|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
"shifts significant responsibility for the eradication of child poverty onto local authorities and their partners."
It is concerned that in the absence of additional resources from Government, the ability to drive progress will be limited. Concern has also been expressed by the Child Poverty Action Group that there is no idea of how the Bill will work in practice. It, too, asks what will have to be dropped from existing strategies in order to deliver the changes.
The Bill represents the wrong way of working with local government, and it echoes what we came across in debates on the Equality Bill. In the fifth sitting of the Public Bill Committee, on 11 June, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) said:
"if we put responsibilities on a range of authorities...we must think about not only the duties that we are placing on them, but the resources that we grant them. If we place a lot of responsibilities on public authorities without the concomitant resources, we may be setting up not only Ministers, but that significant list of authorities, to fail."
"It is for electors to make decisions when they elect different members of those authorities and it is for those authorities to make the decisions in debate, weighing up all the factors concerned. It is proper for that to be done at that level and not for Ministers to seek to put duties on them." --[ Official Report, Equality Public Bill Committee, 11 June 2009; c. 127.]
I urge Ministers to acknowledge the good work of many local authorities across the country and embrace a broader-based partnership approach to them. I urge them to back off from central Government planning and let local authorities choose the indicators and targets most appropriate to their own area when they produce their strategies.
I also have a couple of comments about targets. The Bill seems to be an admission of failure, as we have already heard that by 2010 we will be 600,000 short of the target. The Financial Secretary is a man who likes to put a good spin on things, and I notice that he has talked about the glass being half full, or indeed two-thirds full, when it is really a third empty. That spin undermines the effect of the target. In the Select Committee proceedings that have been referred to, he admitted, in answer to question 3,
"given current economic circumstances, that it will now be hard to meet the 2010 target on time".
"the scale of the current economic crisis".
"that children...do not experience socio-economic disadvantage",
because it could widen the scope of the Bill to encompass a range of non-income factors, which a number of hon. Members have mentioned. That hope was dashed by the fact that the only measurable things in the Bill are income targets. That distorts the policy agenda hugely, detracting from factors such as education, social work, good parenting and others that have been mentioned. It is a one-dimensional approach. If there is a legislative target for income and not for other factors, there is surely likely to be a bias in the allocation of scarce resources. That, too, echoes debates on the Equality Bill, which followed the same line on socio-economic duty and the concept of disadvantage.
There are some anomalies in the calculation of income. The targets in the Bill all relate to the income of qualifying households, rather than to the income of children. The modified OECD equivalence scale that the Government currently use, which has been mentioned, allocates a weight of 0.67 to a household's first adult, before housing cost income, a weight of 0.33 to subsequent adults and children of 14 and over, and a weight of 0.2 to children under 14. If the Government transfer income to a household of two parents and a young child in pursuit of their targets, 83 per cent. of the income transferred is therefore assumed to be spent by, and for the benefit of, the parents. Only 17 per cent. is assumed to be spent on the child.
Such a transfer may be the only way of helping the child, and I am not criticising that method of approaching child poverty, but we need to be clear about who the chief beneficiaries of the targets will be. In reporting on what has been done for such households, the Government should simultaneously report on what has happened to poverty elsewhere, even if they do not have targets for it.
Conventional income measures ignore income in kind, such as the provision of free education and health care, and the effect of indirect taxes. However, as we have heard, they include disability living allowance, even though that is arguably provided to accommodate the extra costs of disability and should not be counted as income. There is a great need to increase the take-up of benefits and to simplify the whole system. Both those matters were brought up in discussions with the Financial Secretary in the Work and Pensions Committee.
Comparisons have been made with the Climate Change Act 2008. I shall not go into the merits of that Act, but there are two reasons why the procedure of setting long-term targets was more appropriate in that case. There was a need to provide long-term certainty about the British Government's intentions, to encourage private sector development of costly technology and to strengthen the UK's position in international negotiations. By contrast, this Bill merely defines a framework for Government reference. Whereas the Climate Change Act included new powers to help achieve the targets set out-on emissions trading schemes, biofuels and household waste, for instance-this Bill contains no new powers other than those affecting internal Government processes.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) was being generous when she suggested her new title for the Bill. If the title really reflected the contents, it would be "A Bill to set targets relating to the eradication of poverty in households with children, and to make other provisions about child poverty." That would be a far more accurate title, even if it tripped off the tongue less easily; it reflects the bureaucratic nature
of the Bill. The problem is multifaceted; it needs a multifaceted solution, and the flexibility to ensure that we can make a real difference to the lives of children in poverty in this country.
