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Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP):
The difficulty towards the end of such a debate is that many of the points that one wished to raise have already been raised.
However, some of the issues that I want to raise may run counter to those raised in many of the speeches in this debate.
First, I welcome the objectives of the Bill. We have had a good run-through this evening of the impacts that child poverty has on children throughout the United Kingdom and the consequences for society in lost opportunities, crime, problems in later life and so on. However, I am not so sure that the approach taken in the Bill is necessarily a good way of dealing with the issue. Hon. Members have drawn parallels between this Bill and the Climate Change Act 2008-some people may know my views on that-under which long-term targets have been set. Those targets will span not just this Administration, but another Administration and perhaps another one after that. At the end, nobody will be held responsible for targets that may be set 10 or 20 years in advance. To throw in a commission in order to try to provide some continuity is something that I am not so sure about-and I will come to the commission in a moment. I am not sure that the approach that we are debating is necessarily the best way forward.
Secondly, let us introduce a bit of realism. Hon. Members have already made the point that the issue should not be about simply scoring political points off the Government who happen to have responsibility for taking through legislation and public policy at the moment. However, even with their commitment to reaching their target of reducing child poverty by 50 per cent., this Government were unable to achieve their targets during the best of economic times. At a time when employment was riding high and public finances were abundant, those targets were not met. This Bill is being introduced in the context of immense pressure on public sector finances, with a period of rising unemployment and the impact of other policies. For example, last week the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change announced a policy that will add, some believe, £230 a year to households' energy bills.
We must therefore be realistic when we set these targets. We must not create an expectation that we can meet a target that we were unable to meet in the good circumstances, because we are unlikely to be able to meet it in the circumstances that we will face in future. I take issue with the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), who used the word "slipperiness" in referring to the clause saying that economic and financial circumstances should be taken into consideration. To a certain extent, that is simply being sensible. We are looking at a policy that will apply that far ahead and in circumstances that we cannot possibly foresee and unless we skew all the other policies around it, we must have some way of evaluating the targets that we are aiming for but that circumstances might prevent us from achieving.
My next point flows from that. There is an obligation on devolved Administrations to bring forward a strategic plan for dealing with this issue. I take the point that it is not simply about levels of income. Perhaps the Bill focuses too much on that, although, to be fair to the Government, the guidance that they have given goes much wider to include housing, education and a range of other things. However, there will still be resource implications that vary across different parts of the country. In some places there will be deeper deprivation,
and therefore a greater problem, than in others; the causes of poverty might be much more expensive to deal with than elsewhere.
Without the commitment of resources-I am thinking particularly of devolved Administrations such as Northern Ireland, where, given the higher levels of deprivation and child poverty, there are greater consequences in dealing with this-we will not meet the targets for 2010 that we had hoped to meet. Only last week, the House of Lords indicated-the hon. Member for Glasgow, East (John Mason) will not like to hear this-that Wales and Northern Ireland have lost out on the Barnett formula. As a result, the resources that have been made available are less than what is required to bring Northern Ireland up to the levels that would give us greater equality with the rest of the United Kingdom. Some Members have asked how, if the money available through the Barnett funding mechanism is not ring-fenced, we can be sure that it will be spent on these issues. However, the fact that the child poverty strategy has been brought forward indicates that the necessary resources have to be directed towards dealing with it.
I am not sure I agree with criticisms of other aspects of the Bill. The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) said that the strategy for dealing with these issues would be imposed on, or left to, local councils as the deliverers in England, and that there would be disadvantages to that. Given the different circumstances in different parts of the United Kingdom, that degree of flexibility for local councils or devolved Administrations to bring forward their own strategies is a good part of the Bill. Administrations are guided towards certain areas, but some will have different emphases. In rural areas, for example, the issues of poverty might be much different from those in inner-city areas. Giving the responsibility to local authorities or devolved Administrations to draft their own strategies rather than having them imposed from the centre is, I believe, a good idea.
Let me consider the circumstances in Northern Ireland. One thing that helps to release people from poverty-it has been mentioned tonight-is a good sound education and once we had a devolved Administration in Northern Ireland, we moved away from the policy that the Government were introducing of doing away with grammar schools in Northern Ireland. We believed that grammar schools were one way of giving young people from disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to climb the ladder out of that background and impoverishment. When it comes to the delivery of some of the programmes, especially those that offer help with families that have difficulties or that are dysfunctional, Churches in Northern Ireland could have a huge input-and perhaps more so than in other parts of the United Kingdom. A strategy that recognises such opportunities and their strengths should be within the remit of the local administration. That flexibility is good, and we should not turn our backs on it.
