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19 Jun 2008 : Column 330WH—continued

I congratulate the Work and Pensions Committee on its extensive report, “The Best Start in Life?”, and the Committee Chairman, the hon. Member for Bradford,
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North (Mr. Rooney), on presenting the report to the House today. I may not be quite so enthusiastic about the Government’s written response, and I hope for a better verbal response today.

We have heard some interesting and wide-ranging speeches. I may pick up on a few of the points that were raised. As we rapidly approach the deadline for the target of halving child poverty by 2010, it is helpful to note that progress has been made, with 600,000 fewer children in poverty when the report was published. I congratulate the Government on that progress. I well remember how much child poverty grew in the 1980s. I do not need to look at the statistics. That time is embedded in my memory.

More recently, however, we have seen the publication of the latest figures, which show that the number of children living in poverty has increased by 100,000. That rise, which has occurred for the second year running, is cause for serious concern, and it makes our debate particularly pertinent, given the Government’s response. This is not a time to be complacent or proud simply of setting targets and having aspirations. For the sake of our children and future generations, we must make better progress.

The latest figures represent a setback to the Government’s achieving the 2010 target, and although the recent Budget changes will make some difference, there is a consensus that much more action is needed, especially if both the 2010 target and the longer-term goal of eradicating child poverty by 2020 are to be achieved. In addition, it has always been known that although some families need only a small change in circumstances to take them out of poverty, the more marginalised families who live in persistent poverty will be much harder to reach.

It is important to make the position clear both before and after housing costs are taken into account. I agree with the Committee that after-housing-cost data better reflect standards of living, especially in areas of high housing costs. Changes to benefits and tax credits for families with children have helped to lift a substantial number of children above the poverty line. However, it is a great irony that the policy of tax credits and the complexity of the system have plunged some families into poverty. Families have been overpaid and the money subsequently clawed back, sometimes in a very unsympathetic manner. There are also complexities in the child care element of the working tax credit. The guide alone is 23 pages long. We need reform and simplification of such things. The Committee rightly draws attention to the low take-up and the problems that are recounted by many of the poorest families.

The expansion of child care provision and other policies aimed at reducing the number of out-of-work families have undoubtedly had a positive impact on reducing child poverty. The Committee rightly flagged up the difficult balance between the provision of quality child care and affordable child care, and the availability of child care for working parents during school holidays and for parents who work long hours or part-time.

I was concerned to read in a recent report on research by the National Centre for Social Research that

When I have tried to obtain information on the provision of extended schools by parliamentary question, I have
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been told that the information is not collected centrally. Similarly, it is difficult to get a clear picture of how much holiday provision is available. That ties in with the duty under the Childcare Act 2006 to provide sufficient child care. I remain concerned about the extent and cost of that much needed provision, particularly in deprived areas. With the change in policy that requires lone parents with older children to register for work, the extended schools programme is important, as are the problems of affordability and parents applying for the tax credits for which they are eligible.

The Government have made considerable investment in Sure Start, but the latest evaluations continue to show that the most disadvantaged are not being reached. I therefore agree entirely with the Committee’s recommendation on reaching out into the community and the assessment of the impact of investment on poverty eradication.

The involvement of Jobcentre Plus is vital, but we should ensure that workless families receive more support for child care, because that would be a way of providing extra early-years provision to the most needy children, thereby breaking into the cycle of deprivation. It could also enable parents to take a step towards accessing training. I well remember hearing a story of a woman who, aged 40, I think, received the first certificate of her life. The certificate was for completing a swimming course. That lady was enthusiastic to go on and take more courses. Training that does not qualify for child care provision might be the first step on the training ladder.

Quality child care needs qualified staff—of that I am absolutely convinced. We have a problem in this country with our early-years provision. We have taken enormous steps since 1997, but we started at a terribly low level. We have incredibly low-paid workers in child care and low qualification levels, and all the evidence shows that poor-quality child care can be damaging, particularly for deprived children. The challenge is enormous, as is the mismatch of the provision of places, which the Committee brought to our attention. We must have sufficient good-quality places available where they are actually needed, and we must not waste money on providing places where it appears that they are not needed, give or take some surplus places, which will happen because there is a market.

The Committee accepted the case for greater conditionality on lone parents to seek work, but I agree that sanctions should never apply when there is a proven lack of affordable and suitable child care—however that can be proved—or when the lone parent is engaged in work-related education or training. I am especially worried about pressures on the parents of disabled children, for whom appropriate child care is so hard to find and likely to be expensive. Many partnerships break up because of the demands of looking after a disabled child, and we need to consider carefully making a lone parent work in such circumstances. More than a quarter of parents with a disabled child are lone parents. Currently, 84 per cent. of mothers of disabled children do not work. Against that, it costs on average three times as much to raise a child with a complex impairment than a non-disabled child.

