Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

6.47 pm

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, I welcome the Bill as a significant step forward in addressing one of the greatest scandals of our time-the prevalence of child poverty in our country. The Government face a formidable challenge in meeting the complex and often long-standing needs of the most vulnerable children and families. Unfortunately, recent research has found that Governments are failing to make the best use of public resources to improve children's lives. As a consequence, the UK spends far more money than its European neighbours remedying preventable social problems. We know that the impact of deprivation can scar lives over generations and result in high levels of child neglect. On the other hand, we know that well targeted early intervention is cost-effective and helps to release families from the trap of cyclical deprivation and reduce the likelihood of family breakdown.

So what will legislation achieve? Well, it will achieve nothing on its own. Its success will depend on the quality of the implementation and the detail of the strategies. Therefore, it is welcome that the powers and duties are given to national, devolved and local government and many other partners, and that the Bill also sets up an expert advisory group.

The Bill contains four targets, about which we have just heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis. However, I am concerned that organisations will concentrate

5 Jan 2010 : Column 68

too much on children just below the border-line, in order to raise them just above it, instead of focusing help on those in the deepest poverty, in the same way that schools focus on the border-line C/D grades in GCSEs, raising those that are anticipated to get a D so that they just get a C for the sake of the league tables. Whatever targets we use, we must avoid that.

Then there is the matter of what we mean by eradication, on which I heartily agree with my noble friend Lady Thomas of Winchester. Even if we reached 5 per cent, that would still leave 600,000 children in poverty-hardly eradication.

There is another area where the Bill is deficient. Article 1 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that a child is,

Yet Clause 25 defines a child for the purposes of the Bill as,

or qualifying for child benefit. Why the difference? The danger is that the NEETs and young care-leavers may be excluded from measures to alleviate poverty, and that would be a disaster because many of them suffer extreme poverty at present.

The Government have already had a hard mountain to climb. According to the Library Research Paper 09/62, the number of children living in households on less than 60 per cent of median income in 1979 was 13 per cent and this had risen to 27 per cent by the time Labour took over. This is the horrifying record of the last Conservative Government and we should never forget it, even though it was conveniently forgotten by the noble Lord, Lord Freud, in his attack on the Government earlier this afternoon. Since 1997, things have improved as the figure is now 23 per cent so something has been achieved by this Government, even though they have not hit their targets.

In 1999, Tony Blair pledged to eradicate child poverty within 20 years. We are halfway there in time but not in achievement, so we need to accelerate our actions. What are the Government's priorities? In April 2009, an Oxfam report on poverty noted that:

"Hundreds of billions of pounds have been made available to banks in an effort to avert financial meltdown-throwing into sharp relief, for example, the £4.2 billion needed to meet the interim child-poverty target".

The figure of £4.2 billion comes from the Institute for Fiscal Studies. So have the Government committed this amount? No. The 2009 Budget committed only £140 million extra and yet child poverty costs the Exchequer £25 billion every year, so failing to invest adequately in eradicating child poverty is economically short-sighted and fiscally foolish.

I have two main concerns about the Bill. The first is about the independence and powers of the Child Poverty Commission and the second is about the voice of the child. How can we be assured that the Government will take any notice of the commission? Will it have enough resources to be able to commission research and call for evidence? Will it have a duty to consult children? Will it be truly independent? Based on my recent experience of looking at the independence of Ofqual in the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill and the subsequent behaviour of the

5 Jan 2010 : Column 69

Secretary of State for Education, I think the answer is not very independent. Paragraph 1 of Schedule 1 says that the chair and everyone else, apart from the appointees from the devolved Administrations, are to be appointed by the Secretary of State. How independent is that? I will be seeking to oblige the Secretary of State to consult Parliament, in the guise of the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families, before appointing the chair of the commission. I will also be seeking, as conceded by the Government in the case of Ofqual, to have the members of the commission appoint the deputy chair themselves rather than the Secretary of State doing it.

I welcome the fact that the voice of the child is mentioned in the Bill but it is not enough. Apart from the fact that there is no mention of consulting children in the clauses on the commission, the Secretary of State in Clause 9(4)(c) on consultation with children, is to consult,

I will seek to change that "or" to "and", and I was delighted to hear from the Minister in his opening remarks that he may support that.

