Skip to main content

Child Poverty

Volume 738: debated on Tuesday 26 June 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they will respond to UNICEF’s recent report on international comparable data on child deprivation and relative child poverty.

My Lords, we welcome this contribution to the debate on child poverty. As UNICEF notes, although income matters, eradicating child poverty is about more than income. This Government are investing to tackle the root causes of poverty. In particular, we are improving early intervention, reforming education and, through the universal credit, making work pay. This approach is fundamental to our strategy for tackling child poverty, and we are pleased that UNICEF’s conclusions support this.

I thank the Minister for that reply. However, first, will he acknowledge that since 1990 a great deal has been achieved in addressing child poverty and deprivation; secondly, can he guarantee that these trends will continue, given the Government’s policies on welfare; and, thirdly, will he support regular reporting back to Parliament on this important issue?

My Lords, the level of child poverty has come down since 1998 but the cost has been very high. More worryingly, we are now the second-highest spender on transfers to children and families, spending 3.6% of GNP on it—the figure for France being 3.8%—but we simply do not get enough for our money. We are way down the ranking and that is why we need a new approach. I cannot think of a single reason why quarterly reporting would help that but we are clearly committed to reducing child poverty. We are committed to the targets for 2020 and we need to find new ways of achieving them.

As a prelude to the Minister’s consultation with UNICEF, which I think is planned for the autumn, how will the Government explain their plans to address the multidimensional nature of child poverty?

My Lords, one thing on which there has not been enough focus is the importance of behavioural impacts. Income transfers have their place in tackling poverty but they are simply not enough. Behavioural changes are required, and one thing about universal credit is that it brings a change in work incentives, as well as some very precisely targeted income transfers. Vocational education and apprenticeships in this country have just not been adequate, and we have not looked after vulnerable groups—I am thinking of those leaving care and prisoners leaving prison. We need a large number of strategies to tackle this very difficult problem.

Education is the key route out of poverty. Will the Minister encourage his colleagues to look still more closely at the Finnish education system, where 20 candidates compete for each teacher training place, where every teacher, whether in primary or secondary school, has a masters qualification and where excellent results are achieved in numeracy, literacy and science? With regard to young people in care, will he consider again looking at the continent, where he will see how much more qualified the staff in children’s homes are compared with those in our country? Surely these are the children most at risk of poverty. Their carers and the people around them should have a high level of qualifications—ones that they can aspire to themselves.

Yes, my Lords, this is an important point. We have a different approach from many of our continental peers. Looking at the figures, we do not seem to be doing well enough in some of these areas. When there are people who need real support, we need to look more closely at the education of the workforce.

If the UK is second in transferring money to help children, I personally am rather proud of that. If the Minister does not want to focus on income transfers, will he take this opportunity to reassure the House that when his universal credit comes in he will carry on supplying free school meals to children?

Let me make clear why I do not think it is good enough. We are second as regards the number of income transfers—that comes out in the UNICEF report—but we are 22nd out of 35 countries as regards relative child poverty. That shows that we are just not getting value for our money. I can say that we are making arrangements to ensure that school meals continue in basically the same way, although longer term I am looking to try to incorporate that in the universal credit even more tightly and to make some improvements.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is widespread scepticism about relative poverty tables because no matter how much money is transferred to children, relatively there will always be others who have less? It is widely thought that one of the safeguards against poverty is having two parents who stay together, preferably with one of them in work.

My Lords, there is a lot of debate about how to measure poverty. I believe that relative income measures have an important place, as do absolute measures, but it is quite true that we need to have strategies that go to the fundamentals that create poverty rather than worrying about trying to ameliorate those by income transfers. It is more important to have a balanced strategy.

My Lords, why do the Government refuse to extend the pupil premium to Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children who are the worst achievers in all sectors of education, whether measured by achievement, attendance or exclusions? Surely that group qualifies as being the most deprived of all in our schools.

My Lords, as we have heard from the Minister, universal credit was supposed to be the last word in welfare reform and the route to tackling worklessness and child poverty. It is clear from recent information that it seems to be behind schedule and heading for being overbudget. Is that the reason for the Prime Minister’s latest foray into welfare reform? There are 17 ideas, which are apparently his and some of which he said could be implemented before the next election if he gained the support of his Liberal Democrat coalition partners. On which of the 17 ideas in particular is he trying to get the agreement of his coalition partners? Do they include removing access to housing benefit and the change in the link with inflation?

I am really pleased to take this opportunity to reply and to tell noble Lords that universal credit is on time and on budget. The Prime Minister is looking at how to pull the welfare system into the future by asking some fundamental questions that we all need to think about.