. We would establish fair pay agreements, recognised in law, providing a floor across industries and sectors—think about the care workers. We would create a single status of workers and put an end to all the variations thereon, including bogus self-employment, and give all workers day-one rights on the job. We would strengthen the rights of the employed and self-employed, letting working people have a secure, stable income on which to build a good life. We would ban zero-hours contracts and outlaw the tactics of fire and rehire, and so much more. Lastly, we would repeal the trade union legislation, to enable our trade unions to bargain for their members.

We are at a crossroads; we can either return to the status quo of outsourcing, privatisation, exploitation, and extraction of value, which will only extend regional inequality and child poverty, or we can take a different path: one that will deliver for our people, truly bringing an end to the scourge of child poverty and regional inequalities. Poverty is a political choice; let us choose to eradicate it.

Photo of Mary Foy Mary Foy Labour, City of Durham 3:24 pm, 2nd March 2022

I thank my hon. Friend Liz Twist for having secured this debate. Sometimes we can become numb to poverty and inequality, and we can allow the symptoms of poverty that should appal us to become fixtures in society. Food banks, anti-poverty charities and now clothing banks, although they are great sources of good and bring out the best in us, should not be necessary in 2022, yet in County Durham—as in too many places—the evidence that our communities are becoming ever more reliant on them is all around us. I also read the briefing from the North East Child Poverty Commission, and the figures for poverty in our region are indeed scandalous: the UK’s second highest. That means that in our region, in an average classroom of 30 children, 11 are living in poverty.

Growing up in poverty can have a corrosive effect on a child’s life chances. Their social, educational and health development is likely to be reduced compared with that of their richer peers. Growing up in a poor household can reduce a child’s expectations, and an absence of clear opportunity can reduce aspiration for what can be achieved in life, creating a cycle in which poverty is repeated from generation to generation. Many of us will have witnessed those tragic problems in our own communities. In the village of Witton Gilbert in my constituency, I recently met with volunteers from Children’s Hopes and Dreams, a community group whose food bank and other support activities for children have become a vital community safety network. With the cost of living crisis that is hitting many families at the minute, the work of that charity is needed more and more each day.

However, charity alone cannot eradicate poverty or regional inequality. The Government cannot stand idle and ignore poverty as a natural tragedy; they are not powerless to counter it. The daily decisions of Government can reduce or increase children’s life chances, and as we have heard, poverty is a political choice. We have witnessed this at first hand in the north-east—the region that saw the largest drop in child poverty during the last Labour Government, yet the largest rise since the Conservatives took power over 12 years ago. Consistent policy choices and spending priorities at every level of Government are needed to tackle a decade of worsening regional inequality, which has been exacerbated. We should not forget the view of Philip Alston, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on extreme poverty, who said that the Government’s approach to poverty is

“not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one”.

The levelling-up White Paper should have been the moment at which every lever of Government was seized to counter that tragedy. However, we have been left without a proper industrial strategy for reversing economic decline and, in the opinion of Michael Marmot, we do not have the funding to meet the Government’s goal of reducing health inequalities by 2035. If the Government had committed as much money as they have rhetoric to levelling up areas such as Durham, that goal would be in reach, but sadly, it is increasingly clear that the opposite is true.

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 3:28 pm, 2nd March 2022

I am delighted to participate in this debate on regional inequalities and child poverty on behalf of the Scottish National party. I pay tribute to Liz Twist, who has brought this issue to the Floor of Westminster Hall, although I echo her sentiments that for us to be debating this in the UK in 2022 is an absolute disgrace.

When it comes to child poverty, of course, from Scotland’s perspective it is a tale of two Governments. In Scotland under the SNP, we see a progressive Government on a mission to tackle child poverty, even though 85% of welfare is reserved to the UK Government. Tackling child poverty is at the heart of the new Scottish budget—a budget that, it has to be said, must be balanced every year by law, yet the Scottish child payment has been doubled. Just as the UK Government scrapped targets to reduce child poverty, the Scottish Government set out ambitious targets for eradicating it with the limited powers they have. Just as the Scottish Government doubled the child payment to £20, so the UK Government cruelly cut £20 per week from those same families when they cut universal credit, knowing that when they made that cut they were pushing thousands of families into poverty. The contrast between the Tory UK Government and the SNP Scottish Government could not be clearer. There can be no doubt that the Scottish child payment, delivered by the Scottish Government, is the most ambitious child poverty reduction measure in the whole of the UK.

