[Philip Davies in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered child poverty.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. Let me share with the House my reasons for tabling this debate. My passion for campaigning against child poverty stems from the reasons why I stood for Parliament. It is a motivation that I know is shared right across this Chamber, because we all serve in politics to change lives. For me, that means that no child in Britain should grow up in poverty. We should not simply accept a situation where luck of birth can hold a person back throughout their lifetime. Those who grow up in poverty are more likely to fall behind in school, less likely to secure a stable job in the future and more likely to suffer from ill health in later life. This debate is about making sure that Britain is a country that gives every child the opportunity of the best start in life.
I want to rebuild a cross-party consensus and to welcome the sentiments expressed by the Prime Minister as she stood on the steps of Downing Street. She signalled a fight against “burning injustice”, with an unambiguous pledge to
“do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you.”
I agree, because to succeed in the future we must create a country that makes the most of all our talents. That is the task facing all of us in this place. We should be judged by whether we do right by the next generation.
In my Barnsley constituency, more than one in four children grow up in poverty, so I stand here today to give a voice to those 5,114 children. The Minister will know that in her constituency, too, more than one in four children grow up in poverty. Surely we can find common ground on the need for a target to change those alarming figures, so that the children we represent here today can have the brightest possible future.
In Britain today, an average of nine children in a class of 30 grow up in poverty. For those nearly 4 million children, that can mean living in a cold and cramped home, falling behind in school and not being able to join in activities with friends. The Children’s Commission on Poverty empowered young people to share their own experiences of poverty. Over 18 months, the commissioners investigated how poverty affects their peers at school, and I want to give them a voice here today and share some of the findings.
The commissioners were shocked and moved by what they found. Luke, aged 17, said:
“I am surprised that even in the 21st century, children and young people are being subject to the harshest injustice in society even within schooling. This should never be right in one of the world’s richest countries.”
Poverty means children often have to dress differently and therefore stand out. A classmate described the situation:
“I saw some kids that didn’t have blazers or coats in winter and I could see they couldn’t afford it”.
Pupils shared how those in poverty do not all qualify for free school meals if their parents are working. When that is the case, a meal at lunchtime may not always be affordable, a situation that one child describes:
“It depends really on what my mum’s situation is. If I don’t have the money, I normally just wait until I get home [to eat].”
My hon. Friend is doing an excellent job setting out the problem that we sadly still face with child poverty in this country. Is he aware of the work of the holiday hunger campaign? Children who have free school meals during term time have a six-week-long summer holiday where they do not have access to those free school meals, and many of them go hungry. The campaign is doing excellent work.
I am aware of that campaign, which is doing incredibly important work in providing food and nourishment for children during the school holidays. I will be saying a little more about the problem she raises later in my speech.
For those who do receive free school meals, their poverty status can be highlighted by how they are required to buy their lunch with a token, which can hold up the queue as their card is inspected. Those children’s experiences should give us pause, for a renewed focus on child poverty, that understands the experience of those who live it every day.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that schemes such as we have in Scotland, where all children in primary 1 to primary 3—aged five to seven—are given a free school meal, help get rid of some of the stigma attached to school meals.
I absolutely agree. Just as I am seeking to build a cross-party consensus in the campaign against child poverty, I am seeking to build a consensus in every corner of our country. Again, I will say a little more about that later.
By seeking to understand the experiences of those who live in poverty every day, we can help to build a fairer country—one that delivers the vision set out by the Prime Minister as she took office. Let us be clear: that is now urgent. The Institute for Fiscal Studies projects the biggest increase in relative child poverty in a generation: the number of children growing up in poverty is expected to grow by 50% by 2020.
I am really pleased that my hon. Friend has secured this debate, because it is very easy at Christmas-time for there to be an orgy of consumption and we need to think about the families who are not going to share in that. My hon. Friend is absolutely right about what is coming down the tracks. Does he share my concern that, having dissed the idea of relative poverty, the Government have been trumpeting the fact that relative poverty did not fall in the last five years? More important, does he share my concern that changes made in the Budget by the previous Chancellor after the general election mean that every family in the bottom third of the income distribution is going to be worse off?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. I know that she has a long-standing interest in the subject of child poverty, which I will refer to a bit later in my speech. She raises the issue of poverty being relative, which reminds me of a quote:
“Even if we are not destitute, we still experience poverty if we cannot afford things that society regards as essential. The fact that we do not suffer the conditions of a hundred years ago is irrelevant… So poverty is relative—and those who pretend otherwise are wrong.”
That quote was from David Cameron.
I was reflecting on the projection from the Institute for Fiscal Studies of the biggest increase in relative child poverty in a generation, with the number of children growing up in poverty expected to grow by 50% by 2020. The Government have a choice to make and the power to stop that increase happening. Their decisions will shape what kind of country we live in.
Yet what have we recently learned of the Government’s approach from their response to my parliamentary questions? We have learned that the child poverty unit has been closed. Eliminating child poverty is no longer the goal of policy. The Government admit that no money is being directly invested by the Department for Work and Pensions to develop evidence on what early interventions best support children and that a maximum of only seven civil servants support the Government’s Social Mobility Commission. That is not a record that matches the Prime Minister’s rhetoric.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I am very pleased indeed that it is taking place. There is another aspect of this, which no doubt he will touch on in the course of his speech. This is not just about children living in poverty now and the projected increase of 50%, which is very alarming news, although the Government do not seem to be concerned. It is likely that the children who are growing up in poverty now will themselves have children who will live in poverty, so the problem will continue through successive generations unless firm steps are taken to decrease substantially the number of children living in such conditions.
My hon. Friend speaks with great experience of these matters. He is absolutely right: this is about investing in the future not just of those young people but of our country. By ensuring that young people get the best possible start at the earliest of ages, we ensure the best possible life outcomes not just for them and their families but for us as a society and a country.
Clearly, the reasons why people live in poverty are unique to each individual, but there are shared experiences and similar causes. At the most basic level, it is about families and individuals simply not having enough money to cope with the circumstances in which they find themselves. We cannot be serious about tackling the problem unless we include income in our analysis of child poverty and our policy response. Getting this right will mean that families have greater security in their home and at work, and that all families have an adequate income to avoid poverty and live decent lives.
