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Child Poverty

Volume 511: debated on Wednesday 9 June 2010

Despite the current economic uncertainty, Britain remains one of the wealthiest nations on earth. It is therefore to the lasting shame of successive Governments that our country has one of the worst levels of child poverty in the developed world and one of the worst in Europe, with poverty rates worse even than those of the former communist countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—a point I have already made in an intervention on the Prime Minister.

According to the charity Barnardo’s, in the UK there are 2.8 million children living in poverty before housing costs are taken into account, which I gather is the previous Government’s preferred measure. However, Barnardo’s tells me that that figure soars to 3.9 million after housing costs are taken into account, according to the 2007-08 “Households Below Average Income” report, published last year by the Department for Work and Pensions. I was shocked by the following disturbing extract from the “Hard Times” report published by Save the Children in 2006:

“One third of British children are forced to go without at least one of the things they need, such as three meals a day or adequate clothing.”

What should the new Government do now? Well, here is one thought that Barnardo’s has put to me:

“The poorest families in the UK are struggling during the recent economic crisis and are very likely to bear the brunt of forthcoming spending cuts. Barnardo’s proposes pragmatic, cost-effective solutions to redistribute money to the poorest families without the Government spending a single penny extra.”

Save the Children told me:

“It makes financial sense to end child poverty—the Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates it costs the taxpayer £25 billion a year.”

Putting to one side the obvious reasons why a civilised society should not tolerate child poverty, Save the Children then makes the financial case for ending it:

“In the long-term, huge amounts would be saved from not having to pick up the pieces of child poverty and associated social ills.”

I therefore invite the Minister to have a meeting with Save the Children, Barnardo’s and the other charities that do so much work to help children, to discuss what needs to be done. Working together, as a big coalition of people with shared interests, makes sense. It would make further sense if there were a permanent standing committee, for example, involving Government and those organisations, to help with formulating policies and strategies, in the spirit of joined-up government across all Departments. I also seek a pledge from the Minister this afternoon that there will be no delay and no dilution of the provisions set out in the Child Poverty Act 2010, including measures on the poverty reduction target and setting up the child poverty commission, which are a matter of urgency.

Child poverty issues are usually even worse for households with one or more children with a disability, and for single-parent families. Today, I shall combine strong criticism primarily of the last Labour Government with a reminder to the Conservative party that the situation has not arisen in the past 13 years but was inherited from when it was last in office. Successive Governments should hang their heads in shame. Generations of young people have been let down.

My message to the new coalition Government is this: quite simply, we must do better. Abolition of child poverty in the lifetime of the present Government must be the target. Whatever the economic issues facing the country, it simply cannot be right in a civilised society to have children living in conditions that are deemed to be below the official poverty line.

I recognise that this is all relative. What is described as poverty in the UK is not the poverty that can be found in third-world countries or in the slums of some overseas cities, where obscene wealth and grinding poverty are physically close to each other but worlds apart in terms of quality of life and life expectancy.

That said, I was deeply shocked by a poster I saw in a church in Colchester last month. It prompted me to table early-day motion 39, which states:

“That this House is deeply concerned at the content of posters issued by The Children’s Society and displayed on church premises which state ‘A vital project that is helping feed, clothe and assist in finding destitute children somewhere safe to live will close on 30th September due to a lack of funds; when it does, hundreds of poverty-stricken families will be left to fend for themselves’; and calls on the Government to hold urgent talks with The Children’s Society to avoid the closure.”

And this is Britain in the second decade of the third millennium.

Much was expected of new Labour in tackling child poverty. I do not doubt for a minute that it had sincere intentions, but the stark reality is that it failed, and failed big-time. I cannot speak of child poverty at first hand. I grew up in a family environment in which I did not want for food, clothing or housing. My wife and I were able to provide for our four children. I am now a grandfather and grateful that my two grandsons and my infant granddaughter do not experience the child poverty that so many children experience. However, I have been involved in political life in my home town for 40 years or so, and have experience of working on a local newspaper; and as every MP can vouch through work in his or her advice bureau, we know child poverty when we see it.

As word spread that I had secured the debate, I received considerable background briefing from different organisations concerned with tackling child poverty. That so many exist is proof of the seriousness of the situation. I cannot possibly in 15 minutes do justice to what they told me, but I hope I will be able to convey the importance of their concerns. I place on the record my thanks to those that have contacted me: Barnardo’s, Save the Children, the Children’s Society, the National Childminding Association and the Child Poverty Action Group.

The Children’s Society told me about the good childhood inquiry, the report of which was published last year. I shall quote one telling comment from its briefing to me:

“One of the most striking things about the evidence received from children was how frequently they mentioned their basic needs. Over 5,000 children filled in postcards about their lives and the three topics they talked most about were ‘friends’, ‘family’ and what was termed their ‘material needs’.

Their comments on this subject were mostly about the importance of having a home, a bed, clothes, warmth, food and water. Interestingly, far more children talked about material ‘needs’ such as these than mentioned material ‘wants’ such as money and possessions.”

