Over a decade ago, I demonstrated that the relative income measure of poverty was flawed, and that it was driving Government policy on an unsustainable path. In 2007, the Centre for Social Justice report “Breakthrough Britain” made this point:
“Many poverty analysts are concerned that setting this simplistic poverty threshold has warped government priorities.”
I shared that concern, and in 2011 I reiterated that message in a speech to the London School of Economics, calling for a rethink about the way we improve the life chances of the poorest in society.
How we measure things matters because it influences what Governments focus on and what we target. As the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) himself said,
“this income measure…drives…policy in a single direction which is in danger of becoming counterproductive.”
Even the current chair of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, Alan Milburn, made a point in its latest report, before the election, that there is a real challenge to all parties to deal with the issue of this measurement.
The problem with a statutory framework set around the relative income measure has become all too apparent to all people and to everyone who wants to be honest about this. At 60% of median income, if someone sits below the line they are said to be poor; if they sit above it, they are not. Asking Government to raise everyone above that set percentage often led to unintended consequences, although for good reasons. Most of all, it led to poorly targeted spending, pumping money into the welfare system and focusing more often on inputs than on what those outcomes meant.
For example, as I have said before, we saw massive spikes in tax credit spending in the run up to election years. In the two years before the 2005 election, tax credit spending increased by nearly £10 billion, and in the two years before the 2010 election, it increased by nearly £6 billion. From 2002 to 2010, spending on tax credits more than doubled and cumulatively rose to £258 billion by the 2010 election.
Spending on welfare overall increased by 60% in real terms under the Labour Government, driven by the legitimate and reasonable need to chase what became, after the early successes, a moving line. Despite all this spending, by 2010, under the Labour Government, the number of households where no member ever worked nearly doubled, in-work poverty rose, and the Government missed their 2010 child poverty target by 600,000 children. I allege nothing from this. The motives were good, but the figures did not work.
We reached the position where a growing economy, ironically, drives increases in the measure of child poverty, whereas if the economy crashes, as happened under the Labour Government, child poverty apparently falls. Even today, if we were to increase elements of the state pension, we would run the risk of increasing the median income and thus increasing the number of households that would then fall into poverty.
We consulted widely over a number of years during the last years of the previous Government. The challenge was and remains to get a better way of identifying what we measure and how we tackle the root causes of the problem. This is because the current Act does not do enough to focus Government action on improving a child’s future life chances, to acknowledge the key role education plays, or to recognise that work is clearly a very important way, if not the real way, out of poverty.
Let me deal with the issue of work. I believe work is the best route out of poverty. It provides purpose, responsibility and role models for our children. Yet after more than a decade of welfare spending increases, by 2010 one in five households had nobody in work. During the previous Parliament we began to turn this around. There are now 2 million more people in work than in 2010. The number of children living in workless households is at a record low, and workless households are down to record levels as well. In this Parliament, I want to continue to press to improve that so that more parents get into work, stay in work and, importantly, progress when in work.
On education, the other aim that I just referred to, our ambition must be for disadvantaged pupils to be successful at school. We are committed to raising the bar among poor pupils as part of raising standards for everyone. This is because we know how important educational attainment is for improving their life chances. The Wolf report commissioned by the last Government showed that English and maths skills are vital for labour market entry, and continue to have a significant impact on career progression and pay. This is clearly shown by the staggering fact that 63% of men and 75% of women with low literacy skills have never received a promotion, remaining locked on the income on which they entered work. We are committed to ensuring that more poor pupils achieve excellent grades at GCSE, attend the very best universities, and do an apprenticeship or gain skilled employment, so that every child, regardless of background, is given an education which allows them to realise their full potential.
To that end, today I am announcing that we will bring forward legislation to remove the existing measures and targets in the Child Poverty Act 2010, as well as the other duties and provisions. However, the legislation will introduce a statutory duty to report on measures of worklessness and educational attainment. The worklessness measures will identify the proportion of children living in workless households, and the proportion of children in long-term workless households. The educational attainment measures will focus on GCSE attainment for all pupils and particularly for disadvantaged pupils.
