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Child Poverty

Volume 597: debated on Thursday 25 June 2015

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions if he will answer a question about the state of child poverty.

The latest low-income statistics, based on the “Households Below Average Income” report, are published today, covering April 2013 to March 2014. They show that the percentage of individuals and children in relative low income is at its lowest since the 1980s. The latest figures also show that the proportion of people in both relative and absolute low income remained flat on the year for children, working-age adults and disabled people. For pensioners, there is a statistical change, but the proportion in relative and absolute low income has increased slightly.

The figures that I have quoted are measured against the retail prices index. As the House will know, the RPI has become a discredited measurement anyway, as the consumer prices index is used everywhere else in the world. Therefore, I have also taken the liberty of putting into the publication what the UK Statistics Authority has also produced: the effects when measured against CPI, which is much more widely used. Those figures are even more positive than the others we have seen today. Today’s figures demonstrate that if we deal with the root causes of poverty—as I believe this Government are doing—then even under a measure of poverty that I have consistently over the last few years described as flawed, we can still have an impact.

Let me remind the House of some of the important things that my Government have done to help families on low income through tackling root causes. In education, we have introduced the pupil premium and tackled failing schools with the free schools programme. There is our commitment to supporting families through the groundbreaking troubled families programme, which is turning really difficult families around in difficult communities. There is our investment in early-years support and childcare and our unprecedented back-to-work programmes that have helped support hundreds of thousands of people, once written off, back into work. We have also raised the tax threshold, which means that those on the lowest incomes often do not pay any tax, or if they do, they pay a lower rate of tax and keep more of their own income. Finally, there is our fundamental belief that the most powerful way to change lives is by creating a welfare system that makes work pay, writes no one off and supports people into work.

That is what we have been doing and what the left has failed to understand—particularly the Labour party. If you deal with the root causes of poverty, of which work is a critical component, many of the symptoms start to sort themselves out. Today’s figures show, I believe, how important it is to both balance the books and continue reforming welfare.

This morning’s statistics show a depressing slowdown in the progress that we should be making as a country towards the abolition of child poverty in the UK. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the numbers of children in absolute poverty have risen over his time in office? Will he confirm that last year, 19% of children were in absolute poverty, and that this year, 19% of children are still in absolute poverty? Will he also confirm that this year, 17% of children were in relative poverty, and that there are still 17% of children in relative poverty today?

Has the Secretary of State dropped the ambition to end child poverty by 2020? This is not a time for complacency. The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission has warned that there is now “no realistic hope” of that target being met. The Prime Minister says that he will be

“judged on how we tackle poverty”,

so what is the Government’s plan to catch up on the lost ground? Will the Secretary of State pause and reflect on the fact that nearly one in five children in this country is still growing up without some of the basics? We are talking about the lives of children up and down this country—about whether their parents can put money in the meter to keep their home warm in winter, and about whether they have something or very little for their tea.

The Child Poverty Act 2010, which Ministers opposite supported, placed one of the most important duties on the Government: to ensure that in the 21st century, children do not grow up suffering deprivation or lacking the necessities that most of us take for granted. Yet progress has now slowed to a snail’s pace. Would it not be shocking if the Government departed from the consensus that children should be free from such disadvantage by the end of this decade? I therefore ask the Secretary of State to give a straight answer to the House today: does he remain committed to the Child Poverty Act or not?

Do not the Government need a serious strategy to address low pay and boost productivity? They should be providing incentives for a living wage and new opportunities for high-quality skills, as a more positive route out of poverty. But what does this Secretary of State do when faced with an end to the progress in reducing child poverty? He threatens to cut £5 billion from the tax credits of children, which would mean 3.7 million working families losing, on average, £1,400 a year. That will not address child poverty; it will add to it.

Does the Secretary of State realise that it is parents who are already working who would be hit by such a decision? How does it help to make work pay to pull the rug from underneath them in that way? Why is he trying to kid people into thinking that such a hit to incomes can be easily replaced? Unless he is planning a rise of 25% in the minimum wage, that will not happen.

Labour lifted more than 1 million children out of relative poverty and more than 2 million children out of absolute poverty. On the Secretary of State’s watch, progress has stalled. Is it true that, instead of developing policies to tackle low pay, the Government, faced with statistics that show such poor progress, will try to erase the figure altogether, redefine the measure and pretend that the problem has gone away? Is he really going to propose that statistical redefinition? The Conservative party manifesto promised that they would

“work to eliminate child poverty and introduce better measures to drive real change”.

