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House of Commons Hansard
06 March 2007
Volume 457

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I am glad to have secured this debate on what I am sure all hon. Members will agree is a hugely important subject. The Government made an historic commitment to halve child poverty by 2010 and to abolish it within a generation. I congratulate them on that commitment. I also thank the Minister for the work that he has put in on the issue and, in particular, for attending last week’s launch of Save the Children’s exhibition on child poverty at which he spoke eloquently from his experience about the importance of achieving those targets to reduce child poverty.

It could be argued that we do not need a Westminster Hall debate to bring the matter to the Government’s attention or to urge them to make tackling child poverty a central part of their programme. We have already won the battle of ideas, but with the three-year comprehensive spending review coming up and the Budget due on 21 March, it is important to use this opportunity to urge the Government to reaffirm their commitment to abolish child poverty and to highlight how much more needs to be done to achieve our targets.

I am pleased to see representatives from the other main parties in the Chamber, and I look forward to hearing their commitments to tackling child poverty. The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) “signed the pledge” in a speech on 19 December, so better late than never.

I am somewhat confused about where the Conservatives stand, and I hope that we shall be enlightened today. I gather that the abolition of child poverty is an aspiration rather than a target for them. I am not sure what that means, but I think it means that they think it would nice to abolish child poverty, but they will not spend any money or implement any policies to achieve that. Perhaps we shall find out more about the Conservatives’ intentions.

When the Government came to power, they inherited an appalling legacy. Child poverty had increased under the Conservative Government from 14 per cent. in 1979 to 33 per cent. in 1998—from one in seven children living in poverty to one in three. A generation of children had been abandoned. We know that poverty is often handed down from one generation to the next, so their actions condemned future generations to live in poverty.

The Government should be commended on their work so far in introducing measures such as the national minimum wage and raising it year on year, as well as tax credits, record rises in child benefit, funding child care, Sure Start, children’s centres, the new deal for lone parents and Jobcentre Plus. I could go on.

We have lifted 700,000 children out of poverty, and have achieved a much faster reduction in child poverty than has been achieved in other European Union countries. Child poverty is now at a 15-year low, and we should not overlook that achievement when we consider the scale of the problem that still faces us. A quarter of Britain’s children—3.4 million—still live in poverty. We are all familiar with the UNICEF report that was published last month, which shows the UK at the bottom of the international league tables.

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On the UNICEF report, the hon. Lady makes good points about the financial aspect of child poverty, but overall well-being comes into the debate. Does she agree that to prevent the spiral of child poverty from passing from one generation to another, we must, in addition to measures to tackle financial poverty, provide opportunities—through education and out-of-school activities—to involve young people in decision making so that they can escape the poverty trap?

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I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, and I agree entirely that the problem is not just about financial targets. I shall come to that later.

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There is probably a lot of common ground here, but it is right to pay tribute to schemes, such as Sure Start, which, in addition to making a real difference to families in the poorest circumstances, have perhaps done more to alter how people deal with their lives and their capacity to start making decisions about their own lives.

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I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention; he makes an important point. I agree that the issue is not just about putting money in people’s pockets. We must look at their whole lives, and everything that impacts on them and results in the downward spiral of poverty, which then passes to future generations.

The Government have achieved a great deal in reducing the number of children living in poverty, but they missed their target for 2005 by about 300,000. In 2004-05, the last year for which statistics are available, only 100,000 children were lifted out of poverty. I believe that the figures for 2005-06 are due out on 27 March, and I hope that with the figures for tax credits and so on included there will be an improvement, but there is a lot more to do and I want to use this debate to flag up some ways to move forward in achieving those targets.

First, I want to talk about what child poverty means for children. According to Bristol university’s millennium survey on poverty and social exclusion in Britain, which was published last year, a third of British children are forced to go without at least one of the things they need—for example, three meals a day, toys, out-of-school activities or adequate clothing—while 750,000 children go without essential clothing, such as a warm winter coat or new, properly fitted shoes, because of a lack of money. Furthermore, 400,000 children do not have enough food each day and 1 million are too poor to be able to engage in common social activities, such as visiting friends or family, having friends round to play, celebrating birthdays and so on.

In school, children from low-income families risk being isolated, stigmatised and bullied, perhaps because they do not have the right uniform or they cannot afford to go on school trips. Their living conditions in cramped, overcrowded, noisy or damp houses often make it difficult for them to study at home, so they fall behind with their school work.

Poverty also has a significant impact on children’s health, from lower birth rates to shorter life expectancy. Children from manual social backgrounds are one and a half times more likely to die as infants than children from other social backgrounds. The important research in the Save the Children and Family Welfare Association survey, which was published yesterday, shows that children living in financially excluded families with no access to a bank account pay the price of being poor in the UK—the poverty premium—because that has a significant impact on household finances.

The survey also shows that poor families pay up to £1,000 more for essential goods and services such as gas, electricity, insurance and accessing cash. That includes paying about 150 per cent. more for basic household goods bought on credit, more than 50 per cent. more on credit or loans, and 10 per cent. more on gas bills paid through prepayment meters rather than by direct debit. That represents about 9 per cent. of the income of a family on £250 a week. Being poor makes people poorer.

That is the situation—what can we do about it? We are still waiting for the Government’s response to the Harker report, which I hope will flag up some measures that the Government are introducing, and I hope, too, that the Minister will give us a preview in his winding-up speech. I want to make a few suggestions. I am sure that it will not surprise the Minister to hear that some of them involve spending commitments, but before coming to that I want to make some other points.

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Half the children in poverty are in families in which at least one parent is working. Will the hon. Lady address important issues such as training and better-quality jobs?

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I will touch on that, but obviously in a debate such as this when several hon. Members want to speak I must skim over some issues. It is important to remember that the issue is not just getting parents into work. The focus has been on that recently, but work must pay, and be accessible and affordable to people.

Some issues do not require Government spending, and a point that is made to me time and again by campaign groups is the importance of having a cross-Department approach to tackling child poverty, perhaps with the social exclusion task force leading the way. There is some confusion about whether the Treasury or the Department for Work and Pensions is leading on the public service agreement target of halving child poverty by 2010. It would be useful to have a steer on that.

Another point that has been made is that legislation should be poverty-proofed, whether it comes from the Treasury, the DWP, the Department for Education and Skills, the Department of Health or the Department for Transport. The Minister will recall that at the Labour party conference last year we met a group of young people from an estate in south Wales who had been brought together by Save the Children. The point that they made time and again was that transport was the biggest issue in preventing them from staying in education or getting their first job. Even transport must be poverty-proofed.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. She mentions Departments working together, but does she agree that the devolved Parliaments and Assemblies in Scotland and Wales also have a major role to play and that we need not just a Westminster approach, but a concentrated and co-ordinated UK approach to the problem?

