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Helen Goodman: Our goal is a society where no child's life is scarred by poverty, and where every child is given the best possible start in life and has the capabilities and opportunities to flourish. Children who grow up in poverty lack many of the experiences and opportunities that others take for granted, and can be exposed to severe hardship and social exclusion. Their childhood suffers as a result, which is unacceptable. In the current difficult economic times, our focus on tackling child poverty is even more important. Too often in the past, recessions and economic downturns have been allowed to affect the lives of children long after the country's economy has returned to growth.
Today, we set out the five principles that will guide our strategy on child poverty: first, that work is the most sustainable route out of poverty; secondly, that families and family life should be supported; thirdly, that early intervention is necessary to break cycles of deprivation; fourthly, that excellence in public service delivery is key; and fifthly, that cost-effectiveness and affordability are vital.
Worklessness in families and severe deprivation have not been tackled with the energy and drive needed to deal with entrenched disadvantage. In this context, it is right that we renew and strengthen our commitment to deliver on the 2020 goal through the Child Poverty Bill. The Bill will give us renewed impetus to deliver on our goals and to ensure that the right strategies and actions flow from it.
The Bill will sustain and increase the momentum towards eradicating child poverty, create a clear definition of success, put in place a framework for accountability, and improve partnership-working and collaboration to tackle child poverty at the local level. I thank hon. Members on both sides of the House for their contributions to the debates as the Bill made progress. It has been encouraging that it has received a warm welcome from colleagues.
I want to respond briefly to some of the points that were raised and on which hon. Members asked for the Government's view. The hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) asked about the position of local authorities in respect of relative income. The objective is not to have separate relative income targets for each local authority area. There was some confusion about that in Committee, and I hope we have cleared it up. The hon. Gentleman also suggested that local authorities do not have any impact on relative income standards in their areas. We believe that they do have the ability to influence families' incomes, and, indeed, play a pivotal role in tackling the causes of relative low income. Also, local authorities will soon have the means to assess local progress in tackling low income, and it is entirely reasonable to expect that to be taken into account in the preparation of their needs assessments.
Local authorities have a number of levers at their disposal to help increase family income. In the short term, they can administer financial help for families on low incomes with measures such as housing and council tax benefit, encouraging families to take up financial support, and joining up national and local partners to provide personalised skills and employment support. Local authorities can also reduce low income in the future by driving economic regeneration and neighbourhood renewal, and by providing high-quality education and early years services.
Aside from its positive reception, the Bill has been a credit to the House. Hon. Members have spoken passionately and been extremely well informed on this crucial topic. The focus that the Government have placed on child poverty has ensured that both the moral and economic case for tackling it is indisputable. They have much to be proud of in their record on child poverty. Our efforts and successes in tackling poverty and deprivation across the country have shown that with the political will those problems can be addressed. However, we need to do more to tackle the root causes and consequences of poverty, so that all children have a good start in life, enjoying a fulfilling childhood and having the capabilities and opportunities to flourish. Our vision is of a fairer society: one in which no child is left behind and every child has the opportunity to flourish.
I have very much enjoyed the debate on this important Bill, not only today, but throughout its Committee stage. Delivering this legislation will take us closer to our goal of eradicating child poverty in this generation. This Bill will help to focus efforts across government, local authorities and other partners to improve the lives of children and young people, and I commend it to the House.
Andrew Selous: I have no hesitation in joining the Minister in saying that eradicating child poverty is an ambitious but vital objective for our country. It is both an economic imperative, because no advanced economy can afford to waste the potential of so many of its citizens, and, as she has said, a moral imperative, as no decent society should allow so many children to remain in poverty, as has been the case in the United Kingdom in recent years. I shall repeat what my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) said on Second Reading, because we are both proud to serve under a leader who has said:
"I want me-and the government I aspire to lead-to be judged on how we tackle poverty in office. Because poverty is not acceptable in our country today."
The long title of the Bill refers to "eradication", but both the Minister and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions have made frequent reference during our debates to the fact that the Government's real aspiration is to achieve a child poverty level that is among the best in Europe. It would have been slightly more honest to have said that in the Bill, because the 10 per cent. that is in the Bill represents the best level, and 10 per cent. is not eradication. Some 23 per cent. of children in the United Kingdom live in poverty, which is about twice the level found in the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark-they have child poverty rates of 14, 12 and 10 per cent. respectively. It is also instructive to note that 23 per cent. of UK children were living in relative poverty in 1987, 24 per cent. were doing so in 1996 and 23 per cent. were doing so in 2001. The level of child poverty has remained stubbornly high for more than 30 years.