Nobody realised that meant that they would just change the measure. Instead of shifting the goalposts when things get uncomfortable, Ministers should take responsibility and tackle low pay, not attack the low-paid.

The Opposition, and particularly the hon. Gentleman, have scored a massive own goal today. They tabled the urgent question before the statistics came out, so certain were they and their friends on the left that the statistics would show a massive rise. They were wrong. They cannot accept that our welfare reforms, which they never made in their time, are working.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that I am committed to the purpose of getting people out of poverty and ending the process of families being in poverty. Most of what I have done over the past 10 years has been dedicated to doing that. The trouble with the Labour party is that it is wedded to this income measure. Its whole policy was skewed as a direct result of that.

Our reforms have tackled the root causes of poverty. Employment is up by over 2 million since 2010. I remember the hon. Gentleman saying that employment would fall as a direct result of our changes. The level and rate of children in workless households is at a record low. The proportion of households in social housing that are in work is the highest it has ever been since records began. The rate and level of children in workless households is also at a record low. That is tackling the root causes of poverty.

The truth is that the Opposition have egg all over their face today. I find the hon. Gentleman’s comments close to rank hypocrisy, because they comprehensively failed to meet their own targets, despite dumping huge sums of money into the welfare system. They did nothing to transform people’s lives. They missed their own target to halve child poverty by 2010. Under the Labour Government, in-work poverty rose by 20%, even though they ploughed money into the welfare system, increasing welfare spending by 60%. Let me remind the Opposition how they did that. Tax credit spending rocketed in the years before each election. In 2003-04 it rose by 60%, and in 2004-05 it rose by 7.2%. Then, strangely, between elections it went flat and even fell slightly. Then just before the 2010 election, it rose by 14.4% and then 8.5%.

The reality is that we set out in our manifesto that we need to look at new measures of child poverty. Looking at life chances is the right way to do it, to get to the root causes of why people get into poverty. The current measures led the last Labour Government to a benefit system that gave families an extra pound here or there just to push them above the poverty line but did nothing to transform their lives.

Let me give an example of a family who are officially in poverty under those measures, with parents who have huge drug problems. When they go over the line, according to the measurement, they are not in poverty, but because the parents are likely to spend all their money on drugs, the children do not get fed. The reality is that the measurement is not of that family’s life chances but only of the income transfer.

At the beginning of the last Parliament, I started a debate about whether the current measures were a sensible way of directing Government efforts towards changing people’s lives. We undertook a consultation in 2012 and 2013 that received a wide range of responses, with a broad consensus that the current measures did not recognise the range of actions needed to improve children’s life chances. As a result, the Government have a clear manifesto commitment on child poverty—we will work to eliminate it and introduce better measures to drive real change in children’s lives by getting to the root causes.

I believe that we have a proud record of tackling the problem. We have raised the minimum wage faster and further than the last Government did and focused on supporting families, improving educational attainment, supporting people into work and allowing people to keep more of what they earn. Today’s figures are a vindication of our approach, and as the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), whom I see in his place, said this morning:

“Most of the electorate…find the definition of poverty…as defined by academics and politicians to be utterly bewildering.”

I have always believed passionately in a welfare system focused on changing lives. Today shows that not only has Labour lost the election, it has lost the argument. No wonder it is referred to as the welfare party. [Interruption.]

Order. There has been a very considerable cacophony in the Chamber. I can advise the House that at least three dozen colleagues are seeking to catch my eye on this important matter. I want to try to accommodate the level of interest, but we have business questions to follow and then a statement by the Secretary of State for Transport, before we embark on a significantly subscribed debate following the Anderson report, so there is a premium on brevity from both Back and Front Benchers. I hope that we will be given a tutorial in that by Sir Oliver Heald.

I start by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on the best figures in his and my time in the House.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is sad to see Labour concentrating on statistics and benefits when the central insight that the Government have had, which is working, is that this is all about work, education and tackling barriers to employment?

My hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. We are determined to bring about life change to improve people’s lives in the poorest communities. I made the point that more households in social housing are in work than ever before, and that is life change. They are taking control of their lives.

