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Child Poverty

Volume 487: debated on Monday 2 February 2009

1. What progress has been made towards achieving the Government’s target to eradicate child poverty; and if he will make a statement. (253024)

Since 1998-99, 600,000 children have been lifted out of relative poverty and the number of children in absolute poverty has halved from 3.4 million to 1.7 million. Government measures over the past two years will lift about a further 500,000 children from relative poverty. On 28 January, we launched the consultation, “Ending Child Poverty: Making It Happen”, ahead of a child poverty Bill that will enshrine in legislation the Government’s promise to eradicate child poverty by 2020.

Does my right hon. Friend share my belief that children should not be written off or consigned to a life in poverty just because they happen to come from single-parent families? Will he join me in rejecting calls for preferential treatment for the children of married couples and confirm that he believes that all children should be given the best start in life regardless of their parents’ circumstances?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. It is right that we should help children whatever their family backgrounds, and that means not only helping them through tax credits and reducing poverty in that way, but helping them into work, because work is the best route out of poverty.

But another report today emphasises the connection between relationship breakdown and adverse effects on youngsters. If the right hon. Gentleman means exactly what he says about ensuring an equality of outcome, can the resources that are currently spent on the consequences of breakdown be reordered, so that we do more to prevent relationships from breaking down in the first place, rather than picking up the bill for the consequences, which cost so much, not least to the children themselves?

Surely, we should do both. That is exactly why we are, for example, investing more in family intervention projects to help the families who are in the most difficult circumstances, while increasing the amount of money that we put into tax credits. We said in the last Budget that we would take, in total, another 500,000 children out of poverty. I do not think that the Conservative party would have pursued that policy if they had been in power.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there are some hard to reach families—I know that there are some in my constituency—and that, sometimes, there are parents who are either addicted to hard drugs or alcohol? There are also children from families whose wider family have brought in a husband or wife, with no education, from very poor parts of Pakistan or Bangladesh. I am not sure whether there are any remedies for such very hard to reach families, but I would appreciate my right hon. Friend’s comments.

My hon. Friend identifies a very important issue, which is exactly why we commissioned Professor Paul Gregg to consider how we can help families in those circumstances. That is why we are saying that we would require such families to find out about the support that is available and then be required, once their youngest child is three years old, to take up skills training or drug treatment to get off drugs and into work. I only wish that the Conservative party would support those measures.

Griffiths, Evans, Jones—we are all the same.

Poverty for youngsters is often reinforced when a married couple separates by a missing parent who refuses to take their responsibility. The Child Support Agency is often deficient in chasing the missing parent. What action can the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the CSA takes to make sure that it tracks down missing parents, so that they pay for their own children?

In the past year, the CSA—now the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission—has collected an extra £156 million, but we agree that more needs to be done. That is why we are taking powers in the Welfare Reform Bill to be able to take away people’s passports or driving licences without a court process. That will make things much more speedy. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support that, unlike the Conservative party in the Lords the last time that that was proposed. That is also why we are saying that, where there is a payment, parents should be able to keep all of it and that there should be a complete disregard for child maintenance payments and benefits. We think that that could lift an extra 100,000 children out of poverty.

I welcome the publication of “Ending Child Poverty” by the child poverty unit and the road map to 2020 that it sets out. My right hon. Friend will know that, whenever we meet experts, they always raise the issue of financial exclusion and the problem that that causes in respect of child poverty. Does he agree that that will play an important role in helping us to meet that 2020 target? If so, will he consider building on the proposals that are currently in the Welfare Reform Bill?

Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to do more to support credit unions and enhance financial literacy, so that people know, for example, whether their financial arrangements are not in the best possible order. More money must be put into reducing poverty directly, thus both giving people more resources and a greater ability to earn money. If we had kept to the same policy as the Conservative party, 2 million more children would be in poverty.

According to a recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 15 indicators of poverty and social exclusion had worsened in the five years preceding the onset of the current economic downturn, more than double the number in the previous five years. That includes the number of people living in very low-income households. Perhaps it is little wonder that the number of children living in poverty has risen by 100,000 in the past two years. How does the Secretary of State explain the Government’s poor performance?

By referring the right hon. Lady to the OECD report, which stated that we had the best record among the industrialised countries for reducing child poverty and inequality.

Yet again, the Secretary of State is very complacent about his attitude to the issue. Another example of the Government’s complacency is their refusal to end the couple penalty in the tax credit system, which would lift 300,000 children out of poverty. Why will the Government not do that?

The right hon. Lady has no policy of that kind, because she has no way of funding it. The Conservatives used to say that they would fund it out of welfare reform, but now they are not prepared to do as much welfare reform as us. If the right hon. Lady wants to repeat that claim, she will have to find new resources. Hers is a policy without a budget, and I hope that she will not pretend to repeat it.