Second Reading (Continued)
My Lords, in spite of our discussions on climate change and terrorism, the debate that now resumes on the Child Poverty Bill is surely a matter of equal moment to our national life. Any society will be judged on the way that it treats its most poor and vulnerable, and political consensus on the need to tackle child poverty is vital to our national well-being.
I declare an interest as chair of the Children’s Society. In July 2001, the General Synod of the Church of England reaffirmed its commitment to the practice of justice through ensuring that, within society, the needs of each person and family, especially the needs of children, are met. I anticipate that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford will have more to say about the church’s responsibilities for children in his maiden speech in a few moments.
One of the most striking aspects of contemporary British society has been the growing gap, which has been referred to already, between the rich and poor. Most recently, the Children’s Society’s Good Childhood Inquiry concluded that the well-being of all our children is directly proportionate to the levels of inequality embedded in our society. We need to tackle not only child poverty, but also the inequality that results from our excessively individualistic style of life. A year ago, I was privileged to be part of that inquiry panel, whose report was debated in this House last February. The inquiry received many submissions from individuals, groups and organisations; but also, more importantly, heard from many children themselves about their concerns and hopes for their childhoods. The report had a good deal to say about child poverty and its causes, and for this reason I unapologetically rehearse one or two of its findings today, in the hope that, as the Bill progresses through your Lordships’ House, some of the voices heard and issues raised in the inquiry may find expression in the legislation that we pass.
One of the most striking things about the evidence received from children was how frequently they mentioned their basic needs. More than 5,000 children responded to the inquiry about their lives. The three topics that they talked most about were friends, family and what was termed their material needs. They spoke mostly about the importance of having a home, a bed, clothes, warmth, food and water. Interestingly, far more children talked about those things than mentioned what we might call material wants such as money and possessions. The central theme of the Good Childhood Inquiry panel’s final report is the relationship between poverty and inequality. Noble Lords will be aware that, after the United States, Britain is the most unequal of the rich countries, and we all now understand how tragically this affects our children. The Good Childhood Inquiry panel argued that even more must be redistributed from the rich to the poor if we are to end child poverty once and for all. The evidence here is very clear: this is an issue that children themselves are concerned about.
We know that the relationship between poverty and inequality has a profound effect on children's well-being. However, this is not just about material disadvantage, but also about the ways in which it interacts with other forms of disadvantage to impact on children's life experiences and opportunities. Put starkly, poverty shortens lives. A girl in Manchester can expect to live six years fewer than a girl in Kensington, Chelsea or Westminster. Children in the inner-city schools of Leicester, where some 70 per cent may be on free school meals and where, in one school, 46 languages are spoken, can expect a life six years shorter than that of their near neighbours in the suburbs of the city. Evidence suggests that the experience of poverty in early years can also have a long-term impact on children's cognitive development and educational attainment. A child's cognitive development at 22 months is a strong predictor of future attainment, but the effect of poverty outweighs ability so greatly that, by the age of six, low-achieving children from more advantaged homes will outperform high-achieving children from less advantaged homes. By the end of compulsory education, the divergence is stark. Only 33 per cent of those eligible for free school meals achieve five good GCSEs, compared to 61 per cent of their peers.
The Children's Society works directly with some of the children most likely to experience poverty in our society, including disabled children, children from Traveller, Gypsy and Roma families, and children living in families seeking asylum. Sadly, many of these children do not live in the family units counted as qualifying households in the Bill and its associated guidance. If the aim of the Bill to eliminate child poverty by 2020 is to stand any chance of success, we must include those groups that are the most disadvantaged. I will illustrate their needs by focusing on children living in families seeking asylum. Families claiming asylum are given benefits at 70 per cent of income support levels. They are not allowed to work. When a family is refused asylum, the Government have the power to stop all money and accommodation for the family when they believe that that family is not taking reasonable steps to leave the United Kingdom. Even when recognised as refugees, children can spend years in temporary accommodation or in unaffordable and insecure private rented accommodation—usually the poorest quality available. When granted asylum, families have 28 days to leave their accommodation and find somewhere else to live. This is an intensely vulnerable time for families, which can lead to destitution.
A recent survey carried out by the Children’s Society, in association with its West Midlands Destitution project, uncovered stories of children growing up in households without any food, heating or toys, mothers who felt forced to prostitute themselves to survive, and young people in care—cut off from any help at 18 —becoming homeless.
My concern is that some of these children and families who are at the greatest risk of living in poverty are not captured by existing data based on qualifying households. Not all children live in qualifying households, and those who do not are often the poorest. Existing surveys of household income do not include data on some of these groups. Surely these children are poor by any measure of poverty, and yet they are excluded from the targets of the Bill. That cannot be right, and I urge the Government to set out how they intend to tackle child poverty for all children and to consider targeted measures for these particular groups, over and above the scope of the general targets.
The Children’s Society is not just a campaigning organisation, but strives to tackle the issues at a local level through its practice base. The organisation currently operates 25 children's centres across England in a range of settings, and offers employment and training advice to parents as part of the core offer. The staff see at first hand, over and over again, the difference that this can make to children and families. Their approach is to ensure that the most disadvantaged and excluded children and families receive these services, because financial insecurity can be a real block to parents accessing services.
Therefore, I welcome the provisions in the Bill that place duties on local authorities to measure child poverty in their area and develop a strategy to combat it. It is vital that local authorities work with local partners, including the voluntary sector, to deliver effective local services that will help to break the cycle of poverty and reduce inequality.
Of course we welcome the commitment of the Government to deliver this Bill, but we urge them to go further. It is vital that children’s voices are heard in this debate about their poverty. The Government must go further to address the links between poverty and inequality in our society and need to widen the scope of those they survey as living in poverty to include some of the poorest in our society. I hope that the Government will find innovative ways to work locally in partnership with strong public, private and voluntary-sector organisations to deliver the goals of this Bill.
I look forward to taking part in further debates as the Bill makes progress through your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, poverty, like wealth, is too often inherited, unmerited and unearned—especially for children. We all know which children are poor and in what families they live—large families with two parents churning between no or low-paid work. Others have a lone parent, a disabled parent, a BME parent or an unemployed parent—usually a mixture of them all.
Therefore, this Bill is about income and outcomes for children. It seeks to turn the Government’s aspiration, which I am sure is shared by the House, of halving, then eradicating child poverty, into targets—binding targets. Normally in draft legislation, we do not insert a Clause 1 as a statement of intent. Here we have an entire Bill devoted to it. It cannot be done. It has to be done. It is impossible, but it is essential.
Why? In the other place, much of the debate, as my noble friend mentioned in his opening speech, centred around whether tackling poverty of income should be the objective of the Bill, or whether, given that poor children were by definition within poor families, there were drivers behind that poverty of family income—education, worklessness, debt, addiction, family relationships and poor mental health—which should be tackled first. That argument was run by the noble Lord, Lord Freud.
The Government argued, rightly in my view, that their work in other fields—Sure Start, schools, the New Deal for Lone Parents—have progressed in parallel with their pledge on child poverty, and that therefore it was right that this Bill should remain focused if we are to transform the life chances of every child. Without an assault on income poverty, the successful outcomes that we all want to see—happy, healthy and well-educated children—are infinitely harder, if not impossible, to achieve. We need this Bill, not a different Bill.
However, that does not make the task that this Bill sets for itself any easier. Why is it so difficult—perhaps even impossible—while at the same time essential? There are four tests of poverty in this Bill, and they are mostly problematic, as I want to suggest. The first relates to relative poverty—those at below 60 per cent of national median income. It is of course a statement about inequality at least as much as poverty, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester absolutely rightly said. Fewer children in Greece, I suspect, may be—or are, indeed—below the 60 per cent line. But does that mean that there are fewer children in poverty? No, because I suspect that Greek incomes are lower and, therefore, children above the poverty line in Greece may in real terms be worse off than children in England below the poverty line. In other words, international comparisons—I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Freud—without carefully worked-out equivalences of livings standards between countries are, frankly, a waste of space. Indeed, it is arguable that if you take the total benefit package into account, UK children are in the top three or so of OECD countries.
There is a second problem. Conventionally, benefits for people of working age are increased by inflation. Those in work, however, can normally—I do not mean now—expect to see wages rise each year by 2 per cent above inflation. Those below 60 per cent median, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, rightly said, keep falling behind. To catch up, benefits not only have to be linked to earnings, rather than the RPI, to maintain the status quo—and that is expensive enough—but need actually to increase faster than earnings, in order to narrow the relativity gap. Only then will you decrease inequalities. Even if that were acceptable and affordable, if you have several children and only one unskilled earner, what then happens to work incentives? The poverty trap becomes an unemployment trap, unless you revisit the work stop of the 1970s.
Not surprisingly, but unfortunately, therefore, we mostly see a reduction in children in relative poverty where there is recession, where earnings fall and the median bar drops. Thereby, we reduce relative poverty because the country is getting poorer and inequalities close. I am not absolutely sure about this, but that may account for the question of the noble Lord, Lord Freud, as to why attempts to achieve the child poverty targets have done relatively badly since 2004. I suspect that that is due to real wages rising rapidly between 2004 and 2008 and, therefore, the bar has risen faster than children on benefits could keep pace with. That shows the problematic nature of the measure.
This Government admirably have sought to square this circle and make work pay through the minimum wage and tax credits. However, again, if they seek to reduce in-work poverty, as they must, the median bar is raised ever higher and it becomes harder for relatively poor children on benefits to hurdle.
In a sense, the Government have set themselves up to fail. Despite my profound misgivings about the deliverability of the relative poverty target, I do not for a moment believe that it should be discarded. My noble friend reminded us that some 500,000 children have come out of relative poverty, and he hopes that a further 500,000 children shortly will join them. Many lone parents with children under 14, for example, already receive benefits above the 60 per cent median line. But however difficult and demanding it is—and it will be—we have to go further, otherwise children in the bottom quintile will fall further and further behind. As society becomes more unequal, children see themselves as onlookers—the excluded—while other children’s well-being rises. I will support anything that increases equality and reduces inequality, as this test does. Therefore, as a test of poverty, the relative poverty measure is flawed, but in terms of social decency, so that children are not left behind, I judge it to be essential.
What none of those who understandably may press for amendments in Committee in order to go further and faster—5 not 10 per cent of children below the line; AHC rather than BHC—should forget, which I am sure they do not, is that the targets in this Bill are frankly already truly heroic and, if we can achieve them, transformative.
The second test—income combined with material deprivation—is also in my view deeply problematic. It combines in one test both income and expenditure, thus brigading what we used to call primary poverty, which is real enough, with in some cases additional secondary poverty—that of expenditure choice. Research shows that of two families with identical income, one may suffer material deprivation, the other not, according to whether those in one family smoke but those in the other do not, or whether they belong to a credit union or, alternatively, have loans at very high APR figures, which plunges them into debt.
Expenditure also quite properly reflects people’s choices. To put it flippantly for a moment, if I may, a member of my family is below the poverty line on material deprivation indicators while being a higher-rate taxpayer. I realise that the index is weighted both for preference and for widely available goods, and of course it is combined with low income. I also recognise that the material deprivation indicator importantly allows us to pick up people whose income seems nominally high because of their housing or disability benefits but whose expenditure is equally high, or higher, as well. Bedroom overcrowding—a problem that has grown with reformulated families, each partner bringing children into the relationship, and to some degree with immigration—or keeping the house warm, which is important where there is a disabled parent or child, are key examples. However, I have always thought it a somewhat odd list of indicators, originally modelled on the Irish bundle of goods. Household contents insurance, for example, is often a generational choice, and safe play facilities or open space close by are less about income than the built environment, but those are alongside the big ticket items, such as overcrowding, and very modest ones, such as affording the 35p once a fortnight for a baked beans and sausage tea for a friend. I remain somewhat hesitant about this list.
