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Child Poverty in the UK (Target for Reduction) Bill

Volume 620: debated on Friday 3 February 2017

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

It is a privilege to have the opportunity to debate my Bill on the Floor of the House. The Bill seeks to establish a target for the reduction of child poverty, because it is a fundamental principle of fairness that every child should have the best start in life.

A great privilege of serving in Parliament is the broad range of people that we get the opportunity to meet. Kelly Louise, a remarkable 10-year-old, stands out as someone who bravely shared her experiences of growing up in poverty. She spoke about the stresses that poverty imposed on her family, how that affected her and the coping mechanisms that she used to make life livable. She conveyed how poverty can shape so much of a young person’s life, from what someone wears to school or the home they return to. When we see poverty through the lens of children, the solutions become a little clearer and more urgent. That is why I serve in Parliament: to ensure that where someone is born is no barrier to their future.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the figures that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation issued today, indicating that whereas for most of the population poverty will be decreasing by 2021, for children it will increase?

My hon. Friend speaks with great authority on these matters. I am aware of the figures and will refer to them later in my speech, but I am grateful for her intervention.

I am sure that all of us in this House serve in Parliament to ensure that where someone grows up does not determine where they end up. As the Member of Parliament for Barnsley Central, it is a huge privilege to work to ensure that children who grow up in my constituency get the same life opportunities as those in other more affluent parts of the country.

I will make the case today that our shared duty means that in 2017 no child in Britain should have to grow up in poverty, and I will set out some of the challenges facing those children and their families. If we are going to take the steps required to ensure that poverty will no longer be an everyday reality for millions of children in Britain, we must recognise the realities of modern poverty and develop co-ordinated, prioritised solutions across Government, building partnerships with communities, employers and the devolved Administrations.

As in life, if someone wants to achieve something in Government, it is useful to set a target: a starting point on which a renewed effort can be built. The measures in that target and the policies required to achieve it should rightly be debated at length, but my Bill intends to establish the principle rather than to be prescriptive. In doing so, I defer to the advice of the House of Commons Library, which notes:

“Targets let those responsible for delivery know what needs to happen, so that they can plan, monitor and deliver”.

Does my hon. Friend agree that if someone does not meet their targets, they should change their actions, not their targets?

My hon. Friend speaks with real authority on this matter, which I know is very important to her personally. I agree with her, and let us be clear: this House has previously united behind that principle, most notably in enacting the Child Poverty Act 2010.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing this important Bill. He is right to emphasise the importance of targets, and we should note the fact that targets work. Labour set its targets to reduce child poverty by a quarter by 2005 and by half by 2010. Does he agree that when we began to see progress falling back, adjusting action was able to be taken, which meant that more than 1 million children were removed from poverty under Labour?

My hon. Friend speaks with huge knowledge, experience and authority, and she is absolutely right. Today’s debate represents an opportunity for all of us in this place to send out a clear statement of intent that our goal is that no child should have to grow up in poverty, and that we will hold ourselves accountable and measure progress through the target that we seek to set.

Why is it so urgent that we set a target? The Resolution Foundation highlights falling living standards among the least well-off, as a combination of rising inflation, welfare cuts and lower pay increases hits. It warns that for the poorest, this Parliament will be the worst for living standards since records began and the worst for inequality since the 1980s.

Does my hon. Friend agree that a growing problem in our country is poverty among children whose parents are working? That is a real fear for many people.

I do agree, and my hon. Friend has anticipated some of the remarks that I will come to shortly. I am grateful to her for the intervention.

Having referred to the Resolution Foundation report, I would also like briefly to mention a landmark report by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. It highlights what it describes as the “stark inequalities” between children of different backgrounds and the effect of poverty in worsening children’s health.

My hon. Friend rightly draws attention to the importance of having a target or targets for child poverty. I agree with him about the impact of the targets that Tony Blair set in 1999. Does he agree that one reason why we are going backwards now is that Governments since 2010 have abolished those targets?

