Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

4.12 p.m.

Baroness Massey of Darwen: My Lords, I am delighted to follow the truly excellent and moving speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, to congratulate her, and to welcome her to your Lordships' House. Her speech is enlightened by her own vast experience of working with children and families. She is best known, of course, for building up Childline, of which she was the chief executive. She has also been a director of social services and involved with child care, women's refuges and charities for the homeless and the disabled. She is currently a member of the new National Care Standards Commission. Since her arrival in your Lordships' House, I have

19 Dec 2001 : Column 266

come to know her as a sincere, enlightened and hard-working professional. She is a welcome addition to that seat of all truth and wisdom, the Women Peers' Room.

I should also like to thank my noble friend Lord Harrison for initiating this debate and introducing it with such knowledge and conviction. I enjoyed the speech preceding mine and I look forward to that which is to follow.

One of my interests is as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children. Several noble Lords here today are also connected in significant ways with that group. We shall take note of the issues raised in this debate and continue to press for positive action on the rights of children.

Today I shall focus on child poverty in the UK and ask the Minister how the many initiatives for alleviating child poverty are linked, how they support each other and how initiatives developed across government will be monitored and evaluated. I shall make reference, if necessarily briefly, to the need to improve education and health for children and young people, which is crucial in tackling poverty. I shall also refer to the need to consult with children and their communities to solve problems.

In this country we have clearly come a long way in eliminating some of the more extreme horrors of deprivation during the last century and before. Improvements in public health and education are well known. Children are now usually educated beyond the age of nine and by teachers who are literate, which sometimes was not the case in the 1840s. Improvements in living conditions, healthcare and nutrition have been spectacular for many, but not all. However, the negative physical, cognitive, emotional and behavioural outcomes of poverty are still with us.

The Family Policy Studies Centre's report on children and poverty, published recently, shows how child morbidity and mortality, childhood accidents, child abuse, teenage pregnancy, homelessness, alcohol and drug use, crime, suicide, child labour and mental health can all be related, though not exclusively, to childhood poverty. If we, as a society, want to address those topics, we must primarily address the overarching issue of poverty as well as focusing on the topics themselves.

In this country we are fortunate to have a number of large and small dynamic voluntary organisations which focus on child welfare. As was mentioned earlier, we also have government strategies and structures, which seek to both initiate and co-ordinate efforts to improve the lot of children. Many Bills before Parliament in this Session will impinge on child poverty. We must take care to relate them to each other, for example, in education, social and health matters. They cannot stand apart.

A report from Barnardo's asks three questions. What are the human costs in the lives of children and young people growing up in poverty? What are the material costs? What investments might have led to a more positive and hopeful present and future? Examples and projections are given. For example, it is

19 Dec 2001 : Column 267

calculated that early investment in the case of one child would have cost 12,782 and that failure to invest has cost 33,266. We cannot, for economic reasons, afford not to take child poverty seriously. Equally, and perhaps more importantly, children now and in the future depend on us to take it seriously.

I was particularly encouraged by the setting up last year of the Children and Young People's Unit, which will look at how best to improve service provision and work closely with the voluntary, community, faith and statutory sectors to develop effective systems and structures for children. Its strategy document, now out for consultation, contains the following key statement:

    "A substantial body of evidence shows that children and young people who grow up in poverty experience disadvantage and lack of opportunity that affects not only their own current and future experience as adults, but their life chances as children".

We must seek to improve those life chances. To succeed in doing so, we cannot address problems in isolation. Individuals usually belong to families and communities, which need support. That support must start early—a point raised by my noble friend Lord Desai and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford.

The Sure Start programme enables disadvantaged families to use family support, health services and education to try to break the cycle of poverty and deprivation. That programme includes antenatal support, which will address poor nutrition, low birth weight and smoking.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, said, education can provide a way out of poverty. However, it has to start early, working with families to ensure that children are taught literacy, numeracy and social skills from an early age. We still have problems with truancy and exclusion, though the situation has improved. A good example of how schools can support children and their families can be seen in the primary school of which I am a governor. That school is in an inner city deprived area of London. It has worked wonders in developing and maintaining high literacy and numeracy standards, good behaviour and self-esteem among the children—all through a commitment from the headteacher and staff to respect children and their backgrounds and to hold high expectations that children, from whatever background, can improve their life chances. The school is also a recipient of the National Healthy Schools Standard award, which encourages education and health partnerships and links with personal, social and health education and citizenship education.