My last point concerns the need for the commission. Its role is to provide the data, to scrutinise and evaluate the policy, to carry out research into child poverty and to have the expertise in dealing with families that experience poverty and so on. We are told that it will not cost very much. We have not even got the Bill through and groups are already saying that the commission is under-resourced
and should have more. Let us face it-once such an organisation is set up, the impetus is always for it to be expanded into a bigger bureaucracy and a bigger quango, not shrunk. As the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) said, the real place where the scrutiny of the success or otherwise of this policy should be undertaken is Parliament. This is where Ministers should be brought to account, whether through Select Committees or in annual debates in the House. This-not some quango-is the place for such scrutiny. Of course, quangos often take on a life of their own anyway. Few quangos vote, or produce reports, to say that they are no longer needed. They always find some reason for their continued existence.
I have heard so many times in this House that we have to reduce the cost of government. However, it seems that on almost every occasion when we come forward with some new ideas or policies to deal with a particular problem, we set up more extra-parliamentary bodies. I believe that that is the wrong way forward.
I look forward to Committee. I know that the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland will be actively involved in considering a strategy for dealing with child poverty, which will have to cross all the various Departments within that Administration. I hope that where resources are required centrally for that strategy, they will be made available.
Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): We have had an interesting and thoughtful debate with contributions from all parts of the House and all parts of the United Kingdom. We heard 13 contributions from the Back Benches, and I would particularly like to thank my hon. Friends the Members for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter), for Henley (John Howell) and for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) for three excellent speeches. My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon set out the case that poverty is not just about money and stressed the importance of stability and security in children's upbringing. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley set out some of the challenges for local authorities and some of the difficulties that the Bill may cause. My hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness rightly stated that the debate included many high-quality speeches, and proceeded to deliver one himself. It touched on many issues, including educational standards and housing.
There is some consensus here. We strongly share the aspiration to eradicate child poverty by 2020. We believe that high levels of child poverty reveal a waste of potential in a globalised world, in which there are opportunities for many more people than was previously the case to achieve greater material wealth. Children who are excluded from those opportunities will fall further and further behind. It is not good for any of us if a section of society is excluded from the benefits of what we hope will be a growing economy in the years ahead, stuck in a culture of low aspiration and dependency and attaining poor educational qualifications. All that results in a cycle of deprivation, and it becomes increasingly hard for any child born into poverty to escape it. That is bad for those in poverty and for society as a whole. For those reasons, we support the aspiration behind the Bill.
On a positive note, the debate appears to be moving in a more sensible direction. There was a time when the Government's response to all such questions was simply,
"More money", and a view that any problem, including child poverty, could be addressed by more public expenditure-more money in benefits and tax credits. If we exclude the Secretary of State's contribution to the debate, it appears that the Government have moved on from that one-dimensional approach.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has calculated that one could spend £4.2 billion to meet the 2010 target. That is not a recommendation, merely an assessment of what could be done by spending that amount on child benefit and tax credits. It also calculates that the 2020 target could be achieved by spending £19 billion in 2008-09 prices. However, the Government appear to recognise that that is not a sustainable method of delivering. We agree.
We welcome the Government's acknowledgement of the need for a wide range of interventions. It must be said that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) has set the terms of the debate. The greater focus on family breakdown, drug and alcohol dependency and worklessness has meant that we now have a more sensible debate on such matters. The Government's record on poverty and reducing the gap between the poorest and the rest of society is disappointing. As we have heard, they are failing to meet their 2010 target-it is estimated that it will be missed by 600,000 children-and child poverty is increasing.
Sometimes the Government make the excuse that everything was going swimmingly until the recession came along. That is wrong on two counts. First, long before the recession arrived, the Government were destined to miss their 2010 target. In February 2009, the IFS said that its
"forecast of child poverty in 2010 would be very slightly lower if the economy were to perform worse than the Treasury assumed in the PBR. This is because lower employment and real earnings have more effect on median income (and thus the poverty line) than on the income of low-income families with children (in which the parents are less likely to be working than in the median household)."
The hon. Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed) said that tackling inequality and poverty was what his party was about and what the Government were for. However, it is not just in the area of child poverty that this Government are failing. The average weekly income, after housing, of the poorest 10 per cent. has fallen from £98 in 2003-04 to £87 in 2007-08. The Gini index shows inequality at a record high. Life expectancy differences between the poor and the rest have widened since Labour came to power, as have infant mortality rates. Youth unemployment is a third higher than when Labour took office, and the number of people on out-of-work benefits has not fallen below 5 million in the past 12 years. Of that figure, 1.1 million people of working age have never worked a day while Labour has been in power. Child poverty is just one example of the Government's approach to poverty having failed.