In contrast, the UK Government delivered overnight the biggest cut to welfare support in over 70 years. It is deeply disappointing that the UK Government have ignored the Work and Pensions Committee report that outlined numerous proposals that the UK Government should implement to tackle the growing scandal of child poverty. There is no strategy from this Government or any measurable objectives against which they can be held to account on this issue. If I am wrong about that, the Minister will be able to tell us, either when he gets to his feet or in an intervention, what the plan is to tackle this and what measurable objectives are in place, against which we can hold this Government to account and measure the progress they are making in tackling this scourge. Perhaps the Government simply hope that child poverty will go away and that we will shut up and stop talking about it, or perhaps it is simply not a priority. It would be good to have clarity on that.

If this Government are genuinely serious about tackling child poverty, then they should reintroduce targets. They should have UK-wide statutory child poverty targets that will allow us to measure the progress that has or has not been made in tackling this problem. In Scotland, plans to tackle child poverty were backed by real action, including a £50 million tackling child poverty action fund. The UK Government could replicate that work, in the absence of any of their own ideas, to confront this scandal.

The Scottish Budget for 2022-23 tackles child poverty and inequality by targeting over £4 billion in social security and welfare payments, including £197 million committed to the game-changing Scottish child payment from next month, which will be extended to all under-16s. It is expected that around 430,000 children living in low income households could be eligible from that point. In line with the Scottish Fiscal Commission forecasts, the Scottish Government are committed to over £3.9 billion for benefit expenditure in 2022-23, to provide support to over 1 million people. The extent of the Scottish Government’s commitment to tackling child poverty is illustrated by the fact that this is £361 million above the level of funding to be received from the UK Government through the block grant adjustment, showing that the investment the Scottish Government are making in the people of Scotland is key to the national mission of tackling child poverty.

The latest report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, “UK Poverty 2022,” reveals that

“Child poverty continues to rise.”

It reports that almost one in three children across the UK live in poverty. Nearly half of children in single-parent households live in poverty. Larger families and single-parent families have particularly high levels of poverty rates. Across the whole of Ayrshire and in my constituency of North Ayrshire and Arran around one in four children live in poverty, but the numbers are rising as many families find they are overwhelmed with the cost of living crisis, as essential household costs soar.

While welfare support is to increase by 3.1% in April, inflation, as we have heard today, is expected to reach around 7%. That figure shows that there will be a real-terms cut in welfare support. With the best will in the world, parents and families are doing their very best, but for far too many poverty has them in its grip. Poverty in working households is at its highest, and those in work now face not just a cost of living crisis but from next month national insurance hikes, as we already face unsustainable financial pressure. So much for making work pay.

It is shocking that the Government’s response to child poverty simply is not evolving to meet the growing challenges of inequality. That is why we have among the highest levels of inequality in Europe, which is all too evident in my constituency of North Ayrshire and Arran. As support is being eroded by inflation, families are increasingly borrowing to pay essential household bills, leaving them dangerously exposed to unsustainable debt. That has the potential to destroy families.

John Dickie, the director of the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, agrees that the Scottish Government are doing all they can to tackle child poverty, but we all know that the full range of powers to make proper inroads into this are reserved to Westminster. Like many people in this room, I have participated in a number of debates on child poverty, and I hope the Minister will not do the same thing as always—get to his feet and simply lay out what he believes his Government are already doing. Clearly, as he has heard from every speech today, what has already been done is simply not enough. The numbers are rising. The facts speak for themselves—more needs to be done. What we need to hear from the Minister is what this Government’s plan is. Where are their targets to deal with this social blight?