May I congratulate the Secretary of State on the public relations success of winding up the media with the idea that these would be the worst figures ever published? Might that ingenuity now be applied to developing indices on life chances? What taxpayers are interested in is whether we can prevent poor children from becoming poor adults. Might he ask the Select Committee on Work and Pensions to undertake that inquiry and report to the House and then to his Social Justice Committee, so that the Government might act on it before the year is out?

May I just correct the right hon. Gentleman on one small fact? I have not spent my time winding up the media. With respect, I think he needs to look at those on his Front Bench, and some of their friends, who have spent the whole time winding up the media.

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his new post. He knows very well that the door is open, and I am happy to sit down and discuss that proposition, and, more importantly, what I believe should be in the measures.

Making sure that work pays is vital to lifting families out of poverty. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the effective roll-out of universal credit is critical to achieving the goal of reducing poverty?

I welcome my hon. Friend to her place. Yes, universal credit will reduce poverty, because it makes every hour of work pay. That means that going into work is no longer a tough decision: it becomes an easier decision and progressing into full-time work becomes much easier.

It is a sad day for all of us when we come to this Chamber and hear that the Conservative Government wish to redefine child poverty. It takes me back to what we faced under the Thatcher Government at the end of the ’70s and the beginning of the ’80s, when they fiddled and changed the unemployment statistics. History is repeating itself. The Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland has said that on the basis of the £12 billion of cuts that are to come between now and 2020, an additional 100,000 children in Scotland will be pushed into poverty. It is an utter, shameful disgrace that that is happening today in a civilised society and wealthy country.

I see from the figures released for Scotland that 210,000 children in Scotland are living in relative poverty after housing costs—22% of children in the country of Scotland. After housing costs, 140,000 children are living in combined low income and material deprivation—an increase of more than 20,000 in the past year. That is the reality of what the previous Government’s economic agenda has done to Scotland, and we know there is more to come if the right hon. Gentleman and his Government get their way. [Interruption.] Because of the impact of the Government’s policy in Scotland—[Interruption.]

Order. Let me explain for the benefit of the House, because some people do not have long enough memories, that when the Liberal Democrats were the third party, in respect of urgent questions they received an allocation of time comparable to that of the person who tabled the question. Of course, the hon. Gentleman will wish to try to preserve the attention of the House, but the hon. Gentleman is enjoying the entitlement only that was previously accorded to third parties. I hope he will therefore be accorded appropriate courtesy.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

As I was saying, the Scottish Government are having to intervene. We have funded poverty action campaigns in Scotland, with an additional £300 million, against the bedroom tax and other measures to try to alleviate some of the problems this Government are causing for our people. Is it not a disgrace that in my own constituency, for example, the biggest increase in food bank use has come from those who are in work? That is the reality of this Government’s policies and that is why, in the election campaign, the Scottish National party campaigned for a £2 increase in the minimum wage over the lifetime of this Parliament and the adoption of the living wage. It is unacceptable that anyone in this country should be living in poverty. Far too many families in Scotland, and throughout the UK, are having to make the choice of whether to heat their home or feed their children. That is morally unacceptable.

We believe the best way to deal with poverty is to have an integration of tax and benefits, leading to a ladder that would take people out of poverty, not the stigmatisation we see from this Government which punishes the poor in our society. I ask—

Order. When I am on my feet, the hon. Gentleman resumes his seat—that is the situation. I am trying to be helpful to the hon. Gentleman, but I fear that subtlety did not quite work. When I see a process of constant page turning, that is a source of anxiety to the Chair. I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that the thrust of the matter has to be a series of questions. Once we get beyond that to a series of comments or rhetorical questions, I feel that the hon. Gentleman, in the interests of the House and in the interests of himself, can appropriately resume his seat. We are very grateful to him.

I had been looking at those sheets of paper and assumed there was a bit more to come! I welcome the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) to his post. I agree that there is always more to be done. We want to eradicate poverty and child poverty. I think the figures show that we have made good progress, but I am not complacent.

