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As noble Lords will be aware, on our Benches we are most concerned about reinforcing stable and committed relationships between parents. We have been particularly influenced by the data reported by the Centre for Social Justice which shows that married couple relationships are significantly more stable than co-habiting relationships. It states that,
If the much higher rate of breakdown of cohabiting couples is strongly correlated with poor outcomes and poverty for children, it is clear that we should encourage the more committed relationships associated with the institution of marriage.
However, the Government have stopped collecting proper data on the different types of household in terms of whether couples are married or cohabiting. The term "marital status" was deleted from government forms in, I believe, 2005 by Jacqui Smith. This act has sent out the message that marriage is not distinct from other forms of couple relationships. This is not in line with the evidence we have. The amendment seeks to ensure that marital status returns to the central position it should enjoy. I beg to move.
Lord Freud: It is, of course, driven by the need to record households with children. That is what it is about. I thank the noble Lord for the opportunity to clarify that. Of course, one would record all marriages on forms in order to capture that particular data.
Lord Northbourne: Flowing from that, I suggest to the Minister that if they are going to supply this information the Government should consider also supplying information about any man living as a member of the household-whether as a lodger or a stepfather-who is not a relative of the child. The statistics show that that can be a dangerous situation for the children.
Baroness Thomas of Winchester: My Lords, when the noble Lord moved the amendment on non-financial targets he took up three and a half columns of Hansard. Although he spoke for only two minutes at the end, we had a full debate. This amendment should have been debated with the other one and I do not propose to repeat what I said then. This is an arbitrary list calling for statistics that would be difficult to collect.
Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I thought I provided a full response to this amendment in the first session last week and the noble Lord will forgive me if I reiterate what I said previously on this matter.
First, I must emphasise that the Bill is about tackling income poverty, material deprivation and socio-economic disadvantage. All of these are important and are treated as such in the Bill. As I have explained many times, our aim is that children should not live in poverty in the UK or suffer the effects of wider socio-economic
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Amendment 49 proposes that to inform its child poverty strategy the Government should collect data on households with parents who are married, in a civil partnership or long-term relationship, and households where one or more parent is addicted to drugs, alcohol or gambling. I understand that the Office for National Statistics collects information on marital status. However, the causal link between this information and child poverty statistics is not clear cut. I imagine that information on levels of drugs, alcohol and gambling addiction would be rather harder to obtain. It is not clear, for example, at what point a habit becomes an addiction or, indeed, the extent to which this impacts on household income or on children's well-being. I question, therefore, whether the information listed here is necessarily the most useful data to draw on in preparing a child poverty strategy and, indeed, whether it is appropriate to specify in legislation that these data are collected rather than any other data relating to the drivers of poverty.
In previous debates we have made clear the importance we see in stable and committed relationships and the impact that that can have on children and their well-being. That should be clearly on the record. I am not quite sure what else the noble Lord seeks from the amendment. However, if I have misunderstood him, I shall happily have another go.
The amendment seeks to concentrate on the collection of statistics on marriage. As I say, the reference to "marital status" was abandoned on government forms in 2005. It is not a difficult statistic to collect-we have collected it, I suspect, for hundreds of years-and it has only recently been stopped. The amendment is designed to allow the statistics to be collected again.
Lord McKenzie of Luton: The noble Lord has been clear on that. I shall have to revert to him because we do not have to hand the history of the noble Lord's suggested removal of the statistics. I accept what he says about that and I shall happily revert to him and to other Members of the Committee.
(a) any resolution of either House of Parliament, or
(b) any report by a select committee of either House of Parliament,
Baroness Thomas of Winchester: My Lords, when I used to work in my party's Whips Office I used to despair that some Peers working on Bills would be thrilled to have a concession from the Government of the day for an annual report to Parliament to be published. Was that really what being a parliamentarian was all about, I thought, just getting a concession of an annual report to Parliament? The Committee may therefore not be surprised that I am suspicious that in this Bill the Government have put in that requirement all by themselves.
