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Child Poverty

Volume 464: debated on Monday 8 October 2007

We have succeeded in arresting and reversing a historical upward trend in child poverty, which led to its doubling under successive Conservative Governments. Since 1997, Government policies have lifted 600,000 children out of relative poverty, with fewer children living in workless households and increases in lone parent employment.

In his plagiarised speech at the Labour conference, the Prime Minister said that the

“goal for this generation is to abolish child poverty”.

How does the Minister reconcile those remarks with the fact that, according to figures from March this year, the number of children in poverty has risen by 200,000 to 3.8 million, after 10 years of a Labour Government? We still have the highest number of children living in workless households in the whole of Europe. What about rhetoric and reality?

One thing that is for sure is that in 1997 we had the worst record in Europe, and today, although there is more to be done, we are recognised as having the greatest improvement of any European Union country. Since 1997, over 2 million more people are in work, and unemployment is close to its lowest levels since 1975. Of course we have to do more, but the difference between today and 1997, when we came to power, is that then there had been 20 years of an increasing trend of child poverty. That trend upwards has been halted. We do not believe that the latest figures represent a trend in the wrong direction, but our Green Paper asks important questions: what more can we do to provide work for those who currently do not have it, and to make work pay?

Is not persistent inter-generational worklessness at the heart of the problem? What more can be done to ensure that people who stay out of work continually, from one generation to another, and who have that as the norm, can be signposted, so that we make sure that they take part in this new generation of work and do not stay out of society?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The saddest thing to hear from staff working in our jobcentres is that they are dealing with the son of someone whom they dealt with 20 years ago. Breaking the cycle of inter-generational unemployment is a huge challenge, and there are no quick-fix solutions. Our ambition must be that when children look out of the window of a morning, they see a community on its way to work. We have to make sure that we provide the means, the resources and the expectations if that is to happen.

As we currently measure relative poverty, the only way to reduce child poverty is to increase pensioner poverty, and vice versa. Has the Minister looked at more realistic ways of measuring actual poverty, so that we can have a more sensible debate about the subject?

We have been successful in reducing both child poverty and pensioner poverty, so we must be doing something right. There is a lot of debate about the different factors that affect poverty. We use relative poverty because globally it is widely regarded as one of the best ways to assess poverty, but we consider other aspects, too. It is important that we do not look at the issue solely in terms of income. Our decent housing programme is contributing to supporting people, so that they live in better homes with lower fuel costs; and our education and skills programmes equip people to take on work that is much more skilled today than it was 20, 30 or 40 years ago—people have to face up to that fact. Of course, the issue is also about making sure that parents understand how important it is to support their children in having aspirations, and we support parents in doing just that.

I thank the Minister for taking the time to visit my constituency this summer; it was a worthwhile visit. She learned that almost 3,600 children in my constituency live in workless households. That means that about four in 10 young children going to school do not have the experience of a parent in work. Now that she has come up and seen that, may I ask what conclusions she has drawn, and how she plans to tackle the issue?

I very much enjoyed my visit to my hon. Friend’s constituency. I visited the Sure Start children’s centre, where I met women who had been helped by Sure Start and by people who work in jobcentres and who come to the Sure Start centre to provide the information that women need in order to make choices about going into work. One area where we have to work harder is in making the convincing case that people are better off in work. That is one of the issues that I am looking at closely, because I think that people still do not understand what is available to them when they are in work, and what they do not lose by being in work. We have to make that case more strongly and clearly, and I welcome any suggestions on helping us to achieve that.

The fact is that child poverty rose in the past year. What is more, according to Save the Children’s devastating assessment published last week, child poverty will not be abolished on current trends until 2049—30 years after the Government’s deadline. As the Government search for a new vision, will the Minister support policies to increase child benefit and investment in educational opportunities for the poorest children, so that they can escape the circumstances of their parents? I suggest that that could be paid for by scaling back the tax credits paid to middle and high-income families.

I think that I have already said that I accept that there was a rise in part of our figures on child poverty this year, but it is important to look at the overall trend rather than just at one year. This involves a challenge, but we are the first Government in this country to set a child poverty target and to challenge the assumptions that have gone before. The child benefit rate will go up to £20 from April 2010, and from April 2009 women will get child benefit from the 29th week of their pregnancy.

Those are examples of what we have announced this year as part of the 2007 Budget, but there is more that we can do. We have also announced a roll-out of in-work credit for lone parents of £40 across the country and of £60 in London in recognition of the particular costs there. We can be proud of what we have achieved, but we cannot be complacent about the evidence of unemployment in families and in communities that has gone on for too long.

Six hundred thousand children are living in households whose incomes are too low to pay income tax, but which are still required to pay the full amount of council tax. I know that the Department has said that it will review the thresholds for council tax benefit and income tax. May I ask when?

My hon. Friend raised this issue in her Select Committee report, and I understand that we are considering it and will get back to her on it. We have just extended a pilot that was started in the north-east, in which we looked for greater collaboration between our Jobcentre Plus staff, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the local authorities, to try to achieve simplification of the way in which people juggle different benefits and in-work and out-of-work credits. I hope that, if that works in the further extension of the pilots, we can seek to develop it elsewhere. In the first pilot, the time taken to sort out the benefits for people was reduced by two thirds. That has a psychological impact on people who are choosing whether to stay on benefit or to work. Making a difference in that kind of process could make the situation a lot better.

Will the Minister promise joint action between her Department, the Treasury and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to tackle the high water bills for South West Water customers? Does she accept that, without measures to make water more affordable, her Department will not meet its child poverty targets in that region?

I am happy to look into that question on the hon. Lady’s behalf. Of course, it is important not only to consider the bills but to conserve water and ensure that we use only what we need and do not overuse it. I will write to the hon. Lady on the issue, if she will bear with me.