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Child Poverty Unit

Volume 778: debated on Tuesday 24 January 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government why they have abolished the Child Poverty Unit which was sponsored by the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Education and HM Treasury.

My Lords, tackling child poverty and disadvantage is a priority for this Government, and we are convinced that there is a better approach than the one driven by the Child Poverty Act 2010 income-related targets. This is why we replaced them with statutory measures of parental worklessness and children’s educational attainment—the two areas that can make the biggest difference to children’s outcomes. We will build on these measures through our forthcoming Green Paper on social justice.

My Lords, that does not actually answer the Question. The abolition of the cross-departmental unit is widely seen as downgrading and weakening the government machinery dedicated to the eradication of child poverty. Could the Minister explain how the abolition of a cross-departmental unit co-sponsored by the Department for Education is consistent with the Government’s own analysis of the root causes of poverty as partly lying in children’s educational achievement? Surely their own approach, which rejects what they call a narrow income-based approach, strengthens rather than weakens the case for a cross-departmental unit.

My Lords, I am terribly sorry to say this, but I think I did answer the Question directly. What was the purpose of the child poverty unit? Its purpose was to measure the income-related targets set up by the previous Government. Those targets were a waste of time and we got rid of them. We have now set up something better—the Social Mobility Commission secretariat, based in the Department for Education. As I said in my original Answer, the appropriate measure for these things should be parental worklessness—a responsibility of the Department for Work and Pensions—and children’s educational attainment, and those are the two that we will look at.

Have the Government measured in any way the impact on people who fail at school and their relationship to child poverty? Are there any facts and figures so that we can chart whether the policies that the Minister is talking about actually work?

My Lords, I cannot give the noble Lord the precise figures he asks for, but what I can say is that we have a secretariat based in the Department for Education looking at these matters, and that goes across the department. If there are any appropriate figures, I would be more than happy to send them to the noble Lord and set out just why, as I made clear in my original Answer, I think that this approach is better than the original measures of child poverty.

My Lords, it is encouraging that the Government have committed to make and measure progress against the root causes of poverty—not only worklessness and educational failure, but also family breakdown, addiction and problem debt. Can the Minister inform this House what progress they have made in developing the additional measures and policies promised?

My Lords, focusing these matters on the Social Mobility Commission secretariat is, I believe, the right way forward. As I also made clear in my original Answer, we will publish a social justice Green Paper shortly. I hope that that will set out what we hope to do, and we look forward to my noble friend’s comments, and those of others, on it. I say again, as I said in my original Answer, that I believe the focus on worklessness and a child’s educational attainment is the proper measure of these matters.

My Lords, the evidence shows that the last Labour Government lifted 1 million children out of poverty. That record is unarguable. The Resolution Foundation has estimated that in 2016 alone, 1 million more children, mostly from working households, have been forced into poverty. How on earth can any Government be proud of such a record, particularly one who say that they are in favour of those who are just about managing?

My Lords, on the measures that the previous Labour Government set forward, we found that in a recession the number of children allegedly in poverty went down, and when incomes were rising, it went up. They were not measuring the right thing. On current measures, using households below average income surveys, we have seen 100,000 fewer children in relative low-income households and 300,000 fewer people in relative poverty. Those figures are before housing costs. We are making progress, and I made it clear in my original Answer that the original measures were not the right way forward and that the child poverty unit was not the right approach.

My Lords, the Minister surely agrees that no child should live in poverty. He might not have any figures but the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that we will see a 50% increase in child poverty in the UK. That is a shocking figure. Perhaps I could be helpful and turn to my area of responsibility: education. The pupil premium has been immensely successful in helping disadvantaged children. Would the Minister let us know, perhaps in writing, whether the electronic eligibility checking system has increased or decreased the number of children who have now been given the pupil premium? I realise that this is not his area.

My Lords, the noble Lord asks me to write to him with those figures and I am more than happy to do as I do not have them in my brief.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, according to the most recent survey, rent arrears are a serious problem for 85% of new universal credit claimants, which is, of course, a disaster for children in those families? What plans does he have to cut the six-week average waiting time for families to get their rent when they claim benefits, change the system of payment in arrears, particularly for rent, and enable tenants to have the rent element of universal credit paid direct to landlords to prevent these debts arising?

My Lords, these matters were discussed at some length during the passage of the then Welfare Reform and Work Bill last year, and I do not want to rehearse all those arguments. However, I can assure the noble Baroness that some 90% of work benefits were paid on time. We accept that there can be problems with delays for some, and we will deal with that where appropriate. I do not believe it is right that we should start paying benefit direct to landlords. Just as people in work have to pay their rent to landlords, it is right that people on benefit should have the same opportunity.

My Lords, I know the Minister will agree that no child chooses to live in poverty, so when a child is hungry or lives in poor housing, will the Minister and the Government recognise that these are our children, as a society, and that that means we must have good joined-up structures which tackle these issues? Does he also recognise that the abolition of the CPU does not hint at good joined-up structures?

My Lords, I am very grateful to see the right reverend Prelate; in fact I am very grateful to see quite so many most reverend Primates and right reverend Prelates on this occasion. May I assure the right reverend Prelate that we are committed to tackling poverty? We accept that no child has a choice in this matter, but we also say that we have joined-up government on this matter. We have the Social Mobility Commission secretariat based in the Department for Education, which looks at these issues cross-party. We have a social reform Cabinet Committee, chaired by the Prime Minister, that includes all the other crucial members of the Cabinet. As the right reverend Prelate and the whole House will know, the Prime Minister herself has made clear her commitment to dealing with such matters.

My Lords, I have one very quick question. The Minister said that when the Government abolished our child poverty targets, they were going to replace them, the Prime Minister then said, with a life chances strategy. We finally discovered in December that it had died before it was even born, the debate of the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, notwithstanding. Now the Minister mentions a social justice Green Paper in the new year. Can he tell me two things: when will we get it and what is he going to do in the meantime about the scandal of child poverty in Britain?

My Lords, as I made clear in all the answers I have given, we are making progress on child poverty. We are doing so by using the proper measures, unlike the measures put forward by the previous Government. The noble Baroness asked when we will have the Green Paper: shortly.