Previous Section Index Home Page

19 Jun 2008 : Column 324WH—continued

The CPAG goes on to refer to the report of the schools costs coalition and the citizens advice bureau, “Adding Up”, which includes a survey that found that one in five parents of primary school children and 50 per cent. of parents of secondary school children reported spending
19 Jun 2008 : Column 325WH
more than £200 a year on uniform and PE kit. The same report points out that in 2007, 57 per cent. of English and Welsh authorities did not provide uniform grants. School costs do have a kick-in effect on the poorest and their families. Indeed, the campaign that the CPAG is running is called “2 skint 4 school”.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): My hon. Friend referred to the stigma attached to having free school meals. I am very much aware of that problem. The other day, I visited a school in my constituency that is one of the brand new schools built under the Building Schools for the Future programme. Children at the school are given smartcards—a bit like Oyster cards—that they can charge up with cash. The cards mean that children are not aware of whether somebody is having free school meals and has been given a card that has already had money put on it, or whether they have added the money themselves. There is therefore no way of telling whether someone is on free school meals when they pay. Is that something that has come to the Committee’s attention and does it think that should be adopted more widely?

Harry Cohen: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning that example. The Government should be pressing schools to adopt such ideas, and they should have been doing so a while ago. The Government cannot say that there is no stigma to free school meals when the CPAG has pointed out that some schools run separate queues. If such techniques are available, the Government should accept that they have a role to play in dealing with that problem.

The CPAG also talked about the Government’s response in relation to Gypsy and Traveller families. The Government argue that Gypsy and Traveller families are a small group and that Office for National Statistics definitions do not allow separate measurement for that group. That answer is weak. Even if population surveys do not provide the evidence, the DWP could conduct specific research among that group to explore child outcomes. The group is known to face high levels of poverty and barriers to using services, therefore such research must be a priority. The Government should not be so complacent. It is a relatively small group, but a little action could have a major positive affect on those involved. Will the Minister look at that matter again?

On large families, the CPAG and other organisations have long argued for the second and subsequent child on child benefit to be on the same rate as the first child. Although that was not accepted by the Committee, I certainly support that measure as it would have an impact on child poverty and is a simple way of dealing with child poverty in large families.

Job retention is important in relation to in-work benefit—not just because people are better off in work and are out of child poverty when they are working, but because it means that people can stay in a job, particularly lone parents. The Government need to put more emphasis on in-work benefits to assist with job retention.

As I said, a review was announced in the last Budget on housing benefit. Will the Minister give more details of the scope and progress of the review—not in this debate, but at some point soon? As far as I am aware,
19 Jun 2008 : Column 326WH
those details have not yet been placed in the public domain. Will the Minister ensure that the review has a specific mandate to consider reform of housing benefit for the best impact on child poverty?

On benefits uprating generally, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation recently published a report stating that the gap is widening for those who have to rely on benefit because benefits are not properly inflation-proof. The CPAG says that

Again, I agree. The Select Committee argued that there was a case for targeted increases in benefits, particularly in the area of disability, to which I have referred.

Poverty is, as we have said, damaging, but prices are going up for food, fuel and energy and that must be taken into account in meeting the child poverty targets. That means that the Government have to put their foot back on the accelerator and do more than they have been planning to do. I do not want to go through in detail the debacle of the abolition of the 10p tax rate; we all know what happened. I understand that it affected 5.3 million people. I am told that the Government’s uprating of the tax allowance benefited some 17 million people net. Some of those—not all—will be dealing with child poverty. My concern is that that measure is for one year only—it is not recurrent—so come this time next year, those people, particularly the poorer groupings, will be plunged back into crisis. I want to use the opportunity offered by this debate to urge the Government to think again on that issue, particularly for the lower-paid, painful though that may be.

Then there is the credit crunch and the risk of recession. There is the issue of stagflation as well. That could have impacts on the employment market. I am not saying that that would necessarily mean higher unemployment. The Government have done very well to buck trends and keep unemployment coming down, but there could be an impact. If that happens, the policy of pushing people into employment and getting children out of poverty will need to be rethought. If the credit crunch had such an impact, there might be areas, such as London, where that would need to be mitigated.

I reiterate that there is a need for higher in-work pay and benefits. The American model of being in work and in poverty is unacceptable. The Government should make it a priority to ensure that that does not happen in this country. There need to be in-work benefits. Also important are the London living wage, a higher minimum wage and closing the gender pay gap. Those are my main points. I reiterate the case that I made in the Select Committee that tax-and-spend measures are a major issue. The Government should submit a report to Parliament on their impact on child poverty. That in itself would have a good effect.

