Committee (1st Day) Continued
Relevant document: 13th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee
11: Clause 12, page 13, line 23, at end insert—
“( ) Subsection (1A) does not apply in respect of persons who are either children or qualifying young persons born before 6 April 2017.”
My Lords, I rise—albeit a little slowly—to move Amendment 11 in my name and that of my noble friend Lord McKenzie of Luton. This is a very simple amendment which would ensure that the two-child limit applies only to children born after 6 April 2017. The impact assessment for this measure states:
“Entitlement will remain at the level for two children for households who make the choice to have more children in the knowledge of the policy”.
That simply is not true. If someone has more than two children and needs to make a claim for universal credit after 6 April 2017, and if they are not getting tax credits or UC and they have not in the past six months, this measure will apply to them. Entitlement will remain at the level of two children for those households, even though they quite clearly have not made the choice to have more children in the knowledge of the policy.
I suppose that it is just about possible that there will be those who manage to conceive and deliver a child between the passing of the Bill and April 2017, though they would have to get a move on, but most of the children affected by this will be living, breathing, existing children, conceived and born when this policy was just a glint in the eye of a cost-cutting Chancellor.
I know that various attempts have been made to get the Government to explain their rationale for this. I understand that it was indicated to Peers during a briefing session that the reason was that, if someone had not needed to claim benefit or tax credits during the past six months, they clearly have enough money to protect themselves against unforeseen events, so should not have access to the full support of the welfare state. I may be mistaken, but if I am the Minister can correct me. If that is right, however, surely that is precisely what the welfare state is for—to protect all of us against unforeseen circumstances.
Let us suppose that a couple have two primary-school children, and then they have two year-old twins. One day the husband dies or disappears or is paralysed in an accident and cannot work, and they turn to the welfare state. Those twins will be invisible for the purposes of universal credit, so you can see that the dream scheme that Ministers have boasted would swing seamlessly into action as soon as someone’s circumstances changed will not help that family feed, clothe and house the twins.
The family will potentially lose £5,560 a year every year until the twins are adults. We are talking about the best part of £90,000. How should the family have provided for that when they did not know they had to? What should they have done? Saved that much when they are raising toddlers? Maybe they should have bought a PPI policy, the cause of the biggest mis-selling scandal in modern financial history—and I should know, since I am the senior independent director of the Financial Ombudsman Service. But even if that were a good idea, why would they do it? They thought the welfare state was there to help them at such times. That was what they had been led to believe when they had those children.
As I indicated in the previous debate, I think that this whole measure is a terrible idea. But perhaps I can pass on some advice to the Minister from the greatest Cabinet Secretary of modern times, the legendary Sir Humphrey Appleby. Sir Humphrey once said to his Minister: “If you’re going to do this damn silly thing, don’t do it in this damn silly way”. If the Minister is going to reduce support for larger families on the grounds that families on universal credit will have to make the same choices as those who are not, he should at least not apply it to people who have already made their choices because their children are already here. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support my noble friend, who made a very powerful case. The joint briefing from the churches and faith groups that was circulated to all Peers made a very good point. It said:
“A policy designed to incentivise families to make responsible choices, becomes an unavoidable financial penalty for anyone confronted by relatively common life events”.
This amendment in particular puts that quotation into relief. The Office of the Children’s Commissioner has raised similar concerns.
I made the point at Second Reading that this provision sits oddly with the Government’s own emphasis in this and earlier legislation on the importance of a dynamic perspective on family behaviour. Indeed, in a letter of 13 October to the EHRC about impact assessments for the current Bill, the Secretary of State made as his main point the need,
“to take fully into account the dynamic nature of people’s lives”.
So why are the Government refusing to do so now, especially, as my noble friend said, in relation to existing third or subsequent children where there is a new universal credit claim? What is the justification?
As my noble friend said, when this was explained to us I think the way it was put was that there would be an unfair advantage to richer families if they were able to claim universal credit for third and subsequent children. Perhaps these families were not claiming tax credits or universal credit before, but they could still be on a low income and simply not have claimed. We know that take-up is far from perfect. I know that the Government expect take-up to be higher for universal credit, but that remains to be seen. I have been around this game for quite a long time with the expectation that take-up would be improved by various benefits and so forth. However, it remains stubbornly at less than 100% for means-tested benefits. Even if they were better off—my noble friend made a powerful point here—financial circumstances can change very quickly in the event of life events or shocks. So where is the fairness in refusing support to, say, an early teenage child who is the third in the family and who was born many years ago?
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, and the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, for bringing forward this amendment and I thank the noble Baronesses for making their points so succinctly, but effectively.
This amendment would change our approach to applying the two-child limit in universal credit so that it would apply only to children born on or after 6 April 2017. That effect would apply in existing and completely new claims for universal credit. This reform, which sees support for children in universal credit limited to two children, is primarily about fairness to the taxpayer. The tax credits system has grown unsustainably, and spending on tax credits for the 870,000 households which have three or more children is around £9.4 billion. To accept this amendment would, we estimate, increase projected universal credit expenditure by around £250 million in 2019-20. I am pleased that at least on this amendment I am able to provide the Committee with some costings.
The Government were elected on a manifesto commitment to reduce welfare expenditure by a further £12 billion during the lifetime of this Parliament, as part of the plan to eliminate the deficit and eliminate burdening the next generation with additional debt. There is no strong justification for the taxpayer to provide more generous financial support for completely new claims in respect of children born before 2017 than in respect of those born after that date.
Families already claiming universal credit or child tax credit, whether in or out of work, will not be affected in relation to children or qualifying young persons in their households before the key date while they remain entitled to benefit. Similarly, any household that has claimed universal credit or child tax credit in the past six months will be protected if their previous award included a child element for more than two children or qualifying young persons and they continue to have responsibility for them. I urge the noble Baroness to withdraw this amendment.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on being able to cost one of tonight’s amendments. I find his defence genuinely impossible to understand. I think he actually said that there is no stronger justification for exempting existing children than children who have yet to be born. I simply cannot understand how he can say that with a straight face because he has spent much of this evening telling us that this was all about choice and that parents who are on tax credits should make the same choices before having additional children as parents who are not. These are parents who already have children. These children already exist. They are not making a choice at all. The only reason they are making a claim for tax credits, or universal credit in this case, is because something has happened which means they have then had to fall back on the support of the welfare state. I do not understand how that is a justification and I invite him to think about it and maybe come back before I sit down and give me a choice.
The Government need to think very carefully. They keep giving justifications about choice until they do not hold, in which case they suddenly go, “Oh, look over there. Look at fairness”. This is either about choice or it is not. It cannot be about choice and when that breaks down a different defence is pulled out. It surely has to be one or the other. If it is about choice, how can it apply to people who have not made a choice? If it is not about choice, will the Minister please stop telling us that it is. Can I tempt the Minister to explain to me again why there is not a stronger justification for existing children than new claimants because I think I may have misheard? Is that what he meant?
No, that is exactly what I meant.
At least my hearing is better than my understanding. I find that a profoundly disappointing response, even by the standards of tonight. But given that we are in Committee, I beg leave to withdraw this amendment.
Amendment 11 withdrawn.
Amendments 12 to 14 not moved.
Clause 12 agreed.
Amendments 15 to 20 not moved.
21: After Clause 12, insert the following new Clause—
“Limiting the child element of child tax credit and universal credit to two children: reporting obligation
Within six months of the day on which this Act is passed the Secretary of State must consult and lay a report before Parliament, assessing the social and economic impact of sections 11 and 12 of this Act, including—(a) the potential impact on family relationships and functioning, with reference to “The Family Test: Guidance for Government Departments” produced by the Department for Work and Pensions, and(b) the potential economic and social impact on different faith communities.”
My Lords, I tabled Amendment 21 to highlight the impact of this measure on different faith communities who share our concerns with this part of the Bill in particular. Noble Lords who attended the special briefing we organised two weeks ago will have heard Chaya Spitz, chief executive of the Interlink Foundation, speak passionately about the implications for the Orthodox Jewish community that she represents and is a member of. For her community, larger families are the norm and the central pivot around which everything else revolves. There is a positive, faith-based imperative to have children, to create the next generation in service of God. There is also a commonly held conscientious objection to the use of artificial contraception, except in prescribed circumstances, and to abortion, except in rare circumstances. By limiting financial support to the first two children, this policy is making a judgment that touches on deeply personal and strongly held religious and cultural beliefs about the family, and that threatens the viability of whole faith communities.