The Scottish nationalists have campaigned, obviously, for independence, but they have many of the levers in their hands, and if the hon. Gentleman complains about poverty and child poverty in Scotland, my question would be: to what degree have the Scottish Government acted to make some of the changes that he wants? He made a couple of points, but my point would be that employment in Scotland is at a record high, which has not been the case in the past after a recession. The work that we have done to get people back into work, including those in workless households and in social housing, has been a huge success. It is worth reminding the hon. Gentleman that across the board in the UK, some 800,000 fewer people are in relative low income before housing costs, and 300,000 fewer children are in relative low-income households.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about reforming the benefit system so that it has a connection with the tax system; I can tell him that universal credit is exactly what he is hoping for. So far, we have had a bit of resistance from his Government. I hope he will now go back and say, “Let’s go for this full time.”

Does the Secretary of State agree that working to support families to prevent family breakdown is critical to improving children’s life chances, especially as family breakdown hits the poorest hardest? Does he also agree that Labour singularly failed to address that when they were in government?

My hon. Friend is a doughty campaigner for families and for assisting families to stay to together. Many of our reforms are helping families to stay together. Our reforms to the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission—the Child Support Agency, as it was often known in the past—hugely offers families the chance to sort their problems out before they go through the system. We are now seeing record numbers of those making their own balanced arrangements. We have put extra money—millions of pounds—into counselling for families on the verge of break-up, and we believe that that is helping them. The troubled families programme is aimed at stabilising families.

Poverty in inner London after housing costs is the highest in the country, at a scandalous 33%. Does the Secretary of State share my disappointment that, while we all believe that work should pay and is the best route out of poverty for many, the numbers on low pay in London have risen for the fourth year in a row and a third of a million more Londoners are now on low pay than in 2010? Can he reassure me that the way to tackle low pay is not to cut tax credits?

What the figures show is that, as I know as a London MP, parts of London have particular and deep-rooted problems. We want to address those particular problems. First of all, it is true that people are better off in work than they would be out of work, because without work they would have no chance of raising their income. As I made clear on Monday, we also want companies to start paying people a proper wage. I have campaigned endlessly to raise the minimum wage. We have raised it, and the Government are committed to raising it further. I have said to companies, “It is time now that you pay more money to your employees, to rate them as they should be for the work that they have done.”

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the target-based culture of the left actually encourages dependency and makes people stay in poverty because that is the right incentive for them, and that his policies are offering a new opportunity, which is transforming people’s lives? He deserves the full support of the House and the country.

I thank my hon. Friend, who makes a critical point. If we set up a target process that deals with only one aspect of a symptom, we will not get to the root causes. We have set out to get to those families who are the furthest away from employment, and move them into independence through employment. The figures I have given on the number of people in social housing now back in work and those on the lowest incomes now back in work are dramatic. They are better than any other records previously established.

The Secretary of State has been in his post for five years. In that time, the number of households living in absolute poverty has gone up by 2 million and the number of children doing so has gone up by half a million. Is not ditching the relative poverty measure and moving to focus on absolute poverty a complete own goal?

Let me remind the hon. Lady of the statistics. There are 800,000 fewer people on relative low income, 300,000 fewer children on relative low income, 100,000 fewer pensioners on relative low income, 670,000 fewer workless households, and 390,000 fewer children living in workless households. Those are the real statistics. Let me make this point to the hon. Lady: it is far better for us to look at the real life chances of families that were left behind by Labour. Those families were trapped in poverty because they could not change their lives, but we are changing them.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the single best way out of poverty is to have a job, and is he pleased that the number of children in workless households is at a record low under this Government?

I welcome my hon. Friend to the House, and I agree with what he has said. Let me tell him about a couple of record lows. The number of workless households has fallen by more than 670,000 since 2010 and there are 50,000 fewer households in which no one has ever worked. Those are people who were left behind by the Labour Government.

Does the Secretary of State agree that, given the limited powers of the Scottish Government, Scottish children cannot be protected from the extreme breadth and extent of the attacks made on the welfare system by successive Conservative Governments?

I welcome the hon. Lady to the House, but she cannot have it both ways. The Scottish Government demanded and were given extra powers relating to, for instance, taxation. They cannot turn around and say, “It is not our fault that we cannot change anything in Scotland.” If SNP Members want those powers, they cannot come to the House of Commons and complain because they cannot change anything in Scotland.

Poverty levels are at their lowest since the mid-1980s. That is good news, and it shows that work actually does pay, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the current poverty measure is out of date, and that we need a measure that highlights the root causes of poverty?