Until, and unless, the Government seek to seriously grapple with the shame and scandal of child poverty, they can forget about making meaningful inroads into the poverty-related attainment gap. It simply cannot be done. Poverty is a scourge, and hungry children cannot reach their potential. The effect of poverty on those whose lives it has touched is corrosive. I agree with the points made by Mary Kelly Foy that for children, poverty colours their world view. It impacts on their self-esteem, it limits their ambitions and it imposes limitations on their success in school as well as their social relationships. Poverty’s shadow is a strong determiner of health outcomes well into adulthood. It shortens too many lives, far before their time. Ultimately, poverty kills.

However well a child might do in life against all the odds, having grown up in deep poverty, the shadow of that experience never goes away even as an adult. I know this because I grew up in poverty. That is why I believe that as a society we need to do all we can to protect children from that damaging and corrosive experience, so that they can grow into healthy adults and fully rounded citizens. I am very keen to hear what the Minister has to say in response to this debate. We do not need to hear measures that he thinks have already been put in place. We need to hear what the plan for the future is. What more will be done? We need targets which this Government will work towards to tackle this serious social issue, and against which we can hold them to account. I hope that is what we will hear in the response.

I doubt that the Minister will say anything that will dissuade me from the steadfast view that we in Scotland, who wish to build a fairer, more equal and more just society, can only do so with the full range of powers at the disposal of a Scottish Parliament in an independent Scotland. Then we can build the kind of society that we want to see for our children.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 3:38 pm, 2nd March 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. I congratulate my hon. Friend Liz Twist for introducing the debate, and also for an excellent speech that set out very clearly a framework for tackling poverty in her constituency and region—a framework against which we should judge other actions in tackling poverty across the country. We have heard a number of excellent speeches in a well-attended debate—on the Opposition’s side— including contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), for Easington (Grahame Morris), for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins), for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey), for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake), for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) and for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy). All of those speeches drew very powerfully from my hon. Friends’ constituency experiences.

Poverty, wherever we experience it, is a grinding, soul-destroying experience. It is a limiter of opportunities and it erodes physical and mental health. That is true in the north-east, the north-west, London, the midlands and Cornwall; it is true wherever people are growing up in poverty. It is true if you own a home that you cannot afford to maintain. It is true if you are a council tenant or if you pay your rent to a private landlord. It is true if you are a parent or if you are collecting your pension, and it is true if you are a carer. It is true if you are unable to work because of a severe illness or disability, and it is true if you are in insecure or poorly paid work. One of the very strong themes that has come through from many contributors this afternoon is the growth of in-work poverty, which is now at a record level. It is true whether we call poverty “food poverty,” “bedding poverty,” or “energy poverty,” whether we talk about it in terms of the inability of parents to send their children to school in a school uniform, or whether we talk about it in terms of their children going to school hungry. Whatever the nature of that poverty, it is all under that same umbrella.

Poverty isolates people. It excludes people. It makes people feel somehow that it is their fault. One of the experiences of people living in poverty that we all hear time and again is this wrong sense—such an incredibly wrong sense—of shame. Poverty drives people into debt. It drives people into insecurity. It also damages communities, which have less spending power and greater need. Larger numbers of people on the lowest incomes make for poorer neighbourhoods, and a levelling-up agenda that fails to take that into account is definitely on the way to failure.

Although, as everybody has said this afternoon, income is absolutely central to the issue of poverty, it also exists in a wider context, particularly of services. We have heard about the experience of the fall in local authority spending power, which has been critical and was so important to us during the years of the Labour Government. One of the particular achievements to which I strongly pay tribute is Sure Start and the work of early intervention. I was most proud of Sure Start, and saw my constituency experience it. Because of the erosion of local authority spending, we saw that early intervention shrivel.

