Legislative Scrutiny: Child Poverty Bill - Human Rights Joint Committee Contents


Memorandum submitted by the Child Poverty Action Group

  The Child Poverty Action Group welcomes the Committee inquiry and is pleased to respond to it. This response is intentionally short and framed only around the specific questions asked by the Committee, we have published a fuller briefing on the Bill elsewhere. (i) CPAG welcomes the Child Poverty Bill and agrees with the Committee's assessment that this is a human rights enhancing measure. However, we are concerned that the Bill does not, in places, go as far as we would wish and, since it provides a population level target, that it does not provide for individual rights to (say) an adequate income, though we urge that this should be part of the strategy.

1.   Whether the new duty to meet the target will be legally enforceable and, if so, how and by whom?

  The existence of justiciable statutory targets which bind future governments is a new and developing area of law. The Bill impact statement states enforceability will be through Parliament and through the courts, a sentiment reiterated by Ministers. We are of the view that the main mechanism for enforcement of the duty in Clause 1 is Parliament, but that the duty could also be enforced through the courts by organisations and by individuals.

  The test of the quality of this legislation is the extent to which it can create a framework for policy development. CPAG would like to see the Committee press Government for evidence of how its pursuance of duties will be judged. In particular we would like to see:

    — How it will be clear how the Government uses independent advice from the statutory Child Poverty Commission; and

    — How progressive steps towards the target will be shown before the target date (for example through the setting of milestones).

2.   What is the intended effect of clause 15 of the Bill, concerning the relevance of economic and fiscal circumstances, and in particular its relationship with the duty in clause 1 to ensure the targets are met?

  It appears from the bill that clause 15 does not bear on clause 1 but rather on strategy development and the activities of the Child Poverty Commission. However, we remain concerned clause 15 may be used to prey-in-aid a delayed or missed target, or that by allowing action to be delayed Government could leave action until it is too late to meet the 2020 objective.

  CPAG has criticised the inclusion of the clause, although we accept the Government's intention is that it should not undermine the duty to meet the 2020 target. Ministers have argued that clause 15 is intended to ensure policy is cost-effective but this ought to be an implicit aim of all activity and it is unclear why it is so explicitly stated (the converse logic that if it is not stated Government has no interest in cost effectiveness is perverse).

  Furthermore, to emphasize the costs of tackling poverty over the benefits is unbalanced and we would appreciate the Committee pushing the Government on how it will balance any costs with the large savings identified in the impact statement.

3.   Why is there no duty to implement the child poverty strategy?

  We do not see the justification for this duty being absent and would like to see it included as it is in some related examples, for instance the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000 (the Committee quotes the Disability Discrimination Act). Whilst there is an end target in this bill, there is a concern about whether the Government can be held sufficiently accountable for failure to make progress in the interim. This risks leaving children behind, when in our view the need to end poverty is urgent.

  If milestones are missed along the way, this will have an adverse impact on the children growing up in poverty between now and 2020. This in turn will have a negative impact on the next generation of children. This will make reaching the 2020 target more difficult—and more costly. We are keen to see a follow through between strategy development and policy, and a clause would ensure the Secretary of State could be challenged for a failure to implement a stated objective. We believe this will help to achieve the Government's stated intention of ensuring the Bill "provides a mechanism for the progressive realisation of children's right to an adequate standard of living in Article 27 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child".

4.   What is the Government doing to make sure that data is available so that all children can be measured against the targets, and in particular those, such as Gypsy or Roma children, or asylum seeking children, who are excluded from the targets but are the poorest groups which the Government ought to be specifically targeting?

  Our understanding of who is and is not excluded from the target is similar to that laid out in the Committee's letter of 14 July, the Committee could usefully press for an estimation of how many and which children are undercounted by this mechanism.

  On the second issue, the Households Below Average Incomes report contains an analysis for many groups of children. The limitation of this approach is it is unlikely to encourage focus on relatively small groups: even if these families are interviewed as part of the survey they may not show up in the analysis. For example though there is a breakdown by tenure, geography, household make up, employment status and some ethnic groups there is no analysis covering Children of Gypsy or Roma origin or by migration status. Given that success is judged by a set percentage level of child poverty, some children could remain poor despite the target being met.

  There are a series of ways of improving the framework which would help to gear it better to meet the needs of all children:

    — Greater urgency should be given to ensuring that safety net benefits for all children (including migrant children) are paid at or above the level of the poverty line (providing a right not to be poor for those in receipt of entitlements).

    — A 10% measure of success on the central measure of child poverty (on the relative low income measure) is too high and should be reduced to 5%.

    — To help address inherent weaknesses in survey measures, the Child Poverty Commission should also be tasked with separately investigating the position of particularly poor groups of children (and defining these) and the Secretary of State then required to report (qualitatively as well as quantitatively) on the position of these groups and of the impact of policy.

    — The analysis on disabled children is skewed as the income measure counts disability benefits with discounting costs. The effect of this is to underestimate the impact of disability on poverty. A practical improvement here would be to exclude disability benefits from income estimates or to include an estimation of disability related need.

    — An additional way of ensuring that statistically insignificant groups are incorporated within the 10% plus target, is to include categories of disadvantage that tend to span all such groups (see At Greatest Risk of Poverty: the children most likely to be poor (CPAG, 2005), including: ill-health and disability (parents and children); low educational attainment levels; poor housing; some black and minority groups; larger families.

5.   How does the Government propose to focus in particular on children living in severe and persistent poverty?

  CPAG believes that all children experiencing poverty should be targeted by policy and that the poorest families should receive the greatest attention but we do not agree with the implication that there is poverty which is not "severe".

  Within the set of measures there is an absolute measure (60% of median incomes in 2010-11), a combined measure of material standards and relative low income and a new and particularly welcome persistent income measure. These measures can be triangulated to direct policy to improve the life chances of all children but we would be concerned if policy were to be deflected to a lower standard than 60% of current median incomes and we caution that lower income thresholds can give a misleading impression of living standards. The legislation itself allows for the absolute measure to be updated if it becomes irrelevant following income growth showing Government appreciates there are limitations to absolute measures.

6.   Could the duty to consult children be strengthened by leaving less discretion to the Secretary of State?

  Although a duty to consult children is stated, this is to be interpreted as the Secretary of State (or other body) sees fit. Although we approve that consulting with children is mentioned, presumably if the Secretary of State, Scottish or Northern Irish Governments or the proposed Commission (which each have a duty in this regard under the Bill) feel this is not necessary then there would be little redress. In considering the force of this duty, we urge the Committee to concentrate on the Secretary of State but not to neglect the responsibilities of other bodies.

  As the Committee noted in its letter of 14 July, consulting with children is clearly within the spirit of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Although the levels of child poverty in the UK are dreadful, having legislation in place to support getting our act in order is something the UK should be proud of. Similarly the UK ought to be an exemplar in implementing effective consultation with children.

  We would like to see the Committee press Government about how consultation will be achieved, and the weight given to children's views. Effective consultation is not only an important part of valuing children as rights holders but should lead to better policy. CPAG would like to see the clause strengthened to specifically refer to consulting with those who have direct experience of poverty.

7.   How does the Government propose to give effect to the guidance of the UN Committee on Economic and, Social and Cultural Rights on human rights-based poverty reduction strategies when drawing up the national strategy?

  CPAG believes human rights legislation and thinking is an important part of anti-poverty activity and is keen to see the Committee pursue this line with Government.

REFERENCE

 (i)   For example "Child Poverty Bill, 2nd reading debate briefing", Child Poverty Action Group, June 2009.

September 2009





 
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