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Session 2008 - 09
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General Committee Debates
Child Poverty Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Mr. Martin Caton, † Robert Key
Baron, Mr. John (Billericay) (Con)
Barrett, John (Edinburgh, West) (LD)
Blackman, Liz (Erewash) (Lab)
Buck, Ms Karen (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab)
Gauke, Mr. David (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con)
Goodman, Helen (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions)
Howell, John (Henley) (Con)
Keeble, Ms Sally (Northampton, North) (Lab)
Mallaber, Judy (Amber Valley) (Lab)
Morgan, Julie (Cardiff, North) (Lab)
Mudie, Mr. George (Leeds, East) (Lab)
Reed, Mr. Jamie (Copeland) (Lab)
Selous, Andrew (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con)
Stuart, Mr. Graham (Beverley and Holderness) (Con)
Timms, Mr. Stephen (Financial Secretary to the Treasury)
Webb, Steve (Northavon) (LD)
Chris Stanton, Sarah Davies, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee


Kate Green, Chief Executive, Child Poverty Action Group
Neera Sharma, Assistant Director of Policy, Barnardo’s
Fergus Drake, Director of UK Programmes, Save the Children
Kate Bell, Director of Policy, Gingerbread
Catherine Fitt, Strategic Director of Children’s Services, National College for Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services
Colin Green, Chair of the Families, Communities, and Young People’s Policy Committee, Association of Directors of Children’s Services
Kevan Collins, Chief Executive, London Borough of Tower Hamlets
Richard Kemp, Deputy Chair, Local Government Association
Paul Carter, Leader, Kent County Council

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 20 October 2009


[Robert Key in the Chair]