Incidentally, talking about housing—and despite the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas—I think that the Government are absolutely right to go for BHC rather than after housing costs. I absolutely understand the argument that housing costs vary dramatically, but equally it can also be argued that they may reflect a choice of higher quality over other goods. However, an argument that I think has so far not been made is that high housing costs usually run alongside cheap transport. Cheaper housing, outside London, usually comes with higher transport costs, estimated to be on average £20 to £30 a week more—the result of sparsity and poor public transport. AHC weights for London at the expense of the rest of the country. Before housing costs, I believe, more fairly assess country incomes as a whole. If you want AHC, you have to run with it by including transport costs, but in all fairness I do not think that we have the detailed statistics to do so.
Similarly, the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, raised the issue of DLA and disability costs. However, DLA does not pay for costs; it is assessed on care needs. Someone living at home with severe depression, for example, may be on the middle rate, receiving the DLA care and mobility elements, but have few extra financial costs in the way of diet, heating or appliances. There may be a case for raising DLA, and I would support the noble Baroness on that, but that is not part of this Bill.
The third test, absolute income, is also not trouble-free. It sets a benchmark, an underpinning to relative poverty figures, which I support. We have been using the 1999 figures, and they show that half the cohort of children who were below the poverty line in 1998-99 were by 2009 lifted above that line. We are talking about 1.7 million children, which is a huge achievement. As this benchmark is independent of what is happening to earnings, it is about real standards of living rather than relative ones.
The difficulty is that, even with RPI built in, every decade or so you have to rebase your figures, otherwise the benchmark gets too far behind generally accepted standards of living, and you therefore build in a jagged edge every time you rebase and do not end up with the consistent statistics that you need to guide policy. However, consultation with the lobby groups showed that they wanted to retain this and I think that they were right.
Persistent poverty, the last of the four tests, is in my view the most important of all. It is the poverty that scars and affects about 10 per cent of our children. A temporary drop into poverty—while, for example, for six months dad draws contributory JSA—will for most families be fairly quickly overcome when they join the world of work and rebuild their lives. If however you are persistently poor, everything is more expensive—each square foot of your living space, the cost of your fuel, your food, your loans, and certainly your ambitions and aspirations. Persistent poverty defeats the parent and denies the child most of the things that make up the good life. It is the one that really matters.
Therefore, I think this is a brave Bill and it is one for which I applaud my noble friend. I edited Opportunity for All on behalf of the Government from its inception to 2005 or so, and 20 or so of our 40 poverty indicators expressed child poverty targets. Those reports sought to measure child outcomes across the field of government activity. This Bill, I believe, completes the jigsaw, turning an aspiration to end child poverty into a commitment, enshrined in law, by which any and every Government rightly should be judged. I think it will be impossibly hard to deliver but we must try. We owe all our children nothing less, for every child matters.
My Lords, I welcome the Bill as a significant step forward in addressing one of the greatest scandals of our time—the prevalence of child poverty in our country. The Government face a formidable challenge in meeting the complex and often long-standing needs of the most vulnerable children and families. Unfortunately, recent research has found that Governments are failing to make the best use of public resources to improve children’s lives. As a consequence, the UK spends far more money than its European neighbours remedying preventable social problems. We know that the impact of deprivation can scar lives over generations and result in high levels of child neglect. On the other hand, we know that well targeted early intervention is cost-effective and helps to release families from the trap of cyclical deprivation and reduce the likelihood of family breakdown.
So what will legislation achieve? Well, it will achieve nothing on its own. Its success will depend on the quality of the implementation and the detail of the strategies. Therefore, it is welcome that the powers and duties are given to national, devolved and local government and many other partners, and that the Bill also sets up an expert advisory group.
The Bill contains four targets, about which we have just heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis. However, I am concerned that organisations will concentrate too much on children just below the border-line, in order to raise them just above it, instead of focusing help on those in the deepest poverty, in the same way that schools focus on the border-line C/D grades in GCSEs, raising those that are anticipated to get a D so that they just get a C for the sake of the league tables. Whatever targets we use, we must avoid that.
Then there is the matter of what we mean by eradication, on which I heartily agree with my noble friend Lady Thomas of Winchester. Even if we reached 5 per cent, that would still leave 600,000 children in poverty—hardly eradication.
There is another area where the Bill is deficient. Article 1 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that a child is,
“every human being below the age of 18 years”.
Yet Clause 25 defines a child for the purposes of the Bill as,
“a person under the age of 16”,
or qualifying for child benefit. Why the difference? The danger is that the NEETs and young care-leavers may be excluded from measures to alleviate poverty, and that would be a disaster because many of them suffer extreme poverty at present.
The Government have already had a hard mountain to climb. According to the Library Research Paper 09/62, the number of children living in households on less than 60 per cent of median income in 1979 was 13 per cent and this had risen to 27 per cent by the time Labour took over. This is the horrifying record of the last Conservative Government and we should never forget it, even though it was conveniently forgotten by the noble Lord, Lord Freud, in his attack on the Government earlier this afternoon. Since 1997, things have improved as the figure is now 23 per cent so something has been achieved by this Government, even though they have not hit their targets.
In 1999, Tony Blair pledged to eradicate child poverty within 20 years. We are halfway there in time but not in achievement, so we need to accelerate our actions. What are the Government's priorities? In April 2009, an Oxfam report on poverty noted that:
“Hundreds of billions of pounds have been made available to banks in an effort to avert financial meltdown—throwing into sharp relief, for example, the £4.2 billion needed to meet the interim child-poverty target”.
The figure of £4.2 billion comes from the Institute for Fiscal Studies. So have the Government committed this amount? No. The 2009 Budget committed only £140 million extra and yet child poverty costs the Exchequer £25 billion every year, so failing to invest adequately in eradicating child poverty is economically short-sighted and fiscally foolish.
I have two main concerns about the Bill. The first is about the independence and powers of the Child Poverty Commission and the second is about the voice of the child. How can we be assured that the Government will take any notice of the commission? Will it have enough resources to be able to commission research and call for evidence? Will it have a duty to consult children? Will it be truly independent? Based on my recent experience of looking at the independence of Ofqual in the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill and the subsequent behaviour of the Secretary of State for Education, I think the answer is not very independent. Paragraph 1 of Schedule 1 says that the chair and everyone else, apart from the appointees from the devolved Administrations, are to be appointed by the Secretary of State. How independent is that? I will be seeking to oblige the Secretary of State to consult Parliament, in the guise of the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families, before appointing the chair of the commission. I will also be seeking, as conceded by the Government in the case of Ofqual, to have the members of the commission appoint the deputy chair themselves rather than the Secretary of State doing it.
I welcome the fact that the voice of the child is mentioned in the Bill but it is not enough. Apart from the fact that there is no mention of consulting children in the clauses on the commission, the Secretary of State in Clause 9(4)(c) on consultation with children, is to consult,
“such children, or organisations working with or representing children, as the Secretary of State thinks fit”.
I will seek to change that “or” to “and”, and I was delighted to hear from the Minister in his opening remarks that he may support that.
Other changes are needed to make the Bill fit for purpose. One of my major concerns is Clause 15, which obliges the Government and the commission to have regard to economic and fiscal circumstances. Presumably this means that in adverse economic circumstances the Government could be exempt from the legal commitment to meet the target. I believe this is unnecessary and could weaken the legislation. I mentioned earlier the high cost to the state of child poverty. What we need here is long-term thinking. The Action for Children's Backing the Future report, produced with the New Economics Foundation, reveals that the cost to the UK economy of addressing current levels of social problems, such as crime, mental illness, family breakdown, drug abuse and obesity, all of which are linked to child poverty, will amount to almost £4 trillion over the next 20 years. They found that, for every £1 invested annually in their own targeted early interventions, society benefits by between £7.60 and £9.20. The report shows that a £191 billion 10-year investment programme of targeted interventions for our most vulnerable children, alongside a £428 billion 20-year programme of investment in universal childcare and parental leave, would deliver net savings of £486 billion over the next 20 years.
This excellent return on investment is approximately five times the current annual budget for the whole of the NHS, so is a very good deal. Why are the Government not proposing a financial package such as this alongside the current legislation? We need cross-party commitment to succeed in the war on poverty. There are to be annual progress reports on the success of the Bill, so let us not make them just an opportunity for party political carping and knocking the Government. We need consensus if we are to succeed. I for one will welcome success where it is shown.
One of the Bill's main principles is getting parents into work. This is fine as long as it allows parents of very young children, who wish to stay at home to look after them, to do so. We need longer and better paid parental leave, as we on these Benches have for so long advocated. We need to have in place all the measures that enable parents to work and care for their children; for example, flexible working hours, part-time workers to be properly paid and to have the same rights as full-time workers, and high quality accessible and affordable childcare. We also need a fair deal for part-time students who should have the same access to grants and loans as full-time students.
We also need a fairer tax system. One of the best ways to remove low-paid families from poverty is the Liberal Democrat tax plan to raise the threshold for paying income tax to £10,000 thereby taking 4 million low-paid people out of tax altogether and saving the average working adult £700 per year.
Does every child matter? The Secretary of State should measure the impact of all these policies on all children and make explicit reference, as has been said, to the most at-risk groups when setting out the impact of measures under the building blocks. Asylum seekers are one such group as their benefits are lower than those of citizens. The Government should allow the adults to work while they are waiting for their applications to be decided. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester mentioned the problem of children in communal accommodation, as the criteria based on households do not apply to them. They may be Gypsy and Traveller children and children in care in children's homes as well as asylum seekers in detention centres.
Fostered children are another vulnerable group: 75 per cent of foster carers earn less than the minimum wage from fostering and most do not have time to work full-time outside the home as they look after the children. Some BME groups, such as Pakistani and Bangladeshi families, also feature highly on the poverty statistics and my noble friend Lady Thomas mentioned disabled children.
We also need to look at debt. In the past 12 months, there has been an increase of 170,000 in the number of children in families living on benefits. Many of them get into debt and pay outrageously crippling interest rates. We need action by the financial services industry to avoid low-income families getting into high-interest debt.
This is an important Bill for children and I look forward to this House making it even better.
My Lords, I defer to none in my support for the Government’s objective to reduce the number of children living in poverty. However, I have honest doubts about this Bill. I wish, for example, that it was dedicated to the welfare of children rather than to household income.
This afternoon I want to concentrate on one serious defect which I see. I do not believe that the Bill will achieve its objective because it largely ignores the role of parents. The choices which parents make are an inevitable ingredient in child well-being and so, evidently, in child poverty. The decision to bring a child into the world is made by parents, whether intentionally or carelessly. Parents also choose whether to make a long-term commitment to the well-being of their child; they decide whether the two parents will form a household together and make a home for their child; and if they do, they decide who will look after the children, who will earn the money and how the household income should be spent.
Parental behaviour is not set in stone. There is much more that we could do, for example, to encourage adults to think carefully before conceiving a child. There is more that we could do to encourage both parents to make a long-term commitment to their child's well-being—whether in the form of marriage or not. Many disadvantaged parents need more help to acquire the relationship skills that they will need to make a happy home together a realistic aspiration for their child and for them.
Having so very little reference to parents in the Bill sends the wrong message about the importance of parents in ameliorating child poverty or in child well-being. I do not have the time this afternoon to discuss in detail the problems or the things that should be done to encourage, help and empower disadvantaged parents, but they will no doubt come up in Committee.
I hope that I will not tread on the toes of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester, as chairman of the Children's Society, but I, too, will cite the Good Childhood inquiry. I quote from the report written for the Children's Society by the noble Lord, Lord Layard. That excellent report is based on research and an extensive inquiry into the needs of children. Personally, I believe that it should be compulsory reading for anyone seriously interested in reducing child poverty. The quotation that I have chosen perhaps exposes a slightly different aspect of the report than that which the right reverend Prelate emphasised. On page 134, the noble Lord, Lord Layard, states:
“So poverty is related to poor outcomes for children. But does this mean that poverty is a direct cause of these poor outcomes? Only partly. In all studies of individuals the effect of family income is greatly reduced, and even sometimes disappears when other causes of child wellbeing are taken into account”.
