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Child Poverty: Nuffield Foundation Review

Volume 815: debated on Tuesday 19 October 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the Nuffield Foundation’s review Changing patterns of poverty in early childhood, published on 14 September; and what steps they intend to take as a result, including in relation to the two-child limit for welfare benefits.

I am pleased to say we have read and analysed the report and note its recommendations. The Government are committed to supporting low-income families and having parents in work, particularly full-time, because we believe that this is the best way to tackle child poverty. In 2019-20, 14% of children under five in working households were in absolute poverty before housing costs, compared with 52% in workless households. That is why our focus is on the Plan for Jobs, and we have no current plans to change the policy of providing support for a maximum of two children.

I thank the Minister for her response, and for how she engages with us regularly on this, but ever since the two-child limit was introduced, successive DWP Secretaries of State have said to us and many others, “Give us the evidence that the two-child limit is increasing poverty.” The Nuffield report is the latest in what is now a long list of reports stating such evidence, so when will Her Majesty’s Government admit that this is now the biggest cause of the growth in child poverty in this country, that it is a failed policy and that it needs to be reformed?

No admissions or confessions today, my Lords. When I read the report, I did not get from it the specific point that the right reverend Prelate made, and I think the best way, as we had such a great engagement meeting last week, is for us to sit down and go through it again so that he can make absolutely sure that I understand that point.

Sir Michael Marmot’s 2020 report, produced by the Institute of Health Equity, found that the health gap between wealthy and deprived areas of the UK has grown in the past decade and that people can expect to spend more of their lives in poor health. Does the Minister agree that intervention to prevent child poverty would help reduce this health inequality in later life and, if so, what steps will the Government take to ensure that that happens?

The noble Baroness is right to point out the issues related to low income and health, and we accept that low income is associated with poorer long-term health outcomes. That is why we are continuing to support parents to get into work. Our other support includes increasing the national living wage, £6 billion a year to help parents with childcare costs, Healthy Start vouchers and a £221 million holiday and activities fund.

My Lords, the Nuffield report said that last year over 54% of families with young children in poverty had three or more kids, and that the recent rise in early childhood poverty is largely the result of changes to benefits policy, including the recent two-child limit. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham could not have done more—he comes back at least once a year with new evidence. The government response is always “just a little bit more”. The evidence is clear: this policy is having one effect—pushing large families into poverty. So I ask the Minister: how bad would that poverty have to get for the Government to change their mind?

The noble Baroness is right to mention the great tenacity of the right reverend Prelate in this area. The Government, however, have had to take difficult decisions—

Yes, they have: they have had to take difficult decisions to stabilise the economy and build a welfare system that works for those who use it as well as those who pay for it. I can say only that I will meet the right reverend Prelate, and I am happy for the noble Baroness to join us. We will see what comes from that conversation.

My Lords, the children’s commissioners of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland state that the two-child limit is a clear breach of children’s human rights. Will the Government act on this, or continue to sweep aside widespread evidence that this vicious policy is increasing poverty and damaging children?

My Lords, the problems of some low-income families are made worse by trouble between the parents. Will my noble friend give any encouragement on measures to help resolve that situation?

I am happy to say that one of the areas of responsibility in my portfolio is the programme for reducing parental conflict. I have met numerous local authorities that are delivering it and we are seeing great progress in the reduction of parental conflict. We are putting £34 million into championing family hubs, which is another great and exciting measure that we are taking during these difficult days. We want to make sure that we reduce conflict so that children get the best start in life.

We know that many children get it in the neck from poverty. Let us hope that we can address that problem. The biggest problem that I would like the Minister to talk about is the children who are about to slip into poverty. More than 500,000 people who have not been able to pay their rent or mortgage because of Covid-19 are going to be evicted. It will be an enormous increase: what are we doing about that?

The noble Lord makes a very valid point. Without trying to sideline the issue, I will go to my colleagues in the department for housing—forgive me for not knowing what it is called now; the levelling-up bastion, perhaps—and make sure that the noble Lord gets an accurate answer to that question.

The Nuffield review outlined six elements for tackling early childhood poverty. Notably, these include, first, a multidimensional approach to multiple socioeconomic risks and the needs of families with young children, and, secondly, support for parental mental health and parenting from day one of a child’s life. What progress are the Government making in ensuring that all families have access to a welcome family hub as part of their cross-departmental best start for life policy?

Nothing would make my heart sing more than everybody having access to a family hub. At the moment, there is £34 million for those hubs. We are doing great work with them. I have decided, because I thought that family hubs would come up today, to do an all-Peers briefing on them so that noble Lords can hear exactly what we are doing and ask all the questions they wish.

My Lords, a five year-old boy in Blackpool can expect to live for 53.3 years in good health, compared with 71.9 years for a boy born in Richmond—a truly shocking gap of 18.6 years. Last year’s report of the Select Committee on Food, Poverty, Health and the Environment made recommendations for reducing that gap. As part of their levelling-up agenda, how many of those recommendations have the Government implemented?

The statistic shared by the noble Lord is sobering. Again, not wishing to sidestep the issue, I will need to go to the relevant department to make sure that he gets an answer. I will make sure that it is shared with noble Lords.

My Lords, the Minister is a kind and compassionate person. Can she tell the House how this Government felt comfortable taking away the £20 uplift in universal credit just as food and fuel prices are on the way up? How will that affect the children already living in poverty?

That is the subject of the month so we should expect noble Lords to raise it. I must say that I have answered this question a number of times. The Government’s position is clear: the uplift was a temporary solution that we extended for six months, and it is to stop. We have the household support fund, of another £500 million, and we are doing everything we can in terms of energy to make sure that people have the support they need. I would be happy to write to the noble Baroness laying all that out, rather than taking time now, to make sure that people understand.