It is therefore not surprising that there is a degree of scepticism about the Bill, which is more about distracting attention from the failure of the 2010 target than it is about the 2020 target. I shall make an analogy. Let us imagine a school pupil who is about to sit his GCSEs. He has not completed all his coursework, he has not revised, and he is clearly destined to fail his GCSEs. He
says to his worried parents, "Don't worry, Mum. Don't worry, Dad. I hereby pledge"-it is not an aspiration, it is a pledge-"to obtain a postgraduate degree within 10 years. In 12 months' time I will set out my strategy for how I will do that." I think the parents could be forgiven for not being overly impressed, and we are not overly impressed by the Government's approach. They are failing on the target that is about to arrive, so instead they focus on something that will happen in 10 years' time by concentrating on an aspiration well beyond the next general election.
"the duty of the Secretary of State to ensure that...targets are met".
I hope that in Committee we will be able to examine to whom exactly that duty is owed. What will happen if the target is not met? Will it be possible to take the Secretary of State to court if he or she fails to meet a target? Will the courts be able to block a policy initiative if it is inconsistent with that duty, or will they be able to initiate policy? If so, there has to be distinct unease, because those are matters for a democratically accountable politician. They are matters for Ministers, not unelected judges, and that would start to blur the line between what is rightfully done in this place and by people accountable to it and what is done in the courts. If it is not for the courts to make such decisions, that prompts the question of what the point of the Bill is, other than to be a glorified press release.
Part 2 of the Bill sets out the role of local authorities. We recognise and welcome the importance of local authorities playing a role in tackling child poverty, and we recognise that a lot of problems are of a local nature. That point has been made by a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House. However, part 2 contains a list of duties on local authorities: to make arrangements to promote co-operation with partner authorities, to publish a local child poverty needs assessment, to prepare a joint child poverty strategy and to have regard to any guidance given by the Secretary of State. That is very much a top-down view of what local authorities should do.
Essentially, the Government's view as expressed in the Bill is that local authorities are there to administer the priorities of central Government. Under the Bill, there is no discretion as regards which of the partner authorities local authorities should work with, or what measurement of child poverty should be used. Is there an argument for a wider range of measurements being available for local authorities to use? My hon. Friend the Member for Henley set out what some local authorities are doing. Will that help or hinder?
The requirement to have regard to the Secretary of State's guidance could result-we will want to examine this in Committee-in the Secretary of State being able to force local authorities to act in a particular way. That would make local authorities look to what central Government want, rather than to the local people whom they are there to represent.
Mr. Graham Stuart:
My hon. Friend puts his finger on an important point. On the guidance from the Secretary of State, there will be fear that if the Government impose an urban model, albeit with good will, it will have a disastrous impact on locally tailored policies in
rural areas such as the East Riding of Yorkshire, which I represent. That would be the case even if the urban model was appropriate, even if the Government had got it absolutely right and even if it worked in urban areas.
Mr. Gauke: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. That is exactly the concern. I hope that we will be able to examine that issue. The situation will partly depend on how the powers given to the Secretary of State are applied, but there is clearly a concern. We believe that logically there is a role for local authorities; a lot of problems relating to poverty are local in nature, so clearly local authorities must have discretion in deciding how to tackle them. The concern is whether the balance will be right, and I hope that we will examine that in greater detail in Committee.
We need to know what the burden on local authorities will be, and whether the Bill will be an effective way of reducing child poverty. There is a concern that the response to part 2 will be a plethora of advertisements in The Guardian for "a child poverty strategy co-ordinator, tasked with engaging in a permanent dialogue with key stakeholders and partner authorities to develop a cross-cutting strategic plan to meet statutory child poverty objectives", but that little will be done to move significant numbers of children out of poverty.
Mr. Stuart: Does my hon. Friend think that it is an omission that there is no mention of children's trusts? They are supposed to have been put into statutory form already, and are supposed to bring together the various agencies; it is rather odd that they are not mentioned in the Bill.
Mr. Gauke: Again, my hon. Friend makes an interesting point. I do not know whether we should take that as his application to be on the Public Bill Committee, but it sounds as though he has a host of good ideas that he will want to bring to the Committee.
We support the aspiration behind the Bill, but the Bill shares some of the less attractive characteristics of the Government. It looks bureaucratic, and it looks as though it is centralising, rather than localising. There is one other important point. One might expect a Government to proceed by first setting out their objectives, then setting out a strategy on how to deliver those objectives, and then delivering, but after 12 years, the Government have failed to deliver, so they resort to repackaging their objectives in the Bill without explaining how they will deliver. Whatever its qualities, the Bill is a style-over-substance measure. It is about political positioning before delivery. It is a Bill from a Government who have given up on delivery. It is a Bill from a Government who have given up. Where this Government have failed, others must succeed.
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