Skip to main content

Child Poverty

Volume 797: debated on Tuesday 21 May 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to address the concerns raised by teachers in, and the findings of, the survey on child poverty published by the National Education Union on 14 April.

My Lords, the Government are committed to a sustainable solution to poverty so that we can improve children’s long-term outcomes. This means a strong economy and a benefits system that supports employment and higher pay. Children in households where all the adults are working are around five times less likely to be in poverty than those in workless households. However, 13.9% of all UK working-age households are still entirely workless and we are working hard to reduce that figure.

Perhaps I may ask the Minister to give her response to the experiences of teachers reported in the survey: “Children are attending school not only hungry but with no coats and holes in their shoes”, and “Children are just not ready to learn. They are embarrassed and ashamed”. There are many more quotes along these lines. Does she endorse the recent findings of the Social Mobility Commission that inequality will remain entrenched in the UK “from birth to work” unless the Government take urgent action?

My Lords, of course we take the issue of poverty very seriously, although inequality has fallen. Tackling disadvantage will always be a priority for this Government. We have already taken steps to tackle food inequality by providing free school meals and our Healthy Start vouchers. We are also investing up to £26 million in school breakfast clubs along with £9 million to provide meals and activities for thousands of disadvantaged children during the summer holidays, which is something that has not been done before. We continue to spend more than £95 billion a year on working-age welfare benefits.

My Lords, if we were to tackle the low-wage economy and the low social security economy that goes with it, we would lift people out of poverty. There is no way that young people can go to school and lead a full life if their parents are on, at best, between £5 and £9 an hour.

My Lords, we have taken strong action to support working families. We now have the national living wage and so on, but I agree entirely with the noble Lord that it is incredibly important to look closely at low pay and issues around debt. The Government are doing this, and indeed it is something that is close to my heart. Sometimes debt goes to the heart of why people are in poverty. We need to get much closer to this issue and in the coming months we will be introducing a breathing space to help people out of debt. We are also keen to ensure that children learn how to cope with money because that, as well as a low-wage economy, is often at the core of where things go wrong.

My Lords, evidence from teachers, civil society organisations—including, just yesterday, Human Rights Watch—and children themselves on the impact of poverty, aggravated by social security cuts, on children’s learning, health and well-being is shameful and heartbreaking. This impact is not captured by the official poverty statistics, so what steps will the Government take to measure the impact of their policies on the depth of child poverty in and out of work? This and other evidence suggests that their policies are pushing children further and further below the poverty line.

My Lords, I cannot agree with the noble Baroness that our policies are doing that; in fact, they are doing precisely the opposite. We have increased in an enormous number of ways the support—not just financial but practical—we give to children in low-income families. Indeed, the previous Question illustrates that. On how we measure poverty, the noble Baroness is right: we should debate, and have debated, looking at how we measure poverty. That is why on 17 May the Minister for Family Support, Housing and Child Maintenance announced that new experimental statistics to measure poverty will be developed, working with the Social Metrics Commission and published by DWP in 2020. We are looking to rethink the measures of poverty.

My Lords, while the survey findings are challenging, there are clearly additional factors at play—not simply a lack of money. A comment highlighted in the report and likely representative of many others is that:

“Their social and emotional needs are not being met and this is having detrimental effects on their learning and behaviour”.

We cannot assume that this is wholly due to long working hours. What are HM Government doing to ensure that parents struggling to nurture their children are given early help?

My Lords, I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Farmer for the enormous amount of work he has done and continues to do so selflessly in this area. He is absolutely right: this is not just about money. The truth is that support for the family structure is critical. Parents play a critical role in giving children the experiences and skills they need to succeed. Children exposed to parental conflict can suffer long-term harm. That is why we have introduced a new Reducing Parental Conflict programme, backed by up to £30 million. This programme will encourage councils across England to integrate services and approaches that address parental conflict into their local services for families.

My Lords, in a recent poll of teachers in England, 46% reported that holiday hunger had increased over the last three years. In my diocese, in Southampton alone 37% of children—many of whom are in working families—are living in relative poverty; that is, below the 60% median income line. Despite what she has already said, can the Minister give assurances that the Government will commit to reviewing their policies to reverse the rise in child poverty?

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate referenced holidays, which is a really important issue because children are outside school protection. In 2018 the Government announced a programme of work to explore how best to ensure that disadvantaged young people can access healthy food and enriching activities over the school holidays. This included awarding contracts to seven organisations to deliver free healthy food and activities to children and families in some of the most disadvantaged areas during the 2018 holidays. This year the funding will be more than quadrupled, and we want to strengthen the programme to encourage co-ordination in local communities so that even more disadvantaged children can benefit from high-quality provision during the summer holidays.