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Helen Goodman: I hope that I am more successful in persuading Opposition Members that amendment 6 is unnecessary. Subsection (4) requires local and partner authorities, in co-operating to reduce child poverty in local areas, to have regard to the guidance given for that purpose by the Secretary of State. That means that if the authorities can demonstrate that different arrangements are effective, they may use those.
Opposition Members said that they were concerned that the requirement may be an unwarranted burden, but the exact opposite is the case. The publication of guidance by the Secretary of State will ensure that existing and emerging good practice will be captured and acted on across the country, thus helping local authorities and partners and removing a burden. In other words, each local authority will not have to reinvent the wheel as it carries out its duties under the Bill. There is already a great deal of good practice.
John Howell: I am sure the Minister is aware that good practice is already being spread among local authorities. They talk to each other, and they also have the Local Government Association, which occasionally manages to spread good practice in a positive way.
Helen Goodman: Of course. However, the Bill is designed to address child poverty across the whole country, so it is important that we put in place an approach that is likely to work across the whole country.
Ms Buck: If the picture in local government is as consistently innovative and rosy as Conservative Members would have us believe, will the Minister cast light on how many local authorities of different political persuasions had developed a strategy for investigating and tackling child poverty before the performance indicators were introduced and before the Bill was produced? I suspect that the answer is none.
Helen Goodman: I do not have the answer to hand, but I hope to be inspired before I conclude.
As I was saying, there is good practice. We have three child poverty beacon councils, from which we heard in our evidence sessions, which demonstrate that local collaboration can work extremely well. There is also, as I mentioned in a previous debate, a range of child poverty pilots through which local authorities and partners are exploring, developing and delivering new and better ways of helping children to escape the corrosive effects of poverty. Guidance based on that good practice should go some way to enabling authorities and their partners to respond positively to the duties placed on them by the Bill.
As we have emphasised, it is important that there is a consistent and coherent approach across the country to tackling child poverty. We do not want to see some areas performing significantly better than others. Guidance will help to ensure consistency and coherence, by setting out what has worked hitherto and how continuing progress can best be made.
Mr. Stuart: Consistency and coherence sound attractive, but uniformity and lack of innovation are the B-sides of those words. Can the Minister reassure the Committee that guidance will not be so overwhelming and prescriptive that there is a loss of a sense of ownership by local authorities and that, although we achieve uniformity, we do so at a high price?
Helen Goodman: Of course we do not want that. The situation in my constituency in County Durham is different from that in the Financial Secretary’s constituency in Newham, which is again different from that in the constituency of the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire. There must be flexibility for local authorities to address different needs. If the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness can be a little patient, I will explain what I am driving at.
We are issuing guidance on the needs assessment, which we have circulated. It is based on the risk factors, which we know exist thanks to firm evidence about the risks of child poverty. I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not feel that we are over-prescriptive: our guidance on the needs assessment is evidence-based. I point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North that the draft that we have circulated says that matters considered in the needs assessment must include the ethnic composition of the population, because obviously, as she says, that is a factor.
When the authority and partners go on to establish the strategy, it must relate to the needs assessment—there is no point having a strategy that does not tackle the problem with which we are all trying to deal—but that is the point at which there is scope for local authorities and partners to behave in a more innovative and flexible way that relates to the differences between, for example, County Durham and South-West Bedfordshire. Our aim is not that the guidance should be a solution to all problems but that it should help to make the intentions of the legislation clear. We will work with local delivery partners in drafting the guidance to ensure that it meets the needs of both those that have made progress in the area and those that have been left behind.
Andrew Selous: I apologise for intervening on the Minister again. I am not trying to interrupt her flow; I just want to get one thing clear. If I understand correctly, she is saying that the guidance will relate to the needs assessment, but that it relates much less, or perhaps not at all, to how a local authority will then try to meet the needs identified in that assessment and tackle child poverty in its area. Am I right to understand that the local authority will not get in trouble in respect of the guidance in terms of how it tackles those significant issues in its local area?
Helen Goodman: In my opening remarks, I pointed out that local authorities must have regard to guidance, but if they can demonstrate different effective arrangements, they may use those. We are getting the balance right.
Mr. Reed: In my constituency, I have established an anti-child poverty coalition involving the county council, the district councils, Sure Start, churches, businesses, police and so on. Our ambition is to beat child poverty in my constituency before 2020. I am disappointed that no one at any stage of this debate has mentioned the role of a constituency Member of Parliament in tackling the issue head-on. Does my hon. Friend share my view on that? Secondly, is there anything in the Bill—I cannot see it—to prevent me from pulling together a group of interested people to beat child poverty in my constituency before 2020?
