Both hon. Ladies are right to recognise the role that welfare reform is playing in alleviating child poverty. Work is the best route out of poverty, and universal credit strengthens the incentives for parents to move into and progress in work. However, it cannot be considered in isolation: it is a key component of a broader strategy to move Britain to a higher wage, lower welfare and lower tax society.
Owing to policies pursued since 2010, we now have 20,700 children in poverty across Hull, and food poverty and holiday hunger are growing, including, despite what the Secretary of State says, in working families. Will restricting free school meals in universal credit create a cliff edge and make the situation even more dire in the most disadvantaged communities?
Undoubtedly, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier, children are five times more likely to be in poverty if they are in a workless household. The Government’s entire thrust is to get as many people into work as possible, and we would never contemplate anything that would get in the way of those kinds of incentives. As my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment said, nobody will lose out under the current proposals on free school meals; in fact, there might well be more recipients in the future.
Figures published last month show that 27% of children in my constituency live in low-income households—and these are families who rely on universal credit. Does the Minister believe that it is acceptable that families living in poverty in Lincoln have to rely on food banks, particularly when due to problems with the roll-out of universal credit?
I am sure that the hon. Lady, like me, welcomes the 43% fall in the claimant count in her constituency over the past few years—[Hon. Members: “That wasn’t the question.”] On her question, as she and many Members will know, the causes and drivers of people going to food banks are complex. [Interruption.] In my constituency, for example, the food bank was established in 2006—at the height of Labour’s conduct of the economy and welfare system—but the Department needs to think carefully about some of these issues, and we will be doing so in the future.
I warmly welcome my hon. Friend to his place. Does he agree that, on the important subject of children living in poverty and universal credit, it is important to have a sensible, grown-up discussion and debate, rather than bandying around unqualified figures?
My hon. Friend makes a strong point, and he is absolutely right. National statistics, on a number of measures, have shown child poverty falling. In particular, we have seen 200,000 children over the past few years move out of absolute poverty.
For too long, parents have been able to hide their earnings from their child maintenance payment calculations, creating and adding to child poverty. What action are the Government taking to stop this?
As my hon. Friend knows, the child maintenance system was put in place to enable greater co-operation between parents, on the basis that that often results in a much better outcome for children, but there are parents who fail to do that, and for those circumstances, we have invested significantly in the financial investigations unit of the Child Maintenance Service. We will be consulting further on what more we can do to strengthen our enforcement powers.
I welcome the Minister to his place. When the benefit freeze was introduced in April 2016, inflation stood at 0.3%; it is now over 3%, and food prices in December were over 4% higher than a year earlier. A recent study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies showed that one in four of Britain’s poorest households are struggling with problem debt, and new figures from the End Child Poverty coalition show that in some parts of Britain, such as Bethnal Green and Bow in London and Ladywood in Birmingham, over half of children are living in poverty. Their families are no longer just about managing. Will the Government end the social security freeze that is pushing families into poverty?
I would advise the hon. Lady to be slightly careful about the statistics she is using. As we heard earlier, there are some particular problems, but in that report in particular there were enormous caveats saying that the measures were not accurate and the numbers not necessarily reliable, particularly on a constituency basis. The Government are committed to a strategy to tackle poverty that involves work, and since 2010 we have 954,000 fewer households in unemployment and moved into work. That is the best thing we can do for their futures.