Other changes are needed to make the Bill fit for purpose. One of my major concerns is Clause 15, which obliges the Government and the commission to have regard to economic and fiscal circumstances. Presumably this means that in adverse economic circumstances the Government could be exempt from the legal commitment to meet the target. I believe this is unnecessary and could weaken the legislation. I mentioned earlier the high cost to the state of child poverty. What we need here is long-term thinking. The Action for Children's Backing the Future report, produced with the New Economics Foundation, reveals that the cost to the UK economy of addressing current levels of social problems, such as crime, mental illness, family breakdown, drug abuse and obesity, all of which are linked to child poverty, will amount to almost £4 trillion over the next 20 years. They found that, for every £1 invested annually in their own targeted early interventions, society benefits by between £7.60 and £9.20. The report shows that a £191 billion 10-year investment programme of targeted interventions for our most vulnerable children, alongside a £428 billion 20-year programme of investment in universal childcare and parental leave, would deliver net savings of £486 billion over the next 20 years.

This excellent return on investment is approximately five times the current annual budget for the whole of the NHS, so is a very good deal. Why are the Government not proposing a financial package such as this alongside the current legislation? We need cross-party commitment to succeed in the war on poverty. There are to be annual progress reports on the success of the Bill, so let us not make them just an opportunity for party political carping and knocking the Government. We need consensus if we are to succeed. I for one will welcome success where it is shown.

One of the Bill's main principles is getting parents into work. This is fine as long as it allows parents of very young children, who wish to stay at home to look after them, to do so. We need longer and better paid

5 Jan 2010 : Column 70

parental leave, as we on these Benches have for so long advocated. We need to have in place all the measures that enable parents to work and care for their children; for example, flexible working hours, part-time workers to be properly paid and to have the same rights as full-time workers, and high quality accessible and affordable childcare. We also need a fair deal for part-time students who should have the same access to grants and loans as full-time students.

We also need a fairer tax system. One of the best ways to remove low-paid families from poverty is the Liberal Democrat tax plan to raise the threshold for paying income tax to £10,000 thereby taking 4 million low-paid people out of tax altogether and saving the average working adult £700 per year.

Does every child matter? The Secretary of State should measure the impact of all these policies on all children and make explicit reference, as has been said, to the most at-risk groups when setting out the impact of measures under the building blocks. Asylum seekers are one such group as their benefits are lower than those of citizens. The Government should allow the adults to work while they are waiting for their applications to be decided. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester mentioned the problem of children in communal accommodation, as the criteria based on households do not apply to them. They may be Gypsy and Traveller children and children in care in children's homes as well as asylum seekers in detention centres.

Fostered children are another vulnerable group: 75 per cent of foster carers earn less than the minimum wage from fostering and most do not have time to work full-time outside the home as they look after the children. Some BME groups, such as Pakistani and Bangladeshi families, also feature highly on the poverty statistics and my noble friend Lady Thomas mentioned disabled children.

We also need to look at debt. In the past 12 months, there has been an increase of 170,000 in the number of children in families living on benefits. Many of them get into debt and pay outrageously crippling interest rates. We need action by the financial services industry to avoid low-income families getting into high-interest debt.

This is an important Bill for children and I look forward to this House making it even better.

6.58 pm

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, I defer to none in my support for the Government's objective to reduce the number of children living in poverty. However, I have honest doubts about this Bill. I wish, for example, that it was dedicated to the welfare of children rather than to household income.

This afternoon I want to concentrate on one serious defect which I see. I do not believe that the Bill will achieve its objective because it largely ignores the role of parents. The choices which parents make are an inevitable ingredient in child well-being and so, evidently, in child poverty. The decision to bring a child into the world is made by parents, whether intentionally or carelessly. Parents also choose whether to make a long-term commitment to the well-being of their child;

5 Jan 2010 : Column 71

they decide whether the two parents will form a household together and make a home for their child; and if they do, they decide who will look after the children, who will earn the money and how the household income should be spent.

Parental behaviour is not set in stone. There is much more that we could do, for example, to encourage adults to think carefully before conceiving a child. There is more that we could do to encourage both parents to make a long-term commitment to their child's well-being-whether in the form of marriage or not. Many disadvantaged parents need more help to acquire the relationship skills that they will need to make a happy home together a realistic aspiration for their child and for them.