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): I support the Bill. As a number of hon. Members have said, child poverty should concentrate all minds in the House, and more widely in politics. To their credit, the Government have, down the years, successfully addressed child poverty through a number of measures, both budgetary and other. It is appropriate that they see fit to try to reinforce further their commitment on child poverty through appropriate legislation, so I welcome the Bill.
Unfortunately, I do not completely welcome the tone taken by the Secretary of State in opening the debate. An issue of such worth should not be the subject of as partisan an excursion as the one to which we were treated. Child poverty is a serious and compelling issue, and cutting the debate down to the goading and needling of the Opposition is unworthy of the purposes claimed for the Bill.
Like other Members, I am interested in a number of the issues provided for in the Bill. However, unlike some of them, I would like the Bill to go further, and I shall give an example. Several Members have referred to the importance of the child poverty commission. The hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) talked about the commission ensuring that there was a combined UK strategy, but I am not sure that the provisions in the Bill will allow the commission to do that adequately. Clause 7 sets up the commission. It is significant that three of its six subsections, taking up four lines, deal with setting it up; the other three subsections, covering 11 lines, deal with the possibility of the Secretary of State winding it up. Provisions elsewhere in the Bill require Ministers in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales to have a role in appointing people to the commission, and in providing advice and contributions, but there seems to be no provision for them to have any role in relation to any determination by a Secretary of State to wind the commission up, which seems rather strange.
Under clause 9 subsections (1) and (2), the commission is to provide advice at the request of the Secretary of State, and according to a timetable set by the Secretary of State. In subsequent subsections of that clause, we are told that the Secretary of State will
"consult such children, or organisations working with or representing children, as the Secretary of State thinks fit".
I hope that the Government will clarify whether they foresee the commission being able to engage in such contact and consideration; that would meet the point that hon. Members made earlier about the need for the commission to recognise the worth of advice, and the relevance of the role of a number of charities and voluntary organisations, and some faith-based groups.
I hope that the Government will clarify, in the winding-up speech tonight and certainly in Committee and on Report, whether the provisions that address aspects of devolved responsibility will be fine-tuned, so that we end up with strategies that are compatible, complementary and coherent. At the moment, there are provisions in
clauses 10 and 11 on the Scottish and Northern Ireland strategies respectively. Clause 11 says that strategies in Northern Ireland
"may not include proposals that relate to excepted or reserved matters, within the meaning of the Northern Ireland Act 1998."
Clause 10 contains a similar provision relating to the relevant Scottish Act. I can understand what is meant, but we need to ensure that strategies produced by the devolved authorities can make proper and appropriate reference to UK Government measures and relevant initiatives. In quite a number of policy areas, we are in a twilight zone between devolved responsibility and reserved or excepted matters.
"In preparing a UK strategy, the Secretary of State must consider what (if any) measures ought to be taken in each of the following areas-
(a) the promotion and facilitation of the employment of parents or of the development of the skills of parents,
(b) the provision of financial support for children and parents,
(c) health, education and social services, and
(d) housing, the built or natural environment and the promotion of social inclusion."
In each of those areas, we can identify where there are clear devolved remits, but we can also identify where there are significant UK Government influences, contexts and parameters. In a sense, if we are honest, there are a number of matters that are nominally in the area of devolved responsibility, but on which the devolved Assembly in Northern Ireland is basically engaged in making karaoke legislation. The Assembly often has to frame its legislation according to limits, constraints and frameworks determined here in Westminster and Whitehall. We need to ensure that the Bill does not unduly cramp the style of the devolved authorities or their initiative in coming forward with realistic relevant strategies honestly set in the context in which Administrations and societies finds themselves.
As well as the numerous references in the Bill to the role of the devolved authorities, there are, as a number of hon. Members have said, significant references to local authorities, specifically in England and Wales. In Northern Ireland there is change in local government; the new councils there will have some responsibilities for community planning and general well-being. Obviously, I hope that the omission of any reference to local government in Northern Ireland does not mean that local councils in Northern Ireland will be precluded, under the legislation, from making contributions to the task of eradicating child poverty.
It is significant that while there are copious references to local authorities and various partnerships that might be involved, and while there are many references to devolved authorities, the only references to Whitehall are to the Secretary of State-and, it seems, to just the one Secretary of State. We are left with the question: will this legislation be binding everywhere in the country, except across Whitehall? The hon. Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed) made the point that men and women in Whitehall do not experience or meet child poverty every day, but they very much set the context in which child poverty exists and continues, and where it can be alleviated and, hopefully, eradicated.
Clause 8(5) refers to the UK strategy and to what the Secretary of State must consider; again, it is the Secretary of State who is to consider the measures. The provisions do not, as hon. Members have suggested, bind the Cabinet or Cabinet Sub-Committees to addressing that range of measures.
