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A third and perhaps even more shocking case is that of a 19-year-old woman looking after her two young nephews and niece after the children's mother-her sister, a drug addict-had abandoned them. The three children and their aunt, along with the children's dog, were living in a one-bedroom flat. This remarkable young woman said that what really caused her problems was the inappropriate behaviour of the girl because of what she had been exposed to, and that the boy had also been exposed to behaviour that was completely unsuitable for such a young child. The fact that they were short of
money was, in a sense, the least of the children's worries. There is poverty in kind as well as in cash. A number of Members have made that point, although I feel that specific targets should be set in the Bill.
I shall table amendments on the subject of housing. I shall propose a target for clause 3 that, ideally, would be radical, demanding that there should be no bed-and-breakfast provision for children, that all children should have rooms of their own and that every child should have a home with central heating and access to a safe outdoor play area; but that might be too much to ask.
Perhaps a more reasonable target is that every family with at least one child normally living with them should have a living room-a room that does not count as a bedroom, but in which the family can live and watch television, the children can do their homework, and there is enough space for a table around which they can sit and have a meal together. Another requirement would be that the spatial needs of children with special needs-this raises another point made by the hon. Gentleman-including behavioural difficulties, should be taken into account in the assessment of families' housing needs. If a child has behavioural difficulties, the lives of its siblings should not be turned upside down because of a lack of space in which to cater for its needs. Every child should have housing of a decent standard. As I have said, in Northampton 37.7 per cent. of council housing is not decent.
One of my predecessors, Margaret Bondfield, who was Member of Parliament for Northampton in 1923, campaigned on women's employment and child poverty issues. The Government's target is to end child poverty by 2020, which, unfortunately, is 100 years too late for my predecessor. With or without the improvements that I have suggested, however, the Bill will make a big contribution to-at long last-the achievement of her goal, and I thoroughly support it.
Let me touch on a few issues that, although they have already been raised, I consider to be important enough to mention again. First, there is the poverty of love. We have heard about the importance of marriage and families and about marriage break-up and its effect on children, but one of the major issues that I regularly encounter in my constituency is that of families who experience antisocial behaviour problems with their children. Such families need one-to-one assistance-focused help-but at present local authorities are finding it difficult to provide it. We have heard about the poverty of health, and, from the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble), about poor housing, which is a huge problem in my constituency. It is a former mining constituency containing many terraced houses, and the loss of housing grants and inability to make repayments is a major problem.
Disability has been mentioned, and another health issue, affecting both children and their parents, is that of mental health. There is huge pressure on children nowadays. There is stress and anxiety, not just in the home but in the community. We tend to take our eye off the ball when it comes to mental health, and I think we
should focus on that in the coming months. We have also heard about the poverty of opportunity and ambition, and about the support that we should give children and young people to encourage them to want to get on. It is so easy to fall into the poverty trap, not just in financial terms but in terms of having no ambition and not wanting to change.
When it comes to education, one of the major problems is sex education. We see many parents aged 12 or 13. We have forgotten about the education that is needed in telling children about the problems of having a family at such a young age.
There is another problem on which I think all Departments need to work together. In other Bills, the Government have proposed fining families if children fail to attend school. Which families would that affect the most? It would tend to be those living below the poverty line. We have heard that £15,000 tends to be the average annual income, and that anything below that is seen to be poverty level. In my constituency, a significant number of people live on real incomes of well below £15,000 a year. Although there is a reliance on benefits, the worry is that those benefits can be taken away at any time.
I have another concern about benefits and the benefits structure: where does the money end up? Does it end up benefiting the child? Is it targeted within the family to look after the children? Where is it spent, and how is it spent? Again, it comes back to education and helping families to understand that the money needs to be used in the right way.
Another issue that has not been touched on is the role of grandparents and the wider family. In my constituency, we have a huge problem of children having children and very young people being caught in the family trap. The role of grandparents has been undermined in so many ways. The chances of grandparents to look after the children have been undermined. Their voices need to be heard.
Constituencies such as mine have suffered over the past 30 years from the loss of traditional industries and manufacturing. I urge the Minister to ask the Prime Minister for sight of a report called "The Other Half of Britain" that was produced by the Alliance, which is primarily made up of local authorities from areas of the country that have suffered from the loss of traditional industries and therefore have a huge need for investment. I sent a copy of the report to the Prime Minister some 12 months ago. If he has not got it, I can provide another one.
We heard again about partnership working by the voluntary and statutory sectors, but I worry that in some respects the statutory sector sees the voluntary sector as a threat. Instead of allowing it to do the job it does well, it tends to resent the interference, as it sees it sometimes, from the voluntary sector. There is a huge task to be performed throughout the country in encouraging increased partnership working.
I was pleased, proud and privileged to be part of the "end child poverty" rally that was held in London earlier this year. I was lucky enough to have a number of my constituents alongside me and to be one of the 10,000 people in Trafalgar square. It showed again that the focus on ending child poverty goes much wider than this place.