Helen Goodman: My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. He demonstrates the great effectiveness of a dynamic, concerned and committed Member of Parliament, as I know he is, who thinks at all times of the concerns of his constituents. Nothing in the Bill would inhibit that sort of worthwhile activity. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire will accept that in the interest of having effective action, we cannot put all the detail in the Bill, as that would be extremely unhelpful. We are consulting on the guidance, and I would be pleased to hear his views. I hope that he feels that we are getting the balance right and will withdraw amendment 6.
Andrew Selous: I have listened to what the Minister said. Perhaps because we are nearing lunch time, I am inclined to be a bit more charitable about this amendment than I was about the other. There is an ongoing debate to be had about the issue—I will reserve our right to revisit the matter at another stage—but I welcome her offer to consult us. It is always nice to be consulted by the hon. Lady. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Andrew Selous: It is as good a time as any for me to refer to the question raised by the hon. Member for Northavon about how we will know whether a local authority and its partners are successfully tackling child poverty in their area. I said earlier that I want local authorities to be judged on results—whether they are reducing the number of children in poverty in their area. The hon. Member for Northavon is correct in saying that, at the moment, we have only partial information on that.
If Members cast their minds back to the evidence sessions, they may remember the leader of Kent county council being asked—by the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North, I think —how many children there were in poverty in Kent. He replied straight away, “48,000”. When asked how he knew that number, he said that he had asked his officers, which is a perfectly reasonable thing for the leader of an upper-tier local authority to have done. No doubt that was the correct answer, but it is only a partial one, because in an answer to my written parliamentary question, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions replied:
“The dataset ‘Children in Families in Receipt of Out-of-work Benefits’ is currently used as a proxy to measure child poverty at the local level.”
My understanding, therefore—the Under-Secretary may wish to intervene now or respond later—is that the 48,000 figure was based on the current dataset for children in Kent and related only to children in poverty in out-of-work families. As we all know, there is an enormous amount—far too great—of in-work poverty, so the number of children in poverty in Kent is probably 100,000 or so. I do not know what the exact split is between in-work and out-of-work poverty—the hon. Member for Northavon will probably tell us shortly.
The hon. Lady went on to say in her helpful answer, for which I am grateful, that a “revised indicator” was “being developed” and that
“This will provide information on both in-work and out-of-work poverty in the local area.”
She mentioned the Centre for Excellence and Outcomes in Children and Young People’s Services—C4EO—which is an excellent organisation. The Financial Secretary and I attended a conference in Manchester on child poverty, which was run by C4EO. It is doing fantastic work in this area and I pay tribute to it. The hon. Lady went on to say that it was developing a tool
“to help local delivery partners analyse local data relating to child poverty. This tool will be available from the end of the year.”—[Official Report, 27 October 2009; Vol. 131, c. 213-14W.]
From that answer, it is not clear to me when we are to get the new combined dataset for local authorities that will measure both in-work and out-of-work poverty in an area, which is a crucial issue.
Steve Webb: I cannot resist a challenge. I think the hon. Gentleman has raised an important point. When the leader of Kent county council gave his figure, I spoke to him afterwards and said, “Can you tell me where it came from? Here is my e-mail address.” I am still waiting, perhaps because it was the answer to a different question.
The hon. Gentleman has made the very important point that, based on the latest figures on households below average income, roughly half the children in poverty—[Interruption.] It is a very good guess. Roughly half of such children are classified as either “lone parent not working” or “both members of the couple not working”. There would probably be even more children in poverty if we accounted for one parent working part-time and the other not working and so on.
That raises the fundamental point that we are setting national targets based on some very specific definitions and then asking local authorities to be partners in delivering targets based on definitions that they cannot access or measure. We cannot know how many children in Kent live in households with a score of 25 on the material deprivation list, and I cannot envisage that we ever will, even with souped up sample sizes.
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If we take the big survey of 40,000 or so households, split it and sub-divide it into quintiles or whatever, we will never get the figures for a small unitary local authority such as mine, South Gloucestershire. It is a real challenge to hold local authorities to account for targets when they cannot tell whether they are achieving them. The hint that we have heard in the discussion is that we will use proxies. We say, “We don’t really know how they are doing on the measures that we have set them, but here are some other measures that aren’t very different.” I have a nasty feeling that that is probably the answer, but it is a strange situation that we are in.
As for the paragon in the corner, the thrusting and dynamic Member for Copeland—I forget what the expression was, but it was something of that sort—it is tremendous to have a local initiative, as he says, but in terms of a national target, it is very difficult to know whether one is succeeding. However, it is possible to overstate the point. Clearly, as the hon. Member for Northampton, North, said, some things fit so terribly well that they do not do too badly as proxies. I do not want to keep on rambling, but there is a serious issue. If someone has a specific target but cannot measure it, they will go for the thing that they can measure. That is the worry.