In the 21st century, in what is one of the world’s richer countries, we should now be on our way to eradicating poverty, but we are not. Before the pandemic, in 2019-20, child poverty after housing costs had reached 31% nationally, over 4 million children—a rise of 700,000 since 2010-11. There was no region in England where child poverty was not a major problem. The lowest regional child poverty rate was 24%, in the south-east. In other words, in what is generally regarded as the richest region of the country, nearly one in four children were in poverty.

It is likely that the next set of statistics on households below average income, which we will see very shortly, will show a reduction in the number in poverty, and the Government will point to that as an achievement. It will, of course, reflect the £20 uplift to universal credit and the uplift to the local housing allowance, which were introduced as a response to the pandemic and in recognition of the fact that new claimants would be shocked by the low level of social security. However, by this time next year, we will see the impact of the unwinding of the uplift, which was so unwisely removed in the autumn. During the course of this year, we will see the impact, too, of rising inflation and an energy price shock that will erode the living standards of millions of people already on the margins. That is before the further shock that we are likely to see as a result of the conflict in Ukraine, which is likely to feed through, tragically, into even more expensive energy costs.

As I have said, there was no region in England where child poverty was not a major problem, but there were enormous variations between regions: from 24% in the south-east to 36% in Yorkshire and the Humber, 37% in the north-east and 38% in London. As has been said, there are severe variations within regions, too—even within constituencies. It is good that the Government are finally turning their attention to regional inequalities—assuming that that is what the levelling-up agenda actually means; many interpretations are available. However, levelling up does not include child poverty as an indicator, and that is a very serious weakness in that agenda.

Any attention to regional inequalities would certainly be better than what we have seen over the last decade, when the Government quite cynically exploited regional inequalities for divisive purposes. Given, for example, the extreme inequity in housing costs and thus in benefit payments, it was not difficult to generate headlines about claimants in London receiving what seemed like huge payments. The average weekly private sector rent in the north-east is £117 a week; in London it is £340 a week. It is no wonder that voters in other regions found some of those payments in London incomprehensible, despite the need for support, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden, who spoke about the impact of housing need in London. That has to be addressed in any sensible approach to regional inequalities in child poverty.

The Government’s approach of arbitrary cuts—including the bedroom tax, the two-child limit and the overall benefit cap—has not only led to rises in child poverty in every region in England, Scotland and Wales, but left us with an anarchic benefits system where claimants are hit by an unpredictable barrage of caps, deductions and benefit freezes. That, too, exacerbates regional inequalities.

The Government approach is to cut at national level and then pretend they can make it up through local discretionary pots. We have seen that approach in respect of housing costs; we are seeing it again as households face the energy costs crisis. Labour proposes assisting everyone with rising costs, with most going to those on lower incomes. Instead, £150 is being made available on the basis of 30-year-old property valuations topped up with a discretionary fund that local councils have to administer. Even there, it is rapidly becoming obvious that half of those eligible do not pay by direct debit, so councils do not have a means to pay them; there needs to be a process by which they can be contacted and their bank details obtained. As with all discretionary pots, the likelihood is that large numbers of people in the most acute need will not be able to get the assistance they require.

Before I conclude, I will quote from a letter that I received this morning, coincidentally. We have heard powerful testimonies from Members quoting their constituents about their experience of poverty.

“As a claimant in Westminster North, I am writing to you about my struggle to keep up with the rising costs of living. I have a severely disabled daughter. She has scars all over her face;
she lost her eye in a car accident when she was 11 years old. The NHS couldn’t help her so I’ve taken out loans to pay for aspects of her care. Even before the surge in energy prices many people like me have been struggling to afford the essentials. I cannot afford my bills or my food shopping. We cannot actually live. I am a widow with loans to pay since I lost my husband. We limit the heating and we limit the lighting too. It is all too expensive.”

When the Chancellor announced the household support fund in September, he said that,

“Everyone should be able to afford the essentials, and we are committed to ensuring that is the case.”

It is not the case that my constituent can afford the essentials; it is not the case that the constituents my hon. Friends have spoken about can afford the essentials, and that is now. In a few weeks’ time, their ability to afford food, to heat and light their homes and to send their children to school clothed and shod will diminish still further. We have heard about the regional drivers of poverty, the experiences that vary between areas and the different factors helping determine how many fall into poverty, how deeply and for how long. The fact is that we have a deepening crisis of poverty in this country and, in spring 2022, the Government have to wake up and act.