The worklessness and education measures will reflect the agreed responsibilities in the devolution agreements. As with all our reforms, we will work with the devolved Administrations as we progress. They must make decisions about what they want to do. Alongside these reports we will continue to publish the HBAI—households below average income—statistics annually.
Alongside the statutory measures, we will develop a range of other indicators—I think this is very important—to measure the progress against the root causes of poverty. We know that in households with unstable relationships, where debt and addiction destabilise families, parents lack employment skills, and children are not ready to start school, these children do not have the same chances in life as others. It is self-evident. They cannot break out of that cycle of disadvantage. We are currently developing these measures, including family breakdown, problem debt, and drug and alcohol dependency. We will report each year on these life chances measurements as well.
We will reform the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission to become the Social Mobility Commission. The commission will ensure independent scrutiny and advocate for improved social mobility. This approach will ensure that tackling the root causes of child poverty and improving future life chances become central parts of our business as a one nation Government. As the Prime Minister said:
“We need to move from a low wage, high tax, high welfare society to a higher wage, lower tax, lower welfare society.”
Governments will no longer focus on just moving families above a poverty line. Instead, we want to focus on making a meaningful change to children’s lives by extending opportunity for all, so that both they and their children can escape from the cycle of poverty and improve their life chances. This process will, I hope, mark a shift from solely measuring inputs of expenditure to measuring the outcomes of children-focused policy. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for early sight of his statement. What he read out today is the obituary notice for compassionate conservatism. It is the death knell for any idea that his party might one day be a party for working people.
It is only a week since we received the news that progress on child poverty has stalled, with most poor children now living in working households. The Conservatives’ manifesto said that they would
“work to eliminate child poverty”.
Instead, their solution is to change the definition—incidentally, at their second attempt; they tried this before and gave up—to remove altogether child poverty from the remit of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, and next week to announce cuts that will make the problems much worse.
The Child Poverty Act, which the Secretary of State, if I understood his statement correctly, now wants to repeal, received all-party support before 2010, and it put one of the most important duties on 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. It has not just one, but four measures of poverty: absolute, relative, persistent, and material deprivation. The relative measure is the internationally accepted definition used by every OECD country.
Do the Government accept the importance of relative poverty? Will the Secretary of State clarify that? He told us in his statement that a decade or so ago he was arguing against the use of relative poverty. As he knows, at the same time the current Prime Minister was arguing for acceptance of relative poverty. In what he said today the Secretary of State echoed the words of the Prime Minister last week when he said:
“Just take the historic approach to tackling child poverty. Today, because of the way it is measured, we are in the absurd situation where if we increase the state pension, child poverty actually goes up.”
Of course, the Prime Minister was right. If the Government increase the income of better-off people, they make others relatively poorer. The Prime Minister last week described that as absurd, but that was not what he said when he was trying to re-brand the Conservative party in 2006. In his Scarman lecture he said that the Conservative party
“will measure and will act on relative poverty…poverty is relative and those who pretend otherwise are wrong.”
He went on to say:
“We need to think of poverty in relative terms—the fact that some people lack those things which others in society take for granted.”
That was the Prime Minister speaking in 2006.
So what is the Government’s current view? Is it that focusing on relative poverty is absurd, as the Prime Minister said with conviction last week, or is it the diametrically opposite view that he set out with apparently equal conviction on behalf of his party before? Where do they now stand? The Prime Minister promised that a Government he led would “act on relative poverty”. Why is that promise being broken?
Why cannot the Secretary of State level with the House? He hopes nobody will notice this announcement or its significance because it coincides with the airports statement. Am I right in understanding that he proposes that in his legislation there will be no targets at all, or will he include some targets in it and, if so, will he tell us what they are? I remind the Secretary of State that he and his colleagues all voted for the Child Poverty Act in 2010.
When in government, Labour lifted more than 1 million children out of relative poverty and more than 2 million out of absolute poverty. A key success was raising lone parent employment from less than 45% in 1997 to more than 60% today, mainly thanks to tax credits. That was not about lifting a few people from just below a line to just above it; it was about a very substantial change in the way the economy works. Will the Secretary of State tell us whether next week the Government will announce big cuts to tax credits? That is not about making work pay; it is about making working families pay.
