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there has been little or no improvement in the percentage of children living in severe poverty
The Government needs to sort out the absurd mess of 11 different departments working on child poverty without a joined-up strategy.
The hon. Member for Wirral, West, did mention tax credits, child support and lone parents, and we can see that already three Departments come into play there. The Government may wish to consider that.
The Government are on track to miss their target in 2010. The principal tool that they are using is tax credits, yet those have had a marginal effect that is diminishing, and that might well be squeezed in the next spending round. As the calculation of child poverty is a relative one that sits near the middle of the curve, a small movement in any direction has the effect of taking large numbers of children into or out of poverty. From our point of view, it is difficult to sign up to a target that the Government are clearly on course to miss.
We are committed, and state that we aspire, to eradicating child poverty by 2020. However, there are a number of issues that we would like to consider today. Does the Minister accept that the tax credits fiasco has probably impacted in such a way as to push more children into poverty? Does he further accept the mess that the Child Support Agency has got into and that the Government have failed to take up the mediation aspect, so strongly pushed by the former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), who, in 1998, promised to commit more resources to mediation so that there would be fewer calls on child support? Those two policies, taken together, have had a negative impact on the child poverty figures.
Mr. Laws: The hon. Lady obviously shares our concerns about the administration of the tax credit system, but she implies that child tax credits may have deepened child poverty. I am sure that that was not her intention. The problems may have meant that there was not as much of an improvement as the Government aspired to make, but the hon. Lady would surely agree that child tax credits have reduced the poverty figures.
Miss McIntosh: The point that I was trying to makeI hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept itis that there are cases where individual households may be pushed into temporary poverty because of the clawback, through the incompetence of the Government. I do not think that that was the Governments intention, but it has been the practical effect. We may not be talking about many households, but the problem has had quite an impact, certainly in my constituency, which, although it has pockets of deprivation, could not be described as a deprived area.
In addition to tax credits and Child Support Agency failings, there is the issue of the new deal for over-50s. There are insufficient advisers, as I think the Minister will accept, and there is a six-month wait before over-50-year-olds seeking work can get assistance; that
is a failing through having an insufficient network of business advisers. The new deal for younger people has not helped as many young people as the Government claim.
There are two related aspects, and the hon. Member for Wirral, West touched on one. First, there is the impact on child poverty of the disabled parent who is unable to enter the workplace. Secondly, there is mental illness. A recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation paper recognised that aspect, whereby the parent is unable to work or seek work because of mental illness. It is a general problem to which I hope all parties will seek a solution. I shall set out the Conservative partys position. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman or the Minister know that we have stated that we embrace the principle of active market intervention. It is the best way of achieving a skilled and competitive work force. The new deal might have had a role to play, but the Government have not carried out a sufficient cost-benefit analysis. As with tax credit, child support and other targets, the Government are so obsessed with targets that they have failed to reach the 2005 figures for reducing child poverty and are not on course to reach the 2010 figures.
We invite the private and voluntary sectors to play a positive role in reducing child poverty. We are committed to improving the lot of the most disadvantaged in society. My right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the Leader of the Opposition, recently set out in his speech on the family four factors that promise a pathway out of poverty:
A loving and stable home life; A good education; Economic opportunity; A life free of substance abuse and serious debt.
Miss McIntosh: Indeed. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), who chairs the social justice policy group, will report on those issues and set out a programme. One area that we are considering is transferable tax allowances to help support the institution of marriage and reform the welfare and tax system.
I praise the hon. Member for Wirral, West for drawing our attention to the Governments failings. We join the Government in the aspiration to reduce and eradicate child poverty by 2020. However, I join with the hon. Gentleman, in identifying the reasons why the Government have failed to act. We look forward with great interest to hearing how the Minister is going to get us back on track to eradicate child poverty by 2020.
The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Jim Murphy):
I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond in this brief but thought-provoking debate. My hon. Friend the Member for
Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford) was particularly thought provoking, and if truth be told, he is the only one of us who volunteered to attend today. All three other speakers are present, first because of our Front-Bench responsibilities and secondly, because of our general interest. I congratulate my hon. Friend on being the only Back Bencher in attendance from any party. I did not know that he had experience of working with the Child Poverty Action Group before he became a Member of Parliament. The detail in his speech displayed the knowledge and experience that he built up over those years.
I apologise to my hon. Friend and others that as there have been myriad comments, questions and suggestions, we may not be able in the 16 minutes available to cover them all. I hope to make a good attempt,
I welcome the points that the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) made. Although he has specific concerns about the Governments strategy, the tone and reasonable way in which he put his points across improved the quality of our debate. We look forward to hearing and analysing the outcome of the policy commission that is considering the Liberal Democrat attitude to child poverty. He suggested some reasons why they do not share the commitment to the 2010 target of halving child poverty and the 2020 target of eradication. I am sure that we will discuss that in more detail as the commission concludes its deliberations.