That a family’s income shapes the quality of childhood is easily understood. Every family wants the very best for their children, and parents often go without to achieve that. Research from the Trussell Trust shows that one in five parents in the UK either skipped meals or relied on friends or family to feed their children last year. Of course, money is not everything—we all know that the most important factors are love and attention—but that does not mean it is nothing. Income is a central factor in meeting children’s needs, and the Government’s forthcoming social mobility Green Paper, a successor to the long-delayed and unpublished life chances strategy, cannot be adequate without addressing child poverty.
Tackling in-work poverty is critical. Two in three children in poverty grow up in a household in which a parent works, so the reality is that work no longer provides a guaranteed route out of poverty. Our response must be to have a wider approach to tackle insecurity at work, to better understand the increase in zero-hours contracts and to deliver a real living wage for more workers. To support people on low incomes, we need to do more to provide opportunities for progression.
The hon. Gentleman tempts me down a road, but I will resist the opportunity to get into that slightly different debate. He may seek to make further points later.
I ask the Government to look at the success being delivered at a local level through programmes such as the Workplace scheme in Newham, which identifies the needs of employers to upskill local residents so they can increase their earnings. Childcare must be more flexible and available when and where parents need it. It is one of the biggest tolls on families’ budgets: the cost of childcare pushes an additional 130,000 children into poverty.
The Government’s forthcoming Green Paper must cover income, child poverty and other structural determinants of children’s chances. It must recognise that childhood is a key stage in everyone’s lifetime, making up a fifth of the average lifespan, so it must be about ensuring a good and nurturing childhood as well as what happens next. I hope the Government will take the opportunity to change course so we do not continue on a path that will see more than 1 million children living in poverty over this decade.
Ever-increasing child poverty is not inevitable; it is the result of political choices. We have seen that before: child poverty rose sharply in the 1980s and peaked in the late 1990s, before falling significantly. The previous Government, who happened to be a Labour Government, showed us how that can be achieved. We should recognise the work of my right hon. Friends the Members for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), for East Ham (Stephen Timms) and for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne), and my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), who took the Child Poverty Act 2010 through this House.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this very important debate. Will he acknowledge that one of the reasons why the Labour Government were able to maintain progress was the very precise and well tracked measurements and targeting arrangements, which ensured that when policy was not delivering the required outcomes it was possible to take adjusting action and bring things back on track?
My hon. Friend speaks with real authority and experience. I am delighted that she is here to support this debate. She has been incredibly helpful and generous with her time in supporting the work that I have been doing recently. I am very grateful for that point. She is absolutely right. As somebody said to me just the other day, “If it doesn’t get measured, it doesn’t get done.” If we are serious about achieving something, it is important that we set a target.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to refer to the previous Labour Government, who put children first and delivered the biggest improvement in tackling child poverty of any EU nation. In 1997, more children were living in poverty in Britain than in almost any other industrialised nation, but by 2010 we had lifted 1 million children out of poverty. That happened not by accident but because the Government set themselves a target and made achieving it a priority. Investment in higher-quality early years education, childcare and Sure Start centres was expanded fourfold. Support for families was expanded to enable them to enjoy greater control over their lives and greater security in their finances. The tax credit system was introduced and maternity leave was doubled.
We should pay tribute to the leadership of Gordon Brown—I know that will give you particular pleasure, Mr Davies—who legislated for a child poverty target with support from parties across the House. I am reminded of the former Prime Minister’s memorable observation that
“children are 20% of our population but 100% of our future.”
We have a duty to this generation to make progress on addressing child poverty once again, because it should scar our conscience as much as it does our children’s futures.
I genuinely believe that all of us in this Chamber feel that responsibility and want child poverty to fall but, as in life, if the Government want to achieve something, it is useful to set a target. The focus of debate should be what that target is and how it should be met, not the principle of having a target itself. No political party in this House has suggested abolishing all Government targets. As the House of Commons Library noted:
“A target is a clear expression of a policy priority, setting out exactly what the Government wants to have done and by when. Targets let those responsible for delivery know what needs to happen, so that they can plan, monitor and deliver”.
The Library goes on to explain that targets
“allow organisations to be held to account on whether they meet the targets, including by Parliament. They can provide a focus on long-term strategic goals in areas where short-term pressures would otherwise mean that these goals might not be achieved.”
That is why I believe that setting a target can help to realise a common purpose to tackle child poverty that includes communities, employers and government at every level.
My private Member’s Bill provides the House with an opportunity to make that intention clear. It will receive a Second Reading on Friday 3 February and I hope that it earns the support of Government. Parliament has a strong record on working across parties on the issue, most notably in passing the Child Poverty Act 2010, which committed the Government of the day and future ones to take action to eliminate child poverty. With my Bill, I do not seek to be prescriptive about what the target should be. Rather, we should be clear that our goal is that no child should grow up in poverty and that we will measure our progress with a target.
I hope that the Chair has noted my repeated efforts to convey that my private Member’s Bill is not politically motivated. It is too important and too urgent for that. In your constituency, Mr Davies, about one in five children grow up in poverty—3,743 children. Simply put, the present situation is unacceptable and without action what will follow will be worse still. Outside Parliament, consensus is growing that the Government need to do more and quickly.
I take this opportunity to place on record my thanks to those charities and stakeholders that recently attended a round-table event I hosted here in Parliament. We should all recognise the vital work that the sector undertakes every day to help those living in poverty. The Child Poverty Action Group has long campaigned on the issue, and I am proud to have its support for my Bill. Barnardo’s, the Children’s Society, Buttle UK, Gingerbread, the Family and Childcare Trust, Save the Children, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation or JRF, and the Equality Trust all have my profound thanks for their input. I hope that there will be others.
