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3.45 pm

Mr. Stuart: That is a fair question and it would need to be considered. We do not want to price people-particularly single parents who are inflexible in what they can do in the workplace because of their family commitments-out of accessing the marketplace. It is not a battle between those who do not care and those who care and want a higher minimum wage. It is a really tough judgment call to get the right thing for the country as a whole and for the poorest in particular. That is an argument that I would be happy to engage in with the hon. Gentleman. I do not have any firm views on it, and his expertise might easily eclipse mine.

We talked about social cohesion and, as hon. Members have mentioned, households in chaos. We have to deal with that. What do we do when we take measures? I fear that this Bill could end up enabling transfers of money to households, rewarding and reinforcing chaotic lifestyles. The Minister has had nothing to say about that. In fact, one of the Ministers who is on the Front Bench-the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman)-said in Committee, extraordinarily:

She actually said that. If she wants to intervene, I would be happy to allow her to retract that today. She said:

Of course poverty is a cause of family breakdown. Of course the tensions and pressures of poverty might exacerbate tensions in a family. However, to suggest that family breakdown does not push people into poverty is entirely to misunderstand what happens to families.
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The fact that we have a Minister on the Front Bench with such a perverse and peculiar view undermines my confidence that the Government know what they are doing.

Mr. Jamie Reed: The hon. Gentleman is making a very interesting case, as usual, which is being enjoyed by Members of all parties. Does he agree that this Bill is fundamentally about the kind of country that we want to be and that it is also about priorities and assurances? Where does that rate in his priorities?

Mr. Stuart: The hon. Gentleman is quite right. I shall try to answer him as straightforwardly as I can. I personally do not support putting child poverty targets on a statutory footing when we have not assessed all deprivation and when we have not considered the plight of the disabled, the elderly poor or any number of other groups. We have not considered the other priorities-we could be at war in eight years' time. All Governments want the best outcomes for the most people and have a particular interest-they certainly should-in looking after the most vulnerable and the weakest in our society. Should we-the hon. Gentleman will have to forgive me, as I know that he is not a cynical Member of this place-prioritise this issue for cynical electoral reasons so that the Government can capture a headline and distract from their failures?

Ms Keeble: Would not the hon. Gentleman agree that all the studies that are based on Department for Work and Pensions stats, including the Joseph Rowntree Foundation study, show that it is children who are most likely to be in poverty in the UK today? That is the point of this legislation. They are the single foremost group. We can identify within that group which household structures and which income structures lead people to be in poverty, but overwhelmingly it is children who are at risk of poverty.

Mr. Stuart: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention. Single parent households are twice as likely to be in poverty, according to the Government figures, as two-parent households. We have a Minister who suggests that family breakdown is not a cause, and suggestions have been made that to try to eradicate the disincentives and built-in biases against couples in the benefits and tax system is an attack on single-parent families. I would have hoped that the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble), who takes a profound interest in such matters, would support the Opposition, who believe that we need a level playing field. We certainly do not need to reinforce the pressures on couples to split up because of perverse incentives in the benefit system.

Ms Keeble: I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would quote the figures from Department for Work and Pensions tables or from the Rowntree study that show that single-parent households are twice as likely as two-parent households to be in poverty. I acknowledge that there might be a greater likelihood of that, but I would be very surprised to hear those figures, and I would be grateful if he would quote them.

Mr. Stuart: I hope that it is not because of blind prejudice that the hon. Lady has not looked at the basic figures.

Andrew Selous rose-

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Mr. Stuart: I am happy to give way to my hon. Friend, who is a master of such figures and will share them with the House.

Andrew Selous: I am happy to intervene briefly on my hon. Friend to give the Government's figures on HBAI for 2007-08, from which the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) has frequently quoted. Table 4 on page 66 shows that the chance of being in poverty is 36 per cent. for a child of lone parents and 18 per cent. for a child of a couple-half that rate. Those are the Government's own figures from a central DWP document on child poverty.