As the House will know, we began a debate about that back in 2011, and engaged in a full consultation not long before the last election. I have thought for some time that we need a better way of measuring what happens to families who are trapped at the lowest income levels and do not seem to be able to change their lives. The current measures are inadequate and give no indication of how that problem can be resolved. Life change is the key, and we need to be able to measure the way in which we can bring it about.

Unemployment in Wales has clearly fallen, but a third of the children in Wales—200,000 children—are living in absolute poverty. What plans has the Secretary of State to tackle zero-hours contracts, insecurity at work and low pay, and does he think that cuts in child tax credit will improve the present situation dramatically?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, Wales has historically experienced deep-rooted problems. Some of its communities have often found themselves literally, physically, distanced from developments in other parts of Wales. However, we are working hard to ensure, through transport links, that people can travel to work more quickly, and can travel further to find jobs. As the right hon. Gentleman said, employment in Wales has improved, which it was not doing previously. We are working hard, but I should be happy to talk to him about any specific details, because I am determined to help Wales to improve even more than it has already.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that ensuring that all children are given a high-quality education and an opportunity to acquire vital skills is critical to enabling those who are growing up in low-income households to escape from welfare dependency and find well-paid jobs?

Indeed I do. My hon. Friend—whom I welcome to the House—is exactly right. We must work harder to ensure that the circumstances of families with deep-rooted and deep-seated problems are turned around, and that they can obtain work and become independent, rather than depending on what the Government do.

When the Secretary of State received the confidential Government assessment marked “sensitive”, which warned him that reducing the benefit cap could plunge up to 40,000 more children into poverty, did he stop to think about the consequences, or is he sticking to his insulting idea that people want to be on benefits, despite the reality that most people want to work but the decently paid work they need simply is not there?

I have never believed that people want to be on benefits; I actually believe the vast majority of people on benefits want to do something about that and change their lives. Everything I do is about trying to do that: every policy we have is aimed at getting the economy right and helping people get back into work.

The Secretary of State is right to stress that child poverty is a problem not just of income, but many families on low income need support—to make them work-ready, or those with mental health problems—and there are still many tens of thousands of children in this country with attachment problems. Although he rightly mentions the success of the troubled families programme, does he agree that we also need a pre-troubled families programme to tackle inherited problems at source, often involving attachment disorder?

I recognise and pay tribute to the huge work that my hon. Friend has done, and continues to do, to try to transform the lives of the most troubled families. The troubled families programme was a success but we are now extending it, and within that extension there is scope to do exactly what he wants to do.

Does the Secretary of State agree that all of us who want every child in our country to have a full and happy life do get worried about not just the issues in this morning’s debate, but the fact that responsibility for children is spread over so many Departments? There is no longer enough focus on children in a holistic sense. Will he lead the Government in doing something quite quickly about that?

The hon. Gentleman is right—I often find myself in agreement with him. I am now tasked with chairing the Social Justice Cabinet Committee, the purpose of which is to bring together all work on families and children and to ensure that we have a concerted, single approach to it. But he is absolutely right that that is half the problem in government.

Does the Secretary of State agree that today’s statistics, showing that the percentage of children in relative low income is at its lowest level since the 1980s, are proof that this Government’s policy is working not just in that area, but in terms of social justice as a whole?

I believe that is the case, but there is hugely more to do. I do not for a moment stand here today and say, “It is all brilliantly successful”—quite the contrary. This is a very difficult area, but we are dealing with and trying to turn around some of the most troubled and difficult families. My hon. Friend is right, but we have more to do, and that is my purpose and why I am here.

If the situation has, according to the Secretary of State, improved substantially, why are there so many food banks—a far larger number than previously? Is it not quite clear that some Tory Members have no idea at all about the amount of poverty that exists—in many cases in their own constituencies?

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. Most of my colleagues are hugely involved in food banks and help them. I welcome food banks: I welcome decent people in society trying to help others who may, for various reasons, have fallen into difficulty. I do not accept that the single cause of that is welfare reform—quite the contrary. Food bank usage has been rising over a period. It was never part of the British system, but in Germany, where we can argue that their welfare payments are higher, 1.5 million people a week use food banks—much more than people do here.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to tackling the root causes of poverty, but one big issue for low-income families is their level of debt. What more can the Government do to help families in that situation?