So although poverty is statistically associated with poor outcomes for children, that does not mean that poverty is necessarily itself the cause of those poor outcomes.
The Bill, instead of addressing the underlying causes of child poverty, tries to address only the symptoms. It focuses on household income and the role that the state can play in supporting household income; it ignores the role of parents. There is only one brief mention of parents, in Clause 8(5), and it is limited to the context of the first UK strategy and relates only to more access to employment and financial support for parents. Worse still, in Clause 9(4), as was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, the Bill refers to a list of persons and organisations whom the Secretary of State must consult before publishing a report. Among those, it mentions children and organisations representing children—not a mention of parents. Why not? Child poverty is profoundly influenced by the behaviour and lifestyle choices of parents. As I said, their choices affect both the income of the household and the way in which it is spent, or not, on the children.
There are three main players in the prevention of child poverty: fathers, mothers and the state. It is like a three-legged stool, and it works only if all three are playing their part. Up to now, this Government have shown a lack of faith in parents. For the past 10 years or so, it has been the Government’s official and often stated policy that it is not the job of the Government to interfere in the way that parents choose to live their lives. Suddenly, two weeks ago, the Secretary of State for Education made a statement to the effect that he believes in marriage and the importance of parental commitment, and that a Green Paper on relationships and the family is to be published in February. I welcome that good news, but I am concerned that the Bill was obviously drafted before the Government had this welcome change of heart. We now need to know what the Government's future policy on parenting support and family structure will be. Can the Minister give the House an assurance that we shall not be asked to debate this Bill in Committee without seeing the Green Paper, or at least a draft of it?
Finally, I should like briefly to mention one or two issues which we shall have to address in Committee if the Bill is to have a chance of meeting the targets that it sets itself. First, household income is not necessarily a good measure. Child well-being is a better one. Secondly, poor, dysfunctional and hard-to-reach families have a range of problems which will have to be addressed more effectively by the Government and local authorities, supported by extended families and communities where appropriate, if the Bill’s targets are to be met. For example, as many noble Lords have mentioned, they may suffer from poor health, mental health problems, loneliness, drug or alcohol abuse, a member of the family in prison, domestic violence, relationship problems and parental separation, debt, poor or unsuitable housing—the list goes on.
If we are to win the battle against child poverty, public attitudes to the responsibilities of becoming a parent will have to change. Children unwanted or neglected by one or both of their parents are more likely to be poor and disadvantaged. Parental neglect and rejection is very damaging to a child's social and emotional development. The role and responsibilities of fathers in our contemporary society need to be clearly defined, based on research and widely publicised by the Government. The role of paternal grandmothers could be very important in the support and well-being of children. Much child poverty is caused by poor relationships within the family. There is an urgent need for more and better relationship education.
Those and other issues affecting child poverty we shall have to discuss in Committee. Many of those issues will not be resolved by making laws alone. There is a need for painstaking, sustained persuasion—what is now often referred to as the nudge—linked to better research-based information and parenting education. Only if those problems are addressed shall we have a chance, in my view, of meeting the targets set by the Bill. Both the Government and the Opposition are well aware of those problems, yet the Bill appears to ignore them. In its present form, it should not be allowed on to the statute book.
My Lords, like many of you before me, I begin by expressing my gratitude and thanks for the welcome extended to me in the very brief time that I have been in your Lordships' House. A good deal of advice has been offered to me, much of it pointing in the same direction, but not so, perhaps, with regard to the weighty matter of when to make a maiden speech. Some say, “Do it immediately”; others say, “Wait a few months until you are more used to the place”, with a whole range in between. Maybe that reflects something of the diversity of views that we hold on so many other rather more important matters. Nevertheless, I am delighted to be able to make a contribution on this Bill. I have long been of the view that within the United Kingdom, the two most urgent and pressing matters are the inequality and widening gap between rich and poor, on the one hand, and the breakdown of family life and marriage, on the other. Hot on the heels of those two—perhaps that is the right phrase—as we have been observing, has been climate change, and many other issues, but none, I think, is more important. Both those issues come together in the Bill.
We meet on the first sitting day after the Christmas Recess, and have therefore been focusing our thoughts on the birth of Christ, knowing, as we do, that there was no room in the inn. There is a tendency among far too many people to want to romanticise the stable and to suggest that somewhere that was clearly cold, draughty and immensely unhygienic was nevertheless somehow suitable—though not, we would imagine, for our own children or grandchildren to be born, let alone for the son of God. Within a very brief time, He was a refugee, having to escape for His life. We do not know quite what impact these experiences had later on His thinking and teaching, but we know that He taught that every child matters and that unless we,
“turn and become like children”,
we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.
The Church of England has nearly 5,000 church schools and 1 million or more pupils within them. We have 500,000 children and young people involved in other groups, in worship and in activities during the week, and thereby we demonstrate our deep commitment to valuing children, to working with them and for them and to serving them as best we can. Naturally, like others, I welcome the Bill, but I also urge that we keep before us the obvious fact that, vital though it is to set the targets—and we may well find ourselves modifying quite how they are expressed—the crucial part is to meet those targets, as well as the action that follows.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester spoke about the outstanding work of the Children’s Society and other noble Lords referred to the Good Childhood Inquiry. This major work has emphasised that what children say they want above everything else are stable, secure, loving relationships within their own homes. The absence of this love and these relationships are the greatest of all poverties. This is in no way to minimise the horror of the abject financial poverty that is the focus of the Bill, or, as has already been expressed, the moral obligation upon us to do our utmost to eradicate it, but it is to put the financial poverty into the right perspective.
We have already been reminded of the 2007 UNICEF report that placed us at the bottom of the league table of the 21 richest nations. That was a league table of well-being, which is not just about money. Poverty affects many aspects of a child’s life and is contributed to by a wide diversity of factors. Among those is poverty of aspiration, which contributes to the fact that the proportion of children from poorer homes in higher education has not changed over recent years, despite the extra places in colleges and universities and the encouragement of children from poorer households to look to that opportunity and take it.
In a similar vein, there is a real quandary for a lone parent without work if she or he is offered work. The quandary is between the extra money that they are likely to bring into their household and the pressure that that places on their time and the lessened opportunity they have to give to their child or children the emotional support they need. We need to do more to provide a financial taper that allows this line between unemployment and full employment to be crossed more easily. We also need a taper in other areas, where changing a category of classification can result in a step change in circumstances. A financial taper would, for example, make it easier for a single parent to be able to afford childcare, which is so necessary.
If poverty is not just about money, we need to be more joined up in our thinking and action in addressing all the underlying causes, as the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said. As the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions put it,
“family breakdown is a route into poverty for many children”.—[Official Report, Commons, 20/7/09; col. 616.]
The noble Lord, Lord Freud, also intimated that earlier. In a similar vein, the Institute for Public Policy Research report in 2006 observed:
“Much recent US research reports a consistent overarching finding that children who grow up in an ‘intact, two-parent family’ with both biological parents do better on a wide range of outcomes than children who grow up in a single-parent family. While this research may be instinctively difficult for those on the Left to accept, the British evidence seems to support it”.
Surely it must follow that in being serious about addressing child poverty, we must also address the need to support parents and recognise that support needs to be given early. There is ample evidence, for example, that relationship education programmes make a difference. The churches do a great deal in terms of marriage preparation and support, relationship development, parenting courses and so on. We know what significant contributions they can make in aiding all types of families, whether with married, co-habiting or single parents. Whatever the nature of the family unit, early support can make a real difference.
The director of One Plus One, Penny Mansfield, wrote recently:
“If we are concerned about the wellbeing of children, we must look first at how their parents are getting on”.
“Our research shows that relationships can be strengthened and breakdown in some cases prevented. Good early interventions have been shown to decrease costs incurred later by schools, social services, health services, youth justice and the police, but to truly reap the rewards they must be early. But it takes bold political will to spend now to save money later”.
This research, like so much other, comes from the voluntary sector and underlines the need for voluntary agencies to be encouraged in their work with properly funded statutory agencies, both making their unique contributions as equal but different partners in the joint enterprise. As the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions observed when introducing the Bill:
“We know that no law alone can end child poverty”.—[Official Report, Commons, 20/7/09; col. 603.]
It has to be accompanied by the will and the action from all quarters.
The diocese that I have the privilege to serve covers not only Herefordshire but south Shropshire, about 20 parishes in Wales and a little bit of Worcestershire. Half of its small total population of 330,000 lives in communities of less than 500. Not surprisingly, we are therefore the most rural English diocese, so noble Lords will not be surprised if at this point I say that we must not forget rural poverty and rural households in greatest financial need. Rural poverty may largely be invisible as a statistic, which is part of the problem, but if you are the child, it is not invisible but extremely real.
To give an example from my diocese, one of our village schools has only 87 children, 24 per cent of whom have free school meals. In a village community, that is a massive figure. The head teacher there, like head teachers of so many schools, says that the number of children who are entitled to free school meals is considerably higher, but parents are reluctant to request them, partly because of the stigma that they still see attached to them—however much they are meant to be confidential, in such a small community, they are not—and partly because of rural pride. Therefore, the statistics do not always reveal the whole truth. South Shropshire has been the poorest rural district in our country. With a small population, this issue is desperately difficult to address. Households are scattered and communities are tiny. Thankfully, the problem can be helped by the strength of many of our communities themselves and by the part that the churches and the villages play within it.
Reference has been made already to Sure Start, and I want to refer to Peterchurch, a village in Herefordshire, where a hugely innovative project is being undertaken by the church and the church council, which, in partnership with the Church Urban Fund, the Herefordshire Council and the DCSF, have raised £500,000. Part of the church has been set aside for a children’s centre which is run by Sure Start and serves the very scattered communities of the golden valley. It addresses the needs of all households, including especially those with the lowest incomes, by providing, among other things, integrated early learning and childcare for babies and children under the age of five, childcare which is suitable for working families, family support and outreach, child and family health services, and so on.
While it is fundamental that we commit ourselves at every level of organisation—governmental, statutory, voluntary including the churches, and so on—to reduce child poverty, it is also vital that we address, as the right reverend Prelate stressed, the associated issue of inequality. In part, measures of child poverty, as we have been reflecting, touch on that, but the recent work of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett highlights widening inequality as exacerbating all the issues that those in poverty face. They say that among the wealthiest nations the four that have least inequality between richest and poorest also have the best quality of life for all. The General Synod of our church called for “minimum income standards”, as have others, which would strengthen the focus of eradicating child poverty and close the inequality gap.
Finally, while equality has risen within this country and the others of the United Kingdom, it has also risen across countries. That to which we aspire within our own shores must be that to which we aspire for others within our global village. We have committed ourselves to world millennium development goals which include much to do with child poverty. As we strengthen our processes and resolve again to eradicate that poverty in Britain, let us similarly strengthen again our resolve to achieve those millennium goals for the benefit of those who are far poorer in other countries. I look forward to pursuing some of these issues further and, above all, to their being reflected in future legislation and action.
My Lords, I am delighted to have the pleasure of congratulating the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford on his thoughtful maiden speech and welcoming him to your Lordships' House. As one of the resident humanists in your Lordships' House, it may seem ironic for me to be welcoming a Bishop. However, the right reverend Prelate’s speech shows what an asset he will be to this House. As chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children, I am delighted that we seem to have another recruit to the superb confederation of those who speak on their behalf in this House. The right reverend Prelate also has a deep interest in education. The speech we have just heard reflects an understanding and knowledge of children, but also deep sympathy and warmth for their cause. I am so pleased that he mentioned moral imperatives and the importance of poverty of aspiration.