Mr. Stuart: One would hope that in a less febrile battle between false political narratives one would not even need to see the tables; one needs only common sense to see that that is likely to happen. No one wants to stigmatise single parents or to pretend that anyone lives in a model family, least of all today, but one must recognise the realities and try to support people in staying together and to minimise what the right hon. Member for Birkenhead said were the supply routes into poverty. That should be a common cause across the House. It is a shame that we have to read out tables to get people to do what common sense should tell them as a matter of course. That is a key appeal from me.

When debating new clauses 3 and 2, we need to talk about the causes of poverty. That is a complex area, and we need cross-party working and understanding without playing games. On Second Reading, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions said that the Bill would hold the Government of the day's feet to the fire to ensure that aims on child poverty were delivered. My duty-not in 2018 or 2090, but right now, as a Member of Parliament who represents many poor families and poor children-is to try to hold this Government to the fire for solemn pledges that they have made, but they do not even want to make a report to the House to 'fess up to what is happening. The failure to do that and to agree this new clause suggests that we will not be doing everything we can to minimise the number of children in child poverty, not in 10 or 12 years' time, but right now in the coming months.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I now have to announce the result of a Division deferred from a previous day. On the motion relating to environmental protection, the Ayes were 284 and the Noes were 192, so the Question was agreed to.

[The Division list is published at the end of today's debates.]

John Howell (Henley) (Con): It is always a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart). I note that during his speech he was in his new charitable guise. Despite that, I am grateful for having been called to speak after him. It is rather better that I should follow him than the other way around.

In Committee, I thought that we were getting very close to a university lecture in semantics at times. We learned that eradication meant no such thing, certainly in terms of how the general public would understand it. Similarly, I think that we are in danger of looking at child poverty through the eyes of the House alone and
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not those of people outside, and of seeing it purely in statistical terms rather than in the wider terms that people outside would see it. Looking at it through those eyes, I do not see how we can achieve the general aim of eradicating child poverty in that broader sense simply through clauses 2 to 5, so I rise to speak in support of new clause 2 and the consequential amendments that deal with the causes of child poverty. We cannot deal with child poverty adequately without considering its causes and how we might break the cycle of deprivation. I agree that income has to be a substantial part of that, but I want to talk about why considering income alone would be inadequate.

In the period between Committee and Report, I have had the privilege of being able to talk to a number of organisations that work to combat child poverty. I have spoken to them in some depth about the Bill and their approach to child poverty in general. One of the things that they welcome is that the Bill sets a framework. They are not necessarily in agreement that it is the right framework, but they agree that there should be a framework. One of the consistent things that has come out of my conversations with them is that they too see the difficulty with a framework that is built only on income targets without taking into account the importance of the family and the broader context that others have spoken about today.

In Committee, the Government tried to argue that the broader context would be dealt with through the mechanisms in clause 8. I shall return to that in a moment but, if that is true and the Bill contains a recognition of that context-through the mechanism of material deprivation, for example-one has to ask why there is no consistency. Why is the recognition of the broader context in one part of the Bill not reflected in the targets at the beginning of the Bill? New clause 2 would rectify that problem.

I still have a great problem: I struggle to see how part 1 and part 2 are linked. It is perfectly right to have local government involved in delivering much of the work needed to help to eradicate child poverty, but that work is about the causes of the poverty and the cycle of deprivation. We heard from, among others, Paul Carter, the leader of Kent county council. He told us how that council was pulling the work together, and not just in recent years: it had been a long journey lasting six, seven or eight years, which had included integrating the work with the delivery of education.

The county council that covers my constituency has taken the same joined-up approach involving education and the primary care trust, with the aim of looking at the causes of child poverty and helping to overcome it. It is a shame that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) is not in his seat at the moment, as that approach goes part of the way to answering the concerns that he raised about how we get to the root causes of child poverty.

In some ways, the Government have recognised that one way to get to those root causes is to use local government. That is what part 2 of the Bill is about, but the Government have not linked part 2 with the targets in part 1 to achieve the sort of broad target that new clause 2 calls for.

We also heard evidence from Charlotte Pickles from the Centre for Social Justice about the need to see things in a family context. She made the point that we need to
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make sure that the increases in money provided to try to eradicate poverty reach the child, and that it is not unfairly diverted to other causes in any of the various possible ways. I was struck by her comment in her evidence of 22 October, when she said:

I think that that goes to the heart of new clause 2 and the consequential amendments that flow from it. We need to move towards that broader picture.