Problem debt is a huge issue. With universal credit, through “Universal Support—delivered locally”, we are working with local authorities so that if people have a debt problem, we will continue to pay their rent but insist that, working with the council, they are put on debt programmes to help them manage their money and become independent. If they are in debt, they will not sustain themselves through work. That is the key thing to change; my hon. Friend is right.

Child poverty in St Helens is higher than the national average. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that taking in-work benefits away from working families would increase or decrease the level of child poverty in my constituency?

Our purpose is to support people as they go into work and progress into full-time work—that is what universal credit is all about. I believe that what the hon. Gentleman will see as we complete its roll-out is that more families will benefit, to the degree of taking control of their lives and having that independence of a pay packet.

Does the Secretary of State share my desire to focus on those children in persistent poverty—those in that situation for three years out of four—many of whom are, sadly, in my constituency and face multiple disadvantages within their family? Does he agree that they were a specific group wholly ignored by the previous Labour Government’s anti-poverty strategy?

My hon. Friend has campaigned hard on this and he is right; one problem with setting a narrow measure such as this and then being governed by it is that it is all about rotating people at the top of the relative poverty scale and not actually dealing with the deepest and deep-set problems. Dealing with those is what our purpose must be as we go forward to look at new measures.

Blue-collar Conservatism did not last long. Instead of hitting hard-working families with billions of pounds-worth of cuts, driving up child poverty, why does the Secretary of State not instead shift the burden of deficit reduction to the very wealthy and implement sound Liberal Democrat policies, such as extending free school meals and childcare?

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his position. I simply remind him that for five years he was part of what we were doing, so I hope that he would welcome today’s figures. I am sure that he has a new set of policies and I am happy to look at what he has come up with.

Before the Secretary of State was in his post, I encountered a benefit culture in my constituency surgeries; people in families where nobody had ever worked were coming to my surgeries. Gradually, over time, that has shifted, with more and more people getting jobs. Is that not the root success story: if we can get people into work, we break the benefit culture?

That is exactly the point. It is work that takes people out of poverty. We must support those who are furthest away and have the greatest difficulty, but we want the rest of them to move into work. We want the barriers, the debt problems and all those issues to be removed and we want to get them into work. We want to improve their kids’ education and improve their life chances. My hon. Friend is spot on.

A failure to increase child benefit and child tax credit in line with the cost of living means that more than one in five families struggle to provide the basics for their children. Given that unacceptable situation, does the Secretary of State support the End Child Poverty campaign calling on the Government to give children’s benefits the same triple lock protection as the state pension?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his post. May I say that the latest figures from Scotland show a fall of 40,000 in the number in relative poverty between 2012-13 and 2013-14? Our position is to help the worst-off, to support pensioners through the triple lock and to get all of them into a sustained life of good income.

This week, I attended the launch of Scope’s Extra Costs Commission, which is looking at the barriers faced by disabled people in entering the workplace. May I urge my right hon. Friend to do all he can to continue the Government’s strategy to ensure that more disabled people are able to enter the workplace?

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. It is worth reminding hon. Members that, through our Disability Confident programme and the support we are putting in to get more people with disabilities back into work, there are now more people with disabilities in work than ever before. That is still not good enough—the line is still too far below the line for others in work. We want to halve that gap by the end of this Parliament.

The Secretary of State can use any definition he likes, but the root cause of child poverty in my area is the fact that a quarter of all the full-time jobs pay less than the living wage. What is this Government’s strategy on low pay and in-work poverty?

One of the greatest causes of difficulties for those families was the economy crashing and people losing their jobs. It is my Government who have raised the minimum wage faster and higher. Is it high enough? No, but we are committed to raising it again in October, and we want to drive it further up. I have made it clear that employers should be paying that living wage, as the Prime Minister has said. The hon. Gentleman will have to watch this space.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we want to eradicate poverty and I even have it in my constituency of Twickenham? [Interruption.] I have seen poverty in different parts of the world, but I have not seen there the isolation of families who are relatively poor in my area. May I applaud the continuing plans for free childcare for two-year-olds? That is where I have seen part of the eradication of poverty—families coming together and being part of the community in Twickenham.

