|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Interestingly, it has been 10 years, virtually to the day, since the then Chancellor of the Exchequer-the current Prime Minister-committed the Government, in the pre-Budget report on 9 November 1999, to the intermediate goal, as I think it was described, of halving child poverty by 2010. We have had 10 years, almost to the day, of trying to meet the 2010 target. New clause 3 would provide great value by ensuring that the relevant Secretary of State-I understand from Committee proceedings that it would be the Chancellor-comes to the Dispatch Box and explains why the 2010 target of halving child poverty has not been achieved, because, frankly, after today it is not going to be achieved, and then, importantly, how the policy will change, what additional things will be done in our schools and skills
training, and how we can strengthen families throughout the length and breadth of the nation. That would give us an early opportunity to learn the lessons on how we need to tweak policy to make further progress. That is the point. If we continue with the current rate of progress, with the strategy that the Government have had in place since 1999, we will not have a chance of meeting the 2020 target, which everyone in the House, I believe, wants to see achieved.
Mr. Stuart: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way; he is a charitable person and does not necessarily share my view. I believe that the Bill is before the House today to distract child poverty campaigners and the people of this country from the fact that the Government made a solemn promise to halve child poverty by 2010, but had no intention or means of meeting that promise. That was in a time of plenty when we were spending far more funds than the country could afford, and they still failed to deliver on that promise. Instead of being honest with people, therefore, they have set out to promise eradication in 10 years, when we know that public finances will be far tougher. The likelihood is that a fraud and a deceit are being put upon people, including the poorest children in the country, by a Government who are seeking to distract people's attention rather than tackling the root causes of poverty.
Andrew Selous: My hon. Friend made that type of forceful comment extremely well in Committee. Some believe that that is the case; they think that this is declaratory politics. I would like again to quote Mike Brewer from the IFS. He said:
"Those with a more cynical mind would accuse the Government of introducing this Bill to try to hide its predicted failure to meet its target for child poverty in 2010/11...It is not clear why the Government is unwilling to meet its own target for 2010/11, but keen to bind its successors to more stringent targets."
Mr. Frank Field: It is easy enough for us to attack the Government for not achieving the objective, but will the hon. Gentleman not at least praise them for setting out on this course and for willing huge taxpayer resources to achieve it? If one wants to criticise the Government, it should be for having a top-down approach-for wanting to do things without thinking how the poor themselves might be set free and given the ability to change their own circumstances.
Andrew Selous: I do indeed pay tribute to the Government's commitment. I do not think that that is disputed. If the right hon. Gentleman looks at the record, he will see that I said that in Committee and I am happy to say it again from the Dispatch Box. I am interested in his point. He is right to talk about the importance of moving away from a top-down approach, which is why I am excited about the potential of part 2 of the Bill-I do not know if he has had a chance to look at it-which offers an exciting new role for local authorities. My hon. Friends and I share a concern that the Government have taken an overly prescriptive and top-down approach to dealing with local authorities, because we believe that having a degree of diversity and trying different solutions is likely to yield more results.
Finally, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) for tabling amendment 33, which is one of a series of amendments that were suggested by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, on which he serves. He is right to alight on the fact that the current survey excludes those addresses that are communal establishments or institutions. The groups affected include, among others, Traveller children and children of asylum seekers, and the important categories of those in bed-and-breakfast accommodation and looked-after children in children's homes. I am sure that all of us in the House would want to ensure that those groups are included.
Amendment 34, the hon. Gentleman's linked amendment, asks the child poverty commission to look at what type of annual survey would include those groups of children. I could not help thinking when I read the amendment that it should also be directed at the Office for National Statistics, because the ONS is the independent body to which the Government look to collect such data. I have no doubt that the Minister will touch on that point when she replies.
I am also interested to hear how the Government view their responsibilities to the children of asylum seekers and the Traveller community. I quite understand that they are difficult communities for the Government to engage with, particularly if Traveller children are moving around the country, or perhaps going abroad and returning again. I am also interested in the exact position of children of asylum seekers. For example, if they are in institutions such as Yarl's Wood in the north of Bedfordshire, where my constituency is, how exactly do the Government measure income for them?
As most colleagues will know, I spent quite a lot of time on the international development brief in the 1990s, when we were pursuing the 2015 millennium development goals. They were set in the early 1990s, when giving 10, 15 or 20 years to achieve them seemed a perfectly reasonable and commendable thing to do. Everyone thought that that was exactly the right way forward. As it turned out, the closer we get, the more we realise we are a long way from achieving those goals. With hindsight, it would have been far better to build in more immediate, intermediate goals as we walked along that journey, to ensure that we were moving in the right direction and testing ourselves. That is why I support new clause 3.
We have had the Government target, but new clause 3 talks about not just an immediate target for 2010 in this Bill, but being very specific indeed about what is achieved through that target. I said this on Second Reading, but putting in place a target and setting up a commission are not substitutes for a proper, well thought through and developed strategy for hitting such targets and delivering on the issue that we are all concerned about-there is no one in the House who does not want to reduce child poverty, however it is defined. If we are serious, there is an argument for restructuring the machinery of government, rather than just setting up a commission and setting a target, so that many existing Departments are better placed to bear down on the problem.