The Government are consulting on extending the right to request flexible working. I wish that that process had started much earlier, so that there was a prospect of
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the measure lining up with the timing of the new requirements on people to seek work once their children reach certain ages. Half the children living in poverty come from households in which at least one parent is in work. Clearly, we need to make progress toward better paid and sustainable work. Several Members this afternoon have described so well the in-and-out-of-work pattern that is so disruptive to family life. Obviously, we need to encourage education, training and mentoring, as well as to make work pay and beneficial for lower-income families. We need to look at the costs of entering the labour market and ensure that people are supported.

Several Members asked, “Is it worth people going back to work?” The Committee concluded that the complexity of calculating the value of lost passported benefits makes it difficult for people to know whether they are better off in work. It recommended that the Government increase the earnings disregard for out-of-work benefits to improve the incentives for people to work in mini-jobs. I agree strongly with both points and I am sad that the Government are so dismissive of them. Mini-jobs are means by which a person can get on the first step to full-time employment. We must accept that when people or members of their family have not worked for a long time, it takes more than one simple step to get back into the labour market.

Families with disabled children remain disproportionately likely to be in poverty. The risk of poverty is increasing faster for families with disabled children than for any other group. Families with disabled children are 50 per cent. more likely to be in debt and 50 per cent. less likely to be able to afford holidays, new clothes, school outings or treats for their children than other families.

I should like to mention a letter that I received from a constituent and to make a plea to the Minister—this is slightly off-topic but it is relevant to the debate. My constituent, who has a severely disabled child and has received great support for the adaptation of her house, applied to the family fund for financial assistance and was surprised to learn that the income threshold for getting help in England is £23,000 per annum, which does not take into account housing costs or the number of children in the family. She is in a position to get absolutely nothing, as the family’s income has just increased.

I represent a constituency in Dorset, where housing costs are very high in relation to wages. That is well known. Purbeck, for example, has the sixth highest ratio in the country in that respect. It is a problem. My constituent asks whether there is any hope that the Government will respond to a request to increase funding from the family fund, as it would help some of the most deserving, such as families with disabled children. It makes a big difference to such families just to have the possibility of a few days’ holiday, or whatever the request for assistance involves.

The Select Committee recommends a review of disability allowance, measures to improve the take-up of that allowance and the extension of the winter fuel allowance to families with disabled children under five. I was sad that the Government agreed only with the second recommendation, because the winter fuel allowance will become more and more important, given the rise in fuel prices that so many Members have mentioned.

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Other groups besides families with disabled children are more likely to suffer from poverty: large families, black and ethnic minority children, Traveller children, children leaving care and asylum seekers. Children in those groups are the most socially excluded and are faced with inequality and poor social mobility. If we are to reduce child poverty permanently, we must solve those problems. We can talk about the extra spending needed, but the reduction must be sustainable. That entails breaking the vicious cycle of deprivation and inequality that makes children who grow up in poor families far more likely to be poor themselves. Britain consistently performs poorly in OECD studies of social mobility, and the UK came bottom in most measures in last year’s UNICEF report.

The strong relationship between family income and educational attainment indicates the desperate need to form policies aimed at tackling inequality across society. That involves targeting funding at the poorest and most disadvantaged sections of society in order to improve opportunities for all. One Liberal Democrat policy that I might mention is the pupil premium, which would attach additional funding directly to pupils identified as disadvantaged. The idea is for the funding to follow the pupil to whatever school the pupil attends. I was challenged to mention a few policies—

Mr. Rooney: Don’t worry about it.

Annette Brooke: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there are plenty of them. The Liberal Democrats are proud to have signed up to the child poverty targets. That is not a vacuous promise.

I felt that the Government were dismissive of the costs of going to school. It is true that there are ways around some of the problems mentioned, but uniforms are another problem. I know that the Government have considered whether some schools use specific uniforms as a method of selection. I have a large comprehensive school in my constituency. I do not think for a moment that it uses the uniform as a way of interfering with admissions, but its PE polo shirt has a logo, which effectively prevents parents from going to supermarkets, some of which, I am told, produce polo shirts very cheaply. Such matters become real barriers. There is a stigma. I taught for a long time at an independent school where no stigma attached to girls with second-hand uniforms; it was a matter of course. However, it does not work like that for someone who is very poor. It is not right. It does not give self-esteem to have second-hand uniforms.

It is well documented in the 2007 UNICEF report that the Scandinavian countries, in contrast with the UK, scored highly on all measures, including those dealing with child poverty. What can we learn from those countries? I know that one hon. Member was not keen on following the Swedish model, but it should be noted that, although Sweden has a high proportion of single parents, a high proportion of them are in work. There must be lessons that we can learn from Sweden about how to avoid disincentives and to make it easier and more beneficial for parents to work. Scandinavian countries are in an enviable position, with high-quality child care, good early-years services, family centres and excellent parental leave. I say to the Government that we have come a long way since 1997, but it is such a huge journey.

