|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab):
I start by emphasising an element of consensus that has emerged from the speeches that we have heard so far: that the Bill is, broadly speaking, a good thing; that establishing a target in statute is, broadly speaking,
a good thing; and that targets alone do nothing to put money in the hands of children who need it, so what matters is what we do to reach the targets rather than the targets themselves. The Secretary of State gave us a compelling reason for reminding ourselves of that-the human dimension of child poverty-when she gave the example of a child who received nothing for his birthday. That is a common experience for children living in extremely low-income families. They will actively avoid other people's birthday parties. Many times I have found that children simply do not respond to an invitation because of their parents' fear that they will not be able to take a present with them.
For the many of us who are parents, this is the first day of the school holidays, and it is worth reminding ourselves exactly what poverty will mean for children who are looking at a six-week stretch without the resources to participate in activities that are regarded as the norm and on offer in the community. We know that one definition of a family on a very low income is of a child of 16 living in a household where the total gross disposable income is £100 a week or less. It costs £9 for a child of 16 to go to a cinema in my constituency, so a family would be looking at spending 10 per cent. of their income on one trip to a cinema. To attend a sports camp, such as a tennis coaching camp, in a local park would cost nearly half the family's income, so the children simply do not take part.
It is no surprise then that we see a tendency for some children from particularly poor families to find themselves in trouble-bored, at a loose end and drifting into antisocial behaviour. When the norm is to participate, and some children are not able to do so, the situation is very difficult. One element of poverty about which we always have to remind ourselves is what the costs of living actually are. Poverty is not just a matter of how much money is coming into the household; it is about what demands are placed on families and their children and their ability to fund those commitments.
That is as far as the consensus goes. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb), who said a great deal with which I agree and who has a long track record of displaying knowledge and expertise on this issue. We heard a speech from the spokesperson for the official Opposition that I found profoundly depressing in many respects. The first element that depressed me was the fact that there was no recognition whatever that tough though progress has been to achieve-I shall turn later to some of the problems of maintaining that progress-a great deal has been done. The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) was extremely negative-indeed, damning-about the Government's record, and drew on some quotes to illustrate her argument. However, we should also consider what has been said by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and others.
"Over the last few years a significant reduction in child poverty has been achieved, backed by significant resources."
"There is no simple picture of success or failure...trends have improved in more policy areas than they have worsened in...Notable successes in the last decade included...reduced child and pensioner poverty; improved educational attainment for the poorest areas and schools; and a narrowing of economic and other divides between deprived and other areas."
It is extremely worrying that we are not able to begin a critique of what needs to be done and why progress has stalled in the past couple of years without at least an honest and mature recognition of what has been achieved. When the official Opposition speak-this also came through in interventions-they totally ignore not just some of the progress but the substantive work that the Government have done over the past dozen years to tackle the complex causes of poverty. One has only to look at the annual "Opportunity for all" reports and all the documentation produced by the social exclusion unit to see the enormous amount of research and thinking that went into examining the complex drivers of poverty, including family breakdown and, of course, worklessness, and establishing the importance of early intervention.
It is utterly dishonest to claim that the Government have driven an entirely statist agenda on poverty without working in partnership with voluntary and community organisations. That is simply nonsense, and if that is the Opposition's intellectual level, it bodes very ill. There are plenty of criticisms that can be made of the Government, and plenty of anxieties that can be expressed about where we go from here, but there is a vibrant partnership with voluntary and community organisations at both a local and a national level. I look at my own constituency and see a range of organisations that are working in partnership, such as Sure Start and its children's centres as well as those that are involved in relationship counselling and those that work with children. Westminster Children's Society is our main partner in delivering child care, and Women Like Us works on outreach for parental employment. I point the right hon. Member for Maidenhead towards that kind of work, and ask her to rethink the sterility of the Opposition's position.
Mr. Jamie Reed: Does my hon. Friend share my view that the contribution made from the Opposition Front Bench was more like a crazed attempt to force people into marriage than a meaningful attempt to assault child poverty?
