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We need to include in that the faith communities, whichever faith might be involved. We must be a lot better at deciding what faith communities can do, what they cannot do, and what we want them to do. Of course, no one wants to see them proselytising at the expense of the public purse-that is completely wrong. On the other hand, we do not want to intervene in charitable works with a spiritual component that are undertaken by faith communities, and try to squeeze the life out of them. We cannot say, "Oh yes, that works-we'd like you to do more of it, please, but here's a set of rules we want you to follow that will mean that you won't be getting the same results as previously." This must be based on results. We must monitor what the voluntary sector is doing and vet it with a light touch-it must comply with professional standards-but
we must not put it in a straitjacket that squeezes the life out of its performance. It has a huge part to play in supporting and underpinning families and children, and I wish that the Bill did more to encourage that-it is another wasted opportunity.
There is a grievous omission in the Bill as regards children in care-60,000 youngsters who are surely the poorest of the poor, in view of all the opportunities that have been denied them after their removal from their families, for all kinds of legitimate reasons. Now that we are talking about child poverty, is it not time for a major push in trying to intervene more effectively in the lives of children in care, particularly when so many of them leave care aged 16 and go into a vacuum? I ask the Minister to reflect on that.
Mr. Timms: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that clause 8(2)(b) refers to all children. The difficulty, though, is in defining what is meant by a child in care being below the poverty line-that is a measurement that cannot be addressed in the Bill. I agree, however, that we need to ensure that children in care, children in Traveller families and others benefit from the improvements that it sets out.
Mr. Streeter: The Minister makes a good point. Perhaps that is one reason why the definition of poverty-although I know that the Bill focuses primarily on financial poverty-should at least give credence to other forms of poverty, which would make things easier. The one thing that I would like the Government to do for children in care, which could easily be done through this Bill, is to ensure that they have proper back-up when they leave care. A lot of them go into a vacuum. A social worker might contact them once in a blue moon-we know how busy they are-and many of these children end up on the streets as the poorest of the poor.
This has been a very interesting debate. Some people say that in modern-day politics there is no difference between the main parties. I think that debates such as this show that there is a difference still between the main parties, and I think that it is a healthy difference. One of the differences that I would see is that the Government are still intent on a top-down solution-if I might say so, a rather bureaucratic, pounds shillings and pence solution-whereas I would like to think that the Opposition are looking at this issue in its proper context. We see that child poverty is at least in part a reflection on the family breakdown that we are seeing in our country, so sadly, at this time. We know that to tackle this problem properly is not just a matter of introducing a new bureaucratic system, a set of targets or a new commission; it is about rolling up our sleeves and grappling with the difficulty of trying to foster security and stability once again for families in this country so that children can grow up to achieve their full potential.
Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): This has been an important and interesting debate. Child poverty is one of the most important issues that the Government are tackling. I strongly support the Bill and congratulate the Government on the steps that they have taken so far and on having the courage to go for these ambitious targets. Indeed, that is a great tribute to what they have already done.
I want to start by paying tribute to all the organisations that have worked in this field and contributed to the debate about child poverty, in Wales in particular. I want to pay special tribute to Save the Children, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Bevan Foundation, which is a Welsh think-tank, and in particular to the pamphlet written by Victoria Winckler that I shall use in this brief speech.
I am chair of the all-party children in Wales group. I am pleased that its vice-chair, the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies), is also here. The group has worked very closely with the voluntary agencies involved in tackling child poverty. The importance of the voluntary sector's role has already been made clear. I want to emphasise that point. Before I came to this place, I worked for Barnardo's; I worked with many children who were growing up in deprived circumstances. Having a Government who are trying to address those issues is a huge step forward.
The all-party group recently visited a family centre in Pontlottyn run by Action for Children. The centre is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Havard). We saw at first hand the huge efforts made by voluntary organisations in helping young, vulnerable families, many living in poverty, to get some of the stability that the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) mentioned. It is important to recognise that this Government and the Government in Wales have worked very closely with the voluntary sector, and that tackling the lack of stability in some families is something that the voluntary sector does extremely well. One of the main reasons why it can do so is that voluntary sector groups can get closer to the families than statutory agencies can. It is well recognised, including by the statutory agencies, that that is one of the strengths of the voluntary sector. It can be more innovative and can work with less threat to the families. That work is going on, and it has been encouraged by the Government. Tackling the lack of stability that we know exists in many vulnerable families has been a big plank of the Government's programme throughout the UK and certainly in Wales.
One of the interesting things that the all-party group found was that this group of young families-mainly young mothers with children-felt that one of the barriers that brought them into poverty was the lack of affordable transport in their area. That illustrates the fact that the debate about poverty is multifaceted. We cannot restrict it to one particular area, as it covers all areas. The other issue that those families spoke very strongly about was the lack of affordable child care.
