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House of Commons Hansard
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Child Poverty (London)
09 February 2010
Volume 505

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mary Creagh.)

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I am grateful for the opportunity this morning to talk about something that is not sufficiently discussed in the House—poverty in London, and specifically child poverty in London. It is particularly an issue for Hackney, in my constituency in east London, which still has some of the highest indices of deprivation in the country.

Statistics show that 4 million children are living in poverty in the UK, and 650,000 of them live in London: that is one in six of all the children in our capital city. Half of them—300,000, which is a massive number—live in severe poverty, which means that they go without the basic daily essentials that we take for granted. When I was a new MP in the 1980s, a Scottish Labour MP turned to me and said, as though it were an incontrovertible fact, “The trouble with London is all the jobs are here.” I was surprised, because I had spent my life as a young activist dealing with the issues that arise from worklessness and poverty in London. One of the reasons why I am so glad to be able to speak on this subject this morning is that too many Members of Parliament who come from outside London see only Westminster, Whitehall and the west end, and are not aware of the pockets of poverty that are outside that magic circle.

It is worth reminding hon. Members that London has the largest group of children in poverty of any region in the country. The response to that might be, “Well, that’s very sad for them, but MPs have broader and more important issues to debate,” but I would say not only that the number of children in poverty in London is a tragedy for those children and their families, but that wider society must live with the consequences of their growing up in poverty. I do not argue, and have never argued, that the mere fact of growing up in poverty means being doomed to a life of crime. My parents both left school at 14, and I am glad to say that both my brother and I were able to go to university and make something of our lives. However, poverty, hopelessness, deprivation and low aspirations have a relationship to the crime problems in our great city. If the media spent as much time on the underlying issues of child poverty as they do on crime, we would have a better-informed public.

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Has the hon. Lady a feeling for what is driving child poverty in London? There are two aspects. How much of it does she think is due to London factors, which affect all groups? How much is connected to the two groups that suffer child poverty above all—lone parents and black and minority ethnic communities?

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That is an important question, and I shall come to those issues later. There are some general London issues about poverty, but there are also issues for the groups that the hon. Gentleman mentions.

My immediate reason for obtaining the debate was an excellent report released two weeks ago by Save the Children, commissioned by the New Policy Institute and called, “Measuring Severe Child Poverty in the UK”, which found that 13 per cent. of children living in the UK—or 1.7 million—live in severe poverty and that, although poverty is spread across all four countries of the United Kingdom, London is the region with the highest proportion of children living in severe poverty. About 20 per cent. of the children in London live in severe poverty, despite the fact that it is the richest city in the United Kingdom. Perhaps we should pause there; this is London and it is the age of the internet and television. Not only do all those children live in poverty, but they can see clearly, when they walk the streets and see the media, the people who live alongside them in this great city: as Disraeli described, they all live in this great city, but they live in two worlds. That is corrosive to social cohesion, not to mention to the personal esteem of the young people trapped in one world, some of whom see no hope of moving on.

Severe poverty has increased every year in England and Wales since 2004-05 and, sadly, there has been no change in the number of children living in severe poverty in Northern Ireland and Scotland. Single parents and workless households are most likely to live in severe poverty. Half the children in severe poverty come from single parent families and families claiming jobseeker’s allowance, and ethnic minority children are three times more likely than white children to be in severe poverty.

Many of the things that underlie severe poverty, including worklessness, low educational attainment, single parent households, social rented accommodation and being in an ethnic minority are very much issues in my constituency of Hackney. I am well aware not just of the figures but the human reality. For that reason, I tabled an early-day motion last week on child poverty in ethnic minority communities, and I urge hon. Members to sign it.

I have set out the figures and tried to touch on the personal reality of poverty in London; but the tragedy is that we are in a recession. Although the macro-economic figures look a little better, my view is that the recession has a long tail and the practical consequences for jobs for ordinary people in London have yet to play out. In a recession, it will be even harder to lift children out of poverty. It is estimated that the recession is likely to have increased the number of children in severe poverty, although what are called the economic stabilisers—the automatic rise in some benefits and so on—are expected to bring the numbers back down to pre-recession figures. However, there is no doubt that what progress the Government have made in tackling child poverty has been endangered by the recession. As unemployment continues to rise, there is a danger that the number of children living in severe poverty will not drop, and might rise even higher.

What is being done? The Government have made a laudable commitment to fighting child poverty. It was a Labour Government who first announced, in 1999, the aim of halving child poverty by 2010 and eradicating it completely by 2020. Last June, the Child Poverty Bill was introduced in the House of Commons to put that pledge into legislation. The Bill is being considered in Committee in the House of Lords. It is sponsored by the Department for Children, School and Families, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Treasury. One must admire the extent to which the Government have put the issue at the top of their agenda. The Bill deals with establishing an accountability framework to drive progress towards the 2020 goal nationally and locally, and it would set up a child poverty commission, to provide advice and to report. I welcome the Bill and the Government’s long-standing commitment on child poverty; however, sadly, despite the best of intentions, it will be just words unless the existing high levels of child poverty in London are tackled. The capital will have a significant impact on the Government’s ability to meet the national targets, and we cannot wait for legislation before we take action.

To return to the point raised by the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), there are specific issues in London. Child poverty in London is the biggest numerical obstacle to our goal of eradicating child poverty by 2020. What are the specific problems in London? All London MPs will say that one problem is the deep poverty trap caused by higher housing costs and the way in which the housing benefit system works. Housing benefit is a problem in London because of the particularly high housing costs there. Too many estates in my constituency that a generation ago were diverse—some people worked, some did not—are now entirely composed of workless families.

As a result, young people are growing up who have never seen the head of the household going out to work. That may sound like a simple thing, but I was brought up in a working-class West Indian family and, every day that God sent, my father went out to work. On Friday, he brought home his wage packet and gave us our pocket money and a bar of chocolate. That was the norm for me and my brother. More than school lessons or anything that we were told formally, the vision of my father going out to work every morning shaped our attitudes to work and society and our responsibilities to the rest of the family. Tragically, the children living on many estates in Hackney do not see that. That has the effect of shaping their attitude to society and their responsibility in a malign way.