The right reverend Prelate has been Bishop of Hereford since 2004, having previously been Bishop of Warwick. He is married to a professional artist and they have three adult children. I understand that he lives in the second-oldest timber-framed house in England, which he calls a “semi”. I asked yesterday whether he, like so many other Bishops I know, is keen on cricket. I was told that this was not the case but that he is interested in golf and fly fishing. I am not sure how he combines the two. Perhaps this is an example of his versatility. We are welcoming to the Bishops’ Benches someone with a wealth of experience, understanding and humour. I know that he will make a great contribution to the work of this House.
The End Child Poverty campaign recognises progress in tackling child poverty. Some 500,000 children have been lifted out of poverty, but we are still falling short of the 2010 target to halve child poverty. Eradication by 2020, even when that means less than 10 per cent of children and young people living in poverty and not absolute eradication, is a challenging target. This Bill provides, therefore, a welcome impetus to focus again on this all-important issue. This Government have done much to try to combat disadvantage through financial and educational initiatives. I know that more is being done to encourage low income parents to take advantage of child trust funds. Family intervention projects are working well. Sure Start is a success. The number of people in drug treatment has doubled in 10 years. I must declare an interest as chair of the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse. Those are examples of tackling the causes of poverty.
As many have said, we are faced with inequalities in income. In the UK, the richest 20 per cent is seven times richer than the poorest 20 per cent. Millions of children in the US and Britain seem destined to inequality from the day that they are born. Poverty engenders disadvantage and disadvantage is likely to result in poor cognitive, social and physical development and, in some cases, behavioural problems—not necessarily, but likely. As UNICEF points out—I declare an interest as a board member of UNICEF—the Child Poverty Bill represents an opportunity to enhance human rights and, specifically, child rights in the UK. These are rights to health, education, protection and development as an individual. We cannot punish children for the shortcomings of their parents.
The proposed establishment of the Child Poverty Commission is welcome in relation to monitoring progress on these fronts. I know that the House will follow with interest the composition and terms of reference of that commission. Consultation with children is essential, as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, stated. I would hope that consultation with parents, carers and those individuals and organisations who support children will also be carried out.
As many have said, it is also important that all young people are supported. Every child does matter. I know that there were amendments in Committee in another place to include young people under the age of 18 rather than 16 in addressing child poverty. International and European law support the age of 18 and under as the definition of the word “child”. The age of 18 is also relevant to child protection and Every Child Matters reforms. We are bedevilled by different definitions of what constitutes a child. While I understand the complication of age limits in relation to child benefit, as others have said, it is an issue.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission, together with other bodies supporting children and families, strongly supports this Bill and welcomes the duty on the Secretary of State to report on the four targets of relative low income, low income and material deprivation, absolute low income and persistent poverty, although there is some criticism that the targets are too income focused. Specific groups are mentioned in the commission's briefing, on which others have and no doubt will comment, including missing or under-represented groups, non-resident parents, lone parents, the disabled and looked-after children. This Bill and subsequent action on the Bill has to be about all children.
There has been an interesting discussion about targets and the causes of poverty, particularly in the very detailed speech of my noble friend Lady Hollis. One of the good things about the Bill is that it focuses not only on targets but on the means of delivering them. In particular, I welcome the emphasis on the collaboration between national and local government that my noble friend the Minister welcomed. Delivery at all levels, supported by a commission, is surely the way to achieve results.
The building blocks outlined in the strategy include not only support for parents but the involvement of health, education, childcare and social services and housing and social inclusion, all of which are essential in tackling child poverty. A closer relationship to the Every Child Matters outcomes, including enjoyment and leisure, may have been useful. The principles behind the building blocks are also important, with their emphasis on work being the best route out of poverty, on strong families, on early intervention and on the high-quality delivery of services. An existing example of excellent support to families, as I mentioned earlier, are the family intervention projects, and I hope that this model can be built on.
I shall dwell briefly on another group about which I have spoken before in many debates: kinship carers. The Minister will not be surprised at my raising them; he has several times met kinship carers, particularly grandparents, to listen sympathetically to their worries, and all concerned are grateful to him for this interest.
Poverty begins with parents and carers and may be intergenerational. This is the link that must be broken. Many grandparents who look after grandchildren permanently are impoverished. Some 300,000 children are living with family and friends: that is, with kinship carers. Three out of four such carers experience financial hardship. Four out of 10 live on £200 a week or less. Only one in six of local authority placements are with kinship carers; the rest are placed in non-relative foster care. Yet the outcomes for children in kinship care are much better than for those in other care situations. It makes financial and social sense to support kinship care. The number of care applications has increased by 47 per cent in recent months, and there is a shortage of foster carers for more than 8,000 families. Family and friends’ care is part of the solution, but kinship care must be properly supported. I shall table amendments to that effect.
This is a good Bill and is much needed. I agree that a cross-party approach is important. No doubt the Bill’s progress through your Lordships’ House will improve it further, and I look forward to interesting times and to the Minister’s response. I apologise for my husky and spluttering voice. It is not because of emotion; I have a sore throat.
My Lords, I begin by drawing attention to my interests as set out in the Register, and stress, as has the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, what a pleasure and a privilege it is to follow the maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford, in which he indicated so clearly that he was not a Lord temporal at all but a Lord spiritual. He gave us a very high goal to reach in addressing child poverty, and perhaps most importantly he identified the two critical issues that we should address: the widening gap between rich and poor, and the breakdown of family life. These are the twin prongs of the fork that pins children into a life of poverty and distress.
The right reverend Prelate also indicated his belief in the need to meet the millennium development goals. I have my own concerns about the efficacy of the implementation of this Bill and whether or not the goals that it sets will be reached. Surely the fact that the Government at this very late stage have decided to set a strategy for conquering child poverty gives rise to questions, when noble Lords on all sides of the House, and indeed the UN family, are committed to meeting the millennium development goals. The two keys here are access to health and access to education. Reaching those two goals by the target date of 2015 would be the biggest way of sweeping aside child poverty in the United Kingdom that we have known.
My concern about the Bill is that the lines are drawn so narrowly that it is a matter of figures and targets and of identifying things that can be measured and that may indicate what child poverty is in the United Kingdom. I wait to hear whether these targets have been chosen because they are quantifiable and easily measurable, can be put down in figures, and are likely to clarify why child poverty in the United Kingdom is so pervasive and widespread. Will the Minister confirm this? I am intrigued that this Government are setting the strategy for the next Government and not for themselves. If this is the case, my concerns widen somewhat.
This Bill is said to comply with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child but, because of the narrowness of its drafting, it overlooks the fact that UK government policies also directly affect child poverty outside Great Britain and Northern Ireland, not least through the economic migration of workers into the United Kingdom. Throughout eastern Europe, children are being abandoned in institutions as a direct result of one or both parents going abroad to work. They come here to the United Kingdom in great profusion, as well as to other selected members of the European Union and to Russia, and they leave their children behind with members of their extended family, frequently the grandparents, who can rarely if ever meet either the extra economic burden or the big physical burden of bringing up their grandchildren. The grandparents simply do not have the strength, and they most certainly do not have the money.
Furthermore, many single mothers are inadvertently produced by the father travelling abroad to work, and money that is not forthcoming from the father working abroad can result in family breakdown and children being placed in institutional care. A key example of this is Russia withholding remittances from Moldova for quite a few years. Since 30 to 40 per cent of Moldova’s income is from remittances, you can only imagine the effect that this has had on children there. Moldova is not alone. The inescapable fact—alas, it is evidence-based—is that migratory workers suffer much higher rates of mental illness and of drug and alcohol addiction through loneliness. They also suffer hugely from family breakdown, because inevitably they find new families or new family links which they build up in their new countries.
Family breakdown in the countries of origin is now a common occurrence, so where are the stable and loving relationships which the children need and to which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford so rightly referred? Many thousands of young children in residential care in the World Health Organisation European region are without a parent. In eastern Europe, only 14 per cent of children are in residential care as a result of child maltreatment; one in three have been abandoned by their parents, generally for reasons that I have already identified; one in two are there because they require a place to live, generally through family poverty that is unalleviated by government measures, such as child benefit, that are standard throughout the EU member states; and one in two children in social care are disabled. Only six per cent are true orphans with no living parent, although the institutions in which they are placed are often wrongly called orphanages. I refer noble Lords to Kevin Browne’s study of 2009, The Risk of Harm to Young Children in Institutional Care.
This Bill, which is so narrowly drawn, does not take these wider implications into account. I would like the Bill at least to pay tribute to joined-up government. Where is the trade provision to help these families to find jobs at home? Where is the provision to support them? What advice do the Government give to the Governments in question in eastern Europe? After all, we are the second biggest net contributor to the European Union, and the European Commission, with its wider Europe policy, is heavily engaged with all these nations. I visit British embassies there—they are magnificent—and I am deeply concerned about the withdrawal of funding from those embassies so that they have little capability to do those things that they can see so clearly could be done and in which we have so much competence ourselves.
I suggest that the Lisbon treaty and the work of the European Commission have failed to recognise the consequences of EU economic policies on the preservation of families and of the right of children not to be separated from their families against their will, to which Article 9 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child refers. To prevent child poverty throughout the European Union and here, there needs to be a concerted effort by all member states to look at the effects of economic policies on family life. The Bill does not address this in any way. While the European Union has no competence for children’s issues, and as we know has no legal base, none the less, EU member state responsibilities to implement fully the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was comprehensively identified by the Council of Ministers in 1998 when it declared that failure to implement the UNCRC would rank as failure to implement the treaty, with all the consequences and gravity that that implies. Her Majesty’s Government were inevitably part of that declaration and we are committed to it.
This Government and the government of every other member state bear a heavy responsibility, and hence the necessity for us to scrutinise UK child-oriented policies very severely at all times to ensure that the maximum potential help for children throughout the European Union and the wider Europe is built in. Falling back on Article 12 of the UNCRC, as the Bill before the House today does, is an inadequate and unsatisfactory position for Her Majesty’s Government to adopt.
The Forensic and Family Psychology Research Group at the University of Nottingham, led by Professor Kevin Browne, to whom I have already referred, has recently received significant ongoing financial support from the EU Daphne programme on violence against women and children to explore the full extent of child abandonment throughout Europe and to identify best practices for its prevention. The team has already identified the extent of young children in residential care across Europe and best practices connected with the deinstitutionalisation of these children by building services to support children returned to their families and the community. But progress in this endeavour has been slow and laborious because of a lack of commitment and funding.
The same amount of financial support needs to be made available to Bulgaria, which joined at the same time, as was made available to Romania, and to the new accession states of Croatia, Turkey, Macedonia and upcoming Bosnia, in addition to the other central and eastern European member states that joined in 2004. The Minister and I know that this has not happened. Personally, I believe that very little funding is required to swing the balance back towards support for families and children in the wider eastern European Union states and that the British Government, the Foreign Office and experts who can give advice from here would have a large part to play for a small pocket of funding, particularly if it were made available to the British embassies.
The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury reminded us in his new year’s message of our responsibilities to those outside our gates. Child poverty, perhaps we think of today, as here and now, and indeed it is. But I make no apology in the light of the Archbishop’s message and of the maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford today to make the fundamental point that we as a critical and powerful member of the European Union could do so much more, yet the Government have pulled back funding for the Foreign Office and our embassies for this work. I do not believe that is right and I urge the Minister to think again and to incorporate into this Bill measures to cover the points I have mentioned.
My Lords, I want to begin by welcoming this Bill and the fact that it includes all of the United Kingdom in its measures to monitor and address child poverty. Child poverty has been endemic in Northern Ireland for a very long time. Currently we have around 96,000 children living in poverty. We have higher rates of persistent unemployment and economic inactivity. Those children who are living in poverty are much more likely to have done so for longer periods of time, so the effects are more likely to be ingrained and severe. I see this reflected in my own community and in those nearby me where some children are living in families that are experiencing third or even fourth generation unemployment. This affects children’s health, education, leisure and, in the long term, their aspirations and outcomes. I welcome any legislation or action that puts a responsibility on government to address this.
