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Numerous elements must be considered as part of a broad, holistic approach to child poverty-debt, addictions, health care, housing and the criminal justice system-and we will press the Government on those issues during the remaining stages of the Bill's passage. It would be a wasted opportunity if they ignored them.
The Bill must mark a second phase in our nation's progress towards ending child poverty. The first phase was simply not good enough. It was a one-dimensional approach that focused solely on tax credits and, tragically but predictably, resulted in an increase in child poverty at the very time when it should be decreasing. The same mistake must not be made again. Poverty is a complex and stubborn blight on our nation, and we will not eliminate it until we recognise its causes and tackle them head on. That means supporting the family as the most important institution in our society. It means tackling generational worklessness and welfare dependency. It means ending the failures of our education system, which result in so much wasted talent. It means working with local government, businesses and the voluntary sector in all parts of the country.
The Government's intention in presenting the Bill now is to bind the next Conservative Government. I assure the Minister and the House that the next Conservative Government will not adopt a one-dimensional approach to child and family poverty. We will recognise, and seek to tackle, the complex web of issues that lead to it, as part of our aim to improve the well-being and life chances of all those living in the United Kingdom.
Mr. Jamie Reed (Copeland) (Lab): I think that I speak for everyone when I say how dismayed I am by the hollow and poor understanding, the poor grasp of the facts, and the real lack of compassion displayed by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May).
I have spoken in the Chamber many times about matters of importance to me and to my constituents. I have spoken about matters of national and international importance, and about the policy solutions required if we are to succeed in those areas. Sometimes I have spoken about my role as an individual, and the roles that my constituents have played, not only in helping to solve the problems but, on some occasions, in causing them. With that last element particularly in mind, if we are truly to understand and defeat child poverty each and every adult in the country must understand the part that we have played in helping to create it.
It is a matter of fact that in the world's fourth largest economy, at the beginning of the 21st century, the existence of poverty-and child poverty in particular-shames us all. We in this country pride ourselves on our liberal democracy, our values, our national character and much else. Too often, however, we retreat into those comfort zones, satisfied with what we have achieved, satisfied with what we stand for, and satisfied with ourselves. Because the challenges that face us as individuals and as legislators are often relentless, there is an understandable desire in some quarters to take flight from the front line on occasion, and to take stock and repair before entering the fray anew. I entirely understand that attitude, but I reject it, because it has burdened the
fight against child poverty. In our towns and villages, in the cities, in the countryside, in our streets, in our state schools and hospitals and elsewhere, it has blighted our efforts.
Each and every one of us in the House should be plagued by the presence of child poverty in our country of wealth and abundance. It should haunt our sleep and terrorise our waking moments, because child poverty is not a choice, and nowhere in the country is it inexorable or unavoidable. Child poverty is a consequence of our actions. It is an illustration of our failings, and for members of my party its defeat is a cause worth devoting the rest of our lives to. However, in doing so, we must remember that the longer it takes to defeat child poverty, the harder victory will become.
I welcome the Bill. It is clearly necessary, and no other party could or would have introduced such legislation. The Government's record since 1997 in taking 500,000 children out of poverty-now they are on the way to taking another 500,000 children out of it-is a worthy one of which we can all be proud.
Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman could tell us whether he believes that the number of children in severe poverty has increased or decreased since the Labour Government came to power.
Mr. Reed: I understand that the definition of severe poverty has been roundly condemned by the agencies most concerned about the alleviation of child poverty in this country. It is seen as something of a smokescreen put up by a party that, sadly, refuses to support the very measure that has taken so many children out of poverty.
Ms Buck: I am interested in that question. Is not it the case that the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Child Poverty Action Group estimate that, if the definition of severe poverty now being promoted by the Conservative party were applied to its record in government, severe poverty would have increased by 500 per cent. during those 18 years?
The lives of the children we have lifted from poverty are not simply lives transformed; in many cases, they are literally lives saved. Our actions have undoubtedly prevented significant cases of poverty, including child poverty, across the board. There should be pride in that-but while one British child still languishes in poverty, there can be no satisfaction.
John Mason: I note that the hon. Gentleman has used the words "defeat child poverty" before, and he is talking now about one child being left in poverty, so I wonder whether he is satisfied with the idea of 10 per cent. being left in poverty. Would that be counted as eradication?