3.53 pm

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): I start by congratulating the Select Committee on producing the report. Although child poverty may be fairly easy to describe in headline terms, the devil is in the detail, and the report gives a comprehensive overview of the different
19 Jun 2008 : Column 327WH
factors that have an impact on child poverty and the various measures that need to be taken to tackle it. Quite often, something looks in theory as though it would alleviate a particular family’s poverty, and it is only when we get down to the detail and start making those complex calculations that we realise how it works in practice. It is therefore important that the Committee is giving the matter a great deal of scrutiny and responding to it in such detail.

Such a timely report can help to keep child poverty on the political agenda. We are in a slightly strange situation now. Hon. Members have referred to the disappointing figures that were released recently, but they are now quite significantly out of date. As the Child Poverty Action Group and others have said, we already have measures in place from the 2008 Budget, and some from the 2007 Budget as well, that will help to lift another 500,000 children out of poverty. We should not lose sight of the fact that certain measures have not yet come into effect, but are still moving the Government’s trajectory towards meeting the target in the right direction.

I shall focus on one small aspect of the report, because the three Committee members who have spoken have already talked in detail about things such as child care, the take-up of benefits, and “better off in work” calculations. I shall explore the broader issue of how we make the political case for tackling child poverty. That is increasingly important now. Perhaps the public’s attitude was more sympathetic when people generally felt quite well off, but when they start to feel the pinch in their own pockets as food and fuel prices rise and they feel that things are not quite as rosy as they were, it is even more difficult to make the case for redistribution from the better-off to the people who need it the most.

I was struck by the reference in the report to evidence that the public tend not to believe that poverty really exists in the UK. That was mentioned a lot when, with the Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney), and other Members of Parliament, I took part in a discussion yesterday with people from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and others. Now, people tend to think of poverty as something that is seen in Darfur—people living on the brink of starvation in desperate circumstances. They quite easily dismiss claims about poverty in the UK with comments such as, “Oh, you can’t afford a new pair of trainers.” They think that that is all it is. The case needs to be made.

I was struck by this statement in the report:

The report also states:

The Committee cites research from 2007 by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Ipsos MORI to back that up. It is a telling point. To an extent, such attitudes are nothing new. In the past, distinctions have been drawn between the so-called deserving and undeserving poor. The media and certain politicians have focused on attacks on feckless single mothers, workshy scroungers, or benefit fraudsters—often straying into racist territory.
19 Jun 2008 : Column 328WH
We are all familiar with stories—grossly distorted—about immigrants and asylum seekers coming to Britain to take advantage of our generous benefits system.

I do not deny that some people out there play the system. They are in it for what they can get and they do not feel that they have any reciprocal responsibility to society. We know that some people do not want to work. We see that in our constituencies and in the press. However, for every person I see at my surgeries, hear about from other constituents or read about in the local press who might fall into that category, I come across many, many more who are desperate to get themselves out of the situation in which they find themselves. They know how soul destroying, demeaning and exhausting poverty can be and they do not want that for their children. There is an intergenerational cycle whereby children who are brought up in poverty tend to go on to be poor themselves—poverty is passed on from generation to generation. Although some people do not have aspirations for themselves, many more are quite willing to move into work; they just need help and support to do that and the Government policies that can point them in the right direction.

As I said, the research on public attitudes revealed that people believe that poverty is the result of people making the wrong choices and having the wrong attitudes and the wrong priorities—that the problem is emotional poverty. There has been a recent public focus on what, rather than the undeserving poor, could be termed the dysfunctional poor. The focus is not so much on people as economic participants but on people’s behaviour. To some extent, the media these days are almost celebrating dysfunctionality in families. I do not want to give yet more publicity to certain television shows, but Members probably know the sort that I mean—the sort of show, for instance, in which someone having a DNA test live on television is thought to be a good way of announcing to the world who a child’s parent is. There is something seriously wrong with that.

We see that attitude also in relation to certain celebrities. One young woman, who obviously has serious mental health and drug problems, shares my name. I often walk into the newsagents and see headlines saying “Kerry on the verge of collapse”, “Kerry back in rehab”, “Kerry’s drugs hell”, “Kerry not fit to be a mother” and so on. That is presented as entertainment, but for celebrities income is not a problem. At a lower level in the media, however, dysfunctional families are paraded as if they were entertainment.

That may be partly because, as has been said, there has not been so much of a focus lately on economic issues. If people feel relatively well off, they will not be so concerned that their money is being used to support those unemployed people who want to be unemployed. However, there is now more of a pejorative element—it is more a moral judgment about people’s other choices, rather than specifically about work.

That element is linked in part to the fact that, for laudable reasons, the Government have focused on antisocial behaviour and their Respect agenda. That is entirely laudable and something that should certainly be pursued, but it has moved the debate on a little. Instead of it being about people who live in poverty and deprivation in difficult circumstances, it is now seen as being about families who have drug and drink problems, who may suffer domestic violence, or who are involved in criminal
19 Jun 2008 : Column 329WH
activity or prostitution. That is what people think of when the subject of poor families is raised. The focus is important.