One thing that makes it hard for my constituents to work and sustain a job is the poverty trap caused by housing in London. Another problem is the cost of transport. Without wishing to sound party political, I note that the Conservative Mayor of London recently raised fares. Child care, too, is costly. I am among the top 5 per cent. of earners, but I was never more poor than when my son was at nursery. The cost of nursery provision for earners in London is prohibitive. That goes back to the cost of setting up nurseries, the cost of employing people and so on.

Wages in London are worth less to low-income families because of the higher costs of living. I frequently meet low-income women who are trying to calculate the gain of going from benefit into work. Many part-time service sector jobs in London pay lower wages than in the rest of the United Kingdom. If we are really serious about fighting poverty in London and elsewhere, we will have to look at the interaction of the benefits system and work. A lot has been done, but more is needed.

Many people are put off going to work altogether, because they are frightened of losing their benefits; others have started work, but when the job comes to an end—jobs are often temporary or short-term—they have such a struggle to get back the benefits that they need, which makes them even more reluctant to try for another job. There are fewer part-time opportunities in London. People in temporary accommodation awaiting permanent social housing in London often face high rents. Indeed, we read in the media of the extortionate rents that can be charged.

I shall touch on the question that the hon. Member for Henley asked about ethnic minority families. Some migrant families have particular difficulties in the labour market. Parents with English as a second language have lower employment rates and are more likely to have low-paid jobs. It is estimated that 86 per cent. of London’s children are from refugee families, and they face even more disadvantage.

Those are some of the problems for Londoners, but, to be honest, one in particular is that of benefits. One of the first things my party did when elected to power in 1997 was to cut benefits for single parent mothers. The Minister will know that the Government are pushing forward with a policy to encourage—I use the word advisedly—single parent mothers to go to work when their children are still quite young.

I take a view on forcing women to go to work when their children are of school age. It is not the official new Labour view. I returned to work when my son was eight days old. I worked until the Thursday before I gave birth, had the baby on the following Monday and was back at work, here, eight days later. It was a job that I adored. The role of Member of Parliament gave me flexibility. I could take my son with me to work.

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And to the Division Lobby.

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Indeed.

I deprecate attempts to force young women to work as though it is the answer to their poverty. The consequence can be an impoverishment of family life. I believe that many young women on estates in Hackney would be better placed getting a proper education, learning to be proper mothers and being at home when their children finish school, rather than being forced to work in a series of low-paid, low-skill jobs, with no clear idea what their children are doing. Ministers are well aware of my views. Most women with skills want to re-enter the labour market, but unskilled women should be given help and support. I deprecate coercion.

I have spoken to a number of groups, including the Child Poverty Action Group, Save the Children, London Councils, Gingerbread and the Family Holiday Association, seeking practical advice to help deal with poverty in London. I press Ministers on the fact that all groups agreed on the need to focus more on London. Given the scale and unique characteristics of child poverty in London, we need a particular focus on London. Without tackling child poverty there, it will be numerically impossible to reduce and eventually eliminate child poverty in the country as a whole.

The second point made by those groups is that everyone agrees that local authorities have a key role to play in tackling child poverty. The Government acknowledge in the Child Poverty Bill that local authorities are best placed to develop and deliver local solutions to local challenges. However, to deliver those local solutions, it is essential that local authorities are given the freedom and flexibility to tackle child poverty locally. Poverty is a complex problem, and London is a complex area. From borough to borough, the demographics vary wildly. What may work in one area may not work elsewhere. Statutory guidance on child poverty should not be too prescriptive.

The third point agreed by those voluntary bodies is that we need to remove the barriers for those who want to get back to work and tackle unemployment. In the long term, it would reduce child poverty by getting households off benefit and into sustained employment, but many of the organisations to which I have spoken believe that, although a lot is going on, more joined-up working is needed between the Department for Work and Pensions and jobcentres. The Department’s consultation on housing benefit reform proposes that a transition-into-work payment should be made for the first three months of employment. That is an important first step.

As I said earlier, many people are put off working because they are worried about the immediate effect—that they would be worse off as a result of losing benefit—but evidence suggests that if employment can be sustained for six months the likelihood of returning to benefit is significantly reduced. The organisations that I have spoken to say that the transition-into-work payment should not be for three months but for six months.

With unemployment at 1.7 million at the end of last year and with the ongoing risk of an increase in the number of jobless, we need to do all that we can to prevent job cuts. The poverty rate for children in households where no one works is obviously worse than for children where somebody does work. Those on both sides of the House who are calling for cuts in public expenditure should remember that one man’s public expenditure cut is another woman’s job loss.

People are concerned about proposed public expenditure cuts in inner London not simply because of the possible loss of services; in my borough of Hackney, the largest single employer is the public sector. If there were to be swingeing cuts in the public sector, many women struggling to keep their heads above water in a job—we are often talking about female-headed households—may find that their jobs have been taken away.

Another factor that we need to consider further is the tax and benefits system; we need a simplification of the benefits system. At present, there are 51 welfare benefits in England and Wales, with different claims processes and forms to be completed. Some of those forms can be 50 pages long, often with the same questions asked for each claim. I have seen the forms; people come into my surgery and show them to me. I would have difficulty filling them in—let alone the people who come to me for help and support. With the best will in the world, it is difficult for people who genuinely want to go back to work to manage filling in the forms.

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The hon. Lady is right to say that the complexity of the benefit system is a key factor. As the Work and Pensions Committee pointed out, there is a shortage of part-time jobs and a high cost of child care. Does she accept that they are key drivers of child poverty in London?

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I touched on that matter earlier, but the hon. Gentleman is quite right. There is a shortage of part-time jobs and transport, and child care costs are another big disincentive. As I have said, we need to consider simplifying the benefit system. There needs to be a simplified system of support for child care costs that is clear and transparent to parents, providers and advisers. The present system is complex and has varying eligibility criteria.

Free school meals make it easier for families on tight incomes to budget. Studies have found that good-quality school meals lead to improved educational attainment and classroom behaviour. I welcome the Government’s announcement of an extension of that entitlement to primary school children, but significant numbers of children who are entitled to free school meals do not receive them, and we need to look at why that is and remove the stigma about applying for them and receiving them. Many organisations have said that we can achieve that by removing means-testing, and introducing universal free school meals is a cost-effective way of helping all children in the education system, as well as having a substantial effect on tackling child poverty.