As I said, good health in families and children is an essential component to lifting people out of poverty. Strides have been made in that direction through new ways of working for school nurses and health visitors, and through the welfare food scheme and the new national fruit scheme, which will provide every four to six year-old with free fruit every day. The Children's Taskforce seeks to ensure that children's requirements are part of all aspects of the NHS Plan.

I emphasise the need to involve communities in solving their own problems. That includes consultation with young people. Recent initiatives

19 Dec 2001 : Column 268

have highlighted the importance of such consultation. One report, from the National Youth Agency, emphasised the benefit to those concerned. Local authorities can acquire better and more accurate information about needs, barriers and opportunities to access, thereby making them better able to improve services and gain credibility with young people and their communities. Young people have the chance to learn about themselves and their communities; their self-esteem is increased because they are taken seriously; and their ability to influence policy and practice and their capacity in the community are enhanced.

There is no reason why, with determination and imagination, young people who have suffered—or are suffering—deprivation should not be involved in such consultations. I suggest that if they were, realistic and dynamic interventions would be more likely.

Involving people in services that affect them is one way of monitoring what works and adapting where necessary. We need to know what works at the individual and community levels. I repeat my question to the Minister: how will services link successfully in order to deliver what families and communities need, and how will we know what works in eliminating poverty?

4.22 p.m.

Lord Adebowale: My Lords, I rise to make my maiden speech on an issue to which I and many other noble Lords attach great importance—child poverty.

Before continuing, I pause to thank noble Lords for the kindness that they have shown to me in my very short time in the House. I thank my noble friend Lord Listowel in particular, who has helped me through the many strange and interesting facilities of parliamentary language. I also thank the Doorkeepers and staff of the House, who will be glad to know that I have memorised quite well their instructions about finding my way around. "Continue to turn right, then left at the stairs, past Black Rod's office and then straight on till morning". I also take this opportunity to thank my family, friends and colleagues for their patience while I readjust priorities in order to cope with the new responsibilities that being a Peer brings.

The matter of child poverty is at the heart of the judgment about whether we live in a civilised society. It is only by measuring our success in extending the opportunities that are afforded to many in this House to the poorest in society that we can judge the impact of our endeavours as policy makers and policy scrutinisers.

I shall restrict my comments to what is happening in this country. The noble Lord, Lord Desai, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford covered the international aspects of child poverty. I believe the Government are right to focus on child poverty, to set clear targets and to show leadership in that area. To do so makes sense in every respect because those who grow up in childhood surrounded by poverty are likely to remain so. The examples and personal observations of my noble friend Lord Listowel and the noble

19 Dec 2001 : Column 269

Baroness, Lady Howarth of Breckland, contained much evidence of that. It is clear that much has been done by the Government but it is important that we understand that child poverty is not just a moral issue but a matter of sound economic sense and self-interest. We need to tackle child poverty. Failure to resolve the issues surrounding child poverty will be a failure to provide the necessary skills for this country's economic growth; it will also do irreparable damage to our moral health.

Child poverty in a broad sense is not just about money; it is also about the provision of decent services and ensuring that there is access to them by those who need them most. It is of great concern to me that for too long we appear to have been suffering from the inverse care law—the more you need, the less you are likely to get.

Despite the many Herculean efforts of this Government, the vast majority of schools with the poorest performance educationally are in areas where child poverty is greatest. Access to healthcare is poorest where child poverty is most prevalent. Our poorest children are growing up in neighbourhoods with the highest crime.

It is critical to recognise the scale of the challenge facing us. When I was a teenager, which is not that long ago, one in 10 children grew up in poverty. By the end of the 1990s, the figure was one in three. That has huge implications for the future of society, in that poverty is no longer an isolated experience. It is now increasingly the norm in many parts of the country. For too many members of minority ethnic communities, that is disproportionately the case.

