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9 Dec 2009 : Column 395
2.30 pm

The objective certainly marked this Government out from previous ones, but for most of our stewardship we have thought of poverty-naturally enough-in material terms, and of solutions in money terms. Therefore, the whole effort of the Government's engineering at the bottom of the income scale has been to raise benefit levels disproportionately to other incomes, so that one took children and their families across a poverty line. As far as one's first moral responsibility of helping the poor goes, who could fault the Government on that?

However, at least two things have happened since. First, the money has run out, even though the Chancellor was not too willing to admit that in his earlier statement, and perhaps he will not do so for another year. Secondly, the Government have engaged in the debate in a very responsible way, taking that crude initiative and broadening it out. One sees that in the Bill. It is about not only money, but what some of us in the House would refer to as causes.

Although I have not participated in a debate on the Bill before, I have read reports of them, and I have been struck by how they have been captured by Seebohm Rowntree. He was the chocolate manufacturer's son-his father, Joseph Rowntree, made his name building up that great firm in York and elsewhere. His son made his name-

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I am reluctant to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman, but I am not quite sure how far he is going to stray from new clause 1. I am prepared to allow a certain amount of latitude, but he will bear in mind that we have new clauses and amendments before us.

Mr. Field: I thought we were taking all the clauses together, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Yes we are, but a degree of precision is essential.

Mr. Field: Of course it is.

One thing Seebohm Rowntree did was list the issues that the Government are trying to deal with in the Bill-in a sense, that underpins new clause 1 and the whole of the Government's approach. At the turn of the last century, he asked why people were poor. He listed low pay, being a single-parent household, unemployment, sickness and old age, but he went on to say that one should not read such things as the causes of poverty, and that they are in fact manifestations of poverty. He said that if we want to look at the causes of poverty, we have to go much deeper into the big questions about political economy.

Therefore, I much welcome the fact that when the Government started to fan out in the Bill how they view poverty, they got on to what I think we need to get on to-namely, looking at the deep, root causes of poverty in our society, with which amendments in this group deal. Indeed, I would argue that it is inconsistent for the Government to adopt such an approach to defining poverty and not to welcome the debate about the link between children in poverty and one-parent households-Labour Members find it easier to link low pay in such households to children in poverty. There seems to be something inconsistent about our approach. We are not
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prepared to try to teach the nation that if one becomes a single-parent, or makes little opportunity of the 13 years of state investment in education and goes into an unskilled job, the probability is that one will be poor.

I was therefore disturbed that, when in the past couple of days the Leader of the Opposition raised the question-he did so very carefully-of eliminating the discrimination against two-parent families, it was immediately read by some of the single-parent groups as an attack on the status of single parents. I know they have grounds for doing so, because when we were first elected in '97, we said we were going to abolish such discrimination, but we foolishly presented that in terms of attacking single parents and reducing their income. However, the proposals I mentioned were not to reduce the income of single-parent households, but to raise the income of households with two parents. In that way, the children in such households would be equivalent to children in households in which only one parent earned.

I rose to congratulate the Government on distinguishing themselves as the first ever who decided they could, by their means, change whether people lived in households in poverty. Secondly, I rose to congratulate the Government on broadening how they see the mechanisms by which poverty is transmitted. They have moved-thank goodness-from a rather crude definition and from concern only in money terms, and are beginning to look at the debate about the root causes of poverty, which I think we need to have in what remains of this Parliament and in the next.

That is why the Government's proposals for raising the performance of our secondary schools are so important. We need to guarantee that practically every child leaves with minimum school-leaving requirements. Those requirements should not be made up by adding slightly bogus vocational qualifications to five GCSEs including English and maths. In the hard world in which the employer interprets such qualifications, children who have them will probably be condemned to poverty in adulthood, and their children with them.

I also believe that we need to get over to younger people that opting for single parenthood is not a desirable life choice. Many have that inflicted upon them, but the way we allow young people to make that decision without spelling out what it means for them and their life chances, and more importantly for their children's life chances, fails that next generation. It is not good enough for the pressure groups to wheel out upper-middle class young single parents who are having a whale of a time and saying, "I'm so pleased I'm a young single parent. I can't tell you all the choices I have now I've got all that over with," and the rest of it. The young women who follow that model in my constituency do not have the bank balances to see them through.