"the strategy against poverty and social exclusion pursued since the late 1990s is now largely exhausted."
"poverty has become more entrenched".
That is why we need fresh thinking on this subject, and I was pleased that just now the Minister outlined five themes. A number of those relate to the causes of poverty, to which Conservative Members have tried on every occasion to include reference in the Bill.
The Bill is very much a blank canvas. It sets out the targets to be achieved in 2020, but I was disappointed just now that Labour Members voted against including the 2010 target, even though I believe that some of the Minister's colleagues joined us in the Division Lobby. As I said, the Government have had 10 years to have a run at the target of halving child poverty, and I think
that a formal report to Parliament on that would have been useful and would have provided the Government with an early opportunity to come to the House to explain how the child poverty strategy will change.
Conservative Members have set out on a number of occasions the causes of poverty that we want examined. Our non-exhaustive list includes educational failure, hence our school reforms and our commitment to pay a pupil premium to those schools in the most disadvantaged areas, and the level of skills, which is vital. Level 3 skills, which were mentioned at Prime Minister's questions, are particularly important and have decreased over the past decade.
Both benefit dependency and intergenerational worklessness are huge problems that cause poverty up and down our country, hence the Opposition have produced some of the most detailed welfare reform proposals that any party has introduced in opposition or in government. Our "Get Britain Working" programme cuts right to the heart of what is needed to deal with child poverty, so that we can help people to get back into the work force and break these intergenerational cycles of worklessness.
Work on dealing with benefit dependency is extremely important, too, and I commend the "Dynamic Benefits" report produced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) in that regard. The issue of debt is extremely serious. We touched on that in Committee. It aggravates poverty for some families in a particularly nasty and unattractive way, trapping them in deep poverty, often for long periods. Some excellent work is being done in the voluntary sector by Christians Against Poverty centres and others up and down the country.
We touched on the issue of addiction. I say again that I think that that needs to be part of the Government's anti-poverty strategy. I recognise that some people might get into illegal substance abuse and alcohol abuse because of poverty, but the relationship also works the other way around. Families and lives that were proceeding along absolutely fine are destroyed because of alcoholism or illegal drug use.
We have also learned from a recent report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that the Government's child poverty strategy started to run into trouble as early as 2004-05. That was a key turning point well before the recession when poverty, unemployment and property repossessions all started to rise. Indeed, only a day or so ago there was an further excellent report by the Young Foundation pointing out some of these difficulties and to the important psycho-social problems faced by many families up and down the country. In particular, it pointed out the vital role of the voluntary sector, working alongside the Government to make real progress in dealing with these deep-seated issues.
In conclusion, I want to thank all those who were on the Committee, in particular my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke). He was an excellent shadow Minister to work alongside. I want to pay particular tribute, too, to my hon. Friends the
Members for Henley (John Howell) and for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart). They were a formidable duo behind us both in Committee and this afternoon. I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter), who spoke eloquently on Second Reading and made a number of excellent interventions today.
The Bill is not perfect. We will seek in the other place to push some of the issues that we have raised. However, we join the Minister in agreeing with her wish to see child poverty come tumbling down in this country. It is still far too high and we believe that we can make much better progress.
Steve Webb: It was interesting that when the Minister began her speech she said that she thought that it was wrong that any child should suffer poverty and deprivation. She was, of course, right. The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) said that the Bill talked about eradication, and it is regrettable in a sense-one might call it the poverty of our ambition-that we would regard success as 1 million children still living in poverty in 10 years' time. It might be that in modern industrialised societies that is, in the Government's view, the best that can be achieved. Clearly, it would be an awful lot better than the point from which we are starting. To that extent, we welcome the Bill. It is sad that the Government have felt it necessary to oversell it: the Prime Minister routinely at Prime Minister's questions refers to the Government's goal in legislation as being eradication, but he never qualifies that with the odd million who will still be left. That is really rather unhelpful.
It is true that the Bill raises the political price of failing to tackle child poverty, but no Government can bind their successor. The hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) asked what would happen if we were at war in 2018. If that happened, no doubt we would repeal or amend the Act because we would have to spend money because we were at war. We realise that there are always get-outs to such things, but the Bill will make it more difficult, in a relatively normal period, for a Government not to prioritise tackling child poverty.
