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Destitution: Children

Volume 740: debated on Monday 13 November 2023

3. What steps his Department is taking to reduce the number of children experiencing destitution. (900003)

4. What steps his Department is taking to reduce the number of children experiencing destitution. (900004)

8. What steps his Department is taking to reduce the number of children experiencing destitution. (900009)

Child poverty and its reduction is absolutely core to the mission of my Department, which is why we have focused on cost of living payments, why we have put up benefits across the board by 10.1% and why the Chancellor announced £3.5 billion in the spring statement to support our back to work programmes to raise people out of poverty.

One of the crowning achievements of the previous Labour Government was to lift 1 million children out of poverty. How does the Secretary of State think that that compares with the Conservatives’ record given that new figures show that children are experiencing destitution, and that that has actually tripled since 2017?

I think that our record is extremely clear. Since 2010, we have 1.7 million fewer people in absolute poverty, 400,000 fewer children in absolute poverty, and 200,000 fewer pensioners in absolute poverty. Under Labour’s watch, we had 1 million people parked on long-term sickness benefits for more than 10 years.

There has been a shameful increase in the level of destitution in the UK, with 1 million children not having their basic needs met. In my constituency of Blaydon, nine children in every classroom are living in poverty. Across the north-east, there has been a 12% increase in emergency food bank parcels in the past year. Does the Minister agree that his Government have completely failed the most vulnerable children in the UK?

No, I am afraid that I cannot agree with that at all. I have just gone through the various figures pointing to the decline in the level of absolute poverty, including 400,000 fewer children in absolute poverty since the hon. Lady’s party was last in Government. The cost of living payments, the increase in the level of benefits, and the £3.5 billion that the Chancellor has made available to help people back into work are helping to drive poverty figures in the right direction.

The Minister’s responses are disappointing. If the Government do not recognise the problem of child poverty in this country, how will they fix it? One million children experienced destitution in the UK last year. Organisations such as Chantelle’s Community Kitchen, Little Village and Wandsworth Foodbank in my constituency work tirelessly to fill in the gaps, but they say that there is increasing hardship and they are worried about the winter ahead. What impact does the Minister think that crashing the economy and unleashing a cost of living crisis have had on child poverty?

The common theme in all the questions that we have had on this substantive question is a lack of memory as to what happened under the previous Labour Government. Under that Government, we had 1 million more workless households and 680,000 more children in those workless households.

In the past six months, the Trussell Trust has issued 769 emergency food parcels for children in my constituency. In some schools that I visit, teachers bring food from their homes to feed hungry kids. Will the Minister step up and take responsibility for this, or, instead, move out of the way for a Labour Government committed to making child poverty a thing of the past?

Heaven forbid that we do have another Labour Government, Mr Speaker, because I have just set out the case against the last one and their appalling record on poverty. When it comes to cost of living payments, those went to 8 million low-income households and to 6 million people with disabilities. There will be further payments of £300 for pensioners alongside the winter fuel payment in the coming months.

I wish to draw your attention, Mr Speaker, to a very distressing case in my Slough constituency. A single mother, a victim of domestic violence, is struggling to pay her rent and meet basic needs due to cuts in her universal credit after being compelled to find part-time work. Her living conditions, including mould in her home, are very badly affecting the health of her children. Will the Secretary of State explain how current policies are helping to support such vulnerable families, and what immediate measures will he put in place to ensure that we do not have such dire situations of destitution?

I cannot comment on the specific case that the hon. Gentleman has put forward, other than to say that what he has described is of concern to me and I will want us to look into that extremely carefully. I will be happy to make sure that he has the appropriate time with the appropriate Minister—I think the Minister for Employment—to look into those matters.

In “A Christmas Carol”, published 180 years ago, Charles Dickens wrote of a world where children lacked shelter, clothing, heating and food. They were represented by a boy called Ignorance and a girl called Want. Dickens died in 1870 and we live in the sixth-largest economy in the world, so why, in 2022, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, did 1 million children experience the type of destitution he chronicled long ago? We have heard the Minister quote figures and programmes, and launch attacks on previous Governments, but simply, as a human, would he not agree that just one child living in destitution is one child too many?

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman that one child in destitution is one too many. One person in poverty is one too many. One person who is unemployed and badly wants a job to support their family is one too many. The question we have to ask is how best to go about improving those situations. I say it is through encouraging people into work and through those cost of living transfer payments for those targeted through universal credit, which his party originally opposed, so that we can help those who are most vulnerable and most in need.

The cost of living crisis is plunging many families into destitution. We know from the JRF that 1.8 million households and 1 million children were plunged into destitution last year. Will Secretary of State use the upcoming autumn statement to bring forward the mortgage interest tax relief and action to tackle soaring food prices, and to reintroduce that £400 energy bill rebate? Otherwise, more and more children will fall into destitution. He has the power—will he respond at the autumn statement?

The hon. Gentleman raises mortgage payments in particular; we have extended the scope of the support for mortgage interest arrangements, particularly for those who have not long been on universal credit. I cannot comment on what may or may not be in the autumn statement, but I can assure him that the kind of issues he has raised are always at the centre of our thinking.