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Child Poverty

Volume 837: debated on Tuesday 26 March 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what action they are taking in response to the fact that 4.3 million children lived in relative poverty in 2023, according to data published by the Department for Work and Pensions on 21 March.

My Lords, these statistics cover 2022-23—a year when war in Ukraine and global supply chain challenges led to unexpected and high inflation rates, averaging 10% over the year. These factors are reflected in the statistics. The Government have since taken firm action to support those on the lowest incomes, including through uprating benefits by 10.1% from April 2023, increasing the national living wage from April 2023 and providing cost of living support worth £96 billion over 2022-23 and 2023-24.

My Lords, we have a record number of children in poverty, of whom two-thirds are considered to be in deep poverty, and an annual increase even on the Government’s preferred measure. Plus more food insecurity means more hungry children and reliance on food banks. So what was the Secretary of State’s response? “The plan is working”—working for whom? When seven in 10 children in poverty have at least one employed parent, parental employment can be only a partial answer. Welcome as it is, benefits uprating is really the minimum we should be expecting. Will the Government therefore now accept that it is high time for a new plan, which scraps the social security policies that drive worsening child poverty and sets out a comprehensive, cross-government child poverty strategy?

Setting such a strategy and targets can drive action that focuses primarily on moving the incomes for those just in poverty—just above a somewhat arbitrary poverty line—while doing nothing to help those on the very lowest incomes or to improve children’s future prospects. Therefore, we have no plans to reintroduce an approach to tackling child poverty focused primarily on income-based targets. Having said that, perhaps I can reassure the noble Baroness that my Department for Work and Pensions consistently works across government to support the most vulnerable households.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that this figure from the department graphically indicates the importance of the school meal service? Would it be better to go back to a position in which the head teacher, rather than some large external body that is unknown to the school, is responsible for the quality and delivery of the service?

I note that the noble Lord has raised this point in the House in the past, and the Government certainly support the provision of nutritious food in schools. It ensures that pupils develop healthy eating habits and can contribute to concentrating and learning in the classroom. As he will know, we have extended free school meal eligibility several times and to more groups of children than any other Government over the past half a century. We provide free meals for 2 million disadvantaged pupils through the benefits-related criteria.

My Lords, the Minister was quite selective in the figures he gave in his Answer because, in fact, by every official measure, child poverty has been rising faster in the UK than in most OECD and EU countries, many of which have actually reduced child poverty during this period. It is the fastest rise we have seen for almost 30 years, and this is not an accident; it is the direct consequence of the Government’s political decisions, taking money away from the poorest families to benefit the better off. Does the Minister not agree that it is now imperative that the Government bring forward the sort of comprehensive plan to which my noble friend referred, to start to restore the incomes of these families and children and take them out of poverty?

I beg to differ with the noble Baroness, because analysis shows that the Government’s cost of living support prevented 1.3 million people falling into absolute poverty after housing costs in 2022-23. That includes 300,000 children, 600,000 working-age adults and 400,000 pensioners. The £96 billion I alluded to earlier included £20 billion for two rounds of cost of living payments for more than 8 million households on eligible means-tested benefits. I gently say to the noble Baroness that she should bear these very important initiatives in mind.

My Lords, I draw the House’s attention to the 200,000 children who represent 14% of the children who are eligible for free school meals, even on the very small amount of money their parents are allowed to use, who are not registered. They are not registered because there is no automatic registration, which can happen extremely easily once people are handed out universal credit. I have asked the Government this many times: why does automatic registration not happen? This is 200,000 kids today, right now, who did not get a meal that we pay for.

I have certainly taken note of the point raised by the noble Baroness, but I say again that we have extended eligibility several times and to more groups of children than any other Government over the past half a century. Free meal support is also available to around 90,000 disadvantaged students in further education, so an awful lot has been happening in that space.

My Lords, the fact that nearly one in three children in the UK are living in relative poverty is the logical outcome of years of starving social services and funding for the most vulnerable in our country. At worst, that translates into empty tummies, cold homes and even no bed to yourself. I am sure the House would be interested to hear the Minister’s excuse—surely not Ukraine again. In an election year, I have to tell him that the British people will neither forget nor forgive what this Government have done to our children.

I think that is a little unfair from the noble Baroness. She will recognise, as I think the House does, that Ukraine has played a part. In the previous Question we heard about our role as a country, which is continuing, and we have had support from the Opposition on that. We have set a clear and sustainable approach, based on evidence of the important role that parental employment plays in reducing the risk of child poverty. We have a huge number of initiatives in my department to encourage more people to get into work. That is why, with more than 900,000 vacancies across the UK, our focus is firmly on supporting parents into and to progress in work, which helps directly with poverty.

My Lords, the Minister challenged my noble friend and cited statistics on absolute poverty, which, as we know, is the Government’s favourite measure. The last time we discussed this, on 28 February, the Minister told me that the Government prefer absolute poverty rather than relative poverty as a measure. He said:

“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”.—[Official Report, 28/2/24; col. 1028.]

Since the latest official statistics show that 600,000 more people, half of them kids, are living in absolute poverty, does the Minister accept that the Government’s policies are now pushing children into poverty? If so, what are they going to do about it?

I have already spelled out what we are doing about it. Do not forget that these figures are one year out; they are retrospective figures. In my opening Answer, I spelled out what we had taken action on. The noble Baroness is right; we do prefer absolute poverty, because relative poverty can also provide counterintuitive results, as it is likely to fall during recessions due to falling median incomes. Under this measure, poverty can decrease even if people are getting poorer.

My Lords, I wonder whether the percentage of children in absolute poverty in this country is higher or lower than in France or Germany. I wonder whether this Government have some lessons to learn from our neighbours.

Indeed. I do not have any figures to answer the noble Baroness’s question, but she makes an important point, which other Peers have raised, about the importance of bringing as many children out of poverty as possible. I happen to cover the Child Maintenance Service in government, and I feel very proud that every year we take 160,000 children out of poverty by ensuring that the money flows from the paying parent to the receiving parent—it is very important.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of TUC-commissioned research from November 2022 that showed that more than a quarter of children whose parents had paid jobs in social care are growing up in poverty? That is a scandal—220,000 children of parents who do work that I am sure noble Lords will agree is vital, skilled and valuable work for this country. Can the Minister tell me whether the picture in respect of the children of workers in social care has got better or worse since 2022? If it is worse, what are the Government going to do about it?

I have already mentioned many of the things that we are doing. I have also been quite open by saying that the war in Ukraine and the pandemic have had an effect. Those are not the only factors, but it is important to recognise that. To support people in work, the voluntary in-work progression offer is now available in all jobcentres across Great Britain, providing an estimated 1.6 million low-paid workers on universal credit access to personalised work coach support to help them increase their earnings. The department is working at pace with a number of important initiatives to encourage more people into work, which takes more children out of poverty.