As I have said this morning, I am glad to have had the opportunity to raise this subject. Members who do not live in London, or who live in the more prosperous parts of London, do not understand the poverty and deprivation that exists in London. The poverty that exists among children plays itself out in all sorts of negative social phenomena. I call on Ministers to focus on London, give local authorities flexibility, remove the barriers and complexity about the way in which the tax and benefits system interact and—this is a radical thought at this time in the election cycle—introduce universal free school meals.

Everyone admires the Government’s proposal and push on ending child poverty, but what everyone wants, even in a recession, is more progress on dealing with the specific areas that have made the issue so intractable. I say to Ministers that, without a particular focus on London, they cannot achieve all that they want. I know that it is old-fashioned to call in aid morality when we are discussing Government policy, but how can it be right that, at one and the same time, we can live in a city where people think nothing of paying £1 million or £2 million for a home and where at the very top end of the scale people live lives that are unimaginable to the rest of the world, and yet we have one of the highest incidents of child poverty anywhere in the United Kingdom? Once again, I am grateful for the opportunity to address the Chamber on this subject.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) on securing this debate. This is a very important subject and one in which I am particularly interested. As she may recall, I was one of the Members who served on the Committee that considered the Child Poverty Bill.

It is important to go back to my earlier intervention to distinguish between those factors that are generic to London—she mentioned a number of them—and those that are generic to the individual groups that suffer the worst child poverty. She mentioned the high housing costs in London as a whole. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) for raising the points that were made by the Select Committee on Work and Pensions in its earlier report on child poverty. The Committee extensively examined the subject and it was concerned about the effect on London and on particular groups in London. As my hon. Friend pointed out, time and again the lack of part-time jobs in London came out as an issue in the evidence sessions, as did the high cost of child care, to which we have already referred. When looking for solutions, it is important to understand the drivers for those individual groups. As we have already discussed, two of those groups are lone parents and ethnic minorities. On 17 June last year, the Select Committee revealed that over the past three years there have been no real improvements in child poverty levels among lone parents, which was a great disappointment to us all.

The hon. Lady will recall that the Child Poverty Bill largely passed the buck to local councils to deal with the problems of child poverty. On a number of occasions during its the passage, I expressed my unhappiness with the bureaucratic way in which it imposes duties on local government without freeing it up to take the action that is required. By and large, solutions to child poverty must relate to the specific circumstances of individual localities, and the problems that occur there.

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As for putting duties on local authorities, I was a local councillor myself and I bow to no one in my admiration of them, but I am a little wary of Government placing duties on local authorities, whether in relation to child poverty or dangerous dogs, without providing the resources.

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One of the great joys of coming here is to find that one is surrounded by people who, like me, were former councillors and who can speak from the experience of dealing with such problems on the ground, which is a great benefit to our deliberations.

During the course of the evidence sessions in the Child Poverty Bill, we heard from a number of councillors and one council leader about the way in which councils—in this case it was Kent, which has some serious deprivation problems—have already set about tackling the problems by setting up a programme of working with other agencies. Two issues arise from that. First, is the hon. Lady, by implication, being critical of her local council because it has not tackled the problems that she illustrated in such a forceful way? Secondly, evidence came out from both Kent and Liverpool that one of the main inhibitors to joined-up working was the Department for Work and Pensions, particularly its unwillingness to play ball with local councils in schemes such as the Total Place experiments.

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rose—

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I am questioning the hon. Lady about whether she is being critical, so I am happy to give way to her if she is going to say yes.

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I want to set the record straight. The main issues that I have flagged up as contributing to child poverty in London are benefit levels, the way in which housing benefit works, transport costs and the shortage of low-paid jobs. Such matters are not within the power of local authorities to address. I would not dream of criticising my own local authority.

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I recommend that the hon. Lady read the evidence sessions of the Child Poverty Bill, particularly the remarks made by the local government representatives, who provided one of the finest evidence sessions that I have seen so far in this House. What came across was a wish, which is borne out by my own experience, to free up local authorities and give them the relevant power so that they can tackle the problems in a way that is relative to their own areas. For example, my county council has not signed up to the child poverty target, but it has signed up to a lot of other targets that contribute directly to eradicating child poverty and particularly to breaking the cycle of deprivation.

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I welcome what the hon. Gentleman says about the aspirations of his own county council; they are very welcome. However, does he not concede that one of the problems of freeing up local government too much is that we go down the road of councils such as Barnet, which are operating a sort of “Ryanair” policy in their delivery of services, or that we go down roads taken by other councils, which simply want to decimate all public services and deliver a very low or zero local council tax? Surely if we are in one country and we want to eliminate poverty in this country, that requires us to place obligations on all aspects of our services, be they health or local government services, in order to achieve that target?

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I do not recognise any councils as wanting to “decimate” public services. Also, I do not see voters in any such council putting up with that. Ultimately, the test will be at the ballot box for those councils and I believe that people are fundamentally responsible in the way that they deal with child poverty issues, once they have been pointed out to them and they become aware of them.

If one looks at my council, for example, what is applicable in Oxfordshire to tackle child poverty is certainly not the same as in an inner-London borough; the issues do not need to be tackled in the same way. Recognising that is one of the great strengths that we can bring to the diversity that we have in local government, helping us to ensure that we are tackling the issues that are important.

The hon. Lady has argued, and I agree with her, that there are specific issues for London. If that is the case, it is nonsensical to insist that a rural county council must impose a uniform solution to tackle problems that exist in London that may not exist in its own area.

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I agree with what my hon. Friend is saying. However, is not the complexity of the benefits system another big part of the problem? I think that I am right in suggesting that, according to the Department for Work and Pensions, there is something like £10 billion of unclaimed means-tested benefits in the system. Also, there are great regional variations in the child tax credit. The complexity of the system does not help, either, which is a point that the hon. Lady made.

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I agree with both my hon. Friend and the hon. Lady; I would love to see a less complex benefits system. However, I would also love to see a greater take-up of the benefits that exist. Again, during an evidence session for the Work and Pensions Committee in June 2009, it became apparent that there was very little in the way of firm targets established by the DWP to increase the rate of take-up of benefits to the maximum level that it could realistically be.

I want to finish with a plea, really. We are still waiting to see a lot of the guidance about what will be imposed on local councils. If we are genuinely to have a light touch, as Ministers promised in the Committee considering the Child Poverty Bill, we need to see that light touch and we need to free up the councils to show it themselves.