I look at life as though it is a jigsaw—lots of pieces need to come together to complete the picture. It is not enough to talk in isolation about education, health, employment and so on. We must look at the whole picture, and if any of the pieces are missing, which tragically is the case for children living in poverty, that young individual will struggle throughout their life, with the guarantee that their life chances will be considerably less than those for a child from a household that is not lacking in the necessities of life; and they will have a shorter life expectancy as well. Why should nearly 4 million children be so grossly disadvantaged? It is not their fault.

As we know with a jigsaw, the first pieces that need to be put in place are the corners and the edges. For our children, the corners and the edges of their jigsaw of life are a decent home. Successive Governments have also failed to deliver that over the past 25 years, with the ending of the building of council houses for families. Oh for the return of the days when local councils built family houses—houses fit for purpose, built to Parker Morris standards—not today’s cramped dwellings with paper-thin dividing walls, which in any event are inadequate in number to deal with the worsening housing crisis. If we addressed the shortage of truly affordable family houses to rent by the resumption of the building of public housing, as was the ambition of successive Labour and Tory Governments for broadly the middle 50 years of the 20th century, excluding the war years of 1939 to 1945, that would help us dramatically on the road to the abolition of child poverty.

It is interesting that post-war Conservative Governments built more council houses than Labour Governments. Indeed, the Thatcher Government built more council houses than the Blair and Brown Governments combined. I contrast the last 13 years with the inspirational Labour Government of Clement Attlee, who in 1945 set about tackling the housing crisis after six years of war. If it can be done in those circumstances, why can it not be done today? After all, if new Labour could fund an illegal war in Iraq, then housing British families should have been affordable.

As a nation, we would do well to revisit the Education Act 1944. It was not about education only; it put forward an holistic approach to the health, welfare and general well-being of the child, of which the universal provision of school meals was an important part; its authors were determined that the child poverty of the 1930s should be a thing of the past. It is perhaps an indication of Britain’s divided society—the gap between rich and poor has widened since 1997—that even in a relatively prosperous town such as Colchester at least two primary schools have breakfast clubs, so that children who would otherwise start the day without a meal have one.

I hope that my debate will encourage the new coalition Government not to let their planned cuts in public spending further damage the life chances of another generation of children. Even in a recession and an era of cuts, expecting children from less well-off backgrounds to experience a further lowering in their living conditions is simply not acceptable.

I observe in passing what I consider to be the silence of the Church on child poverty. I sense that churches collectively, with notable exceptions, are too comfortable, and that the missionary zeal for tackling inequalities in society—and not only child poverty—is something they do not want to get involved in.

As a penultimate point, I pay tribute to the late Professor Peter Townsend, the joint founder of the Child Poverty Action Group, whose work over more than 40 years did so much to highlight the plight of children in this country. I knew him when he was at the university of Essex; from its inception in 1964, he was one of its first professors. Indeed, for a time he lived in the same part of Colchester as me. A tribute to him was published in June last year by the university of Bristol, where his name lives on in the Townsend Centre for International Poverty Research. That tribute included this observation:

“He had brief hopes when New Labour arrived, and especially after Tony Blair pledged to eliminate child poverty in 1999. In the end, however, he was left bitterly disillusioned”.

In conclusion, I trust that all Members will accept an open invitation from the Child Poverty Action Group to attend the launch of the group’s handbook on Tuesday 6 July at 10.30 am in the Jubilee Room. MPs will have an opportunity to discuss with folk from CPAG how to help end child poverty in every constituency in the land. Surely, ending child poverty is not asking too much of the new Government.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and on making so many valid points about the poverty of children. Does he agree that the Government’s commitment to providing an additional 4,000 health visitors through the Sure Start scheme would be a significant step in the right direction?

I welcome anything that will help eliminate child poverty and promote the welfare of children. I also welcome the inclusion in the coalition Government agreement of the pupil premium, which will help children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

May I say what a pleasure it is, Mr Betts, to serve under your chairmanship? This is the first of two debates this week on child poverty and poverty in general. In securing this debate, the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) continues with a subject that has been of interest to him for a number of years, and I thank him for giving us the opportunity to discuss this important matter today.

The hon. Gentleman is right that we must do better. Poverty is the most important factor in predicting a child’s life chances. Effectively tackling the causes of poverty and inequality in Britain is at the heart of our coalition Government’s agenda, and I welcome the opportunity to reiterate to him and the other Members here today our clear commitment to helping the millions of children who still live in poverty. I give the clear and I hope unambiguous assurance that there will be no delay and no dilution in our commitment, and I refer him to section 14 of the document issued by the coalition that pledged to end child poverty by 2020.

I know that this is an emotive subject. The hon. Gentleman raised a number of questions and I shall attempt to cover them in my response; however, if there is anything that he feels has not been dealt with properly, perhaps we can discuss it separately.

Over the past 13 years, we have seen ever more being spent on the benefits system, even outstripping inflation, in an attempt to move people above the poverty threshold. The Labour Government were nothing other than well intentioned; there is no question about what they were trying to achieve, but their policies simply did not work and did not deliver what was needed to deal with child poverty. As the hon. Gentleman said, many people felt disillusioned as a result.

