Skip to main content

Child Poverty

Volume 478: debated on Wednesday 9 July 2008

Usually, on such occasions, I am delighted to see my right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform, but I hope he will forgive me if I express a little disappointment today. When I submitted my request for the debate, I was hoping that a representative of the Department for Communities and Local Government would answer.

Only a few weeks ago, my right hon. Friend joined us for an excellent Westminster Hall debate some three hours long on the Work and Pensions Committee report on child poverty. I am sure he will listen to today’s debate and answer with his usual courtesy and skill, but I would have liked to involve the Department for Communities and Local Government, because so far it has not been clear what its involvement, if any, is in respect of child poverty.

I was told that my debate would be responded to by a Minister from the Department for Work and Pensions, because it leads on child poverty. Perhaps the Minister will clarify that when he responds, as I have been told at various other times that the Treasury and the Department for Children, Schools and Families lead on child poverty. It would be useful to know where the buck stops. Furthermore, I gather that a Cabinet Committee is examining child poverty. Certainly, the cross-departmental child poverty unit is considering it. Is the DCLG represented anywhere in those discussions?

I regret that I did not request a 90-minute debate, which would have given the Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen the chance to respond. I notice a Conservative Member on the Opposition Benches. Perhaps he will intervene at some point. In a 90-minute debate we might have heard the Conservative party spokesman explain exactly why their party leader seems to believe that being fat and poor is people’s own fault. In case anyone accuses me of misleading the Chamber about what the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) said, that came from a Daily Mail headline. In my view, if you live by the sword, you die by the sword.

To make a more serious point on the same subject, when we debated child poverty in Westminster Hall a few weeks ago, referring to the Work and Pensions Committee’s report on child poverty, I mentioned the dangers of focusing on what I described as “the dysfunctional poor” and on what some people call emotional poverty, rather than on material poverty. There is a danger that what the right hon. Member for Witney has been saying in this past week feeds into that agenda and, in doing so, does many people living in poverty a great disservice. I hope right hon. and hon. Members present will indulge me if I dwell on the point for a moment longer.

The right hon. Member for Witney said:

“We talk about people being at risk of poverty, or social exclusion: it’s as if these things—obesity, alcohol abuse, drug addiction—are purely external events like a plague or bad weather. Of course, circumstances—where you are born, your neighbourhood, your school, and the choices your parents make—have a huge impact. But social problems are often the consequence of the choices that people make.”

He jumps from talking about people’s being at risk of poverty and social exclusion to talking about obesity, alcohol abuse and drug addiction. Perhaps I have got it wrong, but it looks to me as though he is portraying people who live in poverty as drinkers, drug-takers and junk food eaters. That conjures up negative images, not images of decent, hard-pressed families trying to make a little go a long way and not images of a single parent struggling to find child care, working for the minimum wage and paying a fortune in rent to a buy-to-let landlord.

There is no mention of external factors that might be completely beyond a family’s control. When the party led by the right hon. Member for Witney was last in government, child poverty tripled, and that was, by and large, due to the huge increase in unemployment. That cannot be laid at the doorstep of people who unfortunately lost their jobs during that time.

I mentioned the speech made by the right hon. Member for Witney on my blog and received a comment saying,

“As the son of an electrician and a dinner lady, I can confirm much poverty is voluntary.”

I am not denying that some people—some parents, in this context—make the wrong choices in life and that some do so recklessly or selfishly without any regard for their children’s well-being, but 50 per cent. of children living in poverty have a parent who works, many more have parents who want to work, and the vast majority of parents of children living in poverty want to do what is best for their child and will put their child's needs and interests above everything else. I put that on the record because it needs restating.

I should like to move on to the real subject of the debate: what can be done locally by local authorities to help fulfil the Government’s child poverty agenda and help us meet the targets, which we have set for ourselves, of halving child poverty by 2010 and abolishing it within a generation. I shall rattle quickly through some of the areas where councils could and should be doing more.

