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It is important to remember that poverty is not only about economics. In too many parts of our country, we see not just poverty of income, but poverty of opportunity,
aspiration and environment. A child who grows up without the opportunities of good education, health care or housing is also a child growing up in poverty. Those lost opportunities may relate to things that many of us in this Chamber took for granted when we were growing up-going on school trips, making visits to museums or swimming pools, taking a holiday, whether in the UK or abroad-but for too many British children, those are experiences that they will never enjoy.
When we talk about child poverty, we are also talking about family poverty. Children are poor because their parents are poor. In fact, I would almost like to change the name of the Bill from the Child Poverty Bill to the child and family poverty Bill. That would help us to remember that tackling poverty can never be a matter simply for children's services. Instead, we must adopt a co-ordinated approach that understands the complex roots of deprivation.
Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): The right hon. Lady makes an important point about the wider aspects of poverty, but would she not accept that clause 8, on strategies, deals with the very point that she is making? That is why I think that the Bill is much more than just mechanistic target-setting on income levels.
Mrs. May: I will come on to a very important issue that I believe lies behind child and family poverty, but is not referred to in that clause, as my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) pointed out. There are some interesting Government recognitions, not in the Bill but in the regulatory impact assessment and the explanatory notes-I shall mention them later-which suggest that they are at last, after 12 years, beginning to realise that there is more to the issue than finance.
Mr. Redwood: Does my right hon. Friend agree that if Ministers are serious about tackling the issue, they should do it, and lead on it? We do not need another useless quango-the child poverty commission-set up at enormous expense, burdening taxpayers and getting in the way.
Mrs. May: My right hon. Friend refers to the issue of quangos. All I would say to him is that, of course, the next Conservative Government will look to ensure that the number of quangos is significantly reduced, so that taxpayers' money is not wasted on bureaucratic bodies that achieve no aims.
There are aspects of the Bill that we support. We welcome the emphasis on local issues and action, because poverty will never be defeated by grand strategies dreamt up by a Minister in Whitehall. It will take determined work by local government, in partnership with other agencies and, crucially, the voluntary sector. We do not feel that centrally issued diktats will result in the best help for the people who really need it. That is why in Committee we will press the Government for more detail on how the proposals would work in practice, and on how onerous the duty on local authorities will be.
We have concerns about the emphasis on partner authorities for local councils-the police, strategic health authorities, transport bodies and so on. Again, we will need to be absolutely clear about what that emphasis
means in practice, and how much discretion local authorities will have. Surely Government should trust local bodies to know what is best for their communities. We would like to see recognition in the Bill of the valuable work done by charities and other community groups-by those who are working on the ground in the most hard-pressed areas of the country. They often achieve very good results for the people whom they are helping-often, I am afraid, in the face of what Government do to them, rather than alongside Government. Those bodies are central to tackling poverty in the UK, and the Government should be doing all that they can to make their life easier.
It is not good enough simply to place more obligations on local authorities without them having the resources to act, so we will look to ensure that the Bill does not simply place more bureaucratic burdens on local authorities without giving them the freedom to innovate and act in accordance with local needs. They need the flexibility to work with whatever organisation it is necessary to work with to tackle poverty in their area. We do not want to see them attempting to fulfil their responsibilities simply by appointing a child poverty officer or creating a new department and leaving them alone to get on with the job. Co-ordinating action will be important at local authority level. Many councils will already be doing good work in this area, but bringing that work together with a clear focus on child and family poverty is what will make a difference.
John Mason: I agree with the shadow Secretary of State about not merely giving the voluntary sector and local authorities more responsibilities. She mentioned resources, however, and I wonder whether she and her party will commit to giving extra resources to the voluntary sector and to local authorities to carry out these duties.
Mrs. May: One of the most important things that we can do for the voluntary sector is free it up to get on with the job that it wants to do. It often finds itself hard pressed by Government diktats- [ Interruption. ] It is all very well Labour Members laughing. They should look at the state of the public finances, which have been presided over by the Prime Minister, when he was Chancellor as well as now. The fact that we have horrendous debt in this country has nothing to do with the Opposition; it is the fault of the Government and the way in which they have managed the public finances and the economy in this country.
As it happens, I was about to reflect on the fact that the Government have enshrined in the Bill the principle of taking economic and fiscal circumstances into account. I recognise the point made by Action for Children: tackling child poverty effectively would have a long-term benefit for the fiscal position. Taking that big-picture approach will be more successful than working in silos and ignoring other pressures on the Government and on society.