My right hon. Friend speaks with experience of implementing a target in government, and I know that we are all grateful for the work that he and many others did. He is absolutely right. The reality is that if any Government were serious about reducing the number of children who grow up in poverty, they would seek to set themselves a target. That is the very essence of what this debate is all about.

The figures show that every Member of Parliament serves a considerable number of constituents who are growing up in poverty, so collectively we should and will be aware of the many challenges faced by families throughout the country. Times are hard, and for many money is short. In Britain today, an average of nine children in a classroom of 30 are growing up in poverty. For those 4 million children, it can mean living in a cold and cramped home, falling behind in school, and suffering ill health later in life. Today, we have an opportunity to make a clear commitment to do right by those children, because feelings of concern and insecurity about our future direction as a country are becoming increasingly commonplace. That is not just about the Brexit debate; it extends to the fundamental question of what we are prepared to tolerate as a society.

Ipsos MORI regularly surveys the public to ask about the top issues facing Britain. One in five people now highlight poverty as one of the biggest challenges facing our country. The anxiety about it has increased significantly in recent times and now stands at the highest level since the question was first asked in 1997. In these uncertain times, we face a defining challenge of providing greater security to families, and calling time on child poverty must be fundamental to that. The Institute for Fiscal Studies projects that without a change in approach, the level of relative child poverty will increase by 50% by 2020. The reality may actually be starker, because greater economic uncertainty, rising costs and lower pay growth mean that the IFS concludes that the outlook for poverty is almost certainly worse. That is a wake-up call to a looming crisis, because ever-increasing child poverty is not inevitable. It is a result of political choices. We have seen it before, when child poverty rose sharply in the 1980s and peaked in the late 1990s before falling very significantly.

The previous Labour Government showed us how that could be achieved by delivering the biggest improvement of any EU nation and lifting 1 million children out of poverty. It did not happen by accident. The Government set themselves a target and made achieving it a priority, through policies such as investment in higher quality early years education; a fourfold expansion in childcare and Sure Start centres; an expansion in support for families so that they could enjoy greater control over their lives and greater security in their finances; the tax credit system; and the doubling of the amount of maternity leave being taken.

All of that was supported by the child poverty unit, which parliamentary questions reveal the Government have now quietly disbanded. That cross-departmental unit, co-sponsored by the Department for Education, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Treasury, held a special status. Its existence was a recognition that action against child poverty required a cross-Government approach. Its closure risks giving the impression that tackling child poverty has been downgraded. Setting a target can help to put that right. It would demonstrate a seriousness of purpose and determination to stop more children living in poverty. We have a duty to this generation to make progress on addressing child poverty once again.

My hon. Friend mentioned last week’s report from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. Is he aware that it found that we have one of the worst levels of infant mortality in western Europe and that eliminating child poverty would save the lives of 1,400 children under 15 years old every year?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, not only for that incredibly important point, but for her unstinting support throughout this process. That is a shocking statistic and one that brings shame on our country. Collectively we have to strive to do much better. The Bill is about providing an opportunity for the Government and all of us to seek to do much better.

I wonder whether my hon. Friend has seen the analysis from the End Child Poverty coalition showing that since 2010 the cost of living has gone up by 19%, the state pension by 22%, but child benefit by just 2%. Is that not a large part of the problem?

My right hon. Friend puts his finger on the nub of the problem. Many families, including, as we have heard, those in work, are increasingly struggling to make ends meet. This debate is about how we can provide support to those families.

As someone who grew up in a family rich in love but not in money, I welcome the hon. Gentleman bringing the Bill to the Floor of the House. I sometimes comment that we hear from Labour anger but no alternatives, so it is welcome to see solid proposals backing up his speech.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention, and I hope that in just a moment he will hear from me a few more alternative proposals.

