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7.30 pm

Finally, Members of another place argued that the independence and effectiveness of the child poverty commission would be strengthened by permitting it, rather than the Secretary of State, to choose a deputy chair from among its members. We were persuaded that Lords amendment 19 would give the commission greater scope to regulate its affairs in the most efficient and effective way.

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I hope that I have explained the amendments sufficiently, and I am grateful to those across the House and the other place who have supported the aims of the Bill and worked hard to achieve what is before us. I hope also that the House will be happy to agree to the amendments.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to be back debating this important Bill, which has, as the Minister rightly says, enjoyed cross-party support. We have had useful debates on it, and I believe that the amendments agreed in the other place make what was a good Bill even better. The Conservatives are certainly pleased to welcome the amendments, and I was pleased by the spirit in which the Minister addressed his remarks.

Let me go through the amendments. As my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) has pointed out, we are particularly pleased that the 2010 target has been inserted in the new first clause of the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) proposed the same clause in Committee on 3 November 2009, but it did not find favour at that time, as the two Ministers currently on the Treasury Bench-the Financial Secretary to the Treasury and the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman)-were not happy to support it at that stage. That change matters because, sadly, early progress on reversing child poverty has not been maintained since 2004-05. The report that will be produced on the 2010 target will provide an important opportunity to take stock and see what new approaches could be tried to ensure that progress does not continue to slip back and that further progress can be made on reducing the number of children in poverty.

I am particularly pleased that amendment 2 on promoting parenting skills has been made. Again, I tabled a similar amendment in Committee-amendment 2 to clause 8 -which was aimed at strengthening family relationships in order to reduce family breakdown, as well as having other aims. I hope that due attention will be paid to the provision of parenting skills. The research of academics such as Cowan and Cowan at the university of Berkeley in California, who gave a very informative presentation in the House not long ago, has shown quite conclusively that parenting work is even more effective if it is combined with work to strengthen the relationship between parents, where that relationship still exists. That is a welcome change.

Mr. Cash: Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to take part in the Committee. May I follow up my earlier intervention by asking my hon. Friend whether some reference to the circumstances in which children find themselves when there is moral deprivation in a household could have been included? Does he regard parenting skills as including trying to teach children the difference between right and wrong? In other words, the fact that they do not have money does not necessarily mean that they do not have happiness.

Andrew Selous: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He touches on an important point regarding the causes of poverty, which are very complex. A central point that my hon. Friends and I have raised throughout the Bill's progress through both Houses has been about
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paying due attention to the full range of those causes and particularly to making sure that the cycle of intergenerational poverty does not repeat itself. The elements that my hon. Friend has raised are important, and I am grateful to him for putting them on the record.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his efforts to improve the Bill, which was always a good Bill. Is he satisfied that there is sufficient focus in the amended Bill on giving more power to the wider family in dealing with related issues? When I talk about the wider family, I include grandparents, aunts and uncles.

Andrew Selous: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that useful point. I shall speak shortly about the measures in the Bill on kinship care-the friends and family provisions-which go some way towards addressing the issues he raises. His point is also well made because we need to consider the wider context within which children grow up. Family-both nuclear and extended-is very important within that.

Returning to amendment 2, the inclusion of the amendment and the words "parenting skills" in the Bill goes some way towards providing recognition for what I call the vanished eighth building block from the "Ending child poverty: making it happen" document that the Government's child poverty unit produced last year. The building block of family was clearly in the document but seemed to escape clause 8. The inclusion of parenting skills in the Bill is important. That is not all that we need to do in this area, but its inclusion is very welcome, none the less.

I am also delighted that mental health has been included, through amendment 3. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) for having played an important and useful role in Committee. He valiantly attempted to get recognition for mental health in the Bill on 3 November 2009 with his amendment 62, which hon. Members can read in column 292 of the Committee's proceedings. The amendment was defeated by only one vote, so it nearly succeeded, and we had cross-party support on it. I am pleased that mental health is now included, as it is an important issue, which, for many families, must be addressed before they can move themselves out of poverty.

Lords amendment 4, on recognising the vulnerability of specific groups, is particularly important and welcome. We discussed that issue in Committee on 29 October when we debated amendment 2, which can be seen at column 213 of the Committee's proceedings. I spoke about the issues that affect families with disabilities, who have particular needs, and I mentioned the needs of certain ethnic minority communities, such as the Bangladeshi community in London, in which there are particular problems. The recognition of vulnerable groups is useful. We need to recognise that we cannot have a one-size-fits-all strategy, and that certain groups will need particular focus, attention and outreach work. There are non-governmental organisations and others with particular expertise in this area.