May I welcome my hon. Friend to her post? Opposition Members were making noise while she was speaking, but they should recognise that her back story is remarkable: the work she has done to help communities and families. I welcome her to the House. She is absolutely right. Getting those families who have educational difficulties and who are isolated from the community back into the community, and supported and helped back into work is absolutely key. She is right on the money.

With 48% of children in Orchard Park and Greenwood ward in my constituency living in poverty, does the Secretary of State think that removing the in-work benefits will increase or reduce that number?

The best thing we can do for those families is provide the support programmes that I have talked about. Those programmes are about helping those families get a better education, be more stable and get into work. Being in work and progressing in work is the greatest solution to poverty in the hon. Lady’s area, as it is in mine.

Clearly, one triumph of the coalition Government was the troubled families initiative, which concentrated resources on those most in need. Will my right hon. Friend describe the impact there has been on the child poverty aspects of those families who have been assisted?

The impact has been enormous. We dealt with 120,000 families. Against all the target measures, including being in work and educational attainment, more than 105,000 of them had their lives turned around by February 2015. We will extend that programme to incorporate more troubled families.

For the avoidance of doubt, I should like to ask the Secretary of State a question about people who are already in work. Will he tell me whether cutting tax credits for people in work will help or harm the poorest children?

Quite simply, the view is that we need to support people in work to ensure that they have the support that is necessary and that they progress in work. I make a simple point that I have made already in this House, which is that it is also the responsibility of companies to pay people a decent wage, and not to rely solely on Government to top up those incomes. We will continue to back those families, and universal credit will make that even more relevant with a greater level of support.

What is the impact of the Government’s policy of taking low-income families out of tax altogether and how many families directly benefit from that approach?

We have taken millions of people out of tax altogether, which has dramatically improved their incomes. Something like 25 million people have seen their tax bill reduce directly. For those who have a limited amount of income, this is a huge change and a huge support. That is not ever recognised by the Opposition, who basically raised taxes rather than lowered them.

The Secretary of State will have no doubt read “The Spirit Level”, which shows that social ills correlate strongly with income inequality—crime, mental illness, infant mortality and much more besides. At the worst end, there is the USA, and at the best end, the Scandinavian countries. These social ills cost billions to the public purse. We continually languish close to the USA end, rather than the Scandinavian end. Does that not make a powerful case for dramatically reducing income inequality and thus reducing child poverty?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The purpose is to get income inequality down, and it actually fell over the last Parliament. The way to do that is to improve the numbers going into work, to get them to go further and into full-time work. Universal credit helps that enormously.

I invite the Secretary of State to come to Taunton and to Halcon, where he will see how the Government’s long-term strategy to address the root causes of poverty is working. Halcon is among the 4% most deprived parts of the country and has four generations of unemployed families. The One team’s project with police, education and everybody working together is working, so may I urge him to come and have a look?

I welcome my hon. Friend to this place. I absolutely will—it would not take much to get me out to Taunton. As my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip is sitting next to me, I hope that he will be tolerant when my hon. Friend asks me and I ask for a slip.

Order. I am going to try to accommodate the remaining interested colleagues, but they need to be extremely brief. I know that the Secretary of State will follow suit.

The Secretary of State will find support on the Labour Benches if he champions a higher minimum wage and asks employers to pay the living wage. Is it not the case, however, that getting every employer to pay the living wage will take considerable time, whereas his Government are looking to cut tax credits for people who are in work and on poverty pay overnight?

It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman says that, because I genuinely believe that we should expect British employers to pay a decent wage to the people they employ, and I am engaged in that process. I do not think that he is right, as I think it will take a much shorter time to get employers to face up to their responsibilities, but as he has offered his support I am very happy to talk about it.

I thank the Secretary of State for taking time to visit Nelson job centre with me. In Pendle, we have some fantastic local organisations, such as branches of Christians Against Poverty, the local citizens advice bureau, Colne Open Door and many others, running job clubs. What is his Department doing to work with such organisations and charities to help families out of poverty?

Job centres have been given the freedom of the flexible support fund, so they have money to help to support some of these organisations. We now do a lot of work with debt counselling, and we use both local and national debt counsellors.

London has some of the highest levels of child poverty in the country. Given that the Secretary of State’s welfare cuts will be particularly harsh for working Londoners because of our high housing costs, why is he not at least calling for the implementation of the London living wage?