A target would provide a strong foundation for a wider approach matching the complexity of the causes of poverty today. I will briefly set out the proposals in my Bill. It asks the Government to consult the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission to decide the date by which the target should be met. It is not prescriptive about all the measures the target should include. Rather, it would require the Secretary of State to bring forward a proposal which would allow for a range of measures to be considered, including the Government’s favoured indicators—of children living in workless households and educational attainment at age 16.

I am clear, however, that reference should be made to the four established measures of poverty based on income, because that is a central factor in meeting children’s needs. These income measures have enjoyed cross-party support and their recording was placed on a statutory footing by the coalition. Of course, as the hon. Gentleman just alluded to, money is not everything, but that does not mean that it is nothing, and a target should recognise that.

In order to ensure accountability, the Bill would require the Government to lay before Parliament a child poverty strategy setting out the measures they will take to meet the target.

My hon. Friend has mentioned a target and a strategy. Does he agree that the Government could learn from the Welsh Labour Government, who, in 2011, acknowledged the need for a strategy to tackle child poverty and identified five key areas for improvement, and are now on the way to achieving their goals?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. A great deal of extremely constructive work is being done, not only in Wales but in Scotland and other parts of Britain. I think that, collectively, we all have a responsibility and a duty to learn from that work, and spread best practice throughout the country.

I was talking about accountability. The Bill would require the Government to lay before Parliament a strategy setting out the measures that they will take to meet the target and, crucially, to report on progress towards meeting it. Now is the time to make an unambiguous commitment to reducing child poverty, and to measure our progress by setting a target. The social and economic costs of failure are too great to risk. A target will also help to co-ordinate an approach across Government: poverty reduction should be incorporated in strategies that are being developed on social justice, housing and industrial policy.

The issue of child poverty affects Members on both sides of the House. I welcome the Bill, and congratulate the hon. Gentleman on introducing it. Does he acknowledge that poverty involves many other factors as well as income? Rural poverty, for instance, affects many children throughout the country.

The hon. Lady is right. So far I have been outlining the moral case for action on poverty, but I think there is a sound economic case for it as well. We should recognise that that focus is necessary if we are to build an economy that works for everyone. Action on child poverty today can strengthen our economy, improve productivity, and reduce pressures on the public purse. Both the International Monetary Fund and the OECD have emphasised that poverty acts as a drag on economic growth. Reducing poverty will strengthen our economy, not least because the less well-off households spend more of the money that they receive than those that are better off.

When we hear about those who are, as Prime Minister described them, just about managing, we must all seek to understand the reality of those people’s lives. Many families are just one bill away from finding themselves struggling. Those families have been feeling the squeeze for years: 50% of households have received no meaningful pay increase since 2005. Over the last decade, real earnings have fallen by more than 10%, which, as the TUC has pointed out, leaves the United Kingdom at the bottom of a league table of OECD nations, equal only with Greece. This has been the longest pay squeeze for more than a century.

Poverty also increases demand on the public purse. It is responsible for £1 in every £5 of public spending. To put it simply, poverty will make it even harder to balance the books in the future.

Poverty is not just about “now”. Poverty among children creates conditions in which they will not thrive in the future, and in the future it will cost us more to deal with the poverty that our children are experiencing today. Food, education, prosperity and health all involve costs.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to invest in our future as a country.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates, on the basis of its research, that the annual cost of poverty to the public purse comes to £78 billion. That is why it is penny wise but pound foolish to cut investment in early years intervention.

I shall make a bit of progress, if I may.

I note with some concern that House of Commons Library analysis shows that investment in Sure Start children’s centres has halved since 2010. As a result, more than 300 local centres have closed. The social challenges of poverty—gaps between the richest and the rest of our society in our schools, and poor health—come with economic costs.

As well as redirecting public spending, poverty makes it harder to achieve the productivity gains that workers and the economy desperately need. This matters because for too many families work no longer pays. Two thirds of children in poverty grow up in a home where at least one parent works. While the Government rightly highlight the role that work can play in moving people out of poverty, taking a comprehensive approach requires action to support those trapped on low incomes, so that they can progress into better paid jobs. Four in five of those who enter low-paid work remain low paid 10 years later.