Having so very little reference to parents in the Bill sends the wrong message about the importance of parents in ameliorating child poverty or in child well-being. I do not have the time this afternoon to discuss in detail the problems or the things that should be done to encourage, help and empower disadvantaged parents, but they will no doubt come up in Committee.

I hope that I will not tread on the toes of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester, as chairman of the Children's Society, but I, too, will cite the Good Childhood inquiry. I quote from the report written for the Children's Society by the noble Lord, Lord Layard. That excellent report is based on research and an extensive inquiry into the needs of children. Personally, I believe that it should be compulsory reading for anyone seriously interested in reducing child poverty. The quotation that I have chosen perhaps exposes a slightly different aspect of the report than that which the right reverend Prelate emphasised. On page 134, the noble Lord, Lord Layard, states:

"So poverty is related to poor outcomes for children. But does this mean that poverty is a direct cause of these poor outcomes? Only partly. In all studies of individuals the effect of family income is greatly reduced, and even sometimes disappears when other causes of child wellbeing are taken into account".

So although poverty is statistically associated with poor outcomes for children, that does not mean that poverty is necessarily itself the cause of those poor outcomes.

The Bill, instead of addressing the underlying causes of child poverty, tries to address only the symptoms. It focuses on household income and the role that the state can play in supporting household income; it ignores the role of parents. There is only one brief mention of parents, in Clause 8(5), and it is limited to the context of the first UK strategy and relates only to more access to employment and financial support for parents. Worse still, in Clause 9(4), as was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, the Bill refers to a list of persons and organisations whom the Secretary of State must consult before publishing a report. Among those, it mentions children and organisations representing children-not a mention of parents. Why not? Child poverty is profoundly influenced by the behaviour and lifestyle choices of parents. As I said, their choices affect both the income of the household and the way in which it is spent, or not, on the children.

5 Jan 2010 : Column 72

There are three main players in the prevention of child poverty: fathers, mothers and the state. It is like a three-legged stool, and it works only if all three are playing their part. Up to now, this Government have shown a lack of faith in parents. For the past 10 years or so, it has been the Government's official and often stated policy that it is not the job of the Government to interfere in the way that parents choose to live their lives. Suddenly, two weeks ago, the Secretary of State for Education made a statement to the effect that he believes in marriage and the importance of parental commitment, and that a Green Paper on relationships and the family is to be published in February. I welcome that good news, but I am concerned that the Bill was obviously drafted before the Government had this welcome change of heart. We now need to know what the Government's future policy on parenting support and family structure will be. Can the Minister give the House an assurance that we shall not be asked to debate this Bill in Committee without seeing the Green Paper, or at least a draft of it?

Finally, I should like briefly to mention one or two issues which we shall have to address in Committee if the Bill is to have a chance of meeting the targets that it sets itself. First, household income is not necessarily a good measure. Child well-being is a better one. Secondly, poor, dysfunctional and hard-to-reach families have a range of problems which will have to be addressed more effectively by the Government and local authorities, supported by extended families and communities where appropriate, if the Bill's targets are to be met. For example, as many noble Lords have mentioned, they may suffer from poor health, mental health problems, loneliness, drug or alcohol abuse, a member of the family in prison, domestic violence, relationship problems and parental separation, debt, poor or unsuitable housing-the list goes on.

If we are to win the battle against child poverty, public attitudes to the responsibilities of becoming a parent will have to change. Children unwanted or neglected by one or both of their parents are more likely to be poor and disadvantaged. Parental neglect and rejection is very damaging to a child's social and emotional development. The role and responsibilities of fathers in our contemporary society need to be clearly defined, based on research and widely publicised by the Government. The role of paternal grandmothers could be very important in the support and well-being of children. Much child poverty is caused by poor relationships within the family. There is an urgent need for more and better relationship education.

Those and other issues affecting child poverty we shall have to discuss in Committee. Many of those issues will not be resolved by making laws alone. There is a need for painstaking, sustained persuasion-what is now often referred to as the nudge-linked to better research-based information and parenting education. Only if those problems are addressed shall we have a chance, in my view, of meeting the targets set by the Bill. Both the Government and the Opposition are well aware of those problems, yet the Bill appears to ignore them. In its present form, it should not be allowed on to the statute book.