I affirm my congratulations to the Government on their long period of stewardship and on staying with this issue. Perhaps a little later than I would have thought, they have widened the debate beyond what Rowntree thought were the superficial causes to the root causes of poverty, which I welcome.

I put that down as a marker for the next Parliament-hopefully some of us will be returned by the electorate. The Government made their choice at a time of record public expenditure. In the next Parliament, there will be record cuts in public expenditure. As Tawney said, when the great liners go down, who gets into the lifeboats is
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important. It is important for us to help to shape the debate about the priorities and to decide who gets into those lifeboats when the age of big cuts in public expenditure is really upon us.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): As always, it is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and, indeed, the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb), who ably introduced new clause 1. As the hon. Gentleman said, we touched on this issue in Committee and I understand where he is coming from. Indeed, in Committee I made the point that families are primarily interested in the after housing costs income-how much money they have left to spend on food, clothing, transport and so on, to balance the weekly budget. That is the critical amount for many families.

We do track that figure. In Prime Minister's questions earlier, the figure of 4 million children living in poverty was mentioned, and that is the after housing cost figure, rather than the before housing cost figure of 2.9 million. In Committee, my hon. Friends and I backed amendment 28, tabled by the hon. Gentleman, which would have removed clause 6(2) which prevents housing costs from being deducted when calculating the net income of a household. We thought that that was overly prescriptive because it would tie the hands of the Child Poverty Commission, which has not even been set up yet, when it came to take a view on housing costs. We were happy to back the hon. Gentleman on that amendment.

As the hon. Gentleman has made clear, the households below average income series already publishes the figures for both before and after housing costs, and it will continue to do so. The Minister made that clear. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will pay careful attention to the after housing costs figure. At 4 million, it is much higher than any of us would like.

My concern about supporting new clause 1 is that we already have four income targets in the Bill, as I said in Committee. I was grateful for the comments by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead when he talked of the importance of widening the range of indicators and targets that we use to track our progress in reducing poverty, which will of course always be measured in income terms. We should have a range of targets in the Bill that drive policy in the right direction. My concern about new clause 1 is that that fifth income target would focus more on downstream intervention, whereas the real need is to focus on the root causes of poverty-those factors that trap people in a life of poverty, about which the right hon. Gentleman rightly talked. In that respect, I tabled new clause 2 and amendments 23 and 24.

New clause 2 seeks to add a fifth target to the Bill, just as the hon. Member for Northavon has tried to do, that would deal specifically with reducing the causes of poverty. I tabled a similar amendment in Committee and made an attempt to put some detail in the clause. Other members of the Committee said, "Well, you have included this, but you have left out that, and we do not think that that's very good." I took that point. I accept that the new clause is relatively brief at the moment, but amendment 23 specifies that the actual causes of poverty would be specified in regulations made by the Secretary of State. That is clearly something that the Child Poverty Commission, among others, would have a view on, and
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it would advise the Government. I think that that measure is essential. Indeed, my overriding criticism of the Bill is that it focuses purely on downstream income intervention and does not do enough at an early enough stage to address the causes of poverty.

I am supported in that point by several commentators, not least by witnesses at the formal evidence sessions in Committee. For example, both Mike Brewer of the Institute for Fiscal Studies and Donald Hirsch, a well respected academic from the university of Loughborough, were asked whether the Bill needs to address the longer-term causes of poverty in the early years, and they both said yes. Mike Brewer said:

That is precisely what new clause 2 is seeking to introduce. Neil O'Brien, another witness from Policy Exchange, spoke about the current set of targets driving public policy to

He spoke of it being necessary to align

That is the central point.

2.45 pm

The Department for Work and Pensions used to go some way along those lines. In its excellent "Opportunity for All" report, it published details of the number of children in workless households, teenage pregnancy, the proportion of children in disadvantaged areas with a good level of development, the number of children not in education, employment or training, childhood obesity and other such factors. Bizarrely, it stopped producing that report in 2007.

I quoted Mike Brewer's evidence to the Committee, but he has not stopped considering the point. In a recent article entitled "What's the point of the Child Poverty Bill?", he wrote that

He also points out that

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): I am attracted by my hon. Friend's approach, but does he think that it would be possible to reach agreement on the causes of poverty? Is not that quite a political issue, on which people from different backgrounds or different sides of the House might have a fundamentally different view, especially on things such as family breakdown? Is it possible to achieve his goal?