Those facts present us with a massive challenge for social cohesion and economic prosperity. It is critical that our responses are at the right scale. It is not simply the case that the poor need more resources; adequate scrutiny needs to be given to policies that will affect the poor. The devil is often in the detail. Public services are the route to giving people access to opportunities and skills that are essential to pull themselves out of poverty, not just for a single generation but for many generations.

My own background has given me many opportunities, both professionally and personally, to witness the way in which public policy has impacted upon the poorest children. That is often unintentional but it happens as a result of a lack of scrutiny, which is focused on the effects of such policies on our poorest citizens and the children of our poorest citizens. It is with that in mind that I draw the attention of noble Lords to an article by Ben Summerskill in last Sunday's Observer, in which he recounted the plight of Mary Smith. She was evicted from her council accommodation as a result of failure to pay rent. That was mainly due to poor housing benefit administration and over-payments. That led Mrs Smith into a situation in which her family was evicted and social services, in doing their duty, placed the children at risk and put them in care. That situation, in the 21st century, was not uncommon in 1966 in "Cathy Come Home".

19 Dec 2001 : Column 270

This House has a track record of ensuring through its scrutiny of policy that the effects on the poor are taken into account. Mrs Smith and her family tell a tale that can be told by up to 400,000 families in bed and breakfast accommodation. It can be told by thousands of children who will be brought up in neighbourhoods that are bereft of opportunities—and access to opportunities—that are necessary for children not just to survive but to thrive and become economically active and socially independent.

It is correct that we focus on child poverty with some urgency. We need to focus on the need to ensure that child poverty is not only reduced but eradicated. In so doing, we should improve the public services on which we all rely.

4.30 p.m.

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, it is with huge pleasure that I rise on behalf of the whole House to thank and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Adebowale, on a speech which was characteristically excellent and challenging. Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord: well done and welcome.

The noble Lord should know that his formidable reputation goes before him. He has long been an effective campaigner for the homeless, and Centrepoint—one of the country's leading youth homelessness charities, of which he was chief executive—put the issues of the most disadvantaged young people firmly on the public's and the Government's agenda. His outspoken and passionate campaigning work has probably not always been a comfortable experience for government.

The noble Lord has also played a leading role in many public initiatives concerning the training and employment of young people; for example, as a member of the Government's New Deal task force. On behalf of your Lordships' House perhaps I may welcome the noble Lord and say how much I look forward to working with him in the years to come.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Harrison for initiating this debate, enhanced, indeed, by the two contributions that we have heard in maiden speeches. Poverty and social exclusion work in combination to damage children's lives. Poverty refers to a lack of material resources, in particular money, while social exclusion means an inability to take part in activities that others take for granted.

The two work together to damage children. For example, many poor children in the UK live in disadvantaged city neighbourhoods. Minority ethnic communities, lone-parent households and pensioners are often over-represented there. Each area has a different set of problems, but there is often high unemployment, poor health, high crime, run-down housing and inadequate public services. As a result, the people in our society with the fewest resources face some of the most severe problems. That is where many projects, such as those of NCH—the charity with which I am closely associated—work. Like many voluntary and community organisations, they work at the sharp end, fighting the effects of poverty and the effects of poverty on children and their families.

19 Dec 2001 : Column 271

The fact that the Government have committed themselves to ending child poverty within a generation—by the year 2019—is fantastic. No other policy aim has such capacity to transform children's lives. The Government deserve huge credit for the boldness of their ambition and deserve much support from all sectors of society in pursuing it. They acknowledge, as I believe we must, that this is not something that government alone can achieve.

Last week the Chancellor published a position statement on ending child poverty. He made the statement at a meeting attended by the leaders of all the faith communities in the UK—unusual and significant in itself—and the charities that have banded together to create the End Child Poverty Coalition. That degree of solidarity is promising. Over the next few years it must be consolidated and extended to other sectors, including business and the public as a whole and, it is hoped, across politics. Certainly, I believe that the goal of ending child poverty should transcend ideology.