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I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. I must admit that I am not that familiar with events in the Scottish Parliament, but recently, when I ended up speaking at a meeting in Merthyr Tydfil of all places, I spoke to a Welsh Assembly Member who leads on the issue. He stressed that in Wales there is a joined-up approach and that issues such as transport are considered in a well thought out way. We should not only emulate such approaches, but tie them in with the approach being taken at the Westminster Parliament level.

On spending, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has estimated that it would cost about £4 billion to £5 billion extra a year to meet the Government’s targets. I do not know whether the Government accept that estimate, but I know that the Institute for Public Policy Research came up with a figure of £2 billion last year, which might be more palatable to the Treasury.

I am sure the Minister knows that there have been several suggestions on how the money might be spent if it were available. Save the Children, for example, has called on the Government to introduce seasonal grants, so that families would receive £100 per child in summer, £100 per child in winter plus an extra £100 per household to meet fuel bills. That would help families who can tick along day to day on their low income, but who cannot afford the extra items that come up. For example, in summer, there are school uniforms to buy and children do not have free school meals for those six weeks in the year. Save the Children estimates that such grants could lift 440,000 children out of poverty at a cost of £1.4 billion a year.

The End Child Poverty campaign is calling for the equalisation of child benefits, so that the second and third child each receive the same amount as the first. End Child Poverty believes that that would help large families in particular, because they are more likely to be poor.

Other people are calling for a view on how local authorities exercise their discretionary powers to provide grants to low-income families. A Citizens Advice survey found that in 2004, 42 per cent. of local authorities did not offer any grants, so in effect there is a postcode lottery.

Poor housing is a major factor. According to Shelter, 1.6 million children live in bad housing, which impacts on their health, education and emotional well-being, and even on their safety. We desperately need more investment in building social housing and meeting the decent homes target, and it has been suggested that housing should be at the heart of the social exclusion unit’s work.

Financial inclusion is also an important issue. I have been involved with it as a member of the Treasury Committee, which has produced some excellent reports recently. The Government are to be commended for what they have done so far, such as introducing basic bank accounts, but we must do more to ensure that high street banks meet their obligations. We learned yesterday that their profits hit almost £40 billion last year, and although I do not have anything against banks making profit, one would think that, at that rate, they could afford to provide basic bank accounts and free cash point machines in deprived areas without taking too much of a hit.

The private sector should also be encouraged to remove tariffs that discriminate against the low paid, such as higher costs for prepayment meters and penalties for people who cannot pay by direct debit. In effect, the poorest people subsidise those who can afford to pay through their bank accounts.

More support for credit unions could also make a huge difference. In my constituency, the Department for Work and Pensions growth fund has given the credit union £200,000 in capital and £50,000 in revenue a year to provide quick cash loans to people on low incomes. So far, the union has made about 200 loans at an average of £450. It says that 80 per cent. of those loans have been made to women and 60 per cent. to lone parents, which is hugely important, because about 3 million people use doorstep lenders.

I have been given figures showing that if those people were to borrow £500 over a year from Provident Personal Credit, the biggest doorstep lender in the country, they would end up paying back £825, which equates to an APR of 177 per cent. If they were to borrow the same amount from a credit union, however, they would pay about £65 in interest, which would obviously make a huge difference to that household’s financial sustainability. We are encouraging Farepak customers, who were hit by its collapse just before Christmas, to sign up to credit unions instead, as a way of saving money.

I hope that the Minister will not consider reinstating the policy—perhaps I should say “value”, because that is the term currently in use—of the married couple’s allowance, which is gesture politics at its most meaningless. Either it would be set so low as to have no impact at all or it would divert funds from the people who really need them. I am told that 13 million couples would be eligible, but if they were given even a small incentive of £100 a year, it would cost £1.3 billion. An allowance of £26 a month would equate to the £4 billion that we need to tackle child poverty, and £26 a month would do nothing to encourage a couple to get or stay married. It would be meaningless.

Whatever we think of parents’ choices or circumstances, and whether we blame or commend them, it is the children who really matter. We should spend money on all children who need it, rather than on those who happen to come from the “right” family background.

The most important element of the chid poverty strategy is the Government’s emphases on moving from welfare to work and making work pay through such initiatives as tax credits, the minimum wage, child care and so on. I fully endorse the Government’s strategy for and target of getting 80 per cent. of people into work, as well as their new strategies on incapacity benefit and lone parents.

On incapacity benefit, one in three children living in poverty has a disabled parent. Only 16 per cent. of mothers of disabled children work. In some cases, their circumstances may mean that they are unable to work, but in cases in which they just need extra child care support and extra financial help, it is important to give them the opportunity to work.

According to the Child Poverty Action Group, children of lone parents face a much higher risk of poverty—the figure is 48 per cent.—than children of couples. Giving a figure of 90 per cent., it also says that most lone parents want to work when it is right for their children that they should do so, but there are obstacles in their way, including the steep taper on housing benefits, inflexible working hours and the loss of passported benefits such as free school meals and free prescriptions.

The affordability and accessibility of child care also remain a problem. In a recent survey of more than 1,000 lone parents, 70 per cent. cited a lack of child care and being unable to find work that fitted around school hours as barriers to finding a job.

There is also a discrepancy between free nursery provision and tax credit rules. Parents of three to four-year-olds are entitled to 12.5 hours of nursery provision each week, but to claim tax credits parents must work more than 16 hours a week. We must extend that provision so that parents can not only undertake 16 hours of work a week, but find the time to get to and from work and collect their children from nursery. That would make a huge difference to their employability.

We must also stress that work itself is not always the answer—a point that has already been made. Some 54 per cent. of children living in poverty have a parent who is already in work. We must therefore consider whether we want to get parents into short-term jobs or long-term careers. The Single Parent Action Network has its headquarters in my constituency. I have met single parents there, and they have huge ambition and determination to do well for themselves and put their children on a secure financial footing. However, if we were to tell them that they should take up work now as a cleaner, a waitress or a shelf stacker in a supermarket on the national minimum wage, boosted by tax credits, the chances are that they would remain in such employment for the long term and that their children would still live in poverty.

If, instead, such people were encouraged to get some qualifications under their belt and to take a few years before moving into the job market, their long-term prospects would be much more secure and their financial situation much more viable. The network is doing excellent work through its study centre. It received a £400,000 lottery grant recently to help it to carry on that work, encouraging women to gain skills and qualifications, and giving them confidence and life coaching classes. We must continue that work.

I shall focus on those people who are the hardest to reach and whose problems are the hardest to solve. Much of the Government’s work so far has been to top-slice at children in poverty, lifting those just below the poverty line to just above it. However, my constituency includes the most deprived ward in south-west England, and those of us who represent areas with significant deprivation know that there are families who sometimes seem beyond help and that mere cash injections will not solve their huge, intractable problems.