Housing benefit administration has been a problem for decades. It is undeniably a barrier to seeking work and a cause of poverty when people move back on to welfare from work. Sometimes, councils take too long to process claims and sometimes, they get it wrong. Often, claimants get it wrong, because the system is too complex or too confusing, or they have too much else on their plate to cope with making a claim at a particular time.

Being able to pay the rent and keep a roof above their heads is one of the most important considerations for parents in making the decision to move from welfare into work and being able to provide for their family. However, not enough is done to publicise the availability of in-work housing benefit. Although Jobcentre Plus advisers can tell people about it, the fact that people do not realise that such a thing exists often means that they are reluctant to go anywhere near Jobcentre Plus, thinking that they are in the housing trap because they could not possibly afford to cover the rent if they went for a low-paid job.

We know that for many people, particularly lone parents, moving from welfare to work can be something of a revolving door. They start work, find it difficult to cope, move back on to benefits, struggle to make ends meet, look for work again, and so the cycle continues. That is when the bureaucracy of the housing benefit system defeats them, with new claims taking too long to assess and delays in payments pushing families even further into poverty. That is a major deterrent, for example, to people taking on temporary or seasonal work, because they dread what will happen when they have to move on to housing benefit at the end of it.

I have had representations from parents with mental health problems, who feel particularly anxious about the time that it would take to get their benefits reinstated if they could not cope with moving into the world of work.

The hon. Lady is talking about exactly the matter that I came to ask her about. I agree with what she says. I have experience of that in my constituency. Does she agree that part of the problem is that there is no flexibility built into the housing benefit system, and that people are either receiving something or not? Does she agree that we ought to be seeking some transitional provision—I accept the difficulties of doing so—that enables people to put their toe in the water, go back to work and come back out again if they have to, without having sacrificed everything in the meantime and without the bureaucratic nightmare that she describes?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I agree. I am sure the Minister will be able to tell us a little more. We have considered introducing a taper for out-of-work benefits, so that lone parents, particularly, can receive some money to make the transition while they are meeting the new costs of going into work. That could be done with housing benefit.

In Bristol, Jobcentre Plus and the council have established joint working pilots, with the aim of speeding up communication between housing benefit administration and the work-related benefits side at Jobcentre Plus. However, I have long been of the opinion that housing benefit administration is not best placed with local authorities. The system would be able to give people a much better service if all the benefits administration were placed in one area—with the DWP, locally. Doing so would reduce bureaucracy, give claimants one point of contact and make it easier to compute better-off-in-work calculations.

As we move to a more sanctions-based benefits system for people, including lone parents when their child reaches a certain age, and as we tighten up the incapacity benefit regime, particularly when people drop out of work or refuse to take work, we need people who understand the financial situation of those on benefits across the board. That is difficult to do when the council is doing one thing and Jobcentre Plus is doing another. Perhaps the Minister can say something about that.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for requesting, and I congratulate her on securing, the debate. In respect of the DWP’s changing the regime for incapacity benefit and for lone parents, I have been encouraged about the way that the councils in Leeds got together with Jobcentre Plus and the primary health care trust. However, would it not be better if local authorities looked at pulling together a much more complex response to poverty? I shall give a practical example.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the system is totally insensitive to part-time low-paid workers who are also full-time carers—usually women—who are in poverty? Unless we support the caring system, with councils and social services getting together with Sure Start, the Department for Work and Pensions, Jobcentre Plus and the health care system, and adopt a holistic approach from the bottom up, we will not eradicate poverty.

I could not agree more with my right hon. Friend, who I know has a real interest in the subject. Without joined-up working at the local level, we will not be able to tackle child poverty. That is why I wanted the debate.

The concrete facts of how much money a person receives is not the only factor affecting whether they live in poverty. Rather, that is determined by the daily facts of their lives and the difficulties they experience, such as not being able to get a bus to where they want to work or not having the right child care or respite care. There is a range of issues, and virtually every department within a local authority ought to bear them in mind.

A major concern is the provision of affordable social housing. Not much needs to be said on that, because it is obvious that housing costs are a major deterrent to people seeking work, particularly in London, but in other areas of the country as well. Many councils are trying to address that, but much more could be done. I know that the London Child Poverty Commission is particularly focused on housing.