Andrew Selous: I agree with my hon. Friend that it would not be easy, and my attempt to do so in Committee did meet with some flak from fellow Committee members.
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I thought that it was slightly unfair as I had made an attempt to put a bit of detail in the Bill, but I was so roughly treated that I have tabled a slightly sparser clause on this occasion. However, I do not think that difficulty should prevent us from doing this work. My hon. Friend may be aware of the comments by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that

That is the very group that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead quoted.

We can all agree on a certain set of indicators, perhaps around worklessness, addiction and educational underachievement, and in fact I thought that there was a degree of unity across the House on the issue of family breakdown.

Mr. Frank Field: I was trying to get away from this debate. The quotation that the hon. Gentleman cited from Mike Brewer was-apart from the last half-sentence-about a more flowery definition of poverty, whether children are fat or not fat. What I was trying to emphasise was that we should be primarily concerned with how to create as many exits from poverty and, equally importantly, how to cut off the supply routes to poverty. The hon. Gentleman may have had a rough going over in Committee, but that is what I thought his clause was about. What are the supply routes to poverty?

Andrew Selous: I mentioned one or two routes in response to my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter), including worklessness, educational underachievement and addiction. Nearly 1.5 million children in this country live in households where their parents are subject to serious addiction. Just over 1 million are subject to serious alcohol abuse and 350,000 children have parents who are subject to serious drug abuse. I say to the Government in all earnestness that, unless they ally their anti-addiction policy with their anti-poverty strategy, we will not succeed in meeting the 2020 targets.

I thought that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead phrased his contribution extremely well. I am at one with him on ensuring that the debate is not about stigma or castigating a particular group, but about giving help to every type of family and trying to encourage the right sort of behaviour, which he ably described in relation to his constituents.

Mr. Field: Is addiction not to some extent a presenting problem? Are we saying that if we abolished addiction, we would automatically link that to the abolition of poverty? What does the hon. Gentleman think are the supply routes? Behind addiction is another tale to tell. There are two big routes that the House should want to tackle. The first is why some people can command only low-paid jobs-if they are going? Secondly, we know that the likelihood is that very young mothers on their own and their children will be poor. Should we not at least be telling people that?

Andrew Selous: I agree. There is no great difference between the right hon. Gentleman and myself. I think that his first point referred primarily to education and skills and his second to certain types of family formation. I am in broad agreement with him.

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Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Our party is often critical of targets because of how they distort behaviour to meet often statistical and numerical outcomes. Child poverty is a complex issue involving supply routes, causes and the reasons why some people are sustained in poverty. Does my hon. Friend share my fear that because the Government want to fulfil and not breach their targets, such a Bill, which sets fixed numbers based on income, may risk putting a short-term desire for box-ticking ahead of the long-term need to address the deep-rooted causes of poverty and to support those who need long-term solutions, not short-term political fixes?

Andrew Selous: My hon. Friend served with great distinction in Committee, and it is excellent to see him in the Chamber. He has a point. It worries me a little when I hear Ministers saying, "We have raised 500,000 people"-or however many-"out of poverty." I take the example of a household that has been nudged from, say, 58 to 61 per cent. of median income. Imagine knocking on the door of that household and asking, "What does it feel like to be out of poverty?" That might be a harsh analogy because I realise that we will always need a target, that it will involve a line and that crossing it will bring only slight differences. However, my general point is that we could visit that household that is just above the poverty threshold and find that things had not really changed. I believe that the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed) talked about the culture of poverty in his excellent contributions in Committee, and I think that he has a sense of where I am coming from.

I hope to press new clause 2 to a Division, and the same goes for new clause 3, if time permits-although I realise that it might not. There is a serious point behind new clause 3. It would put the much easier 2010-11 target to halve the original rate of child poverty by 2010-11 on a statutory basis. I was grateful to the hon. Member for Northavon and his colleagues in Committee for supporting us on that. I look forward to their support if we can press new clause 3 to a Division.

As I said, there is a serious point behind the new clause. We are not just playing politics. All the commentators think it unlikely that we will meet the target. In the light of the pre-Budget report, will the Minister tell the House how many additional children will be brought out of child poverty? I am looking at the section in the report on supporting families to reduce child poverty, on page 81, but that number is not leaping out at me. Perhaps she will enlighten the House in her response.

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