I speak to head teachers in my constituency who are in absolute despair at the dysfunctional and chaotic lives of some parents who bring children to their schools. I am not saying that those parents do not care about their children—they do—but sometimes they do not know how to care for them, or they have so much to contend with in their daily lives that they cannot give their children the care, attention and love that they need to thrive. I am talking about parents who are drug users, and who might be involved in violent or abusive relationships, or might be engaged in drug dealing, crime or prostitution. About 300 women are working on the streets of Bristol at any given time, and many of them are mothers. Of course, some of those mothers are little more than children themselves.

I am also talking about the families of asylum seekers and refugees, who are struggling to cope with life in a strange land and to learn English and English ways. A huge number of myths circulate about what those families get, but the reality is that they get very little. Poverty is entrenched within certain ethnic minority groups—57 per cent. of Pakistani and Bangladeshi children and 43 per cent. of black children are poor. Obviously, we cannot solve those problems overnight, but it might help to focus attention if the Government were also to measure severe poverty—say at 40 per cent. of median household income, rather than the 60 per cent. of median household income that is used as the measure of relative poverty.

I welcome the Government’s attempts to address such issues holistically through such things as Sure Start and the children’s centres. In Bristol, we have also been given funding for what people have dubbed the “supernanny” scheme, where parenting experts will work with families who need help in acquiring parenting skills. That is a valuable initiative.

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I applaud the hon. Lady for securing the debate. Before she concludes, I would be interested to know what reasons she feels there are for the fall in real income since 1997 for the very poorest members of our society. Does that relate to the issues she highlighted regarding the poverty premium or are there other reasons for that particular impoverished group being worse off than it was in 1997?

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I might leave it to the Minister to reply to that point in detail. I am not sure that I accept the premise of the question, certainly bearing in mind the number of people who have moved into work and the boost to household incomes through things such as the minimum wage and tax credits. Issues such as housing costs are factors, but I think that the Minister is much better briefed about that than me.

To sum up, it is clear that we cannot look at these issues solely in financial terms; we need to look at the bigger picture. To quote the Minister at a recent Downing street seminar:

“Too often the debate [on child poverty] is soulless and focused on government targets and not real people’s lives.”

That is hugely important. This is a matter not of targets, statistics or numbers on a piece of paper, but of making a lasting difference to children’s lives and the lives of the generations of children who will follow them. I hope that in some small way, by raising these issues and having this debate, we can move a little further towards achieving the goal that we have set.

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I express my gratitude to the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) for raising the debate and I congratulate her on that. The debate is important, particularly with regard to my constituency, which is placed 14th in the UK in terms of the number of parents on income support. Indeed, 40 per cent. of children living in poverty, as defined by the London Child Poverty Commission, live in London. The issue concerns many of us who represent urban seats.

The hon. Lady is right to recognise that worklessness is relevant, although I accept that the quality of jobs secured by lone parents who are seeking to better their circumstances and those of their families is also relevant. The problem is particularly relevant to worklessness in London, where the economic participation rate of lone parents is 5 per cent. below that of the rest of the UK. Good work is being done by the Government through Sure Start and other means to bring lone parents into economic activity. There are real challenges, however, in reaching out to those who are socially excluded. Despite the best efforts of national, regional and local government to secure such economic participation, my constituency has been able to fill only half the child care places that would facilitate such involvement. I know that good work has been done recently by the London Development Agency to try to put that right, but more needs to be done.

In the London borough of Croydon, 23,000 young people in families are dependent on income support or other means of benefit. It is important to consider how we deal with worklessness. The increase in the number of jobs in the Croydon economy is only half of the percentage increase in the London economy as a whole. We should, therefore, pay careful attention in a constituency such as mine to the way in which the tax credit system works, particularly its implications and the best use of child care provision.

The tax credit system, with its embedded element of child care, can cause difficulties. There are many benefits to the tax credit system: the funding goes to the parent, and there is a precise targeting of credits to those most in need. However, it also leaves parents without a good understanding of, or full information about, the real value of child care costs. Of course, there are problems with the tax credit system. I need not dwell on them—I am sure that all of us have a large constituency case load arising from it—but they can lead to a situation in which parents are discouraged from pursuing applications. Indeed, the problems of overpayments are often due to the child care cost element in the calculation.

As is often the case with any benefit system, the perverse marginality of loss of income takes place. As more work is secured, extra hours or child care are purchased. In combination with the tapering off of benefits, that leads to an extremely adverse disincentive to secure the progression in the work market that would create a situation in which children are taken out of poverty.

My final point about the way in which the tax credit system relates to child poverty is that providers of child care sometimes do not get money because of entitlement misunderstandings or even fraud. What work have the Government done on changing the way in which the tax credit system is undertaken to remove the embedding of the child care element from the calculations? Perhaps it would be better to place a fixed amount of child care credit on a credit card in some way, bearing in mind the ambitions of the Government to ensure that the banking and payments system continues to give support to the most socially excluded. That would provide for those purchasing child care to have a good understanding of the fixed amount of child care moneys available and ensure that the provider is much more likely to receive the money and, perhaps, to go back to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in order to claim it.

Through the creation of extra transparency on the value and costs of child care, we might encourage the further development of that market and give a better understanding to those securing it and those who provide it. In that way, we could provide a special element to the tackling of child poverty, which is a curse in my constituency and in London as a whole.

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I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) not only for securing this debate but for chosing to focus on this subject, which is of enormous importance to my city and my constituency. Child poverty is important in many large cities, including London and those in the south-west, but it is particularly important in the north. According to UNICEF figures, my constituency is the worst in the country for child poverty and is the only constituency in which well over 50 per cent. still live in poverty. No one can be proud of that; I cannot, as a constituency MP, and nor can society.

For those who live not just with the word “poverty”, but with what poverty does, the statistics and the reality behind them are absolutely dire. A male child born in my constituency today will live for eight years less than a male born in Surrey. That is a massive indictment of the type of world into which we bring our children. A child in my constituency—male or female—is more likely to die in the moments before or immediately after birth. In so far as they do survive, they will have poorer health and, for the most part, access to poorer health services, albeit massively improved over the past 10 years. That child will have poorer outcomes in education and be more likely to be involved in those aspects of life that we know are harmful to health. Access to cigarettes and serious alcoholism are more common among the poor, and abuse of hard drugs is more likely, too, in those areas that I have mentioned. Involvement in crime is more likely for a young male born in my constituency, while young females in my constituency are more likely to be pregnant earlier than elsewhere.

As my hon. Friend said, we know that all those factors will lead to the replication of poverty into the next generation by either the males who, in the worst cases, live potentially disordered lifestyles, or the young women who get caught by teenage pregnancy. However, it is important to put it on the record that many people who live in poverty in constituencies such as mine do not live disordered live. They work hard and try to bring up their families in the most exemplary way, so it is not possible to make a connection between social value and any judgment about poverty.

