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House of Lords Hansard
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Child Poverty Act 2010 (Persistent Poverty Target) Regulations 2014
25 November 2014
Volume 757

Motion to Consider

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That the Grand Committee do consider the Child Poverty Act 2010 (Persistent Poverty Target) Regulations 2014.

Relevant documents: 10th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, 11th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

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My Lords, the regulations laid before the Committee today introduce a new persistent child poverty target, as required by the Child Poverty Act 2010. At the end of this Parliament, as at the start, the coalition Government remain committed to tackling the key drivers of child poverty and improving the lives of the most vulnerable people in our society. We remain committed to the goal of ending child poverty in the UK by 2020 and, despite challenging economic conditions and fiscal restraint, we are making significant progress: under this Government, 300,000 fewer children live in relative poverty.

The evidence is clear that work remains the best route out of poverty. We know that children are about three times as likely to be in poverty if they live in a workless family. Therefore, at the centre of our child poverty strategy is a commitment to tackling worklessness, and it is clear that our reforms are making a real difference. With employment up by nearly 1.7 million since 2010, there are now around 390,000 fewer children in workless households, and both the number and the proportion of children in workless households are at the lowest levels on record. Through our structural reforms to welfare, we are lifting people out of poverty, putting in the right incentives to get people into work and to make work pay.

We are not stopping there. We are helping people to progress in work through universal credit and the next phase of the Work Programme with a clear focus on skill development. Before they reach the workplace, this Government’s commitment to improving educational outcomes has seen poor children do better than ever at school. Between 2010 and 2013, the proportion of children on free school meals getting good GCSEs, including English and maths, has increased by 7% to 38%. These are substantial leaps in educational attainment, which will make a real and lasting difference to children’s lives as they develop.

Today, we are publishing the Government’s response to the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’s State of the Nation 2014 report. This reiterates our goal to end child poverty and achieve lasting change for the poorest in our society. This, along with the regulations before the Committee today, demonstrates our ongoing commitment to tackling child poverty and helps us to meet our obligations under the Child Poverty Act 2010. The Government firmly believe that, in the long term, a revised set of child poverty measures are needed which underline our commitment to reducing child poverty but better reflect the evidence about its underlying causes. We are not yet in a position to put these new measures forward. In the absence of these new measures, we therefore remain committed to meeting our existing obligations under the Act and to introducing a persistent child poverty target by the end of this year.

This fourth child poverty measure will complement the three existing child poverty measures which are already in statute. These are on relative poverty, absolute poverty, and combined low income and material deprivation. There are compelling reasons for introducing a persistent poverty measure. This Government recognise that persistent poverty can be particularly harmful to children’s life chances. We know that children living in persistent and long-term poverty have a radically different experience of growing up, compared to other children. The longer that a child remains in poverty, the more likely it is that he or she will experience poor outcomes such as social exclusion, below average attainment and reduced life chances. This was a view shared in the majority of responses to our consultation on the target. Reponses from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission and others put particular emphasis on the damaging effects of persistent poverty and urged the Government to continue to put this at the centre of policy ambition.

We are steadfast in our commitment to addressing child poverty in all its forms and our Child Poverty Strategy 2014-17, published in June, sets out the action that we are taking as a Government. We will continue to focus action on breaking the cycle of persistent poverty and exploring what further steps can be taken to reduce persistent poverty as far and as fast as possible. So in June this year, the Government launched a consultation on setting a persistent child poverty target of less than 7%. This means that the percentage of children living in households that are in relative poverty in at least three of the four years up to 2020-21 must be less than 7% of all children in the UK.

The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee queried why we are not setting this target at zero per cent. According to all measures, child poverty is assessed using robust and well established statistical surveys to capture information about household income. However, like all sample surveys, this one contains some naturally occurring error. For example, some people will give inaccurate reports of their income when interviewed, or are between jobs at the exact point when they respond to the survey. It is therefore not statistically feasible for these surveys to report that zero per cent of children are in poverty and does not make sense to set a target at this level. That is the same reason that the existing Act’s targets were not set at zero per cent.

Our decision to choose a target of less than 7% is both evidence-based and consistent. First, it is based on analysis of the historical relationship between persistent poverty and relative poverty. Secondly, it is consistent with the ambitious relative poverty target of less than 10%, as set out in the Child Poverty Act 2010. The evidence shows that in a given year, levels of persistent poverty are typically 50% to 70% of relative poverty. According to past trends, therefore, when relative poverty reaches around 10% persistent poverty should be somewhere between 5% and 7%.