The figures speak for themselves. The previous Government’s approach did not work because they did not do what the hon. Gentleman has suggested, which is tackling the root causes of poverty. The gap between the richest and the poorest is at its highest since records began. At best, the previous Government’s attempts to tackle poverty stalled, despite their spending some £85 billion a year on benefits and tax credits.

The simple truth is that there are 800,000 more adults in poverty now than there were in 1998-99. Instead of the number of children in poverty having been reduced, it has increased by 100,000 over the past five years, and 2.8 million children are now living in poverty. The hon. Gentleman also spoke about the definition of poverty and asked whether it should include housing costs. The Prime Minister has asked the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) to consider that matter in his independent review, which will report before the end of the year.

It is clear that the old way is failing. We need a new vision, a new approach to tackling poverty and giving children a better start in life. I am sure that that was one of the hon. Gentleman’s main passions when he first came to this place, as it was one of mine. That new approach is what I intend to set out today.

It is not enough to tackle the symptoms of poverty; we must tackle the underlying factors that make it a seemingly intractable problem. They include entrenched worklessness and economic dependency, family breakdown, educational failure, addiction and debt. Those are the drivers of poverty—finance is only one aspect. If we are to deal with the persistent poverty and multiple disadvantages of some of the UK’s most vulnerable families, we need to fight poverty in its broadest sense, and I suspect, judging by the feeling that I got from the hon. Gentleman’s contribution, that such a view lies behind his call for this debate.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the importance of joined-up government, and I could not agree with him more. If we are to take on this complex and multi-faceted problem, we need to ensure that we tackle all the different facets of poverty so that we break the cycle of disadvantage and deprivation and give all children the same opportunity to flourish and excel.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) mentioned Sure Start. We have clear coalition policies on taking Sure Start back to its roots to increase the effectiveness of its outreach services, and to uphold our commitment to early intervention. We know that Sure Start has a critical role to play, and we want to make it work harder.

We want to ensure that more children have the advantages of a good education, which is critical to improving stalled social mobility, and that is where the pupil premium comes into play. By making some £3,000 available to each pupil who falls into that sector, we will be making a significant financial contribution to schools. We will also give schools the autonomy to use that money in the way they think is best. We will end the couple penalty in the tax system that jeopardises the future of too many children, because we know that stable family life is an important way of addressing child poverty.

We will also introduce wide-ranging welfare reform, as was set out in the Gracious Speech, through the work programme, which will be more effective in helping people into work and so out of poverty. At all points, we will ensure that work pays. All parts of the House now accept that helping people back into work is a basic principle of tackling poverty.

The hon. Member for Colchester talked about the importance of a holistic approach, and I could not agree with him more. We are on the same page of the book in that respect. Clearly, such a programme to address child poverty needs to work across the board, which is why the Prime Minister, working in conjunction with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, has announced the establishment of the Social Justice Cabinet Committee. Such a group gives us the opportunity to bring together people from across government to tackle these seemingly intractable problems. Its one mission will be to consider social justice in this country.

The Minister may not know the answer to this question immediately, but if so, perhaps she can find it out for me. Will the organisations directly involved in tackling child poverty be part of the arrangement she has just described?

The organisations the hon. Gentleman mentioned will have a critical role to play in pulling together the strategy on child poverty that we need to develop by March 2011. With regard to the constitution of the Social Justice Cabinet Committee, it is early days yet. Certainly, I will take the hon. Gentleman’s thoughts back to our team and put forward his suggestion, because it has great merit.

The Social Justice Cabinet Committee will consider the causes of poverty and how we can make a difference to the lives of thousands of children. The hon. Gentleman mentioned housing—an issue in which he has a passionate interest—and particularly the role of councils in ensuring that good-quality housing is available for families, thus giving children the stability and good accommodation that can make such a difference to their lives. A Cabinet Committee such as the one that will be constituted can tackle an issue such as that, as part of a holistic strategy for dealing with child poverty. I hope the hon. Gentleman is reassured that we share his view that that is the only way to make a real difference.

Let me turn to how we plan to go forward in practical terms. Like the hon. Gentleman, I have sat in this Chamber many times, hearing Ministers talk in abstract terms about what they may or may not do, so I should like to tell him about some concrete things that we will be doing. We will set up the Social Justice Cabinet Committee, which will provide a holistic, cross-government approach on this issue. Under the Child Poverty Act 2010, the Government will publish a strategy to show how we will meet the goal of ending child poverty by 2020. The first such strategy will be published in March 2011. I know that the organisations the hon. Gentleman mentioned—Barnardo’s, Joseph Rowntree and Save the Children—will be making important contributions to the development of that strategy. I look forward to meeting those organisations in the coming months to ensure that we have the full value of their experience and expertise in this area, because only by doing that will we come to the right answer.

The simple truth is that the previous Government fell short on the progress that was needed on child poverty. That is why our new approach needs to be implemented quickly, if we are to reach the ambitious targets set out in the 2010 Act. Over the next nine months, I shall work with colleagues across government to ensure that we have a robust child poverty strategy in place. We want to tackle not just the symptoms of poverty but the root causes, so that we can say that we have the strategy on child poverty that both the hon. Gentleman and I know this country needs.