The measures in the Bill are the most unprecedented steps towards defeating child poverty in this country ever-but, for me as an individual, no I am not satisfied. However, without measures such as the minimum wage, the new deal, Sure Start centres and much else, the incidence of child poverty would be
much greater. We should judge colleagues in the House on their actions, not their words. Their voting record tells us all that we need to know about that.
The truth is that we should have done more. Surely we all accept that, but by creating a statutory duty for child poverty to be effectively defeated by 2020, the Government deserve great credit. It is a bold step. I welcome it, but urge that the date be brought forward. Is it the unintentional consequence of the Bill to allow a child born today not to enjoy that right-that is what it will become under law: a right for children-until they are 11? That cannot be right. Perhaps the Minister can inform the House why 2020 has been chosen, what the next 11 years will look like, and how any potential change of Government would affect the fulfilment of that statutory obligation. Children's charities are very concerned about such a prospect.
Can we also have a guarantee that the fight against child poverty will be properly resourced, irrespective of the broader economic outlook? I ask those questions because the House is very good at listening to those with a voice-victims of collapsed financial schemes, of industrial injuries and of other serious injustices-and we are always adept at listening to the media. We are adept at listening to the taxpayer and we are able to discern special interest groups when we hear them, all in the knowledge that those voices have votes.
Poor children cannot vote. Their voice is usually a whisper, and evidence suggests that when-sometimes that means if-they reach adulthood, they do not vote at all. Why? Because we consign those people to the under-class-a class of people who are, as the term suggests, outside society and outside the acceptable, without a voice and living in the shadows. The journey from the maternity ward to the shadows of poverty is a quick one, and begins the second a child is born into a family living in poverty, whether their poverty is relative or absolute. I think that we can all take genuine comfort from the fact that the national health service ensures that all our children are born equal, but that equality withers the instant a child leaves hospital.
This summer, I will hold a child poverty conference in my constituency. That will bring together local Sure Start centres, voluntary providers of child services, local government, social services, GPs, schools, businesses and Churches. The aim of that group will be to identify the child poverty in my constituency, its scope, location and nature, and then to develop a plan to beat it. Fundamentally, the aim is to defeat child poverty in my constituency well before 2020. It has to be this way, and I urge other hon. Members to do the same.
The battle against child poverty must be fought locally; it cannot be fought solely on a national basis. There is little prospect of a lever being pulled in Whitehall that will have an instantaneous effect in my constituency. We need soft influence as well as hard influence-carrots and sticks.
On soft influence, which the Secretary of State has already mentioned, I return to remarks I made at the beginning of my speech about individuals helping in their own way to create child poverty. Individuals do help to create child poverty; we in this Chamber help to do so in our communities, by ignoring both its causes and its signs. For us truly to succeed, this has to change. As significant as this legislation is, better central policy
alone is not enough. More behavioural and cultural change is needed on the part of all of us if we are to prevail.
It is not just the job of the teacher to identify those children in their classroom who are living in poverty. It is not just the role of the Department for Work and Pensions to identify imperilled families. That is also about the local priest who looks after an impoverished parish yet rarely sees the poor among her congregation. It is about the local councillor who sees poverty on his streets and does not shake his council into action. It is about the shopkeeper who knows he should not sell alcohol and tobacco to under-age children but turns a blind eye. It is about the police officer who picks up the same kids from the same estates for the same reasons time and again. It is about the Member of Parliament who has no affinity with his constituency, does not see the impoverished children in his area, and is either too detached, too distracted or too uninterested to solve the problem. It is about the neighbour who does not lend a hand. In short, it is about each and every one of us. We must accept that child poverty is our problem, not someone else's.
Mr. Streeter: The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech, which I am appreciating, but in his long list of people for whom child poverty is an issue he has not yet mentioned parents. There should be more in this Bill about the important role played by parents in the early years of a child's upbringing. Will he come on to talk about that?
Mr. Reed: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and he pre-empts my next sentence. By "hard influence", I mean precisely parents and the encouragement of self-reliance where there is none to be found.
This is why community efforts are so vital. Whitehall cannot provide the full arsenal that communities need to defeat poverty, because most men and women in Whitehall have probably never seen child poverty.
John Howell: The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting point, with which I happen to agree: a lot of the effort should be local rather than central. However, why then does he agree with a Bill that is so rigid in its central planning diktat for local government?