However, we must also take into account how future trends might affect the relationship between relative and persistent child poverty. As the number of children in relative poverty reduces, the children from harder-to-reach families who face most disadvantage are likely to make up a greater proportion of the group. These children are more likely to suffer from persistent poverty, which means that the historical relationship between relative child poverty and persistent poverty is likely to shift. Therefore, when levels of relative child poverty are about 10%, children in persistent poverty could make up a high proportion, if not the entirety, of the group. In such an event, the proportion of children in persistent poverty could be much closer to 10% of all children.

As a consequence of this analysis, we propose that a target of less than 7% is most appropriate and highly ambitious in line with the other targets. Meanwhile, our evidence base will continue to develop. The latest persistent child poverty figures cover only the period up to 2008. Due to changes in the statistical surveys used, we do not yet have the full four years’ worth of data required to produce a more recent persistent child poverty estimate, and we will not be able to produce this up-to-date estimate until next year at the earliest. However, we are under an obligation under the Act to set this target now. Therefore, as our evidence base develops, we will keep the degree of ambition of the target itself under close review. Based on the evidence we have, our view remains that a target of less than 7% is most consistent with the relative poverty target, gives the most coherent overall package of targets and will drive continued efforts to address persistent child poverty.

In summary, this target is a declaration of this Government’s commitment to tackling this most harmful aspect of child poverty; it reflects the efforts that we are already putting into addressing the issue; and it will ensure that there is continued and relentless focus on it in coming years by both the Government and the wide range of others who have a part to play. On that basis, today I present a persistent child poverty target of less than 7% before the House and ask for its approval. I commend the regulations to the Committee.

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My Lords, I endorse what the Minister has said about the damaging effects of long-term persistent poverty. However, I am sure that he did not expect me to come here to agree with him, so I will now make a few critical points. The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee was critical of the lack of clarity in the explanatory material with these regulations, which, as it points out, is not for the first time. It asked about the definition of qualifying households. Just for the record, will the Minister clarify which children are excluded? The scrutiny committee referred to children in state institutions. Am I right in thinking that it also excludes the children of asylum seekers and Travellers? Are there any other groups? It would be helpful for noble Lords to know that.

A perhaps rather techie but significant point, which was not raised by the committee, is the use of before housing costs to measure child poverty. According to the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’s State of the Nation report—I did not realise that the Government’s response was published today; I am not a clairvoyant and I have not read it—if you use the after-housing-costs measure rather than the before-housing-costs measure, which is preferred by the Government, it adds an additional 1.4 million children to the numbers in relative poverty. Therefore, 27% of all children rather than 17% of children are in poverty. As I say, that may seem a rather techie point but it makes a huge difference. As recent research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has underlined, housing costs are an increasingly important driver of poverty among people of working age and their children. When I questioned the Minister about this in Oral Questions yesterday, he did not answer my question, and it is a rare opportunity to be able to come back the next day. I will not re-ask the question, which concerned what the Government are doing about high housing costs, but I noted that, instead of answering the question, he talked about how they are making really good progress in tackling poverty. Of course any reduction in the figures is welcome, but it is interesting that every time the Government get up and say, “We’re reducing poverty”, they use a measure that in other contexts they tend to rubbish. Anyway, I will put that to one side.

If we take the figures after housing costs, they are rather less favourable. Indeed, the child poverty figures increased in 2012-13 over the previous year, whereas if you look at before housing costs, they are flat. That is just to underline the importance of these different measures and how they are used.

The scrutiny committee also queried, as the Minister acknowledged, why the target figure in the regulations is not lower. I absolutely accept that zero is not realistic, but the committee pointed out in particular that the majority of consultation responses argued for 5% or less. In fact, 31 out of 39 written responses were against the below 7% target, with only six arguing for it, and 23 were in favour of a below 5% target. One example was the Child Poverty Action Group—I declare an interest as honorary president—which made the point that:

“In setting the persistent child poverty target, the government should consider past historical performance in the UK, and the performance of other comparable countries in tackling persistent poverty. This is suggestive of a range of 3 to 5 per cent”.

It was also critical of the lack of ambition of a 7% target.

I cannot help wondering why the Government bothered to consult in the first place. When they reject a clear consensus of pretty expert opinion, I fear that that feeds cynicism around consultation exercises, despite the warm words in the Written Ministerial Statement, which the noble Lord repeated, that the Government “carefully considered all representations”.