Ultimate accountability for child poverty lies with the electorate in those areas and if one looks at the response from organisations such as London Councils and individuals such as the chairman of London Councils, who has welcomed the focus on child poverty in the Child Poverty Bill, one can see that many councils are just aching to take their responsibility for child poverty seriously.

Before I sit down, Mr. Martlew, I should just say that I will be unable to stay to the end of this debate, as I have to be in Committee a little later. I hope that you will accept my apology for that.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), who is my parliamentary neighbour, on securing the debate, on the way in which she presented her case, and on her work to promote the cause of anti-poverty in London and, particularly, the cause of education, especially regarding educational achievement for young black boys. She has done really well in promoting those causes, and she has done a great job representing people in Hackney in desperate need. I also think that her son has had a wonderful and colourful childhood, as not many children get to vote in the Division Lobby at the age of three weeks—there is nothing like bringing up young politicians.

The problems of child poverty in London are obviously very serious. As I said, my hon. Friend and I have neighbouring constituencies, and while we share areas of great poverty, we also share areas of great diversity and excitement. One should not characterise London life as being entirely of grinding poverty—it is not. There is a huge degree of poverty in London, but there is also a degree of vibrancy, which is something that I value very highly and enjoy in my own community.

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I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s important point about the poor educational performance of certain members of the black population. He is absolutely right to make that point, but does he also recognise that recent figures from the Department for Children, Schools and Families showed that white working-class boys were performing even less well, and would he agree that that is a section of the population that we must not lose sight of either?

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Absolutely. I do not disagree at all with what the hon. Gentleman says about that issue—indeed, I will come on to it in a moment. The point that I was making was in the context of the excellent work done by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington in trying to ensure that the aspirations of young people are met and that those young people are inspired to try to achieve. I will discuss that issue further in a moment, but we should be more than a little careful about promoting endless competition among primary schools and secondary schools through league tables, because that often has a depressive effect on people of whom we should be more supportive.

I want to cite some truly horrendous figures on child poverty. First, there are the figures on the numbers and proportion of children falling below thresholds of low-income material deprivation. The three-year average in London, for the period from 2004 to 2007, was 22 per cent. For the period from 2005 to 2008, it went down to 21 per cent. That represents a slight decline from 400,000 to 300,000. Nevertheless, those 300,000 children—I repeat that they are children—in London living in a degree of poverty is the equivalent of the population of a major city in other parts of the country, or indeed in other parts of the world, living in poverty. Those are truly horrendous figures.

If one looks at the regional poverty tables, before and after housing costs are considered, the figures are extremely significant. The poverty by region statistics, taken as a three-year average from 2005 to 2008, show the percentage of the population below 60 per cent. of median household income for each region. In inner London, the overall figure is 18 per cent. For families with children, the figure is 27 per cent., which means that there were 200,000 people in that particular group. However, if we move down that table and look at the after-housing costs figures, the proportion for inner London becomes 44 per cent., which means that there are 300,000 people in that group.

I am trying to highlight the point that because housing costs in London are so much higher—extraordinarily so—than those in the rest of the country, they are a major factor in both child poverty and poverty in general in London. I will discuss that issue further later in my contribution.

Children growing up in London have the opportunity to see, do and experience just about everything. There are more theatres, cinemas and creative industries—all those types of things—in London than anywhere. The city offers the possibilities for an extremely vibrant childhood. However, there are also enormous barriers to accessing those types of things. I find it very sad when I come across children, including teenagers, in my constituency who have never been on an underground train or outside their own area because they feel insecure, because they do not have enough money to go and enjoy themselves anywhere, or because they just feel that, somehow or other, such opportunities are “not for them”. Even in a metropolitan and vibrant city such as London, one finds these amazing contrasts, which I still find quite shocking. It behoves us all to recognise that we must be as supportive as possible of what children do. We must also support schools as much as possible and not be over-prescriptive; I agree with the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) about that to some extent.

I visit all the primary schools in my constituency as often as I can and spend a lot of time talking to support workers, teachers, school meals workers and others. I am constantly struck by how limited the requirements on a school are—the school must get the children in, educate them, follow the curriculum and so on—yet what incredible efforts teaching assistants, teachers and support staff make to support children in other ways. Teachers have queued for three or four hours to come to my advice bureau just to go through a problem faced by one particular family. They are not paid or thanked for doing such things; they do them because they believe in what they do and want to support children. We should pay tribute to the teachers who decide to teach in difficult inner-city environments in order to do their best to inspire children. We should be more supportive of such teachers and recognise their contribution to the lives of many of our young people.

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I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has made that point. I also pay tribute to the teachers in my constituency—it is perhaps a slightly more prosperous area—who often engage in similar social work with disadvantaged families. They stay late on Friday nights, perhaps even trying to find a bed for a child whose family has had a row. Does he agree that that is an aspect of the work of teachers of which the Department for Children, Schools and Families is not sufficiently aware?

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I hope that the Department is aware of it, but the problem is how to recognise and reward it. Teachers’ salary levels and housing difficulties are issues. I know that salaries have risen considerably, but we need to retain, and encourage the recruitment of, the best teachers in our inner-city schools. Over the past 10 years, I have certainly seen improvements in schools in my constituency, which now have much more money and equipment and more teachers. Head teachers no longer ring me up in tears because the roof of their school is leaking and they have no money to fix it—that kind of problem does not happen any more. Things have improved, but we have a long way to go on supporting schools and teachers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington raised the issue of poverty in lone-parent families in particular, as well as in families where one or both parents work for low wages. I have visited all the children’s centres in my constituency—we have seven—and they are doing well. It is interesting to spend time in a children’s centre and see how they work. The children are brought to the centre at various times in the morning, as a wraparound service is provided, and the parents are offered all kinds of support: from visits from Jobcentre Plus staff, to careers advice, to language and other classes. In other words, parents have a place not only where their children are well looked after, educated at a pre-school level and supported, but where their own aspirations can be improved. That is important. The opening of children’s centres and their success for so many of our children is one of the great achievements of the past decade.

My hon. Friend and others discussed the nutritional health of our children, obesity and related issues. Obesity is not necessarily a product of overeating; it is a product of bad food and advice. When children are allowed to snack on rubbish and eat over-watered hamburgers at all hours of the day and night—and when that is combined with a lack of activity—obesity and related problems will follow.

