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6.36 pm

John Howell: I do not know whether it is usual to have so many Back Benchers wanting to take part in a Third Reading debate, but it is perfectly appropriate for this Bill. In Committee, those on both Front Benches commented on the way that Back Benchers had contributed, and that included the amendments that we tabled. For myself, I have very much enjoyed participating in the proceedings on this Bill, as it is an extremely important subject that is very close to my heart. Child poverty is something that we really need to make progress on.

Having said that, I remain disappointed with many aspects of the Bill, given that this is such an important subject. I remain disappointed with the way that it is still ill thought through in terms of the targets that it sets and the way that it is tackling-or not tackling-the causes of poverty. We have heard a lot about both matters again this afternoon on Report.

I also think that the Bill's structure remains ill thought through, and I still find it difficult to reconcile what it is trying to achieve in part 1 with what it is trying to achieve in part 2. Another matter that was raised in Committee but not on Report is the possibility, as many of the charity representatives who came to the Committee as witnesses stated clearly, that the Government will be taken to judicial review over the non-achievement of targets. That is still the case, as is the potential, given that these are income targets, that judges rather than the Chancellor of the Exchequer will make economic policy-although, after today's pre-Budget report, perhaps judges could not do a worse job.

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Mr. Graham Stuart: My hon. Friend is right to point to the absurd idea that judges might intervene in the complex area of child poverty-perhaps they will demand that billions be given in additional tax credits-but does he agree that there is also the equally absurd possibility of a conflict between statutory obligations? No Government before this one had ever put targets in statute, but now there will be statutes pointing in different directions. For example, whereas the Fiscal Responsibility Bill suggests that there must be cuts, other legislation such as the Climate Act 2008 and this Bill suggest that more should be spent.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. We are discussing the Third Reading of the Child Poverty Bill and not the other legislation that the hon. Gentleman has referred to.

John Howell: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is always good to take an intervention from the other half of the duo, who will no doubt make a contribution of his own in a moment. However, my hon. Friend is quite right to point out that that is also one of the legal consequences of the Bill, and I too think that it is an insult to Parliament as well.

I am also disappointed with the way that the Government continue to treat local government. It is clear from the Bill that they do not take local authorities seriously as entities in themselves, with their own agenda and ability to deliver, but regard them as the delivery arm of Whitehall.

Today is not the end of the matter with this Bill, as there is a huge pile of regulation and, even more worryingly, guidance to be issued to local authorities. All I shall ask of the Minister today is that she please take note of the evidence sessions and the comments made by witnesses. What is required from the Government when it comes to regulation and guidance is a light touch, if any touch at all. Many local authorities are already doing a good job in respect of child poverty, as was illustrated by the evidence to the Committee from Kent and Liverpool in particular. So please let us see in the guidance a recognition of the best practice that already exists.

I asked one of the witnesses what difference the Bill would make and whether it would make a big impact, because one of them had said that something pretty big needed to happen in the field of child poverty. I asked:

Neil O'Brien from Policy Exchange answered that negatively in terms of the delivery mechanisms and the aims in the Bill. It is interesting to read what he said next:

the big picture things-

That is a great shame.

The Bill could have shown greater ambition and taken us a lot further down the road towards eradicating child poverty. Instead, we have had the perversion of the English language, whereby "eradication" no longer
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means eradication in the sense that the rest of us would use the word. I hope that, with a change of Government, we will get a strategy for child poverty that is much more focused on delivering real change for children and particularly the families in which they live.

6.41 pm

Mr. Graham Stuart: It is a pleasure to take part in the debate on Third Reading. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), I have enjoyed being involved in the proceedings on the Bill. The Committee that considered the Bill had the involvement of hon. Members from across the House. That is not always true. Government Back Benchers in particular sometimes seem to spend their entire time writing correspondence. That was not the case in this Committee, and every hon. Member took a deep interest in the issue and brought their own skills to it. Labour Members brought to the Committee casework and an understanding of housing needs in their constituencies. The Front Benchers of all three parties also played a full part in the Committee, which was productive, so it was a pleasure and a privilege to be part of it.

The hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) mentioned in his address that he hoped the Bill would make it harder and put up the political price for any Government in future to fail to tackle child poverty. He then launched a rather partisan assault.

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): It was puerile.

Mr. Stuart: Puerile, was it? The hon. Member for Northavon then launched an assault on the Conservative Government, who did indeed inherit a basket-case economy in 1979.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that we are debating the Bill on Third Reading, and should therefore be debating the Bill's contents.