In the meantime, there is much that the Government can do to progress the goal of ending child poverty, and I want to raise several issues. I believe that in the spring Budget the Chancellor should set the rate of the child tax credit sufficiently high—at least as generous as that of the working families' tax credit—so that the worst-off families see a real rise in their living standards. In many ways, this will probably be the single most important financial decision that the Government make in 2002 in that it will have the greatest effect on child poverty.

I also want to ask the Minister about the minimum wage and the working families' tax credit. Those are complex issues but I want to ask a simple question. What is the current implication for a lone parent of two young children who goes to work? How do the two measures combine to affect that single parent with two young children?

In recognition of the fact that child poverty is about more than simply money, the Government must also continue their drive to improve public services, in particular those that benefit poor and excluded children. The spending review that reports in summer 2002 offers a further opportunity to do so. Priorities should include the needs of families who require support. For example, perhaps there should be a family support service in every neighbourhood, more resources—staff and services—for children with mental health problems, and more provision to help children in the countryside as well as those in urban areas.

The isolation of children and families in rural communities presents particular challenges. Last year the Countryside Agency and NCH published a report, Challenging the Rural Idyll. It described graphically the problems of poverty for children in some of the most beautiful parts of our country. I want to refer to one story in that report, which I commend to your Lordships. It concerns a single parent called Eva, who lives in a small market town in Cornwall. She has two children, Julia and James. She is divorced and her

19 Dec 2001 : Column 272

family does not live nearby. Julia has epilepsy and is often off school because of her illness. Although Eva wants to work, she cannot find a job in the town in which she lives which will fit around the children's school hours and around her need to look after Julia.

Eva's home has stunning views over the nearby moors, but that also means that the prevailing wind and rain blow directly into her house. It was her story about holidays that struck me. Of course, we are now approaching Christmas. Those of us who are parents will by buying presents for our children and making plans for our holidays, just as I have done. Eva said:

    "Summer holidays are just an utter and complete nightmare. I feel I'm mean [to my children], I feel terrible. Julia's not too bad, but James has started to notice that he goes without. It's really heartbreaking. They miss out on a lot, just things that other [children] take for granted ... They get to the point that they don't ask anymore. For instance, James never asks for anything for Christmas. I mean most children his age would have a list, they learn quick. James never asks for anything. He just says, 'Get what you can, Mum'. It's things like that make me sad".

She is right.

I also ask the Minister to give some thought to the abolition of the severe hardship system for 16 and 17 year-olds who cannot live with their families. I ask them to consider replacing it with a fairer and more adequate safety net, following the example of other countries. Evidence exists to show that the current system leaves some young people at risk of exploitation. That is clearly not acceptable. Sixteen and 17 year-olds are still children in legal and moral terms, and such a step would make a real difference in alleviating their poverty.

In conclusion, I feel optimistic about the fight to end child poverty. The reason that we must win this battle is not because it is the right thing to do, which clearly it is. Our society needs to be ambitious for all its children. We need all our children to take the opportunities before them and to reach their full potential.

4.38 p.m.

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for introducing this debate. We have heard some deeply impressive speeches from people who know a great deal about the subject, not least our two maiden speakers. I believe that they represent a marvellous resource of knowledge and experience which should be powerfully useful in helping to solve the problem of poverty.

I am a little uncomfortable about the total focus on child poverty. It tends to imply that the issue is simply one of money. Child poverty is a symptom of family poverty. Child poverty which damages the child is a symptom of the disease which is child poverty. Nearly all parents want, if they can, to do their best for their child.

In a moment, I shall look at some of the aspects of child poverty which have not been discussed today. In doing so, I refer to the excellent brief which many noble Lords will have received from Barnardo's—a powerful and well documented statement about the problem. I thought that its suggested solutions were

19 Dec 2001 : Column 273

singularly depressing. All it seemed to be able to suggest was that the Government should dosh out more money. I believe that that solution has been tried before and has not worked. Of course, more money will be needed, but we must ask ourselves what should go with that money.

In my view a partnership between parents, communities and the Government is required. Although I have great pleasure in seeing the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, at the Dispatch Box, it is an enormous pity that we do not have a Minister for families replying to the debate rather than a Minister who is primarily concerned with doshing out money.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page