However, there are aspects of the Bill about which I have significant concerns, on which we shall press the Government in Committee. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) mentioned quangos. The creation of a commission on child poverty could be a useful step towards holding the Government of the day to account, but we must avoid its becoming
another ineffective quango whose purpose is long forgotten. The public will be reluctant to support the creation of another committee that costs taxpayers' money, without clear transparency of purpose. I am also concerned about some obvious omissions from the Bill. It contains little on worklessness, in-work poverty or child care, all of which I will return to later. Housing and health care are also notable absentees.
My main criticism, however, is a simple one: I do not believe that simply legislating to end child poverty will make that happen. Reaching for the statute book has been this Government's modus operandi since they were elected, and we have precious little to show for all the laws and regulations that they have passed. All the evidence has shown that, instead of a target approach, we need a targeted approach that commits to addressing the root causes of poverty. The Bill does not do that nearly as robustly or comprehensively as it could have done. Perhaps the Minister will tell the House whether the Government, in taking a legislative approach, intend to involve the courts in enforcing the Bill's provisions. These are issues that will need to be probed further in Committee.
The Government's approach to tackling child poverty over the past 12 years provided some initial success, but, overall, it has been a failure. Their one-dimensional approach, which relies on means-tested benefits only, is unsustainable and will not result in the progress that we all want. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has said that
"the strategy against poverty and social exclusion pursued since the late 1990s is now largely exhausted".
Indeed, the Government now appear to recognise that themselves. Hidden away in the explanatory notes to the Bill is perhaps the most significant statement that the Government have made on this topic for many years:
"The legislation has the effect of requiring Ministers to consider a wide range of interventions through public services and the contribution of broader policy areas. The Government believes this to be a more cost-effective and sustainable route than increasing tax credits and benefits".
We have long argued that we must take a wide-ranging approach to tackling poverty. The approach must focus on the root causes of poverty, including family breakdown, worklessness, educational failure and others. No target will be met, no strategy will be effective and no commission will be worth while without that recognition.
Yvette Cooper: If the right hon. Lady recognises that worklessness is an important cause of child poverty, will she now commit her party to supporting the additional £5 billion to help the unemployed get back into work as part of the fiscal stimulus, or not? Yes or no?
The right hon. Lady makes such a thing of this £5 billion, but I would dearly love to hear her stand up and recognise that some of the money that she is talking about as investment to get people back into work is merely replacing capacity in Jobcentre Plus which has been lost as a result of a decision taken by her
Government to continue to shut job centres at an average rate of one a week while unemployment was already rising.
Let me deal with the areas I have just set out. First, Britain has one of the highest rates of family breakdown in Europe. There is widespread evidence showing the impact that family breakdown can have on a child's outcomes in life. We know, for example, that children who experience family breakdown are 75 per cent. more likely to suffer from failed education; 70 per cent. more likely to experience problem drug use; and 35 per cent. more likely to experience unemployment or welfare dependency. Those shocking figures surely provide all the evidence we need to accept that family breakdown is one of the most serious challenges we face.
We will never get to the heart of the problems we face-from crime to debt, from drug addiction to entrenched poverty-if we fail to support the best institution our society has, namely the family. It is central to ensuring the well-being of children; there is no more important way to strengthen our society than to strengthen our families, so we must recognise that family breakdown is a route into poverty for many children.
I am pleased that the Government have now accepted that, although I am disappointed that that recognition is again hidden away in the notes accompanying the Bill. The regulatory impact assessment contains these important two sentences:
"Poverty may cause more family stress and therefore cause family breakdown. However, conversely, family breakdown may have caused the family to fall into poverty."
As far as I am aware, this is the first time that the Government have acknowledged that link, and it is a tribute to the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) and others who have campaigned for so long on this issue.
The Government must now follow the logic of their own statement and support families in a way that they have failed to do over the last 12 years. That means, for example, ending the couple penalty that has done so much to undermine families and harm children. It is extraordinary that our tax system actually punishes couples who choose to live together. We are in the ridiculous situation where the state appears to encourage couples to pretend to live apart because they would lose out on benefits if it were known that they lived together. What sort of message does that send to families? That must play a part in the fact that 60 per cent. of children in poverty live in couple families, and it is a component of high levels of in-work poverty.