It is easy for columnists and others to keep going on about the burden on schools caused by the health police and healthy eating requirements, but healthy eating is crucial for small children. They need good-quality food, fruit and all the rest of it. The generation currently at school, who cannot bring in sugary sweets or inappropriate food but must have access to fruit and other good things, will grow up understanding much more than their parents about the importance of healthy eating. We should joke less about healthy eating in our schools and give it, and the principles behind it, more serious support.

That leads me to free school meals and access to them. I personally believe in a non-means-tested approach to social support and the benefit system, and I am proud to say that Islington council, on a split vote at last year’s budget meeting, agreed to the minority Labour group’s proposal to introduce free school meals for all primary school children in my borough, starting this year. I welcome that absolutely. Unfortunately, the council executive decided to interpret “free school meals for all primary school children” as free school meals for all primary school children in six schools—I hasten to add that there are more than six schools in the borough. The provision will be extended to all schools starting next term.

Will the Minister give us her views on the progress made by Islington council and ensure that there are no excessively bureaucratic funding hurdles? The children who would have been eligible for free school meals must still be identified in order to stack up the funding, so unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles have appeared on the horizon.

I would also be grateful if the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen), who will speak for the Liberal Democrats, let me know why the Liberal Democrat council has said that if it wins a majority in the council elections on 6 May, it will abolish free school meals for all children across the borough. I have no idea of the thinking behind that, as it seems to be at variance with much else that it has said. I am sure, however, that he will be able to explain it.

Another group experiencing unbelievable poverty in London is the children of asylum seekers—those who have arrived in this country and made an application for asylum. If the application is rejected initially, they may go through the appellant stage, which can last for years. I get letters from the Home Office telling me that my constituents in legacy cases can expect to wait another three years for a reply to their application. The children of such families receive an education, health care and minimal public support, as is right, but the parents often receive absolutely nothing.

A generation of children—the number is large in not just London, but throughout the country—is growing up in the most unbelievable poverty with parents who have no rights to work, to receive benefits, or to do anything but try to survive on their children’s minimal benefits or what support friends or family can give them. We are not doing anybody any favours by allowing those children to grow up in such poverty and insecurity when the statistics tell us that, in the long term, most of them will end up staying in this country anyway. We are creating wholly unnecessary misery and poverty.

The biggest factor in child poverty in London is housing costs. In my area, which is fairly typical of inner London, about 40 per cent. of the population lives in social housing—property owned either by the council or by a housing association—on fixed and economic rents. About 30 per cent. of my constituents are owner-occupiers, which is a low proportion compared with the national average, and one that is declining fast. Again, that is typical of inner London; owner-occupation levels are declining fast because people cannot sell their property, so they move and rent it out privately.

The private rented sector is the fastest growing sector, and the rents charged there are unbelievable. I met a family recently who lived in an ex-council flat that had been bought under the right to buy some years ago. For a two-bedroom walk-up council flat on an estate, that family was paying £250 a week. That is not the highest amount; some pay far more than that. I have come across figures of £400 a week for ex-council property, which is high by any standard.

Who pays that rent? In the majority of cases, the housing benefits system pays it. We have got into the crazy situation of saying that there is a market rent and that the housing benefit system will support it. The market is therefore supported by the housing benefit system. I have made that point to successive Secretaries of State for Work and Pensions. I know that they understand the issues and that there are changes on the way, but I hope that we will be bold and go a lot further by bringing in rent controls for the private sector.

I hope that we will look hard at the enormous benefit trap that is implicit in this problem. Most local authorities in London place housing applicants not in council accommodation, but in the private sector, sometimes paying the deposit so that they take up the place. That means that if someone on housing benefit with a family wants to get a job, they must earn enough to pay for the private rent for the flat of £200 to £300 a week. A rent of £300 a week represents £15,000 a year. The Department for Work and Pensions has recognised that problem and has increased the length of time for in-work benefit and for the continuation of housing benefit.

Some 80 per cent. of people in my constituency have no chance of buying property within the constituency. Unless we rapidly invest much more in social housing, housing associations and local authorities in inner-city areas, we will be consigning an awful lot of children to a life of terrible overcrowding and the problems that flow from it, such as illness and underachievement in school.

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On the contribution of housing issues to child poverty, does my hon. Friend agree that although our Government have a fantastic record on refurbishing old estates and bringing them up to modern standards, they have failed London with their over-reliance on the theory that councils should get out of the business of building new stock and that the market, above all, should be a provider? That was never going to be a practical option in London. I am glad that they have reversed some of that thinking, but it has created a problem.

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My hon. Friend is right that that has been an enormous problem. This debate is not solely about housing, but that is a major factor in child poverty and child opportunity. I agree that the refurbishment of estates is brilliant and that the decent homes standard is welcome, but unless we get children out of overcrowded flats, their life chances and aspirations will be damaged severely.

We must imagine what it is like to be a young teenager of 13 or 14 in a two-bedroom flat with two other children of roughly the same age. What is it like for a girl to grow up sharing a room with her brothers? There is no space. They might feel embarrassed to bring friends home and they might not want to stay over with other friends because they cannot reciprocate. Those things might seem minor to us, but they are major for the children of that age group who have that lifestyle. We must invest all we can in building housing for the adults of tomorrow—the children of today.

My final point is about job opportunities and barriers to work and training. The levels of unemployment in inner London are high by London averages and are usually above the national average. That puzzles and concerns me. The southern part of my borough and the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) and for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) border the City of London. The City is a major employer. From the high-rise flats in our constituencies, we can see the gleaming office towers of the City of London. Do many of our children get jobs there? No. Do they travel there to work? No. Are they unemployed? Yes. Are they lacking job opportunities? Absolutely. There is a disconnect in London between opportunities for work and children living in the inner-London ring. I do not have all the solutions, but I know that the problem exists.

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Some might argue that more young people in Hackney and Islington do not get jobs in the City because they do not have the requisite white-collar qualifications. An even bigger scandal is the relatively small number of children from Olympic boroughs who are apprentices, labourers, builders, plasterers and carpenters on the Olympic site. The Olympics provided an opportunity for our semi-skilled young people and those in manual trades to get jobs, but it appears to have been missed.