I sit on the Select Committee on Home Affairs. Yesterday we heard evidence from the former drugs tsar, Mr. Hellawell. He talked about his time as someone brought in from the outside to take overall responsibility of the drugs strategy in the United Kingdom, and about the difficulty of getting all Departments co-ordinated and in alignment to bear down on the drugs problem. If we genuinely believe that child poverty in this country should be a huge focus for the Government and if we would all like it to be significantly reduced, there is an argument for restructuring the machinery of government to bear down on the problem, and not just setting a target or establishing a commission. I hope that the House will seriously consider agreeing to new clause 3, and if not, to something like it, to ensure that we do not just set waffly old goals, but put down, on the record, achievable targets and stepping stones towards achieving them in the mean time.
New clause 2 talks about the causes of poverty, which resonates greatly with the former Prime Minister's talk about being "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime". Of course we would like to be tough on the causes of poverty, but what are they? I intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) and wondered whether it was possible for us to agree as a House on what the causes of poverty might be. For example, what part do human nature and the choices that we make individually play in the causes of poverty? We have all observed, in our lives and in our constituencies over the years, people in similar circumstances and from similar backgrounds making different choices, with some flourishing and others ending up in deprivation and poverty. To what extent can one factor in those individual choices that are a reflection of individual human nature? Perhaps that is utterly impossible.
Ill health is also a cause of poverty. We have all known families who have been going along very nicely indeed, when the primary breadwinner-or perhaps both parents or a child-sadly becomes ill and the money stops flowing, causing disruption and poverty. Family breakdown, drug addiction and alcohol dependency, which my hon. Friend mentioned, and poor education-all these things can be causes of poverty.
John Mason (Glasgow, East) (SNP): The hon. Gentleman lists a number of issues. We are all committed in this House to getting to the causes, but is there not a danger that, by making the list so wide, that becomes impossible, because everything from the weather onwards becomes a factor?
Mr. Streeter: The hon. Gentleman anticipates me. I embrace that concept, except to say that I am not sure how practical it is. I support probing the issue and I believe that the Government need to think about it more, but I reject the fact that we are measuring only financial poverty. This is a slightly different point, but we know that there are lots of children who are from modest or poor backgrounds but who have a stable, loving family and lots of encouragement and nurturing, and who would not consider themselves to be poor. There are other families with a great deal more financial support and income, but who live in chaotic households and would certainly consider themselves to be deprived of the most important things in life.
We are talking about very difficult issues. More thinking needs to be done. The Bill suffers from the fact that it does not seek to get behind the issue of poverty and try at least to trigger a debate about its causes. My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire is on to a good thing in setting out new clause 2, which would require someone to do some more thinking on the issue. I think that the idea is for regulations to come forward to grapple with the problem-I am sure that my hon. Friend will nod at this point.
Mr. Jamie Reed (Copeland) (Lab): As ever, the hon. Gentleman is making a thoughtful and valuable contribution, but does he agree that although poverty, and particularly child poverty, is about more than money, unless we address the financial implications of child poverty, frankly this Bill will be for the birds and we shall make no headway at all?
Mr. Streeter: I agree, or I think I do. I certainly want us to address financial child poverty-of course I do. It is distressing when we come across it, as we all do in our constituencies every weekend. However, I feel even more strongly that I would not want us just to focus on financial poverty, but to see some of the other values and framework principles in life as equally important. Some of us enjoyed them as we were growing up and some of us did not, and they make a huge difference to the sorts of people we become.
Mr. Graham Stuart: There is the possibility of distortion, not only in the child poverty agenda as we get nearer to the targets being met, but across the piece. Does my hon. Friend share my misgivings about such declaratory legislation, which means that child poverty, by being put on a statutory footing, has privilege over every one of the various other priorities that government has to balance at all times, such as the vulnerable elderly? If the legislation has force in the rather poorer decade that we now face, it could lead to the wrong decisions being made from a social justice point of view, in wider areas than child poverty alone.
Mr. Streeter: My hon. Friend is on to a very good point-this is a question of what the Government focus on. This slightly contradicts the point that I made earlier. If we are serious about child poverty, we need to restructure Government Departments and align them so that they can bear down on the problem. My hon. Friend might ask why we should not do that in relation to elderly poverty or to deprivation of all kinds. Of course these are important issues.
I have been in the House for 17 years. I believe that, for all sorts of reasons, the situation is now significantly worse-with the lack of social cohesion, with behaviour issues and the fact that so many children are now growing up in households of chaos-than when I first entered the House in 1992. I do not say that in any political sense. I would love to see whichever Government are in place after the next election focusing on this issue and really getting underneath the surface to try to tackle it.
Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, in about 1980, about one in three children were growing up in poverty, compared with just under one in five now? By any standard, a society with a third of its children growing up in poverty is much more dysfunctional.
Mr. Streeter: I am afraid that I do not really trust those statistics terribly much. From my own experience, looking out on this country and on my own constituency profile and work load, I believe that our country now faces greater challenges in terms of its social cohesion and the quality of life of the 15 to 20 per cent. of the population who are growing up in households of chaos and not being given a chance.
I am talking about new clause 3, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in case you were under any misapprehension. The corollary of what I said earlier about choices is this: I accept that many people growing up in this country do not have the same choices as those who come from secure, stable, nurturing backgrounds. I totally take that point on board.
I think that I have delivered more or less all that I wanted to say. I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire is on to a good point in new clause 2, and that we should build specific delivery mechanisms into the Bill, as set out in new clause 3. I hope that the Government are in listening mode.
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): I rise to speak to amendments 33 and 34, tabled on behalf of the Joint Committee on Human Rights by me and the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), the Chairman of that Committee.
The Joint Committee attempts-it generally succeeds-to analyse every piece of primary legislation that might engage human rights, and to issue a report for Parliament and the Government in which we make recommendations, particularly when we feel that the legislation has human rights compatibility issues; we also comment when the measures enhance human rights. We tend to do that before the Report stage of a Bill in the first House, to enable Parliament as a whole to consider our recommendations and debate the amendments. It is good to see the amendments being debated, although there is not always time to do so on Report.
The Joint Committee report was published on 10 November 2009. It makes it clear that the Committee welcomes the Bill and generally recognises it as a human rights enhancing measure. We also welcome the detail provided in the human rights memorandum that the Government supplied and the fact that the Government recognised, implicitly and explicitly, the role that the Bill can play in meeting our treaty obligations under the United Nations convention on the rights of the child and the United Nations convention on economic, social and cultural rights. It is good to have the opportunity to debate measures that show the value of our human rights commitments arising from the treaties and the Human Rights Act 1998, particularly in the light of the many attacks-usually based on myth-that are made on the Act in this House.
The matter addressed by the Joint Committee's two amendments is that the principal duty set out in the Bill is to meet four targets defined by income-based indicators
of poverty. They relate to children in what the Bill describes as "qualifying households". Those are not defined in the Bill-they are to be defined by regulations-but it is clear that they will include households that are covered by certain surveys. The report states:
"The surveys currently used are based on the Small Users Postcode Address File, which includes most addresses which have postcodes and receive less than 50 items of post a day, and exclude addresses which are 'communal establishments or institutions'."
That is where our concern arises. Children who do not live in qualifying households under that definition will not be the subject of the targets. That raises the question whether they would suffer discrimination under article 14 and whether the legislation is therefore incompatible with our obligation not to discriminate under article 14 in respect of their enjoyment of other convention rights.
Our argument is not that that would be a matter of direct discrimination; it clearly would not be. However, it would constitute indirect discrimination. The example we give, which has already been mentioned, is that children from disadvantaged groups-that makes it worse; it is not children generally, but children from disadvantaged groups, such as the children of asylum seekers, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children, and children living in bed and breakfast accommodation and care homes-would not benefit under the present definition from the duty imposed on the Government to tackle child poverty according to the existing four targets, although if my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) gets his way, there will be five targets. The Joint Committee's assertion is that that would breach article 14 in respect of the enjoyment of the rights under article 1 of protocol 1, which include the right to enjoy one's possessions. There are clear examples in case law of the kind of benefits that are covered by that, and an article 8 case is also relevant.
If that is a problem, we need to provide a solution. As my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon said, that will not be easy. It is not, however, the job of the Joint Committee to provide that solution. It is for the Government to propose it and for Parliament to amend it. The Joint Committee has, however, tabled two amendments that we believe go some way towards providing a solution. They would place a duty in the Bill for an effort to be made to ameliorate any discrimination that might, almost by necessity, follow from the use of the existing surveys.
I shall not go through the report in detail, but it makes a number of brief arguments against the proposition that we set out in correspondence with the Government. First, we said that the Bill does not engage article 1 of protocol 1, because it sets out no specific benefits. It simply establishes a framework, and the measures in the Bill are not sufficiently determinative of any decision to allocate funds or resources to particular groups, and not therefore to others. Our view was that the measure would have to have sufficient scope of application; it would not be necessary to identify specific discrimination for article 1 of protocol 1 to be engaged.
The question that is raised is whether the use of binding targets is sufficient to create this problem if a group is left out. We believe that there is a question of discrimination, which is not permitted, if some children are treated better than others particularly disadvantaged children such as those of asylum seekers, Gypsies and
Travellers, and those living in bed and breakfast accommodation. We definitely think that that would be a problem.
The Government have argued that no provision in the Bill would result in some children being left out, because the qualifying households will be defined in regulations. They say that there can be no argument with the Bill, because the definition will follow in the regulations. We have not accepted that argument previously, and nor have the Government, when it suits them. We state in the report:
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|