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UNICEF: Child Poverty Rankings

Volume 836: debated on Wednesday 28 February 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the position of the United Kingdom set out in the UNICEF’s Innocenti Report Card 18 Child Poverty in the Midst of Wealth.

My Lords, parental employment plays an important role in reducing the risk of child poverty, and there are 680,000 fewer children growing up in workless households compared with 2010. In 2023-24, we expect to spend around £124 billion through the welfare system on people of working age and children. With over 900,000 vacancies UK-wide, our focus is on supporting parents into, and to progress in, work, including through increasing the national living wage to £11.44 from April.

My Lords, the actual Answer to my Question should be “With shame”. Can the Minister explain why child poverty rate changes in the seven years from 2014 to 2021, adjusted for Covid, on page 27 of the UNICEF report card published two months ago, showed that in two-thirds of the rich nations child poverty rates went down, whereas in four of the worst five nations they were up by 10%? Worst of all, rated 39 out of 39, was the UK, where the poverty rate was up by 20%. Is it not time for an election?

The Government like to read all reports and regard this one with a great deal of interest. However, our argument is that it is hard to give these findings much weight, due to the methodology used to create this ranking. Let me explain. International comparisons of poverty rates are difficult, due to differences in the frequency and timing of data collection and the approach taken to gather this data.

I shall go further. UNICEF’s ranking uses two measures: recent rates of relative child poverty and the percentage change in those rates over an arbitrary comparison period. There are issues with both measures. First, in considering recent child poverty rates, the latest OECD data shows that the UK has a relative poverty rate for nought to 17 year-olds comparable to large European countries. Secondly, UNICEF’s ranking compares relative poverty rates between 2012-14 and 2019-21.

My Lords, paid work is hardly the answer, as the Minister suggested, given that the majority of children in poverty are in families with a parent in paid work. He goes on about the methodology, but he knows very well the evidence of hardship and deepening poverty in this country. Is it not time the Government accepted the case made by UNICEF and many others for a coherent, cross-government child poverty strategy?

The noble Baroness will have heard me say this before, but we believe that the best route out of poverty is through work. We are committed to a sustainable long-term approach to tackling child poverty in particular—the subject of this Question—and supporting people on lower incomes to progress in work. She will know that in April 2023, we uprated benefit rates by 10.1%, and working-age benefits will rise by 6.7% from April 2024, in line with inflation. But we are very aware of the pressures that quite a few households are experiencing.

My Lords, the figures are truly devastating and very worrying. Can the Minister tell the House whether the Government have related those child poverty figures to the mental health of young people, as referred to in a report that came out a few days ago? Is there a relationship—and what are the Government doing about it?

I have given the Government’s view on this scorecard—and, by the way, it is a scorecard, not a report, we should be careful to say. But the noble Lord makes a good point. What I can say is that we are looking at a new type of measure: the Department for Work and Pensions is developing the below average resources statistics to provide a new additional measure of poverty, based on the approach proposed by the Social Metrics Commission, led by my noble friend Lady Stroud.

The noble Lord makes a very good point about children. It is very important to get the statistics accurate. The importance of children remains very much live in our minds.

My Lords, in addition to combating the financial disadvantage facing some 69 million children in the 43 wealthiest countries in the world, as identified in the UNICEF report referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, does the Minister agree that poverty can be about more than simply money? How do the Government measure the impact on the life chances of 2 million British children who have minimal contact with their fathers—69% of whom are in the low- income categories—in the households in which they live?

Again, the noble Lord raises an important point about children, who are the subject of this Question. The latest statistics show that, between 2020-21 and 2021-22, the number of people on absolute low income was virtually unchanged, and absolute poverty rates after housing costs were stable for children and working-age adults, with strong earnings growth offsetting the impact of the withdrawal of the unprecedented levels of government support, protecting those in jobs, which were provided during the pandemic.

My Lords, the Minister mentions various measures, but when it comes to international comparisons, the Government do not get to mark their own homework. Relative poverty is used because it is used internationally to measure poverty over time and across countries. The Minister may not like the way it was measured in other countries, but the UNICEF report card compares the UK’s performance in 2019-21 with its performance in 2012-14, and during that time, on those measures, child poverty in the UK clearly increased by 20%. During the same period, in Poland it fell by 38%, in Slovenia by 31% and in Canada by 23%. Does the Minister not accept that something is going badly wrong here?

I come back to the point that it is important to have statistics that are grounded. The noble Baroness will know that, over many years, we have used our own statistics for poverty, which are cross-government. The Government prefer to look at absolute poverty, as the noble Baroness knows, rather than relative poverty, as the latter can provide counterintuitive results. The absolute poverty line is fixed in real terms, so it will only ever worsen if people are getting poorer and will only ever improve if people are getting richer.

My Lords, I know that my noble friend, who is an excellent Minister, is very concerned about this issue. I apologise for questioning him further, but it remains a struggle for unpaid carers of working age, who perhaps have children as well, to stay in or find work. What more can the Government do to support this important group?

The Government certainly recognise and value the vital contribution made by carers every day in providing significant care and continuity of support to family and friends, including children, pensioners and those with disabilities. We know that most carers of working age want to retain a foothold in the labour market, not just for their financial well-being but to enhance their own lives and the lives of those for whom they care. Perhaps I can reassure my noble friend that the Government continue to provide financial support to unpaid carers through the carer’s allowance, the carer element of universal credit and other well-known benefits.

My Lords, the Minister has said several times that the best way to help children in poverty is for their families to be in work. According to the Child Poverty Action Group, however, 71% of the children it classifies as poor live in working families. Why does he think that such a high percentage of children in poverty live in working families?

We certainly know that it is prevalent, but I have already laid out the measures we have taken. There has obviously been quite a debate this afternoon about the statistics. The Government published The Best Start for Life: A Vision for the 1,001 Critical Days in March 2021. I reassure the noble Baroness that we recognise that the early start for children is incredibly important. There is a range of initiatives to help with that issue, which of course is linked to poverty.

Are the Government aware that most of the people we are talking about—the children—inherit poverty? It crosses the generations. When will we move a lot of the effort into breaking poverty passing from one generation to another? That is where the money really needs to be spent, to bring about social transformation in every sense.

The noble Lord is of course right, and I was very pleased to wind up his debate last week. Perhaps I can be helpful by saying that, compared with 2010, there are over 1 million fewer workless households in the UK, the number of children growing up in homes where no one works has fallen by 680,000, and 1.8 million more children are living in a home where at least one person works. However, the point he makes is incredibly important: we have to stop this intergenerational worklessness issue.