The scrutiny committee also said that it remained unclear as to how the Government intend to implement their policy. The Minister talked about that today with regard to the child poverty strategy, which, as I am sure noble Lords are aware, was published earlier this year. I could say plenty about that, but I will not say what I think about it; I will simply quote—at a bit of length, because it is worth putting on the record—what the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission said in response to the draft child poverty strategy, and the final strategy was not that different regarding the overall strategic approach. The commission said:

“The new strategy is the Government’s opportunity to revise its plans for tackling child poverty to get back on track towards meeting its legal obligation to end child poverty by 2020 … Our key conclusion is that this opportunity has not been taken. While there have been improvements in the Government’s strategic approach and in some policy areas, overall the strategy falls far short of what is needed”.

The Minister talked about reducing worklessness being at the heart of the strategy, but the commission points out that its research shows that,

“ending poverty mainly through the labour market does not look remotely realistic by 2020”.

It goes on to say:

“We acknowledge that there are some good things in the draft strategy”—

as do I—but continues:

“However, overall it falls far short of what is needed. Key problems include: the lack of any clear measures, with the Government continuing to distance itself from the statutory measures in the Child Poverty Act 2010 without suggesting any additions or alternatives. This is not acceptable—a strategy which cannot be measured is meaningless. In the absence of further measures and in line with our statutory duty, the Commission will continue to monitor progress”.

Other key problems are:

“The absence of a step-by-step plan for meeting the statutory targets, with the strategy presenting a list of policies rather than a detailed plan with impacts clearly delineated. A failure to engage with independent projections that poverty is set to increase substantially … Lack of new action on in-work poverty … Limited action to mobilise society-wide efforts to tackle poverty … Ignoring the impact of additional welfare cuts”.

It points out what that likely impact would be. Then it says:

“To ensure the final strategy is an effective and credible plan for tackling child poverty, the Government needs to … set out clear measures … Develop a step-by-step plan … Engage with independent projections of increases in child poverty over the next few years … Resolve gaps in the strategic approach … by taking action to address the structural as well as the individual-level causes of poverty”.

That is a really important point, because the Government are always going on about how they are concerned about the causes of poverty but do not tend to acknowledge the structural causes as opposed to individual ones. The response also says that the Government need to:

“Ensure the strategy represents a clear plan for mobilisation and leadership of other actors in society … Engage with the challenges posed for the child poverty strategy by continued fiscal consolidation”.

All the projections are very worrying regarding what the impact of other policies will be on the numbers in poverty, including the numbers in persistent poverty. The fear is, obviously, that the 7% is not going to be achieved because of these policies. It sometimes feels a bit unreal that we are designating 7% or 5% when the policies now being implemented suggest that we are going to go the wrong way on levels of child poverty, including persistent child poverty.

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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness—my noble friend, as we steal one another’s best lines. I concur with just about everything that she has said except to say that, while I yield to no one in having demanded money over the last 30 years for social security purposes, I am getting quite frightened about the national debt; £1.449 trillion is an enormous sum of money. You may have to configure responses to these kinds of policies a little more carefully than I have been doing.

Having said that, however, I would like to gently poke the Minister in the ribs, politically speaking. The pupil premium has been a significant potential success but I am not sure that we can be certain that this is replicated throughout the United Kingdom. We will need to watch that very carefully in future. Weighing in the balance some of the work done by the IFS, of which I am a council member, the persistent reductions in the social security spend over the past five years have been enormous. There is a lot of tension here and we have to do all that we can to remain positive and ambitious.

I concur with the view expressed by just about everyone in the consultation, including the noble Baroness who has just spoken, that 5% would have been a more ambitious target. That is an opportunity missed. I am trying to understand better the basis on which the target has been set. I think that the circumstances have changed a lot since 2010. Along with other colleagues, I was responsible for the implementation of the Child Poverty Act 2010, and I thought that it was the right thing to do. It was much more focused on money than it now is, so I can understand the coalition Government’s intention to try to broaden the approach to deal with some of the underlying consequences, but it is a bit disappointing.

I know that this is not easy but at paragraph 7.2 of the Explanatory Memorandum there is a confession that the Government,

“are not yet in a position”,

to take some of these new child poverty measures forward. Can my noble friend the Minister give us any expectation of when that work may be completed? He is right to say that we are all slightly blindsided by the fact that the British Household Panel Survey data finished in 2008, so we will probably have to wait until the end of 2015 to see the data that we really need. If that is the reason for the delay, I will understand; it might be impossible to make any sensible assessments until that point. However, that leaves it rather late to try to affect things by the end of fiscal 2020, which I suppose means achieving a target by 31 March 2021.