Local authorities have a key role to play in economic development and regeneration. When I last spoke on the subject, I mentioned that Bristol has a major city centre retail development that will create around 4,000 new retail jobs. That development is flanked on one side by three of the most deprived wards in Bristol, including the most deprived ward in the south-west, which is in my constituency.

The figures that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published after looking at the south-west in 2005 show that 26 per cent. of children in Bristol were living in households claiming out-of-work benefits, compared with a national average of 21 per cent. In Lawrence Hill ward, to which I have just referred, the percentage of children in those circumstances was 55 per cent., although that is probably a massive understatement, as many of the people living in that ward are refugees and failed asylum seekers who are outwith the system.

Those wards are on the doorstep of the city centre retail development, so the local authority has a role to play in ensuring that some of those jobs are filled by those living in the most deprived areas. My checklist for those local authorities includes affordable and reliable child care, including workplace crèches; expansion of children’s centres; advertising of the child care element of the tax credit systems and in-work housing benefit; extended school hours, with breakfast clubs and after-school clubs; greater provision of skills training and classes in English for speakers of other languages; and perhaps better support for informal child care arrangements. Local authorities are not necessarily the providers of all those services, but they are certainly in the driving seat when it comes to local strategic partnerships and as the organisation that pulls things together at the local level.

Local authorities need to do more to child poverty-proof their policies. The Child Poverty Action Group recently introduced a toolkit on its website, which I hope can be disseminated to local authorities. Local authorities need to give due weighting to child poverty when handing out grants to the voluntary sector, which can obviously play a major role in supporting families living in poverty to move into work and cope with some of their other circumstances. They can build on programmes such as Sure Start and the family intervention project, which we have in Bristol, for tackling more difficult family issues. I would like to see Bristol bid for one of the new child poverty pilots.

I would also like local authorities to collect data on children whose parents are serving custodial sentences, as very little is currently collected. Again, I appreciate that that is outside the Minister’s remit. The needs of those children are often overlooked. They are sometimes placed in temporary care with unsuitable foster parents or with relatives and friends, and they are slipping through the net. When I have tried to find out what local authorities are doing to assess how many children are in those circumstances and what can be done to help them, I have drawn a blank.

In Bristol, the local authority has a role to play in protecting the children of failed asylum seekers, who live in the most severe poverty. There is a question about what we should do with children of parents who do not have leave to stay in the country and have exhausted all legal avenues. They are not allowed to work or study, but because of the situation in their home countries, they are unlikely to be deported. In Bristol, we have anything up to 20,000 Somalis. Not all of them fall into that category, but a significant number do, and the vast majority of those people will not apply for the available hardship support because they do not want to sign up to return home. Those families and children are living in absolute destitution, and if the local authority does not step in, it is left to the voluntary sector to do so.

Finally, councils have a role to play as local education authorities. One of the frequent problems that arise when parents move from welfare into work is that they suddenly have to meet the cost of school meals. Why are more councils not following the example of Hull by offering free school meals to all pupils? I know that the Liberal Democrats scrapped that policy in Hull, but it certainly seems to have been successful when it was operational.

I have already mentioned the extended school programmes. There is a case for reviewing the length of school summer holidays so that parents would find it easier to balance chid care and work. Schools also have a role to play outside their normal remit, because they are often the main contact point with parents and can act as a conduit to offer them advice on job opportunities, benefits take-up, child care, ESOL and other training, perhaps by letting local advice centres do outreach work on their premises.

Some of the schools in my constituency already do excellent work on that front. They have coffee mornings for parents to attend after dropping their kids off at school, and the parents can sit and listen to those who have come in to talk to them about their concerns. Some of the parents who come in are quite isolated, perhaps having arrived in the country pretty recently. Those programmes in schools are the best way of reaching such women. Obviously, it is not only about the parents, but about equipping children with basic literacy and numeracy skills, ensuring that they leave school with good qualifications and encouraging them to stay on in education and training. Only by doing that will we break the inter-generational cycle whereby a child born into poverty is far more likely to end up living in poverty as an adult.