According to the 2011 census, 52% of Jewish children lived in families with three or more children, compared with a national average of 31%. In Muslim families, the proportion is even higher—60% live in larger families. This measure will have a hugely disproportionate impact on these particular faith communities. Although it is difficult to see how this could be framed as an exemption, the effects will be profound, and I do not believe they have received the consideration they deserve.
A recent report by the Child Poverty Action Group highlighted serious human rights concerns relating to this and other parts of the Bill and argued that the regulations would need to include “extensive exceptions” protecting women,
“family integrity and religious freedom”.
One of the issues it raises is the potential discrimination against members of religious groups who have a conscientious objection to the use of contraception or abortion contrary to Article 14, read with Article 9, of the European Convention on Human Rights. There are other hard cases as well, including situations where women in abusive relationships are pressured into having more children or where a woman uses contraception in good faith but it fails. In all these cases, the assumption that women have a free choice about whether or not to have a child is called into question.
For these reasons, I have tabled this amendment calling on the Government to consult and report on the economic and social impacts, focusing in particular on the implications for family life and for different faith communities. The Government’s own impact assessment is inadequate in this respect, offering only a superficial assessment of the likely effects. To argue, without supporting evidence, that substantially reducing the level of support for larger families will somehow increase their financial resilience and support improved life chances for their children seems wishful thinking at best and requires further investigation. As part of a more rigorous assessment, will the Minister agree to seeing the Government apply their own family test to this policy, using the guidance published by the DWP in October last year?
In an earlier intervention in Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Lawson of Blaby, spoke about perceptions of fairness in legislation, citing the example of family allowances. Would the Minister agree that the perceived fairness of these policies will be judged not only by their overall popularity but by the respect they give to deeply held convictions of faith communities that enrich our common life? I seek not an exemption but a clear analysis of the impact.
My Lords, in speaking in support of this amendment, I will pick up what the right reverend Prelate said about the inadequacy of the impact assessment. This point was also made by the Equality and Human Rights Commission from the perspective of equality and human rights. It argued that it does not “enable proper scrutiny” or meet the requirements of the public sector equality duty; nor is there an assessment of the “aggregate effect” of the changes on people.
In fact, the impact assessment is inadequate from any perspective. In particular, there is no assessment of the impact on child poverty, despite the Joint Committee on Human Rights recommending that the Government should assess the impact on child poverty of any new law, as child poverty is a human rights issue—I declare an interest as I was a member of the committee at that point. I asked a Written Question about the impact, only to be told to look at the impact assessment—the implication being that I had not read it, which I found rather insulting.
Not only is there no assessment of the impact on child poverty, but this is the quality of distribution analysis:
“The policy has the impact of redistributing income from Universal Credit/tax credit recipients to the Exchequer (i.e. society as a whole)”.
Actually it is not society as a whole, because when I last thought about it, universal and tax credit recipients were themselves members of society. The assessment continues:
“The policy therefore has distributional impacts”.
That is the distribution analysis—and the impact assessment on life chances is similarly risible.
I remind the Minister of what it says in the Companion—that Ministers should be as open as possible in answering questions, because this is inherent in ministerial accountability to Parliament. I therefore ask him again now: what is the department’s assessment of the impact of these clauses on the number of children living in poverty? I simply do not accept that it is not possible to make an assessment. I accept that there might have to be a fairly wide margin of error—we cannot just say that it will be exactly x thousand—but I do not accept that there is no assessment. It is not possible.
The right reverend Prelate also mentioned the family test. That is drawn up by the Department for Work and Pensions itself. It is supposed to be equivalent to the public sector equality duty. According to the DWP, its application should be documented and the relevant department should consider publishing it. Given that this clearly has a family impact, why did the department decide not to publish the family test? As part of its equality statement for reforming asylum support, the Home Office set out very clearly each of the questions that the family test is supposed to answer and gave its answer. I might not agree with those answers, but that was a model of how a department should deal with it.
Will the Minister undertake to provide noble Lords with the documentation of the application of the family test before Report? There must be documentation, according to the DWP’s own guidance. Given that the measure has a clear family focus, can he tell us what additional analysis was undertaken involving stakeholders, as is recommended in the DWP’s own guidance on the test? Finally, will the Minister tell us which other countries restrict payment of benefits for children to smaller families in this way? I am reliably informed that there is no other country, but I accept that I may be wrong. When I last looked at this, I found that countries that cared about family policy and child poverty tended to pay more to larger families, rather than less, but I would welcome elucidation on that.
My Lords, I rise to support Amendment 21 in the name of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth. I fully support the requirement in the amendment to report on the impact on family relationships and functioning, for the reasons that have been articulated in the debates we have been having this evening. Until now we have not discussed in any detail the impact on faith communities, so I am going to concentrate on that.
As we have heard, larger families are strongly prevalent within some faith traditions and cultures, which leads to legitimate concerns about the differential ways this policy will be felt throughout society. There is an issue of equality for children born into families of faith. This measure will disproportionately affect families where, perhaps because of the parents’ faith, there is a devout desire to avoid contraception and abortion. As we have heard and discussed this evening, family planning is not infallible and many people of faith and other like-minded people are concerned that unexpected pregnancies could lead to a rise in the number of abortions. This point was made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth earlier.
As my noble friend Lady Lister pointed out, the most damning evidence about the differential impact of this measure on equality grounds comes from the Equality and Human Rights Commission. I declare an interest, in that I am a former commissioner of EHRC. It says:
“The proposed changes may have a disproportionate negative impact on people from particular ethnic or religious groups … The impact assessments and human rights memorandum which accompany the Bill do not assess the effect of the Bill on equality and human rights in sufficient detail to enable proper scrutiny of the legislation”.
It is not kidding.
Disgracefully, the Government have resisted all pressures to conduct cumulative impact assessments of these measures, giving impact assessments only for individual measures. Even within that, however, I was staggered to find that there had been no attempt to conduct an equality impact assessment on the two-child policy. The short section in the IA on the impact on protected groups mentions gender and disability in passing, acknowledges that ethnic minority households may be more likely to be impacted, though offers no detail, but makes no reference at all to the protected characteristic of religion and belief. Can the Minister explain why there is no such reference, when even a cursory glance at the data suggests the possibility for significantly differential impacts on the grounds of some protected characteristics, particularly religion and belief?
Since the impact assessment did not tell us, we can look at the 2011 census data, which indicate that Muslim and Jewish families are the religious groups with the largest number of families with three-plus children. On average, the figure is 31%; among Jewish families it is 52%; among Muslims 60%; and among Christians 28%. The EHRC points out that this may put the Government at risk of breaching Articles 2 and 5(e)(iv) of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
The commission goes on to note the point made by my noble friend Lady Lister that Section 149 of the Equality Act 2010 imposes a public sector equality duty requiring government departments and Ministers to have due regard to the need to eliminate unlawful discrimination, advance equality of opportunity and foster good relations—the three aims of the PSED. This is an ongoing duty that applies throughout the policy-making process, from the development of options and draft proposals through to legislation and implementation.
The EHRC wrote to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions asking him how the DWP planned to improve its analysis, and offering its help. In his response, the Secretary of State simply said that the Government had used,
“the most robust analysis available to give a good assessment of … the impacts of the reforms”,
contained in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill. As the EHRC points out, though, the DWP analysis fails to demonstrate proper consideration of the effect of Clauses 11 and 12 on any of the three aims of the public sector duty. Nor is it clear how the impact of the proposals will be monitored and tackled if adverse impact is identified during implementation. This point was behind the amendment tabled by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth.
The EHRC analysis suggests that this policy,
“could have an adverse impact on some religious groups, in particular those for whom family planning may be against their religious teachings. This may mean that children in some religious communities are more likely to be brought up in poverty”.
The commission’s conclusion is stark:
“Until the Government shows that it has properly considered the potential impact of these proposals on equality, and how any adverse effects can be mitigated, as required by section 149 of the Equality Act 2010, we recommend that Parliamentarians vote to oppose the Question that Clauses 11 and 12 stand part of the Bill”.
That is a very serious position to be taken by a statutory body such as the EHRC.
I have two simple questions for the Minister. First, why did the Government make no attempt to analyse the impact on the grounds of religion and belief, as they are required to do—or, if they did, why was it not published, as my noble friend asked? Secondly, why did the Secretary of State fail to respond to the EHRC when it pointed out the deficiencies of his department’s analysis and offered to help?