However, that is still a very short timescale. The legislature is right to say to the Executive, “There may well be compelling reasons why we are hastening slowly here”, but it is unfortunate that we still do not have a clear idea what the Government are really driving at—an argument reflected, reasonably, by the Scrutiny Committee. From a position of relative poverty standing at 17% in 2012-13—although it may be 27%, because of the difference in before and after housing costs—trying to get to 7%, or even 5%, over the period from 2017-18 to 2021 is a good trick, if we can do it.

Persistence is a crucial part of the quartet of measures. I encourage my noble friend to look again at the geographical and spatial disparities in some of the incidence of persistence. The last time I looked at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation figures—which are measures of the position after housing costs, not before—they came to the conclusion that almost all the major cities in the United Kingdom, including London boroughs, have a large number of children in poverty. It is more than 30%, which was a striking figure, as I had not realised it was as bad or as focused as that. Of course you cannot pick and choose who you are going to help but some of the policy development needs to recognise where the incidence really lies. We have perhaps not done enough to understand that.

I am a member of the ad hoc Digital Skills Committee in your Lordships’ House. The clever use of big data now—the way you can bring to bear some of these new scientific supercomputers to try to anticipate the incidence, as well as the drivers, the preconditions and the risk factors—is enormously enhanced from where we were even in 2010. My noble friend is in a much better position than me, because he understands these things better than I do. The department has some really skilled people and a lot of deep data. I just ask myself whether we should go to Imperial College and say, “Can you help us understand this a little better, so that we can focus the policy in future?”. It is certainly worth a try.

Part of the new strategy needs to reflect the following. In 2010, I was certainly convinced that work was the way forward; that it was work, and more work. However, there is now some evidence that even families who are in work can be subjected to persistent child poverty. That is new—there was another long look down the ministerial nose there, so I am obviously going to be told that that is wrong. All I am saying is that, previously, I believed that that was almost the complete answer, whereas now I think that you have to take account of the fact that some persistent poverty will be experienced by children in working families.

One other thing has changed for me. I listened carefully to what the Secretary of State said on the “Today” programme this morning, when he mentioned 2019 as the year for the complete rollout of universal credit. Every time he does an interview, it seems to slip. I understand that and am not making a point about doing it faster, because I do not want to do it faster. The point I am making is that in 2010, and certainly by 2012, colleagues were looking to the opportunities for taking children out of poverty that a steady state of universal credit would provide. We understand why it has been so delayed but it is a factor that we cannot ignore any more, because it will make a difference to the assumptions made when this policy was created in the first place.

In the next Session, Parliament will have to look at the incidence of the cuts that have affected the retired-age population—people like me—as opposed to the working-age population. There is mounting evidence now that, in order to redress some of these issues about persistent child poverty, some of the spend on the population cohort beyond the basic retirement age will have to be rebalanced. That is no doubt an argument for the future, but it is certainly something that the department needs to be alive to.

I agree with the point made about housing costs, because they are much bigger than I expected them to be in 2010. My final thought about some of the changed context is that I am really encouraged by some experiences from the troubled families programme—we must get another name for it, because that is an inappropriate way to describe some of the households in distress. Louise Casey’s work has explained to me the importance and validity of looking at the multiple barriers that people have. If a child has been in poverty for three out of four years, why are we waiting for three years before we start knocking on doors asking, “Can we help you?”, along the lines of the troubled families programme? I understand that the department’s programme may end because the Social Fund European money may be withdrawn, but I hope that our colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government will continue with its programme, because it can bring to bear some help on this issue.

My final point is that we also need to think about the stagnation of incomes and the price increases which, for some families who are in persistent poverty, have been disproportionate for essentials. I have also not seen the response to the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission report, which the noble Baroness mentioned a minute ago. The 2014 report was invaluable and it is a useful annual milestone. I hope that Mr Alan Milburn will be encouraged to continue to produce it, because it informs our debates and he does valuable work.

It would not have cost the Government anything to have a more ambitious target—I think it should be 5%. If the Government do not reach that no one is going to jail, are they? Perhaps Ministers do go to jail; but I do not recall that being in the 2010 Act. A more ambitious target would have been better. I would respond positively to a clearer programme of new activity, as would other colleagues. We need a sense of urgency about the Government being across departments. I know that my noble friend works his socks off—I keep telling him that he is working too hard—but the cross-departmental response does not indicate to me that the whole of the coalition Government are urgently addressing this problem to the extent needed. I hope that the targets which will be adopted this afternoon will act as a new spur to action in future, because this is a very important part of future public policy.

