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Child Poverty

Volume 727: debated on Tuesday 17 May 2011


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they will take to build on the reduction in child poverty in 2009–10 reported in Households Below Average Income, published on 12 May.

My Lords, I welcome the reduction in child poverty from 2.8 million to 2.6 million children, but despite £150 billion spent on tax credits since 2003-04, largely aimed at families, that figure is a long way off the previous Government’s aim of halving child poverty by 2010. Noble Lords will be aware that the Government published their child poverty strategy on 5 April, showing how our radical reform programme will help to transform people’s lives and break cycles of disadvantage.

My Lords, I thank the Minister and I welcome the Government’s commitment to the eradication of child poverty. However, given that improved financial support for children played a key role in the previous Government’s achievement in reducing child poverty to its lowest level since 1985, will he comment on the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ prediction that cuts in such support could contribute to an increase in child poverty? Will he also explain why the child poverty strategy contains no specific, quantified targets for the period that it covers?

My Lords, that is a complicated question. As noble Lords know, fundamentally, child poverty has been stuck at the same level since around 2004-05. We have seen a statistically significant reduction this year, but it is very much the same figure as it was five years ago. The IFS, as the noble Baroness pointed out, predicts an increase of 200,000 in the number of children in poverty in two or three years’ time. That may or may not be true, but our fundamental reforms, particularly of the universal credit, will start to drive that figure down. We are predicting, as has already been announced, 350,000 fewer children in poverty as a result of the universal credit when it is introduced and 300,000 fewer workless families.

Does the Minister agree that the nutrition of children in poverty is a very important element? Now that the School Food Trust is a charity and has moved out of the department as an agency of government, do the Government intend to ensure that it has the wherewithal to do the research into the nutrition of children in poverty that is necessary to inform government policy?

My Lords, we have made quite a substantial change in approach to tackling child poverty. With our proposal to change the Child Poverty Commission into the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, which went into Committee in the other place today, we are reinforcing some other measures beyond just income changes. We are using a series of other indicators to look at life chances as well as poverty in order to make sure that children have a better start and greater well-being.

My Lords, talking of a better start, the Minister will know that, unfortunately, where there is alcohol and drug abuse in a home, children often go hungry. I know that it is difficult, but can Her Majesty's Government take steps to ensure that every child, or as many children as possible, is able to get a breakfast before they go to their school in the morning?

My Lords, that is micromanagement on some scale. We are trying with our welfare reforms to treat families as responsible units and for them to take the decisions that they need to take. However, we acknowledge that there are groups of families who cannot handle that responsibility. In moving the whole system to transfer responsibility to most families who can take responsibility, we are concerned about the people who cannot and what are the right ways of helping them. That is something to which we are paying active attention.

My Lords, returning to the matter of targets, even if the Government are correct, as the Minister said, and 350,000 children are lifted out of poverty by the welfare reforms, the IFS has said that that will be wiped out by the numbers falling into poverty before reforms even take place. I am sure that everyone in the House wants to build on the achievements in raising children out of poverty. Would targets not be the best way to do that?

My Lords, it is important to look at what the figures have shown us. Last year we put an enormous amount of money into tax credits and the benefits system. The amount increased by 6.7 per cent and is the sole reason that we had income growth in this country in that year. It is not sustainable to do this by income transfers. Our aim is to try to transform the lives of people, and that must mean a renewed emphasis on getting people back into work, making them independent and leading their own lives. That is our strategy and that is how we have reformulated our poverty policy.

My Lords, any reduction in child poverty is to be applauded but, on the day those statistics were released, it was also revealed that the difference between the rich and the poor in this country had remained at the record levels of last year that it reached under the previous Administration. Does the Minister share my concern about the dangers that are inherent in that?

Yes, my Lords. One of the peculiar things about what happened under the previous Government was that the Gini coefficient went up to an all-time record. It has moved slightly in the past year but not in any meaningful way. It is important that we address that as part of the context of looking at our poverty approaches but, as noble Lords opposite will know, this is not an easy thing to do.

My Lords, the Minister referred to the importance of getting people back into work and I agree with that. Will he cast his mind back three or four years to a document that he wrote when the previous Government were in office? He wrote:

“The Government”—

that is a Labour Government—

“has made strong, and in some respects remarkable, progress over the last ten years … The New Deals have been enormously successful—helping over 1.7 million people into work since 1998. The creation of Jobcentre Plus in 2002 extended the rights and responsibilities regime for people on all benefits … and is widely seen as having been a model for effective public service delivery”.

Does the Minister still hold to that view?

I used the expression “in some respects” and I stand by that. In some respects there was a great deal of success. Under the previous Government we discovered that active labour market policies worked, and when they were introduced—they were actually introduced by the previous Government—and pushed in they had a one-off effect. However, we are left with a huge problem of people on inactive benefits which the previous Government did nothing to solve. We are now trying to do that.