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8.20 pm

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and to participate in tonight's debate, which has been of a universally high standard. Every speech that I have heard-I apologise for missing the first one, Mr. Deputy Speaker-has been thoughtful and constructive. I aim to continue in the same vein by not using this immensely serious subject-many hon. Members have pointed out its seriousness-for any partisan purpose.

It is important that we examine where we are on this issue today. Over the past few years, child poverty in this country has increased enormously. As people have said, it doubled under the previous Conservative Government, on the definition that was being used, and some 3.4 million children were living in poverty when the current Government came to power. On the last available figures, that number had reduced by 600,000. My maths may be a little poor, but assuming that things have started to go into reverse in the current recessionary times, it is not unreasonable to expect that there might still be-or might be in the next few months-3 million children living in poverty. That is much further than 600,000 away from a halving of the poverty figure; I may be getting my numbers mixed up and I look forward to the Minister putting me right, but I fear that the situation might be worse than hon. Members are led to believe.

The progress made to date in reducing the official poverty figure has largely been achieved by moving hundreds of thousands of people who were receiving a few pounds less per week than the poverty line to a position where they receive a few pounds more; there has not been a profound change with regard to the relative poverty of children in this country. The 600,000 whose position has changed have generally not moved very far; their situation has changed by only a few pounds a week. Of course, the converse of that is that even the smallest reduction in the income of those just above the poverty line plunges them back down below
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it, so that they are then officially in poverty. That is particularly relevant to the Prime Minister's and the Government's abolition of the 10p tax rate, some of whose impact has been ameliorated. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the people who face the biggest loss from the abolition of the 10p rate are those whose incomes are £149 a week. That figure corresponds almost exactly to the Government's official poverty line, which, for an individual, is £145 a week. It is as if the Government's poverty policy has been thrown into reverse and the tax change has been finely tuned to cause the maximum possible damage to their genuine and proper policy objectives.

A former Labour Health Secretary has said that

I mentioned the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in an intervention, and it has concluded that

The Treasury itself says:

As hon. Members will know, if one or more parent is in permanent work and stays in work, the chance of their child being in poverty reduces further still.

As has been said, the number of people living in severe poverty, which is defined as having less than 40 per cent. of median income, has risen by 600,000 since this Government came to power-measured after housing costs, the level is the highest for 30 years, at 5.2 million people, or 8.8 per cent. of the population. Some 40 per cent. of all people in poverty are now in severe poverty. The proportion of children living in severe poverty has also grown since 1998-99, increasing from 5 to 6 per cent. The number of children living in severe poverty has, thus, actually increased by 20 per cent. in the past 12 years. That is the situation with which we are dealing. I am certainly not saying all this in order to make any partisan point, because I recognise that Ministers and this Government have genuinely wrestled with this issue to try to create a fairer and more equal society.

We have heard powerful speeches tonight from the hon. Members for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble). The hon. Member for Northampton, North discussed how crucial housing is to the welfare of children in poor households and said that the housing in her constituency is not up to standard and is woefully inadequate in quantity; the same is true in my constituency. Who would have thought that 12 years into this Government, during whose time in office there has been a period of sustained economic growth-at least until recent times-fewer affordable houses would have been built than in any year of either the Thatcher or Major Governments? I certainly would not have thought that. It remains a baffling cause for concern that during the times of relative plenty the Government did not find the opportunity to reform the planning system and did not find ways to work with communities, rather than imposing on them, in order to ensure that there were the houses that we need and that would make such a difference to families.

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Where someone is in a decent home in a community that has decent resources around it-even if numerically, according to the targets in this Bill, they are still in poverty-their life chances, well-being and morale are transformed. As has also been mentioned, the worst possible statistic for this country is the one showing that our children are the most miserable in Europe; there are more unhappy children in this country than in any other around.

I make no apology for explaining where I think we are at on child poverty. We are not in the benign position of having had a transformation, with major strides having been made. In no way do I doubt either the resource or the will with which the Government have approached this issue, but I question whether any major strides have been made. It seems to me that, for the poorest in particular, the situation appears to be going backwards. I hope that the Minister will be able to talk through the strategies, rather than just the aspirations, that may turn things around.

I am not sure whether I support the Bill, because I do not like legislation that makes promises that I fear will not be delivered. In a related area, the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill promises that every young person of 16 to 18 will be guaranteed a choice of two apprenticeships within a reasonable travel-to-work area by 2013, yet the legislation contains no tools or levers to show how on earth any Government would be able to deliver those apprenticeships. I therefore fear that the very young people who might most want and need them will not actually get them. Likewise, this Bill makes promises that I fear cannot be kept, because we cannot ignore the fact that the Government, despite the best will, have failed-or will fail-to deliver their relatively easy target of halving child poverty by next year. That target came at a time of fiscal surpluses, when we had a strong economy. But we will miss it. In the next few years, with £175 billion of borrowing this year, £173 billion next year and unprecedented pressure on our public finances, how can we believe that any Secretary of State will be able to deliver on these targets? I fear that they will not.

