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20 July 2009 : Column 650

Clause 15 gives serious cause for concern in relation to a future Government being able to avoid some of the requirements in the Bill. Its provisions on economic and fiscal circumstances could be played like a joker by any future Government who wanted to say, "No, there are measures that we cannot consider because the prevailing economic and fiscal circumstances mean that we cannot proceed or act on child poverty." People will not accept such excuses and slippage. They will identify such slippage as slipperiness. If they see us building a get-out clause into the Bill, they will think that it can be cited, by virtue of other prevailing circumstances, as a way by which the provisions will not make as robust a commitment to eradicating child poverty as they need to.

I support the commitment to eradicating child poverty by 2020. In Ireland, however, my party has strongly argued that 2016-the 100th anniversary of the proclamation of Irish independence and of the Republic, which set out the key element of cherishing all the children of the nation equally-should have been the date by which we should have eradicated child poverty there. Obviously that has not happened, however. This Government have made huge strides on this issue. Yes, there have been some blips and slips in recent years, and we understand the circumstances involved, but we welcome the fact that the Government are showing the resolve and determination to legislate for this. I hope, however, that they will recognise that the Bill can, and must, be improved as it proceeds.

7.28 pm

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan). He said that this should not be a partisan debate. Apart from some of the usual political banter earlier in the day, I think that Members on both sides of the House have treated this as a serious issue on which we want to move forward. Unfortunately, however, the Bill is very much about setting targets rather than delivering an end to child poverty.

A few Members have talked about the great progress that has already been made, but we are where we are, and, in regard to where we stand in Europe, that is not a great place to be. My hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) mentioned that child poverty rates in the UK were below those of Poland, Italy and Romania. I do not have his encyclopaedic knowledge-which he gained from working for the Institute for Fiscal Studies for nine years-but I think that it is worth putting on record which European countries we are behind in this regard. We are behind Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Cyprus, Iceland, Slovenia, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, France, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Belgium, Estonia, Malta, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Luxembourg, Portugal, Lithuania, Greece and Spain. So, when people say that we have made great strides in years gone by, we must remember that we are still not where we want to be.

I see pockets of poverty in my constituency, which is generally viewed, like those of many other Members, as a relatively wealthy one. It is sad to say that in my eight years as a Member, nobody has ever come to my surgery to ask about child poverty. People come along to say that they have problems with their benefits, tax credits or whatever, but nobody has told me, "You must deal with the issues of child poverty". It is the same
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with housing problems in that very few come along to say, "Housing is a major problem and we want to see Parliament do something to sort out the wider problem."

As I have said, the Bill deals with targets, but there is a great shortage of specific detail and no specific strategy. As the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) said, it is very easy to set targets for issues such as the millennium development goals. We all heard pledges made when the G8 met at Gleneagles a number of years ago. Earlier this year, the G8 met again in Italy and some of those who had made significant pledges at Gleneagles were there calling for action to happen, but those very same people had not delivered on their own pledges. We must expect promises to be kept generally, but for those suffering from poverty, those promises can be the very heart of their lives.

People often say that it is not just a question of money or cash in pockets, as there are many other aspects to living in poverty. One particular issue that I want to highlight today is that Government targets on child poverty will never be achieved without a specific focus on disability. I am going to come back to that. There are a wide range of issues involved, but I shall try not to repeat those previously mentioned.

As a number of Members have said, education also has a key role in pulling people out of poverty. There are two spirals that work with education-an upward and a downward spiral. People who have good jobs and a good income often see their children having a good education. Those children will come out of school, secure a good job and carry on in that upward spiral. At the same time, the children who grow up in poverty often suffer from a poorer education; they will end up in lower-paid jobs and the downward spiral will continue for them.

Although we have legislation before us-I welcome the fact of this Bill-it will not end child poverty. I accept that some Members care less than others about poverty, but I would like to think that everybody cared about poverty, even though they might not have suffered from it themselves. I do not believe that someone has to rob a bank to know that doing so is wrong. Equally, we do not have to be poor in order to feel the pain of those who are living in deep poverty.