Ms Buck: I do not think that anyone sensible could doubt that growing up in a stable relationship gives a child the best possible start in life. However, I do wonder, given the push towards marriage being reasserted by those on the Opposition Benches, why, when they were in government, they scaled down the married person's tax allowance to the point of its virtual disappearance. There is a little hypocrisy in their position. We want to promote stable relationships, and marriage is obviously a critical, but not the only, way of providing a child with a stable life. We need, above all, as the Government have done-and as, in practice, the Opposition were moving towards-to direct resources towards the child rather than worry too much about the exact status of the relationship in which the child is growing up.
I want to lay to rest some myths, the first of which is the idea that one can tackle child poverty without money. Its causes are complex and multifaceted, and we need to look at education, relationships and so forth to
deal with them, but we will lift people out of poverty by making sure that they have more money. It is a no-brainer, but unfortunately I hear the Conservative party propagating the myth that we can tackle child poverty without money.
It is extremely worrying that we believe that simply driving parents into employment without ensuring that that work pays will somehow tackle poverty-it will not. It will simply move a parent from out-of-work poverty to in-work poverty, and quite possibly deepen their poverty because of the costs that they will have to deal with.
There is also the myth that we can achieve everything that we want to achieve through local delivery rather than with national Government. Ending child poverty is a national Government responsibility. It requires the active participation of local authorities, but I say to Conservative Members that it is striking that my local authority, a flagship Conservative-controlled authority, did not mention the word "poverty" for 11 and a half years, until the Government offered it some money to deliver pilot work on reducing child poverty, whereupon it took the money and is now, I have to say, doing some very solid work on it. However, it has taken-and will continue to take-national direction to deliver that work.
Having defended the Government from what is an admittedly reasonably easy target-the official Opposition -I must say that it is a grave disappointment that we have flatlined following the progress made between 1999 and 2006, with even a slight deterioration in the situation recently, despite the welcome addition of around £2 billion of extra investment in the 2006-07 Budgets, some of which is still to come through. We have an interim target for 2010, which we will clearly not reach, but there is no reason for not recommitting ourselves to reaching it as soon as possible: the fact that we will not hit the target in 2010 does not mean that we cannot hit it in 2011.
We do not want a target for 2020 to take total precedence over interim measures. Similar concerns were raised in relation to the Climate Change Act 2008 about not allowing long-term perfection to drive out the messier and less perfect but none the less very important interim objectives.
My right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary has done a great deal on this issue in his ministerial capacity and he knows that London is at the heart of much of our dilemma in reaching the child poverty objective. London has not made progress-in fact, if London had made the same progress as the rest of the country has, we would be hitting our lone parent employment targets and would be well on the way to hitting our child poverty target. London's experience has clearly demonstrated that incentives work in getting parents into employment and helping them to earn money and lift themselves above the poverty target.
Incentives have worked in every other part of the country. The tax credit system has delivered lone parent employment levels and reduced child poverty, but it has not worked in London. Why not? Work incentives, as delivered through the tax credit system, do not deliver in London because our costs are so much higher. We pretty well know what works. The London child poverty commission does not have a huge intellectual task ahead of it. We know what works: incentives into employment work, as does the delivery of affordable, quality child care. Again, it is a no-brainer. The problem is not about
thinking up new ideas, but about delivering on them. That cannot be done for free, despite the assumptions made by the Opposition.
I want to finish by spending a minute or two on something about which we did not hear much from Ministers but about which I would like to hear more in the winding-up speech and in Committee. None of us has done a terribly good job at convincing the public of the need to tackle child poverty. The most fascinating Joseph Rowntree Foundation report-it is also the one that deserves the closest scrutiny by Ministers-is the one that looks at attitudes to child poverty. There is a general assumption among the public that the word "poverty" is associated with individual failure and, effectively, laziness. In part, that is obviously to do with the abstraction of the word "poverty", which people do not like, but when they are confronted with it as a concept, there is a general willingness to believe that people are the architects of their own inadequacy and poverty.