Mr. Reed: Because we have a fundamental difference of understanding in respect of the Bill's scope, provisions and aims. I think it is a very enabling Bill, which allows people to provide the solutions that they see as being the most appropriate for their own communities.
I have talked about community efforts and the good men and women of Whitehall not having actually seen poverty. Most areas will be different, and in any event child poverty will not be beaten between the hours of 9 and 5, Monday to Friday. With this in mind, I particularly welcome provisions in clause 8 of the Bill, where the Secretary of State must consider what action is necessary, with regard to the employment of parents and the provision of financial support for families, and in health, education, social services, housing, the environment and other policy areas, to ensure that the fight against child poverty succeeds.
That cross-departmental approach is essential if we are to succeed. However, I know that such collegiate working can be very difficult, and for this co-ordination to be truly effective it will have to be done in Cabinet and enforced at the highest level. Will the Government ensure that the permanent secretaries of various Departments are as seized as they are of the importance of this agenda?
I also welcome the emphasis placed on local authorities. Independence is important, but will the Secretary of State provide more information regarding discretion among local authorities? Will the Government also ensure that local authorities prioritise need above other considerations? I would hope that they would.
Will the Government also ensure that the innovation, energy and insight of the third sector are put at the forefront of our efforts? In my experience, the flexibility of the voluntary sector can often-not always, but often-lead to more successful and productive outcomes than when statutory bodies pursue similar aims.
Tackling child poverty must be among the most important public spending priorities. The budgets relating to that policy agenda must be ring-fenced and, as a bold extension to that, we should further incentivise the benefits of employment for the poorest families in our society by taking them out of the taxation system altogether until they no longer live in poverty of any kind, be it relative or absolute. Finally, will the Government consider establishing pilot projects with the aim of defeating child poverty in discrete identified areas well before the 2020 deadline? I volunteer my constituency for such a pilot, and I look forward to the Government's response.
This Bill is precisely what my party, and this Government, are for. I commend Ministers and the Prime Minister for what has been achieved so far, but I urge them to be even bolder by bringing the target date of 2020 forward. Today we celebrate the 40th anniversary of putting a man on the moon, but let us never forget that that feat was not the inevitable consequence of a pressing industrial or scientific need; it was the result of a political choice. Kennedy famously stated:
"We choose to go to the moon."
A combination of sufficient resources and political determination made it possible. Politics is about priorities and choices. The fact that 40 years after conquering the moon we should still be discussing the spectre of child poverty is a sickening tragedy and a savage indictment of our society, so let us choose to do more. Let us choose to defeat child poverty and to do so before 2020.
Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed), who reminds us, in this discussion of statistics and targets, about the human face of child poverty and the fact that tackling child poverty is a cause, not simply yet another benchmark, target or box-ticking exercise. His perspective is very welcome and his commitment to action in his constituency is impressive.
I welcome the Bill. I sometimes tend to be slightly churlish in response to Government Bills, but I unreservedly welcome the fact that this one contains a commitment to tackling child poverty. At Prime Minister's questions last week, the Prime Minister talked about abolishing child poverty. I think that the House would recognise that that is not what this Bill sets as its target; it sets a target of having fewer than 10 per cent. of children living in relative poverty-by my maths, that still works out as 1 million children. The common understanding among the public of "abolishing" child poverty would not be that 1 million children are left in poverty. I hope that the Government and the Ministers present today will reflect on how they describe this Bill, because there is a danger of a noble end being oversold-Governments of all sides have a tendency to do that. If the aim is presented as the abolition of child poverty and a future Government subsequently pat themselves on the back because only 1 million children are in poverty, the public would be justified in thinking that that was not quite what they had in mind. I hope that Ministers will be more realistic about what this Government seek to achieve through the Bill, but I welcome an objective of this sort and a process for monitoring progress towards it.
Mr. Graham Stuart: I agree with the point that the hon. Gentleman has just made, which is all the more right because in a number of countries, including Denmark, the level of child poverty is below 5 per cent. Thus, to suggest that the eradication of child poverty should involve a figure of 10 per cent. is at least slightly misleading.
Steve Webb: It is certainly true that the UK has a very poor record on child poverty compared with most of the rest of the European Union, and I shall discuss that later. Our record has got progressively worse over the past 20 to 30 years, although at least some welcome efforts have been made to reverse the situation in the past decade or so. The extent of child poverty in this country is internationally embarrassing.
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