|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
"Our concern about the compatibility with Article 14 ECHR of excluding children not in qualifying households from the targets is not affected by the fact that qualifying households will be defined in regulations rather than in the Bill itself."
"the provisions in a Bill are likely to give rise to a breach of a Convention right in practice, for example because of a regulation making power that is likely to be exercised in a way which is incompatible with Convention rights",
"is of as much concern to us as a breach on the face of the Bill."
The Government's third argument is that it is not the intention to discriminate against those children, and I certainly accept that the Government are of that view. Indeed, they point out that the duty to have a child poverty strategy will apply to all children; other parts of the Bill not affected by these amendments do not seek to discriminate. Although we support and welcome that, it does not solve the problem that part of the Bill does appear to discriminate against children. The fact that it is not the intention for the Bill to discriminate against them is not relevant; it is, as we say,
"enough that it is the effect of its provisions that the children covered by the targets are prioritised over those children not caught by the data".
The fourth and final argument that we have identified the Government using is that the discrimination against children not living in qualifying households is justifiable and proportionate because it is simply not practical to conduct surveys that cover all children. We do not think that that is good enough, because we believe that efforts could be made to identify the children we are concerned about. We have made that clear in a number of places in our report.
Steve Webb: The dilemma is that for the vast bulk of the nation's children, living standards can be assessed using household surveys on a common standard, internationally defined and all the rest of it. Is my hon. Friend's argument that, if it is not possible to put children in the groups he refers to on to that same metric-that is the key problem; we know where they are and we could survey them, but converting their living standards into the same metric is very difficult-could we not apply a rational approach to the vast majority of children; or would my hon. Friend's approach preclude us from doing that at all because it is discriminatory?
I do not know the answer to that question, but we recognise that the number of additional children that it would be necessary to survey is relatively small, amounting to about 0.5 per cent. Because the whereabouts of many of those children is already known because of the other responsibilities of public authorities, it would be difficult to make a case for regarding as disproportionate the task of ensuring that the data are available, so that
all children can be measured against child poverty targets. I accept my hon. Friend's point that it would not be easy to apply household data to non-household individuals. I am sensitive to the fact that existing data sets are not conducive to that task, but the amendment does not say that the data sets are conducive. It is designed to get the Government to take extra steps to ensure-perhaps by amending the targets to have two tiers, because although it would be differential, it would not be discriminatory if the intention and effect are good-the best means of identifying, aiding and lifting out of poverty those other children who are just not being measured.
John Mason: I am listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman is saying and I believe I understand his point. I just wonder whether we simply need a completely separate target for those children. Might that not be the best way to deal with the problem?
Dr. Harris: That might be the way forward. We argue that the Bill as a whole, because of the targets set in it, ends up being discriminatory-not intentionally, but in effect-so if the relevant part of the Bill dealt specifically with those children, it would seem to solve the problem. It is not a matter of saying that those children need to appear in every target, but the relevant part of the Bill that puts a duty on the Government to allocate resources to children living in poverty should not by design, albeit unintentionally, exclude some of the most disadvantaged children. That is really the nub of our argument.
The problem is not that, because the children are not covered by the duty, they may not receive the resources. Instead, the problem is that, given our present difficult financial straits, resources may be moved from those children who are not subject to the targets in order to provide the resources to deal with the children who are covered in the target. We have seen that happen, or at least allegedly happen, before-in the treatment of lone parents, for example, when lone parent benefit for the very poorest was cut in order to increase it for the next poorest group. That happened some years ago and I well remember the debate about it. That is the real problem.
Finally, I would like to deal with the point raised by the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) in his first, less irate, intervention. He made a very good point. I have always had concerns about target-based approaches to policy, because if targets are not measured correctly or if the target ends up being the wrong one, it can distort policy and resource allocation. We see that in the health service all the time, where the most urgent patient is the one who has been waiting 17 and a half weeks, rather than the one who has waited only three weeks but whose case is clinically more urgent. That is why when dealing with the vulnerable, it is vital that we identify the right groups. That is why I hope the Minister will consider carefully the constructive suggestions made by the Joint Committee.
When it comes to the key principles and objectives of this Bill, I believe the Government's heart is in the right place, but as right hon. and hon. Members have already said, the target date of 2020 will not be achieved-it is going to be very difficult.
Before I entered this House and became engaged in full-time politics, child poverty to me was a third-world country-a country trying to develop and move on and enter western society. When I came into politics, however, I was astounded at the number of children who were living in poverty across the whole of the United Kingdom. That was a real eye-opener for me.
I find myself in agreement with the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who is not in his place at the moment, in much of what he said about poverty. Other Members have raised the point about finding reasons for such poverty. What is the root cause? We have heard a number of different responses to that question.
Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): My hon. Friend has talked of the Government's commitment to eradicating child poverty within a generation. Does he agree that part of the challenge, not just in Northern Ireland but throughout the United Kingdom, is that poverty is a generational problem? In many societies, estates and communities, the grandparents, the parents and, now, the children have all suffered from the same difficulty, from which no one has managed to extricate them.
David Simpson: I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. There is no doubt that child poverty is a generational problem, and that it is still a reality in Britain today. Figures have been issued ranging from 4 million to 6 million. However, many of the issues have been devolved to the Northern Ireland Executive. Like my hon. Friend, I had the privilege of chairing the Social Development Committee in the Assembly, where all those issues were raised.
In Northern Ireland, where the problem has been historically worse, some 100,000 children are living in poverty. The hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) mentioned housing. Far too many young people's lives are blighted by homes that are cold and damp because their families cannot afford heating. As a result, their health suffers. They go into adulthood with chronic health problems that may plague them for the rest of their lives. Children who grow up in poverty do not have the same opportunities as their peers-the right hon. Member for Birkenhead mentioned education in this context-and that can turn disadvantaged children into disillusioned adults.
Mr. Graham Stuart: How is a balance to be struck between giving families who are living in poverty a sense of empowerment and a sense that they are the authors of their own lives-I am thinking, for instance, of the many first-generation immigrant families who live in poverty but, driven by their values, make sure that their children do not follow them-and giving them support? We need to support them, but not in a way that sustains a lack of aspiration and a lifestyle that will keep successive generations in poverty. How do we provide support in a way that is both humane and politically effective?
David Simpson: I wish that I had a crystal ball. It is very difficult to identify the root of the problem and find a way of encouraging people to emerge from that lifestyle. The hon. Gentleman referred to addiction earlier, and that is also a major problem. As with a disease, we need to find the root cause in order to eradicate this problem, and I believe that it will take until well after 2020 to complete the job.
The Northern Ireland Executive remain committed to the 2006 strategy document "Lifetime Opportunities". Its key objectives are enshrined in the "Programme for Government", which sets out some ambitious targets including the lifting of some 67,000 children out of poverty by next year and-as the Bill proposes-the elimination of child poverty by 2020. That will be very difficult, but the aims and objectives are there.
"I know that money cannot buy happiness and my children have loads of love, but having enough money is important to ensure that my children are well looked after and have the things that they need in life."
Mr. Graham Stuart: It is a pleasure both to follow the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) and to participate in this debate. I shall address my remarks chiefly to new clauses 2 and 3. The hon. Gentleman and other contributors have mentioned the Government's heart being in the right place, and I think I agree with that, but there are three drivers behind this Bill, and whereas the first of them is a genuine commitment to tackling child poverty, the other two are more ignoble.
The Bill is designed in part to distract from the Government's failure to meet the 2010-11 target, and it is also being introduced in the hope that it will serve to create the famous political dividing lines, as is characteristic of so many proposals and legislation since the current Prime Minister took office. The Bill has been introduced in the hope that the Conservatives will fall into a political trap by expressing doubts about the mechanisms it employs or its declaratory nature-or any other of a number of well-founded concerns about it. The Government hoped the Conservatives might be foolish enough to oppose the Bill so that they could be shown to be more interested in the few than the many, thus reinforcing the disgraceful and unhelpful narrative to which the Prime Minister is so dedicated. Therefore, the Government's heart is not in the right place in two out of those three aims. Furthermore, the fact that the Government are so keen to create these dividing lines prevents us from being able to talk about the fiendishly complex problem of tackling child poverty.
I do not doubt the Government's commitment to tackling child poverty, but in the boom period that we have recently enjoyed, the low-hanging fruit in policy terms was halving child poverty, and they did not meet their target in 2005-although they missed it by a wafer-thin margin, so I will not place too much emphasis on that. They are going to miss the 2010 child poverty
target as well, and they reject spending the money that the Institute for Fiscal Studies says they could spend in order to meet that target next year. Therefore, despite the fact that they made a solemn pledge, they are saying that they will not spend the £4.3 billion on transfers to ensure that they halve child poverty. They could do that, but they have decided not to, because they recognise, as all Governments must, that they have to strike a balance between all the different priorities they are addressing. Why, therefore, would a future Government be able to do that in 10 years' time, after what will doubtless be a much tougher decade than the past 10 years from a financial point of view? I therefore believe that that will not be done. The Government are setting us up for failure, and they are giving a false promise to people that eradication is in sight. I find the entire Bill deeply unsatisfactory.