In large part, that is explained by the low awareness in the public mind of such elements as average income. I do not know whether any hon. Member in the Chamber has ever taken it, but the Institute for Fiscal Studies has a test on its website that asks people to place themselves on an income scale. I am sure that all hon. Members know only too well where they are on the income scale, but most people phenomenally underestimate where they stand on the scale-the IFS has applied the test to groups of civil servants in particular. Most people think that they are average earners, but actually-oh boy-we are not. We are very high earners indeed, while the overwhelming majority of people who take the test find that they are much higher on the income scale than they expected.
People do not understand just how low the incomes that people on low incomes are, nor do they fully understand, when they are earning, just how low benefits are. Above all, they do not understand-this point was made in an earlier intervention-that half of all households in poverty contain at least one person who is in work. As long as we have a public assumption that poverty is associated with out-of-work benefit-dependency, we will have our work cut out in winning public support for what needs to be done.
Does it matter whether we have public support? It matters hugely, because we have a moral commitment-I would say that we all have that commitment, in all parts of the House-not to leave children behind in this, the fourth largest economy in the world. It also matters a great deal whether we have public support because poverty costs this country a great deal. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that the cost to the British economy of maintaining high levels of child poverty is around £25 billion, while 1 to 1.8 per cent. of GDP could be saved by lifting children out of poverty. There is therefore a powerful economic case. I am sure that hon. Members in all parts of the House would accept that long-term poverty and inequality not only are an economic drag on this country, but take their toll on the wider economy and society.
Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con):
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), who made a thoughtful
and passionate speech, and with whom I enjoy serving on the Select Committee on Home Affairs. I am used to her intellectual analysis, and we have seen some of that this afternoon.
We all want to eradicate or severely reduce child poverty. There is much in the Bill that we can all support, and we wish it well. We hope that it works. Whichever Government oversee its implementation, we very much hope that child poverty in this country will be reduced. However, I would like to make a few comments, and I hope that the Financial Secretary, who is a very reasonable man, may take some of them on board and seek to improve the Bill as it goes through Committee, although sadly I shall be supporting him only from a distance in that process.
I want first to explore the issue of targets. It seems to be becoming quite a fashionable framework for the Government to impose a target and then set up a commission to monitor it-we have seen that primarily with climate change. One of the problems with targets is that they can be a distortion. We asked the Home Secretary about targets when he appeared before the Home Affairs Committee last week. The police now have only one target, which is public confidence. A couple of years ago, however, they had dozens of targets. There is now a recognition that targets can sometimes be a distortion.
Targets can also be a disappointment. Perhaps the most famous set of targets in the world are the millennium development goals, according to which we will do tremendous things by 2015, but sadly-tragically-it looks as though we will not hit those targets or anything like them by 2015. I just hope that we have not set people up for a huge disappointment, which will not help the implementation of policy.
I therefore worry slightly about the Government just saying, "Here's the target and this is a solution." A target is not a substitute for a plan and a strategy. I would like to see a little more depth to the Government's plan and strategy in the Bill. A target can give us the impression that we are doing something, when in fact all we are doing is creating a target. As for the commission that will oversee that target, I wish it luck; but as we have heard today, it will not be significantly resourced, so I wonder what contribution it will make.
We must not forget that a recent UN report concluded that the children growing up in the UK right now are some of the unhappiest in the whole of Europe. Why is that? The answer is not just about pounds, shillings and pence-that point is the missing ingredient in the Bill and in this debate, although it has been reflected slightly in some of the interventions. How many ways are there of raising children out of poverty? We can increase benefits significantly-we had an exchange about that earlier, although I do not pretend to be an expert on the benefits system; I will leave that to the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb), who certainly is an expert on it-but the call on the Exchequer will be dramatic.
We know that we can improve access to employment, which is a significant way of helping children and families get out of poverty, and I frequently ask myself how we go about that when I encounter poverty in my constituency surgeries. It was rather unkind of an earlier speaker to suggest that Conservative Members do not
understand or encounter poverty; we all encounter poverty in our daily lives and in our constituency business. Access to employment is critical, but we must wonder how much there will be over the next few years when we are caught up this serious recession, with private sector unemployment still rising and possibly public sector jobs being lost in the next five years, whoever wins the next general election.