What we need is not a change in the definition of poverty, but a plan to deal with poverty and boost productivity. Ministers should be tackling low pay, but instead they are attacking the low-paid. The Children’s Commissioners for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have today come together to warn that the Government’s policies will push more young people into poverty. What happened to the long-term plan? Why have children been left out? Why is the party that promised in its pre-election manifesto to work to eliminate child poverty now planning to increase it?
Let me deal with the points that the right hon. Gentleman has made. First, I thought that his comments were a little ridiculous. The idea that this is somehow an obituary for compassionate conservatism does him ill. He knows very well that the purpose of what we are doing is to get rid of child poverty, and that remains our central purpose. As I said earlier—and we are not alone in this—the problem is that if we lock two sets of measures that actually drive spending to rotate people over that line, what we get is a process of churning, but not the real and deeper change in people’s lives. That is the big reason why we want to do this.
The truth is that the previous Labour Government, on their own measure, failed to achieve their target—they failed to halve child poverty by 2010. Worse, in-work poverty actually rose. We could go through the list, but I would have thought that there was a better way of building some consensus than saying that Labour, if in power, could somehow embark on a massive spending spree and everything would be all right. Even Alan Milburn said that was unrealistic, and it remains unrealistic. We have to deal with the world as it is now, and we have to change the life chances of those children.
It is worth remembering that under this Government 74% of poor workless families who found work escaped poverty, and there was a higher poverty exit rate of 75% for children living in families who went from part-time to full-time employment. That has happened under this Government.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about international measures and suggested that we are somehow breaking away from everyone else. The reality is that no other country embarked on a plan to get rid of child poverty using that child poverty measure, and the reason is that other countries realised that it would lead to peculiar patterns of expenditure, with very little result for those who most need help.
The right hon. Gentleman asked whether relative poverty is important. Yes it is, which is why we continue to publish statistics on houses below average income, and we will continue to do so, so everybody will still be able to comment on that. Our focus will be on turning around the lives of the poorest through education and ensuring that they get back to work through skilling, which my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary has been working on.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about the poverty figures published by the IFS last week. He knows very well that before last week most of his colleagues were running around saying, “It’s going to be terrible. The IFS is predicting that child poverty will rise dramatically.” Actually, none of that happened. [Interruption.] Even on those measures, child poverty fell by over 300,000 under this Government.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to a well-respected body such as the IFS, which has all the means at its disposal, and we have enormous respect for its ability to predict things, but its predictions on child poverty have been wrong every single year that we have been in government. In its most recent prediction it was wrong again. Its original prediction was that child poverty would rise to 2.8 million, but that was out by over half a million.
I am not attacking the IFS—far from it—but simply saying that if a Government set a policy on something they find incredibly difficult to forecast or predict, they will end up chasing the error, as the previous Labour Government did. Well over £200 billion was spent on tax credits, but the key point is to turn lives around. That is why we will present this Bill, and why we will change this so that we can reach the poorest children.
Higher education standards, more apprenticeships and real jobs are what will drive down poverty, not borrowing large sums of money and spending it on benefits. Does my right hon. Friend agree?
I agree. The whole point is that we want to eradicate child poverty. This is not a departure from that proposal. However, we want to ensure that we do that by changing the long-term life chances of those who live in the poorest families. I do not want to have to stand here year after year and pretend that rotating people over the line of median income somehow means that we have succeeded. I said three or four years ago that child poverty had fallen under us according to that measure, but I said that I made no claim to have done that. The previous Government crashed the economy, which is why child poverty fell.
Over 210,000 children in Scotland are living in poverty, which is more than one in five, and two thirds of them have working parents. The report published earlier today by the UK’s Children’s Commissioners makes it clear that this Government are failing to protect the most disadvantaged children from their austerity cuts. Why will the Secretary of State not back calls for powers over employment and social security to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament so that we can take more effective action there to tackle poverty?
The devolved Administration in Scotland are getting powers over employment, because the Work programme and personal independence payments are being devolved, so they will have the powers to do that. In fact, the significant new powers in the Scotland Bill will give something like £2.5 billion-worth of new welfare powers to the devolved Administration, and they will be responsible for raising more than 50% of what they spend. On the basis of what I said earlier, I am happy to engage with the devolved Administrations on what measure they want to use, because they will have the capacity to decide either to continue with that measure or to change it in line with ours.
