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It is worth noting in passing that under the Welfare Reform Act 2009, the Government sought to impose sanctions on lone parents when their children were only three years old and that the Conservative party made sure that the age was raised to five, when children go to school, as that is quite young enough to start imposing sanctions on parents. However, the point about child care is important. If we are to require lone parents-separated parents-to seek work when their children
reach the age of 5, we must absolutely ensure that child care is in place. It has to be in place before school, on occasions, if there is a journey to work, after work, and, particularly importantly, in the holidays. Part-time and flexible work is incredibly important for that group of parents, many of whom seek to enter the labour market for the first time and are unable to make the step to full-time work, although they may aspire to it.
It is worth noting that there has not been universal success on child care as far as the Government are concerned. In fact, in 2008, more child care places closed down than were created. The child minder work force is in steep decline, and many private sector child care providers are having great difficulties. Although I welcome the inclusion of child care, I think that the Government need to address some significant issues to ensure that child care is adequate and that separated parents in particular can get into work.
I shall respond to the points that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) made on new clause 4, which seeks to impose a duty on the Secretary of State to implement the measures in a UK child poverty strategy. Like the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), I do not believe that the proposed change is necessary. The Bill sets four challenges, which, if met, would represent a considerable achievement. The legal duty to meet those targets is absolute, and it is supported by the duty in clause 8 to publish and lay before Parliament a strategy setting out the measures that the Secretary of State proposes to take to meet them.
The intention is clear: the strategy will drive forward action to achieve the targets. If there is a failure by the Government to take sufficient action, as detailed in the strategy, the targets will not be met and that may result in a judicial review. That clearly places very strong pressure on the Government to implement the measures set out in a strategy. There is a significant difference between this legislation and the legislation that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon noted. The Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 require the Government to implement strategies to achieve their goals, but they do not contain legally binding targets, unlike the Bill before us, which does contain such targets.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights stated that it is not incompatible to have both a duty to meet the targets and a duty to implement the strategy. I understand the theoretical point, but in practice there is no need for both duties. In fact, a duty to implement the strategy could be unhelpful and have unintended consequences that distract us from the important goals in the Bill. Such a duty risks binding the Government to take measures that may turn out to be less effective than was originally envisaged, or that could have negative outcomes that damage progress towards the target.
The Joint Committee is not convinced that the inclusion of a duty to implement the strategy necessarily results in inflexibility. However, surely the hon. Gentleman can see that the Government would be put in an extremely difficult position. If the Government did not take action to implement measures that, at that point in time, they
understood to be harmful or ineffective, they would be infringing the duty to implement the strategy; but, if the Government did take action in the circumstances, implementing the strategy could be argued to be an improper use of public money, because they would have implemented a strategy that had been discovered to be ineffective.
As a consequence, the Government would need to lay down a new strategy every time data emerged suggesting that a measure was not working. Apart from the impracticalities that would clearly result from that, the practical effect would be that attention would be diverted from the real object, which is bringing down child poverty. A far more sensible approach is contained in clause 8, which requires that the strategy must be revised and refreshed at least every three years, ensuring that new developments and evidence about the best way to tackle child poverty are constantly taken into account in the development of future strategies, which gives the flexibility that we will need.
The Bill also demands accountability for action that the Government have and have not taken. If the most recent UK strategy has not been implemented in full, clause 13 requires that the annual report must describe the respect in which it has not been implemented and the reasons for this. Parliament will then hold the Government to account and determine whether they have acted appropriately. I therefore suggest that the amendment risks undermining Parliament's role in assessing the detail of how the Government take action.
Government amendment 21 seeks to make child care an explicit part of the child poverty strategy. This was raised by many hon. Members in Committee. There was a clear consensus that child care should be added to the Bill because of its great significance, not only in enabling parents to work but in improving educational outcomes for children.
Amendments 27, 28, 35 and 36 deal with consultation and are similar in effect. Amendment 36 would require the Secretary of State, in preparing the UK strategy required by clause 9, to consult children directly as well as organisations working with or representing them. Amendment 27 would have the same effect but in addition require the Secretary of State to consult families directly. Similarly, amendment 28 would require local authorities, when preparing their joint poverty strategies, to consult children and families directly, as well as organisations working with them.