Given the above, I hope that at the very least the Minister will accept the amendment and show good faith, at this late stage, so that at least the Government can monitor the impact on faith communities.
Briefly, my Lords, I welcome the introduction by the previous Government of the family test. It was good to see in a recent Bill—it might have been the Education and Adoption Bill—that, just as the European Convention on Human Rights is written down, it was stipulated on the Bill itself that the family test had been gone through as the Bill had passed. I am sorry to hear that the results of the family test have not been published, because that test is very welcome.
The right honourable Iain Duncan Smith, the Secretary of State, did good work with Graham Allen MP in looking at early years interventions to begin thinking in this country about how important it is to support families so that their children do well from the very start of their lives, because more and more evidence shows that supportive families, good relationships and bonding early in life have huge and beneficial impacts on society, and that is hugely important. That was really wonderful work but I am afraid that it may be getting lost somehow. I would like to be reassured that that focus has not been lost and that the Secretary of State is still worried about “broken Britain” and broken families, and is still putting that right at the top of his priorities. I wonder if the Minister can say whether it is intended in future, as I gather has been the case in the past, for the Bill to say that it has passed the family test.
Can the Minister help me? I was just checking, and as far as I can see from handbooks, we continue to support various partners in polygamous marriages and we do not say, “After two partners you won’t get any more support for your third, fourth or fifth member of a polygamous marriage”. Why is it okay to have several spouses who are financed by benefit, but if you have more than two children they are not?
I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, for this amendment. On the ECHR point, the Government set out their assessment of the impacts of the policies in the Bill on 20 July, as I think I have already said. It is important to ensure that the dynamic behavioural effects of the changes are considered within that. Many of these analyses suffer from the fact that they are too static when considering gains and losses and too focused on notional changes.
On the question posed by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, on child poverty impacts, I say that the intended impact of our reforms is to incentivise work, ensure that it always pays, and to allow people to keep more of what they earn. That is why, as we will go on to discuss, we are moving towards a life-chances analysis of poverty as our approach.
I am sorry to intervene, but that is no answer, my Lords. I asked a very clear, factual question. At present, the Child Poverty Act still holds; therefore this House deserves the respect of being given an analysis of the impact of the increase in the numbers of children in child poverty on the measures, which are still the law, and which will still be measured under the HBAI statistics, as the Minister has said. I do not expect to have it now, but I hope that the Minister will give us those figures before Report.
As I said, projections on the HBAI are difficult, and everyone gets them wrong because they are done on a static basis.
I pick up the point from the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis: she will be pleased to know that universal credit does not recognise polygamous marriage.
On the family test raised by the right reverend Prelate, the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and the noble Earl, it is not a tick-box, pass-or-fail test but is about looking at how policies support or potentially undermine family relationships, and about trade-offs. The family test ensures that family considerations are explicitly considered and recognised when making those trade-offs. These measures will ensure fairness for all families, both encouraging parents into work and giving a fair deal for the taxpayer.
I am very sorry to intervene again. As I said, the Home Office, which is not the author of the original family test—the DWP was—published the questions in the family test and how its policy met those questions. Of course the department must have carried that out not on a tick-box basis—I am not saying yes or no—but by carrying out a considered analysis around these questions. I simply ask why, therefore, the Department for Work and Pensions is not prepared to make available to this House the documentation of how the family test was applied to this clause?
As I said, the documentation that we have published is the documentation that we need to publish to comply with our public sector equality duties. We have done that, even though the noble Baroness may feel that it is inadequate.
I do not presume to know any more than others about this subject—no one knows more than my noble friend Lady Lister. But on a number of occasions this evening, Peers from different Benches have asked the Minister very specific questions and he has simply got up and said, “What we have published, we have published”. The question he was asked just now was: “The Government must have conducted this test, because they are required to do it, so why won’t they publish it?”. “We have published what we have published” is not an answer. I am getting increasingly anxious about the quality of the responses this evening.
Take the example of dynamic benefits. Could the Minister explain that to me again? If he does not think that static analysis is good then he needs to find another way of analysing it. He simply cannot come to this House and say, “I cannot tell you the impacts of this because it is all dynamic”, because otherwise we will never be able to assess anything that the Government are going to do before they do it. That cannot be reasonable, surely.
This amendment is asking us to do an analysis over the next six months. In practice, that is what will be happening on a dynamic basis, because we have introduced as part of universal credit a test-and-learn approach in which we are able to assess what happens to families and learn the lessons in order to roll out universal credit. That is a pretty public process and we publish what we learn. So, in practice, we have a process that incorporates the dynamic effect of these changes in its overall impact, rather than taking individual bits and pieces of the policy. That is the best answer that I can give to the question. On that basis, I urge the right reverend Prelate to withdraw this amendment.
I want to come back at the Minister. I was not trying to make a cheap jibe but, unless I am misreading a handbook that I have used over the years, if you are in a polygamous marriage and your spouse is married to someone else, you may claim as a single person within it, which is an allowance for you, including if the other person still lives in the same household with you. In other words, under UC—this is on page 154—there is continued financial support for other partners in a polygamous marriage. If that is so, why is it acceptable to apply that to adults but not to children?
The noble Baroness has a long memory. Polygamous marriages were recognised in JSA, income support and ESA. We took a decision not to recognise those marriages in UC. Only the first marriage is recognised for universal credit purposes.
Except that financial support will, presumably, continue to be given to the other women who are in a polygamous marriage by virtue of their polygamous status.
No. If there is a third person in that household they would be treated as a single person.
The point I am making is that they may be treated as a single person but they are getting financial support by virtue of that polygamous marriage, whereas the third or fourth child will get nothing.
This is really becoming arcane. We have said that we do not recognise polygamous marriage in universal credit. But clearly there is an individual there, and we will treat them as a single person. It is actually, ironically, a little more expensive than treating them as a wife.
Can I make what I hope is not an arcane point? I invite the Minister, in responding to my amendment, which relates quite specifically to faith communities, to add something about that. He has not mentioned the word “faith” in his response, unless I have misheard.
No, I have not; the right reverend Prelate is correct. In this policy we have looked through that to people’s choices, whether they are those in the benefits system or the people supporting those on the benefits system. I have not made an explicit comment on race or religion.
My Lords, I am grateful for the Minister’s response, but I think he will understand that I am disappointed that he cannot respond more positively to my amendment, which seeks some specific analysis of how these proposals would affect the lives of those with deeply held religious convictions who feel actual anxieties about what is proposed. In the course of the coming weeks, I am sure that these matters will be raised again and I hope that we can begin to have conversations about the specific issues that I have tried to raise. We could do that sympathetically and generously, recognising the respect in which these communities, in my judgment, should be held. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 21 withdrawn.
Clause 4: Workless households and educational attainment: reporting obligations
22: Clause 4, page 4, line 32, at end insert—
“( ) the progress of children living in England at age 5 in the following developmental areas—(i) cognitive;(ii) personal, social and emotional; and(iii) physical;( ) the progress of disadvantaged children living in England at age 5 in the following developmental areas—(i) cognitive;(ii) personal, social and emotional; and(iii) physical;”
My Lords, in speaking to the two amendments in my name, I regret that I was unable to raise at Second Reading the issues that they contain. I also regret that, yet again, I find myself tabling amendments to legislation produced by one department in silo, which does not appear to have taken into account that achievement depends on co-ordination with the activities of several other departments. My amendments, and others in the next groups, are intended both to point out and, hopefully, to rectify what will no doubt be claimed as the unintended consequences of not appreciating the impact of factors for which the DWP is not responsible.
The Minister will no doubt remember a seminar during the passage of the Welfare Reform Act 2012 focusing on the Wednesbury principles. Afterwards, he told the House:
“The department strives to ensure that no decision is influenced by irrelevant factors and that decision-makers act in a rational and fair manner”.—[Official Report, 25/01/12; col. 1061.]
Parts of this Bill—and particularly the proposal to do away with the child poverty targets contained in the Child Poverty Act 2010, which Alan Milburn has forecast will be missed by a “country mile”—suggest that, rather than being influenced by irrelevant facts, decision-makers appear to have ignored extremely relevant facts related to the responsibilities of other departments. Rather than acting in a rational and fair manner, they have acted irrationally and unfairly by ignoring what they should have taken into account.