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My Lords, I believe that it is important to acknowledge that poverty rates, and persistent poverty in particular, will not be beaten down to the small number of 7% that we are talking about today—which is, rightly, the Government’s target—by means of financial assistance alone. The root causes need to be addressed in the total war against poverty that it is morally and pragmatically necessary to fight. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which my noble friend mentioned, and others have made the persuasive and well evidenced case that no country can afford to keep paying the costs of poverty, not least in terms of lost human potential. Therefore, I encourage the Government, in their various policies for tackling persistent poverty in children and adults, to come at this problem from as many angles as research has shown are necessary.

The 2014 social justice progress report, which has just been published, led on the recognition that family breakdown, divorce and separation, father absence, and dysfunction are drivers of poverty, not just a result of it. The report says that,

“family breakdown and other risk factors—worklessness, educational failure, mental health or drug and alcohol dependency—can feed off one another, compounding their effects, and leading to outcomes that can be very damaging for those affected and costly to society as a whole”.

Yesterday, the front page of the Times revealed that almost two-thirds of children felt that their parents’ break-up affected their GCSEs. One in eight had turned to drugs and alcohol to ease the stress, while almost a third were at risk of developing mental health problems in the form of eating disorders. Put that alongside the fact that two-thirds of 12 to 16 year-olds in the poorest households have seen their parents separate, and it becomes clear that the full effects of family breakdown will hit the poorest the hardest. Poor family functioning also gives children a very poor start in life, so this Government are to be applauded for their investment in the troubled families programme, about which we have just heard, as well as the Family Nurse Partnership Programme and other approaches aiming for the transformation of children’s life chances. This is the much bigger prize to be won, as opposed to merely moving their parents’ income across a somewhat arbitrary line.

However, we must not mistake the battle for the war. This Government have been courageous in putting family breakdown on the policy agenda for the first time ever but 40 years of negative family trends cannot be reversed in one term and with the somewhat restrained approach which we have seen to date. Divorce and separation carry a £46 billion price tag, yet only £7.5 million is spent on prevention. This is 0.02%, or less than one five-thousandth, of the costs that the policy is trying to save. Marriage is the far more stable family form yet the transferable tax allowance for married couples is worth a meagre £200 per family per year. This is a vital form of assistance to single-earner families who are not eligible for any childcare subsidy. It should be at least doubled for families with young children, so that they have a little more choice about mum and dad staying at home for the few short years of infancy. I believe that this would cost an additional £480 million per annum—money well spent.

Finally, the Government’s groundbreaking family stability review is deemed to warrant only a scant couple of pages in the social justice progress report. It must be published in full because of its fundamental importance for local authorities. They have to construct their own local child poverty strategies and urgently need to commission on the basis of the evidence contained in that review. I urge my noble friend to look again at the policy base for tackling family breakdown and consider strengthening it in the interests of hitting the persistent poverty target that he has set through these regulations.

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My Lords, I open by getting it on the record that the last Labour Government lifted more than 1 million children out of poverty. In passing the Child Poverty Act 2010, Parliament enshrined into law the commitment of the then Labour Government to prioritise—a word that I will come back to—the fight against child poverty. A central aspect of this legislation dictates that appropriate targets be set for poverty reduction and that future Governments be held to account for their success in reducing the number of children and families living in poverty.

My noble friend Lady Lister of Burtersett mentioned one or two points made by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. It is worth putting on record that its 11th report states:

“These Regulations are drawn to the special attention of the House on the ground that the explanatory material laid in support provides insufficient information to gain a clear understanding about the instrument’s policy objective and intended implementation”.

Paragraph 4 of the Scrutiny Committee’s report goes into a whole number of—being fair—complicated calculations and says that the committee asked the Department for Work and Pensions to explain the definitions. It gives a series of responses from the department, to which the response of the Scrutiny Committee is:

“These explanations make clear that most of these terms have a specific meaning in this context. The Explanatory Memorandum should have included sufficient material on them for the uninitiated reader”—

like myself—

“to understand how the target is defined. The House may also wish to consider whether, given the way that section 7 of the Act is worded (regulations may make provision), a ‘common understanding’ of the term qualifying household is sufficient”.