I have done. I insisted that all the contractors in my Department pay a London living wage and the Department for Work and Pensions pays a London living wage. We showed that we did not lose any jobs, that efficiency improved, and that people were happier and did a better job. I agree with the hon. Lady. I am determined that others should learn from that and recognise that we need to pay people a decent wage for the job that they do.

In Kingswood, unemployment is down from 1,320 in May 2010 to 609 today, a fall of 54%. Does my right hon. Friend welcome this and agree with me that the most important action that can be taken to reduce child poverty is to reduce long-term unemployment, ultimately ending long-term welfare dependency?

I agree with my hon. Friend. Long-term unemployment is falling and we are getting to the root causes of the problem. That will continue and is the key to helping people out of poverty.

With the approaching long school summer holidays, this is a particularly difficult time for children living in food poverty, as they do not have access to free school meals or breakfast clubs. What is the Department going to do to tackle that issue?

That is not directly in my Department, but I am very happy to talk about any specific issues and problems if the hon. Lady wants to come and see me. Through my Social Justice Cabinet Committee, we can drive to ensure that the support is available for those who need it.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), in which he perhaps unintentionally highlighted some of the successes of the Scottish Government in using their limited powers to mitigate the worst impacts of his Government’s cuts. Does the Secretary of State not agree that the Government could immediately stop making child poverty worse by announcing an immediate end to any benefit sanction against families with young children?

Actually, it is improving. The last bit of the hon. Gentleman’s question was slightly lost, but I think I heard that he was raising sanctions.

Right. If we do sanction someone, the processes before that happens are exhaustive—[Interruption.] Oh yes they are. People continue to be supported through all the child support mechanisms, including child benefit, and the household support that is available as well.

In my constituency, 31% of the children—more than 6,000 children —are born into poverty, and the parents of 36% of them earn less than the living wage. I have already had people who are working arrive at my surgeries in tears, terrified about what will happen when the Government chop tax credits. What would the Secretary of State like me to tell my constituents?

I should tell them that they should wait, as should the hon. Lady, to see what we bring forward. They may be surprised.

Has the Secretary of State considered calls for the establishment of a child poverty prevention board or council, as happens elsewhere, so that we can focus all our energies on the things that really make a difference and avoid getting trapped in a sterile debate about how we measure, rather than how we reduce, poverty?

That is an interesting question. I agree that it is important to get beyond this sterile debate. I want to bring to the House what I consider to be the right measures, and then I will be happy to discuss options. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) has come up with an idea, and I am happy to discuss that as well.

I have to say I found the Secretary of State’s tone absolutely breathtaking. Given that two thirds of children living in poverty are from working families, will he answer the question—this is the sixth time of asking—what assessment have his Government undertaken of the proposed cuts in tax credits and how they will affect child poverty levels?

We have got more people back into work and more people progressing through work, and more people are better off. They are better off in work than they are out of work—a fact that the hon. Lady seems to miss completely. The tax changes and the reductions in tax on take-home pay mean that people are actually better off. The answer to her question is simple: we will continue to support people who need that support through getting into work and beyond. That is the purpose of universal credit, she should stand assured.

Today’s households below average income survey report, on page 45, makes it quite clear that the percentage of children in relative income poverty has been flatlining since 2011-12, so it is not the policies of either this or the previous coalition Government that have reduced poverty; it is the legacy of the previous Labour Governments. Does the Secretary of State agree?

Okay, that is an interesting argument. I simply say that, if the hon. Lady wants to claim that, she can also claim the disaster of the crashed economy that the Labour party delivered, putting millions of people out of work.

Following his damascene conversion on the road to a Glasgow housing estate, the Secretary of State pledged that there would be no going back on Labour’s target to end child poverty. With nearly 9,000 children in poverty in Erdington, the great majority in working households, what does he have to say to the working mums I met in the Erdington food bank, who despair at what now looms for them in the next stages? To use the grotesque words of the Chancellor, these are strivers, not shirkers, but his Government are about to make them and their children poorer.

I hope the hon. Gentleman also tells them that his Government failed to halve child poverty against their target. Before we get another lecture about child poverty from that lot over there, I simply say to them that their economic mess—crashing the economy and putting millions out of work—did more damage to his constituents than anything else. We are here to help them and get them back into work.