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Absolutely. Olympic building, as with any other building, ought to be an opportunity for training and development. Local colleges are not making sensible decisions. Carpentry, plastering and bricklaying courses have been closed down and yet people wonder why there is a shortage of carpenters, bricklayers and plasterers. It is not rocket science to recognise that if we do not invest in those skills at college level, it will result in skill shortages, underachievement and poverty.

Opportunities for work are important. It is important that the barriers that stop parents of young children going to work are removed through Sure Start, children’s centres, a more benign benefit system and a less bureaucratic approach. It is important to ensure that the minimum wage means at least that, if not more in the case of London. We must provide educational opportunities to parents so that they can take up new courses and receive education, if they did not achieve in school.

The 1980s was a period of mass unemployment in this country, as much in central London as in the south Wales valleys, the north-east or the north-west. At the height of the 1980s depression, unemployment in my constituency was at about 20 per cent. That was as high as anywhere in the country, although it was probably even higher in Hackney and other parts of east London.

This crisis is an opportunity to redress the imbalance between the rich and poor in our society. We should defend and maintain public expenditure. It will do us no favours if we start cutting public expenditure, removing services and losing public sector jobs. The public sector is a major employer in the poorest parts of the country. Such an approach would risk another generation losing the possibility of work. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington explained, children who grow up in households in which neither parent works, or none of the grandparents have ever worked, do not aspire to go to work themselves. I therefore hope that we will maintain or increase public expenditure on socially valuable and useful work. We owe it to our children to eliminate poverty so that they can make the very best of this wonderful city of London.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) on initiating this debate and on her thoughtful and thought-provoking views on child poverty and its effects on our capital city. I agree with her that as well as the issues that affect child poverty in general, there are specific issues with regard to our capital city. Solutions ought to be found to those problems.

In their first term, the Government set the laudable and impressive target of halving child poverty by 2010 and eliminating it by 2020. It is disappointing that in 2010, 3 million children still live in poverty, 600,000 of whom are in London. Given that we have the sixth richest capital in the world, that is very disappointing. I agree with the hon. Lady that it is easy when moving around the city not to see some of the issues or appreciate the poverty that many people are living in.

The hon. Lady highlighted eloquently some of the issues that politicians of all parties must tackle if we are serious about tackling child poverty. They are the worklessness cycle, the benefits trap and poor housing.

I agree with what the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) said about housing being an issue that affects London more than any other region. My region—the north-west—has the largest number of children in poverty after London, so I appreciate some of those problems. Alongside the problem of housing, there is a lack of educational achievement and opportunities. Perhaps more peculiar to London is the problem that very high child care costs discourage many people from taking employment. We must tackle a range of issues with a range of policies.

To their credit, the Government introduced the national minimum wage, but what has not been mentioned so far is that there is a living wage for London, which takes account of some of the particular factors in London. Last year, that living wage was £7.45 an hour, which is higher than the national minimum wage. After some publicity last year by the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust, the Department for Children, Schools and Families agreed that it would pay its cleaning staff—contract and non-contract—the London living wage. I would be interested to hear from the Minister whether the Department for Work and Pensions is paying the London living wage, because I suspect that it is probably not. If we are talking about doing something, that should be dealt with.

Several hon. Members have mentioned the benefits trap, the 50-odd different benefits for which people can apply and the disincentives. As the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington said, the benefits system should be simplified, because we are concerned that if someone is receiving tax credits and they are working a small amount of extra overtime or additional hours, it can throw the whole system into disarray. Through no fault of their own, someone can end up owing hundreds of pounds. The system is inflexible and people have to go through umpteen call centres to try to get something rectified. We have said that one simple thing that ought to happen is that the level of tax credit should be set for the year and changed annually, rather than being constantly changed every time someone does something.

The Child Poverty Bill is currently in the House of Lords. I hope that the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) will reassure us with regard to that measure, because some Liberal Democrat Members of the House of Lords are expressing concern that the Conservatives might attempt to sidetrack the development of the legislation. I agree with the general point that has been made, particularly by the London Child Poverty Network and several hon. Members: the issue is not just about giving local authorities more responsibility; real power and finance need to be devolved, otherwise those freedoms will not be successful.

On the review of housing benefit, I agree with what the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington said about it being more sensible to ensure that someone is back in work for six months. That is certainly something we would want to be developed. The number of apprentices has been mentioned. It is disappointing that there are only 350 apprentices on the London Olympic site. That golden opportunity has not been grasped. When many local authorities deal with public sector building, they try to make it a condition of the contract that local labour is employed and a number of apprentices are taken on.

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For some time, I have raised the issue of local employment on the Olympic site. Far from recruiting afresh, the big contractors on the Olympic site have switched people who work for them on sites all over the south-east to the Olympic sites. Not only is the number of apprentices there very low, but the number of young people from Olympic boroughs within that figure is even lower.

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I agree. That is something about which the Olympic Delivery Authority ought to be taken to task. Last week was national apprenticeship week and, probably like many hon. Members, I visited a company that had taken on a number of apprentices. A company that has its headquarters in my constituency of Rochdale has a contract with Hackney council and, as part of that deal, it took on eight apprentices. I understand that five of them are still working permanently with that company. There is a will and progress can be made, but we need to do more to ensure that it happens.

On dealing with some of the wider issues, such as the benefits trap and encouraging more people to work, my party’s policies for fair taxes, which we will put forward at the general election, will ensure that everyone who earns less than £10,000 and everybody’s first £10,000 will not be taxed. That would give people and families an immediate increase of £700 a year in their pocket, and would be paid for by ensuring that some of the people—there are many in London—who pay 18 per cent. on capital gains pay a lot more. Our mansion tax—£2 million—would go some way towards paying for that. We think policies such as that and fair taxation will, again, encourage people back into work. In the same way, the pupil premium is also the way forward. That involves paying schools, so that they are funded to the level of the best independent schools, and would allow them to spend that money how they want, without central Government dictating how it should be spent with yet more targets.

On housing, which is a particular problem for London, we must bring more empty properties into use. There is not necessarily a lack of properties in London, but there is a lack of them available at a price people can afford. Articles in newspapers such as the Daily Mail about the amount of housing benefit that certain individuals receive obscures the problem rather than providing a solution.