So we can increase benefits and improve access to employment, but a third thing that we can focus on-it is not tackled in the Bill-is improving the stability of the framework in which children grow up. The Bill is primarily about financial poverty, but children suffer all kinds of poverty-it is not just about pounds, shillings and pence. The hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North made an important point about children who cannot afford to go to the cinema, go on a family trip or go out with their friends. I accept that those are serious impediments, but children are also poor in terms of encouragement, stability, a nurturing environment, and a framework of values in which they can grow and succeed. It is not about single parents-it is about households of chaos, as I tend to call them, and broken families. How many children grow up in households of chaos where they do not enjoy a sense of security and stability and tend to go from pillar to post? That is one of the greatest factors in the creation of poverty. There is not much about that in the Bill, and that worries me.
There is a missed opportunity in clause 8(5). In considering and measuring how we are making progress on child poverty, if we are to take into account education, health and housing-all very sensible-why on earth should we not take into account the frameworks of stability and security in which children are growing up? That is a key factor. I recognise that there is no magic wand to create those frameworks. However, I hope that when the Committee considers the Bill line by line, it will at least debate that, and perhaps add the requirement that we should take into account the stability and security that can breed the nurturing environment and freedom from poverty that we want for all our children. Of course the Bill is well meaning, but it slightly misses the point about the cause of poverty for too many children-it would be better if it said a little about stability and family breakdown.
I strongly support the policy advocated by my Front-Bench colleagues on putting a form of stability back into the tax system. I am modern enough to accept that not everybody is going to get married. I happen to be married, as are many people in this Chamber. The statistics tell us that marriage creates a form of stability that no other union or relationship has known in the past or is likely to know in future. However, I recognise that lots of people do not want to get married-that is fine. I am interested not so much in marriage as in promoting stability for our young children. I think that marriage is the most important vehicle for stability; none the less, I want those who choose another way of life to enjoy a stable relationship, at least while their children are growing up.
I am probably pulling the rug from under my feet by asking how we can achieve that in relation to non-married couples, which is a tricky thing to do. I see that the hon. Member for Northavon is thinking of intervening on me-I hope that he will stay in his seat, because I do not
have an easy answer. However, at least we can make a start with the significant number of people who choose to be married. If we had a tax system that favoured marriage, or at least did away with the penalty on couples, that could give a wider choice to people who have chosen not to get married, and who could then opt into that system. Although we cannot pass a Bill to create stability, we could nudge people by sending a strong signal that we want to underpin stability for families; that would create the right mood music.
I want to see much more early intervention in the lives of children who are clearly in difficulty-not only those who are at risk but those who are in danger of growing up under-achieving and in poverty. The idea that has come from Conservative Front Benchers about equipping and deploying an army of district nurses would be the right way forward. Having experienced, practical people going into the home, seeing what is going on, being able to give advice and acting as a gateway to other advisers would be a useful tool for underpinning stability and early intervention for children who are in danger of falling into poverty and the kind of under-achievement that we see all too frequently.
We talk about these difficult-to-achieve issues to do with creating stability, supporting parents and early intervention, but we do not expect the civil service to do that as it cannot easily be done by the state. The Bill is oddly and disappointingly silent about harnessing the resources of the voluntary and charitable sectors. I am not saying that they can solve every ill-of course they cannot-but there is a vast reservoir of good will and a vast army of people who can supply some of the advice, wisdom, time and support that so many of these families and parents are struggling to find.
I welcome the provision on local authorities and their delivery partners, but the situation as regards outcomes is very patchy around the country. Many local authorities are not good at giving leadership to the voluntary and charitable sectors in their communities and ensuring that there is better co-ordination. We need to improve the situation-the Bill does not do so-and I hope that that can be done in Committee. Why is the voluntary sector able to succeed more than the civil service-more than paid employees or the state-in supporting parents and families who are struggling? It is a question of motivation, of time, and of being able to give a personal, one-on-one commitment to seeing a problem through. That is what many people need. The voluntary sector can help with that, and we need to be a lot better at harnessing it.
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|