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John Penrose: Does the hon. Lady accept that although the achievements of Scandinavian countries are tremendously impressive, they start from a different position? They are smaller societies with lower populations, which are much more ethnically and racially homogenous than this country’s. They have different issues, and their solutions may not transport across precisely to a country such as Britain.

Annette Brooke: I simply think that they are worth considering. Sweden, for example, does have issues relating to ethnic minorities; perhaps those countries have some of the same problems that we have here.

Poverty affects many aspects of a child’s well-being, including health, cognitive development, achievement at school, aspirations, relationships and future employment. We must identify what action can be taken quickly to combat poverty. Equally, we should take up the Select Committee’s recommendation that alongside every change to taxes and benefits, the Government should publish a memorandum indicating the expected impact on child poverty. How useful it would have been to have had one last year, when it was announced that the Government were going to get rid of the 10p tax rate. Had they had one, the Government would not be scrambling to untangle the effects on poverty a year later. It is difficult to do so now—even the measures proposed will still leave 1 million people worse off. The same applies to the vehicle excise duty on cars. I am in favour of new cars having proportionately higher VED, depending on their carbon emissions, but the measure adopted is hard on people with seven-year-old cars, for instance, who live in rural areas such as the one I represent. They will be severely affected by it.

Not much has been said about rural poverty. Increased transport and fuel costs will have an impact in rural areas. Affordable housing is an issue for those who live in rural communities, and there are many more. We must work together, as has been suggested, but we must also try to think outside the box and ensure that a foot is on the accelerator the whole time.

Ann Winterton (in the Chair): I call Andrew Selous, having almost given him a heart attack a few minutes ago.

4.28 pm

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): Lady Winterton, I am sure that you would never give me a heart attack, but I thank you for your consideration. It is a pleasure to serve under you this afternoon, and to be back in Westminster Hall debating reports by the Work and Pensions Committee. I was a member of the Committee during the whole of the last Parliament, and I remember many happy Thursday afternoons spent here debating reports, including the report “Child Poverty in the UK”, the second report of the 2003-04 Session, to which I shall refer this afternoon.

I congratulate everyone who has spoken. Everyone here comes to the subject with passion, interest, different perspectives and detailed knowledge from their constituencies in different parts of the country. That is valuable, and it has added a lot of colour and local detail to our important debate. I shall add one or two perspectives from my own area of the country.

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It is important to put the matter in context. Child poverty, sadly, has risen for the second year in a row: by 200,000 before housing costs and by 300,000 after housing costs. Some 2.9 million children are now in poverty, on a before-housing-cost basis, and 3.9 million on an after-housing-cost basis. Those figures are the same as those in 2002, so regrettably we have not made any progress on that incredibly important issue over the past four years.

The situation is even more worrying than that, however, when we consider the number of children living in severe poverty, which is defined as children living in households with less than 40 per cent. of median income. According to an analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, in March 2007, that figure has increased by 600,000, from 2.5 million to 3.1 million, and a report last year by Save the Children stated that 1.3 million children in the UK are living in severe poverty. Although we want all children out of poverty—taking the 60 per cent. definition—I hope that other Members will join with me in saying that it is urgent that we do the most to help the poorest. I hope that that is common ground for us all.

The Treasury Committee’s report on the 2007 comprehensive spending review made the point:

That is a comment on the Government’s overall approach of trying to deal with child poverty through the tax and benefits system, although that must be integral to our approach—that should answer the question raised by the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy). I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) that we need a more broad-based approach, particularly to the pathways leading to poverty, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) said in his report, “Breakthrough Britain”.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation—not linked to the Conservative party in any known way—said that the

its words, not mine. I shall not refer to the UNICEF report, because the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) has already quoted from it quite extensively, other than to say that the UK was voted lowest out of 21 OECD countries for child well-being.

Tom Levitt: I notice that the hon. Gentleman did not refer to the anti-poverty strategy prior to 1997 when there really were gateways into poverty. Will he acknowledge that the UNICEF report, to which I think that he is referring, contained no data for 2004 and after, and that the bulk of the data actually related to the 1990s?

Andrew Selous: What I do know is that the Government have a tendency not to like any report that is not favourable towards them—they do not seem to like the OECD and EUROSTAT figures, nor a range of other critical figures with which they appear to have difficulties. Furthermore, according to the Department’s analysis of its own productivity, between 2002 and 2007, published in February of this year, the 2010 targets

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Both the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Department’s own research say that. Surely there is a case for changing direction and for a frank reassessment of Government policy. We all want these shared targets to be met, but given that we have gone backwards and failed to make progress over the past four years, there is an argument for looking at the matter more widely.

Paragraph 303 of the Work and Pensions Committee’s 2003-04 report, “Child Poverty in the UK”, stated:

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