I am happy to meet the Minister or one of her colleagues in the new year to share the extent of support for a target among those who know the most about the issue. It is a concern, however, that the Government have been active in seeking to change how we understand child poverty while also removing a duty to reduce it. The Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 replaced the reporting obligations of the 2010 Act, bringing in the life chances measures of worklessness and educational attainment. The Child Poverty Commission became the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, and is now just the Social Mobility Commission. In answer to a parliamentary question, we have learned that its crucial work is supported by only seven civil servants, at most, and this week we learned, with some concern, that the child poverty unit has been quietly abolished, without adequate information on that fact being provided to Parliament.
No child poverty target, no child poverty unit, no staff resources and no stated intention to end child poverty—no matter how many children are set to grow up in poverty in the years ahead, we can and must do much better than that. We can see that from projects all over the country, because local communities have not been able to wait for the Government to take action. In my Barnsley constituency, we have a campaign bringing together members of the community and the local council to take action.
As part of the campaign, we asked the public to name just one thing that could make a difference to children locally. Ideas ranged from new requirements to develop affordable housing or to expand childcare, to the great example set by retired teachers lending their expertise to tutor local students. That has informed the ongoing work of Barnsley Council’s anti-poverty board. The campaign brings local partners together to support residents affected by Government spending cuts and welfare reforms. They have been working hard to identify families most in need and to target resources to provide debt advice, information on fuel policy initiatives and healthy eating programmes.
We recently opened a community shop in my constituency. It has agreements with many of the largest food manufacturers in the local area, redistributing good quality surplus products at much more affordable prices.
In a number of boroughs—certainly mine, which has a good deal of child poverty, unfortunately—the provision for nursery education means that we have very good schools for under-fives. Those schools are much appreciated, because many of those who attend come from households with low incomes. Is my hon. Friend aware that so many involved in nursery education have written to us to express deep concern that funding arrangements will so alter in the next two years that some of those nursery schools and classes will have to either close down completely or reduce the number of children attending?
My hon. Friend is right to draw our attention to that pressing concern. One of the primary motivations for the debate is to draw attention to the fact that the plight of almost 4 million children in our country is set to get worse, not better. That is a matter of profound concern to all of us. We all believe that child poverty should and must be reduced and that we have a responsibility to work together in order to achieve that stated aim.
Earlier, hon. Members drew attention to projects that seek to provide food for children during the school holidays. The community shop proposal that I mentioned might be of benefit in that and, as I said, one such shop has just opened in my constituency. After agreement with local food manufacturers, the community shop can sell good quality food at affordable prices to people on low incomes, and it can also help local people with other issues that might be holding them back. It can provide advice on financial matters, or train individuals to prepare for job interviews.
The community shop, brilliantly led by John Marren, is only one example—but a good one—of the crucial work going on around the country to support families living on low incomes and in poverty. Lives are changed by such initiatives, in which people come together to speak up for the less fortunate and to share their time and expertise to be good neighbours in the service of others.
I take this opportunity to recognise the efforts in this area of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field). As hon. Members know, he has a long-standing interest in understanding poverty and remains a powerful advocate. He has championed the Feeding Britain project, which works to reduce food poverty at local level. In the new year I look forward to welcoming Rosie Oglesby, its chief executive, to Barnsley to discuss the matter further.
I have made the point that across the country, in all our nations, we see ongoing work that makes a difference. The Scottish Government are consulting on proposals to establish a Scottish child poverty target. The Welsh Government have a responsibility to report on progress towards achieving their child poverty objectives. In Northern Ireland, the Executive’s child poverty strategy commits them to eradicating child poverty in the future. Those efforts must now be backed by the UK Government.
I shall briefly set out the reasons why the Government should prioritise early years interventions. Too many children are stuck following a path that was set for them in their infancy. The importance of children’s early years in forming their life chances is well understood. The House should note the longstanding contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) in campaigning for better early-years provision and conducting an independent review in the previous Parliament.
Today, a child born in a deprived area is likely to die nine years earlier than someone from a wealthier postcode across town. To put that right will require us to bring together Government, campaigners and educationalists to learn from best practice internationally. Theirworld’s 5 for 5 campaign is leading a global effort to do just that, focusing on the five things that shape a child’s basic care: good nutrition; healthcare; learning; play and protection; and, of course, a loving home environment. We should recognise the ongoing work of Theirworld and its president, Sarah Brown. By the time a child reaches the age of five, about 90% of their brain development is complete. We will best tackle the growing gap between the richest and the rest, both in and out of school, by thinking bigger about how to reinvigorate early-years provision through programmes such as Sure Start, rather than by accelerating the cuts we have seen since 2010.
Just as quality teaching makes all the difference in the classroom, a well-skilled nursery workforce led by early-years teachers is proven to help to prevent the poorest children from falling behind. One in five children, and a third of the poorest children, arrive at primary school having fallen behind in the key elements of school-readiness, and we should recognise Save the Children’s campaign to address that. I ask the Minister to lead discussions with colleagues across Government on how every child can benefit from an early education led by qualified early-years teachers.
In my Barnsley constituency, three in five children who attend an independent nursery do not have access to support from a qualified early-years teacher. A child’s education can provide a route out of poverty, building on a foundation that is laid in the early years. That is why I am so proud to champion City Year UK, a charity that empowers young people aged 18 to 25 to serve others in tackling educational inequalities. Through spending a year volunteering in disadvantaged schools, those involved develop lifelong leadership skills and become role models to raise the aspiration of others.
The current evidence demonstrates how the Government are not getting it right—by investing in a new generation of grammar schools, which the evidence shows do not deliver; by not investing enough in building the evidence base for early-years interventions; and by accelerating the closure of Sure Start children’s centres, which work so well. Policies across Government must seek to make a difference to children. Changes to tax and benefits over the next four years will take more than £1 in every £10 from the pockets of the poorest families, and that is why the Government should end the freeze on working-age benefits.
The four-year freeze promises to be the primary driver of increased poverty. Ending it would be not only morally right, particularly with prices at the tills set to rise, but sound economics. Less well-off households spend more of the money they have than better-off ones so, as well as a clear moral case for action on poverty, there is a sound economic one. It is estimated that £1 in every £5 of public spending is associated with poverty, and that that costs the UK taxpayer £78 billion. As well as redirecting public spending, poverty worsens the key economic challenges we face. It lowers productivity and limits spending power, which undermines the strong economy we need for the future. But the human cost is the greatest of all, which is why the Government’s penny wise but pound foolish approach to investing in children must end. Poverty destroys childhoods and limits futures. Stopping that, as the Prime Minister has pledged, should be the defining mission for this and for any Government. In times of profound change, those with privilege and wealth have a security that is not afforded to those without.