The hon. Member for Islington, North mentioned asylum seekers. Again, my party agrees with him: asylum seekers should be allowed to work. The current system is a disgrace in terms of the length of time it takes to decide on the position of asylum seekers. I shall also mention something he did not talk about, which relates to the work of the Southall Black Sisters in dealing with women who have no recourse to public funds because their marriage has broken down. Again, two years ago, the Government promised some changes on that, but they have not happened. We are still seeing women on the streets because they have come to this country, their marriage has broken down and they are not entitled to receive any public help.

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Order. I am sure you want to leave time for the Minister and the Opposition spokesman to contribute.

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Certainly. I am just winding up now, Mr. Martlew.

As I said, we would like that matter to be resolved. I was asked about free school meals by the hon. Member for Islington, North. I am not aware of what Islington council is doing. As a party, we supported the introduction of the free school meals trial, and that is what we would want to take place. I shall conclude there to allow others to contribute.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) on securing the debate. She is absolutely right that London has particular child poverty issues and that no Government will successfully eradicate child poverty without paying special attention to London. I am grateful to her for securing the debate so that we can consider some of the issues. It is shocking that the children of black and minority ethnic communities are three times more likely to be in poverty than white children. That is a particular issue for London, and something that is wholly unacceptable.

London also has a higher proportion of lone-parent families, and as we know from the Government’s households below average income tables, that increases the likelihood of children growing up in poverty. My party backs the Child Poverty Bill and is scrutinising it fully in the Lords—we make no apology for that. For example, my colleague, Lord Freud, was able to scrutinise Ministers on the lack of an adequate definition of socio-economic disadvantage in the Bill. The Bill is proceeding in the Lords, and rightly so.

Getting families into work in London is incredibly important. One of the great ironies about London is that although it is a great world city that has created jobs over the past decade and brought people from around the world here to work, there are such high levels of worklessness among families in London. One of my party’s proposals is to bring in a work programme. We are not satisfied with the results of the Government’s welfare and work programmes over the past decade. We intend to bring in a single, integrated welfare-to-work programme that will cover all those transferring from incapacity benefit to employment and support allowance as a result of work tests.

The work programme will also cover the long-term unemployed, lone parents and the recently unemployed. It will be a fully funded programme that will replace the Government’s new deals, which have not been as successful as they could and should have been, the flexible new deal and pathways to work. We will offer support to the vast majority of the people currently on incapacity benefit who have been abandoned by the Government. Through the work programme, we will offer people targeted, personalised help sooner—straight away for those with serious barriers to work, and at six months for under-25s.

Providers will be paid by results, thus driving up quality and encouraging innovation. The principle behind payment by results is simple: if a provider does not place someone in a sustainable job, they do not earn their fee. A sustainable job, as far as we are concerned, means placing someone in work for a year or longer, unlike the flexible new deal, which rewards providers when someone has been in work for just 26 weeks. The programme is about transforming people’s lives, not just a quick fix.

We will also extend the period of engagement that providers have with claimants so that they can work with them over the medium to long term, thus delivering better results for those individuals. In a difficult job market, which sadly we face at present, that will also mean that providers will have a better chance of placing someone in a job and earning their fee. Under the flexible new deal, if an individual has been with a provider for a year and still not found a job, they are returned to Jobcentre Plus to begin the whole process again. That makes the flexible new deal a flawed scheme, particularly when vacancies are scarce, so we are taking a different approach to getting people back to work.

One issue in London that has been mentioned by several hon. Members—helpfully, it is addressed in the London Child Poverty Commission’s report “Capital Gains”, which was published in February 2008—is the shortage of part-time jobs, job-share opportunities and flexible working in the capital. Part-time work is absolutely key for parents with caring commitments and is often the first step to help them get back into the labour market. Although some employment practices of the Department for Work and Pensions are quite good, the Government have failed to lead by example in that area, as many Departments have shockingly low levels of part-time and flexible working. The Government are a major employer and should be leading by example in that area, if they expect private employers to do the same.

Several hon. Members have rightly touched on the need for reform of the benefits system. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) has undertaken a major study in that area and produced a report, “Dynamic Benefits”, the two principal conclusions of which are that we need to look much more carefully at earnings disregards and that we need to reduce withdrawal or taper rates, particularly for housing benefit. I was glad that the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington mentioned that point in her speech. We have proposed a reform to housing benefit that would allow tenants to choose to whom they pay their local housing allowance. That might seem a technical matter, but it is important, because it would increase the number of landlords who were prepared to offer their properties for social renting.

I was glad that the Olympics were raised in the debate. It is a scandal that young, indigenous Londoners of all backgrounds do not have more jobs on the site. Frankly, that is a missed opportunity. The hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) mentioned that many young people in his borough did not look to the City for work, either because there are barriers in place, or because it is just not somewhere they consider going. That is a real issue within London. I talk to many groups working with out-of-work families, and it seems that sometimes people put constraints on where they are prepared to look for work, so anything we can do within schools to encourage children to have broader horizons physically—with regard to where they work—is incredibly important and will secure great benefits. We must also ensure that people in work, particularly in low-skilled jobs, have the means to improve their skills to advance themselves through what I call the ABC approach—a job, a better job, a career—so that they do not get stuck in low-paid jobs.

Skills are obviously an aspect of that, and I was delighted to read some comments made by the Mayor of London about skills at the London schools and the black child conference in 2009. On black and minority ethnic issues, to which we referred earlier, he talked about the importance of recruiting more teachers from the black and Asian communities, keeping children in school, tackling truancy and dealing with exclusions. I note, in particular, that the Mayor’s fund for London is working to inspire young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to stay on in education and have role models so that they can aspire to jobs that are perhaps better than those that their parents or grandparents have had.

We also know that within London there have been huge levels of immigration, and it is important that we bring immigration under control and improve the education and training of British workers. It is an irony, as I mentioned earlier, that London has sucked in workers and that jobs have been created here, but that they have bypassed many people who have remained on the welfare system—frankly that is not good enough. I want the children in the boroughs surrounding the Olympic park to benefit this year from the great opportunities there in construction and elsewhere.

There has been no mention of enterprise or business in the debate, which is a great omission. The hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington was right to pay attention to the important role of the public sector in providing jobs, but there must be a balance. We have to get London’s small and medium-sized enterprises creating more jobs, because otherwise there will not be the money to pay for the decent public services that she and I want in London.

