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RAF Stafford

7.41 pm

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): The Ministry of Defence is carrying out a review of air combat service support units that could have a catastrophic effect on RAF Stafford. That is why, in just the last three weeks, some 5,000 residents of Stafford and the surrounding area have signed a petition backing RAF Stafford. The first signature on the first page is, fittingly, the first citizen of Stafford borough and current mayor, Councillor John Russell. Also among the signatories is the chairman of Staffordshire county council, Councillor Eddie Boden. The number and range of signatures shows the depth of feeling and the concern in my community about the future of RAF Stafford.

The prayer reads:

To lie upon the Table.


7.42 pm

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire): I wish to present a petition from three small villages in my constituency, signed by 1,835 of my constituents, about the establishment of residential communities by travellers on non-residential land, without planning permission. It is a subject of enormous concern and upset to my constituents. It is also a matter of concern to me that the Government have had three occasions on which they could have tried to rectify the matter and have done nothing. They talked out the private Member's Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) on this subject, and we had an Adjournment debate in the summer—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that a speech is not appropriate on this occasion.

Andrew Selous: I am coming to the petition itself, but it is a source of concern that opportunities to do something about the problem have not been taken.

9 Dec 2003 : Column 1031

The petition reads as follows:

To lie upon the Table.

Uttoxeter Jobcentre

7.43 pm

Mrs. Janet Dean (Burton): I wish to present a petition from my constituents and people in areas around Uttoxeter who are concerned about the proposal to close the Uttoxeter jobcentre, leaving a large area of Staffordshire without that important local service.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

9 Dec 2003 : Column 1032

Childhood Poverty

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Jim Murphy.]

7.44 pm

Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle) (LD): I am grateful for the opportunity to debate this important topic in the House, especially given the nature of the statements that are likely to be made tomorrow.

Although I acknowledge the many initiatives undertaken by the Government to alleviate the effects of poverty and to remove a number of children from the poverty statistics, I am sure that the Government themselves recognise that there is still much to do in this, the fourth richest country in the world. At first sight, it may seem odd that someone who represents what is on the face of it one of the wealthiest constituencies in terms of income should request this debate, but my early experiences as a community politician, subsequently backed up by a research study "Profiling Stockport" carried out in Stockport in 1995, led me to realise that more than half the poverty in our borough was hidden away in small pockets, well below ward level at district enumeration level. I have a persistent concern, therefore, that only a small part of the problem is being addressed. Children are suffering, and ultimately society suffers, too.

Before I go into the statistics, which are a disgrace in a country that aspires to call itself civilised, I want to thank some of the organisations that do such good work in the field and have been generous with their time in assisting me.

Barnardo's, which shocked us with its advertising campaign—I confess that I was disgusted by it—has nevertheless ensured that few people could miss the point. The pictures jangled a raw nerve. Indeed, I am little annoyed with myself, because I thought for a while that my sensibilities were more important than the suffering of children—they are not, and Barnardo's has done us all a service.

Save the Children provided me with information that makes it clear that the transition between work and benefits causes many children to fall into severe poverty. One does not have to look far to see that, to deal with part of the problem, we need not to throw extra money at it but to ensure that there is a more timely application of the money that is due in benefits. The failure to implement the new system at the Child Support Agency, alongside the failings of the previous system, has thrown many lone parents into debt and poverty.

The change from the working families tax credit to the child tax credit left families on low earnings without their entitlement, for months in some cases. Some months ago, I was concerned when I heard a Minister say on the "Today" programme that the only outstanding cases were those in which applications had not been adequately completed. The truth is that some families who had already completed the forms were asked to fill in another set, even though those forms asked for no more information than had been correctly supplied in the first place. I do not doubt for a minute that the Minister believed that she was telling the truth, but I hope that Ministers look behind some of the information supplied by officials from the organisations that are supposedly administering the system for the very real hardship that is being caused.

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In a response to the Gracious Speech, the Equal Opportunities Commission made the case for a public sector duty to promote equality between men and women. That would have a direct impact on child care provision in the public sector. Good-quality child care, available for the working day, would do more than anything to lift women and their children out of poverty.

I have been sent the submissions made by the Child Poverty Action Group and Save the Children to the Select Committee on Work and Pensions inquiry into child poverty. The Child Poverty Action Group submitted a powerful document, which, while applauding the Government's intention to examine measures to make faster progress on eradicating child poverty, draws together several studies that show how much remains to be done.