That is important, because I want to touch on something that my hon. Friend mentioned, namely the concept of giving a differential advantage to married couples. I do not often use my personal experience in these terms—partly because my personal experience of childhood was some year ago—but my parents never married when I was growing up. My father died when I was quite young and for a significant part of my growing-up years I was brought up by a single, unmarried mother. I hope that the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) will understand when I say that I would deeply resent the idea that the contribution that people such as my mother made to my family—bringing up five children and taking them all through higher education—might be seen as less worth while than the contribution of those who, for different reasons, were able to marry. I hope that she takes that message back to those in her party who are talking about giving a financial advantage to married couples in a way that would discriminate against worthwhile parents in all parts of our land who do their best to bring up their children in the best circumstances, despite those handicaps. It is of enormous importance that we do not fall into the lazy moral trap of trying to pretend that there are easy ways forward. I note her indication of assent, so I look forward to hearing what she has to say later.

Poverty has all the impacts that hon. Members have talked about: poorer education and poorer access to almost all the worthwhile services and advantages in our society. My hon. Friend spoke about the world of work. It is easy to recognise the work that the Government have done, and they have done a lot. It would be difficult to prove the case that any other Government have seen poverty as such an important part of their financial policy, and we can see the real difference that that has made. Nevertheless, it is still a fact that there are those among my constituents and other fellow citizens who still suffer the effects of poverty.

We must break the cycle of poverty. In part, that is most certainly about money. To those who say, “It’s not about money,” I would say that we must look at how unfair a society we are when, as I heard this morning, the chairman of British Petroleum has taken a pay cut from eight point something million pounds last year to seven point something million pounds this year. That would pay for whole communities in a constituency such as mine to raise their standards. Money would make a material difference to those people’s lives, just as I suspect it does to the chairman of BP and his lifestyle. That is not the politics of resentment; it is the politics of total incredulity that we can have the disgustingly rich alongside the disgustingly poor.

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I want to the press the hon. Gentleman on the issue of top-slicing and lifting those who are just below the poverty line to just above it, which the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) mentioned. Has he had any experience in his constituency of cases where those who are in deepest poverty have been left on the sidelines, as the hon. Lady mentioned?

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That is a good point, which we must address in non-emotive terms. It is a real issue, because it concerns exactly the kind of person or family about whom my hon. Friend spoke—often single-parent mums bringing up families or women who have massive difficulties, which can be of many kinds, such as educational disadvantage or a disability of one form or another. Such women can live disordered lives because of drug addiction, and women with drug addictions are the ones who will be engaged in prostitution—an almost perverse lifestyle that makes it harder for the mother or the children to get their heads above water. It is more difficult—it always will be—for us all to reach out to those forgotten people in our communities. However, they do exist and they exist in big numbers, not only in cities such as mine but, I suspect, in areas such as those of the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling)—I applaud him for his comments—and my hon. Friend. We know that we have to reach out more than we do.

What are the real pathways out of poverty? Of course income is important. I shall say again and again to my Government what I say to Opposition parties: please never forget that if we do not see income as central to poverty, we miss the most important issue. However, we also need joined-up government, because income of itself will not solve all the problems of poverty. We know that with poverty comes all the things that I have talked about, such as a lack of attainment elsewhere. We need to look at those who are most likely to be the next generation of the poor.

We need to think about very young pregnant women in our society. Of course we support them, but we do not support them enough to give them the opportunity to break away from what pregnancy in early years has always done in the past, which is to give an automatic passport to the world of poverty. We must break that, by ensuring that our education system is flexible for the very young women—actually, young girls—who are pregnant in cities such as mine, but also throughout the country.

We must ensure that support mechanisms are in place in child care services. We have done an awful lot on child care in our society, but we must recognise that child care of itself is central to poverty. We must recognise that health education is fundamental. Again, we fail to recognise reality if we do not accept the fact that it is much more likely that the child growing up in Surrey will have supportive parents in a supportive family, will have health education, access to a good diet and all the things that promote healthy living. In areas such as mine, however, far too often we see parents who smoke and communities that regard hard drinking as a social norm. I do not stigmatise my community, but I come from it and know very well the temptations and the reality of life there. We are stupid if we ignore those things.

In the end, however, the world of work is tremendously important. We know that in the not-too-distant future there will be very little in the way of unskilled work for people in our society. The poorly educated mother, whom we want to get back into the world of work and who desperately wants to do so as a better way of supporting her family and aspiring to a lifestyle of dignity, will be massively handicapped unless we recognise that the skills training available is not adequate for those of our fellow citizens who have been the most disadvantaged in the educational race up to the point of motherhood. They need a lot more support in the process.

We must call for joined-up government, and the Government have gone a long way towards achieving that. I do not want this to end up as a bizarre debate about the failure of the Government, who have done an awful lot. The reality, however, is that we must consider what more we need to do to ensure that we lift those who are the most disadvantaged by the poverty trap and continue the significant progress that has been made.

The hopeful point is that we can see that if we take co-ordinated steps, we will begin to make a difference. I recently visited a scheme in London called The Place2Be, which is about active intervention in schools. I want it to come into my inner-city constituency as it supports young children who bring massive emotional, sometimes psychological, difficulties into school, which makes teaching them a problem unless there is a package of support. The scheme makes a difference for young people where it exists and, five or six years in, we can begin to see the results. Young children who would not have made educational progress now make precisely that progress. Such things change people’s aspirations.

In my constituency schemes such as Sure Start have made a difference. It makes an enormous difference when families know that they have a supportive environment and when families—mothers in particular—know that they have a properly supportive child care structure that allows them not to spend their time racing around looking for an aunt, brother, cousin or friend to look after their children. Such things make a real difference by allowing people to live an ordered life in which aspiration is the norm and poverty does not always pull them back into a difficult, problematic way of life. We know that we can make a difference.

I again congratulate my hon. Friend on raising the debate and I applaud what she said about our need to translate the real progress made on income support and specific schemes into a joined-up approach to poverty. That will allow us both to address the problems experienced by those to whose lives we have already made a significant difference and to float off the rocks of poverty those for whom we have not properly begun the process, teaching them that aspiration and the other things that the rest of society takes for granted can be within their reach as families and, in particular, in the reach of their children. We can then break for ever the cycle of poverty that has been handed down from one generation to another, just as wealth is unfortunately handed down from one generation to another in our two-tier society. It is vicious to be at the wrong end of that, and we must break the cycle once and for all.

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I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) on raising this subject. It is an incredibly important issue, and she has raised it at a timely moment, for reasons that she set out.