In moving Amendment 22, I must declare an interest as co-chair of the All-Party Group on Speech and Language Difficulties. In 2012, we published a report on the links between social disadvantage and speech, language and communication needs, which included an extremely alarming graph that showed that children with very low IQs from supportive families would overtake children with higher IQs from disadvantaged families at the age of five unless they were helped. One of our recommendations, discussed with both the Department of Health and the Department for Communities and Local Government, was that every child in the country should be assessed by a health visitor—trained or accompanied by a speech and language therapist—by the age of two so that remedial treatment could be initiated aimed at ensuring that every child could engage with education when starting school. We also recommended regular reassessments to measure both progress and change of circumstance. This should continue until school-leaving age for those with special educational needs, whose statutory education, health and care plans continue until age 21.
Assessment of a child’s progress at age five provides a critical measure of their cognitive, emotional, social and physical development. In this connection, I should declare two other relevant interests. I am president of the Institute of Food, Brain and Behaviour, which has reported frequently on the vital importance of correct nutrition for brain development, not least before birth, and chairman of the Criminal Justice and Acquired Brain Injury Interest Group, which has campaigned for better understanding of the impact on young people of neuro-disability, which covers a multitude of conditions, including the effects of head injuries. The earlier that you can identify problems, the more likely you are to be able to initiate remedial treatment aimed at ensuring that children achieve the best educational attainment they possibly can and so have the best chance of finding and keeping work, which will help them to break cycles of intergenerational poverty.
What worries me most about the dropping of the targets contained in the Child Poverty Act, inadequate though they are for obtaining a detailed picture of the actual material condition of those in poverty, is that, now, neither central nor local government are to be required to make strategies for reducing child poverty or preparing and publishing assessments of the needs of children living in poverty. Meaningful improvement can be based only on particularised fact, in which regard much of the official data on which judgments will be based are little better than generalised fudge because they hide so many pockets of problems. The same detailed facts are required not only by the DWP for benefit purposes and by the Prime Minister and Chancellor for strategic purposes but by the Department of Health, the Department of Education, the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Communities and Local Government so that they can sing from the same hymn sheet when planning early years provision and the deployment of social and other remedial workers, to name but two responsibilities.
On Amendment 34, having already voiced my concern that the Bill is yet another example of a department legislating in silo, it appears to me that the Treasury and the DWP have not considered the impact on the mental and physical health of United Kingdom citizens when setting the level of statutory minimum incomes or the cost of treating consequent mental and physical ill-health in the NHS. Provision of the minimum income needed for healthy living is a means of preventing mental and physical ill-health and its cost. Currently, and even more so under the provisions of the Bill, too many parents are frustrated in their attempts to provide for their children by inadequate statutory minimum incomes. The difficulty in understanding the extent of this is exacerbated by the lack of up-to-date information, which Amendment 34 seeks to rectify. The amendment also seeks to open up a debate about the link between inadequate incomes, sanctions and the inevitable and unmanageable debt on the one hand and their impact on the mental and physical health of the poorest citizens on the other.
Ever since the national minimum wage was introduced, successive Governments appear to have ignored that the crucial income for health is the minimum wage after housing costs have been deducted. That amount is constantly being reduced by ever-increasing rents in the chaotic British housing market, the enforcement of debt collection—to which court costs and bailiffs have now been added—and the cost of council tax. According to the Office for National Statistics, 14.5 million people are now in absolute poverty after housing costs have been deducted. That is 4.1 million more than before their deduction. In other words, 4.1 billion additional people lack the ability to buy the food, fuel, clothes and other necessities that are essential for physical and mental health and well-being. That must surely concern a Government who pride themselves on their compassion.
The national minimum wage is based on the assumption that £6.70 an hour is paid for a 37.5-hour week. My amendment would also enable the Government to assess the impact of zero-hour contracts and part-time working on the health of employees working less than 37.5 hours a week. The Chancellor has now announced that the national minimum wage is to be replaced by a national living wage of £7.20 per hour from next April, rising to £9 per hour by 2020. In the absence of any known research into the minimum income needed for healthy living, he appears to be using the word “living” without substance. By contrast, I pay tribute to Reverend Paul Nicolson. I am most grateful to him and Taxpayers Against Poverty for telling me, among other useful information, that it was robust research for the Living Wage Foundation carried out by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that led to the London living wage of £9.40 an hour and £8.25 per hour outside London, which 724 employers, up from 429 last year, are now paying. Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, has already announced:
“Paying the London living wage is not only morally right, but makes good business sense too”.
More than 2,200 employees working for companies with contracts from the Greater London Authority are now benefiting from the London living wage. In another report, published on 23 November, the Rowntree Foundation showed that 51% of those living below the absolute poverty line lived in households in which at least one adult was in work. My amendment is not so much about the actual amount but to point out that because the Government’s proposed national living wage is so inadequate, it will condemn too many households to absolute poverty, with the inevitable consequences for their mental and physical health.
The DWP cannot claim that this information has not been readily available or that it has not been brought to the Government’s attention. In addition to the activities of the organisations with which I am associated, the link between debt and mental illness has been highlighted in a report by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, confirmed in a peer-reviewed study by the University of Liverpool. The Institute of Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition has highlighted the link between poor maternal nutrition, low birth weight and developmental brain disorders in children. The Centre for Mental Health, as vice-president of which I must also declare an interest, has calculated that the economic and social costs of mental health problems in England were £105 billion in 2009-10, taking into account costs of health and social care, loss of output and human costs. Many now consider this to be an underestimate.
Those of us who voted in favour of the amendment proposed by my noble friend Lady Meacher to the tax credits statutory instrument have been accused of acting unconstitutionally. My reason for doing so was to try to persuade the Chancellor to think again. I do not believe that anything in our current parliamentary process is as unsatisfactory, if not unconstitutional, as the Committee system in the other place, where Governments have a built-in majority of nine to seven, meaning that virtually no opposing amendment has a hope of being agreed. There have been numerous examples of admittedly imperfectly scrutinised legislation being sent to this House because the Committee, as composed in the other place, had neither time nor the necessary expertise to complete that process. Having read the Committee proceedings in the other place, I believe that to be true of the Bill.
In putting forward these two amendments, like my noble friend over tax credits, I ask the Minister to think again about this part of the Bill, and particularly the decision to scrap the strategic requirements in the Child Poverty Act 2010 and its proposed renaming. Life chances are being eroded by child poverty, which fact ought always to be in the forefront of government minds. In order to improve life chances, everything possible must be done to alleviate child poverty, and in order to achieve this essential, whichever Government are in power will need the information that my amendments seek to ensure is available on a regular basis.
Again, like the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope, on an earlier amendment, and remembering the Minister’s willingness to discuss contentious issues in earlier Bills, I and, I am sure, other colleagues would be very happy to meet him to discuss this. I beg to move.
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 22, 23, 27, 29, 30 and 34. Given that it is quite late, I will try to be as brief as I can. I support Amendment 22. It has already been said that Clauses 4 and 6 remove any income-based measures of child poverty, the duty on the Government to work towards eradicating child poverty by 2020, and the duty on local authorities to work together towards eradicating child poverty. Instead, under the new heading, “Life chances”, Clause 4 focuses on measuring children in workless families and with poor educational attainment.
As I said, I support the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, in his Amendment 22 as it provides for development measures in the early years, allows for the capture of data for all children at the age of five, and puts disadvantaged children in the same group. My Amendment 23 builds on this, particularly as the latest government figures show that 62% of children in poverty now live in working homes: that is 2.5 million children, according to the End Child Poverty Coalition.
Without question, worklessness and a lack of access to employment are key drivers of child poverty. However, as I said at Second Reading, while work can be a key route out of poverty, it is by no means a guaranteed one. There is much research which shows the significant impact that growing up in poverty has on children. As was said earlier by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, children are much more likely to suffer from poor health, do worse at school, be jobless in the future and die earlier. The changes that the Government plan to make to the support of low-income working families are likely only to make the situation worse.
Clause 4 as it stands proposes a statutory duty to publish an annual report on children in workless households and on the educational attainment of children in England at the end of key stage 4; that is, for children of 16 years of age. That is far too late and there are no baseline comparators. Improving children’s life chances must be more than about teenage educational attainment. I agree with the organisation Action for Children that the Government’s limited measures are a missed opportunity. Educational attainment at 16 does not reflect how far development in the earlier stages of our lives affects our future, from our health to our likelihood of being employed.