Recent reports have suggested that 32 per cent. of children in Wales-192,000 children-live in poverty. We all agree that, as has been said widely here today, for any child to live in poverty is a slur on what we are doing in this country. In addition, Save the Children says that more than one in 10 children live in severe
poverty. When we look at the households that those children come from, we can see why they live in poverty. The reasons have all been mentioned today.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation notes that 60 per cent. of Welsh children who live in poverty live in a workless household and that 40 per cent. live in a lone-parent household. Some 40 per cent. of children who live with a disabled parent are in poverty, compared with 25 per cent. of those whose parents are not disabled. We have already heard about issues concerning children living in households where one of the parents has a disability.
Such figures are not any great surprise, really. Poor children come from households where there are disabled people, from single parent households and from workless households. What are the consequences of this poverty? In Welsh schools with a high number of low-income families, 27 per cent. of children fail to get five GCSEs, as opposed to 5 per cent. in more prosperous areas. The chances of poverty being perpetuated continue. We all know the phenomenon of families where poverty is passed from generation to generation. It is important that we use every means at our disposal to try to tackle that link between one generation and the next. We need to use every means to do that and the targets proposed in the Bill are one such means.
The Bill is certainly not narrow in the way that the Opposition have suggested. We have only to consider clause 8 and the measures involved to see that the Bill is trying to tackle poverty in its widest aspects. By failing to support children from poor backgrounds at an early age, we risk not only building up huge financial bills for the future, but having to live with the disappointment of children who do not fulfil their potential. Children being disappointed, and at a very early age, is one of the saddest situations we can see.
I was very moved by the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) about children who cannot go to birthday parties because they cannot afford to buy the present and card. When we think about what many of us have done with our own children-about how much it costs to ensure that they have a card and a present, and about the fact that in some schools there may be a party every week, especially if there are 30 children in a class, with the whole class sometimes being invited-we can see what a huge financial burden is involved. It is very distressing to think of a child's being aware, deep down, that they cannot take part in the activities that other children can take part in. That is a huge motivating factor in respect of the strength of the Bill. It is the sort of reason why the Bill is so important.
There are many ways of tackling poverty. Children's inability to take part in some activities can be tackled by trying to make provision more universally available. For example, we can provide free access to swimming and leisure centres. That has been the policy in Wales for under-16s for some time, and I believe that it is being extended to the rest of the UK.
On another important point, it is good that the Government have recognised how important it is to work on child poverty with the devolved countries by developing a strategy and working at a local level, particularly with local authorities. I know that some aspects apply only to England, but I hope that they will also apply to Wales in the future.
Eradicating child poverty by 2020 is a huge aim, which we all support. However, we must also provide increased opportunities by making things more accessible, including mainstream services. The Welsh Assembly Government have their own child poverty strategy and will introduce the Children and Families (Wales) Measure. It is vital that the poverty strategies of the UK and of the devolved bodies are co-ordinated, and that links between them are strong.
Wales has taken particular initiatives to tackle poverty through education, with policies such as Flying Start and Foundation Phase Wales, which is based on the Scandinavian model of children learning to play at an early age. It has been phenomenally successful in the early years of its introduction. Wales has also provided for free breakfast clubs for any school that is happy to introduce them. Again, that will add to the proposals in the Bill. Those initiatives will have long-term benefits in tackling poverty, but obviously we deal with many of the key income-related issues, such as taxation and benefits and welfare-to-work, here in Westminster. It is essential that UK and Welsh policies, and those of other devolved Administrations, together tackle child poverty throughout the UK.
Given that 60 per cent. of children in poverty in Wales are in workless households, work on access and encouragement is essential, and Department for Work and Pensions initiatives are important. The system of providing advisers is excellent and I have had good feedback, particularly from lone parents who have been helped by the lone parent advisers. We must always remember that such work has to be accompanied by adequate, affordable child care and good public transport. The Government have made many strides in child care, but a shortage of provision remains-certainly in Wales, although the Flying Start initiative is helping to move things along. I cannot yet say that there is universal, affordable child care. Like the Government, I see work as the way out of poverty, but to give everybody work opportunities, we must make proper child care provision.
Flexibility is also important. Work must be flexible so that parents and children benefit from being with each other as well as having the income that work provides. Above all, benefits and allowances should encourage, not discourage parents' employment.
Child poverty must therefore be tackled in many different ways, and it is great that the UK strategy, as described in clause 8, ensures that the Secretary of State must promote employment, financial support, health, education and social services, housing and social inclusion. That gives the lie to the Opposition's comments.