Several hon. Members
Order. I remind colleagues that it is a very long-established convention in this House that if a Member wishes to be called in response to a ministerial statement, that Member must be present at the start of the statement; it is no good wandering in at some later point, even if it is only shortly afterwards. Any Members who came in late should please not carry on standing, because they will not be called.
Prior to 2010, when I was the party’s child poverty champion, we discussed these changes, so I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. Does he accept that they represent a comprehensive approach to dealing with child poverty that is actually going to help?
I am glad that my hon. Friend believes that, because so do I. The purpose of what I have set out today, after a great deal of consideration over the past few years and a full consultation on the matter, is to arrive at a situation in which we are able to help those children and families in the greatest difficulty and try to move them out of poverty so that they sustain their lives out and beyond poverty.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. I re-emphasise his point that whatever definition we have will drive policy and resources, but might I make two pleas? First, when he fixes the life chances definition, he should not be too modest about his own contribution. Under the Labour Government, he and my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) published a report showing that the life chances for most children, particularly poor children, can be over by the age of five. We need to concentrate on that and not to be concerned immediately with technical education, however important that may be. Secondly, this Government and the previous Labour Government have been largely successful, through their welfare-to-work scheme, in moving people from benefits to work. The welfare-to-work mark 2 agenda should be about how we move many of those who are trapped on low pay up the pay scale so that they earn decent wages, with the dignity that comes from that, while also drawing less in tax credits.
I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s comments. He knows very well that, as I have already said to him, I am very happy to engage with him and his Committee on these matters. As he says, at the beginning of the previous Parliament, we called on him and the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) to do some work for us, and I have remained absolutely wedded to the proposals that they brought forward. In fact, the Social Justice Cabinet Committee that I now chair is tasked with ensuring that those early intervention measures are driven through all Departments. My right hon. Friend the Education Secretary is already acting on much of that with the early educational markers and by driving attainment much earlier on in areas such as maths and literacy, which will be part of our measure. The right hon. Gentleman will, I hope, note that I talked about publishing, alongside that, life-chances measures for areas such as debt, drug and alcohol abuse, and family breakdown. Those measures will help to guide us on when we intervene to make the changes necessary.
In constituencies such as Wycombe, for far too long the combination of relative measures plus coarse aggregates has hidden real poverty in certain wards. Will my right hon. Friend focus on practical outcomes for families and individuals so that we can get out of the position where we complacently ignore those in need and real suffering?
I agree. Apart from the two key areas that we are going to study very hard and put forward proposals on—the educational attainment and worklessness measures—we will have a duty to report on the pathways to poverty that I spoke about. Those will be the guiders that allow us to drive forward the change that is necessary, often in the very early years, in families suffering deprivation.
Is not this statement merely a justification for next week’s cuts to tax credits for the working poor? Is it not also about avoiding the fact that the Government have absolutely no hope in hell of achieving their Child Poverty Act targets? The fact is that low income is the cause of child poverty, so what is the Secretary of State going to do to address that, because this Government have absolutely failed to make work pay?
I agree that low earnings are part of the problem, but that is exactly what we are trying to address in raising the thresholds and planning to raise them again to over £12,600. We have taken millions of people out of paying tax. We also targeted this by raising the minimum wage, which will rise again to £6.70. I have made it very clear that I personally want the minimum wage to rise even further. This Government are determined, through the mechanisms and interventions that I am talking about, to raise incomes and change life chances at the very earliest stage.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s determination to break the cycle of disadvantage and to focus instead on outcomes. As he knows, health inequality also traps children in disadvantage. He has touched on alcohol and drug addiction, but will he also look at the burdens of mental health inequalities, and obesity and tooth decay, because those too are having a massive impact on children’s life chances? I hope that he will work across Government Departments to make sure that they are tackled as well.
I am happy to work with my hon. Friend on this. I agree with her about poor health outcomes, which often involve mental health issues. Some of those are swept up within the work that we are already doing. We will bring forward further proposals on how we can improve outcomes for people with mental health conditions by getting them to treatment much quicker. I am happy to discuss those matters, in line with the areas that I spoke about earlier.