Amendment 23 would mean reporting on the educational attainment of children in England, including disadvantaged children, at the end of key stage 1, at the age of five, rather than reporting on educational attainment only at the end of key stage 4, when children are 16 years old. It would also allow a baseline for the Government to measure the progress made by investing in children’s futures. I hope that it will be supported by the Minister, particularly as such data are currently available, so the financial cost would be minimal. If my amendment is not accepted, perhaps the Minister could consider including a measure towards addressing income poverty in the basket of measures in the Bill.
Amendment 27 reinforces the point that “key stage 1” means the first key stage within the meaning of Part 6 of the Education Act 2002. Amendment 29 would allow the Secretary of State to publish and lay before Parliament data which report on children who are homeless or are at risk of homelessness. This is important as the data identified can help to support strategies much more effectively in the Troubled Families programme.
Amendment 30 is concerned with children,
“in families living in problem debt”.
This provision will ensure that data are consistently collected and reported on to enable early intervention by programmes such as the Troubled Families programme. Borrowing figures released on 30 November confirm a significant and prolonged increase in household debt, and the measures in this Bill are likely only to make matters worse.
Amendment 34 is about reporting obligations for:
“Working and workless households and health”.
I have added my name to those of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Meacher and Lady Hollins. As has been said, there is significant evidence that children living in poorer households are much more likely to be born prematurely, have low birth weight, and as adults to die earlier. They are also more likely to be absent from school due to illness, to be hospitalised, and to have long-standing illnesses, and are three times more likely to suffer from mental health problems.
Data collection on the impact of mental health on workless and in working households with incomes below the national minimum wage is important, particularly as the Government have put an emphasis on improving mental health services. The amendment will enable the link between inadequate incomes and their impact on the mental and physical health of the poorest people compared to others, and will allow better joined-up targeting of services between the NHS and the DWP. I want the Minister to look at this very carefully in terms of data collection.
I will speak to Amendment 22, moved by my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham and to which my name is attached, simply to say I strongly support the idea of taking measurements earlier in the child’s life. I note what my noble friend said, his reference to a strategy and that the Bill removes a strategy for child poverty. I note in the Government’s general direction of travel that they are quite sceptical of strategies. My sense is that the Government prefer to work from the bottom up, and that in education policy, as in other areas, they are reticent to have overarching plans. I would briefly like to challenge that.
The academy schools seem an example of government trying to build from the bottom up. However, what we see in the education department are real difficulties around teacher recruitment. Visiting an academy school—indeed, the best performing non-selective state school in the country—I saw wonderful results but heard complaints that because of the lack of strategy regarding teacher recruitment, there were real concerns that teachers of various kinds and at various levels would not be easily available and of the excellent quality needed in the future. My sense is the Government are rather opposed to strategies in general but I think in certain areas such as this they are really important, and we will come back to that.
I speak as a Cross-Bencher here: after 15 years in your Lordships’ House, it is rather regrettable that sometimes it seems as if one Government set certain things up and then the next Government set them down. I remember the debates about the Youth Justice Board, which seemed a very effective institution but because it was a quango the Government felt strongly that it had to go. I was pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, managed to persuade the Government that, in fact, it was worth keeping. Therefore, in the discussion of the old Child Poverty Act and the new Welfare Reform and Work Bill, it is worth challenging the Government a bit. I would like to challenge the Government a bit about whether, in part, their motivation might be to simply undo what others have done in the past, and whether there might be a chance to build on the best of the past as well as bring the Government’s own unique contribution to this area.
I want to be as brief as possible so I will speak now to my amendments in the grouping, the first of which is Amendment 28 on children in care and care leavers. The Bill is a real opportunity to improve the outcomes for young people in care and care leavers. It is an opportunity to gather data, for instance on their educational attainment—yes, that is gathered already—but also on their mental health. Historically, there was recognition by the ONS in 2004 of the mental health needs of looked-after children and great work was done by people such as Professor Jackson on the educational attainment of looked-after children. The educational side has been well resourced and legislated on since then, with things like virtual school heads, designated teachers in schools and priority in admissions—all really important steps forward, but the mental health needs of looked-after children have not been so successfully addressed.
The Bill is an opportunity to look at various areas of performance with regard to young people in care and care leavers. Gathering them in one place and obliging Parliament to look at them on an annual basis would really keep our focus on making the most effective difference. Of course, in the care system we have the notion of the corporate parent. In each local authority, I suppose the leader would be the corporate parent for the young people in the authority’s care. I suppose that principle extends somewhat to us as well in Parliament. What that means is sometimes difficult to explain. Obviously we do not have relationships with individual young people in care.
In Barnet in the past, when Paul Fallon was the director of children’s services, it was ensured that each senior member of the council was an advocate for a young person in care. They did not meet that young person but their job was to follow the career, as it were, of the young person in care. They would write to people, nobble them and just be a champion for the young person in care. We in Parliament cannot meet and know young people in care but we can do our very best to be champions for them in this place. They are the children of the state. If we had the data at our fingertips we would be better equipped to do that.
A couple of weeks ago I attended the presentation by Dr Mark Kerr of his doctoral thesis. Dr Kerr left care with no educational qualifications. He subsequently has successfully gone through two degrees and it was a tremendously moving experience to hear him making his presentation on young people in care. The system can work well. Young people can do extremely well and it is on us to ensure that we do even better for them.
Amendment 29 is on children and homelessness. It puts a duty on the Secretary of State to lay data before Parliament on children who are homeless and at risk of homelessness. The purpose of bringing this forward is that child homelessness increases year on year. It now stands at about 90,000, and the number of children living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation increases year on year. There is a maximum limit on the time that a local authority is allowed to place children in bed-and-breakfast accommodation with their families. That is more and more often broken. We know about the housing shortages in particular areas, especially in London and the south-east. The purpose of the amendment is to focus our minds on these young people.
We might get better data. For instance, we could have data on children at risk of becoming homeless, on how effective we are at preventing children and their families from becoming homeless, and on children who are accepted as homeless with their families, in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, and so on. There is already a statutory duty to gather data on homeless children but there are various duties. There is a different duty for 16 and 17 year-olds which local authorities are obliged to have, so it might be helpful to have in one place a more thought-through approach to this.
There is an interdepartmental group looking at homelessness, which I welcome. Perhaps this is a bit far from the Minister’s remit, but I would like to know more about how that is progressing. On this issue, particularly given the fact of ever-increasing immigration, there needs to be a senior Minister looking at this, taking forward and championing this matter of family homelessness and having a strategy to really make a difference across the Department of Health, the DWP and the Department for Communities and Local Government. Such a change as this would be helpful in taking that forward.
My final point is on children in families living in problem debt. I am not sure how much time I have taken and I want to take as little time as possible, but this is a very important matter. The Government have decided to replace the child poverty measures with new life-chances indicators, focusing on measuring the number of children in workless households and the number of children with low levels of educational attainment. When the Secretary of State announced this change, he also highlighted the importance of problem debt in understanding child poverty and children’s life chances. The absence of a measure of problem debt has always been a limitation of the current Child Poverty Act. I know, from the families that I have had experience of, that where a family faces problem debt, a large proportion of family income can go on repaying debt every month, substantially reducing the money available for meeting the basic needs of children in the household. As shown in the report The Debt Trap, families in problem debt owe, on average, £3,437, or an estimated total of £4.8 billion, in arrears to service providers, creditors and government, both national and local. The social cost of problem debt is as high as £8.3 billion.
Problem debt can have a severe effect on family relationships. Of parents currently in arrears on one or more bills, nearly six in 10 said that their financial situation had led to their current or most recent relationship being put under strain, with 7% saying that it led to their most recent relationship breaking up. Problem debt is also closely aligned to the educational attainment of children. Nearly 90% of parents said that schools should do more to teach children about debt and money management. It is coming up to Christmas. The kind of people that we have been talking about, who have often had impoverished, chaotic early family lives themselves, are often not very comfortable with relationships or feel insecure. One way of demonstrating love for one’s child is to get them an expensive present. Getting a 15 year-old a £150 pair of trainers is a way to show one’s love. The risk is that many poorer families will be borrowing a lot of money this Christmas from loan sharks or on payday loans. They will run up debt because they feel they have to buy these things for their children. This matter needs to be addressed. I know that the Government are concerned about it and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I crave three minutes to support the spirit of the amendments in this group, which recognise that progress and life chances for children depend on their physical, social, emotional and cognitive development and on other influences too. I support the view of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, that a government strategy for children should be drawn up, tracking development from birth to adulthood. As he said, we have the means to do that through government departments such as education, health and welfare working together, with help from the voluntary sector and local authorities. I remember that many years ago the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby—possibly when she was Secretary of State for Education—spoke about having level playing fields for children. She said that some children begin the race with both feet tied together. Sadly, this is still the case. Feet are tied together through poverty, deprivation, low expectation and lack of care and stimulation in the early years. We know that the gap in attainment between poor children and more affluent ones is large by the age of five and continues to grow. We have recently had strong evidence from research that a holistic approach is necessary and I support the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, in his concerns.