We have set out proposals to end the couple penalty by increasing the working tax credit for couples, helping 1.8 million of the poorest couples and in doing so lifting 300,000 children out of poverty. I think it is a pity that the Government have not adopted that proposal. I call on the Secretary of State to look again at adopting it, as it is an important step that the Government could take towards meeting their 2020 target.
Yvette Cooper: Will the right hon. Lady tell me how she proposes to pay for that measure? Secondly, does it come first on her priority list, or does it come after cutting inheritance tax for millionaires' estates?
Mrs. May: The Secretary of State knows full well how we will pay for the proposal- [Interruption.] Oh yes she does, because we set it out at the time- [Interruption.] The Secretary of State says that these are measures that the Government are already taking. Well, that is not the case, as I will show. Sadly, what this Government are doing on welfare reform-I assume she is referring to welfare reform-does not go far enough and will not have a sufficient impact on helping people back into work.
As it happens, I was about to come to the fact that work provides the only sustainable route out of poverty, which is why it is important to understand that child poverty is parental poverty as well. I am disappointed that the Bill does not give greater attention to the importance of business and economic regeneration. It says little about local enterprise, but that must be a key part of any local partnerships to tackle poverty. We have not begun to tackle the problem of worklessness in this country. We went into the recession with nearly 5 million people claiming some form of out-of-work benefit. Despite one of the most sustained periods of economic growth in our history, hardly a dent has been made on the hard core of welfare dependency, and we are now seeing record rises in unemployment.
Worklessness and benefit dependency put children and young people at risk of a cycle of poverty, yet Britain has a higher proportion of children living in workless households than any other EU country. The figures show why that is so serious: in households in which all the adults work, a child has only an 8 per cent. chance of being in poverty; in households in which no adults work, that figure rises to 61 per cent. Even the initial progress in reducing child poverty occurred not because of success in tackling high levels of worklessness; one recent report has shown that the number of children living in households in poverty-or those that would be in poverty without tax credits-has increased by nearly 1 million under Labour. Of course, tax credits have been a means of helping the poorest families. However, as the Government now accept, a strategy that relies solely on tax credits, without getting people into work, is not sustainable. Worse, such an approach undermines incentives to work.
Ms Buck: Without support for tax credits, the logic of the right hon. Lady's position is that she is prepared to see parents going into employment even if that employment leaves them below the poverty level. Will she confirm that that is the case?
As the Institute for Fiscal Studies has stated, the extension of means-testing has weakened incentives for many people to stay in work and increase their earnings. It rightly warns that the strategy that the Government have clung to for so long might have the effect of increasing poverty by weakening incentives for parents to work. Without a clear recognition of the importance of local enterprise and regeneration, the Bill contains little to tackle the problem of welfare dependency. It is
vital that the Secretary of State does not backtrack on the essential programme of welfare reform, which her predecessor began, following our proposals. Instead, I would prefer to see her go further, as we originally proposed and still advocate.
Part of tackling worklessness is making work pay and making work possible, which involves setting an environment in which good-quality part-time or flexible jobs can be provided for parents, along with high-quality and affordable child care options. I am disappointed that the Bill does not reflect those issues, and I urge the Government to recognise how vital such interrelated aspects of family life are.
Another part of tackling worklessness will be improving the life chances of our poorest children through the education system. Again, it is disappointing that the Bill does not give greater recognition of that. For example, local colleges and universities could be considered as partner authorities for local government. The simple fact is that we need more good school places; poorer children are missing out because of a lack of them. Therefore, instead of backtracking on the academies programme, as the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families has, we should build on it by allowing educational charities, philanthropists, existing school federations, not-for-profit trusts, co-operatives and groups of parents to set up new schools in the state sector and access public funding equivalent to that of existing state schools. That would allow the creation of 200,000 new school places.
We need to divert resources to pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, ensuring that they get the earliest possible opportunity to choose the best schools and teaching, as my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) has set out. Education leading to work provides a route out of poverty. However, for some children, the effect of being born into poverty will already be apparent when they start school. That is why early interventions in a child's health and development are crucial. I again pay tribute to the work on this matter done not only by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green, but by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen).
It is disgraceful that the Government have cut the number of health visitors by 2,000 over the past four years. Health visitors give families the support and advice that can help children to secure a good start in life. We would increase their numbers by more than 4,000, guaranteeing a minimum of six hours of health visitor support in the home for all families during the first two weeks of a child's life. There is no magic solution, but we must consider such policies if we are to reverse the increases in child poverty that we have seen in recent years.
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