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Child Poverty: Greater Manchester

Volume 743: debated on Tuesday 16 January 2024

I will call Afzal Khan to move the motion and then call the Minister to respond. As is the convention in 30-minute debates, there will be no opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up. Interventions are okay, but there can be no speeches other than the Minister’s and the mover’s.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered child poverty in Greater Manchester.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Sir Mark. I am deeply biased, but I believe that Manchester is the best city in the world. We have everything: rich cultural diversity, a bustling music scene, incredible football heritage, amazing food and beautiful green spaces. With two world-class universities, we are leading the way in education, research and innovation. However, among the vibrant energy that defines our great city, there exists a grim reality for too many families.

In 1821, the first edition of The Manchester Guardian reported that official figures citing that 8,000 children were receiving “free education”—a proxy term for poverty in those days—were wildly inaccurate: the actual figure was almost 25,000 children. Two centuries later, the official statistics on deprivation still mask the real number of children living in poverty in Manchester. We know that in Greater Manchester there are hundreds of thousands of children and families grappling with the harsh implications of poverty, made worse in recent years by the Tories’ economic and cost of living crisis. However, child poverty is not just a statistic: it is a stark realisation of systemic failure by central Government, of persistent inequalities and of a long list of unmet promises. Greater Manchester is a region that embodies resilience, but unfortunately we are not immune to the deep-seated issues that contribute to cycles of poverty, particularly among the youngest of our residents.

In this debate, I will highlight just how bad child poverty in Greater Manchester is, and the range of factors and poor policy decisions by the Conservatives here in Westminster that have caused it. I will also pay tribute to the excellent work of Mayor Andy Burnham and Labour-led Manchester City Council to alleviate child poverty despite shoestring local authority budgets, and what Labour would do in government to tackle this important problem.

The UN lead on extreme poverty and human rights has said that, in the levels of poverty over which they preside, the UK Government are in violation of international law. According to Greater Manchester Poverty Action, an incredible organisation based in Ardwick that focuses on research and outreach, we have about 250,000 children living in poverty. The End Child Poverty coalition recently found that 11 children in a class of 30 in Greater Manchester live in poverty, which is higher than both the England and the UK average.

I congratulate my constituency neighbour and good friend on securing this important debate. I agree that Manchester is the best city. However, my hon. Friend forgot to mention that Stockport is the best town not only in England, but in Britain.

Does my hon. Friend agree with me on a point about child poverty rates? In my constituency of Stockport, we have seen a 3.9% increase in child poverty since 2014; the average increase in the north-west region is 4.1%. Does he agree that the Conservative Government in Westminster have failed children not just in Greater Manchester, but across the UK?

I will simply say yes; I will make some of those points later.

Manchester City Council has the third highest rate of child poverty among local authorities in England. The Manchester, Gorton constituency has the sixth highest rate, with just over half of all children living in poverty. There are other ways in which we can understand the scale and impact of poverty. For example, 27% of secondary school pupils receive free school meals in Manchester, compared with 14.1% overall in England. Almost 20% of Manchester residents claim out-of-work benefits, compared with just 14.2% across England. Nearly 7,000 children across Greater Manchester were homeless on Christmas day, and the number of food parcels for children issued in Manchester, Gorton by the Trussell Trust network has risen by 81% since 2022. That all affects life expectancy, with men and women in Manchester living for an average of four years less than others across the country.

Alarmingly, the highest rates of child poverty are found among ethnic minority communities. Children in Bangladeshi and Pakistani households are most likely out of all ethnic groups to live with low income and material deprivation. After 14 years of harsh Tory cuts, child poverty levels in Manchester city have increased by almost 10%.

It has not always been like this. The Labour party, both in government and in opposition, has always prioritised tackling poverty, particularly child and pensioner poverty. In 1999, the Labour Government made a remarkable pledge to end child poverty in a generation. Gordon Brown set a further target of cutting child poverty in half in 10 years; as Chancellor and then as Prime Minister, he committed considerable resources to achieving that. In those 13 years, 2 million children and pensioners were lifted out of poverty, through a range of anti-poverty policies including spending on welfare, the introduction of the national minimum wage, the Sure Start initiative, financial support for childcare and increases in education spending. The Child Poverty Act was passed in 2010, enshrining in law four child poverty targets to be met within a decade.

