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6 Mar 2007 : Column 414WH—continued

The conclusion of the UNICEF report is not so much that tax allowances will solve such problems; it may be that dealing with poverty, and low skills and aspirations in schools will help encourage some of those people who are not aspiring to go on to earn lots of money on the labour market, so that they can get out of poverty. Such people are making decisions to have children at a very early age and often to end up in single-parent households. Perhaps all the Government can do is focus their policy efforts in those areas to try to stop some of those people from taking such decisions.

Tony Lloyd: I suppose that I agree with what the hon. Gentleman is trying to say, but with a caveat. I hope that I can take him along these lines. There will always be single-parent families in our society, for many reasons— divorce or separation, obviously, but also death or early pregnancy from a relationship that was never properly formed. All such reasons may apply. We have to live with the reality of single-parent families in our society. The one thing that we must not do is stigmatise the nature of such families as something less worth while. If we do, we fail to begin to establish a framework in which we can nurture the children in all our families. For all our parents and families, it is the nurturing that really matters.

Mr. Laws: I strongly agree. We must certainly not stigmatise lone-parent families. However, we have to be honest in considering the UNICEF report. What is striking is that one would expect family structures to be similar across Europe—countries with similar levels of development—but they are not. Britain is considerably divergent on some of the issues, in respect of not only family structures but the use of alcohol, for example. If so, we should think about why and whether we can do anything about it.

One of the benefits of not having too many Back Benchers speaking in the debate is that we are allowed to speak for a little longer than normal. Notwithstanding that, I am probably coming towards the end of your period of tolerance, Mr. Amess.

I want to touch on one final point about why this debate is so topical: it comes at a time when people are considering not only whether the Government will put the money into their child poverty target, but how. The Rowntree report that came out last year was interesting in suggesting that there was a danger that putting more and more money only into tax credits would not deal with all the causes of poverty, would run the risk of creating bizarre anomalies and incentives in the benefits system and damage some of the incentives to work.

Some of the matters that the Government should consider in order to deal with child poverty need to go far beyond the tax credit approach, which is perhaps unfairly characterised as the Government’s main club in dealing with child poverty. I hope that they will consider the structure of child benefit and the fact that because of its odd structure the rates for second and third children are much lower than for first children; the tax issues that
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affect lone-parent families, particularly those to do with council tax; and the low-income costs mentioned by the hon. Member for Bristol, East, such as the higher costs that often fall to low-income families through such things as prepayment meters.

I hope that the Government will consider what they can do in a far more ambitious way, given the need not only to give people money to get them out of poverty, but to solve the generational problems. They must consider what they can do to be even more ambitious on education than they have been so far and should perhaps contemplate doing what some other countries in the EU do and target educational funding even more significantly on the most deprived pupils to level the playing field between affluent areas and those with high levels of deprivation.

I hope, too, that the Government will take forward speedily the proposals in David Freud’s review on employment yesterday, which are incredibly important. I fear, however, that they will take a long time to implement and will also be expensive in some respects, such as in dealing with health and educational problems.

I have probably gone a minute beyond my time, so I conclude by thanking the hon. Member for Bristol, East for securing the debate. In future, I hope that we will not have to rely on a Back-Bench Member to debate the issue and that the Minister will take the example that the hon. Lady has set and initiate a wider debate of his own.

12.1 pm

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) on securing the debate. As has been said, it is timely, not least because there has been something of a Government hiatus on the issue of child poverty since the publication of the Harker report in November last year, although at a recent Department for Work and Pensions Question Time the Minister said that he is refreshing our child poverty strategy. Perhaps he will articulate a little more of what that means. If not today, perhaps he will say when we will hear more about what that refreshment entails.

It is not only Opposition Members who are concerned about the Government’s stance on child poverty. The Treasury Committee, when it reported late last year, expressed its concern about how the Government will work towards their target to halve child poverty by 2010. That concern is widespread and I hope that today’s debate will start to flesh out the Government’s plans for the future. As all speakers have acknowledged, aspects of child poverty have improved significantly. However, I fear that the reason for holding today’s debate is that the hon. Member for Bristol, East and other hon. Members who have spoken feel that there is more to do. That has been articulated clearly.

Recently, the Government have come in for significant criticism from many quarters about how they will take their child poverty strategy forward. We have talked already about those children living in the severest poverty. Late last year, Save the Children raised the point that the percentage of children who live in severe poverty in Britain has improved little or not at all. Perhaps the Minister will say how that is to be reviewed in his refreshed child poverty strategy.

