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However, this is not enough-we need to go much further. We need to be even more ambitious in future. We know that achieving these targets will not be easy. The very fact of setting a relative target means that as
the economy grows and society becomes more prosperous, we have to work even harder to make sure that no one gets left behind. We know, too, that the challenge facing us is even more difficult in our current economic circumstances, but it is also even more important that we succeed. Over the past 18 months, we have continued to set out new measures to tackle child poverty, even in tougher times, including increasing tax credits, expanding child care, and increasing support for parents to get back into work. Everyone knows that it will be difficult to meet our target of halving child poverty by next year, but we believe that it is right to keep working towards it and to make as much progress as we can, even in more difficult times.
The recession makes action on child poverty even more important. The action that we take now is critical to preventing child poverty not just today but for many years to come. It was the failure of Tory Governments to help people through the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s that led to the big increases in child poverty at that time. Too many parents in the '80s and '90s lost their jobs and were abandoned, left in long-term unemployment or pushed on to other long-term benefits to fiddle the figures, with devastating consequences for them and for their families. Parents, and young people who were soon to become parents, not only fell out of work but fell out of the labour market altogether, making it harder for them to get back on their feet when the upturn came. The cost of that Conservative neglect was felt not just among the parents but among their children who are themselves parents today.
The Tories are sometimes accused of abandoning a generation: the truth is they abandoned several generations. [ Interruption. ] Conservative Members do not want to hear about the consequences for future generations, and for child poverty today, of their inaction and their abandonment of young people-future parents-in previous recessions .
Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): The Secretary of State is making a great claim that the Government have done so much over the past 12 years. Why, then, have we just seen a record rise in unemployment, why is youth unemployment higher than when this Government came into office, and why has child poverty been rising for the past few years?
The right hon. Lady is opposing all the action that we are taking to help people who are unemployed. We are facing the first worldwide recession since the second world war; right across every country in the world job losses are increasing and unemployment is rising. The difference between my party and hers is that we believe we should not turn our backs on people. We believe that we should invest in people's futures and help them to get back to work. Her party has repeatedly refused to support the £5 billion extra investment to help the unemployed back to work. I will give way to any Conservative Front Bencher who can tell me now that they will support the £5 billion additional investment to help young people to get back into work. [ Interruption. ] Hon. Members chatter from the Front Bench, but none of them has the confidence or the guts to stand up at that Dispatch Box and tell us that they will support the
£5 billion additional investment in helping people who are losing their jobs today-shame on them. Once again, they are refusing to support people, and that will put more families into poverty in the future. Once again, they cannot accept that it was their failure to act in the early '80s and early '90s-a failure that they intend to repeat-that has left so many children in unemployed households now.
Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman is keen to intervene from the Back Benches. I will give way to him in the hope that he will go further than his Front Benchers are prepared to and say that he is ready to support the £5 billion investment to help people back into work today.
Mr. Walker: I just want to get back to serious politics for a moment, if the Secretary of State will allow me. She claims to care about the welfare of children, so why is it that over the past 10 years child obesity rates have rocketed under her Government?
Yvette Cooper: I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that there is nothing more serious than helping parents back into work right now or tackling the rising unemployment that we have seen in every country in the world-
Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman might not think that is serious-he might not think the need to tackle child poverty is serious-but he should be ashamed of his party's refusal to support- [ Interruption. ]
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman may not like the answer he gets, but he must not keep chuntering from a sedentary position. Otherwise, he ought perhaps to be asked to leave the debate if he cannot control himself. It does not help the debate at all.
Yvette Cooper: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I agree with the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) that we need to do more to support children who have health problems, including obesity, but we also have to help those children out of poverty. If his party will not face up to the fact that parents who lose their jobs are far more likely still to be in poverty in years to come if they do not get help to get back into work now, he is blind to the serious problems of child poverty across this country.
Why can the Secretary of State not answer my question on income differentials, the shadow Secretary of State's question on child poverty, and the
question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) on obesity? Why does she always have to play crude and idiotic politics instead of dealing with the things that really matter to our constituents?