In terms of the Bill itself, I think that the clause which makes measuring child poverty the responsibility not simply of Westminster and the UK Government but of the devolved Administrations, is crucial. It is right that the Northern Ireland Executive should measure child poverty annually and report its findings to the Assembly. This is right both in terms of the democratic process and because it may act as an impetus to government to ensure that action is taken to begin to address child poverty rather than simply subscribing to an overall aim of reducing poverty without any clear actions to do so.
It is only in the last number of years that Northern Ireland has measured child poverty in terms broadly comparable with those elsewhere in the United Kingdom It is important that we provide an accurate picture across the UK of the overall levels of poverty and how all our children are experiencing poverty, otherwise it is too easy for some nations to fall far behind. I understand that there are still some difficulties in terms of measuring persistent poverty in Northern Ireland and I would urge the Government to ensure that the necessary steps are in place to enable this very significant measure of poverty to be reflected across the UK.
Northern Ireland has had Lifetime Opportunities, an anti-poverty strategy which was in draft for some years and was ratified last year by the Northern Ireland Executive. However, this has not seen any clear and consistent action really to begin to address child poverty. The lack of targets and associated programmes of action within the strategy has meant that it has had little or no effect. It is also a strategy that has had no associated resources, but relied on individual departments to undertake and resource actions for moving it forward; this has not worked. We have not seen the kind of significant programmes that would address child poverty where it is located in concentrated pockets. Some communities in Northern Ireland have rates of child poverty of over 90 per cent, a staggering figure, and any serious anti-poverty strategy must address it.
My understanding is that the NI Executive has agreed that the Child Poverty Bill should place a duty to produce a child poverty strategy on the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister and, importantly, should place an equivalent duty on all Northern Ireland departments to contribute to the strategy. It is then to be reviewed and progress monitored. This I welcome as vital if we are to make any real headway in addressing the underlying causes of child poverty. I also think it is crucial that the Northern Ireland Executive should demonstrate that all parties can work together on what is one of the most significant issues for children, families and communities. Clause 8 sets out a clear duty on the Secretary of State, when producing a child poverty strategy, to take account of the employment of parents, the development of the skills of parents, the provision of financial support, health education, social services, housing and the built environment, and the promotion of social inclusion. These are vital in addressing child poverty, and it is therefore crucial that there is also a duty on the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister and other NI departments to take these into account.
One example of why this is so important is that currently in Northern Ireland 47,000 young people aged 16 to 24 are not in education, employment or training. This represents around 20 per cent of that population group, which is higher than the United Kingdom average. A significant number of these young people are currently parents, or will go on to become parents in the next few years. However, in Northern Ireland we do not have a strategy to address the problem of getting them back into employment and training whereas England, Scotland and Wales all have such strategies already in place. We have yet to begin a pilot of the Future Jobs Fund that has been put in place for young people in Britain, where 95,000 jobs have been allocated for creation. In Northern Ireland, the Department for Employment and Learning is suggesting a 50-job pilot later in the month. We are clearly lagging behind on a significant issue linked to child poverty.
This illustrates why it is so important that the full range of duties under this legislation linked to the strategy and its actions are included for Northern Ireland. My understanding is that this amendment has been agreed by the Northern Ireland Executive and I look forward to considering it more closely.
Finally, I wish to address the issue of resourcing. We cannot address child poverty without putting in place programmes and actions that are resourced to reduce the underlying causes. What is required is support for employment, access to affordable childcare, intensive family support, programmes that address school readiness or support children from disadvantaged areas to do much better at school, combined with measures that build communities and address the fragmentation that many disadvantaged communities experience.
We have heard a great deal of talk today about poverty and what it is, about family life and so on. For me, poverty is explained in the letters of the word: it is about powerlessness; it is about having no opportunities to do anything; it is about having no voice—everyone talks for you but not to you; it is about having low attainment in education; it is about having trust in no one; it is about having no resources. And the last and most important letter in the word poverty is “y”, which is about yourself; it is a very lonely place to be.
This Bill must be resourced. Without adequate resourcing it will not make a significant difference; with resourcing it may begin to reduce child poverty levels across the United Kingdom. On that basis, it is to be welcomed.
My Lords, I support many aspects of the Bill as a means of addressing the injustice of child poverty in our communities. We have a moral duty to bring the issue of child poverty to the fore while ensuring that the remedies to this endemic problem are implemented by both central and local governments. In the United Kingdom at present, 4 million children are living in poverty, after housing costs. As a highly industrialised country and a member of the G8, this is not only an abject failure but should serve as an embarrassment. This state of affairs was a contributory factor to our ranking bottom for levels of child well-being out of 21 OECD countries in the UNICEF Report Card 7. I hope that the Bill will be strengthened during its passage through your Lordships’ House in order to reassure the people of the United Kingdom that we are taking bold steps to eradicate this inequality which permeates so many young lives.
Clause 7 makes provision for the Child Poverty Commission and Schedule 1 elaborates on the components of the new body. It is important that we ensure that the organisation which is established is not only independent but also fully accountable to all layers of society. There is a genuine concern that the new organisation should not contribute to the bureaucratic burden of those in the voluntary sector and local communities in their work to tackle poverty among young people. The commission should give credence to the multi-faceted approach that is desperately needed successfully to reverse the unacceptable levels of deprivation among our children.
Clause 8 makes it incumbent on the Secretary of State to create a nationwide strategy to address the issue of child poverty. I support subsection (5)(a) as it ensures that due consideration will be given to the employment status and skills of parents when producing the scheme. Children quite often inherit poverty from their parents and, therefore, adult poverty and its causes are of equal importance in adequately addressing child poverty.
At present, 5 million adults are illiterate and 17 million struggle with basic literacy. A significant number of these adults are parents to some of the poorest children in our communities. As a result, the lack of opportunities these children face extends beyond economic poverty and affects their education and future employment prospects. Children who live in households where adults do not engage in any form of employment are not only the most deprived in our society but are more likely to follow this example once they leave compulsory education. This generational cycle of unemployment is a key factor in the rising levels of welfare dependency and deprivation.
However, a number of these parents who are in employment are typically in receipt of low incomes. The incomes of the poorest 20 per cent of families have consistently fallen every year since 2004. This inequality will not be rectified but in fact will be compounded by the Government’s proposal in the Pre-Budget report to increase national insurance contributions by 0.5 per cent for all workers who earn £20,000 or in excess of this figure. There will be families who earn this amount or slightly more who will fall into this bracket. One of the reasons commonly given as to why people on low incomes leave full-time employment is that they believe there is little financial incentive to work. One can argue that the rise in unemployment will have an undesirable effect on child poverty. There is a connection between adult unemployment and child poverty and measures taken to help more people to gain employment will improve the current state of child deprivation.
Clause 9(4) gives details of the relevant groups that the Secretary of State should consult when preparing the child poverty strategy. I am concerned about subsection (4)(c) as it implies that it is optional for the Secretary of State to consult children in regard to the strategy. The strategy can only benefit from the input of children who have experienced deprivation. If this clause remains elective rather than mandatory, the legitimacy of any future strategy may be compromised. Furthermore, it can be argued that failing to consult children could breach their rights under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that young people have a right to be represented irrespective of the context. The contribution that children can make to future policy could be vital to measuring its impact. I was pleased to hear the Minister say that the matter of the involvement of children will receive further consideration.
Clause 20 promotes collaboration among local agencies in tackling child poverty through providing local authorities with a duty to liaise with relevant bodies. I welcome this clause as it will promote greater dialogue between these groups when implementing the child poverty strategy to ensure the best outcomes for young individuals.
Child poverty is a complex issue. A multifaceted approach to tackling this problem is necessary, as there are divergent components which add to this injustice. Local authorities and agencies play a vital role in ensuring that children and the most vulnerable members of society receive the support that they need. It is only fair that they receive adequate training and resources to enable them to continue to fulfil these duties. Local authorities must be given the freedom and flexibility to address deprivation among young people without additional layers of bureaucracy. Levels of child poverty are higher among the black and Asian communities at 31 per cent and 42 per cent respectively, as compared with their white counterparts where it stands at 20 per cent. That situation concerns me.
Does the Minister agree that areas where child poverty is prevalent should be given extra resources in order effectively to implement the proposed child poverty strategy? Conversely, the offending rate among Muslim youth is rising. Can the Minister explain to your Lordships' House what steps the Government will take to address this situation?
One glaring omission from the Bill is the failure to recognise the relationship between family breakdown and child poverty. Research suggests that children from broken families are 75 per cent more likely to fail academically; 70 per cent more likely to engage in drug abuse and 35 per cent more likely to experience long-term unemployment and become reliant on state benefits. Approximately 1 million children live in homes where adults engage in alcohol abuse, whereas close to 350,000 young people have parents who struggle with drug addiction. Does the Minister agree that fixing our broken society will result in reducing the number of children living in poverty? Does he agree that we need to do more to combat alcohol and drug addiction as part of a child poverty strategy?
In 1999, the former Prime Minister made a pledge to end child poverty within 20 years. Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests that the Government will fail to meet their target of halving child poverty this year by 600,000 children. To call this situation disappointing would be a gross understatement.
Child poverty is not just about money. It encompasses access to education, healthcare and suitable housing. Education can provide a route out of deprivation. As a former visiting lecturer, I attach a great deal of importance to the power of education as a means to enhance the opportunities of young people irrespective of their background. I should like to see admission to tertiary education become a plausible aspiration for all young people who live in poverty.
The failure to make progress in this area reflects the narrow approach of the tax credits system. We cannot afford to waste the potential of our young people. We have both a civic and an economic duty to deal with the prevalence of child poverty in our society. The lack of success in dealing with this predicament calls for us to adopt a bold approach to ensuring that we eliminate this problem in the immediate future.
My Lords, as the last speaker in this section of the debate, I should say how much I have enjoyed the contributions of other noble Lords and profited from them. However, I disagree with at least some of the things that have been said. I was there when Tony Blair stated Labour’s intention to abolish child poverty by 2020. A sort of frisson went through the audience, because no one expected anything so far reaching at the time. It was announced in the William Beveridge lecture that Tony Blair gave in March 1999. William Beveridge was one of my predecessors as director of the London School of Economics, and of course is widely acknowledged as the founder of the modern welfare state. Blair deployed one of my favourite quotations from Beveridge in what he had to say. When he was 80, Beveridge wrote:
“I am still radical, and young enough, to believe that mountains can be moved”.
Blair was not quite 80 at that particular point, but he took as his theme the inspiration that mountains can be moved, and in that speech also affirmed Labour’s intention to introduce a minimum wage. The whole point of the speech was to say that the welfare system and the welfare state have to be radically revised because of the fundamental transformations happening in the wider social and economic order. That is an imperative that we still have to sustain today.
Child poverty was the right thing to be radical about. Other noble Lords have explained why—because of its pervasive nature and the massive impact that it has on all aspects of the wider life of society. Moreover, one should remember that at that time the country was faring spectacularly badly compared to other EU countries; depending on how you measure child poverty, it ranked 14 out of 15 EU countries. However, radicalism of intent has not been matched by radicalism of achievement. The mountain has proved extremely hard to move. It is an achievement, of course, to have lifted half a million children out of relative poverty. However, as other noble Lords have said, in terms of relative poverty, child poverty increased over the period from 2004-05 to 2007-08. The target for 2004-05 was missed. It is certain that, give or take the impact of the recession, the target for 2010 will also be missed.
The current Bill reaffirms seriousness of intent. For that reason, I am happy to support it. It is worth recognising that accompanying the Bill has been a flurry of documentation produced by the Government which has been very valuable—for example, Ending Child Poverty and Making it Happen and about five other major documents. These were supposed to initiate a debate with child poverty agencies, and this they have done. The responses from child poverty groups to the initial formulation of this Bill have been very valuable and I shall allude to one or two of them.