We have already had quite a lengthy discussion about the tax credits system in the UK and the fact that there
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are significant concerns about how it works in respect of child poverty. As constituency Members of Parliament, we are all aware of the problems. Overpayments amount to £1.8 billion according to the Government’s data, given in May last year. The other side of that figure is the fact that nearly 1 million of the poorest families were underpaid over that same period and did not get the help that the Government promised them because of the inadequacies in the workings of that tax system.

Another criticism concerns the extension of means-testing, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have highlighted the fact that means-testing has weakened incentives for many people to stay in work and increase their earnings, despite that being proven to enhance a child’s prospects.

I shall touch briefly on some of the speeches that have been made. The debate has been excellent, and I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Bristol, East secured it. It is clear from what she said that she is committed to the subject and has done a great deal of work on it. We Conservatives perhaps need to clarify a little our position on the child poverty target. We are committed to the Government’s target to end child poverty by 2020. That is an aspiration, because we do not know where we will be in respect of that target by the time that we get into government. It is therefore responsible to say that that is our aspiration, as opposed to submitting a pledge.

Kerry McCarthy: The hon. Lady has reaffirmed that she thinks it is a good idea to abolish child poverty. When will the Conservative party make suggestions on how it would achieve that? I assume that its other aspiration is to be in government in a couple of years, so time is running out for putting policies on the table.

Mrs. Miller: As the hon. Lady probably knows already, our social policy group is considering the matter and it is right for the group to report before we put our policies before the House. We expect the group to report this summer; it will make firm recommendations on the policies that we should adopt to try to resolve some outstanding problems that have not been resolved in 10 years of Labour government.

The hon. Lady also raised the issue of lone parents. She needed a little more clarity on the Conservative party’s position and I am happy to provide that. In all our discussion of child poverty in all parts of the party, it has been recognised that the role of a lone parent is one of the hardest. As a parent, I know how difficult it is for two parents to bring up three children. To bring up children with one parent in the household must be one of the most difficult jobs.

We need to ensure that those people get the support they deserve, but that does not take away from the fact that there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that the outcomes tend to be better for children in two-parent households in terms of their futures and those of the family unit as a whole. If one supports families, that does not mean taking away one’s support from lone parents. We need to support children in whichever position they find themselves. The research suggests that the work that the Government could do not to disincentivise families from staying together would be welcome.

Tony Lloyd: The hon. Lady rather infelicitously mentioned supporting families rather than lone parents. Lone-parent families are still families. The real
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question is similar to the point made by the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) when he referred to the former Chancellor, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), and concerns whether we should give a financial incentive to keep families together. Most of us would agree that a nurturing family—grandmothers, grandfathers, uncles, aunts or two parents—is better than a single-parent family in isolation, but the point is about how we support those family units. Does the fiscal incentive work?

Mrs. Miller: A fiscal disincentive should not be in place and a number of groups are concerned that there is a disincentive to families staying together.

Mr. Laws: Will the hon. Lady clarify whether the Conservative party is now committed to a transferable tax allowance to give an incentive to marry? Her last comment confused me.

Mrs. Miller: I shall leave such comments to my Treasury team. It is not for me, as a Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson, to comment on that.

I shall deal quickly with other speeches. The hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd), who made a valuable contribution, spoke eloquently about the persisting problems of inequality between children born in different parts of the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) spoke about worklessness, which clearly is a great problem in his constituency, and I thank him for that contribution. The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) spoke about the decline in social mobility. He will be aware of the Sutton Trust report, which said that someone born in 1958 is more likely to break free of their social roots than someone born in 1970. All Members of Parliament should ponder on that fact and see how they can make things better for children.

I want to pose questions to the Minister on three areas, and perhaps he will respond in his winding-up speech. Recently, searching questions were asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) about child poverty in London. It appears that Government statistics on child poverty in our capital city may be somewhat misleading. When one considers the median income of Londoners, the number of children who are classified as living in poverty is more likely to be over 500,000 than 384,000. What policies will the Minister put in place to ensure that those children get the support that they require and does he feel uncomfortable about the fact that the methodology for measuring poverty may understate the problem in our capital city?

Mr. Laws: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Miller: I need to make progress. Time is running out, and I want the Minister to have ample time to respond.

The second issue on which I would like the Minister’s thoughts is the future of the Child Support Agency. The Government believe that it is an important tool for alleviating child poverty, but does the slowness of CSA reform trouble him? Each month, an additional £13 million of debt is added as a result of non-collection of child support payments. Applications now take 36 weeks to clear, which is longer than a year ago. Families
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are waiting longer to receive money. Will he join me in calling on the Secretary of State to fast-track the changes in the assessment process that have been proposed for the CSA, so that we can get a better, fairer and faster method of collection, rather than waiting for the Secretary of State’s proposals, which will not come into effect until 2013?