In 2016, the Conservatives repealed the Child Poverty Act, axing Labour’s four targets, the requirement for local authorities to develop child poverty strategies, and the duty on local authorities to conduct child poverty needs assessments over 14 years. The Tories have presided over monumental cuts in public sector spending that have worsened poverty levels, meaning that we now have more food banks than police stations. The shameful level of child poverty and deprivation that we see across Manchester today is the direct result of punitive austerity measures brought in by the Conservatives in 2010, and of the Tory Government’s failure to undo any of them since then.

Too many issues have caused the high level of child poverty in Manchester, so I will focus on three: the two-child benefit cap, rising living costs and health deprivation. Introduced in 2017, the two-child benefit cap was supposed to incentivise parents into work by preventing them from claiming child tax credit or universal credit for any third or subsequent child. It has affected 1.5 million children, further impoverishing families rather than increasing employment. This has had a disproportionate impact on Manchester, with 22% of the children in my constituency alone living in affected households. The two-child limit impacts Muslims and orthodox Jewish communities more than any other faith group. For Muslims in particular we know that poverty levels are already high and 60% of all Muslim children live in families with three or more dependent children. Recent research has found that the two-child limit causes poverty—clearly failing to meet its ends.

There is no doubt that the cost of living crisis impacts us all, but no one more so than low-income families. More and more of people’s incomes are being diverted to paying soaring rents, mortgage costs and extortionate energy bills, and food is becoming increasingly more expensive. Those on benefits are struggling to make ends meet.

Around five in six low-income households on universal credit are going without at least one essential such as food, a warm home or toiletries. Without universal free school meals, too many children go to school hungry, hindering their education and development. Manchester City Council has used the household support fund to address the impact of fuel and food poverty and to provide support to the most vulnerable households. The current scheme provides support to 60,000 residents through free school meals in the holidays for 40,000 children, cost of living support payments for 12,500 vulnerable households, and additional holiday activity fund support for 6,000 children.

Despite the perpetual cost of living crisis that we find ourselves in, the Tories have decided that households will need no more support beyond March 2024 and have scrapped that vital lifeline for millions of people across the country. The complete loss of that funding in the next financial year will have a significant impact on the council’s financial capacity to provide support to some of Manchester’s most vulnerable households and to deliver the free school meal programmes in the holidays to Manchester children.

Poverty is also a major issue for children’s health. Many health challenges and inequalities in later life have their foundations in early childhood, with the poorest families experiencing the worst health outcomes. In the most horrific cases, health challenges caused by poverty end children’s lives early. In 2020, Awaab Ishak from Rochdale died from a respiratory condition caused by extensive mould in the flat that he lived in with his parents in social housing. The Levelling Up Secretary described Awaab’s death as

“a tragedy that should never have occurred.”

I agree with him, but without proper support and funding for tackling poverty and improving social housing, we cannot guarantee that there will not be another Awaab.

Parents on low incomes worry about being able to offer their children a healthy lifestyle as they are less able to afford healthy foods. The recent increases in household energy costs mean that many families are choosing eating over heating. Living in a cold home hugely impacts physical health, especially by worsening respiratory illnesses.

One in three children are not school ready in terms of their development when they start in reception. For children eligible for free school meals, almost 40% have not achieved a good level of development at the point of starting school. That has an impact throughout their lives. The foundations for the healthy development of a robust respiratory system are built during infancy. Babies living in cold housing during their first winter will be burning up calories on maintaining body temperature rather than organ development.

The knock-on effects of socioeconomic inequality cost NHS England £4.8 billion a year—almost a fifth of the total NHS budget. If children had a better, healthier start in life, the NHS would have much more capacity and resource to help those who most need it.

As I have described today, the Conservatives are failing to look after our children. It is not because they do not know how to do so, but because there is no interest in improving the lives of vulnerable people and taking them out of poverty. There are straightforward solutions that would have an unimaginable impact on the lives of children and families trapped in poverty. We must consider scrapping the two-child benefit limit and the benefit cap; restoring the household support fund; expanding free school meals; ensuring that benefits for children are regularly uprated in line with inflation; supporting childcare costs; and providing local authorities with long-term, sustainable funding to deliver the vital services our constituents depend on. These are not all the solutions, but they would go a long way in alleviating child poverty.