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 3:48 pm, 2nd March 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under you in the Chair, Dr Huq. I congratulate Liz Twist on securing this debate. I know that she feels passionate about this subject; it is clear from the contributions made today that other Members across the House do as well. I recognise that Opposition parties are particularly well represented in this debate.

No one wants to see children living in poverty in their constituency, and I understand the passions that drive all the contributions I have heard today. Some of the central missions of this Government are to reduce regional inequality, spread opportunity and increase prosperity right across the United Kingdom. Where someone is born in this country should not be a barrier to what they can achieve. That is why this Government are committed to levelling up, and we at the Department for Work and Pensions are clearly playing our part.

The Government are committed to levelling up across the country. We are creating exciting opportunities, including via the UK’s first freeport in Teesside, which is estimated to create more than 18,000 highly skilled jobs. Our provision of £5 million to create a five-acre business park in Burnley Vision Park will create high-quality manufacturing and engineering jobs in the area. The move of the Treasury’s regional centre to Darlington shows the ambition there, while the DWP has an office in Leeds, which I visit on a regular basis along with other Ministers.

Through the integrated rail plan, we are setting out a £96 billion strategy of rail construction and upgrades for the midlands and the north to be delivered over the next 30 years. That will be the biggest ever single Government investment in Britain’s rail network.

Photo of Peter Gibson Peter Gibson Conservative, Darlington

I am incredibly grateful to the Minister for mentioning my constituency and the Treasury jobs coming to Darlington, but multiple other Government Departments, with 1,700 new jobs, are coming to my constituency, ensuring that people can go far but stay local. That is the real way to tackle long-term poverty.

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I understand the point my hon. Friend makes.

I want to talk about jobs, because job creation is key to helping more people stand on their own two feet. Our approach to levelling up centres on removing barriers to work, wherever people live in the UK, and on supporting people to find the job that is right for them. That is based on clear evidence that having parents in work, particularly full time, is the most effective way to lift children out of poverty. Children living in households where all adults work were six times less likely to be in absolute poverty before housing costs in 2019-20 than those in workless households. We have been making a difference: there are 100,000 fewer children in absolute poverty before housing costs, and nearly 580,000 fewer children are living in workless households than in 2010.[This section has been corrected on 9 March 2022, column 6MC — read correction]

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

Will the Minister clarify the point about 100,000 children brought out of poverty before housing costs? What is the number after taking account of housing costs?

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I do not have those figures in front of me. There has been some debate about the appropriate measure. Some hon. Members are keen to have a relative measure as opposed to an absolute measure, but there are challenges with that, with some counterintuitive results. For example, relative poverty is likely to fall during recessions, due to falling median incomes. That measure of poverty can decrease, even if people are getting poorer. We need to look at different measures. The measure we think is most accurate is absolute poverty before housing costs. We have, of course, set other key statutory indicators in place as well, around parental worklessness and children’s educational attainment.

Photo of Liz Twist Liz Twist Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Scotland)

I want to touch on the definition of poverty because it is clearly important. I should point out that the people I referred to, who are producing the reports around the north-east and the north, are well-respected academics who look into these issues. I should also point out that the House of Commons Library produces figures on both these measures. It is clearly a difficult area.

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I know that the hon. Member is very thoughtful about these matters; we have worked together in different capacities over the past few years. Of course, there are different measures. Today I am highlighting that it is difficult to decide which is most appropriate. The Government and t Department believe that absolute poverty before housing costs is the best measure. I have highlighted one of the problems with relative poverty targets at certain times in the economic cycle, and we need to be cognisant of that.

With our economic recovery continuing, it is right now to focus on helping people, wherever they live in the UK, to move into and to progress in work. There are more than 1.29 million—nearly 1.3 million—vacancies across the UK. Payroll employment is at a record high of almost 29.5 million; it is higher now than it was in February 2020 across all regions. Last quarter, there were 14,000 more jobs in the north-east in payroll employment, and 38,000 in the north-west.