In setting out the reasons why child poverty should be prioritised, I have sought to take a constructive approach and find common ground. I have detailed the case for a target to reduce child poverty and highlighted the support of organisations with real experience and expertise. Will the Minister tell us the Government’s position on establishing a child poverty target? We can end child poverty so that every child can realise their potential. That has to be our ambition and it should be a challenge that unites us all. Through that effort, we can provide security, opportunity and hope to those who need it most. If the Prime Minister’s words in Downing Street mean anything—and we will judge this Government by their actions, not their rhetoric—the Government must set a target.
I am very proud to represent Barnsley, and I see at first hand the difference that the Government’s policies make to so many of my constituents. In standing up for them and their futures today, I am reminded of our Barnsley motto, “Spectemur agendo” or “judge us by our actions”. That will be my guiding principle today, as we hear the Minister’s response, and in the coming months. It would be an historic mistake to abandon the battle against child poverty, so let us set ourselves a target and take action.
It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate. I pay special tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for introducing it and for his work on the issue.
Everyone in this House knows why child poverty matters. My hon. Friend explained the reasons: it blights childhoods, damages children’s long-term outcomes and potential in adult life, and brings a heavy cost to society in the loss of skills, in the loss of contribution to our economy and in the cost to our public services of putting right the damage that is done. The experience of child poverty is felt in a number of different dimensions, including children’s educational experience and participation, their physical and emotional health and wellbeing, the quality of the housing and environment in which they live, and the quality of their social and family lives. That was explicitly recognised in the Child Poverty Act 2010, which included an obligation for the Government nationally and for local authorities to bring forward child poverty strategies to address the different dimensions of child poverty. Indeed, I hope those dimensions may be replicated in strategies that our new metropolitan mayors will develop on a larger geographic footprint. I invite those who are putting themselves forward as potential candidates for that office to think about the options and opportunities to develop child poverty strategies for their city areas.
We have had many measures and indices across the broad experience of poverty. I will mention just two. The Labour Government’s “Opportunity for all” included a set of indicators introduced in 1999 that was mysteriously—and, in my view, regrettably—abandoned by the Labour Government some years later. “Opportunity for all” was not focused specifically and exclusively on outcomes for children, but it presented a range of dimensions of poverty, exclusion and disadvantage, which I invite the Government to consider as they reconstruct their approach to measuring and identifying poverty and disadvantage. There was much to commend in “Opportunity for all” and I hope that the Minister is prepared to look at it.
More specifically in relation to children, the excellent UNICEF child wellbeing report card has been produced by the Innocenti Research Centre over recent years. It has looked again at a range of dimensions of child poverty and child wellbeing. What the indices have particularly highlighted and what commentators and researchers have asserted for many years is that, alongside all those different dimensions of poverty, as my hon. Friend has said, it is important for us to recognise that adequate income is key.
Adequate income is key for a number of reasons. Family income and the incomes that children enjoy within their family circumstances can be correlated with a range of other socioeconomic outcomes, over the range of indicators that I described a moment ago. Poor children and children in low-income families, as my hon. Friend has said, suffer poorer educational outcomes, poorer health outcomes and poorer social participation, and less potential is realised in adulthood. It is important, therefore, that we focus on the correlation between low income and a range of other disadvantages.
It is also important to measure income and relative income, as my hon. Friend said, because it is a measure of social participation and a way of ensuring that the poorest in our country do not get left behind as society becomes more prosperous and developed. If we were unwilling to look at a progressive measure of poverty, such as the measure of relative poverty, we would leave families and children behind in the context of social progress. For example, when my grandparents were children, it was considered perfectly acceptable not to have an indoor bathroom, which was not a measure of poverty. In a developed economy such as ours, we would consider that an absolute outrage today.
Relative income poverty is also an aspect of the measurement of equality. There is cross-party concern about the need to narrow inequality gaps. I hope that the Minister will comment on that helpful dimension to tackling inequality.
Measuring income enables us to compare and track our progress internationally. That will be particularly important because the UK, along with other countries, has now signed up to sustainable development goal No. 1 to halve poverty among women, children and men. It will be important for us to have measures of poverty to show our progress against that goal, which applies as much within the UK’s domestic context as it does to the UK’s seeking to eliminate poverty in developing countries around the world through its international aid efforts.
Most importantly, in a market economy such as we live in, income confers choice, dignity, autonomy, and status. It is humiliating—children feel the humiliation—for parents not to have enough money for their children to have the same experiences as their peers. When low-income parents have more money at their disposal, they spend it on things that are good for their children: on fresh fruit, vegetables, educational activities, outings, and on improving the quality of home life through paying off debt and improving the condition of the family home.
It is regrettable that the focus on income poverty that was explicit in the Child Poverty Act—not exclusively the focus of the Act, as some have liked to suggest, but exclusively in the Act—has been removed from statute by the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016, as my hon. Friend said, and replaced by measures in relation to educational attainment and worklessness. Those are, of course, both important to improving family income and addressing family poverty, but, as the majority of poor children are now growing up in working households, focusing on worklessness and not on in-work poverty misses the point and ensures that we overlook the necessary policy change.
As I often hear Ministers say, work should be the best route out of poverty, but too often today it is not. We have an obligation as a society to look after those who cannot work or who perhaps cannot work enough and cannot secure enough from earnings to provide and secure the necessaries for their children.
The Welfare Reform and Work Act has diverted attention from the importance of income, and it is doing so at a time, as my hon. Friend said, when things are about to get a lot worse. In 2017 we will see very acutely the effect of rising prices, particularly for essentials: food and necessaries of the household budget. We will see wages stagnating and both in-work and out-of-work benefits frozen and capped. We will see the effects of the erosion of the value of benefits specifically designed to support parents with the additional cost of raising their children. For example, we have seen the two-child policy, which the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) has rightly campaigned assiduously on over the past year or so.