The statistics for 2001–02 on households below average income showed that 3.8 million children, or one in three, were living in income poverty, compared with 1.9 million in 1979. Of those 3.8 million children, 55 per cent. were living with a couple and 45 per cent. with a lone parent; 52 per cent. with a family in which one or more members of the household worked full-time—work does not always protect families; 48 per cent. in a workless household; 45 per cent. in a family with three or more children; 25 per cent. in a household in which one or more adults had a disability; 47 per cent. in a family whose youngest child was under five; and 16 per cent. in London.

The risk is not shared equally across all household types: 54 per cent. of children in lone parent households live in income poverty, compared with 22 per cent. in couple families. Children in households with no adult working are at significantly greater risk of income poverty, at 79 per cent. However, one in five children in poverty live in households with at least one adult working. Half of children in families with four or more children live in poverty. Children from black and minority ethnic households are more at risk of income poverty, as are travellers' and asylum seekers' children.

As the CPAG says, growing up in poverty has adverse consequences for children. The effects are manifested in different ways on physical health and development, learning, behaviour and emotional well-being. The result is that children are prevented from realising their full potential. It is not far from there to the proposition, which I argue, that those individual consequences for children and the older people they grow into have a profound and negative effect on our whole society.

What, then, does poverty mean for the children? Children have been defined as deprived if their parents cannot afford one or more of the necessities listed in the Joseph Rowntree Foundation survey "Poverty and Social Exclusion" published in 2000. It found that 34 per cent. of children lacked one or more items and that 18 per cent. lacked two or more. About 1 million children—8 per cent.—have been identified as severely poor on three measures: income poverty, child deprivation and parental deprivation, the latter two of which involve parents and children going without what most people would consider necessities. About 13 per cent. of that 8 per cent. lack a warm waterproof coat; 17 per cent. do not have new, properly fitted shoes; 18 per cent. do not have enough underpants; 31 per cent. do

9 Dec 2003 : Column 1034

not get meat, fish or a vegetarian equivalent twice each day; 21 per cent. do not get fresh fruit and vegetables daily.

In 1998, the Acheson inquiry—an independent inquiry into inequalities in health—highlighted the fact that low-income mothers were not able to afford an adequate and healthy diet. There is a link between low birth weight and social class, and low birth weight may influence later cognitive function and educational performance. Breast feeding is better for babies, but those in lower income groups are less likely to breast feed. Pilot studies where mothers are supported through breast feeding have proved beneficial, but what is being done elsewhere? The CPAG study "Poverty Bites: food health and poor families" challenges the notion that families in poverty have only themselves to blame for poor diet. Parents go without so that their children can eat, but those diets are still likely to be of poor quality.

I am pleased that the appalling suggestion that poor expectant and nursing mothers should have to go through hoops to receive the welfare food benefits that the state believes they need was removed from the Health and Social Care (Community Health Standards) Act 2003, when it was debated in the other place. On a related theme, any suggestion that the benefits that affect families with children in poverty should be withdrawn because of family or personal behaviour must be rejected.

Sure Start, while undoubtedly beneficial to those who receive it, has not necessarily reached those in greatest poverty, and Save the Children is particularly concerned. Early years centres need to be extended to more areas. On the positive side, the Government's school fruit initiative is a good start in schools, but they need to do more to ensure that all food available at school, including that at breakfast clubs, and early years establishments is of good quality and supports a healthy, mixed diet. I will not go on yet again about junk food and drinks machines in schools, as the Government have got the message.

There is clear evidence that children living in poverty do less well at school. They go to school hungry and feel stigmatised by their clothing and shoes, as well as by their inability to take full part in activities paid for by more well-off parents. In my area, the children from one enumeration district do significantly less well in a local school that has very good results overall. The problem is that those children do not register on the radar that determines funding for their special needs.

I argued during the last local government spending review that it is wrong that children from similar backgrounds or with similar disabilities receive very different funding from the state for their education. In 2002, only 59 per cent. of children receiving free school meals reached the expected key stage 3 levels, while 70 per cent. of those not needing school meals or not receiving them did so. Schools in the poorest communities have between 10 per cent. and 25 per cent. of children achieving five GCSE passes at grades A to C, compared with a national average of almost 50 per cent. Nearly 90 per cent. of failing schools are in areas of deprivation and have a large proportion of children eligible for free school meals.