I want to make four points. I should like my noble friend the Minister to consider commenting at least on the first three, while the final one is for the opposition Front Bench. As an academic and a social scientist, I believe that a far more comparative analysis is needed than has so far informed the Government’s approach. We must do a lot more to learn from best practice elsewhere. In the documentation to which I referred, there are allusions to other countries, especially in respect to what should count as abolishing child poverty, but no systematic comparisons—only superficial comparisons are made. It is essential, in dealing with an entrenched problematic issue such as child poverty, that we scour the world and look at best practice. To my mind, that has not really been done.
The noble Lord, Lord Freud, said that his triangle was the closest thing to an iron law in the social sciences. As a practising social scientist for many years, I have heard all that before, but there are no iron laws in the social sciences, nor is there anything approaching one. I would counsel not too much reliance on that aspect of what he said.
When you look at different industrial countries in comparative terms, you find that some of the countries that have the lowest rates of marriage and the highest rates of single-parent households also have the lowest rates of child poverty. I have in mind the Scandinavian countries in that connection. We should beware these specious statements about marriage and the family unless they are backed up with detailed comparative research.
Incidentally, it is not true that child poverty as such is not discussed in continental countries. I started working on the issue with social scientists in many countries 15 years or so ago, when it was certainly discussed. I made several trips to Scandinavia and the United States at that time, and of course the European Union enshrines a good deal of this in its own programmes.
Secondly, and this is aimed more directly at the Minister and the Government: you do not move a mountain simply by removing the topsoil. You have to have serious earth-moving equipment in order to do that, and my question is: where is it? It is common knowledge that the best study recently of child poverty, produced by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, says that something like £4.3 billion a year is needed if the Government are to get close to the targets that they are setting themselves. We have to remember, as other noble Lords have said, that since child poverty, at least by the EU measure, is relative, it gets harder and harder the more successful we are. It is not possible to achieve a step change, which is what is needed, without substantial resources being invested, and I do not quite see where they are.
As someone who has been working for the past year on climate change, I support what the Government are doing but it seems to be similar. We now have the most robust forward-looking framework for countering climate change, but our actual achievements are pretty minimal. We have only about 1 per cent of the total energy mix coming from renewable sources, compared with 40 per cent in Sweden. Funding will be necessary, whoever is in government, and it will to be substantial and regularised. I do not quite see where that is at the moment.
Thirdly, we will need to be much more radical at the level of policy innovation. I do not agree with everything that the noble Lord, Lord Freud, said in his address, but he is right that we have to be innovative, and he has tried to show this in the work that he has carried out in this area.
The existing strategy of depending on tax credits has been valuable, and I was pleased to hear that a Tory Government would sustain that, although I am not sure what the actual quantity would be. However, we know that it has its limits, and after the scenario I have described, these limits have been fairly well explored. We know that there is a lot of in-work poverty; something like 50 per cent of children who live in poverty are living in a family where at least one parent is in work.
All parties need more radical thinking at this point. If Beveridge could say, “I am still a radical at 80”, and mean it and still produce radical thinking, that is what we should be doing. We have to be a lot more innovative than current policy suggests. However, I do not support some of the things that noble Lords have said about the specific nature of the Child Poverty Bill not looking at rounded notions of children’s well-being. After all, the Government have put an enormous amount of effort into fostering child well-being; there have been many initiatives, beginning with Sure Start, which has been mostly successful, through to the Children Plan. Many other aspects of children’s well-being have certainly been the concern of the Government. You might say that it has not all worked as it should, but the kind of criticism I am referring to is misplaced.
I address my fourth point to the Tory Front Bench. I was pleased to hear the Conservative Party’s commitment to getting somewhere close to eradicating child poverty or making a serious dent in it. I was glad to hear, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Freud, said, that the party now accepts that poverty is a relative phenomenon. In other words, we are living in a society that is much too unequal. To me, countering child poverty is the main lever for potentially radically reducing overall inequality in our society.
I should like to hear a bit more from the Tory Front Bench about this, though. If targets are going to be abolished, for example, what will replace them? To eliminate child poverty is, of course, a target. You could define it as 5 per cent, as 10 per cent or, as the documentation does, as between 5 per cent and 10 per cent, but it plainly is a target. Targets give specific form to aspiration. I note that when Oliver Letwin mentioned the Tories’ new commitment—at least, new to me—to radically reducing child poverty, he described it as an aspiration, not a pledge. I should like the Tory Front Bench to say a bit about how the pledge could be more hard-edged.
I agree with other noble Lords who say that this should be a cross-party endeavour, without political point-making but with serious debate. If the parties indeed work together, we can start to move the mountain.
It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, because his experience is valuable and he made an interesting speech, which I am sure will repay careful study. I absolutely agree with his final point about co-operating across parties to try to achieve this end. There is no purpose in point-scoring; it is too serious a subject for that. I will say two other things about his speech. First, he was interested in moving mountains. It is a long time since 1999 and we are still floundering in the foothills. Expectations have been dashed. It was a brave vision and the then Prime Minister was probably right to set out that vision, but we still have a long way to go. What worries me more than anything else about that is that the earliest reductions are the easiest to achieve. The hardest bit is yet to come. The last 10 years will be harder than the first 10 years. I think everybody understands that.
Against a background of climate change, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer making statements yesterday about how growth will be devoted to fiscal consolidation, it is not surprising that people are worried about where resources will come from. He made a powerful point about the need for extra resources, and I agree with that. He also made an important point about best practice. Actually, we have been too dependent in the past on American practice. We should be looking much more to our sister European countries for some of the ideas that we might need to innovate in the 10 years remaining if we are to be successful.
People are right to be less than enthusiastic about where we are. The Minister probably has the argument on points, but I would not put it any higher than that. The debate has been interesting and I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, that it is always massively instructive to listen to colleagues because there is such a range of experience and different points of view. I will respond to some of them from my own perspective.
I said that noble Lords were reflecting disappointment in urging the Government to do more. There is nothing new in this Bill. Nothing will be different after it is passed. I say that as someone who has watched this argument from the Beveridge lecture in 1999. I was one whose jaw dropped when the commitment was made. Since then, there has been a huge amount of activity in terms of developing the policy such as in the 2004 Child Poverty Review, which was a substantial Treasury document. In 2006, we had Lisa Harker with a very important take on what needed to be done. In 2008, we had an interesting and instructive report from the Commons Select Committee, with a plethora of recommendations and warning signs about what had to be done. We have had public service agreement targets and the 2002, 2004 and 2007 CSR periods. We had Opportunity for All. The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, was absolutely right: it is a document that I read avidly and it has not really recovered since she gave up the editorship. We have had targets all over the place. Is the Secretary of State expected to resign in 2010 or 2020, whoever he or she may be, if these targets are not met? What is different about putting them on the statute book? That is an important question.
I now turn to the commission because the Child Poverty Commission is not that new either. We have been blessed with lots of experts. The Social Policy Research Unit at York, with Jonathan Bradshaw and his colleagues, and many other institutions—not just the LSE—have done marvellous, world-leading work on analysis of the problem and on offering prescriptions. What will the Child Poverty Commission add to what has been done there and in the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report, or work done by Donald Hirsch? It is world-class and I do not see how the Child Poverty Commission will find it easy to better that. It is all available free anyway, so what will the Child Poverty Commission bring that has not been available to us in the past?
One thing that I would like the commission to undertake is firm qualitative research—and no doubt we will discuss that in Committee. I am particularly worried now about some of the persistent levels of poverty in working families in the United Kingdom. I have been subscribing to and agree with the Government’s active labour market policies, and I concede that the Government have done a lot. I acknowledge that, but we are now finding that there is persistent poverty in working families. That might be because there is a lot of part-time work in the system now. We need to understand that because if people think that it is safe to get people into jobs and assume that the problem is solved, they are wrong if some of these statistics are right. Maybe there is some work to be done there.
I enjoyed the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Freud. I do not know anything about iron triangles. I did O-grade geometry and there are isosceles, scalene and obtuse triangles. I do not mean obtuse to be a derogatory term because it is a type of triangle with an angle of greater than 90 degrees within it, but I will go away and learn about iron triangles as well as three-legged stools for mothers and fathers and the state. I will go away and think about all those things.
Although the noble Lord, Lord Freud, was trying to establish clear blue water between himself and everybody else, I do not think that he is that far away from us in saying that we have to produce the resources in a holistic way. I agree with him on that. He is worried about family breakdown and I know where he gets that worry from. My good friend Mr Andrew Selous is a very good thing and I am in favour of him. The only thing about which I disagree with him—he was a member of the Select Committee on which I served—is that he has this thing that families need fathers; he thinks that everybody needs to be married before the world will be right. I do not think that that is true. The noble Lord, Lord Giddens, made the important point that in Scandinavian countries lone-parent families are very successful, so I do not buy the idea that the vows make the difference. I think that you can support and work with family units that are less than two married people.
If the noble Lord, Lord Freud, is to address family breakdown, addiction, worklessness and the lack of educational skills, I am with him, but that needs not only a holistic approach but investment. I notice that neither he nor the Minister mentioned Clause 15, which is the get-out for any Government in the long term, as it makes all this subject to financial capability and that kind of thing. The Committee will want to drill into what that means for both major parties. If it represents a complete block on extra resources, we really are toiling.
All parties at the coming election will need to find some way of devoting extra resources to this problem, whether through the benefits system or through the more holistic approach that I think the noble Lord, Lord Freud, has brought to the table. He is an innovator. He is the man who won the argument about getting the Treasury DEL and AME rules changed. However, if it is true that you can do that in a welfare/work context, why do we not say to people who live in families that are multiply deprived and in persistent poverty, “If you can prove that for an expenditure of £X,000 you can trade your way out as a family unit, never mind the benefit that you are on”—Professor Gregg has persuaded me that it does not matter what benefit you are on—“and if you can find your way to the table, to the local authority or the Jobcentre Plus personal adviser, and say ‘Look, just get me the resources, the grant or the loan that I need to become a nurse or a teacher and I can get my family into a much better place in three or five years’, we will say to you, ‘Come on down!’”? We should give those people the money. That is the kind of innovation that I hope we will be able to look to in the longer term.
How should we present all this? The British population hates poor people, mainly due to the Daily Mail. That is an exaggeration, but only a slight one. There is a poisonous atmosphere to the debate, which is all about “scroungers” and the rest of it. We should start changing the rules. My noble friend Lady Walmsley made an important point about the cost-benefit analyses in the IFS and Joseph Rowntree Foundation studies. We should demonstrate that by spending money early—by early investment, pre-empting some of the worst effects of the long-term disadvantage that poverty causes—we can save the taxpayer money. We will explore the figures in Committee. I defer to colleagues who know more about the human values and moral virtues of protecting the life chances of individuals who are young and need protection, as they do, but I believe that we should get a bit more realistic about presenting this debate. We should take a much more cost-benefit analysis approach and say, “We can save a lot of money doing it this way”. If we did that, we would be much better able to engage public support.
I enjoyed the maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate. I understand the rurality issue. I come from south-east Scotland, where my constituency was, so it was music to my ears when he identified the fact that, although the needs are different, they are just as great. I hope that the Committee will have the chance to look at some of that. There are all sorts of issues in which we can get involved in Committee.
More than anything else, as a political institution that is interested in doing something in this area, we have to understand that, although money is of course going to be difficult to find, we must find ways, if we are to make any progress, of investing sensibly over the next 10 years in domestic households that are at the bottom of the social ladder. I am absolutely up for looking at new ways of doing this. There are problems with some of the Centre for Social Justice suggestions, which seem to ignore the fact that benefits are for households while taxation is about individuals. I do not yet see how those marry properly, but that is perhaps because I do not understand the iron triangle.
I was told by the noble Lord, Lord Freud, in the period between the debate stopping and starting again, the very bad news that the book is 800 pages long. It might take me until next Christmas to read that. We must all expose ourselves to any new ideas that we can find, but we must also rededicate ourselves collectively—across the House, through all parties and the Cross Benches—to finding extra resources if we are going to tackle this problem adequately.
My Lords, I start by thanking all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. In particular, I welcome the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford to your Lordships’ House. I congratulate him on his maiden speech and agree, in particular, with his emphasis on the importance of the family.