In a recent answer to me, the Secretary of State admitted that the proportion of the social security budget spent on 18 to 21-year-olds on jobseeker’s allowance in receipt of housing benefit is just 0.1%. When he enacts his nasty and punitive policy to remove that entitlement, what will happen to those people and their 2,400 dependent children? Does he simply not care that they are going to be thrown into greater poverty and homelessness?
No. All those young people will always be supported by this Government. We are talking about getting the balance right between those who need support and can be supported by their families and those who have genuine and serious long-term difficulties. Part of the process I have announced today is to identify those families earlier. Universal credit helps enormously in identifying the families with debt problems, housing problems, and drug and alcohol problems. Getting to them and dealing with those problems is far better than the tokenism that the hon. Lady seems to be involved in.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, which will continue to build on the Government’s work to address the root causes of poverty in Mid Dorset and North Poole and elsewhere. Does he agree that this Government’s work to support families and prevent family breakdown is critical in tackling child poverty and increasing children’s life chances?
I do believe that. One of the big failures of Governments is that too often they have been ambivalent about the whole concept of stable family structures and have simply chased the errors. Since we came to power, family life has stabilised, according to the latest reports. More than that, we are putting millions of pounds into help and support for those in danger of family break-up, and that never happened before.
Tory party members were the strongest opponents of a national minimum wage, and no doubt the right hon. Gentleman himself voted against it. Apart from those on the Tory Benches, most people will understand very clearly that the whole purpose of his statement and policy is to try to conceal the amount of poverty, child poverty and deprivation that exist in so many constituencies like mine. He should be thoroughly ashamed of himself.
Those are the usual rather bitter and acrimonious remarks from the hon. Gentleman. I say to him, not for the first time, that I utterly disagree. More than that, I point out that all the figures that we would usually publish will continue to be published; there is no hiding anything in this report. If he is not going to be bothered to read them, I will direct him to exactly where he will find them. If we change life chances from the beginning rather than being obsessed about targets, as he is, we might change real lives rather than playing games.
In my experience as a small business owner, I was absolutely shocked to find that members of staff would decline pay rises that we offered them because they would lose so much in tax credits in this absurd system. May I assure my right hon. Friend that he will have strong support from my constituents in South Suffolk if he undertakes radical reform of tax credits, because they are a benefit trap and they hold back social mobility?
We are already engaged in that. Universal credit is rolling out, replacing the current system. That will make it much easier for people to find work and then to work different hours, whereas at the moment, under tax credits, they are often penalised for making a decision to change their hours because they lose far too much of their earnings. That reform is under way, and it will change lives.
The UK Government’s £12 billion of proposed welfare cuts will risk putting up to 100,000 more children into poverty in Scotland by 2020. Yesterday the Secretary of State and his colleagues walked through the Lobby to turn down the opportunity for Scotland to have greater power over welfare and employment. He said in his statement that “work is the best route out of poverty.” Is it not time that Scotland had the power to tackle poverty, because his Government and his party clearly cannot?
It will not surprise the hon. Lady to hear that I do not agree with almost every single word she said. I remind her that it is no good going on and on about the powers that one wants when one is not prepared to recognise or exercise the massive powers given under the Smith commission—£2.5 billion-worth of new welfare powers, the ability to raise more than 50% of what is spent, and powers over employment programmes. I am not quite sure what she actually wants, but I do know this much: under this Government, employment in Scotland has been better than it has been after previous recessions at any other time.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s thoughtful statement. Does he agree that, despite having figures for persistent poverty in the structure of the existing poverty targets, they have not hitherto succeeded in driving public policy change in Whitehall or in improving the life chances of those in persistent poverty in Blackpool and Cleveleys?
That is exactly the point I have been making. One of the big areas that has been missing is educational attainment. By locking in educational attainment, we are at last going to be able to look at a balance of measures that ask whether people are actually seeing their life chances progress. The group of people I most constantly worry about are the families who never got near the 60% line, whose life chances were flat. I want them to be able to follow a trajectory that goes above that line and for them to be able to get ahead under their own steam as they take control of their lives.