Mr. Graham Stuart: Those are just warm words in clause 8. They are not a strategy. The Bill simply states that we must have good education and good conditions; it covers a variety of matters, but in no way adds up to a strategy. Indeed, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has said that the policy on fighting poverty for the past 10 years is now exhausted. We need a new one, but it is not in the Bill.
Ms Buck: The Joseph Rowntree Foundation's critique of the poverty strategy is that its heavy dependence on work incentives, driven through the tax credits system, is not sufficient to enable the Government to reach the child poverty targets. That dependence is necessary but insufficient, so the critique means almost the opposite of what the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) implies.
I strongly welcome the child poverty commission and was surprised that the Opposition criticised it. The commission is important because it will unite the whole UK in planning a strategy. It is important that the three devolved Administrations appoint members and that they are closely bound to it. The commission should operate as independently as possible. Some charities have suggested that it should be able to commission its own research. I hope that the Financial Secretary will comment on that when he replies to the debate.
Ending child poverty must mean ending poverty for every child in the UK, but some of our strategies do not reach every child. For example, in Wales, some strategies are based on locality, yet very poor children may live in more prosperous areas. I want to refer to two disadvantaged groups, which have already been mentioned in the debate. The first is the Gypsy and Traveller community, for whom there is not enough accommodation to bring up all children safely and healthily. The health statistics for Gypsy mothers and children are shocking. I want to ensure that any debate about child poverty and any targets will include children from that disadvantaged background. The second group is asylum seeker children, who are treated differently from other children in this country. They are very disadvantaged in many ways-for example, in income and access to services. Every child is a child, and I hope that any poverty strategies that arise from the Bill will take account of those two disadvantaged groups.
John Howell (Henley) (Con): I echo what has been said about the importance of this subject, and the need to tackle child poverty, but I have concerns about the approach in the Bill. I shall start with the implications for local government. The Bill lays a duty on local government to devise a local strategy to reduce or mitigate child poverty. My first disappointment is that although that hints at wider definitions of child poverty in broader socio-economic terms, when one follows through its logic, it clearly boils down to the same income-related criteria as in the rest of the measure.
My second disappointment is that the approach to local government is typical of the Government's treatment of that sector in the past 12 years. This is yet another example of local government being Whitehall's delivery arm, and of much of the initiative being taken away. We should not do that, because local councils' ability to tackle child poverty more broadly gives initiatives local colour.
My county council fully understands what it means to break the cycle of deprivation, and what that cycle is. It is prepared to deal with a combination of linked factors, including employment, poor skills, low income,
poor housing, crime, poor health and poor access to services. It is already doing that in partnership with the county voluntary sector development partnership, the children and young people partnership, the health and well-being partnership, the county safer communities partnership, the economy partnership, the environment partnership and the district local strategic partnership. What added value does the Bill give to the positive work that is already happening?
Is there not a risk that the Bill could divert attention from the carefully worked-out strategies that have already been put in place with other organisations to meet Government targets? Many hon. Members may, like me this morning, have received a brochure in the post illustrating a range of local government activity in connection with child support. It shows that not only is my county council taking a lead in seriously tackling the problem, but that there are examples throughout the country of councils of all colours that have already accepted that as a duty.
The one-dimensional approach to local government is now beyond a joke. It boils down to, "If in doubt, lay another prescriptive duty on local government." It is an extremely cynical approach, because ultimately it puts the duty on others, so that if it fails, it is not the Government's fault. Local government does not need more centrally driven strategies, assessments, detailed regulation and guidance from the Secretary of State. It is not surprising that one of the biggest factors prompting local councillors to stand down at the last county council elections was that they felt that responsibility and accountability for shaping their own environment had been taken away from them.
The Bill gives no idea about how the changes will be resourced. I am extremely worried about its mention of the possibility of creating pooled budgets, because that rather suggests to me that it is simply about recycling existing money. We have to ask what will have to go from the strategies already in place, because local government money is finite, and decreasing.
My own council's opinion is that the Bill will mean a huge realignment of funding and services and a change to orientation on a geographical basis, with a move away from what it is currently doing. I believe that there is a much better way, which would genuinely bring out the benefits of localism and move away from Government-imposed targets and directives. There is no real sense in the Bill of partnership between local and central Government, because ultimately there is no partnership between the two, and there has been very little for the past 12 years. We are a million miles away from the type of compact with local government that hon. Members from north of the border say the Scottish Government have.
We can see from the list of partnerships that I read out, each of which has its own strategy, that we now have strategy overload. As my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) said, the Bill sets
out a bureaucratic model-but a model that contains no real idea of sustainability. I dread announcements being made about pilots when a Bill is introduced, because the usual approach is short-term pilots with over-investment followed by long-term under-investment in the roll-out, so that expectations are dashed.
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