I am therefore pleased by several actions that the Mayor is taking in his economic recovery plan to help business and to create jobs within London so that we deal with the poverty that we are talking about. He is looking at providing greater flexibility in the range of funds available for small businesses. He has created an economic recovery and investment fund to provide debt and equity finance to small businesses that cannot get that money from the banks. He is ensuring that small and medium-sized enterprises are paid by London public bodies under his control within 10 days, because cash flow is vital to ensuring that people keep their jobs. He is ensuring that contracts are open to SMEs in London, and he is speeding up planning permission.

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Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would like to leave the Minister some time to respond to the debate.

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I will conclude in one minute, Mr. Martlew.

The Mayor wants to see tax relief on travelcards. That is already in place in Nottingham, Bristol and Edinburgh, so why not in London? He is also ensuring the roll-out of the London living wage, which is currently £7.60, and that even premier league football clubs in London pay that to the staff on their premises. He is developing an empty property scheme for small and start-up companies in addition to pop-up shops.

Finally, on the issue of single parents, which was touched on earlier, I would like to refer briefly to The Economic Journal report by Richard Dickens and David Ellwood that shows that reducing the number of single parents and increasing family stability are critical to reducing child poverty. Lord Giddens said that he did not think there were academic studies on the subject, but I point him to that report, which is important as far as defeating child poverty in London is concerned.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr. Martlew.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) on securing a debate on this extremely important topic. She is absolutely right: child poverty is a serious problem in London, where it is 27 per cent., compared with the national average of 23 per cent. Given the extremes of wealth and poverty in the city, such a huge gap is a particular disgrace. Other hon. Members said that one of the main reasons for it is that parental employment in the capital is 8 per cent. lower than in the rest of the country and there is a particular shortage of part-time jobs.

My hon. Friend spoke about the Save the Children report, which suggested that the problem was getting worse for those on the lowest incomes. I would like to point out that the figures that it used were from 2007, and that the measures that we have taken since then will have reduced the number of children in poverty by a further 550,000. We are waiting for more up-to-date figures to see what the position actually is. At one point, I thought that she would come out as a one-nation Tory, but she held back from that conversion.

In the recession, as my hon. Friend said, the working tax credit acts as an important stabiliser, and, crucially, we are supporting the labour market. We have put £5 billion into new programmes, particularly the future jobs fund and Backing Young Britain. Such measures are designed to maintain family incomes and to avoid the kind of desperately high unemployment that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) said existed in his constituency 20 years ago.

One of the important things in the Child Poverty Bill is part 2, the whole of which is about the contribution of local authorities. It will mean that local authorities in London can work to design strategies that are particularly suited to the needs in their area. I shall give my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington a copy of a big research report that we just published, “Ethnicity and child poverty”, which shows that a particular penalty is faced by members of ethnic minority communities. We must also address that.

Hon. Members spoke about the housing benefit system. They will know that we have just produced a consultation document, which has as one of its central objectives shifting work incentives by introducing fixed period awards and run-ons when a person moves into work. I remind hon. Members that housing benefit is an in-work benefit, which means that it should not disincentivise people from taking work.

One of the important things that we have done is set up a large, multi-party group called the London child poverty delivery group. In January, a group on part-time working was launched to promote part-time working in the city and to address the real problems faced by people in part-time work.

My hon. Friend spoke about the high costs of child care in the city. We are running important child care affordability pilots to look at the impact of changing the amount of money that is reimbursed from 80 per cent. to 100 per cent. and to examine actual costs. We will be able to see what impact that will have and then develop public services that actually do the trick.

My hon. Friends the Members for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington and for Islington, North both spoke about the importance of free school meals, and I could not agree more. I was delighted by the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s announcement in December about extending free school meals but appalled to hear that a Liberal Democrat council is proposing to cut entitlement to them. I cannot understand why, in a borough such as Islington, that is being proposed by a party that aspires to be taken seriously. I hope very much that we can address the bureaucratic problems that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North raised.

I continue to be surprised by the position of the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who is the Opposition spokesman. He purports in all the debates that we have on child poverty to be extremely concerned about the issue, yet he belongs to a party that proposes to divert resources from Sure Start and health visiting, and to cut the number of people who can get child tax credits and child trust funds.

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Will the Minister give way?

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No, I am sorry. I do not have time because the hon. Gentleman did not leave me enough.

I understand why the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) raised questions about the main Opposition party’s commitment to the income targets in the Child Poverty Bill. For example, only yesterday, the noble Lord Freud said:

“The targets measure household income as a proxy and, although there might be some correlation between the experience of a child and the level of household income, in many cases it is not a perfect proxy…The Bill is drafted around financial targets, but those targets do not measure child poverty, they measure household income.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 8 February 2010; Vol. 717, c. GC143.]

That is an extraordinary statement from a party that purports to be interested in the family.

Lord Freud also said in an earlier Committee debate on the Bill:

“Measurement is clearly important, but the risk is that the measures, being purely financial, drive state intervention in a particular direction.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 19 January 2010; Vol. 716, c. GC130.]

What direction is that? What direction would he prefer? We know that Her Majesty’s Opposition are proposing to reintroduce a married couple’s allowance. The direction that that would take us in would give the bottom decile—the poorest people in this country—an extra £30 a year while giving the top decile an extra £380 a year. That is the direction that the Opposition want to take, and it would obviously have a serious and severe impact in London.

The Economist says this week that the proposal

“does nothing for workless households. It would help only 11 per cent. of…British children in poverty, while handing bonuses to plenty of well-off people. That would be a bad idea at any time; in a period when the state must tighten its belt it is an extraordinary proposal.”

I could not agree more. It seems utterly perverse to go down such a path when we could spend the same amount of money lifting 750,000 children out of poverty.

Let me return to housing in London. All hon. Members pointed out how significant the lack of affordable housing is. The Government have pledged £2.8 billion over the period 2009-11 as part of the £7.5 billion that we are spending to produce 112,000 affordable homes across the country. It is therefore extremely unfortunate and disappointing that the Mayor of London is stretching the 50,000 target for affordable homes that we had previously from three to four years.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington raised an extremely important issue this morning. She discussed lone parents and the need to get them back to work, and I very much hope that she will take part in debates on a statutory instrument that we will introduce to ensure that lone parents are required to work only during the hours when their children are at school.