My Lords, I will speak very briefly to Amendment 34, tabled so comprehensively by my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham. This amendment is of particular importance in view of the enormity of the cuts to welfare spending since the passing of the Child Poverty Act 2010. The Institute for Fiscal Studies reports that this will amount to £123 billion taken from our poorest citizens by 2016-17. The second feature of government policy the effects of which need to be monitored effectively—and would be under Amendment 34—is the conditionality and sanctions regime which undoubtedly increases the stress level of claimants very considerably.
As a panel member, along with Sir Keir Starmer and others, for an inquiry by the Fawcett Society into the impact of the Government’s welfare measures upon women, and by association their children, I found quite appalling the sheer level of errors and abuse in some Jobcentre Plus offices, affecting innocent women who only wanted, if at all possible, to gain their independence from the state. Our inquiry concluded that sanctions applied through no fault of the claimant were affecting claimants’ mental and physical health and the health and well-being of their children to a considerable degree. The Government have a duty to be aware of the consequences of their policies and to respond to the adverse effects.
I am aware that the Minister believes that injustices are limited in number, and that his department is doing its best to lessen them further. However, the inquiry made it clear to us that in fact the quality of service across the country varies very considerably. In some offices the staff were helpful and professional, and claimants certainly reported that. However, in others they were inadequately trained and could be callous and careless, with the most appalling consequences for the families affected. A typical example were mothers who, contrary to the guidelines, were required to travel three hours a day in total to and from work. They could not afford this and believed—rightly, in my opinion—that it was entirely wrong for their very young children to be in childcare for 10, 11 or more hours per day. Despite this entirely unreasonable requirement, such parents were sanctioned and then could not even feed their children. This was not an isolated problem but rather a regular occurrence in offices up and down the country.
Another often repeated story was that of a mother phoning the office to say that she could not attend an interview or required activity due to the sickness of a child, and was told that this information would, indeed, be passed on to the appropriate official. Of course, nothing was done. The mother would arrive at the post office to pick up her benefit only to find that there was nothing there. A sanction had been imposed with no information given to her. I cannot imagine the shock and utter distress of a mother in that situation. I believe that the Government may have adjusted the sanctions regime to ameliorate that problem and to make sure there is a gap between the imposition of a sanction and it taking place. I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify the position this evening.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation produced a comprehensive review of international evidence on sanctions within systems in which benefits are conditional on claimant behaviour. It confirmed that sanctions strongly reduce benefit use and increase exit from benefits. However, Rowntree also finds that sanctions are generally less favourable in terms of longer-term outcomes, the well-being of children and crime rates, for example.
Every sanction which is unfairly imposed will cause extreme stress to parents, who suddenly find that they have no food for the children and no money even for the bus fare to reach a food bank, and have more debt and so forth. It should be a matter of great concern to the Government that 28% of sanctions are overturned on appeal and a higher percentage—39%—in the case of lone parents. Successful appeals soar for high-level sanctions. Fully 64% of single parents have high-level sanctions overturned on appeal. These must be just numbers to many of us but the Government have a responsibility in my view to report on the mental and physical health effects of the extraordinary hardship behind those numbers. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I speak in support of my noble friend’s Amendment 34 and focus on the impact of benefit sanctions on people with mental health problems. Mental health professionals are extremely worried about the impact of this, which is why this amendment asks for a report containing data to be published.
The latest statistics around the number of people with mental health problems being supported into work though the back to work scheme are astonishingly low. Just 9% have been supported into employment since the scheme began. There are two key areas where better evidence is needed. We know that more than half of people receiving ESA in the WRAG have a mental or behavioural disorder as their primary health condition, and many more people in the WRAG will have comorbid physical and mental health problems.
We also know that people with mental health problems are being disproportionately sanctioned. Recent Freedom of Information requests to the department revealed that in 2014, on average 58% of sanctions for people in the ESA WRAG were given to people with mental health problems—20,000 in all.
The mistaken assumption is that people do not want to work, and that the best incentive is to threaten benefit withdrawal. Research shows that people with mental-health problems have a high want-to-work rate. I could say a lot more about that, but in view of the time I will not. What are the barriers? We need much more information—hence the request for a report.
I would like to share an example given to me by Mind, the mental health charity. It told me the story of a man who has been out of work for most of his adult life due to his mental health problems and who is currently in the support group. Under conditionality in the work-related activity group, this man felt so fearful and anxious of the threat of sanctions that he forced himself to attend his appointment a couple of days after being hospitalised following an overdose. This is just one shocking example of the pressure claimants are under, the health conditions that people face and, crucially, the level of anxiety and stress reportedly caused by fear of sanctions.
I urge the Minister to take these concerns and this amendment very seriously.
My Lords, this group of amendments is largely focused on the non-income issues and seeks to add the matters of worklessness and educational attainment to the measures, which the Government say are focused on the causes of poverty rather than its symptoms. These matters are important because it is asserted that what is measured and reported on will drive the focus of government attention, although reliance on this approach is inherently weaker than having strategy obligation and specific targets. There will be more about that in later amendments.
In considering Clause 4 and these amendments, we should set the context by reflecting on the starting positions, and that has been done by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and the noble Baroness, Lady Manzoor. The current Child Poverty Act 2010, as amended in 2012, contains targets to be met in 2020 that relate to: relative low income; combined low income and material deprivation; absolute low income; and persistent poverty. There are four targets, not just one. It provides for the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission—formerly the Child Poverty Commission, and soon to lose child poverty altogether—to give advice when requested to Ministers on how to measure socioeconomic disadvantage, social mobility and child poverty and to report on progress on improving social mobility, meeting the targets and implementing the required strategies.
The Act also requires the publication of a strategy to comply with the targets and to combat socioeconomic disadvantage. In preparing the strategy, consideration must be given to measures—we referred to them as the building blocks at the time of the legislation—including: parental employment and skills; financial support; promotion of parenting skills; physical and mental health; education, childcare and social services; and housing and social inclusion. The Act imposes a requirement for local authorities to co-operate to reduce child poverty in their areas and prepare local child-poverty needs assessments.
As well as having income measures and associated targets, this required the Government to produce a strategy which would have regard to a range of factors, including the multiplicity of matters which affect child poverty. Apart from for Northern Ireland strategies, this Bill sweeps away all those provisions—the entirety of them. We will seek to reinstate this with subsequent amendments. Instead, the Bill requires the Secretary of State to publish an annual report containing data on children in workless and long-term workless households in England and educational attainment at key stage 4 for children in England and the educational attainment of disadvantaged children. There is no obligation on the Secretary of State to define these terms until the first report is provided for, in the year 2017 and a veiled reference to developing “other measures” to recognise what is suggested are the root causes of poverty: family breakdown, problem debt and drug and alcohol dependency. There is no statutory obligation to do so.
There is a reference in the briefing notes to a “life chances strategy” in due course, but no commitment on the scope and timing of this. The commission will have a focus on social mobility and no longer on reducing child poverty. Crucially, the Bill removes any income measure and related targets. This is on the basis that income is a symptom, not a cause, of poverty and that the relative income measure can lead to spurious outcomes when medium incomes are falling.
The range of amendments to this clause indicates that poverty is multifaceted in its causes and its persistence. We certainly accept that to break out of poverty—so that children do not enter poverty and do not stay or become poor in adulthood—requires action on a number of fronts. This was the essence of the strategy which the Bill now eschews. We also accept that poverty is not just about income but, like the commission, we believe that income is a key part of child poverty and who it affects, and that,
“household income must be central to any measure of child poverty”.
We agree that poverty is essentially about,
“the inability to achieve a minimum standard of living”,
and is a relative as well as an absolute concept. It is about being able to participate in society.
We note the point that what is measured and reported on may help to focus government to action, but the reality is that worklessness and educational attainment are already capable of being addressed within the building blocks of the strategy required under existing legislation. We agree that improving educational attainment and preventing long-term worklessness in households are important in tackling poverty, but there are other issues as well, some of which are dealt with in the amendments. As well as retaining a focus on income, the commission suggested that an additional multidimensional approach which looked at the causes of poverty could be developed. We will come to these issues in the next group. However, this would be subordinate to the key issue of income. We support that proposition.
