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Child Poverty

Volume 762: debated on Thursday 25 June 2015


My Lords, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State to an Urgent Question in another place. The Statement is as follows.

“The latest low-income statistics based on the Households Below Average Income report are published today, covering April 2013 to March 2014. They show that the percentage of individuals and children in relative low income is at its lowest level since the 1980s. The latest figures show that the proportion of people in both relative and absolute low income remained flat on the year for children, working-age adults and disabled people. For pensioners, the proportion both in relative and absolute low income increased, but it was not statistically significant.

The figures I have quoted are measured against RPI. In the publication, we have also shown the effects when measured against CPI—a much more widely accepted measure of inflation—and those figures are more positive.

I believe that today’s figures demonstrate that if you deal with the root causes of poverty, as this Government have done, then even under a measure of poverty that I have consistently described as flawed you can have an impact.

I remind the House of some of the important things we have done to help families on low incomes through tackling root causes, whether it is in education, where we have introduced the pupil premium and tackled failing schools with the free schools programme, our commitment to supporting families through the ground-breaking troubled families programme, our investment in early years support and childcare, or our unprecedented back to work programmes, which have helped support hundreds of thousands of people into work. Our fundamental belief is that the most powerful way to change lives is by creating a welfare system that makes work pay, writes no one off and supports people into work. This is what we have been doing, and what the left has failed to understand—that if you deal with the root causes of poverty, the symptoms will sort themselves. Today’s figures show how important it is both to balance the books and to continue reforming welfare”.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for repeating the Answer, but I am not really sure that it addresses the Question. Perhaps I may take her back. When the Labour Government brought in the Child Poverty Act, the commitment then was to seriously tackle the problem and it was enshrined in legislation. At that point, it was supported by the Conservative Party. Today, we hear that the Government are seeking to redefine child poverty now that it is on the rise for the first time in 10 years, with children turning up hungry at the school gate.

Will this decision be subject to the Prime Minister’s promised family test? What is more important: either tackling the problem by genuinely understanding how many children are living in poverty so that action can be taken to protect and support them and their families, or just masking the problem by massaging the statistics?

I reassure the noble Baroness that tackling child poverty is, and always will be, a priority for this Government. We have focused on tackling the root causes of poverty. That is how you really make an impact on people’s lives.

My Lords, there is a legitimate argument to be had about whether relative poverty is the most effective measure of poverty, but there can be no doubt that the significance of the Child Poverty Act is that it legally binds the Government to reduce poverty. Will the Minister therefore assure the House that, whatever happens, there will remain a legally binding target on Ministers to reduce the number of children in poverty and that there is not simply an attempt to pave the way for cuts in tax credits and other benefits that will hurt children and their life chances?

I confirm that we fully intend to implement the Conservative manifesto pledge, which states:

“We will work to eliminate child poverty and introduce better measures to drive real change in children’s lives, by recognising the root causes of poverty: entrenched worklessness, family breakdown, problem debt, and drug and alcohol dependency”.

This is something that we will certainly be tackling.

My Lords, the Minister will of course be aware that many children are still being born into poverty and that their lives will be blighted through disadvantage. Would she be prepared to discuss with some of us some of the problems that are currently arising?

The noble and learned Baroness is absolutely right. This is extremely important and I would be very happy to meet her and others to discuss it. However, we must remember that work is the single most important route out of poverty. That is why we are extremely proud that, since 2010, 2 million more people are in work. We are also helping people to get back to work through the Work Programme. We are focused on tackling the root causes of poverty.

My Lords, as the widow of Professor Peter Townsend, who did more than anyone in the world to establish the concept of relative deprivation as an international policy standard that is accepted even by UNICEF, I remind the Minister that it was a participation standard; it was about whether families could take part in what we think of as normal life—for example, whether parents could afford to give their children a birthday party and whether they could accept a birthday party invitation because they had the money for a gift. It was intended to tackle exclusion. When I think of the people whom I used to represent in the House of Commons and the way they struggled with their lives, to suggest that money does not play a very big part is an absolute disgrace.

The noble Baroness speaks extremely passionately. I reassure her that this Government are absolutely committed to tackling child poverty. There are many facets to it, which is why we are looking at the root causes in trying to make sure that all children have the best start in life.

My Lords, while I recognise the value of the Government’s very welcome policies on employment, childcare and the pupil premium, and following on from the question asked by my noble and learned friend, will the Minister consider arranging a meeting with the Secretary of State for Education or the Education Minister of State, Edward Timpson, so that we can talk about these important issues? We are all very concerned about families in this time of austerity and that policy is focused on their needs. As the Minister is keen to address the roots of poverty, will she discuss with the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, government policy on social housing, particularly social housing for families in housing need and homeless families, so that their needs are not overlooked, and then write to us?

My Lords, does the Minister agree that whatever the intellectual merits of different definitions of poverty, if the Government proceed with what is widely rumoured in the press to be £5 billion of cuts in working families’ tax credits, the impact of that will inevitably be to increase very considerably the amount of child poverty in this country?

The noble Lord will understand that I cannot comment on speculation in the press, but once again I assure him that tackling child poverty is a priority for this Government and that we are determined to help to improve and transform the lives of the poorest and most disadvantaged in our society.

A lot. Large amounts. I am afraid that I do not have the figure directly to hand, but I can assure the noble Earl that we are focused on ensuring that people can get out of poverty. The best way to do that is to get people into work, which is why our focus has been on improving the economic situation as well as on helping to tackle the root causes of poverty.

My Lords, forgive me, but that is simply not the case. It is already true that more than half the children who are in poverty have a parent already in work. Work for them is not the route out of poverty. The obvious response is to seek to increase the minimum wage to a living wage level, but even so, families will still need tax credits to make work pay. Can the Minister not accept that the proposed working tax credit cuts will not only increase the number of children in poverty—the IFS estimates by 300,000—but will absolutely destroy the Government’s mantra that work is the best route out of poverty?

I can say to the noble Baroness that we have halved the tax bill for somebody working full time on the minimum wage and have delivered the first above-inflation rise in the minimum wage since the recession. That is something that we are very proud of.

Can I take the Minister back to the answer that she gave to my noble friend Lord Storey when she quoted parts of the Conservative manifesto? I make it clear to her that as far as I am concerned that is not a statutory legal target that commits the Government to an outcome at some time in the future. Will she confirm that whatever else changes, there will still be a statutory legal target that Governments will have to observe in future?

Will the Minister recognise that across the country, churches and other organisations reckon that they will be providing more help for holiday hunger this summer than ever before because of children going hungry during school holidays? Will she also recognise that there is a serious problem regionally and that we need to tackle this in the north more significantly than in the south?

I thank the right reverend Prelate for his question. He can be assured that we take extremely seriously the issues that he raised. I also pay tribute to the great work that the churches do in providing support to the people who need it most.

Bearing in mind the importance of the policy on welfare, is the Minister able to tell the House what the policies on welfare are of the party opposite?

We are making sure that the welfare system rewards a willingness to work, and of course one of the key reforms of the Government is the implementation of universal credit, which will make sure that people are always better off by taking on more work. We also have our Work Programme, the largest programme to get people into work since the 1930s.

The Minister referred to her party’s manifesto. Will there be a definite statutory commitment to the eradication of child poverty or not, either under the current formula or under a reformed and better formula?

I am very happy to refer again to our commitment in the manifesto, which says that we will work,

“to eliminate child poverty and introduce better measures to drive real changes in children’s lives”.