Yvette Cooper: Not only is that not a question, but the right hon. Gentleman still has not said whether his party is prepared to support the action and investment to do something about child poverty. We have seen-the figures show this-that 500,000 children have been lifted out of poverty as a result of the action that the Government have taken. If we had simply followed the policies of the previous Government-his Government-child poverty would be 2.1 million higher than it is today.
Yvette Cooper: The shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury sits there on the Front Bench and says it is not sustainable, we cannot invest, we cannot do anything, we cannot do this, we cannot do that-we cannot afford not to bring child poverty down. We cannot afford not to bring unemployment down. He might think that we should not invest £5 billion in helping the unemployed, but we think that if we do not invest in supporting the unemployed to get back into work, unemployment will stay higher for longer. That will push up debt for longer, too.
John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): Does the Secretary of State agree that one way of getting more people out of poverty would be to ensure that means-tested benefits were given out, including to those in work? The DWP admits that £10 billion of unclaimed benefits are waiting to be used. That would be one way of reducing the numbers of those in poverty.
Yvette Cooper: We have to do everything that we can to increase the take up of benefits. The hon. Gentleman is right-more can be done, particularly with things such as housing benefit and council tax benefit. As part of the reforms to housing benefit, we have been considering what more we can do to help those who are in work and who may be entitled to housing benefit. It may also help to make it pay for people to go back into work.
Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): Although I think that the whole House will support the stated aims of the Bill, does the Secretary of State not recognise that behind the rhetoric the stark statistics show that 200,000 more children are now in child poverty than in 2004? The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests that the Government's policies will lead to the target for 2010-11 being missed by 600,000. On that basis, although the Minister claims that the Government are concerned about child poverty the facts show something totally different.
The hon. Gentleman knows that the current statistics do not yet include figures for operating the child element of child tax credit in April 2008, the child maintenance disregard for out-of-work benefits in October 2008, the increase in child benefit in 2009 and a series of other measures that have still to feed through. However, I agree with him that it is difficult to make progress, given the worldwide global credit crunch and
its impact. It is important to help parents back into work because we know that long-term unemployment causes long-term child poverty, which we experienced in previous generations. That is why helping parents back into work was such an important part of the Budget measures that we announced earlier this year.
Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): Earlier the Secretary of State referred to the key role of Sure Start children's centres. Surely by doing more through our Sure Start children's centres, we can provide information and advice to parents about health and nutrition so that we reduce childhood obesity. We can also build up parents' self-esteem and provide training so that they are in a better position to get into work and lift their children out of poverty.
Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend is right. The Sure Start programme is hugely important in providing opportunities for young people and support for their families. It can help parents in a child's early years, which can be a vulnerable time for families, when they want and need more support. Sure Start has proved to be an excellent way to provide that support. That is why it is not enough simply to back the Bill-one also has to back the means to deliver it. That includes the Sure Start scheme and not cutting it, as Conservative Members would do. If they are serious about supporting the Bill, I challenge them to say that they support the £5 billion investment to help the unemployed and the £1 billion for the future jobs fund to guarantee young people a job rather than leaving them in long-term unemployment. I challenge them to guarantee now that they will not cut the Sure Start programme, which provides so much support for young people throughout the country and helps to tackle child poverty, too.
Conservative Members say that they care about child poverty, but they cannot will the ends and cut the means. The Labour Government are serious about cutting child poverty and the Bill sets out our determination to go further. We are determined to help more parents into work and to get the skills and training they need for well-paid jobs to support children and families as they grow, while also ensuring that work is family friendly so that parents can combine employment and parental responsibilities.
Today, we are announcing more support to help parents hit by the global credit crunch. We know that parents are still losing jobs because of the worldwide recession, but often second earners do not go to the jobcentre for help if their partner is still in work. Yet that extra cash from their part-time or full-time jobs could be vital to help to pay the mortgage or keep the family out of poverty. Indeed, more than 100,000 children could be lifted out of poverty if more second earners worked part time or full time as the children get older. That is why we must do more to help second earners who are affected by the recession, and why we are announcing today a further £10 million to help working mothers who are affected by the recession and help more parents into work. Those funds will be targeted at 25 local authority areas to help to set up job clubs in schools to advise parents on getting access to training, finding work or setting up small businesses.