Amendment 35 takes a slightly different approach. It would place an additional duty on the Secretary of State to consult the children's commissioners for the four nations. Very similar amendments were debated in Committee. As I said then, the Government's intention has always been that the child poverty strategy should be informed by the views of children and their families, particularly those with direct experience of poverty. Indeed, we are committed to ensuring that children's views underpin all our policies to improve outcomes for all children.
Amendments 27 and 28 include reference to families. Looking at this from a drafting perspective, it is not clear what that word means. Does it refer only to parents, or to others with parental responsibility? Would
it include parents of grown-up children? The problem is that the word "families" can apply to such a wide variety of groups of people that in effect this would become an obligation to consult the general public at large. I am sure that that is not what the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire intends.
Andrew Selous: I understand what the hon. Lady says, but I remind her that in the Government's own Bills they often have to go back and tidy up some of the drafting, so I do not take that as a massive minus point on our part.
On the central point, does the hon. Lady agree that it is slightly strange to go into a household-let us call it that for a moment-to speak to the children without any reference to the people responsible for them, be they the guardian, both parents or one parent in the case of those living with a separated parent? If the intention is to speak to children, to which she says the Government are committed, it would be natural to speak to the families in which those children live as well.
Helen Goodman: Obviously one would not want to consult children without the permission of their parents. That would not be appropriate, but we do want to hear the views of children specifically. The JCHR made specific reference to article 12 of the UN convention on the rights of the child, and the attractive element of the amendments is the opportunity to give local authorities and the Secretary of State the chance to consult organisations and children.
Amendment 35 refers to the Children's Commissioners. Of course we recognise that they have particular expertise in this area, and they are exactly the sort of body that we had in mind in the reference in clause 9(4)(c) to
"organisations working with or representing children".
We are clear that the development of both national and local child poverty strategies should benefit from input by children, and I argue that the provisions in the Bill go a long way towards ensuring that their views are properly taken into account. We want the strategies developed under the Bill to be as effective as possible, and we recognise that one step towards achieving that is to ensure that they are informed by the views of those experiencing poverty. The challenge is more about how to put that into practice effectively than about the precise requirements set out in the Bill. I am concerned that amendment 35 would not actually help to ensure that the strategy more effectively reflected the views of children or their families.
I am sure that this is not what hon. Members intend, but it is possible that the amendments could become little more than a process requirement, imposing additional bureaucratic burdens that would not help us to understand the concerns of children and families experiencing poverty or make our strategy more effective. In other words, there is a balance to be struck. We do not want to place process burdens on the Secretary of State and local authorities, particularly at a time when we are all conscious of the need to be careful with public money. On the other hand, I appreciate the concerns expressed by hon. Members and organisations outside the House that the Bill does not spell out as clearly as it could our intention
to seek the views of children. Although I ask hon. Members not to press the amendments, we are prepared to consider whether amendment 36 would improve the Bill. If my colleague Lord McKenzie feels that it would be helpful, we will introduce it in the other place.
My hon. Friend the Minister mentioned the processes in the Bill for consulting those experiencing poverty, and she said that the Government had brought forward their proposal to include child care in the Bill because of its particular role in tackling child poverty. In preparation for Report, I consulted in a community in my constituency where there is a high concentration of families with children living in poverty. I talked to people about their concerns, and a key one, which led to my tabling amendment 32, which is in the next group, was the overcrowding that they experience. I hoped that that would be mentioned in the Bill. I wish to make a couple of points about the consultation, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will respond to them.
When I went around the estate in Southfields, half the people I asked about their experience of poverty and the places in which they lived told me they were living in overcrowded conditions and that that was one of their prime difficulties. The feature of overcrowding that is the biggest problem to them-it is why I wanted overcrowding as well as child care, which Government amendment 21 proposes, in the Bill-is that people have to sleep in living rooms. That is a fact of material deprivation that I had hoped the Government would have taken on board and included among the indicators.
May I give an example to my hon. Friend the Minister? As she will know from Committee, right back in 1935, when there was a debate about poor families, children and housing in east London, a Labour MP said
"the right hon. Gentleman's standards as regards overcrowding are not"
"He contemplates as a normal thing that living rooms should be used as bedrooms. I can never agree to that...in ordinary circumstances".