I believe that I am right in saying that the last time we had a debate on the issue was about nine months ago, and that it was also a Westminster Hall debate. It was secured by one of the hon. Lady’s Back-Bench colleagues. It was rather a pity that the only Members to speak in that one-and-a-half-hour debate were the three Front Benchers and the Back-Bench Labour Member who raised the issue. It is striking that, although the matter ought to be one of the biggest economic and social policy priorities for us as a country and for the Government, we seem to be unsuccessful in engaging many of our colleagues in the House. That indicates some of the challenges in engaging the public and making them understand the extent of child poverty in a country that is otherwise regarded as extremely affluent.

I repeat the request, which I made in the previous debate but which has obviously fallen on deaf ears, that we should consider the issue in more detail in the Government’s time. Rather ironically, I cannot remember any debate on child poverty issues in Government time since I became the Liberal Democrat spokesman after the 2005 general election. Given that it is a huge priority for the Government, we would all benefit from a debate and from an exchange of the ideas and opinions of the parties.

Perhaps one of the reasons why hon. Members are frightened away from these debates is that the issues are so complex and span such a wide variety of subject areas. It is tempting to think that none of those subject areas falls within any one portfolio. Today, we have heard good Back-Bench speeches from the hon. Members for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) and for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd), touching upon a range of policy issues from tax credits to education and health. All those matters need to be taken into account if we are to deal with the problems of child poverty.

The debate is important, not only because of the extent of child poverty, which, as the hon. Member for Bristol, East indicated, rose from something like 14 per cent. in 1979 to about one third of children by 1997—one of the worst figures in the European Union and probably in the developed world. On reflection, that demonstrates that there is nothing inherent about us as a country that causes us to have child poverty at the levels of the past decade or so, because we had far lower levels in the 1970s.

It is sad that the increase in child poverty seems to have corresponded with a decline in social mobility, so that it is getting tougher and tougher for many children from some of our most deprived neighbourhoods—undoubtedly including those that the hon. Member for Manchester, Central represents—to succeed in life and rise to the level that their ability should allow.

We would all have assumed that, in the past 30 or 40 years, a more affluent society with free public services would also be one in which social mobility increased. However, it seems that social mobility is reducing—something that is recognised even by the Prime Minister and senior members of the Government. The recent report on housing by John Hills showed that many poor communities are getting a much greater concentration of low-income individuals. In the 1960s and 1970s, many poor communities used to have much more of a mixture of people on middle incomes and in employment. One aspect of the problems in our housing market is that people with high needs are much more concentrated in certain areas.

The issue is massively important, and the hon. Member for Bristol, East was right that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) made it clear in December that our party would sign up to the child poverty target. We thought that it was an important enough issue and a big enough commitment to consider it carefully before doing so, but we believe that it is the right target to set and that we should get down to the lowest levels in the EU. We intend not only to set an aspiration and a target but to say later this year how, in detail, we believe we should move towards it. The hon. Lady will be delighted to know that we shall release a policy paper in the summer—she can read it in her summer vacation—and we will debate it at our conference in the autumn.

I have said that the issue is important, and the debate is also timely for three reasons, one of which is the spending review, which the hon. Lady mentioned, towards which we are heading. I am bit unclear on whether it is likely to drift backwards. I am not sure why, but perhaps because of organisational issues within the governing party, there was some suggestion that the review might move off into the autumn. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister whether that will be the case and to have clarification on the question, asked by the hon. Member for Bristol, East, of which Department will take lead responsibility for delivering the public service target on child poverty.

At the moment, the responsibility sits slightly uncomfortably between the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions, partly because of the rather bizarre transfer of child benefit and tax credits from the DWP, where many of us believe they belong, to the Treasury. It would be useful to have clarification on those points at this very important time; as we know, the next spending review will be extremely tough. Public expenditure will grow much less than since 1999, so it is a question of not only whether the Government will manage to provide money to reduce child poverty, but where the money will be targeted and on which Departments.

The second reason why the debate is topical is that it comes on the back of the important UNICEF report that came out a month or so ago and is a terrible indictment of the circumstances in which we now find ourselves. Of 21 developed countries, the United Kingdom was ranked 21st for child well-being, behind countries such as Hungary, Portugal, the Czech Republic and Poland. We should all be ashamed of that.

In fairness to the Government, I should say that many of the figures are early ones, from about 2000-01; there will have been some improvement since then. It is also fair to point out that the figures emphasise relative poverty. Young children in Britain are better off than those in some of the countries that I have mentioned, which have lower relative poverty, but higher absolute poverty.

What is striking about the UNICEF report—I recognise this from my constituency—is the variety of the sources of deprivation. Obviously, the report considers not only relative poverty, but issues such as health, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Manchester, Central. It considers alcohol issues and the proportion of young children who are failing in education. The hon. Gentleman talked about the aspirations of young children and low skills, and how significant they are in respect of the labour market. It was disturbing to see in the report that, in the United Kingdom, the percentage of pupils aged 15 who expect to find work that requires only low skills was, at 35 per cent., one of the highest of all the developed countries. That is worrying in the context of the skills problem for about a quarter of our young people and given the lack of aspiration that the percentage reflects.

Although the Government might take some comfort from the fact that the figures are a bit out of date, none of us should take too much—first, because of the magnitude of the problem that we still have, with a quarter of children in relative poverty, and secondly, because the issues reflect much more than economic problems or the amounts of money in particular households. They reflect many social problems that have emerged in the past 20 or 30 years with which any Government would have to struggle.

I recognise the UNICEF report’s conclusions from what young people who have come to my constituency from abroad to help in Yeovil’s schools have told me. They are from a pretty diverse range of countries—Brazil, Canada, the United States and European Union countries. When I met them a few months ago, they told me that they were shocked not so much by the levels of economic deprivation—actually, compared with those in many of the countries from which they came, British youngsters looked fairly affluent, with their television sets and all sorts of things that are not possessed in other countries—as by the level of deprivation in respect of family relationships, the use of alcohol and illegal drugs, violence and the unfriendly nature of many communities and youngsters, all of which are picked up well in the UNICEF report. Those young people felt that such deprivation was a particularly striking indictment of our country. We cannot easily deal with such problems simply by spending extra money on benefits or tax credits. Those things may help, but they will not solve the problems overnight.

Undoubtedly, one of the underlying problems of child poverty and some of those social issues has to do with the breakdown of family life in the United Kingdom in the past 20 or 30 years. UNICEF had interesting things to say about that. First, its report acknowledges that plenty of children in single-parent families and step-families are growing up secure and happy. The hon. Member for Manchester, Central made that point, but the report said:

“But at a statistical level there is evidence to associate growing up in single-parent families and stepfamilies with greater risk to well-being—including a greater risk of dropping out of school, of leaving home early, of poorer health, of low skills, and of low pay.”