We have seen the restriction of child benefit and fees are now required to enable single parents to access child maintenance. We have also seen ingrained design faults in universal credit, which affect family poverty. For example, the benefit is designed to disincentivise second earners or lone parents from improving incomes through earnings. It is regrettable that in his autumn statement last month the Chancellor did not address the glaring problem that arises from the insufficiency of the earnings disregard.
The policy measures that have been adopted by the Government to address family incomes, such as the national living wage and the increase in the personal tax threshold, do not adequately address the problem that we have. The national living wage increases have been countered, as I have said, by the failure to maintain the value of in-work benefits, so that, as wages rise, the in-work financial support provided by the benefits system is being more or less commensurately reduced, leaving families pretty much at a standstill as a result. The raising of the personal tax threshold is increasingly a poorly targeted mechanism for supporting the poorest families, including those in paid employment. Most of the benefits of the continuing increases in the tax threshold, Mr Davies, go to better-off earners like you and me.
So what do we need instead of the approach that we have today? First, we need policies that specifically address the incomes of the poorest families. I invite the Minister to look again at the way in which universal credit can be redeveloped to return to its original purpose to incentivise and reward work and increase amounts of paid work. We should reprioritise the financial support specifically designed to meet the needs of parents in raising their children. That means that the restrictions on benefits for children that we have seen in recent years must be reversed. As my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central has rightly said, we need a much more determined strategy of investment in the services and support to help to produce the best long-term outcomes. I strongly endorse the call for a focus on early years childcare and education and for a cross-government approach.
I also support my hon. Friend when he says that we must reinstate meaningful and relevant targeting and tracking of progress. The social justice Green Paper offers Ministers an opportunity to bring forward targets that will focus attention properly on the problem and enable us to assess the efficacy of potential solutions that capture all the dimensions of child poverty, family income and the wider outcomes that we have discussed.
Finally, I suggest we need to underpin our ambitions with clear, firm and focused legislation. I greatly regret the watering down of the Child Poverty Act. As my hon. Friend said, that was put in place with cross-party support. It had support within the Westminster Parliament, in the Parliaments of Scotland and Wales, and across local government. It would be good to return to that consensual approach. If Ministers do not feel that they want to reinstate the Child Poverty Act, which I wish they would, but I fear they may not, may I at least invite the Minister to consider the potential for finally enacting section 1 of the Equality Act 2010? That would bring attention to bear on the wider dimensions of poverty. It could be readily picked up in the social justice Green Paper. I hope the Minister will consider that.
We need a real focus on what works, what makes a difference and how we know we are making progress. We cannot have the pick and mix approach that we have had over the past few years, because times are about to get so much worse for our poorest children. It would be a dereliction of duty on the part of all of us not to take action now to prevent that.
I thank the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for securing this important debate, which is a timely one. Most of us will of course celebrate Christmas with extravagance and excess. It is important to consider the fact that many people will struggle through the festive season. The Social Mobility Commission has said that in Glasgow more than a third of children live in poverty. In my constituency there are certainly areas where that figure is one in two children. In this day and age that is frankly scandalous.
I was a teacher before I came to this place and I saw at first hand the effect of child poverty on children’s education and life chances. It is almost impossible for a hungry child to learn, and difficult to concentrate when all they have had that morning is a can of juice or a packet of sweets. How can a child from a deprived background hope to compete educationally with their peers? They may not have a bag in which to carry their essentials to school. As the hon. Gentleman has already mentioned, with poverty comes stigma, which can further exclude children from the educational chances that may allow them to progress.
Education should be an enabler, and a way to allow all young people to reach their potential, but the reality is that by the age of three children from deprived backgrounds can already be nine months behind average development, and by the time they start school the difference can be as much as 18 months. For young children that can mean an inability to communicate, vocally or in other ways. They may not understand the simplest instructions. They may have issues with going to the toilet. Poverty has all sorts of impacts on children at that stage. The factors that contribute—poor diet, a difficult home environment, and parents juggling work and child care—show no sign of abating.
I hope that increases in early years education provision across the UK will make a big difference. However, I keep hearing the word “childcare”. In Scotland we talk instead about early years education. In Scotland education starts formally at the age of three. I do not mean learning to read and write; I mean learning to communicate, learning about relationships and starting to work through a simple curriculum. There is a subtle but fundamental difference between childcare and early years education. Childcare is about the parents. It is about supporting them, benefiting them and making their lives more convenient. Of course, it benefits the children as well—I will not deny that. However, early years education is focused 100% on the children. It is about improving their life chances.
There are differences between the early years packages that will be offered across the UK. In Scotland, all children will be entitled to 30 hours of early years education. In England, 30 hours will be offered to children only where both parents are working. That calls into question the purpose of the provision. We should also think about different parents and home environments; what about parents with disabilities or health issues that prevent them from working? Their children, who may already be socially excluded, will be further excluded if they do not have access to their 30 hours, and will miss out on chances that could raise them out of poverty and make a vital difference when they start school.
Other groups also need consideration. Grandparents play a massive role in helping with childcare. Some are the main carers for young children, but no provision is made for them in the 30 hours rule. In fact, they would also need to be in work to get access to the 30 hours of childcare. The Government need to rethink the 30 hours restrictions, and open the provision up to all children, if they are to make a difference in tackling the attainment gap at the very beginning of school.
We need to look at how poverty can be alleviated completely. That means a realistic welfare system that actually allows young children to flourish. As a teacher, I know that young children from deprived backgrounds are a massive untapped resource. They have great potential. The UK has skills gaps in the areas of science, technology, engineering, maths, digital skills and construction. Those skills shortages could be tackled in a serious manner if we created an environment that allowed young children from deprived backgrounds to achieve success.