We have an ageing population-in the coming decade we will have many more people over 80 and over 100-and social care costs will also put Government finances under pressure. The child poverty targets will either distort all other Government policy or-this is more likely, in my view-the two opt-outs in clause 15 will be used. If economic circumstances are not enough for the Secretary of State to use as an excuse, he or she will be able to cite fiscal circumstances as well. Obviously, the economic circumstances opt-out was not broad enough for them. The fear is that this is aspirational legislation, sending out false messages that any Government will struggle to deliver, given the fiscal inheritance of whoever wins the election next May.

I ask Ministers to be as upfront as possible with people about what is possible given the likely available funding. The Secretary of State in the Bill will be the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, so the assumption is that benefits and tax credits will be used to deliver children out of poverty. That means that the benefit level for the average family on benefits will have to be set above the relative poverty line, but how will that be possible while maintaining the incentives to work and
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ensuring that we balance the books? I fear that this legislation is making promises that the Government cannot keep.

We need to look at child poverty holistically. Despite clause 8 and its wish list of various things that the Secretary of State should bear in mind, will the Bill put in a place a strategy to deliver what it promises? I fear that it will not. What will we do about the fact that women in Scotland with no qualifications will tend to have three children, but only 11 per cent. of women with degrees will tend to have three children? The fewer qualifications a woman has, the more likely she is to produce children, and the earlier she is likely to do so. The danger is that if women with no qualifications become pregnant in their teens, they are likely to bring up children in a household with low aspirations and a single parent who struggles to find work because she lacks those qualifications. Until we tackle that issue, we will not make progress.

Nor will we make progress until we tackle educational failings. Leitch's report suggested that the number of unskilled jobs would collapse between now and 2020-from more than 2 million to 600,000. There will be very few jobs for people who are unskilled, but have educational outcomes improved in this period of economic growth? The number of NEETs has gone up and the percentage of children who get no GCSEs has fallen by only a tiny amount-from 10.3 to 10.2 per cent. On the wider societal issues, such as housing, supporting families to bring up children and education, I do not see how this Bill will make a difference.

The hon. Member for Foyle said that we must pass a Bill that actually means something, and commented that the Government have resiled from their previous promises-the aim in respect of the eradication of child poverty is no longer to have 5 per cent. or less of children in poverty but 10 per cent. That needs to be looked at in Committee, but most of all we need to ensure when we make promises to the people of this country, they are well founded and can be delivered.

8.33 pm

John Mason (Glasgow, East) (SNP): My party welcomes this Bill. I wish to associate myself in particular with the speeches by the hon. Members for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and for Northavon (Steve Webb), although almost every hon. Member who has spoken has made some good points.

We clearly need to tackle income inequality and the root causes of disadvantage, and we need to support people in poverty now. Some of the explanatory notes are very good and summarise where we are trying to go. Paragraph 131 says:

Those points have been referred to by many of the Members who have spoken.

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The current economic climate is leading to more families in poverty, and more families who could fall into poverty. We cannot have this debate without talking about resources, which have not been touched on as much as I hoped. At the last Budget, the Child Poverty Action Group called on the Chancellor to invest at least £3 billion in tax credits and benefits. When that did not happen, the CPAG said there was a danger that the Bill would have

Without real money, I do not see how we can possibly meet the child poverty targets. Instead, with budgets being cut, as I fear both major parties seek to do-although they may quibble over who is cutting more-we shall not see much progress. The Budget this year did little to help, so I would be interested to hear from the Financial Secretary at the end of the debate whether there will be real resources in the pre-Budget report this autumn to help to address the shortfall.

We need to simplify the tax credit scheme and promote greater availability of child care vouchers. There is a problem for people whose weekly hours fall below 16, because they lose tax credits. There is a particular problem for single-parent families. We are told that 52 per cent. of them were in poverty in 2007-08. Parents may not be to blame for a family coming apart, but it is clear that the children suffer.

Relative inequality is definitely a problem. We have heard many examples of children who cannot do the same things as other children in their class. Gingerbread gives this example:

School trips may not be the most essential thing in life, but I find such statements particularly touching.

By many accounts, my Glasgow, East constituency has some of the greatest poverty in the country. Housing is the issue that people most often come to see me about. It has been touched on already, so I will not go into great detail, but the examples given by the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) were extremely relevant and touching. So many kids are brought up in overcrowded, unsuitable accommodation in the 21st century.