It went on to say that that relationship persists even if one adjusts for poverty, which tends to push those things up anyway. That makes sense to me and matches what I see in my constituency. However, I am not sure that I draw the conclusion that others do: that we should go back to the days of tax allowances and other such incentives for marriage.

Some years ago, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) put his finger on it when he said that he knew of many reasons why people married, but the existence of the married couple’s allowance had never been one of them. Given that the married couple’s allowance was in operation for a huge part of the time during which there was enormous family breakdown, it was clearly not very effective in that previous form.

Other than making speeches berating people and saying that they should marry, there are probably only two things that we can do on family issues. We should be very careful about erecting barriers against marriage and partnership. There is concern that incentives in the tax credit system give powerful reasons for people either to misrepresent their circumstances or, when they form relationships and live in two separate properties, to move in together. If the purpose of tax credits is in part to give powerful economic incentives to people on low incomes, we should be careful not to assume that they will not respond to such incentives in ways that we do not intend.

The other thing that comes out powerfully from the UNICEF report is why so many young people end up at an early age with children—often, therefore, becoming lone parents. Page 31 of the UNICEF report states:

“To a young person with little sense of current well-being—unhappy and perhaps mistreated at home, miserable and under-achieving at school, and with only an unskilled and low-paid job to look forward to—having a baby to love and to be loved by, with a small income from benefits and a home of her own, may seem a more attractive option than the alternatives. A teenager doing well at school and looking forward to an interesting and well-paid career, and who is surrounded by family and friends who have similarly high expectations, is likely to feel that giving birth would de-rail both present well-being and future hopes.”

The conclusion of the UNICEF report is not so much that tax allowances will solve such problems; it may be that dealing with poverty, and low skills and aspirations in schools will help encourage some of those people who are not aspiring to go on to earn lots of money on the labour market, so that they can get out of poverty. Such people are making decisions to have children at a very early age and often to end up in single-parent households. Perhaps all the Government can do is focus their policy efforts in those areas to try to stop some of those people from taking such decisions.

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I suppose that I agree with what the hon. Gentleman is trying to say, but with a caveat. I hope that I can take him along these lines. There will always be single-parent families in our society, for many reasons— divorce or separation, obviously, but also death or early pregnancy from a relationship that was never properly formed. All such reasons may apply. We have to live with the reality of single-parent families in our society. The one thing that we must not do is stigmatise the nature of such families as something less worth while. If we do, we fail to begin to establish a framework in which we can nurture the children in all our families. For all our parents and families, it is the nurturing that really matters.

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I strongly agree. We must certainly not stigmatise lone-parent families. However, we have to be honest in considering the UNICEF report. What is striking is that one would expect family structures to be similar across Europe—countries with similar levels of development—but they are not. Britain is considerably divergent on some of the issues, in respect of not only family structures but the use of alcohol, for example. If so, we should think about why and whether we can do anything about it.

One of the benefits of not having too many Back Benchers speaking in the debate is that we are allowed to speak for a little longer than normal. Notwithstanding that, I am probably coming towards the end of your period of tolerance, Mr. Amess.

I want to touch on one final point about why this debate is so topical: it comes at a time when people are considering not only whether the Government will put the money into their child poverty target, but how. The Rowntree report that came out last year was interesting in suggesting that there was a danger that putting more and more money only into tax credits would not deal with all the causes of poverty, would run the risk of creating bizarre anomalies and incentives in the benefits system and damage some of the incentives to work.

Some of the matters that the Government should consider in order to deal with child poverty need to go far beyond the tax credit approach, which is perhaps unfairly characterised as the Government’s main club in dealing with child poverty. I hope that they will consider the structure of child benefit and the fact that because of its odd structure the rates for second and third children are much lower than for first children; the tax issues that affect lone-parent families, particularly those to do with council tax; and the low-income costs mentioned by the hon. Member for Bristol, East, such as the higher costs that often fall to low-income families through such things as prepayment meters.

I hope that the Government will consider what they can do in a far more ambitious way, given the need not only to give people money to get them out of poverty, but to solve the generational problems. They must consider what they can do to be even more ambitious on education than they have been so far and should perhaps contemplate doing what some other countries in the EU do and target educational funding even more significantly on the most deprived pupils to level the playing field between affluent areas and those with high levels of deprivation.

I hope, too, that the Government will take forward speedily the proposals in David Freud’s review on employment yesterday, which are incredibly important. I fear, however, that they will take a long time to implement and will also be expensive in some respects, such as in dealing with health and educational problems.

I have probably gone a minute beyond my time, so I conclude by thanking the hon. Member for Bristol, East for securing the debate. In future, I hope that we will not have to rely on a Back-Bench Member to debate the issue and that the Minister will take the example that the hon. Lady has set and initiate a wider debate of his own.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) on securing the debate. As has been said, it is timely, not least because there has been something of a Government hiatus on the issue of child poverty since the publication of the Harker report in November last year, although at a recent Department for Work and Pensions Question Time the Minister said that he is refreshing our child poverty strategy. Perhaps he will articulate a little more of what that means. If not today, perhaps he will say when we will hear more about what that refreshment entails.

It is not only Opposition Members who are concerned about the Government’s stance on child poverty. The Treasury Committee, when it reported late last year, expressed its concern about how the Government will work towards their target to halve child poverty by 2010. That concern is widespread and I hope that today’s debate will start to flesh out the Government’s plans for the future. As all speakers have acknowledged, aspects of child poverty have improved significantly. However, I fear that the reason for holding today’s debate is that the hon. Member for Bristol, East and other hon. Members who have spoken feel that there is more to do. That has been articulated clearly.

Recently, the Government have come in for significant criticism from many quarters about how they will take their child poverty strategy forward. We have talked already about those children living in the severest poverty. Late last year, Save the Children raised the point that the percentage of children who live in severe poverty in Britain has improved little or not at all. Perhaps the Minister will say how that is to be reviewed in his refreshed child poverty strategy.

We have already had quite a lengthy discussion about the tax credits system in the UK and the fact that there are significant concerns about how it works in respect of child poverty. As constituency Members of Parliament, we are all aware of the problems. Overpayments amount to £1.8 billion according to the Government’s data, given in May last year. The other side of that figure is the fact that nearly 1 million of the poorest families were underpaid over that same period and did not get the help that the Government promised them because of the inadequacies in the workings of that tax system.

Another criticism concerns the extension of means-testing, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have highlighted the fact that means-testing has weakened incentives for many people to stay in work and increase their earnings, despite that being proven to enhance a child’s prospects.

I shall touch briefly on some of the speeches that have been made. The debate has been excellent, and I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Bristol, East secured it. It is clear from what she said that she is committed to the subject and has done a great deal of work on it. We Conservatives perhaps need to clarify a little our position on the child poverty target. We are committed to the Government’s target to end child poverty by 2020. That is an aspiration, because we do not know where we will be in respect of that target by the time that we get into government. It is therefore responsible to say that that is our aspiration, as opposed to submitting a pledge.