Mr. Stuart: I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was trying to answer the points made from his Front Bench by the hon. Member for Northavon. I do not know whether his status is different from mine, but the likelihood of meeting the targets in the Bill is based on an assessment of prior performance. In 1997, when the last Conservative Government came in, we were in a similar position. Okay, the fiscal deficit at its peak in 1976, when the International Monetary Fund came in, was half what it is today, so we are in a worse position from which to make change. Under that Conservative Government, who restarted the British economy, child poverty increased in a way that is regrettable. My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) is nodding his head.

Despite the wreckage that is being left of our economy-again, by a Labour Government-if a Conservative Government are elected this coming May, we aim to ensure that we do not just revive the economy while leaving behind children in poverty. That is precisely why my hon. Friends are determined to take the child poverty issue seriously. We accept the fact that the record on child poverty was not great under the last Conservative Government. We aim to do better, but none of us progresses policy development in that area if we just try
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to make cheap partisan remarks or to suggest that anyone at any time-Ministers in the 1980s any more than today-were indifferent to the welfare of children. They were trying to focus on turning the country around, from a sick of man of Europe and an economic basket case to a dynamo that could move forward. Of course, this Government inherited that position in 1997.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Could I remind the hon. Member that we are not repeating a Second Reading debate? I have given him some latitude, and I would now ask him to concentrate his remarks on the Third Reading of this particular Bill.

Mr. Stuart: I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Stuart: I am grateful also to my hon. Friend, who intervenes conveniently.

Mr. Bone: My hon. Friend is making his point powerfully, as usual, but I have been sitting here listening to the debate and I must say that one way to reduce child poverty is surely to encourage marriage and for children to be born into families where the parents are married, because they stay together longer. It seems as though the two other main parties in the House are opposed to the idea of encouraging marriage.

Mr. Stuart: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. He was not here during the earlier debate, when I reminded the House of what the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), who is on the Front Bench today, told the Public Bill Committee. She said:

That is an extraordinary thing for a Minister in this Labour Government to say. They are turning themselves away from all the evidence. My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire intervened on me earlier to read out the latest set of statistics, provided by the Minister's own Department, which show that a child brought up in a single-parent family is twice as likely as a child in a two-parent family to be in poverty. So my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) is absolutely right.

We have a Government who, for their own narrow ideological or political dividing-lines reasons, insist on turning their face against a fundamental aspect of tackling poverty, which is to restore families and help couples-not necessarily married-to stay together to support their children. We know that if we can help to maintain that situation, general outcomes are much better. There is less likelihood of children being in poverty, and there is less likelihood of other unpleasant after-effects in later life, whether they involve mental health, educational outcomes or the likelihood of unemployment.

The essence of what comes out of the Bill will be the strategies that local authorities and the Secretary of State come up with, but it is most important that we tackle the causes of poverty. The Minister normally tries to be honest, and she talked about this piece of legislation-this Bill-ensuring that Governments have to be held to account and take action on child poverty. But, disappointingly, what did she do in her opening
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speech? Not once did she mention the 2010 target that this Government set, with a solemn promise that we would see child poverty halved. She did not even mention it, and we can only take politicians seriously on matters such as tackling poverty if they face up to their record to date. [ Interruption. ] I think the hon. Member for Northavon wants to intervene again.

There has been some progress, but the Government have not moved to tackle child poverty. Of course the irony is that, here we are, with this Child Poverty Bill and the Government congratulating themselves on introducing it, yet today, in the pre-Budget report, the door has finally been slammed in the faces of those who hoped-

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. May I remind the hon. Member that there will no doubt be an opportunity to discuss the pre-Budget report, but that now it is the Third Reading of the Bill?

Mr. Stuart: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is pre-Budget reports and future Budgets that will need to put in place the relevant measures, if child poverty and, indeed, the long-term roots of poverty are to be tackled.

Mr. Stewart Jackson: The Government talk a good game about the involvement of local government in the eradication of poverty, and they talk about initiatives such as Total Place, whereby they involve Departments across the piece in the support of local government. However, is it not true that the one Department that will not devolve power and responsibility for funding to Total Place and, I suggest, to the eradication of poverty is the centralised Department for Work and Pensions? The Treasury and other Departments support Total Place, but the Department for Work and Pensions fails to do so.

Mr. Stuart rose-

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not going to be tempted to stray into a very different debate from the one that we are currently dealing with.