Tackling child poverty is also about acting across the board to ensure that children do not get left behind: from one-to-one tuition to free fruit for primary school
children; from the work of neighbourhood police with troubled teenagers to the decent homes programme to put central heating into family homes. Tackling child poverty is everyone's business and that is why the Bill is so important.
The measure requires the Government to work with the devolved Administrations, local councils, the police, the NHS and organisations throughout the country to tackle child poverty in each and every community. It requires every area to set out its own local strategy to tackle child poverty, as well as the Government to set out the national strategy. It establishes a commission of experts to advise us and help drive us forward. It will force Governments to come back to Parliament time and again to demonstrate the progress being made. It ultimately means that the Government will be at risk of action in the courts if they fail.
We are considering a bold Bill, which sets out a radical vision of a fairer society, and a Labour vision of a fairer society. Whereas the Tories doubled child poverty, we are determined to end it. Whereas we want to cut child poverty, they want to cut children's services. Whereas we want to help today's parents, they want to cut the help they need to get back to work. Our priority is to tackle the inequality that prevents our children from getting a fair chance in life, and theirs is to widen inequality by cutting inheritance tax for millionaires. I urge the whole House to back this Bill and to back the long-term measures that are needed to make it a reality. I commend the Bill to the House.
Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): Eradicating child poverty is an ambitious but important aspiration for any Government of this country. Not only is it an economic imperative, as no advanced economy can afford to waste the potential of so many of its citizens; more importantly it is a moral imperative, as no decent society should allow children to grow up in poverty.
Let us be clear that poverty exists in 21st century Britain, and for some communities it is the norm and not the exception. That situation is shameful and destructive. Some 10 years ago, the Government made a commitment to eradicate child poverty by 2020. We can disagree about the approach that has been taken and the lack of progress that has been made, but we should all recognise the importance of setting out that ambition.
"I want...the government I aspire to lead to be judged on how we tackle poverty in office. Because poverty is not acceptable in our country today."
If the hon. Gentleman listens to my words, he will find out exactly what our position on this particular issue is. I suggest that he should perhaps take up the difference between an aspiration and a commitment with his party's Front Benchers, who have singularly
failed to meet their child poverty target. Not only that, but they have now downgraded their child poverty target for 2010, as is reflected in the Bill. The Government are going to miss not only that target but their 2020 target, which illustrates the fact that setting targets is not what makes a difference.
As I indicated earlier in my intervention on the Secretary of State, to which there was no reply, things are moving in the wrong direction, because child poverty is now rising. Since 2004-05, it has risen by 400,000 after housing costs, meaning that there are 4 million children still living in poverty in the UK. The number of children falling below thresholds of low income and material deprivation rose by 200,000 in the last year for which figures are available. In fact, incomes for the poorest 20 per cent. of families fell in the past year, and have fallen in every year since 2004. All that means that across a range of indicators, income inequality is rising.
The shadow Secretary of State commits herself to the aspirations of the Bill, which I welcome. She will have read the regulatory impact assessment, which costs achieving the Bill's goal at about £21 billion a year. Does she have any views on where that money might come from?
Mrs. May: The hon. Gentleman will know as well as I do that one omission from the Bill, and from the Secretary of State's speech, is any recognition of the difficulty for any Government of finding the money to meet the figures in the regulatory impact assessment. One issue that I shall mention is how we should be addressing child poverty in this country, which is not just a matter of money. There are many other aspects that affect child poverty in this country, and I shall deal with some of them in my speech.
I return to the fact that the Government are missing their targets. That is a tragic failure and a damning indictment of 12 years of Labour government. The Bill represents one of the last acts of a tired Government.
The Bill ties a future Government to the targets that the current Government have failed to achieve. The Secretary of State may believe that that is clever party politics, but I say to her that such cynical positioning is undignified and belittles the important issues that the Bill should raise. It also sets this whole debate in the realm of the unrealistic; we are all aware of the tremendous pressures on the public finances, yet Ministers seem to have given only a perfunctory nod to such considerations when drafting the Bill.
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