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The hon. Lady has reaffirmed that she thinks it is a good idea to abolish child poverty. When will the Conservative party make suggestions on how it would achieve that? I assume that its other aspiration is to be in government in a couple of years, so time is running out for putting policies on the table.

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As the hon. Lady probably knows already, our social policy group is considering the matter and it is right for the group to report before we put our policies before the House. We expect the group to report this summer; it will make firm recommendations on the policies that we should adopt to try to resolve some outstanding problems that have not been resolved in 10 years of Labour government.

The hon. Lady also raised the issue of lone parents. She needed a little more clarity on the Conservative party’s position and I am happy to provide that. In all our discussion of child poverty in all parts of the party, it has been recognised that the role of a lone parent is one of the hardest. As a parent, I know how difficult it is for two parents to bring up three children. To bring up children with one parent in the household must be one of the most difficult jobs.

We need to ensure that those people get the support they deserve, but that does not take away from the fact that there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that the outcomes tend to be better for children in two-parent households in terms of their futures and those of the family unit as a whole. If one supports families, that does not mean taking away one’s support from lone parents. We need to support children in whichever position they find themselves. The research suggests that the work that the Government could do not to disincentivise families from staying together would be welcome.

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The hon. Lady rather infelicitously mentioned supporting families rather than lone parents. Lone-parent families are still families. The real question is similar to the point made by the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) when he referred to the former Chancellor, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), and concerns whether we should give a financial incentive to keep families together. Most of us would agree that a nurturing family—grandmothers, grandfathers, uncles, aunts or two parents—is better than a single-parent family in isolation, but the point is about how we support those family units. Does the fiscal incentive work?

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A fiscal disincentive should not be in place and a number of groups are concerned that there is a disincentive to families staying together.

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Will the hon. Lady clarify whether the Conservative party is now committed to a transferable tax allowance to give an incentive to marry? Her last comment confused me.

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I shall leave such comments to my Treasury team. It is not for me, as a Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson, to comment on that.

I shall deal quickly with other speeches. The hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd), who made a valuable contribution, spoke eloquently about the persisting problems of inequality between children born in different parts of the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) spoke about worklessness, which clearly is a great problem in his constituency, and I thank him for that contribution. The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) spoke about the decline in social mobility. He will be aware of the Sutton Trust report, which said that someone born in 1958 is more likely to break free of their social roots than someone born in 1970. All Members of Parliament should ponder on that fact and see how they can make things better for children.

I want to pose questions to the Minister on three areas, and perhaps he will respond in his winding-up speech. Recently, searching questions were asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) about child poverty in London. It appears that Government statistics on child poverty in our capital city may be somewhat misleading. When one considers the median income of Londoners, the number of children who are classified as living in poverty is more likely to be over 500,000 than 384,000. What policies will the Minister put in place to ensure that those children get the support that they require and does he feel uncomfortable about the fact that the methodology for measuring poverty may understate the problem in our capital city?

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Will the hon. Lady give way?

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I need to make progress. Time is running out, and I want the Minister to have ample time to respond.

The second issue on which I would like the Minister’s thoughts is the future of the Child Support Agency. The Government believe that it is an important tool for alleviating child poverty, but does the slowness of CSA reform trouble him? Each month, an additional £13 million of debt is added as a result of non-collection of child support payments. Applications now take 36 weeks to clear, which is longer than a year ago. Families are waiting longer to receive money. Will he join me in calling on the Secretary of State to fast-track the changes in the assessment process that have been proposed for the CSA, so that we can get a better, fairer and faster method of collection, rather than waiting for the Secretary of State’s proposals, which will not come into effect until 2013?

The third issue, couple families, has been raised by other hon. Members. Half of all children living in low-income households are in such families, but research shows that two-parent families are penalised by the tax and benefit system. A Joseph Rowntree study carried out last year states that a lone parent with one child will be clear of poverty when they achieve16 hours of work a week, whereas a couple family who have two children and earn the minimum wage need to work 74 hours a week to clear the poverty line.

Does the Minister share our concern that, if the situation persists, there may be a resulting disincentive for families to stay together and that that discrepancy in how the system works is not good if we are trying to alleviate further child poverty? As I said before, we support the Government’s commitment to tackling poverty, but they need to re-evaluate their approach. If they do not, they will risk leaving many children unsupported and continuing in poverty.

I have some further questions for the Minister. When does he plan to publish his refreshed policies on child poverty? Does he plan to sort out what Save the Children called the absurd mess of 11 different Departments working on child poverty without a joined-up strategy? As part of his review, will he consider fast-tracking CSA reform and reviewing how he assesses child poverty? Will he commit the Government to a simpler, fairer welfare system that is fit for the 21st century and does not penalise couple families?

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I am delighted to see you in the Chair, Mr. Amess, as we conclude the debate this afternoon. I was equally delighted to see Mrs. Humble in the Chair when we opened it this morning.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) not only on securing the debate but on how her clear passion and detailed understanding of the complicated nature of child poverty contributed to the construction of her argument. As I said to her at the Save the Children reception last week, as parliamentarians we are all busy in different ways, and Save the Children is fortunate to have her as a champion in Parliament. Without her, its cause would be promoted much less effectively in the corridors of power, in this Chamber and in the main Chamber. Save the Children should be grateful to my hon. Friend for her activities. I wanted to put that on the record.

My hon. Friend spoke about her constituency and the work done by Single Parent Action Network. She also spoke about the wider nature of poverty and emotional well-being, which my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) also discussed. It is important to acknowledge that financial position is the primary measure of poverty—of course it is, and it should be—but we should not lose sight of the wider impact of child poverty. It affects people while they are growing up but they also carry the scars—I believe that that is a fair way of putting it—throughout their life.

On the basis that my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central spoke passionately about his experience, I shall mention this for a second time—I spoke about it at the Save the Children event, but I will not make a habit of discussing it. I represent the most prosperous constituency in the whole of Scotland, but I grew up one street away from it, and one street away could be a world away. I grew up in one of the poorest parts of Glasgow, separated by one street and one open piece of land from my constituency. None of us seeks to mislead our constituents—far from it—but when my would-be constituents asked me during my first two election campaigns where I was from, my standard response was that I was from the edge of the constituency. It was about personal confidence—perhaps the most prosperous people in Scotland would not vote for a candidate who came from the other side of the street. By the time of my third election, I was confident enough to say, “To heck with it.” I felt that my constituents had become used to me over the years, and I was confident enough to acknowledge my upbringing.

That does not add to the debate, but it illustrates that all of us who grew up in circumstances such as those that my hon. Friend spoke about—others have their own experiences—take our past into our adult life, and it helps to shape our perspective on politics and, importantly, on policy.