The Chairman: I call John Howell.
John Howell: That was rather a surprise, Mr. Caton. I was not quite ready. I will, however, make good. The clause imposes a duty on local government. I want to question why the Government have pursued the idea of a duty, rather than other means of achieving their objectives for local government. The duty relates to
“reducing, and mitigating the effects of, child poverty”.
The use of the word “effects” is interesting. We are talking about not reducing and mitigating the causes of child poverty, but reducing and mitigating the effects. For me, “effects” in that context is synonymous with symptoms. The measure therefore lacks ambition and does not move us on to doing what the Bill seeks to achieve.
For reasons that I alluded to in earlier speeches and interventions, there is a considerable mismatch between parts 1 and 2 of the Bill. In part 1, an income-based strategy is set out and in part 2, a broader role is outlined for tackling what local government does in relation to it, and the duty does not seem to fit very easily in that. It would have made sense to include in part 1 a clause on tackling and measuring the causes, or the proxy for measuring the causes of poverty. Sadly, however, that was not accepted. The question still remains: what is the value of giving local government a duty, as this clause does, rather than doing things in a different way? I admit that there is some symbolism in giving local government a duty, but it is clear from the evidence from witnesses that the duty is rather meaningless, and was seen by them as a rather heavily bureaucratic approach. For example, Catherine Fitt said:
“over the last few years...local government and its partners are engaging very positively.”
We have heard the question of what local government did before that. The answer is that it did a lot. Paul Carter’s evidence alluded to that, in respect of the results from the first round of public service agreement targets and the achievements arising from them. Richard Kemp’s evidence was even more explicit:
“Giving local government a duty would not help us”.
That is very clear, and there are two reasons for that. First, the notion that all one has to do is to create a duty and the problem is solved is not only wrong, but reflects what I call the master-servant relationship that has grown up between central and local government. I thought that Richard Kemp’s evidence was very instructive:
“You are making an assumption that a duty is necessarily a good thing but I am not convinced that it is. You can give me a duty and I can perform it well because I want to—but I would probably have done it anyway—or I can perform it to meet the minimum requirements”.
In other words it is, at best, a blunt tool, and not the rapier or stiletto that we need to tackle child poverty on the ground.
Secondly, local government is already doing much on the issue; we have heard a lot of examples of that. Paul Carter said that local government is already taking a long-term view of underlying problems, and had been taking such a view before the Bill was introduced. Kent is not alone in doing that; we can pray in aid plenty of other authorities as illustrations.
The way in which the clause imposes the duty is not dissimilar, in its high-level approach, to how the national indicator set asks and encourages councils to sign up to national indicator 116, which is the general indicator on child poverty. Most councils have not done so for very good reasons. They clearly did not think that it was a meaningful target, because it did not deliver any positive outcomes on the ground. They were much more focused on the causes of poverty and there were better indicators, with real outcomes, in the indicator set. For example, Richard Kemp said:
“In crude terms, only 45 out of about 140 local authorities have signed up to NI 116... However, 118 local authorities are doing work on NEETs, 101 on obesity in teenage schools and 107 on under-18 conceptions.”
The question remains: why impose a duty, given the existence of a national indicator set that has not been in its current form for very long? Why did the Government not use it as an alternative method? That would have been far less bureaucratic and would have still allowed for considerable flexibility.
During the summer, in preparation for the Committee, I did some research and spent some time asking my county council about the issue. Its attitude was that the Bill was largely meaningless and potentially dangerous for the reasons that we have mentioned—the Bill cuts across a lot of what it does. That was summed up in the question—I think that I asked it—to Richard Kemp on whether the duty would make a difference. He replied:
“So my response to your earlier question about what we would do differently as a result of the Bill is, ‘Not necessarily anything at all’”.——[Official Report, Child Poverty Public Bill Committee, 20 October 2009; c. 50-59, Q121-32.]
What does the clause deliver? What does the duty deliver? Where is the additionality? Why not stick with a tried and tested method that has proved to have an impact on local authorities, particularly in holding them to account?
Subsections (5) and (6) use the creation of pooled funds as the way to approach the issue. I am extremely glad to see that the measures are permissive. I hope that Ministers know people’s feelings about how pooled funds operate. The fact that many local authorities have moved on from the pooled fund method to the aligned fund method says an awful lot about the rather old-fashioned and clunky way in which the clause introduces the duty, and about how this part of the Bill tackles the whole issue of local government involvement in child poverty.
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