I was at a seminar on child poverty this morning at which I heard about some work done by Save the Children, again with Bangladeshi women in London. The work had been especially useful and real progress
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had been made, and I commend it to the child poverty unit. It is worth the unit looking into that work further when it considers vulnerable groups, which, as I have said, are an important and useful addition the Bill.

John Howell: Like my hon. Friend, I welcome Lords amendment 4 and its focus on those most at risk. However, does he share my concern that we do not have any criteria for understanding how to decide who are most at risk? Does he agree that that decision can be made only by looking at the causes of poverty, rather than simply using fractions of income between different groups? The change is welcome, but we need to understand how Ministers will make the decision.

Andrew Selous: As always, my hon. Friend makes a good and important point. He will know that I have continually raised the issue of how we deal with the causes of poverty, and with the strict income requirements that the Minister quite rightly raised. My hon. Friend is right that progress has been made, and that there has been some recognition at least that vulnerable groups should be included in the Bill, but he is also right to say that the Bill does not specify which groups are vulnerable. Further work will need to be done in that regard, and it will be up to the Secretaryof State and the child poverty commission to start answering the questions that my hon. Friend has quite properly raised.

Lords amendment 5 deals with how we can ensure that parents of children living in poverty, and the children themselves, are consulted as part of the work of the Secretary of State and the CPC. That is a very important amendment, and I was pleased to vote for what was amendment 56 when it was brought before the Committee. I am sorry that it was defeated at that time, but I am very pleased that the Bill has come back to us with this requirement to consult parents and children living in poverty.

What that makes clear is that consultation by expert proxy is not acceptable, in any walk of life. We should welcome consulting directly the people for whom we are trying to provide services and at whom legislation is directed. There is a lot of evidence to show that consulting people who are to be helped by legislation early enough-especially at a commissioning level-brings many advantages. For example, I learned last week that better social care for disabled children can be achieved at a lower cost if the consultation is done properly and carried out early enough, particularly at the commissioning level. There are advantages all round when that approach is taken, so the amendment is a very welcome addition.

The amendments on care provided by family and friends, or kinship care, are tremendously important, and I am very pleased indeed to see them added to the Bill as it comes back from the other place. We debated those issues in Committee, and to their credit Ministers committed to go away and look at this area. I am very pleased that the Government have agreed to the amendments.

These amendments recognise the vital work done by really important groups of people in looking after vulnerable children in poverty. The work often requires significant personal commitment, and it is absolutely right that there is recognition in the Bill of what these
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people do. That is particularly important, as there is evidence that the results for children who are looked after by carers who are family and friends are often superior to those placed in other categories.

There are questions about local authorities' policies when it comes to placing children with friends and family carers, given that the evidence seems to suggest that that approach secures better outcomes. It is important that those people are recognised. The role of grandparents was raised earlier, and is particularly important in that regard. As I said, the amendments are very welcome for all those reasons.

Finally, Lords amendment 19 gives the CPC the ability to appoint its own deputy chair. I think that this is a welcome change, as it gives the commission a degree of independence in regulating its affairs. It is therefore a useful addition to the Bill.

7.45 pm

Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): Like both speakers so far in this debate, I welcome this group of amendments that their Lordships have put before us today. I am also pleased that the Government have accepted them and are not opposing them.

Many of the points that I want to make have been made already, including the importance of consulting the children directly. I am grateful to the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) for highlighting my amendment to that effect, which he was kind enough to support. However, I do wonder slightly why what was a bad idea in November is now a good one in March and April. It would be terribly churlish of me to complain when an idea that we supported is accepted by the Government, but it raises an issue in my mind about the point of the Committee stage.

The Minister has accepted that these are fairly good ideas, but it is a little frustrating when ideas that are put forward in a moderate way and with a broad degree of consensus are rejected almost for the sake of it. I hope that the Minister will reflect on that in the next term of government that he serves, and that he will perhaps be a bit more responsive to future amendments.

I welcome the recognition of the role of grandparents and other carers, and Grandparents Plus and other organisations have done a great job in raising our awareness of these issues. I know that they will look forward to ongoing discussion with the Government and local authorities about how the amendments are implemented in future.