There is nothing in the Bill to ensure that the report will effectively see the light of day unless it is particularly hard-hitting, however, which would seriously compromise the accountability factor and, therefore, any subsequent action. Imagine this report being published on an exciting news day rather than a slow one. Unless it contained something truly startling, would it really make the "Today" programme?
That way, the Government would have to respond to the report, and it would give all parliamentarians a chance to debate it. It would give as much accountability as possible, and would ensure that the report was not likely just to gather dust in a ministerial in-tray. I beg to move.
Lord Freud: My Lords, throughout the debates on the Bill it is clear that we are not all on the same page about when and how the Secretary of State should ultimately be held accountable for the success, or not, of his strategy. As far as I can see, the sole instance of genuine accountability falls in 2020 when the financial targets are met or not met; that is the only point at which the Secretary of State will have to explain why he was unable to lower child poverty levels to among the best in Europe. Our views on the inadequacy of those four targets are well known. The lack of accountability for the strategy, the inability of Parliament to suggest that more could be done via a different approach and the lack of any interim targets all reinforce my concerns.
I am not entirely comfortable with the amendment's new subsection (8), though. First, "taking account of" does not, in any piece of legislation that I have ever seen, necessarily result in the need for change. Secondly, as we have discussed at length, the success and failure of the strategy should not be seen solely through the prism of the four financial targets, and I would oppose any suggestion that it should be.
Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, Clause 13 requires the Secretary of State to lay an annual report before Parliament on progress towards meeting the targets set out in Clauses 2 to 5, so it is not just a question of waiting until 2020. Clause 13(5) ensures that if the UK strategy has not been fully met, the report must describe the respects in which it has not been implemented and the reasons for that. I suggest that these provisions put in place a clear mechanism for holding the Government to account in tackling child poverty, and I would have thought that it was pretty certain that a child poverty lobby would ensure that a lively public and media debate was held after each annual report was laid.
I am also certain that the Government would wish to be aware of and consider any resolutions or proposals made by parliamentarians in response to annual reports, but I suggest that the amendment seeks to do too much. It is my understanding that, following an annual report, it would allow Parliament to shape future child poverty strategies, and that just cannot be right; it is the elected Government of the day who must have the authority to design and implement policy.
The amendment would also pose some practical problems. How would the power work in practice? Why should one parliamentarian's view carry particular weight merely because he or she has been chosen to speak in a debate? Or will the views of all who have spoken be given equal weight? Hopefully, the Committee will see some of the practical difficulties. In addition to being unnecessary, then, the amendment would not work in practice and it would set a damaging precedent by blurring the powers of the Executive and legislative functions of the Government, and by muddling the authority and accountability of action to tackle child poverty.
Baroness Thomas of Winchester: My Lords, I am sorry that my little amendment has not found more favour with the Grand Committee. It was not suggesting
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"( ) For the purposes of subsection (1)(a), (b) and (d), the statement must include the percentage of children living in qualifying households that fell below 60%, 50% and 40% of median equivalised net household income for the financial year."
Lord Freud: My Lords, the motivation behind the amendment is to ensure that we do not lose focus on the most poor in our society. I have already referred to the fact that, according to Save the Children and the IFS, the number of children in severe poverty was growing even before the 2004 turning point, as policy concentrated-or seemed to concentrate-on pushing those just under the 60 per cent line to just over it. I am sure that most voters would want the exact opposite to happen. They would want the very poorest children pushed up first, and the somewhat less poor pushed up once the first group had been looked after. By ensuring that the figures were published for each of the points below the median-40 per cent and 50 per cent as well the 60 per cent targeted-we could see how the Government were doing across the range.
I am of course conscious that researchers have found the figures for those below 40 per cent highly unreliable. As we discussed on a previous amendment, a lot of confusion may be thrown up by the workings of the informal economy in this context. However, I argue that it is the job of the Government, if they are to take child poverty seriously, to come up with an approach that successfully identifies and prioritises the very poorest children. I beg to move.
Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope: Very briefly, I support the amendment. I do so simply on the basis that I believe-although I stand to be corrected-that the data are available. They may need some cross-tabulation and processing to put them into a form that would enable them to be included in the annual target report, and I accept that some of the low, 40 per cent, level figures are statistically a little suspect because of sampling and other errors, but if they became an established part of the reports produced, that would inform the debate enormously. If the data are available already, I see no reason why they should not be part and parcel of the published reports.
Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, long-term poverty and the material deprivations that can result can reinforce the negative impact of low income on childhood well-being and life chances. The four targets in the Bill ensure that policy will have to tackle poor living standards and persistent poverty, as well as raising incomes at a given point in time. Together, the targets reflect the reality that income, the length of time experiencing low income and the lived experience of poverty all matter.
I know that the noble Lord, Lord Freud, in particular is concerned that the Government will be focusing just on moving families closest to the poverty threshold over it, but we are ensuring that that is clearly not the case by having the full range of targets. Moving families from 58 per cent to 61 per cent of median income would not be sufficient to meet the combined low income and material deprivation target, nor the persistent poverty target.
The noble Lord hinted at, and it is worth outlining, the issues with data corresponding to those with the very lowest incomes, such as those below the 40 per cent of median income line. They are acknowledged to have a higher degree of uncertainty and error. Some types of household with very low income recorded on the survey include the following issues. First, there is underrecording of very fragmented incomes. Secondly, some households will have transitional periods of low income, being between-possibly well paid-jobs at the precise time of survey interview or being self-employed, where incomes can vary greatly from year to year, as the noble Lord acknowledged. Thirdly, there will also be some households that are drawing on savings to cope with, perhaps, a longer period of minimal incomes. Lastly, there will be some households that genuinely have to cope on very low incomes, and perhaps get into debt to maintain levels of expenditure.
Unusual households where incomes are not a good measure of material living standards make up a much lower proportion of households below 50 per cent or 60 per cent of median than households below 40 per cent of median income. This is therefore particularly unreliable as a measure of poverty. Analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, no less, has confirmed this, pointing to the fact that many of those with incomes below 40 per cent of median are not those with the highest levels of deprivation. It is for this reason that households with incomes below 50 per cent and 60 per cent of median are used in measures of poverty, including in households of below average income. This is in line with international best practice.
In summary, the targets already present a range of different measures of poverty and, as such, ensure that we do not focus on just getting families over the line. There are problems associated with the measurement of the very lowest incomes. Therefore, I hope that the noble Lord will not press this amendment.
Lord Freud: I thank the Minister for that response, and the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, for his thoughtful views. This amendment touches on some of the concerns that we have already discussed about the data, particularly at the lower levels. I accept this. I know we will have an informal discussion about the right way to capture the genuinely poor. The data, as the IFS has pointed out,
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Nevertheless, this amendment is driven by the concern, which was widely reported by Save the Children two weeks ago and has already been referred to by the IFS, that over the past six or seven years the very poorest seem to be doing less well, with more in severe poverty. Whatever the absolute level that we start from, whether it is accurate or not, the fact that that figure is increasing is a worrying sign. It is a sign that, even with targets, which we have had over the past decade-I think they have been aspirations for targets for part of that-we do not have a process to ensure that the very poorest both are identified and have the majority of resources devoted to them.
That is the purpose of this amendment. I am not entirely satisfied. We have had quite a slew of amendments, which I confess to authoring, around this set of issues. I am not comfortable that we have the right answer yet. I look forward to discussing it further with the Minister. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope: My Lords, I had intended to make an exhaustive examination of the textual content of Clause 15, but I suspect that we are all past that by now. However, the amendment seeks to make it clear in my head, if in no one else's, what the clause actually means because I think that it is very badly drafted. The Minister has said, and I believe him, that the clause is designed to make the work of the commission more cost-effective in developing policy.
I want to take a few moments to guide the Committee through the wording. It suggests clearly to me that this is about the Government being able to plead Clause 15 and the fact that the money has run out in order to walk away from the targets. The clause heading is "Economic and fiscal circumstances", which is a broad strategic backdrop into which the clauses following this one fall, but there are no qualifications for it. The clause tackles big-picture stuff. Subsection (1) states:
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