Last month, published estimates showed that the number of online job adverts—another indicator of opportunities —across the UK was over 38% higher than the pre-pandemic level. For the north-east, the figure was a staggering 68.9% increase, so there are real vacancies out there.

Hon. Members, particularly Opposition Members, have highlighted challenges for individual families, which I understand, but I am trying to highlight that there are opportunities out there. Hon. Members know from speaking to their businesses that there are shortages of labour. One thing we need to do is ensure that we can match those people who need work with the opportunities available.

Photo of Rachel Hopkins Rachel Hopkins Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

The Minister was talking about job opportunities and people being able to access them. When he makes statements such as that, does he take into account the significant cuts to bus services and the fact that many of my constituents are not able to travel far as they do not have a car?

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

There are barriers to work, and that is why we are focusing on issues such as childcare. We have the flexible support fund. I urge constituents of the hon. Member who have challenges such as that to go to their jobcentre, particularly as they start to find new work. The flexible support fund is genuinely flexible. It breaks down all those barriers. It can help with childcare and travel costs as well. I thoroughly recommend that individuals have those meetings, and I can help make introductions if required.

The plan for jobs is a multibillion-pound initiative that will bring targeted tailored support to jobseekers of all ages in all these regions. One of the key initiatives is the job entry targeted support scheme, which helps get people back into work as soon as possible. Over 94,000 people, including 26,600 in the north-east, have started the programme since April last year.

Patricia Gibson, who regularly holds me to account—in a forthright manner, I hasten to add, but I love her none the less—wants to know what is new, and I will reveal to hon. Members some new and important stuff we will be doing to help people into work—indeed, we do not just want to help people into work; we want to help them progress in work as well. We will be going further over the next month. We will be extending the support we provide in jobcentres to a national model of support to help approximately 1.7 million working universal credit claimants in Great Britain to overcome barriers that hold them back from progressing, increasing their earnings and moving into better paid jobs. Across every jobcentre, claimants will be able to access work coach support to address any skills gaps or wider barriers to progression, and we will be appointing specialist progression champions, who will make connections between employers, local authorities and skills providers.

Despite our political differences, I encourage all hon. Members present to engage with their local jobcentres—I know that my shadow, Ms Buck, regularly does so—particularly on the issue of in-work progression, because that will be a way to help tackle regional inequality and the challenge of child poverty, which are priorities for all present.

At this point, I have said the things I needed to say in response to much of the debate. I am conscious that the hon. Member for Blaydon wants to come back in as she has a couple of minutes to wind up.

Photo of Liz Twist Liz Twist Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Scotland) 3:57 pm, 2nd March 2022

I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in what has been a stimulating and thoughtful debate. I did ask some specific things, and I clearly did not expect the Minister to roll over and agree with some of them, although I wish that he would—particularly whether he might be able to check his diary to see if he can attend the “Child of the North” meeting next week, because it would be worth while to talk to the academics there. I would also welcome the opportunity to speak to him about some of these things in more detail.

There are too many points to respond to, not least the bits about employment and unemployment. Unemployment in the north-east was actually higher; it bucked the trend in some other parts of the country. That is a significant point.

The Minister referred to the integrated rail plan and the expenditure on rail. He will know that across the north, most of us feel that we have lost out. There may be investment, but we have lost out on the opportunities provided by strengthening the east and west coast connection and the High Speed 2 proposal.

What we need in the north is not just jobs; we need good, high-quality jobs that represent real opportunity for people to develop and make the progress he talks about, and we need to do much more to make that happen. Finally, the north is great. The north-east is great.

Photo of Liz Twist Liz Twist Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Scotland)

Well, I will speak for the north-east and the rest of the north—they are great. The debate is not about whingeing and saying, “It’s not fair.” It is about saying that the north-east is a fantastic place and our children need the best opportunities to make the best of their lives.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).