Mr. Graham Stuart: Does the hon. Gentleman have any misgivings about the Bill? Obviously, no one wants child poverty to be maintained, but if we do not make an assessment of a Government's overall social priorities, how can we come up with statutory targets for one particular area? Surely that creates a risk, outside of the calamity of major war, that we will prioritise child poverty when it would be better to prioritise something else because of the situation at that time. Is not the Bill more declaratory than proper in its structure?
Steve Webb: In a sense, the hon. Gentleman is clearly right-the Bill prioritises the tackling of child poverty, and he is perfectly entitled to take the view either that it should not be a priority or that we should not presume that it should be a priority. However, I refer him to the situation in the 1980s, when tackling child poverty was neither a priority nor a statutory priority.
Rather shockingly, the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire selectively started his history from 1987. He has done that before, but the first time he did so, I thought that it was done innocently; this time, I assume
that it was done deliberately. It is worth remembering that the Conservatives started government with 1.7 million children in poverty and that that number rose to 2.8 million under them, so, at the point at which he started his figures, the Tories had already put 1 million children into poverty. He then glossed over the fact that another 500,000 children moved into poverty before the Tories left office. They therefore doubled child poverty. I do not doubt the personal sincerity of the hon. Gentleman one jot, but the idea that the Conservative party is the answer to child poverty is amazing.
Andrew Selous: The hon. Gentleman and I had a similar exchange on Second Reading, so we are going over slightly old ground. I have the HBAI figures in front of me-I am sure that he, too, has them-and I see from table 4.1 on page 72 that the highest point was in 1995, at 29 per cent. However, my point is that these problems have been around for a considerable period. The rate in 1987 was the same as it is today. We have not made the progress that one would have hoped, despite the Government having made child poverty a political priority, because we are only back at the level that we were at in 1987, hence the need for fresh thinking.
Steve Webb: The House might have thought that the hon. Gentleman was making a slightly different point-that it has all been pretty flat for 20 years, and that this is all terribly difficult. In fact, he picked a point halfway up a hill-a hill for which the Conservative party was responsible-because the figures continued to rise after his starting point. The achievements of the Labour Government might not have gone far enough, but they peaked the figures at the top of the hill and started us back down it again, and we are now halfway back down the hill that he started halfway up. The situation has not been static; a long-term trend of grotesque inequality, which his party presided over with apparent equanimity, has been reversed.
Andrew Selous: I hate to take up too much of Third Reading on economic history, but will the hon. Gentleman cast his mind back to the economy that the Conservative party inherited in 1979? It was a shambles and the priority had to be economic growth and regeneration. We were the sick man of Europe and we inherited a shambles. It is not possible for every Government to make progress on both economic and social targets if they inherit an economy that is in total shambles. It is worth putting that on the record.
Steve Webb: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that. Clearly, 18 years is not long enough to avoid doubling child poverty. I assume, therefore, that he is saying that if the Conservatives came to office now, in what they say is a very difficult economic situation, and if child poverty were to double over the next 18 years, that would just be the way things are.
Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it seems eccentric to think that a Conservative policy could assist in dealing with child poverty, given that it might mean that a man who is on his third wife would still get extra benefits from their marriage allowance, while his first wife, who might still be looking after their children as a lone parent, would be being discriminated against and have an allowance taken away?
Steve Webb: The hon. Lady raises a point about the perversity of the proposal to reward marriage through the tax system. The Conservatives started the abolition of the married couples tax allowance, but she may recall that Labour finished it off. It is funny how things come around again.
However, Madam Deputy Speaker, I am sure that you would not want me to stray from the Bill, which I welcome. It does not do a huge amount, but it does raise the political cost of not taking child poverty seriously, and that has to be a good thing. It will also engage local government, and we valued the contributions that the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) made in Committee with his proactive thinking about child poverty at local level. That may well turn out to be one of the Bill's more concrete implications, as the national statistics will not be available locally anyway in quite that form.
As many hon. Members have said, we had a good Committee stage, and I was grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) for his support. It was also good that two Government amendments-on child care, and the research function of the child poverty commission-were tabled on Report in response to the points that we raised. It is a welcome-and for me a relatively novel experience-to find that the arguments that we made in Committee actually changed something. To that extent, it has been a productive process but I am sure, as the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire said, that our noble Friends in another place will still have some items left on their agenda. However, I certainly encourage my hon. Friends to support the Third Reading of the Bill tonight.
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