In Scotland, we are committed to eradicating child poverty. The recently announced baby box will be a box of essential items given to every child born in Scotland, to help to level the playing field at the earliest stages of life. In Scotland, education maintenance allowance is still in place for young people in the later stages of secondary education. We still have free university education, which many of our young people can use. Certainly there will be no return in Scotland to selective education, which locks in inequality, scars children and prevents them from achieving their full potential. No child should have to grow up in poverty in the 21st century in the UK. I should like the Government to take a realistic approach to that problem. Many hon. Members now look forward to spending Christmas in comfort with their children, and we need to think realistically about how to allow all children in the UK to enjoy Christmas.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for obtaining this important and timely debate and for his sterling work in pursuing the issue of child poverty. His written parliamentary questions and private Member’s Bill have been important in keeping child poverty on the agenda and making sure that, although it is the last day of term here, we are debating a subject crucial to the children in our constituencies.
At this time families are preparing for Christmas at home, getting the tree ready and wrapping presents, but that is something not available to everyone. Some of my constituents recently got in touch for assistance because they have no money for Christmas presents for their children. Such families are dependent on the charity of organisations such as Glasgow’s Spirit of Christmas, the Salvation Army, and groups working in the Gorbals. There are many voluntary groups in constituencies which people have to approach to ask for gifts for their children. I cannot imagine the heartbreak it must cause parents to know that they just do not have the money—that Santa will not come to their door and their kids will wake up on Christmas morning with perhaps nothing at all.
The way those families have now been stigmatised in this country and been allowed to reach such a situation is nothing short of appalling. One of the families I mentioned has no recourse to public funds—the mother is working but just cannot work enough to bring in enough money to pay the bills, put food on the table and provide Christmas presents for her children. That is the reality today for families in the UK—the sixth richest nation on earth.
The hon. Member for Barnsley Central is correct to point out that the debate is about political choices and Government decisions that affect people in this country. He rightly quoted his town’s motto about judging people by their actions; it is a crucial point that we should take forward. He is also right to point out that the Labour Government made significant progress on child poverty, and I pay credit to them for that. The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) correctly mentioned the significance of tracking, targets and actually having something to work towards. Without that guiding principle, how will we know whether we are making progress? How will we know whether lives are being improved or getting worse?
Let me talk a little about the impact of child poverty beyond the bald statistics, which can be pretty dry. Child poverty is about stigma and isolation, and there is a compounding impact that makes it difficult to escape from the cycle of poverty. In 2010, back when I was a councillor in Glasgow, Save the Children ran a series of events about the lived experience of children in poverty. It created what it called a museum of poverty, which contained things that it wished to banish from reality and ought to be things of the past. Those included pawn tickets, unaffordable fuel, benefit forms, homelessness, cheap, crap food that does people no good, and dinner tickets and tokens, which the hon. Member for Barnsley Central mentioned. Those are all stigmas that people in poverty have to carry around with them. We do not necessarily see them, but those people have to see and feel them every single day.
Things have got worse since 2010. We have let children down. The children who participated in those events may now actually be parents themselves. We now have brutal sanctions, the two-child policy and the rape clause, which will not only stigmatise the families it impacts but hurt them deeply. We have the benefit cap, there are people with no recourse to public funds, and delays in benefits leave people with no option but to go to food banks and rely on the charity of friends, family and strangers.
Absolutely. The evidence that the National Audit Office and charities across the country have produced on this issue makes that absolutely clear. I spoke to an organisation from Castlemilk, which is not in my constituency but has been working with food banks in my constituency. It had spoken to people who came to the food banks and tried to help them with their issues. Its evidence showed clearly that food poverty was about delays, some of which are built into the system. The six-week wait for universal credit claims leaves people with nothing until that comes through. That is absolutely unacceptable. Most worryingly, that organisation also found that people did not want to challenge things because they were worried about getting into trouble with the Department for Work and Pensions, their job coach or whoever they had spoken to. It is deeply disappointing that that service does not support people but punishes them.
A lot of very good work has been done on poverty in Glasgow. The poverty leadership panel has done a great deal of work. Glasgow City Council, in partnership with Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, Glasgow Centre for Population Health and a host of other organisations, produced an excellent report about the cost of the school day that is similar to some of work that the hon. Member for Barnsley Central mentioned.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) spoke about the developmental lag in education, which has an impact. There are things inherent in the education system that perhaps not everyone sees but are very important to people living in poverty. That report looked at the stigma about things such as clothes, transport and learning resources, and the impact of poverty on friendships, people’s ability to go on trips, food, and in-school events such as non-uniform days, fundraising events and clubs. People in poverty cannot participate in a great many of those things, and that has a huge impact, particularly on young children. Other children in a class can tell that a child is in poverty, no matter how they might try to cover that up.
The Conservatives in this place are reluctant to see “I, Daniel Blake”, but the example in that film of the wee girl whose shoes had been glued back together but kept falling apart, and the family who could not afford to put shoes on that child’s feet, is heartbreaking. Such experiences are damaging to a child’s health, wellbeing and very sense of identity. My son went through three pairs of school shoes and two pairs of trousers last year in primary 1. I was able to put shoes on his feet, but if I was not able to do that, what impact would going around in Scotland in the rain with wet feet every day have on him? That would be appalling, and many families are left in that situation. Schools in Glasgow have to buy outdoor clothes for kids who cannot afford warm jackets or welly boots so they can participate in outdoor play. So many families are close to crisis—they are an unexpected bill away from crisis—and the benefits system has left them in that situation. There is no dignity or respect there. We need to look at the root causes of poverty to deal with that.
I am glad to be able to say that the Scottish Government are taking action. They have a child poverty Bill out for consultation just now. Our ambition is to achieve change, but we cannot do that on our own. We have access to only 15% of the benefit system. We will do what we can with that 15%—we are committed to bringing in maternity and early childhood benefits to help with some of the expenses of starting school—but although that can be significant, it is only a small part of the picture. We need to look at the root causes.
Peter Kelly of the Poverty Alliance spoke about the missed opportunities in the autumn statement and said it was akin to
“being pushed off a cliff with only a pillow to absorb the landing.”