Mr. Stuart: I am extremely mindful of your strictures, Madam Deputy Speaker, so I will return to the strategies.

We know very little about the strategies. That is why my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire tabled amendments to try to ensure that issues such as family breakdown and looked-after children would be covered in the Bill so that local authorities and, indeed, the Secretary of State dealt with them properly. It is in the strategies that we find the detail of whether we can come up with a way of genuinely tackling, let alone eradicating, child poverty.

Dr. McCrea: Can the hon. Gentleman assure the House that if we do have a Conservative Government in a matter of months, child poverty will be a key priority for that Government?

Mr. Stuart: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. In the light of what happened with child poverty under the last Conservative Government, I welcome the opportunity to say that it absolutely will be a priority. The leader of the Conservative party, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), has said that the eradication of poverty is a major priority and that it is how a Conservative Government would wish to be measured. Statisticians of the talent
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and skill of the hon. Member for Northavon will be able to remind my right hon. Friend, and indeed me, of that undertaking. We are pledged to tackle poverty, and we want to do so in the most joined-up way possible.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I understand that the hon. Gentleman is again responding to an intervention, but may I remind him that we are debating the Third Reading of this Bill, not any future Bill?

Mr. Stuart: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Of course, it will be under the auspices of this Bill that any future Conservative Government would have to address child poverty-it will be the lens through which they look at it-so talking about what they would do is what the debate on this Bill is about. Unless it is repealed, it will determine and set a framework in which future Governments will have to deal with this important issue.

Mr. Bone: I have been listening to the debate with growing concern-I was here when my hon. Friend made his original speech-and I am beginning to wonder whether I should vote against the Bill. Could he summarise the reasons why I should or should not do so?

Mr. Stuart: If, like me, my hon. Friend does not like declaratory legislation, and does not think that targets should be set in law because they are a meaningless fraud on the British people, he may well not support the Bill. On the other hand, he may accept, as Conservative Front Benchers do, that this framework provides a driver whereby future Governments can show their intent to tackle child poverty. Given the difficulties with increases in child poverty in the past, it is tremendously important that we show the seriousness of intent of Conservative Members who wish and hope to be in government shortly; we must make absolutely clear our commitment to the eradication of child poverty. That is why, although I understand some of the questions about process that my hon. Friend no doubt has, I will not vote against the Bill. We need to show that there is consensus across the House that child poverty is wrong and we no longer want to see it. Through the details of the strategies that are produced in future, I hope and expect by a Conservative Secretary of State, we will be able to work away on the root causes of poverty and ensure that they are tackled.

I want briefly to mention an amendment dealing with rural poverty, which I tabled, unsuccessfully, in Committee. I appeal to Ministers, while we have them here, and before they go away to produce national strategies in addition to the local strategies produced by local authorities, to bear in mind the peculiarities of rural poverty. According to the Commission for Rural Communities, 22 per cent. of rural children and their families are in financial poverty. There are extra costs to living in rural areas. For example, households in rural settlements spend £74.50 on transport each week compared with £57.10 by those in urban areas. That is serious money coming out of income that might be thought to be in the hands of that family, making it better off than an urban family, but in fact they have to spend it on transport. I hope that Ministers will examine carefully the peculiarities of poverty in rural areas.

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Like others, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) and the Centre for Social Justice on their work. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State is in her place, because I wish to say that one of the most exciting programmes that the next Conservative Government, if that is what we have, could undertake would be to follow on from the "Dynamic Benefits" report and consider the barriers preventing those who are currently living in poverty from escaping it and getting into work. We need to understand the incentives that affect those on low income with the same precision with which we seek to understand the incentives for the rich, where they may move and what tax they pay. We need to ensure that for people who are not in work, getting back into work pays and they do not find themselves worse off by trying to do the right thing. I do not know the detail of the measure that was announced in today's pre-Budget report, but if it is a response to that problem and intended to ensure that those who are not in work are definitely rewarded for getting into work, I will congratulate the Government on it. I hope that it is a reality and not just a pretence.

6.56 pm

John Mason: I thank the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) for leaving me approximately four minutes to make my comments.

We are agreed that we need to tackle income inequality. There has been much mention of the root causes of poverty, and we agree that we need to tackle them. I was not convinced by the Conservative argument that we should widen the Bill ever further to take everything into account, but income is clearly key. It is worth reminding ourselves of the explanatory notes to the Bill, some of which were extremely good. For example, they state:

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