Under the heading “Delivery of the Policy objective”, paragraph 9 says:

“We also asked for an explanation of how the definitions interact. DWP responded”—

I will speak very slowly at this point—

“‘Both relative and persistent poverty levels are in part dependent on how median income changes from year to year (which is driven by earnings but also other factors). They are also dependent on how incomes at the bottom change in relation to contemporary median income’”.

The committee’s response is:

“So we remain unclear how the Government intend to deliver levels of child poverty below the 7% target because external factors, such as fluctuations in wage levels set by industry, will influence the value of the median income and therefore the number of households whose income is less than 60% of that figure”.

I have learnt over the past couple of years how complicated social security is, but I have also gained from the expertise of the likes of the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope, my noble friend Lady Lister of Burtersett and others. It should be clear in government legislation what is going on, but lack of clarity is a constant theme. In my final quote, the Scrutiny Committee’s report says:

“This is not the first time we have drawn the Department’s attention to the need for explanatory material to be clear and self-contained. Through its further inquiries the Committee has gained a better understanding of what the 7% target is based on but we remain unclear about which of the two stated targets the Government are aiming for and how they intend to implement their policy. In debate the House may wish to press the Minister for clarification”.

I now do so.

This legislation has become ever more important and relevant. Although the Minister says that the bedrock of the Government’s tackling of poverty is getting people into work, I do not see how it benefits people to have to work zero-hours contracts for the minimum wage and all the rest of it. On the face of it the economy is recovering, but the social economy is not. Since 2010, a report from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission reveals, the number in child poverty has increased by 300,000 and working poverty, which should really be the target, continues to rise. I echo the point made by my noble friend Lady Lister of Burtersett that, according to the calculations, 27% of families are currently in poverty, which is different from what the Government are saying in their approach.

The Minister has made an attempt to explain why a target of 5% was not decided on, but we need a bit more. I am not clear why they did not set that target. As has been mentioned, some really serious organisations pressed for this, and there has not been an adequate response to that. It has been mentioned that the Government have had successes. It has to be recognised that more people are in employment—I am fair enough to mention that, but I condemn the level of wages that people are being forced to take. It would maybe do some people good to try to get a job at some of these income levels.

A report by the London School of Economics and the Institute for Social and Economic Research demonstrates that the challenges that the DWP’s policies present to the most disadvantaged has been exacerbated by the overarching commitment of Conservative economic policy to reward the rich at the cost of the poor. A recent article in the Observer covered the problems outlined in the report. It states:

“A landmark study of the coalition’s”—

I emphasise that it refers to the coalition—

“tax and welfare policies six months before the general election reveals how money has been transferred from the poorest to the better off, apparently refuting the chancellor of the exchequer’s claims that the country has been ‘all in it together’”.

Only some have been in it together; the rich have been benefiting from tax cuts. The article continues:

“According to independent research … George Osborne”,

the Chancellor,

“has been engaged in a significant transfer of income from the least well-off … of the population to the more affluent in the past four years. Those with the lowest incomes have been hit hardest”.

This “intervention” will surely,

“come as a major blow to the government’s claim to have shared out the burden of austerity equally. The report by economists at the London School of Economics and the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex finds that … Sweeping changes to benefits and income tax have had the effect of switching income from the poorer half of households to most of the richer half, with the poorest 5% in the country in terms of income losing nearly 3% of what they would have earned if Britain’s tax and welfare system of May 2010 had been retained”.

With regard to tackling the poverty that children suffer, a tighter target of 5% would have been useful. We have an indication of the Government’s real intent. Any good things that the Government are doing in this or any other field have to be seen against a background of the massive switch in income from the poor to the rich that has taken place over the past four years.

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My Lords, I wish that the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, had not gone rather crudely political on what is a difficult area, especially as the facts that he used are simply not true. There has been an absolute cut in income for the richest 20% and an increase for the lowest, as has been put out by the Government. This is not the forum to have that kind of crude debate and I do not want that.

Some really important points have been made today. This is a difficult area at a difficult time. My noble friend Lord Kirkwood looked at the national debt and blanched, for very good reason. I look down my nose at him because, when looking at the performance of the last Government on poverty, one saw that they achieved the trajectory for people who were out of work, and they were able to do that through income transfers, but for people at the next level who were just in work and at the next level of income, there was very little movement. That is the problem that we are addressing. We are looking at a problem that cannot be solved just by moving money around particular areas. I commend the noble Lord to look through those figures, which are very interesting and illustrate the fact that we have got to the limits of what you can do just by income transfers, which is what the previous Government did.