In Committee, I was astonished that the Minister seemed unable to make the connections between other factors and child poverty, or to see the problem in a way that was not compartmentalised but in the round. In response to question 13, Charlotte Pickles said:

When taken with the broader context of the family, that child focus was extremely helpful.

However, we did not hear only from Charlotte Pickles and the Centre for Social Justice, as we also heard Neil O'Brien from the Policy Exchange talk about the narrowness of the targets in the Bill. There has been some talk to the effect that the current targets at least give focus. I admit that they do give a focus on income, but that is surely not enough: we have to make sure that the focus is complete, and that it is the right focus. I am far from convinced that that is the case, and it goes to the heart of the Bill's extremely poor structure.

4 pm

Mr. Jamie Reed: The hon. Gentleman has made some interesting points, but does he agree that income is the cornerstone of the Bill and that, frankly, everything else-whether health and well-being, the family unit or any of the other issues relating to opportunity-cannot be addressed unless we centralise our efforts first and foremost on income?

John Howell: I am not arguing that we should not take income into account. I have not heard anyone in the evidence sessions in Committee or in the House on Second Reading or today say that income is not an important element; but surely the hon. Gentleman cannot claim that income is everything. It cannot form the complete picture.

Mr. Reed: I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I fear that I was not as clear as I might have been. I am not taking issue with him at all. I simply say that income is at the heart of everything that we do. The other issues that he talks of, which are exceptionally important, cannot be progressed in any way unless we first address the income issue.

John Howell: I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point, but I look at it the other way around. We need to ensure that the increase in income that we use to help to eradicate child poverty is well used and that no other factor will come into play to prevent it from having the maximum effect, but we cannot tell that at
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the moment, because we do not see in the Bill how to deal with the causes of deprivation and poverty-what the right hon. Member for Birkenhead referred to as stopping the flow of negativity that enters the system and produces the root causes of the problem.

I well recall the comment in Committee that the Bill already took such things into account with the emphasis on material deprivation and the need to consider them in the strategy, but what stuck in my mind most in reading the report of the Committee proceedings was the information that the data on assessing material deprivation were so weak. So why is an imperfect measure buried in the Bill, when new clause 2 could provide us with a much better measure of the things that material deprivation indicates we are struggling to move towards. We must not view the issue in terms of narrow statistics. I do not want too many targets in any Bill, but nor do I want targets that skew the Bill and our actions towards income only.

In Committee, if I remember correctly, the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) was sceptical and said that too many targets would allow the Government too much wriggle room. If there were 10 targets, they could say that they had achieved seven of them and therefore that they had met their goals, but those seven targets might not be the most important ones. I take that point-it is one of the things that needs to be worked out-but I do not believe that the process is impractical to achieve.

Those hon. Members who have been involved in the management of businesses may well have come across the concept of the balanced scorecard, by which the most important quadrants of a business's activities are divided and a handful of measures used to manage the business to achieve those objectives. Almost all those objectives are not single ones; they are baskets of objectives in which decisions are made about the importance of each in achieving the overall objective in each quadrant.

The methodology exists and is being used effectively in business and local government. In the days when I was a councillor, I happened to be responsible for introducing a balanced scorecard approach to my county council, and the management of the council's business improved almost overnight as a result, because of the clarity and decision making there had to be, not just in respect of headline-grabbing targets but in respect of targets all the way through. [ Interruption. ] I think the Minister is trying to intervene on me, is she not?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Helen Goodman) indicated dissent.

John Howell: Ah, the hon. Lady is just making faces in response to my comments. If she would like a lecture on the balanced scorecard and how to do targets, she could make an appointment afterwards. I am very happy to share with national Government the knowledge and expertise that I have gained from local government.

I am almost at the end of my contribution. The point has been made that it is practical to look at a way of approaching targets based on the causes of poverty, instead of just sticking to the narrow and somewhat misleading targets that have been set in the Bill.

Helen Goodman: I shall speak to new clauses 1, 2 and 3, and amendments 1 to 20, 23, 24, 33, and 34.

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