In Manchester, while vulnerable children are exposed to the harsh cruelties of the Conservative Government, they are cushioned by the incredible work done by Mayor Andy Burnham and Manchester City Council. As the Government have no plan or strategy to address poverty, Manchester City Council and other local authorities across Greater Manchester have taken matters into their own hands and created their own anti-poverty strategies. To quote my colleague, Councillor Tom Robinson, executive member for healthy Manchester and adult social care:

“We know that the Government has given up trying to govern, but we in Manchester have not.”

Manchester’s anti-poverty strategy includes a range of measures, from helping residents on low incomes to manage their spending and reduce debt, to ensuring access to culture and leisure opportunities to help people experiencing poverty to have a good quality of life. Some of the other incredible initiatives delivered by Manchester City Council to help the most vulnerable include setting up a cost of living advice line on debt, bills and food support, which has already supported almost 8,000 people; distributing £55,000-worth of cash and household goods through the welfare provision scheme to those suffering financial hardship; and providing school uniform grants through Manchester Central food bank.

Mayor Andy Burnham recognises that food poverty is one of the biggest scourges on our society, with food bank usage in the city region higher than most other parts of the country. He launched the first ever food poverty action plan, calling for a campaign to increase uptake of Healthy Start vouchers, the provision of debt and welfare advice alongside food handouts, and the appointment of a poverty lead in each council and by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. Many of these initiatives were recommended by the Greater Manchester Poverty Commission 10 years ago, chaired by the then Bishop of Manchester, the Right Reverend Nigel McCulloch, who called for, among other things, initiatives to reduce energy bills, access to financial support and services, and ensuring that people can access affordable fresh fruit and vegetables.

However, there is only so much we can do at a local level without ambition and investment from central Government. Under a Labour Government, this will change. Universal credit must work for those who rely on it, so Labour will reform the system so that it is effective in supporting vulnerable people and alleviating poverty. We will make it a fairer system that restores dignity and security, and we will address persistent inequalities, support workers and help people back into work. Our new deal for working people will cut poverty, increase wages and improve workers’ rights.

In conclusion, as we have seen, child poverty is not a stand-alone issue, nor is it caused by one single thing. From health disparities to educational challenges, poor housing conditions and chronic low pay, the interconnected web of factors that cause and contribute to child poverty are extensive, but not undefeatable. My questions to the Minister today are very simple. Why have the Conservatives persistently enacted policies that make child poverty worse? When will they finally call a general election and make way for a Labour Government to take back the reins and clean up their horrible mess? British children deserve so much better. We have seen the incredible impact Labour councils can make. All children deserve to grow up under a Labour Government. Their future depends on it.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark. I first thank the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) for securing this debate. I am sure we all believe that we represent the best place in the world, although I feel a little outflanked today, given the presence of the hon. Gentleman, the hon. Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton North East (Mark Logan), who is sitting behind me. All of them are probably fighting for the constituency they represent to be recognised as the best place in Manchester. As the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton articulated, it is a wonderful and vibrant city with a huge number of positives driving its resources.

Obviously, I disagree with the picture that the hon. Gentleman has painted. I do not believe that any Member elected to this place wants to see any child living in poverty in our constituencies. I fully understand the passion that drives the contributions on this important issue. The hon. Gentleman himself has explained the complexity of the issue, and how the compounding of many factors and variables makes it an enormous challenge. I am very proud that it was us who introduced not only universal credit, which has transformed lives, to replace the old legacy benefits system, but free school meals for children in reception, year 1 and year 2. I gently say that we will probably agree to disagree at the end of this debate, but I will lay out what we have done. I always urge, in areas such as this, that we all work across the Floor to help all our children rise to fulfil their talents.

I start by reassuring colleagues about our commitment to a strong welfare system to support those most in need. That is reflected in the £276 billion that we will spend through the welfare system in Great Britain this financial year, including a £124 billion package on people of working age and their children. Having uprated in line with inflation this year, we have announced a further increase of 6.7% in working-age benefits for 2024-25, subject to parliamentary approval, and that is well ahead of inflation and its projections. On top of that, we are increasing the local housing allowance from April, which will give a further 1.6 million low-income households the support that they need.