"we shall be heading for the creation of new slums."-[ Official Report, 20 May 1935; Vol. 302, c. 42-44.]
Helen Goodman: My hon. Friend has persisted in making those points over the course of consideration of the Bill, and they are indeed extremely important. I can inform her that the Department for Work and Pensions intends to pilot a new question for inclusion in the family resources survey, asking families with children about the space they have available in their homes for leisure and family activities. I hope she regards that as significant progress on that front.
I am grateful for that, and perhaps my hon. Friend will spell that out more fully on Third Reading, so that we can be absolutely clear that families with children will be regarded as entitled to have a living space in which nobody has to sleep, so they can have
space for recreation, family activities, doing homework, and all the other things the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) will regard as important in supporting family life. I look forward to speaking further on the matter if we reach the next group of amendments.
"In preparing a UK strategy, the Secretary of State...must consult...local authorities...Scottish Ministers...such children, or organisations working with or representing children, as the Secretary of State thinks fit...and such other persons."
Is it not odd not to mention families or the context in which children live? I would not make this allegation against the Government, but typically it is totalitarian states that try to bypass the context of the family and the parents to speak directly to children. The measure is rather odd. The Minister has tried to say that if we include families, suddenly the Secretary of State would be obliged to consult the whole of the general public, but that is obviously nonsense. The amendment would simply provide that the
"Secretary of State...must consult...such children",
"and organisations working with...children, as the Secretary of State thinks fit".
We have heard from the Minister, and we will not necessarily hear from her again, unless I have misunderstood the process, but it is a pity she dismissed the proposal. If the Secretary of State does not talk to children in the context of the family, she will not be properly talking to the child. The best advocate of the child is very often the parent. It is not that we do not want to hear directly from children, but if we do not understand the position of the parent as the chief advocate of the child, we misunderstand the essence of the important relationship between the state and children in the context of their family.
"organisations working with or representing children"
I would have liked to have heard from the Minister the context in which the consultation will take place. The cheapest and easiest way to consult children who might live in poverty might be to go to a school that serves a poor area and speak to the children there-in other words, entirely removed from the home and family in which the child is being brought up.
I seek reassurance from the Minister, who said that the Government would like to consult children and families, because the Bill does not say that. The only substantive reason given for opposing this suggestion was that it would lead to consulting the whole general public, which is clearly nonsense. Why cannot the Minister
accept that talking to children in the context of the family, and talking to the family, is the right thing to do? She has her head bowed-I hope that it is in shame or embarrassment. It would have been useful to hear why she does not think that what we propose would be constructive and where she expects the consultation to take place. Will it be in schools or will it be in the context of the family home? How will it be delivered? I fear, as stated here, that effectively the family context will be excluded because of how the Bill has been phrased.
Dr. Evan Harris: With the leave of the House, I will respond to the points made about amendments 35 and 36. I am grateful for the support of the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), and I note that my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) tabled similar amendments in Committee.
In response to the point about children's commissioners, the Minister did not give a good reason why they should not be included. They have been suggested specifically because their role is statutory and that is why they are different from the others. If we are to go to the trouble of creating through statute an organisation with expertise in being an advocate for children, it should be a statutory consultee. That is only logical, and I suspect that a similar amendment would attract widespread support in the other place for that reason.
The Minister was concerned that amendment 36 would create a burden of consultation-a process burden. If there is a process burden, and if consultation can rightly be described as a burden-I do not think that it can-it was created by signing the UN convention on the rights of the child. Article 12 is clear in requiring states to assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the child's age and maturity. The Minister made reference to article 12 herself.
Helen Goodman: Does not the hon. Gentleman think that there is a difference between involving a particular child in a decision that affects them insofar as they understand the issue, for which we have precedent in English law, and the consultation of whole groups of children? I am not suggesting that groups of children should not be consulted-that is a good idea. I simply do not think that the read-across from article 12 is as tight as he suggests, notwithstanding the general principle of children being enabled to participate where possible.
"to consult children, or organisations working with or representing children as the Secretary of State thinks fit"
refer to article 12. That implies that that consultation with groups is based on article 12, and that that is not restricted to the right of individual consultation on measures that the state imposes on a child. That may be a debate for another day.
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