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I was not part of that Government, but will the noble Lord not accept that part of their child poverty strategy was also to move people into work? Part of the problem with the current situation, as the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, said, is that, although it may not be completely new, this is certainly the first time where more people in poverty are in work than out of work. We all agree that work is a good route out of poverty; but it is not necessarily a route out of poverty. Both Governments have faced the same problem of what you do with a labour market which is not providing enough to keep people out of poverty.

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I speak here from a somewhat privileged position, in that I advised the last Government in exactly this area and now speak for the current Government on it. So I am in a position—

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A very Liberal position.

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So I am in a position, slightly embarrassingly, to do this. The trouble with statistics is that you can get very confused by them. When you have had a massive increase in employment and a lot of people entering the market—2 million people into the private sector—you have some very substantial distorting data relating to those new entrants, which change the averages. You have also had massive changes because of the biggest financial crash since the 1930s—it used to be since the 1920s. I looked through the figures, and one-third of the fall in average income, for instance, can be roughly explained, as far as I can tell, by the reduction in bonuses in the City. Before one looks at these average figures, one really needs to dig under them to understand them. Otherwise, people in the Opposition will get into some cheap points that do not really stand up and which will just look foolish when people do the research properly, which they will do in the years to come.

I come off the generality into the specifics and the very difficult set of problems involved in solving child poverty, which we remain absolutely committed to. I will go through the points raised. The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, asked about the qualifying households. Surveys work by taking data from private households, so there are a relatively small number of children—it is a small number—who are not in there. They are, as she said, children in children’s homes, Travellers and one or two other categories, as she mentioned.

The after-housing-costs point has been very thoroughly debated. My noble friend will remember the thoroughness of some of those debates; the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, was there too. Costs before housing are the set of measures in the Act, which is why we are using them. To change the measures would be to rewrite the primary legislation. Also, clearly, if you use a different base, you might think about what the right percentage figure is. That is the reason that we use before housing costs as a standard measure and as an international comparison. It was chosen because after housing costs reflect, or can reflect, choices that people make to spend more on rent or mortgages because that is what they value more than other things. Therefore there was a good reason that that set of measures was chosen.

The 7% target mentioned by my noble friend Lord Kirkwood, as well as the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, was evidence- based and is consistent with other measures. It is based on an analysis of the historical relationship between persistent and relative poverty, and remains pretty ambitious compared with relative poverty, because we think that the relationship between the two is likely to change.

Our response to the commission’s report, which was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and my noble friend Lord Kirkwood, contained 35 recommendations, is based closely on the Child Poverty Strategy 2014 to 2017, which we published in June, and other relevant actions. We thank the commission for its full and frank assessment in its State of the Nation report; we will work further with it on the points it made.

I am very disappointed by the criticisms from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, because I have put enormous effort into making sure that the relationship we have with that committee is improved and that we are providing the right kind of material. Looking at its specific criticisms, we are in such a technical area—there is so much inside knowledge—that we would, basically, have had practically to rewrite the Act to go through all those specialist areas. I therefore understand why that occurred in this case—which I hope is rare, and hope that I will not hear such criticisms on lack of explanation often. I just need to make an apology.

The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, made a point about work—which was mentioned by other noble Lords as well—and the importance of coming out of poverty. One of the things we are doing, quite deliberately, having looked at that imbalance of what happened between in-work and out-of-work poverty under the last Government, is to devise a system in universal credit which deals with that problem by pulling the out-of-work system into the in-work system and making it consistent. Basically, people who work full time on the minimum wage with UC will be taken out of poverty—that is the way it is structured. That will happen in virtually all cases; there will be some exceptions. As we have said, we will pull in the bulk of people—93%—by 2019. However, many of the people with families will in practice come in well before that, so we will make real inroads with that new structure, which gets over the fundamental problem of how we transfer income. The most interesting point is that made by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, on the plan to get to the targets in 2020 and the need to focus on the root causes.

Before I deal with that, I should come to what my noble friend Lord Farmer was talking about. The big four drivers in creating the problem in the first place, particularly family breakdown, show that the real work that has to be done is not about income transfers but work in communities and how we do that. That is really difficult. I thank my noble friend for his endorsement of the troubled families programme—I think that it has a new name now although I have forgotten what it is—and the family nurse partnerships.