Families are still in very stark situations. It is estimated that because of cuts to tax credits, 200,000 more children will be in poverty by 2020. The two-child policy and rape clause will trap people in a situation that they just cannot earn enough to get back out of. CPAG estimates that due to cuts to universal credit, families will have to work a 13 to 14-month year to earn enough money back just to stand still in a situation where what they have is not great to begin with. Trussell Trust figures show that food bank usage increased in the first half of this year, and it distributed 500,000 three-day emergency food supplies across the UK, more than 188,000 of which were for children. That is pretty stark.
We can do a great deal to make change, and I absolutely agree with the hon. Member for Barnsley Central and other Members who have spoken that this Government should be doing so much more. They need to join the dots, they need a holistic strategy, and they need to play their part in resolving child poverty.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for securing this debate and his long-standing commitment to this issue. He made an excellent speech highlighting the scale of the crisis. The fact that, typically, nine children in a class of 30 are growing up in poverty is a stark image indeed. I wholly concur with his assertion that no child in Britain should grow up in poverty and that should be a priority for the Government. I hope that the Minister will respond to his key question and say what the Government’s position is on establishing a child poverty target.
Many other Members also made excellent contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), who has a great deal of experience in this area, made a compelling speech. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) alluded to the problems with funding for nursery education, which is certainly an issue in my constituency, and several Members mentioned the importance of early intervention and early-years education. My hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) made a good speech about the impact of the changes made by the last Chancellor in the last Budget on people in the bottom third of the income distribution. The hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) spoke about her personal experience as a school teacher of poverty’s detrimental impact on children’s ability to learn. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) mentioned the school holiday programmes that provide food for children in poverty who would otherwise go hungry during the summer weeks.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central made clear, we face a child poverty crisis under this Government. Today, 29% of children in the UK live in poverty. That is not just about not going on holiday or not having treats; it is about not having enough to eat or get by, being cold in winter, not having shoes that fit and struggling to survive. The Resolution Foundation estimates that in 2016 alone 200,000 children, predominantly from working households, will have fallen into poverty. That is on top of the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ projection, which has been alluded to, that the falls in child poverty that a Labour Government achieved at the beginning of this century risk being reversed.
There was a comprehensive strategy to tackle child poverty across the last Labour Government, which is something that our party is proud of, with interventions such as Sure Start and increasing existing social security and new, child-targeted assistance and investment in early years intervention, along with programmes to help lone parents into work. That wide range of actions increased incomes and provided tailored services to help families living in poverty. The recent news that the child poverty unit, set up under the previous Labour Government in an effort to eliminate child poverty, has been abolished is very concerning indeed. That shows that child poverty is becoming far less of a priority for this Conservative Government. Surely we can only tackle child poverty effectively through a concerted strategy across Government.
The Child Poverty Act 2010, brought in by the Labour Government, set four key targets to be met by 2021. They ranged from reducing the proportion of children who live in low-income households to reducing the number of children who experience persistent poverty. However, counterproductively, the current Government decided to abolish the numerical targets based on household income in the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 and replace them with a life chances strategy, which has measures such as educational attainment and family breakdown. By removing income targets and focusing on life chances, the Government are failing to tackle the cause of child poverty: lack of money. Growing up in poverty affects children for the rest of their lives. It is in every sense a life sentence.
The life chances strategy was scheduled to be published as far back as June. Now, questions from my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central reveal that the Government will not publish it at all but will instead publish a Green Paper on social justice in the new year. Does the Minister agree that measuring household income is an important means of assessing the prevalence of child poverty across the UK? Will she assure the House that in any new proposal she will retain recognised indicators of income-related poverty?
Thankfully, a defeat in the House of Lords forced the Government to retain a legally binding commitment to measure and publish the number of children living in families on low income. However, that does not mean that they are required to publish a child poverty strategy every three years. Now we learn that it is no longer Government policy to try to eliminate child poverty at all.
The Government have introduced major changes to the social security system that have hit families with children hard. Supporting families to achieve and maintain an income that enables them to meet their needs is a vital element in giving children a good start in life. The major change to the social security system will be the reduction in the amount that someone can earn before their universal credit starts to be withdrawn. Single parents will be hit particularly hard. For example, from next year a single parent with two children working full time on the national living wage will receive £2,586 less a year under universal credit than someone claiming tax credits. The Child Poverty Action Group estimated that a single parent working full time on the national living wage would effectively have to work an extra two months each year to make up for that loss in income. It is utterly impossible for them to do that.
The cuts to work allowances are significant because of their impact in increasing in-work poverty. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the proportion of people in poverty in a working family is 55%, which is a record high. Four fifths of the adults in those families are themselves working—some 3.8 million workers. Those adults who are not working are predominantly looking after their children. Is the Minister concerned that, as a result of her Government’s cuts to universal credit, the huge gains the Labour party made in lifting more than a million children out of poverty will be undone? The Government’s tinkering with the universal credit taper rate at the autumn statement will not address the losses incurred as a result of their previous changes to work allowances.
The Government have promised to make work pay, but that is not happening for the three quarters of children in poverty who are in working families. Will they now reverse cuts to in-work support through universal credit? There is overwhelming evidence that child poverty has a direct causal impact on worsening children’s social, emotional and cognitive outcomes. Anyone who has been a teacher—many in the House have been—will have direct experience of that. The very wiring of the brain is affected when children are brought up in poverty. A hungry child cannot learn.
A British Medical Association report published in September highlighted the impact of austerity on children’s health, from increased mortality rates to the likelihood that children growing up in poverty may face greater health problems in later life. A secure, warm home and healthy, nutritious food are basic physiological needs. When those needs are not met, people’s health suffers both physically and mentally. That is particularly the case for children as they are still developing. Being in work or well educated cannot guarantee those essential needs will be met, but having money can.
If the Government will not be moved by moral arguments, perhaps they will be by the economic arguments. The failure to tackle the root causes of child poverty will result in losing a whole generation of future talent and untapped potential. The implications for these children and their families, but also for the country, are stark, yet the Government have cut the staffing of the Social Mobility Commission to the point that it now has more members than staff.
The Prime Minister has abandoned her pledge, made on the steps of Downing Street, to support families who are struggling to get by. I urge the Government to rethink their position on child poverty and reinstate the targets before it is too late.
