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Covid-19: Child Poverty

Volume 803: debated on Monday 15 June 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking during the COVID-19 pandemic to prevent any increase in child poverty.

My Lords, in addition to the £5 billion increase in benefit rates from April 2020, this Government have introduced an unprecedented package of support of over £6.5 billion to help families on benefits cope with the financial impact of Covid-19. This has increased universal credit and benefited over 4 million of the most vulnerable households; it has increased the local housing allowance rate, putting an average of £600 into people’s pockets; there is a £16 million grant to provide food for those struggling; Defra has put £3.5 million into food charities; and on 10 June the Prime Minister announced a £63 million fund to local authorities for a local welfare assistance programme. The Government are doing everything they can in these difficult times.

My Lords, the pandemic is nevertheless having a disproportionate economic impact on low-income families, as child poverty grows and deepens. Last week, the official Social Mobility Commission warned that the Government urgently need to recognise that benefit cuts to families with children are increasing child poverty. On top of these cuts, including the two-child limit and the benefit cap, there is no extra weekly financial support for children during the crisis. Can the Minister therefore explain how these policies, which effectively discriminate against children, will help meet the manifesto goal to reduce child poverty?

I accept that the Social Mobility Commission report has highlighted some important poverty issues and gaps, but compared with 2010—notwithstanding the Covid-19 virus—there are 100,000 fewer children living in absolute poverty. We are taking action in 20 targeted areas to open up more opportunities and investing £90 million in activities to address disparities in youth unemployment. As for the benefit cap and all the important points that the noble Baroness has continued to make—and I have done everything I can to give her access to people to talk about it—I have no update other than has previously been given.

My Lords, sadly, my home city of Leicester has communities among the poorest in the country. Will my noble friend look at how she, with her colleagues in local government, can help support hard-working families who are furloughed and struggling to provide basic needs to their children by looking at reducing their council tax bills for 12 months after the pandemic has ended? It does not help that we have seen a more than 4% increase in council tax bills in Leicester, alongside other utility increases.

I am well aware of the situation in Leicester; there has been much in the press about it. The Government are absolutely committed to supporting hard-working families. While any reduction in council tax relates to MHCLG, I am pleased that the Government have provided significant funding to reduce council tax bills for a short period. I will write to the noble Baroness on that.

There are currently about 700,000 children with no access to internet facilities at home. On 20 April, the Education Secretary announced a £100 million fund to ease this problem. Can the Minister please tell me what percentage of this fund has been distributed and how many families there are left to help?

I completely understand the point the noble Baroness is making. To answer her question, I will need to go away, get the facts and write to her.

My Lords, as well as the Social Mobility Commission, the Minister could have cited the IPPR calculations that the pandemic could put 200,000 more children in poverty this year, the Trussell Trust figures showing the numbers of families with kids needing emergency food parcels twice as high as this time last year, or even the powerful open letter from Marcus Rashford today highlighting child hunger. I am sure the Minister is doing her best, but if the Government will not buy our proposals to suspend the two-child limit and the benefit cap, what is the Government’s alternative to stop more kids in Britain going hungry?

I am aware of the letter and the Trussell Trust figures the noble Baroness refers to, but we have put more money into helping with food poverty, as I have said before. We had an all-Peers briefing about universal credit at which the two-child limit and benefit cap were talked about at great length. I am sorry that I cannot add anything to that at the moment.

Half the total number of children in one-parent families are in poverty; the pandemic is disproportionately affecting these families. What specific measures will the Government take to improve the circumstances of these doubly disadvantaged children?

My Lords, our current focus is on supporting people financially through these unprecedented times. We are actively reviewing all measures at our disposal to identify how we can best support the economic recovery and ensure that the best possible employment support is in place. We will continue to look at these things. We understand the impact on single parents and lone parents, and I assure the House that the Government are doing everything they can at the moment to help in these difficult times.

My Lords, children in families with no recourse to public funds are at increased risk of facing poverty due to the pandemic. The increases the Government have announced do not offer support to the thousands of children whose parents have “no recourse to public funds” attached to their immigration status, making them extremely vulnerable to the pandemic’s effects. Will Her Majesty’s Government consider lifting the NRPF condition to protect children from poverty?

The changes we have made to the welfare system are part of a broader range of measures brought in across government to meet the need of those affected by Covid-19. We are doing all we can. The Home Office recently lost a judicial review case—not entirely on the subject of NRPF—but we continue to review the situation.

My Lords, we know that families in which two parents are working full-time are the least likely to be in poverty and that over the last few years there has been significant progress in supporting lone parents out of poverty, with a reduction in the number of lone parents in poverty. What steps are the Government taking to support lone parents during this time, when many on low incomes have been furloughed or had their hours reduced, and to protect fragile couple relationships—which we know have been under strain during Covid—to prevent a future impact on child poverty?

I have already mentioned the unprecedented fiscal package we have at our disposal to deal with this, but I would also like to talk about the Reducing Parental Conflict programme, which has a key role in supporting families during this challenging time. We are working with local delivery partners to ensure that the programme continues to be delivered during social distancing restrictions and being flexible and innovative in the ways we can reach families that require support to minimise the negative impacts of conflict on outcomes for children.

My Lords, others have referred to the troubling consequence of child poverty on children’s diets. The Minister says nothing more can be done, but the free school meal vouchers system ends in July, whereas the prolonged lockdown is now turning into the prolonged holiday. We need provision of free school meals and support for access to food, such as brunch clubs and breakfast clubs, all the way through to September. Why cannot the Government do what has been done in Wales and provide more such facilities for children in deprived areas here in England?

We are aware that the free school meal vouchers scheme is working for thousands of schools. I am pleased to say it has been reported that more than £120 million-worth of vouchers have been used. Under the benefits-related criteria, 1.3 million of the most disadvantaged children are eligible for and claiming free school meals. It is a matter for the DfE, so I will get my noble friend Lady Berridge to respond to that important point.

Sitting suspended.