Clause 2 contains a 10 per cent. target, but as I said in an intervention, I wonder whether that is ambitious enough. Clearly that target is much further on than we are at present, so it is definitely to be welcomed-but given the number of voices who question it, including those of Barnardo's, Save the Children and Gingerbread, we have to wonder whether it is enough. If we said that next year only 10 per cent. of houses in the UK would be broken into, so by definition house-breaking would be eradicated, many Members would not accept it, and neither would the public. As has already been suggested, if the plan was to remove 10 per cent. of Members from the House, a lot of us would not be very keen on it. In reality, none of us think that 10 per cent. will be acceptable in the long term, although I acknowledge that it is a big improvement on the current situation. Perhaps we should stop using words such as "eradicate" and "abolish", because that is not what will happen.

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Clause 15 has been referred to, and some of my fears have been echoed. Barnardo's mention that clause too. Is it a get-out clause? We should be interested in reassurance from the Financial Secretary that that is not the case. Perhaps the Committee might come up with better wording for it. Are the factors mentioned simply factors that have to be taken into account, or can they override the targets?

We have not heard very much about interim targets. It seems to be accepted that the 2010 target, the halfway point, will be missed. Will the Minister who responds to the debate state that everyone now accepts that? It strikes me that if we are now aiming for 2020 there should be an interim target of 2015-a point at which we could measure progress.

One or two Members have asked whether the commission should be beefed up. Should it have a bigger budget and more powers? The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) said that he would like it to consult outside experts. That in itself would presumably increase the time for which it needed to meet, and its expenses. If the commission is to do its own research and call for evidence, it will need a budget for that. Like others, I welcome the fact that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are to appoint their own commissioners, which has not always happened in other cases, such as broadcasting.

It concerns me that no actual figures in pounds and pence are being mentioned. I accept the relative measures that are being given, but I wonder whether they are enough in themselves. Perhaps we need to look at minimum income standards and consider raising the minimum wage. One of the London charities that submitted evidence reminds us of some of the figures that we are talking about:

after housing costs

We need to introduce some solid reality. I know that costs change year by year, but there seems to be a lack of reality in the Bill.

Tax credits were mentioned when I asked about the minimum wage. Although we welcome tax credits, and the fact that they boost family income, in one sense they just subsidise profitable employers. Employers can then employ staff at the minimum wage, which people clearly cannot live on, and make huge profits. I have a problem with that.

Consultation is good, but I notice that clause 9(4)(c) talks about consulting children or organisations that represent children. That "or" should be an "and" because children should definitely be consulted.

I suspect that more than one Secretary of State will be involved in all this, because the Secretary of State for Scotland will be involved in some of the processes. I hope that the Secretaries of State will be constructive in their dealings with Holyrood and the other devolved Administrations. I want to make some points from a Scottish point of view. The Scottish Government are fully signed up to the UK target of halving child
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poverty by 2010 and eradicating it by 2020. In Scotland 20 per cent. of children are in poverty, which is only marginally better than the UK as a whole. The Scottish Government welcome the positive contact that there has been between the Minister and our Deputy First Minister.

There has been some mention of grandparents and other relatives. The whole issue of kinship care needs to be looked at. I know that in Scotland some local authorities, and the Scottish Government, are trying to help grandparents and other relatives who look after children, but there seem to be problems with the Department for Work and Pensions penalising people. That needs to be looked into.

The Scottish Government would like to replace council tax with a local income tax, which would definitely help poorer families. Scotland believes that we will be able to tackle the issues of child poverty best when we have the full powers of taxation, spending and social welfare under our control, but we seek to do what we can with what we have.

I note that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) mentioned that money came from Westminster and was not used in the same way as it was in England. However, he then mentioned that hospital appointments were important for disabled people. One of the things that the present Government of Scotland have done is to keep open more hospitals that were planned for closure. A lot of the levers still lie with the UK Government, but I hope that that disadvantage can be addressed in due course.

Local government in Scotland has also been mentioned. I do not know whether exactly the same applies in Wales and Northern Ireland, but we have the concordat, which means that local government and the Scottish Government try to work together on more issues, rather than taking a top-down approach. However, that means that it is more difficult to have ring-fencing and to insist on local government toeing a certain line. However, to be fair to local authorities-I know best the authority in Glasgow, which probably has a lot of the problems in Scotland-they are very committed to tackling child poverty too.

I hope that there can be a constructive relationship between Westminster and Holyrood. It is a question of balance, because some factors are almost purely Westminster issues, while others are purely Holyrood issues. However, as the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) said, there is also a twilight area where a lot of the factors interrelate. In the past there have been some unfortunate examples of a lack of working together. For instance, the Scottish Government were approached on 19 March for a response to the Equality Bill that was required by 25 March. Six days for a Government response is really not what we are looking for.

We are in complete agreement that child poverty is one of the foremost issues, now and for the coming years. We support the Bill; my only question is whether it is specific enough, whether it is tough enough and whether it goes far enough.

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