Lack of facilities for study at home and the extra pressures of school breaks cause additional problems. One fifth of children have no holiday because of

9 Dec 2003 : Column 1035

financial constraints. Poverty that is in some way visible tends to result in children being treated differently from their peers. There are clear financial implications when stigmatising benefits are not taken up.

The Government targets—the Treasury public service agreement—aimed to reduce child poverty by a quarter by 2004–05. Before the 2001 general election, the Government said that they had lifted 1.2 million children out of poverty, measured as children in households below 60 per cent. of median income. The 2002 manifesto pledged to lift another 1 million children out of poverty. In a speech at the time, the Chancellor promised that that would be achieved by 2005. The reduction between 1996–97 and 2000–01 was in fact 500,000, according to the households below average income figures for 2000–01—a little short of the promised 1 million. Even if the Government meet their 10-year target, according to Save the Children that would still leave the UK with the highest child poverty rate in Europe.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has indicated that the Government are likely to miss their target of fewer than 3.1 million children in poverty in 2004–05 by 200,000—some estimates say 300,00—unless further measures are taken to improve financial support. Latest figures suggest that an additional £5 per week increase in benefit for every child living in a low-income family is needed to ensure that the poverty reduction targets are met.

In Budget 2003, the Chancellor made clear his intention to advance faster towards his child poverty reduction goals. It is not clear, however—and will not be until the review of child poverty measures is published by the Department for Work and Pensions—exactly what the goals are against which faster progress is to be made. I hope that we will not simply see a change in the counting methods with the statements likely to be made tomorrow. Although 60 per cent. below median income is not easy to understand, it provides a reliable measure that can be checked from one year to the next. Clearly, however, the whole range of other indicators have a part to play. I was interested to find that in my constituency, which, again, is regarded as wealthy, figures for child tooth decay, for example, are considerably higher than average, at 1.67 missing, filled and decayed teeth at age five. It seems to me that such statistics could be used reliably.

Good-quality public services such as health, education, housing and transport are required by people living in poverty. However, there is no evidence that local authorities and health services use resources to reflect the consequences of child poverty or to tackle the issue. Simply focusing on areas deemed to be deprived will miss over half the poverty. The Secondary Heads Association estimates that education funding for deprivation misses two thirds of children living in poverty. Families in poverty have a greater need for services but often less access to them. I believe that that is called the inverse care law.

The CPAG says:

9 Dec 2003 : Column 1036

I agree. The Local Government Association says:

I agree with that, too. Local government must recognise, however, that it cannot be a key player if it refuses to change its way of working. Children's social services, education, housing and health must work together, and children's trusts provide a way forward.

It seems that the Government have rejected the notion of a minimum income standard, but the CPAG believes that one should be established and used as the basis of social security benefit rates. It says that the minimum income standard should be enhanced if a person has a disability—I agree with that, too.

Maximising take-up of benefits is absolutely crucial, because as many as 600,000 families did not take up the working families tax credit. Underpayments and overpayments need specific care in line with Save the Children's work on the increased rate of severe poverty and the interface between work and benefits. The CPAG recommends writing off administrative errors involving overpayment. That would be entirely consistent with the recognition that families in severe poverty find it almost impossible to pay back overpayments.

The social fund is not working. According to Save the Children, some 13 per cent. of children in persistent poverty have parents with social fund debts, while only 4 per cent. of such parents have loans. Both the CPAG and the Liberal Democrats believe that the funding to be used for the child trust fund would be better spent on alleviating poverty in the early years.

The Government have the opportunity to seize the issue, and seize it they must if they are to embrace their declared aims. The Department of Health today published the document "Building on the Best". I welcome the Secretary of State for Health's determination to make the NHS

I hope that the same attitude will pervade the Department for Work and Pensions as it tackles child poverty. People who live on low incomes and benefits should be treated with respect and dignity. Too often the benefits system loses sight of the very people whom it is supposed to help. The level of child poverty in this country is shameful to us all and it will stay that way until every child is brought up in a household with sufficient to meet what most of us regard as the necessities of life.

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