I know that many people are concerned about the cost of living, as the hon. Gentleman said. The Government’s commitment to provide support is reflected in the further £104 billion provided in this area over 2022-23 to 2024-25. In particular, 8 million households across the UK on eligible means-tested benefits have received the first two of three cost of living payments totalling up to £900 in this financial year. That includes over 400,000 homes in Greater Manchester, and I am very pleased to confirm that the final payment will be paid to most eligible households next month to further help ease the burden.

I think there is a small area of agreement on the household support fund. For people who require that extra support, we have provided an additional £1 billion of funding, including the Barnett impact, to enable the extension of the household support fund until March. As with all such issues, we keep these things under constant review in the usual way, and before the announcements in the spring, it is not right to say it has ended. This current household support package finishes in March, but it will be kept under review. The covid pandemic and Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine have put pressure on virtually everyone, and the household support fund has been a hugely important asset. It has been in existence since October 2021 and we have provided a total of £2.5 billion in that time. It was introduced at a time when the pandemic placed real pressures on the economy, and it has provided that support through these disrupted times.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that the 10 upper-tier local authorities that make up Greater Manchester have together been allocated £134.6 million since October 2021, including £32.3 million for Manchester City Council, with nearly £13 million allocated to it in the last round. I was really pleased to hear his great examples of local authorities, but the third sector, which is so important in this area, has spent that money in order to add value. Funding has been distributed broadly in the sector and includes financial support to recent care leavers.

While we remain committed to a strong welfare safety net for families who need it, particularly during challenging times, we have always believed that the best way to help children in families who are struggling with their financial circumstances is through work. The hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton said himself that levels of worklessness in his area are higher. Our approach is based on the clear evidence of the importance that work, particularly full-time work, plays in lifting children out of poverty. The most recent data showed that in the 2021-22 period, children living in workless households were five times more likely to be in absolute poverty after housing costs than those in households where adults worked, which shows how important work is.

The data also showed that there were 400,000 fewer children in absolute poverty after housing costs compared with 2009-10—hardly the glowing record that the hon. Gentleman painted. In the north-west in particular, in the three years to 2021, absolute child poverty reduced by 8 percentage points compared with the three years before 2010 after housing costs were accounted for. There are now over 1 million fewer workless households than in 2010. That is more people working and 680,000 fewer children growing up in a home where no one works. As of today, there are 934,000 vacancies across the UK, so our focus is to work with our work coaches across the Department for Work and Pensions family, holding people’s hands and giving them confidence to step into work and progress into financial independence.

I speak to families regularly, as we all do, and they tell me that the two biggest barriers into work are childcare and transport. Manchester is a thriving transport hub and the extension of the £2 bus fares by this Government provides affordable travel options for many. Furthermore, we are extending childcare support so that from September, eligible working parents in England will have access to 30 hours of free childcare per week for 38 weeks of the year from when their child is nine months old.

Universal credit can provide up to 85% of a parent’s childcare costs, and in June last year we increased that by almost 50% to £951 for a single child and £1,630 a month for families with two or more. Importantly, we can also help with advances to help people into work.

We are not stopping there. From April this year, subject to approval by Parliament, the maximum universal credit childcare amounts will increase further to over £1,000 a month for single children and over £1,700 for two or more children. We want to support people into work and allow them to progress. As I said, work coaches and those in our DWP centres stand ready. The national living wage has increased by some £6,700 since we first introduced it in 2016. This year, it has gone up to £11.44—an increase of 9.8%. That is not the record the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton painted.

To conclude, we are committed to providing opportunities for parents, wherever they live in the UK, to succeed in work. That is the only sustainable way of tackling child poverty in the longer term. It balances the needs of families on benefits with the expectations of taxpayers who contribute to the system. At the same time, as we have done throughout this challenging time, we will of course continue to ensure that vulnerable families have the support they need through the welfare system—but that is a job for all of us. I thank the hon. Gentleman.

Question put and agreed to.