One of the other things that we are doing in parallel with universal credit is putting in universal support, which, again, is intended to pick up more vulnerable people and help them to become independent and take responsibility for their lives. That is the way that we are going to get fundamental changes in poverty. In the child poverty strategy, we will support family stability in order to tackle that. The social justice report sets out that we have re-established families as a vital priority for this Government through the family stability review and the new family test introduced in October 2013.

Coming back to what the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, said about step-by-step measures, the other point is education, which is a key to breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty, which is why we are investing £2.5 billion this year in the pupil premium and funding 15 hours of free early education places a week for all three to four year-olds and 260,000 two year-olds from low-income families.

On the more technical point from my noble friend Lord Kirkwood on the delay in availability of data, that is just due to the nature of surveys. Ultimately, there is a delay from the time when the data are collected to the time when the statistics are publicly available. That means that the Government will not be able to report on whether we have met the relative, absolute, combined low-income and material target until 2022 at the earliest, and the persistent child poverty target by 2023. That length of delay is standard for such publications since the time when the Act began.

Forgive me, the troubled families programme has not been renamed; I may have had a brainstorm on that. From next year it is being expanded to include 400,000 families, so it is supported.

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I am sorry to intervene again. Before the Minister moves on, my understanding was that although the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, mentioned the delay because of the survey data, he was asking about what the actual measures are, and that is separate from the survey data. There was a big consultation about a set of measures that I personally did not think were measures of poverty. That is also what most people said in response so, fortunately, that time the Government did take note of the consultation and withdrew it. However, as the commission says, they are still distancing themselves from the measures that they have without coming forward with a more acceptable set of measures to complement them. The question is: what has happened to them? Have they got lost? There have been rumours about the Treasury having had something to do with it. What has happened to those complementary measures?

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In the long term, the Government think that we need a revised set of child poverty measures which would better reflect the evidence about poverty’s underlying causes and where we need to target action most—the kind of thing that my noble friend Lord Farmer, in particular, was talking about, but we are not currently in a position to put those new measures forward. As our consultation, which the noble Baroness mentioned, showed, this is a complex area and there are a variety of views. I am afraid that that is all I am in a position to say at this stage.

On the noble Lord’s point about how these measures are made up; clearly, both relative and persistent poverty levels depend in part on how both median income changes and how those with low incomes improve relative to the median. That is just how the Act was made. We spent an awfully long time debating during the passage of the Bill a general level of discomfort with just this mechanistic approach to this kind of measure. That is just how it is, and that is what the Act shows, but the fundamentals are that we need to maintain our focus on helping those on lower incomes, which means helping people into work—or more work, which is what universal credit will do—and in help with living costs.

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The Minister is being very helpful, and I do not want to detain the Committee. Presumably Section 6(3) of the Child Poverty Act 2010, as I understand it, requires the Government to set a figure, which has been set at 7%. However, that is all it does. Presumably, the Government, on cause shown if the evidence changed, could in subsequent years change that target. Am I right about that?

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I actually said something rather careful—that we will keep the evidence under review. We will get some up-to-date evidence next year about the persistent poverty target in relation to the relative poverty targets. Clearly, we will be able to monitor that and see how it moves, but we will have set the targets here in these regulations.

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The question I am asking is: are we stuck with the 7% target until 31 March 2021?

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The targets are in secondary legislation, and it would be up to a future Government, for which at this stage I cannot talk, to change secondary legislation. In practice, yes; it is a changeable target.

As I said in my opening remarks, we are committed to tackling child poverty, and we have a strong record. Relative child poverty is at its lowest level for 30 years—a fact that will perhaps surprise the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy. There are 300,000 fewer children in relative poverty since the election, and now 390,000 fewer children are growing up in workless families. We are especially committed to tackling persistent poverty and to breaking the cycle which sees poor children grow up to become poor adults. That is why I am proud to present these regulations before the Committee today, which set an ambitious persistent poverty target of less than 7% of all children in the UK, meeting our obligations under the Child Poverty Act 2010.

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The noble Lord did not respond to many of my points because, as I understand it, he dismissed them as being wrong. Can I respectfully ask him if he could help me by writing to me, outlining what parts of my speech were factually wrong and what the answers were to them? I am sure that he would not want to be thought to be making a cheap accusation—a cheap note—and I am sure that he will recognise his responsibility by writing to me, giving the details of what he said.

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I will, with great pleasure, note down and send to the noble Lord the figures, which I think I have used in the past, about how the income of the richest 20% has moved relative to the poorest 20% under this Government. I will provide him with those precise figures. I commend the regulations to the Committee.

Motion agreed.