This has been a very interesting debate which has quite properly highlighted the strength of feeling that many have about the importance of reducing child poverty. As my noble friend Lord Freud made clear in his opening remarks, it is a strength of feeling that the Conservative Party wholeheartedly shares. During the Bill’s passage through another place, it was sad to see many of the debates degenerate into acrimonious arguments about what did or did not happen more than 15 years ago. Before I go any further, I reiterate the Conservative Party’s support for the Minister’s desire to reduce the number of children growing up in poverty, and echo my noble friend Lord Sheikh in his general support for the Bill.
I am sure that your Lordships’ House will debate the detailed provisions in its usual constructive manner, and that we will be able to pass a Bill that gives the Government the powers they need to make the necessary changes to people’s lives. Unfortunately, the Bill is not yet there. The Bill is flawed, not in what the Minister claims it is setting out to do—we all agree with that—but in how it tries to achieve those aims.
I am very pleased, as I am sure are all other noble Lords, that the Minister responsible for piloting the Bill through our Chamber is the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, for whom we all have the greatest respect. I hope that, since his department is keeping control of the Bill, we will see a greater appreciation of the power of individualised intervention, as opposed to the Treasury’s often narrow-minded and ultimately ineffective reliance on financial manipulation. I hope that the Minister will be willing to see the principles on which the Welfare Reform Act was based translated into this Bill.
The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, rightly emphasised, as did my noble friend Lord Freud, the importance of understanding the causes of poverty and addressing these directly, rather than sweeping them under the carpet and treating only the symptoms with direct financial transfers. As an IFS report commissioned by the Government tells us, it would take £19 billion a year in today’s money to achieve a solution through purely financial means. Of course, that was a static analysis; it ignored the spiralling effects of encouraging more and more people to live on benefits.
Even the Government agree that this is unsustainable, especially when their own finances are in a hole to the tune of £178 billion. If the Government have failed to meet their own 2010 target after a decade of unprecedented growth, the next Government will clearly have to use different and more effective tactics to meet the targets in the Bill during the bust into which Labour’s economic policies have driven us. Unfortunately, the Bill does nothing to set out what tactics this Government think should be used. It talks of creating strategies but gives no clue as to what those strategies should be. It would be interesting to hear what the Minister thinks were the flaws in Labour’s policies in recent years that have led, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester, mentioned, to the 2010 target being missed. What changes does he think should be made in order to do better in the future?
The Bill is also silent on many other important details that will be critical to successful implementation. There has been confusion, for example, about the intended role the commission will play. We would support, of course, the establishment of a credible body that focuses on collating and commissioning high quality and relevant research and giving unbiased and constructive advice to the Government. However, there are considerable and understandable fears that instead we will be landed with just another lobby group, this one taxpayer funded, which adds little value to government policies.
We need to explore as well how the Government envisage local authorities and partner authorities will meet their obligations under the Bill. What difference will this legislation make? Local authorities are, of course, the right place to start; poverty is very much a local problem, caused by local issues and needing locally targeted solutions. However, as my noble friend Lord Sheikh suggested, local authorities already have significant obligations on them to look out for those in their area who need support. We must make sure that these provisions empower local authorities and do not stifle them or bury them under more box-ticking paperwork.
Our most fundamental disagreement with the Bill is, as my noble friend Lord Freud made clear, that it focuses on the symptoms, not the causes, of poverty. We will seek throughout Committee to ensure that the measures target those experiencing genuine deprivation. As my noble friend Lord Freud said, children as a group do not generally have incomes or wealth, so we are driven to the income and wealth of their families as a proxy. However, it is a deeply unsatisfactory proxy because not all families share out their income as we would like. The Centre for Social Justice estimates that about a million and a half children are growing up in substance-abusing households, either of drugs or alcohol. That is likely to be a very substantial proportion of the children we are concerned about. What good does it do to tackle the problems in these families by increasing benefit payments? Surely that is a strategy designed in these cases to delight the local drug dealers and off-licence stores.
In order to make a real difference to these children’s lives, we must be honest about those factors which lead to poverty. As my noble friend Lord Freud said, relationship breakdown, substance abuse, unemployment—the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford also referred to that—and lack of education, which the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, mentioned, are the big four causes. Although they might not cover every single example of a family struggling to bring up a child in poverty, they are certainly among the reasons for most of them. The Bill must address these causes squarely.
Nor must the Bill become a tool for whitewashing. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester referred to the vital need to pay the closest attention to those deepest in poverty. We agree that it would be quite wrong for government to focus attention on those families who fall just under the target income levels. Indeed, I am sure that this is not the Minister’s intention. However, such a flawed policy would be the most efficient way of meeting these targets and allowing a Government to present the appearance of making headway. We must make sure that the reports on these targets give accurate information about what difference the Government’s policies are making to real people, not just to statistics.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said, the Bill must instead be targeted at those most in need. Children in care or those caring for a disabled parent, to whom the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, referred, are often the most vulnerable and those at risk of suffering serious or persistent poverty. What is there in the Bill to make sure that, in the desire to meet an arbitrary target, those most deserving of government assistance are not ignored in favour of those closer to the 60 per cent mark?
The noble Lord, Lord Giddens, for whom I have great respect, asked what would replace targets if a Conservative Government were to abolish them. My noble friend did not say that we would abolish targets; he said that we needed the right targets. He said that we will aim to widen the agenda and build up targets that are more likely to address the underlying causes of poverty. Our debates in Committee will allow us to expand on that. I dare not, as a layman, go into the intricacies of the iron triangle, but I shall say for today that a Conservative Government would certainly seek to reduce poverty among children, but we must address the causes, not the symptoms.
The Government have much to explain in the Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, asked why they are tying future Governments to a target when they have failed to meet their own, but that question has not yet been answered. I look forward to the debates in Committee, where I hope we will be able to extract considerably more detail about these provisions and persuade the Government to improve the Bill.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords for a fascinating debate and for their generally warm welcome for the Bill. I acknowledge the honest doubts of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and I hope that along the way we will be able to encourage him to feel warmer about the Bill.
I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford on his impressive and wide-ranging maiden speech and I look forward to his future contributions, some of which, I hope, will be on subsequent stages of this Bill. He talked to us about the role of the church in supporting families, and he made the telling point that setting targets of itself does not change things; those targets have to be met. I agree with that. He referred to issues around poverty of aspiration. The Bill is not only about targets; it is about strategies that should seek to ensure that all children do not suffer socio-economic disadvantage. There are fascinating issues around lone parents and how we encourage them into work and the support that we have given them in the Welfare Reform Bill which we debated not long ago.
It is encouraging to listen to the many interesting contributions to this debate. It is clear that this House, across parties, is passionate about tackling child poverty and ensuring that every child has the opportunity to realise their potential. I look forward to working with noble Lords to ensure safe passage of this measure through your Lordships’ House in what we know will be a truncated Session.
I shall try to deal with as many of the points raised as I can. I shall start with the noble Lord, Lord Freud. I say to him, as he talked about figures since 2004-05, that I do not think he gave proper recognition to the measures that were announced in and since the Budget 2007 which should lift a further 550,000 children out of poverty. I will come on to some of the detail of those measures later. There is also the simulation and the work that IFS did, which predicted that child poverty would fall by more than half a million between 2006-07 and 2010-11 to around 2.3 million; so it is not right to represent that these things are mired and moving in an increased direction. The noble Lord talked about the UNICEF report and suggested that the UK performs badly on child well-being. We accept that the 2007 UNICEF report highlighted some significant challenges for children’s well-being in the UK, and we are not complacent. However, much of the data used are old, with some taken around 2003 and some relating to 1999 to 2001.
The noble Lords, Lord Freud and Lord De Mauley, suggested that in a sense our approach is all about income transfers. That is not the case. Certainly, income transfers, the working tax credit and child tax credit in particular, have been a key part of the strategy to tackle poverty and child poverty, but the building blocks set out in Clause 8 cover a whole range of key policy matters—some of which, from the noble Lord’s analysis, we actually share. It is to do with employment and skills; it is to do with health and education; it is to do with childcare and social services; and it is to do with housing. It is not just about looking at income.
Regarding the iron triangle, if the noble Lord, Lord Freud, looks at the data, he will see that fewer people experience high rates of withdrawal of benefits than under the predecessor Government. I am not sure if that was the noble Lord’s party at the time, but if he looks at the data, that is the case. A lot of effort has gone into making sure that work pays through things such as the national minimum wage and tax credits.
The commission is not a political appointment and the OCPA rules will apply to it. It is a genuine advisory body and I hope that the noble Lord would welcome that.
He asked why we use the 60 per cent median income measure. The Government consulted widely on the measure of child poverty during 2002 and 2003, and it was strongly agreed that income was central and that 60 per cent of median threshold is an internationally recognised standard. While other EU countries do not have statutory targets on this measure, all use this indicator as part of the annual monitoring of social inclusion undertaken by each member state.
The noble Lord and others asked why we focus only on targets around income. The targets explicitly focus on tackling income poverty and material deprivation. This reflects our aim that children should not live in poverty in the UK or suffer the effects of wider socio-economic disadvantage. Ensuring a focus on income and material deprivation is central to that. Indeed, income poverty is at the heart of the Bill because of the evidence of the impact that it has on children’s lives, both in their experiences now and their chances for the future.
The noble Lord, Lord Freud, also talked about the accuracy of the poverty statistics and said that these were not a sound basis on which to be judged. The HBAI is an annual statistical series that has been running for two decades. It is a well-established comprehensive data source for estimates of poverty and measuring UK household income distribution. It complies with international best practice in measuring household income.
A number of noble Lords—the noble Lords, Lord Freud and Lord Northbourne, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford in particular—talked about child poverty and family breakdown, and touched upon marriage. Research shows that the quality of parental relationships and family functioning, rather than its form, has the greatest effect on children. It is just too simplistic to say that family breakdown causes poverty. Research has shown that children are at an increased risk of adverse outcomes following family breakdown. However, the difference between children from intact and non-intact families is small, although statistically significant. Some children can actually benefit when breakdown brings to an end a harmful family situation—for example, when there are high levels of parental conflict, including violence. Evidence suggests that although child poverty is associated with family breakdown, there is no clear causal link. It is the high level of worklessness among lone parents that increases the risk of poverty for children in lone-parent families, rather than the family structure itself.
The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, asked when we would publish the families and relationships Green Paper. We are planning to do that later in the year; I do not have a precise date, and I cannot promise that the paper will be available in draft by the time we reach Committee stage.
The noble Lord, Lord Freud, also referred to the couple penalty. Tax credits treat couples and lone-parent households equally and are not designed to favour any particular arrangements. Lone-parent households face particular difficulties, as is evidenced by the fact that the risk of a child growing up in poverty is twice as high in a lone-parent family as in a coupled family. Arguments that the tax and benefits system disadvantages couples are too often based on simplistic comparisons that assume that a separated couple will continue to pool their income. At this juncture I shall not dwell on reinstating on some basis the married couple’s allowance and on how much that might cost. However, it seems to me that any approach of that nature is most likely to produce less for the poorest in our society compared with the richest.
The noble Lord, Lord Freud, and others talked about equality in income distribution. Although income inequality is slightly higher today than it was in 1997-98, movements have been small compared with the sharp increases in inequality in the 1980s. The Institute for Fiscal Studies’ analysis showed that tax and benefit reforms since 1997 have clearly been progressive, benefiting the less well-off relative to the better-off. Without those reforms, inequality would have risen a good deal further.