I will come to some of the specific amendments in this group shortly, but I have a question for the Minister. What changes in policy will flow from abandoning the existing child poverty measures and targets, and what changes are expected to flow from the reporting of workless households and educational attainment? Even though the Government are turning away from measuring the current reality of poverty—the here and now—what will their focus be on its ongoing alleviation? We do not yet have a definition of disadvantaged children. Perhaps the Minister will say what the current intention is. Will that be defined in any way by income measures?
Amendment 22, in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and the noble Baroness, Lady Manzoor, would require reporting on the progress of young people in a range of developmental areas. This would be relevant to considering the risks of poverty and should clearly have a place in a multidimensional analysis.
Similarly for Amendments 23 and 27, to which we have added our name, while it might be argued that attainment at key stage 4 will ultimately have to reflect progress at earlier key stages, particularly key stage 1, if this reporting is to be meaningful in concentrating policy then a start at the earlier stages of schooling must be beneficial. If the key concentration is on key stage 4, that is in danger of being too late.
We are advantaged by having the wisdom of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, on the position of children in care and care leavers, and the existing challenges that they suffer. The noble Earl made a powerful case on his Amendment 28 as to why they, too, should feature in an assessment of those likely to be at risk of poverty. So far as homelessness and his Amendment 29 are concerned, it is suggested that this is just one aspect of poor housing which should be considered. Others proposed by the commission were decency, overcrowding and stability. These are generally seen as having a clear impact on the experience of poverty rather than its cause.
In Amendment 34, the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and others would require reporting on the health implications of benefit sanctions on households and on households with working incomes below the minimum wage. We know that the benefits system is pernicious and we have some further amendments later on in the Bill to try to flesh that out and support the comments made earlier.
Amendment 30 would require the Secretary of State to publish and lay before Parliament a report on children in families living in problem debt. As the commission pointed out,
“unmanageable debt is an important part of the experience of poverty”.
It suggested that the Government should consider ways to cover this more effectively in the “current material deprivation measure”. But given that this measure is to be abolished, how else do the Government consider that the matter should be addressed in their consideration of life chances?
My Lords, by virtue of Clause 4 the Government are committing themselves to reporting annually on their life chances measures of children in workless households, including long-term worklessness in England and the educational attainment of children, including disadvantaged children, in England at the end of key stage 4. The collective purpose of all the amendments in this group, laid by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, the noble Baroness, Lady Manzoor, and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, is to place additional duties on the Secretary of State to publish and lay before Parliament further reports, information or data about a range of other areas. The question for us to consider is: what is the most effective way of harnessing primary legislation to achieve these aims?
We want to make a difference by taking action in the areas that will improve the life chances of all children and I think that is the answer to the question from the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, about the policy. It will be addressing the life chances of those children, tackling the root causes of poverty, not the symptoms. Our new approach focuses government action on the most important drivers of poverty—worklessness and poor educational attainment—and on reporting progress in those areas annually. We will prioritise action in those areas and follow up our clear commitment to publishing a life chances strategy. As part of this we will develop a wider set of non-statutory measures on the root causes of child poverty, including family stability, problem debt and addiction.
The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, by virtue of Amendment 22 seeks to expand the duty placed on the Secretary of State to include a duty to report on the progress of children living in England at age five, including disadvantaged children, in their cognitive, personal, social and emotional, and physical development. It is vital that all pupils thrive and develop in their early years and I recognise the importance of understanding where pupils are at the start of their school journey. Monitoring a child’s personal development is a core function of every education setting, enabling teachers to tailor their support based on how each individual is progressing. However, there are two key issues at the heart of the life chances reforms—action on work and education. Lives can be transformed through focusing on those two key drivers of poverty.
The end of key stage 4 is a vital point in a young person’s education. It represents the culmination of primary and secondary schooling and provides a consistent point at which to measure attainment across all young people. Pupils who fail to achieve at the end of key stage 4 are at higher risk of not being in employment, education or training. That is why the Secretary of State is making a commitment through the life chances measures in this Bill to report annually to Parliament on educational attainment at key stage 4.
Noble Lords will be reassured to know that the Department for Education already publishes a great deal of data on the progress of pupils—how well they are doing in the earlier stages of their career, including key stage 1 and key stage 2—and the annual reporting at different stages of primary schooling already provides significant detail on the progress and attainment of disadvantaged pupils.
The noble Baroness, Lady Manzoor, by virtue of Amendments 23 and 27 seeks to expand the annual reporting duty placed on the Secretary of State to include data on the educational attainment of children and disadvantaged children at the key stage 1 point. I recognise the importance of understanding and tracking pupils as they make their way through the key stages. It provides a basis for teachers to look at how each child is progressing. I am pleased to reassure noble Lords that the department already publishes a statistical first release each year on the assessment of key stage 1 pupils in reading, writing, maths and the results of phonics screening. That includes disadvantaged pupils.
Just on that point, I have heard this evening that various departments do their own thing, but coming new into the House I find that maybe we need a little bit more joined-up thinking. When you look at the Bill it would be nice to have something that says very clearly that key stage 1 is very important and this is what the Government are doing to track from key stage 1 to key stage 4.
That is a good point but, in essence, if you are not achieving the target in the earlier stages, you will know you are not going to get to the right point at key stage 4, so I think in practice this is built into the process.
Amendment 28, in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, would place a statutory duty on the Secretary of State to publish and lay before Parliament a report on children in care and care leavers. As I think we indicated earlier this evening, we share the noble Earl’s commitment to improving life chances for this particular group. We publish a wealth of information on both children in care and care leavers. There are two annual statistical publications, the first of which provides data on the numbers of children in care and the numbers entering and leaving care. It also includes data on placements, children who go missing from care and outcomes for care leavers, including their economic activity. The second publication deals with educational attainment at both key stage 2 and key stage 4, so I hope that noble Lords will be reassured that we already have the comprehensive data that the noble Earl is looking for.
We are also taking action. We recognise that children in care often need special attention at school. The Government’s own measure of educational disadvantage includes children who have been in care. Children in care also attract the highest rate of funding through the pupil premium plus and, from December, will be recognised in the education performance tables. At a local level, we have given local authorities £44 million over three years to support all young people to continue living with their foster families after the age of 18, helping to provide a stable setting at the key point of transition.
In Amendment 29, the noble Earl looks to do much the same with children who are “homeless” and “at risk of homelessness” every year—in other words to create a duty to lay an annual report. The noble Earl will be pleased to know that I have been a member of the ministerial homelessness committee now for the last five and a half years, so I am absolutely informed in this area. We agree of course that care and attention are required in the case of children who are at risk in this area, and we publish relevant data. Local authorities collect and publish data on the number of households with children who are eligible as homeless and in priority need and data on the number of children in temporary accommodation, which is published on a quarterly basis. I think that the last figures came out in September. This area is a key priority. Since 2010, we have invested over £500 million to support local authorities and voluntary sector agencies to help the most vulnerable back into society.
On Amendment 30, problem debt clearly is a key factor in trapping families in poverty and adversely impacting on their living standards, mental health, family stability, financial inclusion and well-being. This is a well-chosen issue. We intend to develop a range of non-statutory indicators, which will include that one, as well as family breakdown and drug and alcohol dependency, and set these out in our life chances strategy.
I have a couple of points, the first on problem debt. Will the Government also be assessing the impact of the Bill on debt? We have had briefings from a number of organisations that give debt advice, such as StepChange, which are very concerned that the Bill, in particular the clauses we have just been debating on the end of financial support for families with three or more children, are going to increase debt significantly.
I also wondered whether the Minister could comment on another point. He has twice referred now to addiction, which the Government talk about as a sort of root cause of poverty. A couple of years ago I put down a Written Question asking what the Government’s estimate was of the proportion of children living in poverty with at least one parent addicted to either drugs or alcohol. The Minister’s answer was that the Government do not have such an assessment. Drug or alcohol use is not recorded on the survey used for UK poverty national statistics. I wonder therefore—how do the Government know that this is a root cause of poverty, when they seem to have no relevant information?
There have been studies showing the numbers who are addicted to one or the other. I remember producing some figures on that in the debate on the last Welfare Bill. Clearly, one of the points of developing a life chances strategy is to get a better grip both of those areas and, indeed, the figures on debt. As the noble Baroness hinted, the figures are imperfect, and that is one of the reasons we want to get a better grip on it. When we look at the levels of debt, that will tell us about impacts, and we can start to analyse what those impacts are. That would of course include any government measures and the impacts would be revealed.
