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UK: Poverty

Volume 744: debated on Monday 25 March 2013


Asked By

My Lords, the Government keep track of their progress on reducing poverty using a range of measures in their annual publication Households Below Average Income. They include the below 60% of median income measure, which is used internationally. However, a purely income-based measure of poverty is too narrow and does not capture progress on solving the underlying causes of poverty, such as family breakdown or benefit dependency. The previous Government spent £170 billion on tax credits yet missed their target to halve child poverty.

My Lords, I am sure that if each of us were asked “What is poverty?” we would have a variety of definitions, so I am grateful to my noble friend for answering the Question as he did. More importantly, can he tell us what measures the Government have taken to help working families and those who through ill health and disability are unable to sustain themselves?

My Lords, we provide very significant support to families in need. Working-age benefits stood at £96 billion in 2010 and have been moving up faster than average earnings. Disability payments now stand at 2.4% of GDP, which is much higher than the norm in the EU where the average is 1.4%. We are designing universal credit to target our support efficiently on the poorest families.

My Lords, would the Minister include in his definition of poverty circumstances where families have routinely to resort to food banks to survive?

My Lords, we have a benefits system that is designed to provide the basic needs of people who are poor. Clearly, there is increasing local provision of food banks. Actually, it expanded very dramatically under the previous Government. Interestingly, the really big expansion has been since September 2011 when jobcentre advisers were allowed for the first time to direct people towards them.

My Lords, relative measures of poverty sometimes have bizarre consequences. An example has happened recently. As the economy contracted, hundreds of thousands of children were notionally lifted out of poverty. What credence does the Minister give to a better and wider form of measurement of poverty that looks at interventions and at ways of removing barriers for children, such as that proposed by Save the Children, which would allow things such as the pupil premium to be included in the measure so that we fully understand the impact that these things have on child poverty?

My noble friend makes an important point. I should make it clear that I believe in the relative poverty measure, which is a way of measuring what happens over the medium-term period, although there have been some rather perverse impacts in the past couple of years in the current recession. What is really important is that we drive our attention to the underlying causes of poverty. That is what the current consultation is about. We will be reporting on how to tackle it in the spring/summer.

My Lords, the Minister has repeated an assertion that I have heard him make before. My experience, from talking to people in the clergy and social services, is that there has been a large increase in the use and availability of food banks. The Minister asserts that there has not. What is his evidence?

Well, my Lords, I actually said the exact opposite. I said that there has been an increase in the use of food banks and that, indeed, there had been a large increase under the previous Government. We have since September 2011 been advising people of this local resource and other resources. We are transferring elements to the Social Fund so that local areas can create local welfare support for people who are in crisis. It is important that we have that kind of provision, either through local authorities or, indeed, through third-sector parties.

My Lords, is not the use of the term “food banks” confusing to many people? They are actually temporary measures for people who are suddenly put out of work and do not have enough cash to feed children and so on. Normally, the food banks under the Trussell Trust give families food for three days while it puts them in touch with social services, charities and other organisations. If there is time, would it not be a good idea to have a full-scale debate on food banks, what they mean, how they are operated and how they should be supported?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that. The essential point is that we are moving to local authority support for people who are in trouble as that is the best place for them to get that support. Food banks may well be part of that. One thing that local authorities are looking at is providing support in kind to people who would otherwise have taken cash. It is a more effective way of doing it. Food banks are another aspect of that.

Does the Minister agree that the subject about which we hear so little these days, the big society, was supposed to have helped to eradicate the problems of poverty?

I am pleased to tell the noble Lord that, on the most recent figures that we have, for 2010-11, relative poverty is at its lowest level since 1986.