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Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission

Volume 728: debated on Thursday 23 June 2011

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress has been made in setting up the new Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission; and whether a forward work programme for the commission has been established.

My Lords, the changes required to establish the new commission are included in the Welfare Reform Bill and we will be able to discuss them during the Lords stages of that Bill. The commission will be established as soon as possible. Until then, the Government’s Independent Reviewer on Social Mobility, Alan Milburn, will incorporate child poverty into his remit. He will then serve as acting chair of the commission until a permanent chair is appointed.

I thank my noble friend the Minister for his reply. Is he aware of the OECD research published last week that shows that the UK is faring badly in international league tables in terms of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds succeeding at school against the odds? Will he give an assurance that the commission will look critically at these sorts of issues to see whether the current measures are sufficient to improve the situation?

Yes, my Lords. The OECD report was another useful wake-up call for us in an area in which we have not been doing as well as we should. That is precisely why we have combined our child poverty and social mobility strategies. We need to make sure not just that there are fiscal transfers to address poverty but also that the life chances of children are improved.

Will the commission be able to look at the loss of the child trust fund, or baby bond? It was a serious mistake by the Government to cut that, because it was one of the best ways of enabling children in very poor families to find a way out of poverty in the long term and of encouraging saving. Can we have a guarantee that the commission will be able to look at a replacement for that?

My Lords, the job of the commission will be to hold the Government to account for their strategy. It is the job of the Government to set the strategy and we will look at all the areas in which we need to improve performance.

My Lords, I am sure that noble Lords who saw the recent BBC documentary “Poor Kids” will have been moved by the brutal reality of child poverty in Britain that was portrayed. Will the Minister assure the House that the Government will commit themselves to tackling poverty at the very bottom and not just social mobility? Is he aware of the concerns expressed by charities that the Government’s approach to the commission may undermine its independence and will he meet the End Child Poverty group to discuss this?

My Lords, one of the things that we are doing to expand the measures of accountability is to look precisely at severe poverty, which is a combination of very low incomes and material deprivation. That is an area on which we want to focus. One of the problems with targets is that they encourage Governments to tuck people just above an arbitrary line, which we do not want to do. I am sorry, but I have forgotten the second part of the noble Baroness’s question.

Will the Minister meet the End Child Poverty group to discuss its concerns that the Government may be weakening the commission’s independence?

We are not weakening the commission’s independence in any way; we are strengthening it by requiring the commission to hold the Government to account. The fact that we are not insisting that the commission sets the strategy for the Government means that the Government now have that responsibility and the commission can then hold them to account. I shall of course meet the group at any stage; I am sure that it is in my diary anyway.

My Lords, the OECD report, which places the UK 28th out of 35, paints a picture of poverty of aspiration for many of our people, particularly our young people. It suggests, however, that peer mentoring and mentoring of all sorts are a way of improving that position. Will my noble friend ensure that mentoring of all types will be part of the work of the commission that is being established?

My Lords, there needs to be a massive programme to improve both poverty and social mobility. It needs to be done right the way from foundation years, through school years and the transition period, and even to adulthood. The particular programmes that we will see will come out of this general approach. I cannot give any assurances on any particular approach at this stage, although I am personally most sympathetic to the concept of mentoring.

Does the Minister recall Scott Fitzgerald’s remark to Ernest Hemingway many years ago? “The rich are different from us”, Fitzgerald said. “Yes”, Hemingway replied, “they’ve got more money”. There is no mystery about child poverty, is there? What children need if they are not to be impoverished is more money, which means that a policy of cutting public expenditure benefits is not the right way of setting about helping them.

My Lords, regrettably, I was not there when that remark was made. However, I absolutely insist that income transfer is not the way to solve poverty; we need a much more comprehensive approach. Recent research tells us that in-kind support is more effective than income transfers for children in poverty. We are making a sustained, long-term attempt to lift people out of not only poverty of income but poverty of aspiration and poverty of outcomes.

My Lords, will the commission be charged with looking at the impact of the legislation going through this House now, such as the Welfare Reform Bill and the Bill that affects legal aid? Will it specifically look at the life chances of the thousands of children who, we were told by the Evening Standard last night, are going to have to move out of London, their primary schools and their secure environment because of the cap on welfare benefits?

My Lords, the job of the commission is to hold the Government to account on their strategy on child poverty and social mobility. That is what it will do across the wide range of this Government’s policies.