I am still a little unclear on one fairly key point. When responding to the consultation on the measurement of poverty, the commission recommended almost a two-pronged approach. One was that there should be a multidimensional focus on the causes of poverty, but a clear focus on recording the experience of poverty and dealing with poverty here and now with an income measure. I understand what the Minister has been saying about focusing on the causes. One can see the longer-term impact of that; but what, precisely, are the Government going to do differently in respect of the here and now of people’s actual experience of poverty—people who simply do not have enough income today, and will not tomorrow or the day after, to get by and play their part in society? That is what I find to be missing, so far at least, from the Minister’s response.
I am not sure that the Government would do much different from what they are doing. They have a safety net and there are various measures to support people. We are building at speed now the universal support system in which we are combining with local authorities to help the most vulnerable, but in a very different way from how people have been helped in the past, which was through crisis loans that they went on and on building in a random way, without anyone looking at the root causes of their problems and trying to help them out of them. This approach accords with that. Clearly, we will be spending our money on the root causes of poverty and on life chances. But there will be income measures published, because we have said that we will go on publishing the HBAI. If people want to see what is happening, that gets a lot of publicity every year. That is the change: the money that we will be spending on life chances. Those are some of the mechanisms by which we will do it. Universal support is one of the key things, but there are a lot of other things. Getting mental health right is something that has evaded Governments for a long time, and we are now spending more money on that than any Government have before.
I urge noble Lords not to press these amendments.
Could we perhaps have one more brief run-through of the issue of income? The Minister says that the Government are not doing anything specific to address income poverty other than the application of their current broad benefit regime, with all the cuts that that is now having to endure. Is that it, in terms of actually tackling current poverty? How does the Minister deal with the point that pretty much every expert out there has concluded—certainly the commission has—that we need to have consistent, robust measures of poverty? What the key driver is, and all the other stuff, is subsidiary to that. There seems to be an overwhelming view coming from the experts on that. Is that not a view that the Government share?
No. Every year I stand here because there is a forecast that says that child poverty is going up, has gone up or will go up, but when we actually see the figures we find that child poverty has actually gone down; the Government have been impressed and shocked by that. When you transform the economy, change the culture so that work is what has been driving things, and move up the employment rates and the earning rates in the way that we have, you find that the behavioural impacts are very different from the static analysis that many of the external experts tell us about.
My Lords, it is late so I will ask just two brief questions. I thank the Minister for his response. Can he give an indication of when a homelessness strategy might be produced, or is there already one that I am not aware of? He has mentioned that there are various kinds of homelessness, such as overcrowding and unfit accommodation. The one that is of most concern, though, is housing insecurity, when families just do not know where they will be from one day to the next. What is the strategy to deal with that? Is one forthcoming? How often does the interdepartmental group meet? Perhaps he might like to write to me on that last question.
I have been talking with practitioners working around the troubled families initiative, which I warmly welcome. Their work is much undermined by the fact that they build a relationship with a family, as they must and do very effectively, but then that family is moved somewhere else because the accommodation was private and temporary, and there just is not the security of tenure that there needs to be. Perhaps the Minister could help me with those questions.
As I said, we will be putting out the life-chances strategy in time. The interministerial meets every quarter, I think.
Sorry, but I am asking about a homelessness strategy, dealing with the particular issue of housing security for families.
Is the noble Earl talking about the interministerial meeting, which deals with those issues? Yes, I think it meets quarterly.
That is very helpful.
The Minister talked about working with local authorities on child poverty, which obviously is welcome, and I think that he said something about not wanting to do that in a random way—excuse me, it is a bit late so I cannot remember exactly what he said. If that is the case, though, why are the Government removing the duty on local authorities to develop strategies? The letter that the Minister received from the Children’s Commissioners just the other day underlined how valuable that duty has been. I know that local authorities, within the constraints that they are having to work in, have been quite imaginative in trying to think about what they can do as partners of central government in combating child poverty, so I really do not understand why that has been taken away, given what the Minister said about wanting to work with local authorities.
It is the same answer that I have just given: we want local authorities to focus their time on action to get at the root causes, not at the symptoms.
But surely the strategy could be a strategy to get at root causes. The Child Poverty Act does not say that local authorities have a duty to deal with symptoms. It says that they have a duty to help to eliminate child poverty, and of course that is about trying to get at root causes.
What we are doing is working with local authorities to support them in getting at the root causes. That will be our strategy.
While I am grateful to the Minister for that information about the interdepartmental group and how often it meets, I wonder if he could give an indication of whether it is looking to develop a strategy specifically for housing security for families, or whether he might be prepared to take back to that group a request from this House—at least, from myself—that such a strategy should be developed. This seems a very important area.
I will be pleased to do that.
I will follow up on the point about local authorities that my noble friend Lady Lister raised. The Minister will be aware that we are in the era of devolution deals, particularly with combined authorities—Manchester was the first, and there are others as well. As part of that process, is the department engaged in inputting into the package with a particular focus on child poverty issues?
As noble Lords will be aware, the Government’s emphasis is to put authority into the hands of local authorities, which is what devolution is about. Therefore they cannot have devolution on the one hand and then send a whole series of specific requirements down on the other.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this group of amendments. I also thank the Minister for his response. However, it contained one of the most disappointing sentences that I have ever heard from a Dispatch Box, when he said that he was not sure whether the Government could do more than they are doing. The Government could do a great deal more than they are doing and more than they have indicated they are willing to do tonight.
I thank the noble Lord very much, but I do not want to let the noble Lord leave the Chamber tonight so disappointed. When I said the word “do” I meant that our approach to what we are trying to do would not change. That does not mean that we are satisfied with our level of energy and input. I want to make that clear so that the noble Lord does not think that I was making a complacent remark when I was talking about our approach.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for that explanation. He knows perfectly well that on previous occasions he has earned the respect of the House by the way he has responded to questions and has been willing to take part. If I have another disappointment, it is that he has not responded to my suggestion that we should meet and have a discussion about all these issues. I do not feel that I have had an answer, particularly to the problem of mental health which was raised in Amendment 34.
I have always been worried about strategy as far as its production in Whitehall is concerned. I was once berated by a senior civil servant in the Home Office, who said to me, “I wish you’d stop talking about strategy. We don’t need strategy—all we need is strategic direction”. I said to her, “What do you mean?”, to which she replied, “Top down, of course”. I said, “Well, that’s where you’re absolutely up the creek. Just because somebody says something from the top does not make it a strategy”. A strategy is something which unites everyone in the delivery of something, which includes all the ministries that have been mentioned tonight. For example, when it is mentioned that the Department of Health knows about mental health or the Department for Education knows about attainment at key stages 1, 2, 3 and 4, why not get together and have an information-gathering strategy at which each of the ministries is required to produce what is required to have an overall strategy which feeds all the government departments that need to draw on that to process legislation.
I very much hope that we will be able to talk through this. I have listened to what has been said from the Floor of the House throughout today’s proceedings and there is a great deal of expertise that could help the department to produce better legislation, which is surely what we are all about. While I am happy to withdraw the amendment at this stage, I promise the Minister that we will return to it on Report and possibly at Third Reading.
Amendment 22 withdrawn.
Amendment 23 not moved.
Amendment 24. I call the noble Baroness, Lady Lister.
My Lords, I understood that it had been agreed between the usual channels that this was the point at which we would finish. If that has changed then perhaps somebody might have told the Chief Whip before he left.
I do apologise, but I came into the Chamber expecting that we would be going on to the next group. We have fallen short of the target today by three groups. It is up to noble Lords to decide how they deal with this Bill but I do advise that, if we adjourn the Committee at this stage, it will put us under pressure on successive days. The matter is in the hands of the Committee. If the Opposition do not wish to continue, I will note that point and adjourn the Committee.
My Lords, I think that that is deeply unfair. I am well aware of the discussions that were held in the usual channels. I am well aware that representations were made that today was likely to be tight. Things always move slowly on the first day and there were a very large number of amendments with a very large number of Peers attached to them. I think we fully expected to be at this point. I thought that we might make the next group, but since we have not, I presumed that we would go on to the next day. I am sorry to say it, but I am disappointed. I think we should stick to the agreement that has been made.
In that case, I suggest that the Committee adjourn.
House adjourned at 10.46 pm.