We see in our surgeries how issues have developed over the years. On the good side, child poverty will be at the heart of every party's manifesto in the run-up to the next general election, which is 12 months away. We have moved on, because child poverty did not merit a mention at all in the Labour party's 1997 manifesto. It was a couple of years later before child poverty came up on the agenda and targets were set, only some of which have been met. The Government have achieved some positive things-tax credits, for example, but there are both good and bad sides to them. There have been errors and reclaims that have caused great confusion.

Even worse for people, we are now in a recession, with increasing unemployment. Although the Secretary of State announced today a further £10 million to tackle poverty, we have seen tens of billions of pounds pumped into the banking system to ensure that it can carry on working. As we heard in an announcement last week, several thousand bankers received bonuses in excess of £500,000 each, at the same time as many
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people in the UK were living on the breadline. There is no lack of wealth in this country: if only we could get it right-whether it be through legislation, education, employment, transport, housing or a whole range of other issues-we could tackle the poverty that still exists in too many pockets of the UK.

A number of provisions in the Bill detail the role of local authorities and devolved Governments and Assemblies. I shall raise one issue, on which I expect the hon. Member for Glasgow, East (John Mason) to strike back. Problems can be identified at the UK level, as they were some years ago when the UK Government specified that about £300 million needed to be spent in support of disabled children. That went through the Barnett formula, but when £34 million went to the Scottish Government, the money was not spent on that purpose. It was spent on other issues, not on the specific need identified by the UK Government. It is the same with child poverty. There are clear issues that run UK-wide, but when responsibilities are passed to local authorities, Governments and Assemblies, it is sometimes a case of passing the buck, while at other times those bodies just do not deliver. I believe that the responsibility lies at the UK level to see that child poverty is tackled at the UK level.

I am now going to focus specifically on child poverty in relation to disability. Unless the Bill is disabled-aware, the significant costs associated with living with a disabled child for families and parents who are sometimes themselves disabled will not be understood. So many factors work together that result in children ending up in poverty. It is well known that those who are disabled are less likely to be in work, but more likely to want to work, than their able-bodied counterparts. A household with disabled children will end up with higher weekly running costs-often higher transport costs, sometimes higher food costs because of specific diets that are required and a whole range of other costs. At the same time, however, their income is likely to be lower.

A few facts are worth reading into the record. One in three of all children living in poverty have at least one disabled parent. A family with one disabled parent is 30 per cent. more likely to be in poverty, and 700,000 children with a disabled parent are living in poverty. Families with disabled children are more than 50 per cent. more likely to be in debt, while 16 per cent. of mothers with disabled children work in comparison with 62 per cent. of mothers with non-disabled children.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon said, there is often a real disparity when extra income or benefits are taken into account. Those increases do not result in those families being better off; they are simply there to deal with the increased costs that the families have to deal with. The Government often respond by saying that they target means-tested benefits to those who are the poorest of the poor, but the poorest of the poor are not necessarily those entitled to and receiving benefits. The real poorest of the poor-this is where poverty is a real problem-are those who are entitled to, but do not receive, those benefits. As I said to the Secretary of State earlier, £10 billion of means-tested benefits went unclaimed this year.

Mr. Graham Stuart: The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech. May I recommend to him "Empowering Society", which was launched today by the Conservative
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disability group? Its first key idea is that we need to bring in a single assessment for people with disabilities to enable them to access benefits. These people are often sent from pillar to post under the current system and they often end up compromising for the sake of speed-with a reduction in their benefits. What we need to do is radically change that system so that disabled people can get the support they deserve.

John Barrett: I take the hon. Gentleman's point. We often hear, particularly from parents with disabled children, that it is an onerous enough task just to deal with the child and the disability, as it involves dealing with mental anguish as well as the physical disability. Having a disabled child can be the catalyst for family breakdown, which often leads to further social problems. To follow up the hon. Gentleman's point, parents then have to spend hours and hours going from helpline to helpline and from Government Departments to local authority departments and social services, while at the same time having to deal with doctor and hospital appointments. One thing I did to help with this problem at the constituency level was to put together a pack of information for parents of disabled children. The idea was that in their quiet moments, perhaps between their doctor and hospital appointments, they could see at a glance all the help and support that was available to them. Under the current system, whatever the Government's failings, a lot of help and support is available, but people often do not know how to access it, or do not even know it exists. The point is therefore valid, and is not a party political one: all parties in the House would like benefits and support to be received by those who need them most.