In west Cumbria, as in many other parts of the UK, the areas of greatest deprivation have not shifted for decades, so I was pleased to hear the Secretary of State say that we are now moving to a high-wage economy. We have heard a lot from hon. Members about wages and tackling in-work poverty. Surely the Secretary of State must agree that until we ensure that all businesses pay a decent living wage, we are never going to tackle in-work poverty and break that cycle.
The hon. Lady should recognise that wages are rising faster and more strongly than at any time since 2007, so we have started that process. We have also raised the minimum wage—it is due to go up to £6.70—but if the hon. Lady wants to press me, I absolutely agree with her. I want businesses—and I have said this before—to recognise that they need to pay the people who work for them a decent wage and not rely on the Government to subsidise that wage so that they can have bigger profits. I am going to campaign for that and I hope we will drive it.
Unemployment in my constituency of Bury North has fallen by about half since 2010. Does the Secretary of State agree that the best way to alleviate child poverty is to have a growing economy, giving more parents the opportunity to work and enabling higher wages for those already in work?
I agree with my hon. Friend. The Opposition are concerned and angry that the measure is being changed, but it is worth relating the interesting fact that, even with all the money under the measure, the number of working-age people in in-work poverty rose by 20% between 1998-99 and 2010. It beggars belief that some want a policy that is clearly not working to continue simply because it has become totemic to them. They are not looking at its actual effect.
If I heard the Secretary of State correctly, he said that a quarter of those who move from unemployment into work remain in poverty. Is not there a problem, therefore, of short-term working, zero-hours contracts and low wages? Is not there also a problem, particularly in London and the south-east, of excessively high rents, which are driving so many people into poverty? Any interested observer of the Secretary of State’s statement would say that it was a study in obfuscation to avoid examination of what he is really doing, which is damaging the life chances of millions of young people in this country. Child poverty is a terrible thing and he should address it rather than run away from the facts.
The hon. Gentleman and I should be at one, because we are addressing the facts. That is what today’s announcement was about. The hon. Gentleman mentions the number of those who are in work but who have not risen out of poverty. The figures I read out earlier show that, of those who fail to get proper maths or English qualifications at school and make it into work—they are in the minority—some 75% of the women will never progress because of their failure to get qualifications. Does not the hon. Gentleman think that I am answering his charge through educational attainment—driving change for those children and getting them into work so that they can progress?
As a former director of a credit union, I am deeply concerned about the level of indebtedness that is endured by and has blighted the lives of many low-income families. Would the Secretary of State care to expand further on the Government’s plans to address this very difficult problem?
My hon. Friend should know that in the last Parliament we put a significant amount of money into credit unions. It is our plan—we are determined about this—to get credit unions to expand and to work with them so that they become the key element for people on low incomes and others to be able to get decent support, including financial support. I recommend that all hon. Members set an example by making sure that they are members of credit unions.
I note that the Secretary of State will remove any Government ambition to eradicate child poverty. On behalf of the hundreds and thousands of children who go to school having not eaten breakfast or who after the summer holidays turn up thinner because they have not eaten properly—many of whom actually come from working households—may I ask the Secretary of State what he will do to make sure that no child in our country is going hungry?
We have provided universal free school meals and childcare measures allowing mothers to go to work. I say to the hon. Lady that under her party’s Government, in-work poverty actually rose, so she needs to look at her figures before lecturing us.
Order. I do not intend any unkindness to the hon. Lady and I want to be fair, but I do not think she has been present throughout the exchanges or that she was here at the start. Did she leave at any stage during the proceedings?
She did not. I will take that from her. If that is what she tells me, I am content with that.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I was here towards the end of the transport statement.
I want to draw on my own experiences as a business owner. It is important that, however we choose to describe the measures, we tackle child poverty head-on. During the early days of one particular employee’s employment, it felt like I had to drag him to work. He was a young man aged 21 with three small children and it was clear that nobody, including his peers and parents, had brought him up in the world. When I gave him employment and put his money up, he was still culturally unable to find the mental drive to go to work. We have to tackle child poverty by getting to people when they are young, through education, giving them hope and making sure they have food in their bellies—whatever it takes—and we have to achieve that together. I have seen it at the other end—you can drag a horse to water—so I welcome what the Secretary of State is trying to do.