The Bill concentrates quite a lot on targets and statistics. I worry about targets and statistics. We can make statistics say anything we like. If targets are not realistic, they work as a disincentive to people to achieve; we need targets that can be achieved. That is a problem with the Bill.
A promise of delivery in terms of ending child poverty is one thing, but just passing a Bill through the House will not achieve that. I am seeing services being cut in my constituency. I urge the Government to take the advice of the latest report from the House of Lords on the Barnett formula. It stated clearly, and so has Lord Barnett, that the formula needs to be reviewed. The Welsh Assembly and the Welsh Assembly Government have carried out their own review, which comes to the same conclusions. The distribution of wealth across the country should have a needs base within it; otherwise areas such as mine will find it very difficult to come out of the difficult times that we are in now and to recover from previous difficult times.
We are losing community facilities. My other worry is that the first things to be cut by a local authority in times of austerity tend to be things that are seen as the flowery bits, the add-ons: community centres; places where young people can meet, be occupied and do things; and youth workers. There needs to be ring-fenced funding from central Government to local government, which must be told "That is what the funding must be spent on", otherwise it will be spent on many other services.
We in Wales were fortunate enough to be the first country in the UK to have a commissioner appointed for children. I know that that idea has now spread across the country. The influence of the commissioner has been significant in making many improvements in our areas. It is wonderful to come up with plans, strategies and initiatives but the problem is that, if the funding is not provided to take them forward, we will lose the plot. Again, to disincentivise people and to communicate things to people and then not deliver is the worse thing one can do. There is a huge difference between consultation and negotiation. If we consult and then fail to deliver, people will walk away.
Over the past 30 or 40 years, we as a nation have struggled to understand the poverty issue not just in terms of children-as we heard earlier, we have struggled to understand it in terms of older people as well. We will be judged on how we provide for our senior citizens and our young people, who are the future of this country and are so important to us.
There is more than enough in this country and the world for people's needs, but as we have seen over recent months, through the bonuses paid to bankers and the financial services collapse, there will never be enough for people's greed. I hope that the Government, through the Bill, will concentrate on those who need help the most.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op):
I am delighted to take part in this Second Reading debate and it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies), who clearly has considerable expertise in
this area. I would like to make my speech a tribute to someone who has not yet, as far as I know-I was out of the Chamber for a short time-been mentioned in the debate and should be mentioned. That is the late Peter Townsend, who passed away a couple of months ago. Peter was a friend. He was also a constituent in his later years and he was married to Baroness Corston.
If one person has done more than anyone else to raise the issue of child poverty in this country, that person was Peter Townsend. I have a suggestion. It may be an informal one, but I hope that, as a mark of respect to Peter Townsend, the commission will be called the Peter Townsend child poverty commission. I understand that that may be difficult in terms of how these things work but, as many will know, Peter's work led to the setting up of the Child Poverty Action Group and set in motion much of the research work not just in this country but in the third world. He talked about the importance of the social security system in the developing world, where there are so many other issues to deal with-education, health, peace, trying to provide water-and he explained graphically why looking after the most vulnerable in the developing world is so important. I hope that we can apply that epitaph to this country. I am sure that he would be proud that we are legislating in this field now.
I would like to thank the Government. The Bill Committee team has met on a couple of occasions with the all-party group on poverty. I am an officer of that group, which is genuinely all-party. The team met and discussed with us what was in the Bill and what we might like in the Bill. More than anything, it explained the structure and the thinking behind the Bill. Perhaps no one else will mention it, but there are some interesting findings in the consultation that was carried out-I know what others have said about the dirty word that "consultation" has become-and I hope that it will inform the Committee stage. As we take evidence from the various organisations, perhaps we can use that to improve the Bill still further.
I pay credit to the End Child Poverty coalition. This is not the Government's Bill per se, because it is owned by a range of organisations. Although some aspersions have been cast about how the legislation has been approached, it is important to say that there is overwhelming support for the attempt to abolish-if that is the Prime Minister's word-child poverty. I hope that support can genuinely be spread across the House, because it has certainly spread across those organisations.
Several years ago I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill, which looked at anti-poverty measures and how we should target them to try to eradicate poverty in the round. I thought that it was a largely consensual Bill, but it was opposed by the late Eric Forth-not so great in my eyes in this respect. However, I thought that the official Opposition had moved on from their view that poverty did not matter. I was somewhat taken aback by the speech of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), which took us back almost to thinking that her party had learned nothing and forgotten nothing, but I was uplifted by the contribution made by the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter), who is an acknowledged expert in this area. I hope that what he had to say reflects the tenor of the official Opposition's approach to this debate, rather than what we heard from their spokesperson.
I was pleased that the Church of England mentioned in its submission William Temple, whom I consider to be the greatest Archbishop of Canterbury, mainly because he was a Christian socialist-alongside R.H. Tawney. It is, of course, a long-held view of the Christian Church in this country that we must attack poverty, and particularly child poverty.