I will put a couple more statistics on the record: parents who have a disabled child are two and a half times more likely not to work more than 16 hours a week; and 10 per cent. of families with disabled children care for more than one disabled child. Although I welcome the Bill, and I leave the exploration of the fine details to the encyclopaedic mind of my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon, Members on both sides of the House can work together in Committee to improve the legislation. In 2009, child poverty ought to be history. Sadly it is not.

7.41 pm

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): I am pleased to speak on this important Bill. A number of Opposition Members, especially the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), said that the Bill was an example of interference from central Government, who were constraining and placing more duties on local government. That misses the point of the Bill, as, broadly, it sets out a commitment to end child poverty, with which all Members have said they agree. The Bill sets out some targets-although not enough-to specify poverty, but leaves it to local agencies to deliver strategies to tackle poverty, which is right. Everyone who has worked on poverty understands that it requires local solutions and people and agencies to get into areas of intractable, hard-core poverty, using different strategies to tackle it and considering its specific causes in those areas.

The Bill is well suited to take forward the fight against poverty. Eradicating child poverty is one of the great goals of this Government. I concede that we will miss the 2010 target, which I very much regret, but we
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should not ignore the progress that has been made. The Bill will move matters forward, tackling not just the financial aspects of poverty, but the other aspects to which Members have referred. I want to focus on some of those other aspects, and make some proposals to strengthen the Bill.

Targeted measures, rather than blanket solutions such as general disbursal through child benefit, are necessary to target intractable, hard-core poverty. By and large, we know which families are most at risk of poverty and where they are. As several Members have said, first, they are the families in which no one works. However, the statistics also highlight the risk factors of lone parenthood, disability, unemployment in two-parent households or marginal employment in two-parent households. Those are the biggest risk factors for children to live in poverty and, according to Every Child Matters, for poor outcomes for children. Poor families can also be identified by the state benefits they receive, especially income support, jobseeker's allowance and housing benefit, with disability benefits a bit further down the scale.

We also know where poor families live, and that has changed over time in an interesting way. In 1970, poor families were most likely to be renting private property, with only a third in social housing. By 2000, the figures were almost exactly reversed, with poor people three times more likely to be social housing tenants. Now, the figures have shifted again. The biggest proportion of poor families are tenants of the state, renting social housing split between council housing and housing association properties. However, the next biggest category of poor people live in owner-occupied housing. The size of that category might increase as a result of the current recession, and the Government might need policy instruments to tackle it.

Steve Webb: The hon. Lady refers to the important role of housing in poverty. She will know that the definition in the Bill explicitly does not take account of housing costs. Given that housing costs might partly reflect quality, but also real inflation, which would in turn affect real living standards, is it not at least a concern that such costs are wholly excluded?

Ms Keeble: I was about to refer to that issue, because housing is one of my main concerns. Before housing costs, 19 per cent. of children live in poverty, but after housing costs that figure rises to 27 per cent. My hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) referred to London, and my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury will be interested in the figures, as his constituency is also in inner London: after housing costs, 44 per cent. of children in London are in poverty, but before housing costs that figure is about 27 per cent., which is in line with other parts of the country. High housing costs, especially in London, cause poverty. The cost of housing is a significant factor in the poverty of families. Therefore, by increasing housing benefit this autumn, the Government are putting money in exactly the right place. However, they might also have to look closely at the impact of the cost of home ownership on low-income families and on child poverty as a result of the recession.

The poor are also likely to be in bad-quality, overcrowded housing. According to Shelter, 1 million children are in overcrowded housing, and many more live in homes that are below the decency standard. In my constituency,
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the number of council properties that fall below the decency standard has risen from 2,698 in 2006 to 4,623 in 2008-an increase from 21 to 37 per cent. That does not take into account the problems with families who are squeezed into unsatisfactory privately rented property, or who struggle to maintain low-cost private ownership. I shall set out proposals to strengthen the Bill with regard to housing.

