Skip to main content

Child Poverty

Volume 447: debated on Monday 12 June 2006

In the two decades prior to 1997 the number of children living in poverty in the United Kingdom more than doubled. However, in absolute terms there are now 2 million fewer children living below the poverty line than when we came into office. This has been the result of investment in the new deal for lone parents, the introduction of tax credits, the introduction of the national minimum wage and our success in creating stable economic growth.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. I hope that he will agree with me that constituencies such as mine in Durham have benefited enormously from measures that the Government have taken to tackle child poverty, with literally thousands of children being lifted out of poverty since 1997. Nevertheless, poverty is still disproportionately higher in the north-east than elsewhere. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what the Government are doing to tackle regional inequalities in child poverty?

Yes. The new deal has been a huge success in my hon. Friend’s constituency and throughout many parts of Britain that suffer from high levels of unemployment. The city strategy that we set out in the Green Paper will, I think, provide further targeted help in tackling worklessness in some of the most deprived parts of the country. Together with the other reforms in the Green Paper, I am sure that we will continue to make a significant impact on improving the opportunities for families with children to share in rising national prosperity.

In a debate on social exclusion in Westminster Hall at the end of last year, I asked whether the Government’s social exclusion unit could examine the relationship of long-term family and relationship breakdown with long-term deprivation. Will the Minister make the same request in relation to child poverty? Will he also examine the work that is being done by many faith, independent and voluntary groups in supporting relationships that are in trouble? As a nation, it costs us a fortune to deal with the consequences of relationship breakdown in child poverty terms, yet we spend so little in trying to support those relationships.

I agree with a great deal of what the hon. Gentleman has said. I have decided to make the pursuit of the child poverty targets that have been set for my Department the No. 1 priority for the Department. I think that that is right if we are to break the cycle of deprivation and poverty between the generations. The social exclusion unit is the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. I will be working closely with her and the Minister of State to ensure that we make progress in this general area.

I congratulate the Government on nearly achieving their target of reducing the number of poor children by a quarter in five years. Does my right hon. Friend accept that probably the major reason why the Government have scored success in this area was the impact of tax credits, which cost the equivalent of a 5p reduction in the standard rate of tax? Given that that sort of money will not be available for the next five years, might my right hon. Friend, at some suitable opportunity, set out before the House how he intends to achieve another quarter’s reduction in the number of poor children in the following five years?

Yes, I will certainly be doing that. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his support in this area. We shall have to focus our attention in a number of areas if we are to make continuing progress, not least in relation to how we can improve the operation of the child support arrangements. That is a piece of work currently being carried out by Sir David Henshaw.

We will certainly have to consider how we can continue to make the new deal for lone parents effective. It has been hugely effective and we have seen a huge increase in the employment rate of lone parents—about 11 percentage points. We should continue to explore all these areas and avenues to ensure that we can improve the household income of families with children.

On the issue of tax credits and poverty, has the Secretary of State had a chance to read the research produced by his Department last year, which concluded that the problems in the administration of tax credits had lent an unwelcome unpredictability to a key element of financial support. It went on to talk about the profoundly negative effects on more financially vulnerable households?

Earlier, the Secretary of State indicated that he is working closely with the Chancellor of the Exchequer. May I encourage him to ask the Chancellor to consider that, as tax credits are no more than means-tested benefits, it would make far more sense to administer the credits from his Department than from the Treasury? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that his Department could hardly do a less effective job of that?

Answer that one.

I read a great deal of research and many reports. The particular report to which the hon. Gentleman refers, apparently from my Department, I have not yet managed to read. I will need to ask the hon. Gentleman for the reference number of the report. We examine carefully the administration of tax credits. It is wrong to suggest that somehow they have not been a significant benefit to millions of families with children. They have been a huge boon to millions of households. The Department currently has no plans to take on the administration of the tax credits system.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that London is the only region where no significant progress was made in reducing child poverty for the first milestone in 2004? Does he accept that one of the key reasons for that is high housing costs? Typical of that is a constituent who came to me on Friday, who is in temporary accommodation—one of 3,000 families in temporary accommodation in my borough—who faces a rent bill of £430 every week. That is a ludicrous disincentive to work. Will he therefore take urgent action, with the Department for Communities and Local Government, to tackle the housing costs for those in temporary accommodation? Will he also agree to meet the London—

I will certainly pass on my hon. Friend’s concerns to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. I remind my hon. Friend that the Prime Minister recently announced two significant projects covering the east of London and the west of London to try to bring more resources to improving employment prospects and to make the impact greater, but she is quite right to say that, sadly, it is still true today that 50 per cent. of children born in inner London are born into poor households—that is households that have 60 per cent. or less of the median income. That is not acceptable for us and we will continue to work across Government in ways that I hope that she will find sensible and an effective response to the problem that she has highlighted.

The Secretary of State knows that one in four children in poverty have a long-term sick or disabled parent. Does he also know that there are 13,000 children with caring responsibilities greater than 50 hours per week? That is a situation that can greatly aggravate the negative consequences of child poverty. In the context of eliminating child poverty, and given that we are at the start of national carers week, what specific measures does he propose to deal with the problems facing child carers?

The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), who is the Minister with responsibility for disabled people, and I are currently developing a series of new proposals that will address some of the concerns that the hon. Gentleman has raised. I think that that was the first time that he has contributed to Work and Pensions questions, so I am grateful. [Interruption.] It may not be, but it felt like perhaps it was. [Laughter.] I hope that that is in no way disrespectful to the hon. Gentleman, whom we hold in high regard on this side of the House. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health also has responsibility in this area, and we are also addressing the issue through the spending review settlement.