I reflected on why the Conservatives were so enthusiastic about the 2010 target and the associated report. I assumed that they hope that some putative future Conservative Administration will be able to use the report as something to beat what they hope will then be the Opposition with. The Conservatives are unlikely to be doing so well on child poverty themselves by that point, so they will at least want to be able to say that the other lot were worse-

Andrew Selous: That is churlish.

Steve Webb: The hon. Gentleman says that that is churlish, but it would be nice to think that the 2010 report will not be entirely backward looking. However, I fear that that 2010 target will be missed. Although it would be nice to think that there will be announcements on Wednesday to put us back on track, I fear that there will not be and that it may be too late for that.

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The report must not say merely that the target was missed because not enough money was spent, or whatever. It must give us lessons to learn over the following decade, so that we can get back on track. I hope that whoever is in government after the election will not see the report simply as an opportunity to score points about the record of the previous Administration. The interim target looks likely to have been missed, and the next Government must see the report as something from which we can learn, so that future targets are not missed.

I very much welcome the wide range of issues touched on in the amendments, especially the direct consultation with children and not just their representatives, and the involvement of wider care networks. Therefore, I shall encourage my colleagues to support the amendments.

John Howell: It was a great pleasure to serve on the Bill Committee, and it would be a little churlish to attack the amendments before us today, or to point out the negative elements of some of them. They are very welcome, but I echo the point made by the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb), to the effect that it needs the other place to introduce the same amendments that we tabled in Committee to get them through. That goes to the heart of the purpose of the Committee stage in this place.

This is a better Bill as a result of the changes that have been made, and I want to pick up on a couple of points to do with the first four amendments in this group. I am very pleased that the 2010 target has been included in the Bill, and it is worth reflecting on a couple of points that my noble Friend Lord Freud made in the other place. He pointed out that the 2004 turndown was still not fully explicable, and said that there was therefore a need for the report to put the various economic factors involved into context. He was of the opinion that that would inevitably highlight the differences between those that occurred, positively or negatively, simply because of income transfers and those that occurred because issues that were at the root of tackling child poverty had been dealt with. I hope that that report will do justice to distinguishing between them. Without that, it will not be possible to learn the lessons that ought to be learned from the report. It is a shame that the Government continually confused the need for that report with the report set out in clause 8. They are very different, and I am glad that that has been recognised.

In amendment 2, I welcome the addition of improving parenting skills and promoting parental support. However, that leaves the Bill slightly unbalanced. We wanted to include a number of other factors that would indicate the causes of poverty that need to be tackled. I am glad that parental support and skills have been added, but that does not take away from the need to look at other factors. It would have been more useful to adopt the broader approach for which my hon. Friends and I argued in Committee.

Like others, I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) for pursuing the important issue of mental health. In the other place Baroness Butler-Sloss summed it up well by saying:

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There are two disadvantages there, neither of which is necessarily immediately recognisable, and they may take some effort to identify.

Finally, with the focus of amendment 4 on those at most risk, it would be useful to hear from the Minister how those groups that are considered to be most at risk are to be decided. I appreciate that at this stage there may not be detailed plans for taking that forward, but we need an indication of how the most vulnerable are to be assessed.

All in all, I welcome the amendments. There is a sense of déjà vu about many of them, but they are no worse for that, as they came from a good stable, if I may mix my metaphors horribly. I am pleased that the emphasis has been put back on tackling the causes of poverty, rather than looking simply at income.

Mr. Cash: I shall follow what my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) said about causes, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) on insisting upon mental health being included in the provisions. Although I support the Bill and its objectives and do not doubt that it was discussed with enormous diligence in Committee, it seems to me as one entering the discussion at this stage that there is a problem in imposing duties to produce consequences that are driven by socio-economic statistical arguments.

For example, the Secretary of State is required to consider the needs of the most vulnerable groups of children when preparing a UK strategy. Under amendment 4, the Secretary of State

I get slightly worried when I hear such language. It attempts to achieve a worthy objective, which we would all strongly support, but it could produce an enormous amount of time-consuming additional form filling, regulations and analysis.

The heart of the child poverty issue is not necessarily, though it could be, a lack of money or any of the criteria set out in the Bill. There is also the problem of children being exposed, for example, to social networking facilities- [ Interruption. ] I can see some discussion going on, which is a little distracting. It is important to make sure that children are brought up in an environment in which they can tell the difference between right and wrong. That is a spiritual and moral objective, which is not included in the Bill.

John Mason (Glasgow, East) (SNP): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that he is rather over-stressing the point? To most people, the words "poverty" and "lack of income" are closely linked. That is the main issue, although there may be other issues as well.

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