The Bill also needs to be strengthened in relation to crime, as the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) suggested. The link between vulnerability and crime is clearly demonstrated in the report by the Prison Reform Trust setting out the proportion of children and young people in custody who have been affected by family breakdown, special needs and poor educational achievement. The Government are studying the origins of that vicious circle in the early years of young people who become offenders, for whom outcomes are disproportionately in poverty. Although the Bill refers to police authorities and youth offending teams as partner authorities, it does not give specific attention to issues in relation to the criminal justice system and poverty, and the implications for child poverty. I would have expected such attention to be given in clause 8 on strategies.

However, it is more important for the Bill to be strengthened in relation to housing. Every Child Matters, in which the Government's children's policy is rooted, recognised homelessness as the second biggest risk factor for children-second only to low income and parental unemployment in determining a child's success in life. Housing authorities were made part of safeguarding arrangements, and protocols were issued for joint working, although those were weakly enforced. Housing is mentioned as a factor in the Bill, but only in passing in relation to strategies. There are no targets for housing and no indication as to what constitutes adequate housing for a child. In the suite of factors constituting material deprivation, only one relates to housing, which shows a weakness in the thinking behind the Bill. The one housing question is whether there are enough bedrooms for every child aged 10 years or over and of a different gender to have a room of their own. According to the Government's figures, 27 per cent. of those in the lowest decile say that they want but cannot afford that, although most of the rest-70 per cent.-already have it. Given the figures for overcrowding, that surprises me. I wonder what the response would be if those children were then asked whether they had a room of their own only because their parents slept on the floor in the sitting room.

All the information from every source suggests that inadequate and overcrowded housing plays a major role in the vicious circle that is child poverty. It contributes to poor health-we have seen a 25 per cent. increase in ill health among poorly housed children-and it leads to dysfunctions in families. Homelessness leads to three to four times the number of children with mental health problems. It means that children have nowhere to do their homework. Homeless children miss an estimated quarter of their schooling, and 50 per cent. of young offenders have experienced homelessness.

I believe that, ultimately, the state is not giving children enough rights to proper housing. Families with children can qualify as homeless, but their rights are circumscribed.
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It has been said that families with children should not be placed in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, but that is only guidance: it does not have the force of law. The standards relating to overcrowding are awful. They were set in 1935, and still provide-except in some pathfinder areas-that two adults, two children and a baby aged under one can be housed in a one-bedroom flat.

I am sure that other Members can give examples from their constituencies, but I want to give three particularly bad examples from my area, which illustrate the need for housing safeguards for poor families. One of the worst that I have encountered involves a young family. Both parents are unemployed, and the mother has only just turned 21. They live in a small first-floor two-bedroom flat with four children, the eldest just three years old and the youngest newborn. The parents have had a difficult time given their involvement with the criminal justice system, depression, poor health and confusion over their benefits, which resulted in their living on child benefit for about four months before the birth of their fourth baby. A council official who visited after I complained about the family's overcrowding said that there was no problem, because two of the children could sleep in the combined living room and kitchen. Given the safety risks involved in leaving two small children all night in a room with all those household appliances, that was extraordinary.

The other example involved a grandmother, mother and six children living in a four-bedroom house. They complained that the house was crowded, and that fixtures and fittings were breaking. When I arrived there, I discovered that the grandmother had one small bedroom, the mother had another, the three boys shared one bedroom, and the three girls shared another. The real problem was that the eldest boy was autistic. That returns us to the disability issue. I hope the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) agrees that we should pay attention to conditions involving behavioural as well as physical disabilities. The boy crashed around the house a lot, breaking fixtures including all the doors. More to the point, he spent most of his time pacing up and down the family's only living room.

One of the material deprivation indicators listed in the Bill is that children are not able to have friends around for tea or a snack once a fortnight. According to the Government, even as many as 61 per cent. of children in the lowest family-income quintile are able to do that. Children can be very cruel about special needs. How on earth could a child feel confident about bringing a friend home from school to tea if an autistic older brother was pacing up and down the family's only living room, and if the child had to share a bedroom with two siblings? How could a child get homework done, or enjoy any peace or privacy?

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