5 Jan 2010 : Column 73

7.07 pm

The Lord Bishop of Hereford: My Lords, like many of you before me, I begin by expressing my gratitude and thanks for the welcome extended to me in the very brief time that I have been in your Lordships' House. A good deal of advice has been offered to me, much of it pointing in the same direction, but not so, perhaps, with regard to the weighty matter of when to make a maiden speech. Some say, "Do it immediately"; others say, "Wait a few months until you are more used to the place", with a whole range in between. Maybe that reflects something of the diversity of views that we hold on so many other rather more important matters. Nevertheless, I am delighted to be able to make a contribution on this Bill. I have long been of the view that within the United Kingdom, the two most urgent and pressing matters are the inequality and widening gap between rich and poor, on the one hand, and the breakdown of family life and marriage, on the other. Hot on the heels of those two-perhaps that is the right phrase-as we have been observing, has been climate change, and many other issues, but none, I think, is more important. Both those issues come together in the Bill.

We meet on the first sitting day after the Christmas Recess, and have therefore been focusing our thoughts on the birth of Christ, knowing, as we do, that there was no room in the inn. There is a tendency among far too many people to want to romanticise the stable and to suggest that somewhere that was clearly cold, draughty and immensely unhygienic was nevertheless somehow suitable-though not, we would imagine, for our own children or grandchildren to be born, let alone for the son of God. Within a very brief time, He was a refugee, having to escape for His life. We do not know quite what impact these experiences had later on His thinking and teaching, but we know that He taught that every child matters and that unless we,

we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.

The Church of England has nearly 5,000 church schools and 1 million or more pupils within them. We have 500,000 children and young people involved in other groups, in worship and in activities during the week, and thereby we demonstrate our deep commitment to valuing children, to working with them and for them and to serving them as best we can. Naturally, like others, I welcome the Bill, but I also urge that we keep before us the obvious fact that, vital though it is to set the targets-and we may well find ourselves modifying quite how they are expressed-the crucial part is to meet those targets, as well as the action that follows.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester spoke about the outstanding work of the Children's Society and other noble Lords referred to the Good Childhood Inquiry. This major work has emphasised that what children say they want above everything else are stable, secure, loving relationships within their own homes. The absence of this love and these relationships are the greatest of all poverties. This is in no way to minimise the horror of the abject financial poverty that is the focus of the Bill, or, as has already been

5 Jan 2010 : Column 74

expressed, the moral obligation upon us to do our utmost to eradicate it, but it is to put the financial poverty into the right perspective.

We have already been reminded of the 2007 UNICEF report that placed us at the bottom of the league table of the 21 richest nations. That was a league table of well-being, which is not just about money. Poverty affects many aspects of a child's life and is contributed to by a wide diversity of factors. Among those is poverty of aspiration, which contributes to the fact that the proportion of children from poorer homes in higher education has not changed over recent years, despite the extra places in colleges and universities and the encouragement of children from poorer households to look to that opportunity and take it.

In a similar vein, there is a real quandary for a lone parent without work if she or he is offered work. The quandary is between the extra money that they are likely to bring into their household and the pressure that that places on their time and the lessened opportunity they have to give to their child or children the emotional support they need. We need to do more to provide a financial taper that allows this line between unemployment and full employment to be crossed more easily. We also need a taper in other areas, where changing a category of classification can result in a step change in circumstances. A financial taper would, for example, make it easier for a single parent to be able to afford childcare, which is so necessary.

If poverty is not just about money, we need to be more joined up in our thinking and action in addressing all the underlying causes, as the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said. As the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions put it,

The noble Lord, Lord Freud, also intimated that earlier. In a similar vein, the Institute for Public Policy Research report in 2006 observed:

"Much recent US research reports a consistent overarching finding that children who grow up in an 'intact, two-parent family' with both biological parents do better on a wide range of outcomes than children who grow up in a single-parent family. While this research may be instinctively difficult for those on the Left to accept, the British evidence seems to support it".

Surely it must follow that in being serious about addressing child poverty, we must also address the need to support parents and recognise that support needs to be given early. There is ample evidence, for example, that relationship education programmes make a difference. The churches do a great deal in terms of marriage preparation and support, relationship development, parenting courses and so on. We know what significant contributions they can make in aiding all types of families, whether with married, co-habiting or single parents. Whatever the nature of the family unit, early support can make a real difference.

The director of One Plus One, Penny Mansfield, wrote recently:

"If we are concerned about the wellbeing of children, we must look first at how their parents are getting on".

She continued:

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page