The Government’s Families at Risk review is concentrating on those families that have multiple disadvantages, and that is to be welcomed. However, focusing only on those families, and seeing poverty just as something associated with that sort of dysfunction, does a grave disservice to those who are on relatively modest incomes and lead relatively modest lives but who are struggling to keep above the breadline.

We know that 50 per cent. of children who live in poverty have one or more parents in work and that they have relatively normal lifestyles. It is about making work pay, being able to afford transport, being able to meet those unexpected costs, such as when the fridge stops working, or when the car that one needs to get to work breaks down. Rises in the price of fuel and food will have a disproportionate impact on the poor.

I shall not go back into the detail of what has already been said. I think that the Government are on the right lines with the packages that they are trying to deliver to people to make them better off in work. I am more concerned about what could be the subjective judgment on whether a person is better off in work. We have heard that the calculations are complex. However, we need to deal with the sort of situation described by my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen), of someone having to prove that child care is not available.

I am thinking of a particular scenario. In Bristol, public transport is pretty appalling. Someone who has a part-time job, perhaps in the new retail development that is soon to open in Bristol city centre, will have to fit that job around getting one child to a child minder and getting the other child to school and then getting the bus into work, and after work having to be at the school gates in time to pick up one kid and then go to the child minder to pick up the other one. If the buses are persistently late or do not turn up at all, that element can throw the whole arrangement out. On paper, the authorities can say, “We’ve done the sums. You can afford the child care with the help of child care tax credits. You can afford the bus fares and this and that.” But if the bus does not turn up and the bus company does not admit that the buses are running late, which happens, the whole thing goes out of the window.

We have heard figures on how many lone parents work—I believe that it is about 30 per cent.—but I wonder how many of them are in longer-term jobs. The lone parents whom I know tend to work for three months or six months, but find it too much of a struggle and go back on benefit; a few months later, they are struggling on benefits, and they decide to try another option. They have a succession of low-paid, casual and temporary jobs, and it is difficult for them to sustain the kind of job that would lead to a career or to them acquiring more skills.

Tom Levitt: My hon. Friend may like to know that when the Committee visited Cardiff to see Jobcentre Plus working with lone parents, great emphasis was placed on the advisers remaining as advisers to the lone parents once they had gone into work. They were
19 Jun 2008 : Column 330WH
advising them for several months. That proved to be a much better way of avoiding the revolving door problem. I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree that if every jobcentre did that, and did it to that extent, employment would be much more sustainable.

Kerry McCarthy: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Ongoing advice is important, especially on things like managing debt and benefits.

The subject has been touched upon, but there are also problems with the administration of housing benefit and tax credits. As constituency MPs, we all know of people who have been billed the wrong amount for electricity, or who have similar problems. Having someone available to give guidance is important, because small things like that can mean that being in work is not sustainable. It might not even be the financial impact; the stress caused by trying to juggle and deal with the various agencies may be another factor.

It is generally accepted that all political parties are signed up to the agenda. I hope that we will hear from the Liberal Democrat and Conservative spokesmen not only what they believe the Government should be doing but what their parties will do. In particular, I would be pleased to hear from the Conservative spokesman what his party means by an “aspiration” to abolish child poverty and how that differs from a target or commitment.

The Opposition have been wary of state intervention to tackle poverty—measures such as tax credits, the minimum wage and the other tools that we use to fulfil our aspiration of meeting the 2010 and 2020 targets. If the Conservative party believes in state intervention, I would be interested to hear what form it will take. The party leader, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), has said that the Conservatives will be judged on how they tackle poverty, but many voters would like to make that judgment before the next election rather than having to wait until afterwards before getting a glimpse of the party’s policies.

At the moment, all that we have to rely upon is one stark statistic, which has already been quoted. It is that between the late 1970s and the mid-1990s, the proportion of children living in households on less than 60 per cent. of the median income more than doubled. As some hon. Members have said, it is disappointing that the Government have so far managed to lift only 600,000 children out of poverty, but I have been told by the various organisations involved in the End Child Poverty coalition that if the Government had not introduced the measures that they have, another 1.7 million children would be living in poverty. The number would not have remained static; even more children would be affected. I look forward to hearing from the Liberal Democrat and Conservative spokespeople, and the Minister, how we can achieve our targets.

Ann Winterton (in the Chair): I call Andrew Selous. No, I am so sorry. I call Annette Brooke.

4.8 pm

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): Thank you, Lady Winterton. I welcome this first opportunity to serve under your chairmanship.

Next Section Index Home Page