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Poverty and Social Exclusion

Volume 755: debated on Thursday 17 July 2014

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the recent findings by the Poverty and Social Exclusion in the United Kingdom research group.

This report was published back in March 2013. It says that people were deprived if they could afford less than 42 out of 44 necessities. Under the Child Poverty Act, which this House spent much time on, 1.8 million children are in combined low-income and material deprivation, which is far lower than the 4 million children reported to be deprived in this report.

It is not only the Poverty and Exclusion research group that has highlighted what certainly was a catastrophic increase in the percentage of households that fall below society’s minimum standard of living. Does the Minister understand that the concern expressed by that organisation has also been expressed by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Barnado’s, and many others, and that it still exists? I prefer the joint views that they have expressed to those of the Government.

The previous Government put through the Child Poverty Act, which we on this side of the House supported. It is based on some research that comes out regularly on households below average income. That came out last week, and it showed that the proportion of children in relative poverty is at its lowest level since the mid-1980s.

My Lords, it is clear that there are more than 1 million children still in poverty, and the relationship between their welfare and their education is well known. Does the Minister not agree that there should be a great deal of focus on young people who are going to find it difficult to pay for expensive school uniforms and trips? Otherwise they will be seen as different from their peers.

The noble Baroness is completely right to concentrate on the fundamental causes of poverty, and working with youngsters is clearly right at the heart of that. That is why this Government have taken so many major steps in this area, including introducing the pupil premium and the early years pupil premium, raising teacher quality, and a number of others. I absolutely endorse her concentration on that area.

My Lords, given the importance afforded to education in this report, will the Minister also look at the welcome news in the Ofsted report published yesterday, that there is now evidence that the pupil premium is closing the attainment gap between children who have free school meals and their peers?

It is clearly vital, as my noble friend says, to close the gap. There are lots of interesting statistics, particularly about what is happening in the London schools that are outperforming—although we do not know exactly how that has happened, and it is vital that we find out. It is the London Challenge, and there are quite a lot of analyses of exactly why that has come about.

My Lords, the long-awaited interim report on the bedroom tax emerged this week. It slipped out at the height of the reshuffle without so much as a ministerial Statement, and it confirms what we knew—that only 4.5% of claimants have downsized, arrears have gone up, half of claimants have cut back on essentials such as food, and a quarter have gone into debt to avoid losing their home. I ask the Minister two questions. First, what assessment have the Government made of the effect of the bedroom tax on child poverty levels? Secondly, given the rather extensive briefing in today’s media that the Liberal Democrats are doing a U-turn on the bedroom tax, is it still government policy?

Maybe I am not the best person to comment on Liberal Democrat manifesto planning. I can, however, assure the House that the removal of the spare room subsidy remains government policy—and I remind the House that this was coalition policy, which was decided in 2010 at the highest levels of government.

My Lords, I warmly welcome the excellent steps that this and the previous Government have taken in improving support for young people leaving local authority care, but may I draw the Minister’s attention to today’s report from the Education Select Committee in the other place, which highlights the fact that too many young people from care are going into bed-and-breakfast accommodation? There is still a lot of work to do, so will he look at that carefully? I also ask him to look at the next iteration of the care leavers strategy, which his department has been involved in, and to ensure that health, particularly mental health, is fully included, so that young people of 16 to 25 leaving local authority care, and the people who support them, have the excellent mental health support they need to avoid those young people entering social exclusion and poverty?

The noble Earl is absolutely right to concentrate on this issue because this group has traditionally done disproportionately badly. We have taken steps to ensure that these young people are better off in terms of housing than youngsters who are not coming out of care. As regards the mental health issues, it is absolutely correct to concentrate on the fact that a large proportion of people develop long-term disabilities due to mental health issues. We are devoting a lot of energy to consideration of that area.

Does my noble friend agree that employment alleviates poverty, and does he welcome yesterday’s unemployment figures?

It is always a great pleasure to reflect on the fact that we now have the highest rate of employment that this country has ever seen. One of the most interesting figures that I have looked at lately is that which shows what has happened to workless households in the social housing sector. That figure has always been high. It was up at 48.7% when we came into government and never got below 46%-odd at the height of the boom. However, it is now right down at 42.7%. That reflects a major cultural change as we get this country back to work.