I welcome my hon. Friend to her place and her experience of running a business and trying to get people from difficult backgrounds into work. My right hon. Friend the Education Secretary is already engaged in driving schools to help inculcate and teach character resilience and key characteristics such as understanding what it is to go to work and to get up in the morning. Under this Government, average weekly earnings have been rising faster than for a considerable time.
The Secretary of State has told us that he will remove the current child poverty targets and replace them with a number of measures. I am uncertain, however, about whether there will be any other targets. If not, how will we be able to measure his success? Clearly, success is needed because, as he knows, 37% of London children live in poverty and unless he is successful they will continue to be poor.
We are going to be very open and publish all the elements I mentioned earlier, including those relating to educational attainment, workless households, the new life chances measures and the figures for households below average income, so the hon. Lady and anybody else will be able to see them. We are not hiding from anything. We want those HBAI figures to fall and for the educational attainment and working household figures to improve. That will all be evident and if we are not achieving that, the hon. Lady can be the first on her feet to say so.
The Secretary of State referred to universal credit in response to an earlier question. It is acknowledged that universal credit will be a vital support to families and children. What is being done to ensure that people in rural areas without high-speed broadband connections will not be disadvantaged in this process?
That is a very good question, and the hon. Lady is right to say that universal credit will help enormously. The Government have a massive programme to roll out superfast broadband to every area of the country. I will take the hon. Lady’s question to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport so that it can tell her how soon it will arrive in her area. Even if people are unable to do it online, we have made full provision for them to do it, if necessary, by paper exchange, as they would at the moment.
The Secretary of State has announced that he will report on measures of worklessness and educational attainment. Will he take care to make sure that those figures are broken down by race and ethnicity, because there are complex factors at work? It is not necessarily the case that all groups of black children do worse than all groups of white children. Although we might disagree on the remedies, without sound data we cannot plan to help all of our children.
I give the hon. Lady that absolute assurance.
Regardless of the fiddle the Secretary of State is carrying out on the measure of poverty, does he not accept that if his Government press ahead with cuts to tax credits without raising the minimum wage to at least the living wage, he will plunge many more of my constituents and their children into poverty?
The purpose is to get people into work and to help to drive up their hours so that they end up in full-time work and beyond the benefit system. I believe the reforms we have carried out and those we will bring forward will aid that. He should be reminded that his devolved Administration has the capacity and power to decide what measures they want to employ.
One of the proudest and best achievements of the previous Labour Government was the roll-out of 3,600 Sure Start children’s centres. If, as the Secretary of State says, this is all about outcomes, not inputs, why has his Government slashed the budgets of local authorities, which pay for Sure Start, to such an extent that more than 800 have closed and many more are now hollow shells of their former selves? To use his very words, they are now unable to make
“meaningful change to children’s lives”.
We gave local authorities responsibility and the money. We did not ring-fence the money, but we told them that their priority should be to make sure that that early years work takes place. My view across the board is that, as all the studies I have seen show, the quality of that work is as good if not better than it was before. I was and remain a great supporter of such support, and I and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education will ensure that it continues.
London is the sixth richest city in the world and it produces a fifth of the GDP of the United Kingdom; yet four out of 10 of its children are in poverty. Does the Secretary of State accept that businesses recognise those facts by paying a London weighting? Is it time that he considered a London weighting both in relation to the minimum wage and the benefits cap in London?
As a London MP, I am only too well aware of the peculiar difficulties faced by London. Even after all the years of very high expenditure through tax credits, we still have the situation that the hon. Gentleman mentions. Certain particular facts about London make that a reality. I would simply say that my purpose in all this is to look at all measures to have a better way of making certain that the support goes to such individuals. I am very happy to discuss with him the matter he raises to see whether we can make any progress.
Mr Wood, were you here at the start?
I certainly was.
Good. Let us hear from Mr Wood.
Despite the progress that has been made during the past five years, too many children of disabled parents remain in poverty. Will my right hon. Friend assure us that the Government will continue to work to help more disabled people into work—and well-paid work—so that such children can look forward to better outcomes?