Child Poverty Bill

Written evidence to be reported to the House
CP 01 Save the Children
CP 02 Campaign to End Child Poverty
CP 03 Barnardo’s
CP 04 Gingerbread
CP 05 Zacchaeus 2000
CP 06 Action for Children
CP 07 Church of England’s Mission and Public Affairs Council
4 pm
The Committee deliberated in private.
4.6 pm
On resuming—
The Chairman: Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome to this sitting of the Child Poverty Bill Committee. I remind hon. Members and witnesses that we are bound by the deadline agreed this morning, so this afternoon’s first evidence session must end at 5.30 pm and the second session must end at 7 pm. I hope that I will not have to interrupt hon. Members or witnesses in the middle of sentences, but I will do so if need be.
We are here this afternoon to hear evidence from Kate Green of the Child Poverty Action Group, Neera Sharma of Barnardo’s, Fergus Drake from Save the Children and Kate Bell from Gingerbread. Members of the Committee will ask them questions and we look forward very much to their answers. I turn to Graham Stuart for the first question.
Q 7575Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): The Government missed their 2005 child poverty target, and they look almost certain to miss their 2010 child poverty target. They have a great incentive to bring forward legislation now so that you focus your attention on that rather than on their failure to meet their previous promises. Why do you think that legislation will give you more confidence about delivery in future than you could have had from the Government’s pledges in the past?
Kate Green: I do not think that we have lacked confidence in the Government’s intentions in the past. Broadly, we felt that we would have supported many of the measures that were adopted, but we would have liked to have seen more investment, effort and speed. I do not think, therefore, that we are as sceptical about legislation that will continue to keep the context in place for that investment and effort to continue and increase.
However, there is clearly an important issue for us and for Parliament in terms of the credibility of the Bill and of making sure that as much is done as early as possible to continue progress towards the 2010 target—not least because children cannot wait until 2020 to see the quality of their lives improve.
Kate Bell: It is worth adding that obviously we are still pushing very hard for progress towards the 2010 target. The pre-Budget report coming up represents an absolutely key moment for making that progress. I also think that the structure of the Bill gives us a good opportunity to continue pushing the Government as they reach 2020. We see the fact that there is a strategy every three years and an annual reporting mechanism on progress very much as giving the structure and framework for us, hopefully, to push the Government to make sure that they meet that 2020 target.
Neera Sharma: We welcome the legislation because we believe it to be a major opportunity to shape and drive policy to tackle child poverty and to improve children’s life chances and the quality of their childhood. It also sets the context for greater action at a local level, to drive progress on child poverty to meet the 2020 targets.
Q 76John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): In any other walk of life, “eradication” would mean the end of something, but the word has a different meaning in relation to the Bill. Are you happy with the use of “eradication” when it is clearly not eradication? Moreover, are you happy with the assessment used in the Bill as a description of “eradication”? Every time I use “eradication” it means something different from what we are going to be discussing here today. Is there a problem for those outside the loop in understanding exactly what the Bill means?
Neera Sharma: The Bill states that the measure for the eradication of relative poverty is below 10 per cent. We believe that 10 per cent. would still leave 1.3 million children—one in 10—living in poverty. That measure is not challenging or ambitious enough, and it is likely that those children most at risk of poverty, such as disabled children and some black and minority ethnic children, will still remain poor under that 10 per cent. measure. When the Government made a commitment to eradicate child poverty by 2020, they stated that that would be the best in Europe. However, the best in Europe at the time was a level of 5 per cent., in Demark and Finland. We would prefer a more challenging measure of 5 per cent., rather than 10 per cent.
Kate Bell: That is the view across the panel. We have talked to the Government about the technical difficulties of measuring child poverty below the 5 per cent. level, and we accept that at that stage it might get harder. One of our proposals is a suggestion for after the 2020 target has been met. We hope that it could be done on a three-year rolling average, so that some of the ups and downs that we might get once we get down to those very low numbers could be captured. We think that the Bill needs to be more ambitious in that area.
Q 77John Barrett: Would you agree that within such a general target, there is the danger of specific groups—you mentioned disabled people—heading in the opposite direction, even if the overall target is being approached?
Kate Green: Yes, that is absolutely a risk. It is important that the building blocks, the strategies and the reporting of data enable us to track the progress of some of the small but vulnerable groups. On the whole, those groups are reasonably easy to follow in statistics, but they would not be captured in a broad measure if most children were getting better outcomes but a small group was being excluded.
Q 78The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Helen Goodman): Have you made any assessment of how much tougher the targets are because there are four of them, rather than just one relative low-income target? What impact do you think that might have?
Neera Sharma: We welcome the fact that there are four targets, but we think that the headline, the most important target, is the relative low-income target. We believe that measuring right across those four indicators is important, and we welcome that as well as welcoming measurement through the strategy and the building blocks.
Kate Green: We have had three indicators for looking at child poverty for some time. The new target that the Bill introduces is the measure of persistent poverty. We hope that that will pick up some of those more vulnerable groups, so I would say that, yes, it is welcome.
Q 79Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): May I explore the possibility of bringing a judicial review under the terms of the Bill? I will do that by assuming for a moment that a Bill similar to this one was enacted in 1997 and enshrined the 2010 target just as this Bill enshrines the 2020 target. Are there any circumstances from the past 12 years under which any of you would have been tempted to seek judicial review on a Government policy?
Kate Green: I think that you are asking two questions. You ask whether we would have been tempted to seek judicial review on a Government policy. As the Minister and hon. Members will know, we have taken the Government to judicial review during the past 10 years on a number of aspects of policy. I suspect that the question is about whether we would have asked for a judicial review on the failure by the Secretary of State to address the demands in this legislation.
It is difficult to speculate after the event, but we can see a framework now in which, if no significant and meaningful efforts were being made and it clearly looked like the target would not be met, I imagine that we would look for a judicial review well in advance of the failure to reach the 2020 target. It is not only about hitting the end point, but about the progress, effort and the steps that we can see are being made on the way, consistent with that objective.
Everybody understands that unexpected and difficult circumstances can arise, so it is important for us to track progress, not only as we reach the finishing post, but well ahead of that point. We will certainly be planning to do that.
Q 80Mr. Gauke: I would be interested in the views of the rest of you on that, but I take it that your view of the Bill is that it would enable you to seek judicial review any time between its enactment and 2020. It is not something whereby you have to wait until the last year or so and then seek judicial review.
Kate Green: I do not think that you would have to wait until after the 2020 target date had passed. It would be considered unreasonable by the courts not to have given Government the opportunity to develop and implement meaningful strategies, and we would have no intention of rushing in with legal challenges. It is a strategic process that we want to see work. Taking legal action is not at the forefront of our minds. We want to use the legislation to promote positive and proactive activity by Ministers in a spirit of willingness and ambition, which we confidently expect because of the cross-party support that the legislation enjoys. Of more importance to us is that the Bill gives public profile and a political push to the issue and ensures that there is constant progress and momentum.
Q 81Mr. Gauke: Kate Bell, a moment ago you said that you saw the public borrowing requirement as a key moment with regard to the 2010 target. Imagine that similar legislation was in place now with regard to the 2010 target. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that the targets could be met if one spent an additional £4.2 billion on tax credits and benefits. Assuming that there was very little there towards meeting the 2010 child benefit target, with the benefit of this Bill, do you imagine you would seek to obtain judicial review to ensure that the Government spent more on this area?
Kate Bell: I think that it is hard to counterfactual it backwards. The Bill requires Government to meet the 2020 target; they have set out a strategy to do so. In considering a judicial review, we would look at what the Government had said they would do in their strategy—whether they had taken steps to meet the target and what the circumstances were had they not done so. Without the benefit of the architecture that the Bill puts in place now, it is difficult to say in what circumstances we would seek a judicial review.
Q 82Mr. Gauke: So are you saying that the Government have not had strategies in place to meet the target—they have merely had a target?
Kate Bell: They have clearly had strategies in place but they have not been on the statutory basis that the Bill places them on.
Q 83Mr. Gauke: If they had been, would you have been able to look at them and say, “This is inadequate; there is an opportunity here for judicial review to ensure the target is met”?
Kate Bell: I think that were a statutory strategy and the architecture of the Bill in place, you would be able to have that opportunity. You would be looking at that. As Kate said, you would be examining the circumstances carefully. I do not think it possible to say now, with what we have got, how we would use the architecture of the Bill.
Fergus Drake: I think that overall we strongly welcome the Bill, because it can have a carrot and a stick effect. There is the stick there. We as a group would have specific conversations around it, should we be seriously off track in 2017 or 2018. The carrot is all of us working with children, trying to ensure that their voices are in the Bill, and working closely with local authorities in terms of needs assessments and the specific poverty strategies that they will be working on. That is why we as a group are very supportive of the Bill overall.
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Prepared 21 October 2009