I served for five years as a councillor some time ago. In preparation for the debate, I had to refresh my memory and get up to speed on some of the ways that local councillors operate. I found that I was engulfed by a deluge of performance indicators, national indicators, public service agreements, local area agreements and local strategic partnerships. I found an awful lot of plans, charts and boxes being ticked or not ticked.

I did not find a sense of commitment to the idea that local councils ought to be responsible for tackling child poverty, or that improvements were achievable if they played their part. Regardless of whether councils have adopted national indicators or others in their local area agreements, they should be addressing child poverty on a daily basis and it should be at the heart of their work.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) on securing the debate. The commitment to eradicate child poverty by 2020, which was first set out by Tony Blair in 1999, has animated much of what the Government have done since. I vividly recall the commitment to that goal underlined by the then Chancellor when I was first appointed a Treasury Minister in the summer of 1999, and that commitment continues to be at the heart of what the Government are doing.

My hon. Friend asked how that policy is being led in the Government. The public sector agreement, which is the key target, is led by the Treasury. We also set up a child poverty unit, which is jointly responsible to the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Treasury. The Cabinet Committee is chaired by the Chancellor. The Department for Communities and Local Government is represented at a senior level on the officials’ child poverty board, and officials in that Department work closely with the child poverty unit. I think that that is the right way to handle such things. The unit does a great deal of good work, and it needs to work with DCLG and other Departments across the Government because this drive is so central to so much of what we are doing. I welcome the consistent and thoughtful support for the target that my hon. Friend shows in much of her parliamentary work.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, particularly as the debate was secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East. By way of pulling that work together, could the child poverty unit give advice or an instruction to local government to set up the same kind of integrated committee locally to drive the campaign and work to get rid of poverty at the base? That might be happening nationally, but I am damn sure that it is not happening locally.

That must be a matter for local authorities to determine, and I shall comment on what local authorities are doing. It is right to highlight in this debate the importance of local authorities’ contribution. Ending child poverty cannot be achieved by central Government alone. Local authorities, voluntary sector organisations and employers all have a role to play. We have made good progress during the past decade, but we need to do a lot more. Local authorities need to think “family” and to recognise the extent to which their policies and work impact on families and child poverty. Local authorities must lead local action, harness the resources of local communities and support parents to enter and stay in work.

I am pleased that the commitment to tackling child poverty is reflected in a number of local area agreements that have just been concluded between the Department for Communities and Local Government and local authorities. That process gives local authorities and those who work with them the flexibility to find local solutions to local problems in the light of local circumstances.

Our current measure of child poverty in local area agreements is the proportion of children who live in families dependent on out-of-work benefits. We can produce that data at local authority level, but we are working on a combined measure to include both in-work and out-of-work poverty. By early next year, we expect to be able to publish data on both the current measure and the new one at individual local authority level, and our commitment is to publish that annually. That will enable comparisons to be made between different areas, and make it possible to track progress locally, year by year.

More than 40 authorities have selected the child poverty indicator as one of the 35 for inclusion in their local agreement, and more than 20 with relatively high levels of child poverty, including Bristol, as my hon. Friend knows, have selected a range of indicators that will have an impact on breaking intergenerational disadvantages in the future—for example, the take-up of child care in low-income families, under-18 conception rates and narrowing the attainment gap in education. In Bristol, officials from a number of Departments will meet Bristol Partnership in the coming months to discuss in more detail Bristol’s plan within the local area agreement to reduce child poverty.

It is encouraging that so many local authorities have taken up the issue in their local area agreements. We are building on the new local focus on child poverty by challenging local authorities to develop their own approaches, particularly in areas where national policy is not yet achieving the desired result. It was announced in the Budget that we are setting aside £125 million for child poverty pilots, one strand of which is funding for pilots to enable local authorities and their partners to design, develop and test new ways of tackling child poverty. My hon. Friend said that she would like her local authority to participate in that, and this summer we shall be inviting local authorities to express interest in taking part in the pilot schemes. We envisage the project being launched early in 2009.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to underline the importance of housing in this debate. In the separate strands of the child poverty pilots announced in the Budget, housing is a key theme. Poor housing certainly aggravates poverty, and children growing up in poor housing are, for example, 25 per cent. more likely to suffer severe ill health and disability during childhood or early adulthood.