I welcome my hon. Friend to his place. The Government rightly spend significant sums of money on support for disabled people throughout the UK. In fact, I think the amount we spend on disabled people, as a proportion of GDP, is more than is spent by America, Germany and France together. I am proud of that. It is the right thing to do, and we should continue to do it. However, many people who have disabilities are desperate for work. We have now increased the proportion who are in work to record levels, but that is not good enough. I want to get it up to the same level as for the rest of society.
Will the Secretary of State please explain how redefining child poverty and removing targets will in practice give help today to a child living in poverty in a family who are in work?
We continue to support families who are in work through the various mechanisms we have. As universal credit rolls out, it will add to those mechanisms, and there are additions for families with children. Including the measures I am announcing today, we will address that by ensuring that the children in such families have improved life chances through improved educational achievement. We have already done a huge amount through free school meals, support through childcare—there are massive amounts of new childcare—and the involvement of parents in further work. We are doing more to help those families than was ever done before.
Would the Secretary of State care to comment on a recent policy proposal from the Resolution Foundation, which has pointed out that if one really wants to target help to working families on low and middle incomes, the best way to do it is to increase or boost the working allowance as opposed to giving them tax cuts?
I have never seen such things as either/or. A well-balanced Government will decide how they can help certain specific groups with support where necessary. We have done that in a variety of areas, including through the tax credits we inherited from the previous Labour Government and now through universal credit. I am a great believer in this: if, as we have done, we give people incentives by raising the threshold and taking millions of low-paid people out of tax, that has got to be good because now that they do not pay tax, they can hold on to more of their money.
The Secretary of State will no doubt want to join me in welcoming the Welsh Labour Government’s moves to tackle the deep roots of poverty, whether relative or absolute poverty, including schemes such as the Flying Start programme. He will also welcome the news that Labour-controlled Rhondda Cynon Taf Council intends to move all its workers on to the living wage. Does he agree with the concern that cuts to in-work benefits that happen too soon and are not commensurate or simultaneous with rises in the minimum wage or a move towards the living wage will inevitably impact on absolute poverty in working households?
I am not altogether acquainted with the programmes that the hon. Gentleman mentions, but I have talked at length to the devolved Administration in Wales. We have endlessly discussed how we can interact. I would like us to interact more; they are sometimes a bit resistant to doing so. My purpose is to help people to get back to work and out of poverty. Wales is seeing a bit of a renaissance in terms of people going back to work, which is good news. As far as I am concerned, we want to help people through work, and I want employers to pay their people a decent wage. I have ensured that the Department for Work and Pensions in London pays the London living wage to all, including the cleaners.
Higher educational attainment and improved job prospects are important goals, but they are long-term ones. In the meantime, child tax credits are absolutely vital. Indeed, they are a more precise way of targeting help to children in low-income families than normal rises in the tax threshold. The majority of such families are of course in work. What assurances will the Secretary of State give us that there is no plan to reduce child tax credits for these hard-working families?
We have brought forward these particular measures because they allow us to identify families better. We now have to do the work to identify families who are stuck on low trajectories and are unlikely to break free of such a position on the measure by which we have always measured poverty in the past. I would simply say that that is the best way to give workless families more opportunities now. In the longer term, educational attainment will help to ensure that their children do not repeat what has happened in the past. I believe that the reforms we are making and those we will bring forward will help children more and will help parents to get back into work faster.
The Secretary of State has not actually addressed the questions asked about tax credits by my constituency neighbour. If I may say so, his statement skirted around the issue of children living in households where the parents work but are still in poverty. How can it possibly be fair, in next week’s Budget or at some point in the future, to cut the tax credits for those families? All he has said today about these measures and everything else will not help the parents of those households to pay the bills when he cuts their tax credits overnight.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman ever reflects on the fact that people can best get out of poverty by progressing through work. In discussions with Labour Members, I tend to find that they are still wedded to the idea that only through constant and high Government spending can anyone move beyond the status of being in poverty. That is the difference between us: Conservative Members believe that helping, encouraging and getting people back to work and reducing the tax burden on them is likely to get them out of poverty; Labour Members think that only Government spending succeeds.