The noble Lord chided new Labour for being friends of the rich. He may wish to know that living standards for the poorest 20 per cent of households have risen by more than 1.5 per cent a year in real terms since 1997-98, keeping pace with the incomes of the richest 20 per cent of households. In the 1980s and mid-1990s, living standards for the poorest 20 per cent of households rose by less than 1 per cent a year compared with 2.5 per cent for the richest 20 per cent of households. It does not seem to bode well to propose inheritance tax cuts for the very rich. I do not see how that will help child poverty.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Thomas and Lady Walmsley, said that a target of 10 per cent would not mean the eradication of child poverty. I suggest that less than 10 per cent is an ambitious but challenging goal for sustaining the eradication of child poverty and will put the UK’s child poverty rate firmly among the best in Europe. A relative child poverty level of below 10 per cent would be the lowest in this country since at least 1961 and would more than reverse the doubling of relative child poverty between 1979 and 1998-99. I acknowledge that it is a challenging target.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, talked about disability costs and equivalised income. She is right that the current low-income measure does not take into account the extra costs of disability. This is a difficult issue. We recognise that additional costs are associated with disability but research shows that these vary significantly in level and nature. There is no general agreement on how to measure these costs but perhaps we can develop these discussions further in Committee; indeed, I am sure that we will.
The noble Baroness also asked whether local strategies add up to the national target. Local action to tackle child poverty will make a big contribution towards achieving the national targets. Success in tackling child poverty requires the delivery of high-quality services to support parents into employment, increase the take-up of financial support and improve children’s life chances. However, the 2020 targets cannot be achieved by local action alone; national Governments must, for example, take responsibility for the tax credit and benefit system.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, raised issues concerning looked-after children and asked whether they were missing out on the measurements. The vast majority—something like 84 per cent—of looked-after children and children in care are placed with foster parents, for adoption or with their parents and so reside in private households, which will be captured by the targets in the Bill. Therefore, the majority of looked-after children will be covered.
The noble Baroness asked whether the measure should be after housing costs. There are a number of reasons why the Government have chosen to maintain a before housing costs measure in the Bill, although I noted that the noble Lords, Lord Sheikh and Lord Freud, quoted the after housing costs data. First, income is measured before housing costs to allow comparisons with other European countries that also measure poverty in this way. We have stated our ambition to be among the best in Europe and therefore such comparisons are vital. Secondly, as the noble Baroness predicted I would say, measures of housing quality are currently included in the list of items used for the combined low-income and material deprivation measure. Of course, measuring income after housing costs can understate the relative standard of living that some individuals may have by paying more for better-quality accommodation.
The noble Baroness also asked about burdens on local partners and whether we would impose a duty on local authorities which would add burdens and bureaucracy to what they already face. Fulfilling that duty need not be an additional burden. Local partnerships should already be taking action to improve outcomes for the most disadvantaged families in their areas. A number of local authorities are already taking significant strategic action to tackle child poverty.
My Lords, I was just about to say that I have a long list of support which will be made available, particularly by the Child Poverty Unit, to local authorities to support them in their endeavour. Given what is happening on the clock, perhaps I can pick that up in Committee or write to the noble Baroness about that. There is much support for these plans.
The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, talked about housing. Clearly, it is one of the building blocks on which the strategy has to focus. Since 1997, when there was a £19 billion backlog of repairs to social housing and 2 million homes were below basic decency standards, some £23 billion of public and private money has been invested in improving social housing—that is up to April 2006—and over £40 billion in total will have been invested by the end of 2010, making a significant difference to the decent homes standards.
The noble Earl also referred to the importance of good quality childcare. Childcare places have more than doubled since 1997. For the first time, local authorities now have a statutory duty under the childcare Act to secure, as far as is reasonably practicable, sufficient childcare for working parents.
The noble Earl, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester and the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, talked about vulnerable children excluded from the targets. The targets can apply only to children for whom we can measure household income. The surveys, which will be used to measure progress, will be the best instruments available for measuring the household income of children across the UK. Although some children from vulnerable groups are not covered by the surveys, including some disadvantaged groups such as Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children, asylum-seeker children and looked-after children, no children are excluded from the surveys on the basis of status. I stress that the strategies which have to be introduced are for all children in the UK.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester spoke about his engagement with children and his understanding of their needs and aspirations. In part, that illustrates why issues of material deprivation and persistent poverty are part of our targets.
My noble friend Lady Hollis, as ever, produced a thought-provoking contribution, running through the targets which we have proposed and how they might apply. When incomes generally remain static or maybe decline, of course, having an absolute poverty target must mean that, if it were met, the income of the poorest would nevertheless have to increase. That is why we have the absolute poverty target.
On the point that one way of tackling poverty is to seek to ensure that benefits are uprated by more than inflation and by more than earnings, I shall run through some of the measures that have occurred in recent years. In April 2008, we increased the child element of the child tax credit by £175 a year. In October 2008, the child maintenance disregard in out-of-work benefits increased from £10 a week to £20 a week and there was a full disregard in child maintenance for housing benefit and council tax benefit at that time as well. We increased the eldest child benefit rate by £20 a week and, in April 2009, we increased the child element of the child tax credit by £75 above indexation. So in a way we are addressing some of the points that she raised.
The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said that early intervention is important, and I agree. She referred to the fact that there is a risk under the targets that we focus on those who are nearest to the border-line. That is why we have more than one target and each target must be met; it is not a question of picking the target that you want. She raised the point, as did the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, about Clause 15. Let me be clear that the duty to meet the target in the Bill is absolute. The only way to get out of the duty is by returning to Parliament to repeal the legislation. Clause 15 is about how we meet the targets, not whether we meet them. The clause in no way mitigates a failure to meet the targets; it simply means that the Government are required to consider the most cost-effective way to reach them in order to protect the taxpayer's pocket and the wider economy.
The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, referred to funding for the banks. Perhaps we should not get into that debate at this hour. She talked about the independence of the poverty commission. I should stress that it is an advisory committee. Of course, it must publish its advice, and it must be consulted. Those are requirements under the Bill, so it will be plain for all—Parliament and the public—to see what advice the commission has given. As I mentioned earlier, the OCPA process will be the basis on which appointments are made. I, too, very much hope that we can get a cross-party consensus on this measure. That is important. In my opening remarks, I dealt with issues about consultation with children. Perhaps I may write to the noble Baroness about the definition of “child” and why it differs from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is to do with how the surveys are constructed.
The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said that he had doubts about the Bill because he thought that it ignored the role of parents. With great respect, I do not believe that that is the case. The Government are committed. We have not lost faith in parents, as the noble Lord suggested. During 2006-08, the Government provided local authorities with a parenting strategy support grant. That provided funding to enable local authorities to develop and implement a strategic approach to parenting support and to build on strategic approaches already in place. The Government recommend that local authorities appoint a parenting commissioner to oversee and develop that strategic approach. We have also published guidance for local authorities on developing a parenting strategy.
I think that I have dealt with the issue of the Green Paper. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, asked why we should focus on child poverty rather than family poverty. The Bill is about helping children in poverty, stemming from the Government’s pledge in 1999, as we heard from my noble friend Lord Giddens, but supporting parents and families as well as children and young people is a central part of tackling child poverty. An effective child poverty strategy must support families by improving the employment opportunities of their parents, providing access to good quality and affordable childcare for their parents, and so forth.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford talked about minimum income standards. We are committed to ensuring that the tax and benefit system provides adequate financial support, and families in the poorest fifth of the population are about £5,000 a year better off as a result of personal tax and benefit changes. However, in providing extra money to these groups, we need to be careful not to reduce their incentives to work. Many of the most disadvantaged people are able to work, given appropriate support, and work remains the most sustainable route out of poverty. Guaranteeing that out-of-work benefits lift families out of poverty would be a resource-intensive and unsustainable approach to tackling child poverty. It would require substantial spending to achieve and could entrench the intergenerational cycles of worklessness that are one of the underlying causes of child poverty.
Time is moving on. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford talked about rural poverty not being included in the strategy. Rural poverty is an important issue, as families in rural areas may face additional burdens as a result of their location or because of lack of good transport links, especially difficulties in accessing employment opportunities or services such as health, education and leisure facilities, but those are part of the building blocks that must be addressed in strategies, both local and national.
My noble friend Lady Massey again raised kinship carers. I know she is committed to this cause and I pay tribute to her. The evidence points to care by family and friends being the best approach for many children who cannot be looked after by their birth parents. We want to recognise fully the additional support needs of this group as well as the contribution that family and friend carers make to the life chances of vulnerable children. My noble friend will be aware that we held a cross-government grandparents summit to listen to the experiences of grandparents. This will feed into the families and relationships Green Paper, which is due for publication later this year, in which the role of grandparents and the wider family will be a key theme.
The noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, made an extremely interesting contribution and challenged me for anything like a detailed reply. I should make clear that the Bill is focused on poverty in the UK, but what she said was very thought-provoking. I shall take this matter away, write further and perhaps set up a meeting with her to see how, and the extent to which, the points she raised have already been addressed or might be addressed. However, it is outwith the scope of the Bill as drafted.
The noble Baroness, Lady Blood, vividly described the downward spiral of deprivation that parts of her community have suffered. I am pleased that she welcomed the role of the devolved Administrations provided for in the Bill. In particular, she referred to difficulties on measurements of persistent poverty. So far as Northern Ireland is concerned, they particularly arise because of the problems of getting an appropriate sample size. We are looking at the Understanding Society publication, which is a more detailed study.
The noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, talked about abject failure. I simply refer him to his Government’s experience on child poverty. He talked about a multifaceted approach, and I agree. He talked about the need to help people reach employment and the impact of unemployment on poverty. Again, I agree, but I point out to him that when the Government put £5 million funding into Jobcentre Plus for things such as the Future Jobs Fund, his party opposed it. He talked about a broken society. That is his term; it is not one that I would use. The data about ethnic minorities and child poverty are correct. We need to make sure that the strategies that are developed focus on those issues.
My noble friend Lord Giddens again challenged me with a thought-provoking contribution. He talked about the need for a more comparative analysis with other countries. We have learnt a lot from our experiences over the past 10 years, and the target has always been incredibly challenging. Experience has shown how ambitious the interim and long-term goals are. We understand the importance of assessing the contribution that a wide range of public services can make in tackling child poverty, but we also need to make sure that we understand what progress other countries have made and that that analysis is properly fed into the strategies that are being developed. My noble friend asked where the earth-moving equipment is. I think the IFS suggested that £4.2 billion would get us to the interim target for child poverty by 2010, but that amounted to something like increasing the child element of the child tax credit by about 30 per cent on top of the uprating already planned, and that is not something that we see as currently affordable. He asked whether I agree that we need more radical policy innovation. That depends upon what “radical” means. I have seen plenty of documents with “radical” stuck in the front to imbue the strategy with some aura. If “radical” is relevant and can be delivered and make a difference, then I agree.
The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, talked about expectations being dashed. I accept that there is a long way to go, which is what this Bill is all about. I was asked what difference the Bill will make. It will make a difference because a clear duty will be put on the Government and local government to meet targets and to produce strategies. There will be reporting obligations and obligations will be imposed on local authorities. As to what the Child Poverty Commission will bring, I believe that it will bring expertise from people who are knowledgeable in this field and can advise the Government in a way which can make a real difference.
Finally, I acknowledge what the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, termed as general support for the Bill in tackling child poverty. I am still unclear as to what type of targets he would wish to substitute for those in the Bill, those which he would seek to remove and those which his party would not see itself to be bound by. But perhaps that will emerge from the debates in Committee. I do not think that there is confusion on the role of the commission. If there is, Committee will be the chance to understand and to iron out that confusion.
Our vision is of a fairer society in which no child is left behind and has their future life chances damaged by living in poverty. Still too many families are on the edge of coping and we should not accept that there are children and families who lack the basic needs enjoyed by so many in this country. The Government are working to tackle injustice and inequality, and to create a country where every child can grow up enjoying their childhood and be full of ambitious expectations for their future; where everyone, whatever their background, has the opportunity to lead a healthy prosperous life; and where cohesive communities prosper in safe and secure environments. Child poverty stands in the way of these goals, which is why we are determined to deliver change and to defeat it. That is the purpose of the Bill and I commend it to the House.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Grand Committee.