I get on very well with the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), except when we have debates. From the tone of her comments, I do not sense that she is a fully paid-up member of the new, modern Conservative party. Rather than pressing on specifics, which is entirely reasonable, she might more appropriately have acknowledged that because of the generational nature of poverty, lack of ambition, the challenge of social mobility, and inequalities in education and public service provision, many of the problems with which we are dealing did not start on 1 May 1997. In many respects, but not all, finding a solution to those generational and long-term problems has been one of our greatest priorities over the past nine years. It would have been more appropriate for her to start with an apology.
The hon. Lady suggested that the Conservatives share our aspiration, but for the Labour party and the Labour Government it is not an aspiration but a determined target to deliver. It is not a wilful aspiration that we might one day aspire to achieve; it is a determined target that we have set out to achieve. Working with others, we will continue to drive public policy to achieve it.
Miss McIntosh: I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to clarify our position. As he continues with his prepared speech, he will accept that we support the Government but recognise that they failed to achieve their ambitious target in 2005. They look as though they will also fail to achieve the target in 2010, by which time we aspire to be in government and will have to deal with the situation.
In my prepared speech, I was to going to welcome the tone of the hon. Ladys remarks. However, I am doing no such thing, because I thought that her tone was entirely inappropriate. Her suggestion that we are not hitting our target because we are obsessed with hitting our target raised three sets of eyebrows across the Chamber.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West intervened on the hon. Ladys comments about the experience of the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), the former Conservative leader. I do not doubt the right hon. Gentlemans motivation, based on his visit to a Glasgow housing scheme. However, for many of us who grew up in housing schemes, and certainly for myself, who grew up in a Glasgow housing scheme, it is not a visit to a housing scheme that drives us, but the life experiences of each and every individual with whom we grew up in those communities.
I am delighted about and thank hon. Members for their congratulations on the role that I have been invited to play at the Department for Work and Pensions. The Secretary of State rightly identified tackling child poverty as our No. 1 priority. There is no room for complacency, but child poverty is at a 15-year low. It more than doubled in the previous 20 years, when one in three babies in Britain was born into poverty. There have been policies such as Jobcentre Plus, the new deal, the minimum wage and tax credits. The hon. Lady and others have had their concerns about the latter, but despite the serious administration problems, which we do not seek to belittle, and having again put on record the apologies that other Ministers have made for the administration, I may say tax credits have made a substantial contribution to alleviating poverty in many of the poorest families in every constituency, including the hon. Ladys. Some 6 million families and 10 million children have received support through the tax credit system. Of course, we have to find ways in which to improve the administration. For people in relative poverty, a mistake in administration can have long-term effects on the stability of their income and the way in which they can live their lives.
As I have mentioned, there is a generational challenge, as identified by the statistics on life expectancy. If we compare the life expectancy of a child born in Kensington and Chelsea with that of one born in Wirral, West, there is a five-year gap. If we compare the life expectancy in Wirral, West with that in Calton in my home city of Glasgow, there is an additional 22-year gap. That does not need policies about tax credits, the minimum wage, primary education or getting lone parents into work, but a general approach to target and to focus relentlessly across government, along with business and the voluntary and private sectors, on the ways in which we can drive a sense of social mobility and real change in those families.
One of the interesting points that everyone has made today is the lack of awareness among many people about the nature of child poverty in this country. Of course, that lack of awareness exists not among those who continue to experience child poverty despite all their effortsthere is a real sense of what it means in those familiesbut in the wider public domain, which may be reflected in the attendance at todays debate,
and perhaps among some journalists. I do not criticise them for it at all, but in preparation for some work last week I found myself having to persuade a journalist that child poverty was a continuing and real problem in our country. The hon. Member for Vale of York made the fair point that, for some, child poverty is something in the developing world, about which celebrities campaign vocally for good purpose and to great effect, which we welcome. However, although the nature and scale of child poverty are entirely different here, the challenge remains.
We seek to co-ordinate our work to maximum effect so that policies in education, health, employment and across all Departments are more focused in the way in which they are brought together. I welcome the appointment of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster as Minister for Social Exclusion. She has brought together a Cabinet Sub-Committee, and that means that Ministers from all Departments are working together and trying to support the poorest 5 per cent. in our communities.