The third issue, couple families, has been raised by other hon. Members. Half of all children living in low-income households are in such families, but research shows that two-parent families are penalised by the tax and benefit system. A Joseph Rowntree study carried out last year states that a lone parent with one child will be clear of poverty when they achieve16 hours of work a week, whereas a couple family who have two children and earn the minimum wage need to work 74 hours a week to clear the poverty line.

Does the Minister share our concern that, if the situation persists, there may be a resulting disincentive for families to stay together and that that discrepancy in how the system works is not good if we are trying to alleviate further child poverty? As I said before, we support the Government’s commitment to tackling poverty, but they need to re-evaluate their approach. If they do not, they will risk leaving many children unsupported and continuing in poverty.

I have some further questions for the Minister. When does he plan to publish his refreshed policies on child poverty? Does he plan to sort out what Save the Children called the absurd mess of 11 different Departments working on child poverty without a joined-up strategy? As part of his review, will he consider fast-tracking CSA reform and reviewing how he assesses child poverty? Will he commit the Government to a simpler, fairer welfare system that is fit for the 21st century and does not penalise couple families?

12.14 pm

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Jim Murphy): I am delighted to see you in the Chair, Mr. Amess, as we conclude the debate this afternoon. I was equally delighted to see Mrs. Humble in the Chair when we opened it this morning.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) not only on securing the debate but on how her clear passion and detailed understanding of the complicated nature of child poverty contributed to the construction of her argument. As I said to her at the Save the Children reception last week, as parliamentarians we are all busy in different ways, and Save the Children is fortunate to have her as a champion in Parliament. Without her, its cause would be promoted much less effectively in the corridors of power, in this Chamber and in the main Chamber. Save the Children should be grateful to my hon. Friend for her activities. I wanted to put that on the record.

My hon. Friend spoke about her constituency and the work done by Single Parent Action Network. She also spoke about the wider nature of poverty and emotional well-being, which my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) also discussed. It is important to acknowledge that financial position is the primary measure of poverty—of course it is, and it should be—but we should not lose sight of the wider impact of child poverty. It affects people
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while they are growing up but they also carry the scars—I believe that that is a fair way of putting it—throughout their life.

On the basis that my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central spoke passionately about his experience, I shall mention this for a second time—I spoke about it at the Save the Children event, but I will not make a habit of discussing it. I represent the most prosperous constituency in the whole of Scotland, but I grew up one street away from it, and one street away could be a world away. I grew up in one of the poorest parts of Glasgow, separated by one street and one open piece of land from my constituency. None of us seeks to mislead our constituents—far from it—but when my would-be constituents asked me during my first two election campaigns where I was from, my standard response was that I was from the edge of the constituency. It was about personal confidence—perhaps the most prosperous people in Scotland would not vote for a candidate who came from the other side of the street. By the time of my third election, I was confident enough to say, “To heck with it.” I felt that my constituents had become used to me over the years, and I was confident enough to acknowledge my upbringing.

That does not add to the debate, but it illustrates that all of us who grew up in circumstances such as those that my hon. Friend spoke about—others have their own experiences—take our past into our adult life, and it helps to shape our perspective on politics and, importantly, on policy.

I shall deal with some of the specific points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East. She asked about child poverty-proofing policies. I know that she and other hon. Friends welcome the commitment by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to child poverty-proof every one of the Department’s proposals and policies. My hon. Friend rightly acknowledged that responsibility for the public service agreement on child poverty is shared by the Treasury and the Department. I cannot speculate on the reconfiguration of PSA targets, but it is essential to remember that the issue is not one just for the Department or even the Treasury. She alluded to that when she spoke about her experience at the Labour party conference with the young folk from rural Wales. She rightly said that the issue was also for the Department for Transport and, in respect of transport in Wales, the Welsh Assembly. By mentioning that, she highlighted again the continuing need for the Government to look for additional ways to join up their strategy and ensure that it is coherent.

My hon. Friend also spoke about the findings that poorer people have more expensive sources of financial support, and she rightly identified credit unions as an alternative. They can be found across the country in all sorts of communities, but they do not get the acknowledgment to which they are entitled. They are a fantastic source of affordable financial resources to many of our poorer constituents. It is puzzling that some high street banks are able to make pretty substantial charges for auto-teller financial withdrawals in the poorest communities. Credit unions are the polar opposite; they exist to serve and support the communities in which they operate.

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