I shall deal with some of the specific points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East. She asked about child poverty-proofing policies. I know that she and other hon. Friends welcome the commitment by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to child poverty-proof every one of the Department’s proposals and policies. My hon. Friend rightly acknowledged that responsibility for the public service agreement on child poverty is shared by the Treasury and the Department. I cannot speculate on the reconfiguration of PSA targets, but it is essential to remember that the issue is not one just for the Department or even the Treasury. She alluded to that when she spoke about her experience at the Labour party conference with the young folk from rural Wales. She rightly said that the issue was also for the Department for Transport and, in respect of transport in Wales, the Welsh Assembly. By mentioning that, she highlighted again the continuing need for the Government to look for additional ways to join up their strategy and ensure that it is coherent.

My hon. Friend also spoke about the findings that poorer people have more expensive sources of financial support, and she rightly identified credit unions as an alternative. They can be found across the country in all sorts of communities, but they do not get the acknowledgment to which they are entitled. They are a fantastic source of affordable financial resources to many of our poorer constituents. It is puzzling that some high street banks are able to make pretty substantial charges for auto-teller financial withdrawals in the poorest communities. Credit unions are the polar opposite; they exist to serve and support the communities in which they operate.

I support my hon. Friend in what she said: it is unacceptable that some financial institutions, including the banks, should make excess profits on the back of charges on our poorest constituents. We all celebrate the fact that the banks make profits, but it is difficult to justify doing so on the back of the cashpoint charges imposed on our poorest communities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central brought a personal insight to our debate. It was a thoughtful contribution. I recently visited Manchester—not my hon. Friend’s constituency, but the Sure Start centre in Harpurhey. I was told that only a few years ago the centre was a car park beside the shopping centre. It has been transformed into a hub for the local community and provides exactly the sort of early intervention of which my hon. Friend spoke.

My hon. Friend also mentioned an unjustifiable difference in life expectancy of eight years. We all know that children in this country have never been born equal—it is an unacceptable truism. At no point in our history have children been born equal, and one way to measure it is by life expectancy. I remind hon. Members that eight years is entirely unjustifiable. However, the difference in life expectancy between the east end of Glasgow—my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, East (Mr. Marshall) attended the debate—and Kensington is not eight years but 27. That is a real difference.

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What does the Minister think is his most effective policy in trying to reduce the continuing gap of eight years in life expectancy between children born in different parts of the country?

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If time allows, I shall come to that. However, the House will acknowledge that although the hon. Lady made an interesting speech, it was policy-lite.

Some of the important things that we can do are contained in the Welfare Reform Bill. I know that Glasgow and Manchester share the experience of having too high a concentration of people on incapacity benefit. One in six of those on that benefit have dependent children. The welfare reform proposals currently being debated by Parliament could have a real impact on child poverty.

My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central spoke about the married couple’s allowance, and I echo his strong critique of what I think is a Conservative policy, although I am no clearer on that because the hon. Member for Basingstoke was no clearer on it. I repeat that no Government have ever designed a tax credit that makes people fall in love—and no Government have ever designed a tax credit that ensures that people stay in love. A public policy and a financial incentive designed around the false sense that it could bring about that state of affairs would be entirely flawed.

The hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) made a series of entirely reasonable points, echoed by the hon. Lady, about the specific challenges of child poverty in London—partly based, if he does not mind me putting it this way, on the poverty of race and of place. As we know, there is a concentration of children living in poverty in some of our ethnic minority communities, with a particular concentration in London, so the challenge there is acute. Another challenge of place, in ensuring that people are better off in work than on benefits is the additional cost of housing in London. I am happy to listen to him if he wishes to make further specific points in the next few weeks and months.

The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) made a fair and genuinely interesting contribution on the evolution of Liberal Democrat policy. Of course, he would expect me to say that it is a commitment of sorts that he has decided again to shake the Liberal Democrat money tree to fund the commitment on child poverty.

To suggest, as the hon. Gentleman did, that responsibility for social mobility lies with the current Administration would be quite wrong. To allege that, as others have done, ignores the causes, the time scale and the drivers. The big opportunity to have an impact on children’s chances of social mobility comes in the early years, which is why child poverty is such a problem, why early years education is so important, and why family support and aspiration in the soft skills that the family can provide are crucial.

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I did not suggest that social mobility was getting worse as a consequence of Government policy, but I did say that even the Prime Minister has acknowledged that no progress has been made in turning the problem around.

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That is entirely fair, but the question for us all, despite the real and remarkable improvements of recent years, is whether we are satisfied that we have done everything that we can to drive future social mobility. Labour Members would never suggest such a thing. The progress that has been made is remarkable and historic, but it is not enough to guarantee that our political philosophy—that everyone should be born with an equal chance in life—has yet been achieved.

There has been real progress, as my hon. Friends said. Under the previous Conservative Government, 210 children were falling into poverty each and every working day. Under this Government, 240 children have been lifted out of poverty each and every day. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East said, under the previous Government the United Kingdom had one of the highest poverty rates in the industrialised world. The child poverty rate is now at a 15-year low. The previous decade saw the UK making the biggest improvement in child poverty of any European Union nation.

It did not happen by chance. It happened by choice—the choice of a Labour Government to make it an overarching priority, to invest in early intervention and to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to develop to their full potential. I welcome what the hon. Member for Yeovil said, and I look forward to discussing the detail of his policies later in the summer.

It is characteristic of me to say that we heard the traditional warm words from the Conservative party, but today they were not so much warm as tepid. There is no new commitment from the Conservative party on any specific anti-poverty measures. They will not even commit themselves to adhering to our investments to lift children out of poverty. They opposed the minimum wage, tax credits, flexible working and the money for Sure Start and for early intervention and education. Their only possible policy is a non-committal on an ineffective married couple’s allowance. Those excellent campaigning organisations such as the End Child Poverty coalition, the Child Poverty Action Group and Save the Children acknowledge that there is little commitment from the Conservative party on the means to achieve an end to which the Labour Government have been committed for the past decade.

It is generally acknowledged that Lisa Harker’s report was an excellent piece of research. She made 31 recommendations. In her report, she said that

“there is wide recognition that relying solely on benefit/tax credit increases to reduce child poverty would be undesirable since, for many families, an income through paid employment offers a more effective and sustainable route out of poverty.”

We will respond to that report in the coming weeks, but it acknowledges, as others have done, that there has been real improvement in recent years.

My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central spoke about lone parents, and the children of lone parents not in work are five times more likely to live in poverty than those of lone parents in work. The core of a refreshed strategy on child poverty has to be an assessment of work—supporting people to get into work that pays and work that becomes a career—and supporting the transition into work by upskilling people while they are in work.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East not only for securing the debate but for setting its parameters. I look forward to specific proposals from hon. Member for Yeovil in the summer—

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Order. We now come to the next debate.