The Government’s upcoming industrial strategy can take two steps to support those workers. It should feature a plan to support low wage industries, and Government can also play a role by bringing together employers and trade unions to focus on raising productivity, which is the key to increasing pay. Localised pay commissions could also play a role in areas dominated by low pay. By taking action now on low pay, we can recognise the realities of the modern world of work for so many, and in doing so reduce child poverty.

There is vital work under way across the country to support families who have hit hard times. In my Barnsley constituency, the local anti-poverty board, led by Councillor Jenny Platts, brings together local partners to support residents. They identify those families most in need, then target resources to provide debt advice, information on fuel poverty initiatives and healthy eating programmes. Despite that local effort, more than one in four children in Barnsley grow up in poverty, so today I stand here to give a voice to those 5,114 children.

I want to take this opportunity to place on record my thanks to the Child Poverty Action Group, which has long campaigned on this issue. I am very proud to have its support for my Bill. I also thank the parliamentary Clerks and the many stakeholders who have lent support through this process.

My hon. Friend is making an incredibly powerful speech. Will he join me in also welcoming the work of anti-poverty charities such as Magic Breakfast, which is providing primary school breakfast clubs to tackle educational disadvantage and childhood poverty? However, does he agree that we should not need charity to make sure that children are well fed or well clothed or that families have the right level of income? These are structural issues in our economy, and that is why it is vital that the Government commit not only to a target, but to the necessary action to rebalance our economy in a fairer way.

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I am sure that all of us on this side of the House, and I hope many on the other side, will absolutely agree.

This neatly takes me to the nub of the issue. I brought this Bill forward because millions of children in Britain need real change. Poverty destroys childhoods and limits futures. Ending that burning injustice should be a defining mission for the Government.

A century ago, Joseph Rowntree demanded action on poverty. He made the case to a Liberal Government that the prevalence of poverty in Britain would undermine its continued presence as a world power. That sense of national purpose in tackling poverty was also witnessed most memorably during our country’s darkest hours. In 1942, in the middle of a world war, Winston Churchill’s coalition Government published the Beveridge report. It defined a national mission that would follow in peacetime under Clement Attlee. Today, at a moment of greater uncertainty for our country than at any time since, ending poverty once again deserves to be an unrelenting effort. Brexit should not be used as an excuse for inaction; instead it should provide the reason for a new approach. Britain’s place in the world of tomorrow will be brighter if we focus on child poverty today. Solving this historical problem should be part of a modern national mission.

Our success as a country will increasingly require us to meet our duty to those who are left behind; to provide security, opportunity and hope to those who need it most; and to end poverty so that every child can realise their potential. That has to be our ambition. It should be a challenge that unites us all, so let us set ourselves that target once more.

Time is very tight, so I will speak for only a short time. I warmly welcome this important Bill. Prior to entering this House, I was part of a coalition of well over 100 organisations that came together in the End Child Poverty campaign to press for the legislation that was eventually passed with cross-party support and became the Child Poverty Act 2010. As my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) said, the Act set out targets for the reduction of child poverty across four measures—not just one target, but a range. More importantly, however, it also highlighted the need for cross-Government and cross-civil society strategies to address all the dimensions of poverty: housing, education, employment, parenting, and child wellbeing.

Between 1997 and 2010, as Labour set about reducing child poverty and set targets for doing so, we saw that targets are the most powerful tool we have for driving progress and measuring and taking action when progress falters. It is right that the Government continue to emphasise the importance of addressing poverty with their new measures, but when two thirds of children in poverty grow up in families where someone is in paid work, a target that simply looks at worklessness misses one of the key and perhaps most disgraceful aspects of child poverty today: no working parent should be struggling to provide and care for their children. That shames our country. It shames a country as rich as ours that one in four children continues to grow up poor.