We must also take into account the issue of the demonstration of poverty. Poverty is, of course, all too apparent in our urban areas and we must bear down on that, but poverty exists in all areas of our society, and rural poverty has not been mentioned very much. I wish this was apocryphal, but I still remember that children who received free school meals were put on a separate table because that was the way it was always done. Although I hope that is now a thing of the past, even the fact that until comparatively recently we used free school meals, and the definition thereof, as a measure of poverty shows how little we have moved on in some respects, because anyone who knows anything about the rural domain will know that the one thing that children, and particularly their parents, will not want recognised is the fact that they are eligible for free school meals. That is indicative of how problematic it is to measure where poverty exists and how we can address it. People will hide from the fact of their poverty. They will live in denial, because they do not want to be faced with the fact that they will be labelled as the poor of the village. We must do something about that.
The analysis by the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) was, as always, very helpful. We will, no doubt, have an interesting discussion on clause 15 in Committee-perhaps I will be chosen to serve on the Committee-as it is worthy of proper debate. It does look like a get-out-of-jail-free card for the Government. That was countered by my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), who rightly said that the point is not the cost of dealing with poverty, but the fact that if we do not deal with it the costs thereof are even greater. I therefore hope the Government will not see this as an opportunity to slide out of their obligations, but will instead look very carefully at whether that is a necessary clause and whether it should be more tightly defined.
I hope the commission will be proactive. It is a nice idea that it will come together four times a year, as has been said, and just look at whether the Government have done what they should have done. To be fair to this Government, they have been on a journey, all the way through the various reports they have brought forward and the work of the No. 10 policy unit and the social exclusion unit. I hope we will see this coming through and coming to fruition with the commission being seen not as a quango but as a very proactive body that engages with the poverty lobby, and that does so to the extent that representatives of those in poverty are a part of it. That is never easy. I and the other members of the all-party group on poverty had a difficult time in addressing how to engage with people in poverty, but not engaging with people in poverty is as unacceptable as paying lip service to that.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) said, it is important that we recognise that it is the responsibility of this place as well as Government to address how we make this legislation accountable. I would like the Government to say that they welcome an
annual debate on this issue so we can see the progress that has been made, and I hope that that debate will be subject to some form of affirmation at the end so that we do genuinely test whether progress is being made. Because there are different Departments involved, we have to have a meaningful structure that covers the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Children, Schools and Families, the Treasury and the devolved Departments to make sure there is proper joined-up thinking in how we scrutinise what the Government are doing.
Mr. Graham Stuart: As always, the hon. Gentleman is making a thoughtful contribution. Does he think a Select Committee might be a better means of holding the Government to account than an annual debate, even if that were granted-Ministers usually oppose putting that into legislation? Such a debate may not have the same effect as perhaps bringing a number of relevant Ministers before a Select Committee where they can be examined in detail.
Mr. Drew: Well, I am greedy because I want both. I want a Select Committee that embraces the different Departments because that is a good way to hold them to account, but I also want an annual debate in this Chamber so we can look meaningfully at what progress is being made and have a debate on that. To my mind, those two means serve different purposes and we should explore both.
On the definition and measurement of success, I know we will have a debate on the 10 per cent. versus the 5 per cent. and I think it is right that we do so, and I also think it is right that we look at whether we can get down to 0 per cent. There is a danger of getting into a statistical morass when looking at the four different measures, but that does not mean that those of us who do not want to play with statistics should not look at what lies behind the statistics. Given that there are international obligations that we have to look at-the Department for International Development is examining how it measures its ability to deal with poverty in different parts of the world-we should be willing and able to reflect on what we are doing in this country.
Local authorities are key. There is no point in pretending that central Government can tackle this issue. They certainly cannot do so in partnership with the voluntary sector; they have to do it in partnership with other parts of the statutory sector, in which local authorities are key. We have various performance indicators, which I hope can be addressed. I welcome the fact that almost all local authorities now include climate change in the targets they are willing to address, and I would hope that they would include child poverty as something that everybody wants to eradicate, but if we do not target resources on it locally, it never will be eradicated. I wish to see that happen. I also issue a plea for us to use the Sustainable Communities Act 2007. I want organisations to see this as one of the triggers they want clearly to identify themselves with in taking forward policies and having the motivation to ensure everyone is included.
I am a wee bit nervous that some groups might be excluded from the measurement of children in poverty. Asylum seekers, those in care, Traveller families, and those who have specific disabilities and therefore do not appear on the radar screen are the very children who are
the most vulnerable. If we say they are too difficult to measure and that it is impossible to see how we could eradicate their poverty, that is a sad indictment, because we ought to be looking at measures that can include those very difficult to measure and vulnerable groups.
Moving towards what we want to achieve does not involve simply looking at the statistics and the four different measures. As many Members have said, it also involves looking at the poverty of aspiration, which is what causes the greatest dissatisfaction for those in poverty as they not only cannot see themselves getting out of poverty, but they cannot see how they can get their children out of poverty.
Of course, attacking the cycle of deprivation must underlie our approach. With those reservations, and given that many Members have covered the points that I wished to talk about, I do not intend to speak for any longer. I hope that we can debate these matters in the presentations and the sittings that will be available in Committee, so that we can bring back an even stronger Bill to which everyone will commit themselves, because by 2020 we should have ended child poverty.
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