I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on securing this debate on child poverty, and all Members from across the House who contributed to the discussion. Let me assure all that tackling child poverty and disadvantage and delivering real social reform is a priority for the Government. Our Prime Minister has set out clearly that she is committed to that. That includes taking action that addresses the root causes of child poverty and disadvantage, not just the symptoms.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the tone that he struck during the debate. This is about not just Government policy but everyone, whatever their political hue, at a local level working to combat these issues. That includes Members of Parliament, councillors and, as the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) pointed out, many organisations in our communities. The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) made excellent points about the consistency required on targets and the opportunities that come from devolution and local mayors. Those points are well made.
Before I turn to targets, let me briefly touch on the child poverty unit, which was mentioned. The unit’s main function was to support Ministers in exercising their duties in relation to the income-based targets set out in the Child Poverty Act 2010 and the associated child poverty strategy. Following the repeal of those targets, which was explicit in the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016, responsibility for child poverty policy and analysis transferred to the Department for Work and Pensions. The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission secretariat continues to be based in the Department for Education, and the Secretary of State for Education is the lead Minister for that commission.
The Government want to take a fundamentally different approach to child poverty from the one driven by the Child Poverty Act measures and targets. Our approach will tackle the root causes of poverty and disadvantage and drive continued action in the areas that will improve long-term outcomes for disadvantaged children, now and in the future. It is for that reason we rejected the narrow, income-based approach to poverty incentivised through the 2010 Act. In place of that, we have, through provisions in the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016, introduced two new statutory measures that will drive action on parental worklessness and on children’s educational achievement. Those are the two areas that we know can make the biggest difference to improving children’s long-term outcomes.
The 2016 Act puts a new duty on the Government to report annually on the proportion of children living in workless households, the proportion of children living in long-term workless households, and attainment at GCSE for all children and for disadvantaged children. The groundbreaking analysis conducted by my Department means that we now have a clearer understanding of disadvantage than ever before. We know that children affected by parental worklessness and its associated risk factors, such as family instability, drug or alcohol dependency and poor parental mental health, are disproportionately likely to experience poorer outcomes.
I am sorry; I would like to make progress, and I do not have much time. I will try to address all the points raised.
It is worth noting that the old Child Poverty Act targets were based on defining a household as being in poverty if its income was below 60% of median household income. That remains the basis for the “households below average income” survey, which is still the definitive source of data on poverty and low income; during the passage of the 2016 Act, the Government made a commitment to continue to publish the data.
I recognise the point made by the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston about some of the obstacles to women in particular working, and working more hours, such as bunching around 16 hours, multiple caring responsibilities and so forth. We recognise that, which is why the Minister of State who holds this portfolio is undertaking a range of work to tackle those issues.
We also know—the evidence is clear—that work is the best way out of poverty. Working-age adults in non-working families are almost four times as likely to be living on a low income. The “Child poverty transitions” report published in June 2015 found that 74% of children in workless families that moved into full employment exited poverty; that 47% of children in workless households were in relative low income before deducting housing costs, compared with only 8% in households in which all adults were working; and that there are 100,000 fewer children in relative low income since 2010.
I am sorry; I want to address these points. The Government’s record on employment speaks for itself. The latest figures show the employment rate at 74.4%, unemployment at an 11-year low and 2.8 million more people in work than in 2010. That is important, because we know that being in work has wider benefits beyond financial ones. There is clear evidence that good-quality work is linked to better physical and mental health and improved wellbeing, and that better parental health is associated with better outcomes for children. That is why we are getting people into employment and working to change attitudes.
We are also introducing reforms to ensure that work always pays and to allow people to keep more of what they earn. We are cutting income tax for more than 30 million people this year and taking 4 million of the lowest-paid people out of income tax completely. By 2018, a typical basic rate taxpayer will pay more than £1,000 less in income tax than in 2010. We are also making sure that people working 30 hours a week on the national minimum wage do not pay any income tax. Together with the introduction of the national living wage, that will give full-time low-paid workers previously on the national minimum wage a pay rise of more than £15 a week. Under universal credit, people are moving into work significantly faster, and staying in those jobs for longer. That crucial welfare reform also increases support for parents; universal credit now provides up to 85% of childcare costs, meaning more support for working families.
The hon. Member for Barnsley Central is quite understandably focused on what happens next. The Prime Minister has set up—and chairs—a new Social Reform Cabinet Committee that brings together nine Government Departments to oversee and agree social policy reforms. Its task will be to lead the Government’s work to increase social mobility and deliver social justice. We will bring forward a social justice Green Paper in the new year that will identify and address the root causes of poverty and will build on the two statutory measures we have already set out in the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016. That is fundamentally different from previous approaches; it is focused on not only the symptoms but the root causes of poverty, and will ensure a clear focus on improving long-term outcomes for the most disadvantaged children.
The Government have a good record on child poverty. There are now 200,000 fewer children in absolute poverty than in 2010 and—under Labour’s own poverty measurements—100,000 fewer children in relative poverty. However, we know that we need to do more. To deliver real social change and real social justice, and to make Britain the country that works for everyone, we will bring forward the social justice Green Paper in the new year. That will say more on our approach to tackling the root causes of poverty and disadvantage. I hope that will be something on which we will be able to build common cause and agree for the common good. Our children deserve that.
I am grateful for the opportunity to have considered the important issue of child poverty. All of us who serve in this place do so in order to improve the lives of our constituents and the communities that we represent. However, the reality is that an increasing number of children are living in poverty, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies projects that that will increase by 50% by 2020. In practical terms, that means that nine out of 30 kids in every classroom around the country will be living in poverty.
If hon. Members believe, as I do, that that is not only unacceptable but avoidable, all of us—the Government very much included—have an absolute responsibility and a duty to act. It is in our interests to do so. As I said, there is a clear moral argument for doing so, which is frankly enough in its own right, but there is also a clear economic argument for investing in the future and the next generation of talent. Despite what we have heard from the Minister, the reality is that without a target, a clear strategy or a clear focus on making progress, that simply will not happen. The Government are in an incredibly privileged position; they have the opportunity and the power to act. I hope that they will do so.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered child poverty.