I know that there is a consensus right around the House on the importance of the Bill that my hon. Friend has brought forward this afternoon. We need more than warm words. We need meaningful targets, established in legislation and committed to by Government, and the determination, the policies and the resources to achieve them. It can be done. It must be.

Given the time, I did debate whether to get up to speak, but I understand that the Minister would have had quite a few remarks to make anyway, which would have taken us through the remaining time.

I want to respond from the Government Benches to what was a dignified and excellent speech from the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis). As a Conservative Member, perhaps the best compliment that I can pay him is that it is pleasing to hear that sort of quality of performance from the Labour Benches at this time on a Friday. It would be nice to hear it just after 12 o’clock on a Wednesday in the six questions to pursue Labour’s agenda.

It is welcome that there is a Bill before the House looking at targets for the reduction of child poverty. There are extremes in Torbay. Parts of Watcombe have high levels of child poverty, for example. I have an area that is a bit like a poor man’s Sandbanks, where large numbers of wealthy retirees live, and then on the other side of the hill there is a large number of working families, particularly those who work in lower- paid industries such as tourism and the care sector. I therefore welcome this debate and some of the ideas in the Bill.

I have always thought that we should not just consider relative incomes. As the hon. Gentleman will probably agree, the situation for those on the lowest incomes may not change, but if other incomes come down, relative poverty disappears in theory. I want to ensure that those on the lowest incomes are coming up, getting more opportunities and more abilities.

This is an important matter that affects all of us in our constituencies. For me, rural poverty is the big problem. We lack services, such as buses, and children do not get the life chances to lift themselves out of poverty. I agree with the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) that the issue is complex, because house prices and rents play an acute role in the problem.

I fully agree. A family in poverty in a wealthy rural community will feel a sense of social isolation, and children at school will see their friends get certain things and so on. I was going to say when I tried to intervene on the hon. Member for Barnsley Central—I understand why the intervention was not taken—that this sort of Bill could be developed, potentially in future debates, to include provisions about educational attainment. Poverty can almost be a double hit. Someone may grow up in a deprived family, but many pupils on free school meals also do not do well in our education system. I remember a speech by the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) in which he pointed out that fewer pupils in the entire free school meals cohort attained three grade As—the passport to a top university—than the pupils at Eton did in the same year. That is why, for me—[Interruption.] I am aware of the time, but the Minister would have spoken to the mark anyway. I felt it was appropriate for there to be a speech on why it is not only Labour Members and Scottish National party Members who are pleased to see the Bill. A number of Conservative Back Benchers are pleased to see it, and I hope that these ideas can be taken forward at another time.

The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).

Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 24 February.

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Thank you for your indulgence. My Bill to introduce Helen’s law was due to be read a Second time today. Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, that has not happened. I thank the 400,000 members of the public who signed the petition, and I particularly want to recognise the families of victims who have travelled to be in Parliament today: my constituent Marie McCourt and the families of Michelle Gunshon, Jonathan Dolton, Danielle Jones, Carole Packman and Jane Harrison. The Government Whip will object to the Bill, but there is lots of support for it on both sides of the House—I think even from the Government Whip, the hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris)—and I am working with the Government. Today is not the day, but there will be a day for Helen’s law.

I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. He knows that, from the Chair, I cannot as a matter of order do anything about the fact that his Bill has not yet been reached, but I appreciate that it is sometimes difficult for those who do not have a full grasp of parliamentary procedures, which is most people—[Interruption.] As hon. Members indicate, that includes a great many people who sit in this House.

The point I would like to make to the hon. Gentleman is that the fact his Bill has not been reached today is not an indication that his Bill is not held in high esteem, and I am sure that the points he would have raised in introducing his Bill would have had a lot of support in this House, for the many points in his Bill and what he is trying to achieve are very, very worthy. As he said, there will be another day. In fact, we are just coming to that now.