Mr. Graham Stuart: I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is as confused as I am by the Bill. My understanding was that the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families headed up the whole area of children, and that he-or possibly she, in future-would co-ordinate such matters, yet the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is leading on the Bill. That perhaps suggests that the approach will not be as holistic as one might have hoped.
Mark Durkan: I accept the hon. Gentleman's point. The question arises: under the Bill, where does the Secretary of State's responsibility lie, not just in the Government's intention, but in the intention of any future Government? That is an issue against which we have to test the worth and strength of the Bill.
If we are to get the coherent, joined-up approach that Ministers are clearly saying that they want to achieve, the Bill will need tweaking and fine-tuning in a number of respects. It is significant that many of this Government's achievements on child poverty relate strongly to budgetary measures that were taken in various Budgets and through the Treasury. It is also significant that, while the Bill requires an annual statement to be made by the Secretary of State, it contains no obligation for Budgets or comprehensive spending reviews directly and specifically to address the issue of child poverty.
It should be noted that, just this year, the Treasury Select Committee regretted the fact that neither the pre-Budget report last autumn nor the Budget statement this year specifically addressed the issue of child poverty. The Committee noted that that was a significant omission, even allowing for all the other pressures and distractions that exist. Before we can convince ourselves that we are passing a Bill that will actually mean something in terms of committing the Government and this House to eradicating child poverty, we must acknowledge that the Bill is silent on the matter of budgetary statements. The Chancellor of the Exchequer is obliged to produce many statements and reports on many issues that set out many different factors and assumptions, and it seems odd that we should pass a Child Poverty Bill that would allow a Chancellor to produce significant Budget statements without at least addressing issues of child poverty and identifying the terms and assumptions involved.
Ms Keeble: As a member of the Treasury Select Committee, may I say that although no specific measures were announced in the most recent statement, one of the most significant measures to tackle child poverty-which is about increasing housing benefit and council tax benefit-will come into effect this autumn, and that it was pre-announced quite some time ago?
Mark Durkan: I fully accept that point. Nevertheless, the Treasury Committee clearly lamented the fact that there were no references to child poverty in the pre-Budget report or the Budget statement. I shall not read out the entire quote from the Committee, but it called on the Government to address that matter in the future.
The proposal to eradicate child poverty raises the question of what we mean by eradication. Other hon. Members have already said that the Government have set a target that seems to suggest that a poverty rate of anything below one in 10 could count as eradication. Such a percentage in this House would equate to 64 Members, but I see an Opposition party here with more than 60 Members that does not regard itself as eradicated. Under 10 per cent. hardly counts as eradication.
Regrettably, that proposal is an example of the Government and the Department for Work and Pensions resiling from an understanding that they gave in 2003 on eradicating child poverty. Their document, "Measuring Child Poverty" stated:
"Success in eradicating poverty could, then, be interpreted as having a material deprivation child poverty rate that approached zero and being among the best in Europe on relative low incomes".
However, what we are legislating for here falls short of that standard set by the DWP, and I hope that the Department and the Government will return to the prospectus that they were offering in 2003. I hope that the Bill can be improved as it continues its passage through the House.
Another way in which we could usefully improve people's understanding of the purpose of the Bill is to show real parliamentary intent. At a time when the reputation of Parliament is pretty low and when politics is not held in the highest esteem, if we are going to legislate on child poverty, let us set down the clear principles that we as a Parliament want to address. The commission envisaged in the Bill will clearly have an important role, as will the Secretary of State, in providing reports to Parliament, but perhaps we in this House-or a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament-should actively monitor the progress of the provisions. We should be tracking and backing the targets, and testing them, rather than simply waiting to pounce on the annual reports from the Secretary of State.
Perhaps such a Committee could follow the style of the Joint Committee on Human Rights-not meeting as often as a regular Select Committee-in probing and testing some of these issues. That could include highlighting good practice, because we shall be imposing a number of obligations on central and local government, and on devolved Government. If we are obliging them to report, we, as the Parliament that created the legislation, should at least pick up the information in order to establish best practice and to reinforce and support the people who are delivering on the targets.
Mr. Graham Stuart: I wonder whether the public would have more confidence in the measures if the commission were to report to Parliament rather than to the Secretary of State. Perhaps the Select Committee could play a role in the appointment of the chairman of the commission. If Parliament were to hold the Secretary of State to account, people might have more faith that the outcomes could be achieved.
Mark Durkan: I fully accept the hon. Gentleman's point, which reinforces the one that I was making. People would value Parliament making serious commitments about what it was going to undertake, rather than our imposing what appear to be obligations on central Government that leave a lot of room for central Government to pass them down to others while abdicating from them themselves.
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|