New clause 3 is tremendously useful in asking for a report, and thereby asking the Government to talk about what they are doing now-to talk about the deadline not 10 or 11 years hence, but for tackling children being brought up in deprivation today. What are the Government doing now-this month, this quarter, next quarter, all the way through to the end of the next financial year? If they oppose the new clause, they will show that they are not interested in transparency and in looking at the here and now. They will show that they are interested not in the political realities of delivering for the poorest in our society, but in playing political games so that they can welcome the clamour of support for their long-term vision. We have had a lot of long-term visions, and the long-term vision of today is that we have ended up with record numbers of young people in unemployment.
Whenever my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) is sitting on the Front Bench, I am always minded to try to follow his lead by being less strident and more charitable-he manages to achieve that both rightly and effectively. It is, therefore, worth commenting on a few positive things the Government have done. They have invested in early child care such as the Sure Start children centres, and they have made a genuine effort to put in place early intervention, which relates to matters of interest to the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen). We must judge the outcomes of today, however, and what we now have are more NEETs-young people not in education, employment or training-than when the Government came to power.
We should also consider the number of people who are on the very lowest incomes. When most people think about poverty, they think about the very poorest. When they have a Labour Government who say they want to eradicate child poverty, little would they imagine that that Government would be smug and proud of their record when the number of children in families on the very lowest incomes-not below 60 per cent. of median income, which is the technical description of relative poverty, but below 40 per cent. of median income-is at its highest for 25 years. That is the reality. The poorest are poorer under Labour, despite the investments and the genuineness of the commitments. Yet we have before us this vainglorious piece of legislation, which is designed to distract and to allow this failing
Government, who have so often failed the poorest, to wrap themselves in a cloak of social justice. They do not deserve to wear it.
All this means that we are not doing enough of what the hon. Member for Upper Bann and so many others, including the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), were talking about. We should be trying to wrestle with the complexity of these issues so that we do not create perverse incentives-those affecting the poor and the rich. We want social justice and we want effectiveness, and we want it to be provided in a humane way. We do not want to play politics with looking after the poor in a way that ends up with more of them kept that way.
Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in meeting the challenge of child poverty, it does not matter to which party one belongs? Child poverty is a problem facing all parties in this House, so it is vital that we reach a consensus on how we take children out of poverty and allow them to succeed in life with the backing of Government and Government policy?
Mr. Stuart: I partially agree with what the hon. Gentleman says, and I certainly welcome the sentiment behind it. I am not always convinced that consensus does lead to the best results. A clash of ideas more often leads to positive outcomes than does a cosy consensus in this place. All the parties signed up to the Climate Change Act 2008, but have we seen a demonstrable change in emissions since it was passed? We have not seen it yet, but I hope that we will. I shall not go further on that; I shall stop before I am stopped, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
Steve Webb: It is always a shame to interrupt the hon. Gentleman in full flow. May I encourage him to be a bit wary about this so-called very low-income measure of less than 40 per cent. of median income? I hope he is aware that although that accurately represents some people's living standards, surveys of income and expenditure provide good reason to think that the measurement of income of those very low-income households is often not a good proxy for their living standards. The classic case is that of the self-employed, whose books show less than 40 per cent. but whose living standard is clearly not that at all. I am trying not to be patronising, but I discourage him from putting too much weight on this measure of less than 40 per cent., where the data really are murky.
Mr. Stuart: I would always defer to the hon. Gentleman on matters of statistics, but when the official Government statistics have been reasonably consistent-he may correct me if I am wrong about this-and have shown an increase in the number of people in that category, either we have had an explosion in black market activity among families or we face a genuine problem. It is perfectly reasonable for those of us who have not slaved for many years in national statistics offices to take Government figures at face value, particularly when they show us an ugly picture of an increase in poverty among the poorest. He may patronise me as much as he likes, but until I am given comprehensive evidence to show that there has not been an increase in poverty among the poorest in this society, I shall remain concerned-even if he wants to dismiss my concern for technical reasons.
It is worth saying that we could have a clash of ideologies here, although there is so much political fear ahead of a general election that not much clashing is occurring. Historically, the Conservative party has believed-or certainly one could caricature it thus-in trickle-down economics. I remember a friend of mine sneeringly saying to me a little while ago, "I suppose you believe in trickle-down economics." As a good Conservative, I do, to an extent. However, although the previous Conservative Government transformed the country from being the sick man of Europe-we took over from the previous economic wreckage of a Labour Government-to being a much more powerful and dynamic economy, child poverty increased, and nobody who sits on the Conservative Benches is proud of that.
We want to combine a proper recognition of the need for incentives, for hard work to be rewarded, for enterprise to be supported and for the state not to smother economic activity with ensuring that, as we grow the economy, we carry all with us and do not rely on trickle-down economics to give us the magic solution. That certainly did not happen under the previous Conservative Government.
John Mason: I noticed the hon. Gentleman's phrase about hard work being rewarded, and there is a problem in that a lot of the children in poverty have one or more parents working. Would he be happy to support a higher minimum wage and, in fact, a living wage?
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|