Poorer children with a high developmental score as toddlers fall behind by the age of 10 compared with children from higher social economic groups who had a lower developmental score in early childhood. At key stage 3, fewer than half the pupils who receive free school meals reach their expected attainment levels. It is not only an issue of weaker educational outcomes; it goes much wider than that. An ever-increasing body of research attests to the importance of childrens early years informing their life chances, which is why this debate is so important in focusing on what more can be done to eradicate child poverty.
The poverty and disadvantage that afflict people, and children above all, are not new phenomena, as we have already heard. They grew grotesquely, out of all sense of proportion and beyond all sense of justification, throughout the 80s and early 90s. The way in which that grotesque level of poverty was allowed to grow embarrassed this country and shamed public life through that period.
I shall now reflect on what more can be done. The Welfare Reform Bill, which we publish today, will be an important step towards improving life chances by no longer writing anyone off and by supporting those with incapacity benefit to give them the chance to build confidence, which is important, rebuild their skills, which is key, and find work, obtain work and stay in work through personal advice and support, which will be crucial. The city strategy, of which we will announce more details later this month, focused on many of our big cities where the problem is even more acute. Two thirds of people on benefit in the United Kingdom live in our big cities, which is the rationale for the city strategy. Today, we shall announce the national roll-out of the pathways programme, again involving the private and voluntary sectors. That is an important part of the overall strategy.
I am listening with great interest. The Minister accepts that, as I mentioned, there are pockets of rural deprivation across areas such as the Vale of York, but the fact that the cost of housing is significantly higher than anywhere else in the country and the average wage significantly lower has an impact. Can he confirm the definition of poverty, so that we all
know what we are talking about? Is it assessed in income terms, and is it assessed before or after housing costs?
Mr. Murphy: Both sets of figures, before and after housing costs, will be published, so there will be maximum openness. As I say, our definition of relative poverty does not take into account the hon. Ladys specific point about regional variations in housing costs. Both sets of figures will be published so she will be able to make her observations as she chooses.
The key to our approach to child poverty is the drive on social mobility, which, as the hon. Member for Yeovil said, has stalled, and I have said that in public before. I argue that that is largely the consequence of the fact that the socially-immobile 30-somethings of today were the children of the 80s and a time of substantial mass unemployment. The nature of social mobility is such that there is a generational challenge about how we break the cycle of poverty of aspiration. Early education is key, family support is crucial, and the alleviation of child poverty is absolutely essential.
I was reminded again of that when I was in Liverpool last week, knocking on doors with an organisation called Streets Ahead. In the daytime, there were three generations of one family behind a door in the poorest ward, I think, in Liverpool, all of whom were able through interaction with Streets Ahead to see that there is some opportunity through the new deal and other employment programmes for them to get closer to the labour market. Such projects are
absolutely crucial if we are to overcome the generational nature of the lack of social mobility that is so endemic in so many of our larger cities.
Breaking the cycle of disadvantage is not simple. It is not about one specific policy. However, we are seeking to refresh our strategy at the Department for Work and Pensions. We have not appointed a tsar, although the newspapers suggested that we had. We have invited Lisa Harker, who has vast experience of the subject of child poverty through the Child Poverty Action Group, Save the Children, and the Daycare Trust, to advise us on what more we can do to achieve our targets for 2010 and to get us on track to eradicate child poverty by 2020. I want her to challenge us and to see what more we can do, and to challenge our policy approach, our organisational approach, our systems, our prioritisation, the way in which we structure our employment programmes and the interaction between those programmes. However, although my Department is important, we will not simply deliver the alleviation of child poverty on our own. There is a poverty of public services in some communities, and some peoples experience of public services is still take it or leave it, and take what you get. Despite recent improvements in extending equality of public services in such communities, we have to go much further in personalising public services in some of our poorer communities.
With that in mind, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West for introducing the debate in such an informed way and for giving the House the opportunity to reflect on what more can be done to alleviate child poverty in the UK by 2010 and to eradicate it by 2020, so that instead of having the highest levels of child poverty, as we did in the 1980s and 1990s, we can head the league table in Europe for the eradication of child poverty, rather than heading the table for its propensity and the grotesque way in which it was allowed to spread in many of our urban and rural communities.
Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): Almost to the day, 12 months ago, Britain suffered its first ever suicide bombing attack. In one day, Britain became a victim in the global jihad. Fifty-two innocent civilians were killed, and hundreds were wounded. Israel has had to face that same threat every day of the countrys existence, not only from hostile states whose aim is to wipe Israel off the map but from terrorist organisations, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah and al-Qaeda, which target innocent Israeli citizens.
This debate is not only about Israels personal fight against terror, but about its role in the global fight against terror. The face of international terrorism changed on 11 September 2001. Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said:
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