We have made good progress. We have ended the long-term use of bed and breakfast for families in temporary accommodation provided under the homelessness legislation, and we now want to halve the number of households in temporary accommodation to just over 50,000 by 2010. The data that I have seen suggest that there has been good progress in Bristol.

We are also investing more in homelessness prevention, but I completely agree with my hon. Friend that the prompt delivery of housing and council tax benefits is important. We have worked hard with local authorities to cut processing times, and the national average time for processing new housing and council tax benefit claims has fallen from 56 days in 2002-03—I am embarrassed to say that—to 26 days in the last financial year. I am told that, in Bristol, the time has fallen from 44 days in 2005-06 to 30 days in 2007-08, with further improvements expected this year. My hon. Friend is right in saying that it is an important target for local authorities to encourage people to have the confidence to move into work.

Picking up the interesting point raised by the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), we need people better to understand that housing benefit is available for those in work on low incomes. People often believe that, when they move into jobs, they will automatically lose all housing benefit and will not be entitled to anything, whereas they are frequently entitled to housing benefit, albeit a smaller amount. We need local authorities to help us to make people aware of that.

I agree with the Minister’s point, which the hon. Lady also made, that people need to know that they may be entitled to housing benefit in work. The Minister referred to 20, 30 or 40 days’ delay. Does he accept that, if someone goes into work and finds that it does not work out, so comes back out, and perhaps goes back in a month later before coming out again, they may have three or four conflicting positions on benefit as a result? That bureaucratic mess can end up with claims for repayment and all sorts of other problems. We should not be satisfied with a 30-day delay. We need a different system.

We need to do more, although we have introduced housing benefit run-on, which helps to deal with exactly that problem and has removed the difficulty for some people.

I want to draw hon. Members’ attention to the fact that we have been working with half a dozen local authorities and with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs—tax credits are also important—on improving the service for people who, as the right hon. Gentleman said, move frequently in and out of work. There have been real difficulties in quite a number of cases. Turning benefits on and off quickly and more effectively is a key enabler to encourage people to take the first step into work and to feel confident about doing so, or perhaps to take up short-term work. I am pleased that my Department, the HMRC, the Treasury and the Local Government Association have recently agreed to extend this more joined-up approach nationwide. The six local authorities that we have been working with have shown considerable improvements in reducing processing time for housing benefit and tax credits. We want those benefits to be extended nationwide.

I should have liked to make a number of other points, but I shall make one in response to what my hon. Friend said about 4,000 jobs being created in central Bristol. Local employment partnerships between Jobcentre Plus and employers are starting to have some real momentum in providing opportunities for disadvantaged jobseekers—lone parents, people on incapacity benefit and people who have been out of work for a long time. In fact, the week before last, for the first time, 1,000 people went into jobs through local employment partnerships, and so far, a total of just over 12,000 have done so. The target is 250,000 by the end of 2010, so I hope that quite a few employers in Bristol will have local employment partnerships in place and agreements with Jobcentre Plus.

The deal is that Jobcentre Plus invests to equip disadvantaged jobseekers for the jobs becoming available, and employers undertake to ensure that those applicants get a fair crack at the jobs with, for example, work trials, guaranteed interviews and mentoring after appointment to ensure that people who may have been out of work for a long time get a good chance of moving into employment.

My hon. Friend was right to refer to the importance of education. The take-up of free schools meals is low among the poorest pupils, and some local authorities have examined the reasons for that, addressed the problem and increased take-up. We would like all schools and local authorities to do that. My hon. Friend was also right to remind hon. Members that local authorities have the power to provide free meals for all.

Invaluable support is being provided by children’s centres and children’s trusts. Adult services in local authorities need routinely to think “family”, rather than focusing only on adults’ needs.